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Philosophy Behind Political Resistance

The social vacuum created by anxiety is a fertile ground for the Right’s politics of regressive nostalgia and xenophobia.
Philosophy Behind Political Resistance

Spinoza's statue. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’ (Routledge, 2023), Ajay Gudavarthy moves beyond a moral denunciation of the Indian Right to present a detailed examination of its emotional roots. His concrete analysis is explicitly tied to constructing counter-hegemonic strategies.

For Gudavarthy, the current conjuncture manifests the “Age of Emotions”. He writes modernity “opened up social differences in its quest for equality without knowing how to realise it or what that new utopia looks like”. These changes made life “complex, morally uncertain, socially unsettled, and personally burdened”. Based on the abstraction of the juridical subject, the liberal-rationalist order found itself unable to manage this modern complexity, thus fueling a “widespread negation of being” or a “universal sense of loss”.

The social vacuum created by anomie and anxiety has formed a fertile ground for the Right’s metaphysical politics of regressive nostalgia and xenophobic hatred.

The ontological binary of reason and emotion corresponds to the political binary of transcendence and immanence, in which the Right succeeds in appealing to the existing commonsense of the subalterns, whereas the Left imposes its abstract ideas upon them. This has led to the mutual cancellation of the popular and the progressive: “[w]hat is popular is not necessarily progressive, liberal, or emancipatory and what is progressive, legal, and constitutional is not necessarily popular and consensual.” Gudavarthy asks the Left to critique modernity so that its “economic radicalism” can break the confines of “cultural elitism”.

The ontological divide that Gudavarthy posits between reason and emotion is part of the Weberian schema of “disenchantment,” in which modernity is conceived as the progressive separation of the intellect and instrumental reason from the physical and emotional aspects of human experience. Thus, alienation is understood as the loss of the self, a loss of subjectivity to objectivity. In India After Modi: Populism and the Right (Bloomsbury, 2019), the prequel to the current book, Gudavarthy is explicit about this conceptualisation of alienation: “Work from a means of self-actualisation is becoming a model of loss of the self”.

Against Gudavarthy, we need to understand alienation as “not so much the loss of the subject in the object, but the loss of objectivity for the subject, the loss of the relation to its conditions”. Under capitalist modernity, human beings rule over human beings using things—commodities, money, ownership and property. Marx thus said that the relations of domination appear “disguised as social relations between things”. This gives rise to a paradoxical socialised isolation: the mediation of market mechanisms produces the authentic appearance that we are self-sufficient individuals who relate through the medium of things. Instead of exploring how bourgeois atomism is constitutive of a particular form of relationality, Gudavarthy takes its individualising claims at face value and opposes its supposed distortion of social relations to the ethos of communitarianism.

Spinozist-Marxist philosophy allows us to conceptualise alienation not as the disconnection of the self from external societal structures, “but as the failure to recognise that the self is already constituted by the relations that make up structures or institutions. For Spinoza, we are never more alienated than when we consider ourselves as ‘kingdoms within a kingdom’. This is a substantive critique of modern alienation, which, instead of lamenting the loss of social bonds, shows how the current separation is productive of the material fiction of individualism. This material fiction prevents us from adequately grasping the causality of social relations and transforming what is passively given to us into contingent and changeable forms of organisation. “To become more active and powerful,” writes Jason Read, “it is not a matter of affirming our pure subjectivity, but rather recognising that our subjectivity is conditioned by our relations with others, the natural world, and so on. In this sense, it is pure subjectivity that is, in fact, alienation.”

Once we recognise alienation not as the loss of the self but as a particular reconfiguration of the self, the political binary of immanence and transcendence loses its coherence. The Enlightenment paradigm was based on the separation of subject and object, which gave rise to the resultant dichotomy of reason and emotion. Reason was seen as the faculty of the mind that could objectively and empirically analyse the external world. On the other hand, sentiment became associated with the irrational, unreliable and subjective aspects of the human being. Gudavarthy inverts this dichotomy: instead of being the cognitive strength of the rationalist subject, reason becomes the carrier of impersonal structures that lead to the subject’s loss. Consequently, emotions are advanced as the reconciliatory medium to regain the issue.

The mere inversion of the reason-emotion binary gives rise to political prescriptions geared towards their external unification. Politics become the discursive coordination of immanent appeals to the particularity of emotions and transcendental appeals to the universality of reason. For example, Gudavarthy insists that the Left combine “communitarian comfort with modernist mobility”. In another place, he writes that we need “a politics that can carefully shift between the concrete that can subvert the manufactured reality and an abstract idealism that speaks to the existing reality”. This politics of continual oscillation is an inevitable result of the continued theoretical existence of reason and emotion as self-contained entities whose external combination is the task of progressive politics.

To properly deconstruct the reason-emotion binary, we need to renounce the theoretical desire to reconstruct the self from the ravages of modernity. As we have seen, capitalism represents the re-organisation of the social structure around the market's opacity, which prevents us from recognising our material dependencies. The mind and the body, or reason and emotion, don’t suffer an actual disconnection. Instead, the material practices of capitalism exploit our bodies while generating the retroactive effect of an individualist ideology that conceives the subject as the origin of the actions of the body. Thus, the notion of a Cartesian ego of a self-enclosed subject is entirely false.

In Spinozist ontology, the ideological platitudes of liberal-capitalist modernity are countered through the postulation that mind and body are the same things and that whatever affects the body affects the mind. This means that human beings are processes of affection in which causal changes introduce movements in the mind/body. If we follow Spinozist monism, modern alienation does not need to be explained as the loss of the self through the division of reason and emotion, mind and body. At the level of ontology, such division is false because we are always already a historically specific articulation of both these components; our inner essence is “the capacity to affect and be affected, without recourse to an essence that can be lost or regained”.

Spinoza labels as valuable that which “renders the human body capable of being affected in the greatest number of ways or what allows it to affect external bodies in the greatest number of ways” and as harmful that which “diminishes this aptitude of the body”. In other words, human social nature is a compound whose varying proportions comprise not the mind and the body, reason and emotion, but forms of action and interaction that are either active or passive.

Since human essence is not a substance that can be lost but a situated articulation of activity and passivity, politics consists in recognising the external causes that determine our emotions. The ideological mask of individualism that conceals our material relationships needs to be removed so that we can understand how our productive powers constitute the society in which we live. Such a political intervention begins from the level of subaltern commonsense since it critically enters the disjointed elements of popular consciousness to illuminate the networks of relations that are already present in reality.

This is qualitatively different from Gudavarthy’s project of re-signifying conservative practices, which aims to “preserve and strengthen the collective, not deprive of deeper bonds”. However, this supposedly “deeply collective exercise” is based on the Cartesian dualism of a rational-progressive mind using its universalist knowledge to extract positive emotions from passive bodies. This is the unavoidable effect of an underdeveloped ontology that aims to discursively manufacture emotional security for the weak and isolated bodies of the subaltern. For Spinozist philosophy, by contrast, it is not a question of discursively manufacturing anything. Instead, it is a question of adequately grasping the socio-relational bases of our desire so that our affective energy can be reprogrammed from passive effects toward active effects.

In Spinoza’s monist framework, the demolition of subject-object dualism leads to the radical conclusion that our knowledge of reality is only a matter of degrees of completeness; we never exist in total isolation from the objectivity of truth. Even the vaguest ideas of our emotions and imagination have a specific causal connection because they are produced by a series of conditions, which means there is a logical explanation for why one is forced to think about that idea. Insofar as our commonsense contains an analytical reference to the causal order of reality, it tells us “something about the relationships between our bodies and external bodies (or the fact that, as a consequence of habit, we follow certain patterns of associations), and also about the relationships between the different bodies that compose our body”.

Since the vague ideas of popular consciousness possess a causal connection, they can be utilised as a part of political epistemology. While subaltern commonsense does not denote proper knowledge, it does indicate actual knowledge. It is a kind of knowledge that exists in its applicable state; even if this knowledge “miss the object that they are intended for, in that they do not provide an adequate knowledge of it, they can constitute an indication for another object than what was initially intended”. Treating subaltern commonsense as a set of “true errors” initiates a sequence of politics in which the subalterns are not unidirectionally enlightened through explications but instead provoked to think and act, with the help of the already existing conceptual formulae of commonsense, whose fragmentary character allows for the creation of varying problematisations of reality. The deployment of indications found in commonsense serves as a tactic through which subalterns can comprehend the inner necessity of ideas and how the mind can internally organise the causal determinations of its oppression.

Since Gudavarthy does not break with subject-object dualism, his political epistemology remains afflicted with paternalist tones. To strike a balance between the concrete particularity of emotional experience and the abstract universalism of reason, he asks us to focus on the “fossilised and institutionalised aspects of human activities,” which contain both regressive and progressive values.

The disarticulation of these conflicting values is illustrated through the example of nationalism: Narrow nationalism has to be countered through robust patriotism that redefines the love for the nation and the well-being of all. It has to be recognised that nationalism is not merely narrow thinking, as the Right articulates it but symbolises the human urge for deeper bonds, stronger faith, and a sense of belonging, which in themselves are positive impulses. Emotions of love, faith, belonging, desire, and heroism, among others, must be seen as experiential dimensions of politics that provide an open-ended opportunity to signify them in progressive and regressive directions.

When seen against the background of his Weberian conception of modernity as the creation of permanent symbolic insecurity, Gudavarthy’s plea for the reoccupation and resignification of conservative discourses functions as a cultural artifice that uses emotions to edulcorate reason and compensate for the lack of subaltern agency. The elitist externality of this political strategy stands in contrast to the democratic logic of Spinozist politics, which pursues the conflictual clarification of the emotions found in subaltern commonsense to produce an epistemological break. Hence, the external connection of concrete emotions and the abstract reason is replaced by the dialectical unity of a concrete abstraction, one founded upon the contradictory development of the ontological relationality that constitutes our subjectivity.

The writer is a student based in Aligarh. The views are personal.

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