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Alberto Toscano on Frédéric Lordon's Imperium

Alberto Toscano reviews the Spinozan social science approach of Frédéric Lordon, as exemplified in his book Imperium: Structures and Affects of Political Bodies.

Alberto Toscano 3 March 2022

Alberto Toscano on Frédéric Lordon's Imperium

This extract is from the January-February 2016 edition of New Left Review.

Though less well-known in the Anglophone world, the economist turned social philosopher Frédéric Lordon has emerged as one of the most effective public figures of the French intellectual left. On TV talk-shows and in La Pompe à Phynance, his blog for Le Monde diplomatique, he has launched ferocious attacks on Hollande and Valls’s post-Bataclan police-state legislation, making no concessions to union sacrée thinking. [1] He has been a staunch left critic of the single-currency project, demolishing wistful social-democratic hopes for ‘another euro’, and makes no bones about characterizing the PS as ‘the moderate fraction of the right’. He greeted the financial crisis with a four-act play in rhyming alexandrines, the bankers explaining the tragi-comedy of their subprime losses to the President of the Republic and ministers of state. At the same time, Lordon has been developing an ambitious research agenda, aiming to renew and re-ground the social sciences on the basis of a Spinoza-inspired materialism. What are the origins of this project, and what have been its results to date?

Born in 1962, Lordon grew up in a prosperous western suburb of Paris, his father an executive in the textile sector. Initially planning on a business career himself, Lordon entered the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1982, followed by an MBA at the Institut Supérieur des Affaires, the French equivalent of Harvard Business School. Here, on his own account, he baulked at what lay ahead and began, for the first time, to read: political economy led swiftly to Michel Aglietta, Pierre Bourdieu and René Girard. Switching to the EHESS, he attended Robert Boyer’s Regulation Theory seminar, where he found an intellectual home. [2] His doctoral thesis, supervised by Boyer and completed in 1993, undertook a mathematical modelling of the Regulation School’s theses on economic crisis. In the 90s, teaching at Sciences Po and then researching at the CNRS, he turned his attention to economic-policy formation.

With its strong emphasis on historical periodization, and foregrounding of the social norms and institutions structuring successive ‘regimes of accumulation’, the Regulation School was famously open to engagement with other disciplinary approaches—social, historical, anthropological—and Lordon’s early work on political economy, informed by his practical professional training, had a strong sociological dimension. Les Quadratures de la politique économique (1997), published by Albin Michel, investigated the then-hegemonic doctrine of ‘competitive disinflation’—a technocratic proto-theory, in Lordon’s view, formulated by functionaries at the Direction générale du Trésor, the Banque de France, the Finance Ministry and Sciences Po. Lacking any founding text, it was in reality little more than an export-oriented project to reduce prices and labour costs, supposedly issuing in a virtuous spiral of rising employment, investment and productivity growth. As Lordon showed, the doctrine owed its status as an orthodoxy to its adoption by both political and financial elites. Indeed, with the state increasingly dependent on the financial sector to roll over public debt, ‘competitive disinflation’ signalled that the markets themselves would henceforth be the arbiters of economic policy. [3]

Primacy of struggle

Now based, as was Boyer, at CEPREMAP, the CNRS’s economic-policy research institute, Lordon had also begun firing off polemics against the establishment. In 1995, a piece in Le Monde attacking Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the central bank, elicited a rebuke from the Prime Minister. In 1999 a fusillade against Jospin’s financial deregulation, also in Le Monde, brought a phone call from Bourdieu requesting a short book on the subject for Raisons d’Agir. The result was Fonds de pension, piège à cons? (2000), the title echoing Sartre’s philippic on the 1973 election. But Lordon’s major research project in this period was an inquiry into the epic 1999 takeover battles that pitted the three French giants, Banque Nationale de Paris, Société Générale and Paribas, against each other. Lordon interviewed some of the main players in autumn 1999, when the wounds were still raw, and incorporated his findings in La Politique du capital (2002), published by Odile Jacob: a detailed and unsparing analysis of the conduct of French economic and political elites, at once historically situated and strongly conceptualized, with a keen ear for the logomachy of the banks.

Lordon’s guiding insight was that at such life-and-death moments, when rival firms or banks are fighting for their survival, profit maximization was set aside and another logic, that of politics, substitutes for economic reason. Neo-classical visions of economic rationality could shed no light on ‘this dark face of capital’ and analysts had to look elsewhere to explain the drive for power and expansion at the heart of the capitalist system. The concept of conatus—literally, impulse or striving—thrown into relief in Alexandre Matheron’s reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, offered the requisite philosophical illumination for an agonistic social theory. [4] ‘Spinoza’s thought affirms the primacy of struggle’, Lordon argued. ‘Struggles for power, recognition, domination find their motive impulse in the conatus’, the primary effort of all entities ‘to persevere in being’, as the Ethics had it. The conatus of capital took two heterogenous forms. For finance capital, the injunction was profit—‘the only use value of money-capital’, as Marx put it. For entrepreneurial or industrial capital, by contrast, the drive was for expansion, with profit a means rather than an end. Lordon cites Keynes: the satisfaction of building a factory or a railway line is not merely pecuniary. [5] The politics of capital, then, names the relations of solidarity and influence which bind capitalists to one another, as well as feelings of fear, pride and cupidity. It also implied that conflict might be redefined away from a two-term class struggle into a ‘three-body problem’, as industrial capital devolved onto wage workers the financial strictures it could no longer resist.

La Politique du capital situates the battle of the banks within the longer-run transformation of Atlantic capitalism. In the post-war period, Lordon argues, industrial-entrepreneurial capital was hegemonic, financial markets restricted and shallow. But industrial profits began falling from the 1960s, resulting in a battle over wages; by the 70s, a growing crisis of state debt and high inflation led to a historic compromise between political and financial elites that would put finance capital in command. The first step was to free up the national savings and pension funds for wide-ranging investment, creating vast new liquid markets in which the state itself could borrow; French funds were deregulated by the Fabius government in 1985–86, not least to compete against the encroachment of big Anglo-Saxon players. Second, the conatus of these institutional investors drove them to impose their own profit-maximization agenda on industrial capital, through the formula of shareholder value. Firms struggling with slow growth were tempted to expand by mergers and acquisitions, but this put them at the mercy of their profit-hungry investors. Finally, capital ownership was increasingly up for grabs, presenting firms with the imperative to expand or be gobbled up, in hostile takeovers. [6] By the late 90s, after two waves of privatization—first Balladur’s, then Jospin’s—foreign penetration of French firms and banks was on the rise. This neoliberal transition required the mobilization of the state, at least for its initial coup de force.

This is the context in which Lordon details the struggle of the giant retail banks, Société Générale and BNP, to position themselves for the wider opportunities of the coming Eurozone and to snaffle the investment bank, Paribas. As he demonstrates, this was a fight to swallow or be swallowed, driven by the logic of ‘entrepreneurial conatus’—the banks as firms, with their own networks of business relationships, real-estate holdings, etc.—rather than purely economic considerations. It was conducted in martial terms, through strategies of conquest and predation, far from the neo-classical tranquillity of profit-optimization. Lordon cites the Financial Times: ‘At its heart, a takeover battle is just an expensive way of answering Lenin’s succinct summary of the essence of power: “Who whom?”’ [7] Société Générale’s bid for Paribas was countered by BNP with a double takeover bid against both of them; SG raised its offer, but was over-ruled by the regulator, CECEI, under central-bank governor Trichet, who attempted to conduct three-way negotiations. The market response was a violent plunge in bank shares, upon which CECEI reversed its position, to crowing from the financial press. The eventual outcome was of course the BNP–Paribas merger, creating the mega-bank whose closed windows in August 2007 signalled the start of the financial crisis.

Lordon’s most damning analysis is reserved for the liberal French political elites under Jospin and Strauss-Kahn, trapped in a transition period in which state-policy structures were being dismantled before EU-level ones had been built, and still prone to the reflexes of national sovereignty that they had spent twenty years discrediting. At international level, post-Cold War structures—the G7 as well as the IMF–WB–WTO nexus—had produced a new space for economic diplomacy, in which the power of the Treasury–Wall Street complex was reinforced by subtler pressures of recognition and respectability, indexed by adherence to the canons of liberal modernity. For the French elites, acceptance involved perpetual atonement for the original sin of state intervention, ideologically constituted in Anglo-Saxon eyes as their collective second nature. When the Wall Street Journal condemned CECEI’s role in the battle of the banks by stigmatizing the Finance Minister as Jean-Baptiste Strauss-Kahn, it was not, Lordon notes, in the sense that Céline had sneered at ‘Jean-Baptiste Sartre’, but because this was the first name of Colbert, indelible symbol of economic interventionism. [8] Only the most spectacular displays of conversion and abjuration could hope to assuage this view. As a result, Lordon suggests, the French state response was hobbled by contradictory impulses, unable to move beyond improvisatory and ill-timed gestures when the same high functionaries who had privatized French banks in 1993 saw to their dismay that they were now threatened by British, American and German takeover. [9]

La Politique du capital is a remarkable contribution to the history of financialization and to the study of contemporary elites. Conceptually, although Lordon saw his analysis as affirming the possibility of a wider Spinozian social science, the reference to the conatus served more as a speculative hook than as a veritable framework; Nietzsche’s will-to-power might plausibly have done much the same work. Significantly, Lordon supplemented it with insights from Bourdieu’s sociology, an abiding influence: capital, accordingly, was a field as well as a ‘community of libidinal investment’, featuring its specific illusio, ‘the belief in the existential value of the stakes it proposes and the game it institutes.’ [10] The move to a fully Spinozian social-philosophical outlook appears to have been somewhat contingent. While working on the book Lordon published a spin-off article, ‘Le conatus du capital’, in Actuel Marx, which resulted in an invitation to participate in a 2002 Cerisy Colloquium with the cream of contemporary French Spinoza scholarship: Pierre-François Moreau, Laurent Bove, Yves Citton, Chantal Jaquet. It was his preparation for Cerisy, and warm embrace by the Spinozists there, that really inaugurated Lordon’s distinctive research programme of a ‘Spinozian social science’.

Twin tracks

This intellectual centaur—empirical inquiry wedded to seventeenth-century philosophy—is less bizarre than it might at first seem. That a Spinozist social science should be of French concoction is no coincidence: from the historical scholarship of Martial Guéroult to Alexandre Matheron’s pioneering study of the individual and community in Spinoza; from the centrality of Spinoza’s materialism to the Althusserian project to Gilles Deleuze’s radical re-working of his philosophy of immanence and the advances of contemporary scholarship, France has an altogether impressive tradition of Spinoza interpretation. At the heart of this retooling of a seventeenth-century metaphysics is the liquidation of the ‘Cartesian’ bourgeois-individual subject which supposedly animated the humanist visions of French phenomenology and existentialism. Althusser, of course, approached Spinoza’s work philosophically—as a detour, seeking grounds for a critique of idealism, en route to a properly materialist Marxist philosophy—but also critically, noting for example its lack of a theory of contradiction. Lordon, by contrast, was looking for a conceptual framework through which to rethink social, economic and political life; Spinoza’s work is only glancingly contrasted to that of his peers—there is no ‘outside’ to his thinking here. Yet, as with Althusser or Deleuze, Lordon’s perspective would remain anchored in the affirmation of Spinoza as the thinker who can emancipate us from the delusions of free will or untrammelled individual choice, allowing us to grasp human struggles for existence in a disabused materialist fashion.

Henceforth, Lordon’s work would run along two tracks. In a series of short, polemical political-economic interventions, he continued to advance trenchant views on the crisis of financialized capitalism and its mutation into the Eurozone débâcle. Written before the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Jusqu’à quand? Pour en finir avec les crises financières (2008), also published by Raisons d’Agir, offered a tour of the ‘Garden of Eden’ of financial products, where ingenious minds could find ever-new ways to re-securitize asset-backed securities, while in the real world, wage repression ensured that debt was the only crutch for aggregate demand. Lordon called for ‘brutally straightforward’ regulation and a radical deleveraging of financial markets, while retaining the hope that a Europe pruned of the UK might set its house in order. This was followed by La crise de trop (2009), published by Fayard, which again stressed the precipitous fall in labour’s share of GDP during the decades of financialization; targeting the architects and political proponents of the debt bubble, it proposed a socialized credit system and a steep tax, SLAM, on speculative transactions. Lordon aligned himself with the Économistes Atterrés, the CNRS-based group of French scholars ‘staggered’ by the falsehoods perpetrated by the ruling powers in their bids to prop up the bankrupt system. The high-spirited tragicomedy D’un retournement l’autre, with its dramatis personae of bankers, ministers and the President of the Republic, came out from Seuil in 2011.

Alongside this, Lordon produced a series of more speculative, if also more dogmatic, social-philosophical contributions, in which he advanced the claim that Spinoza’s theory of human action could undo paralysing antinomies between the individual and the collective, structure and agency, while crucially resisting the growing hegemony of a politically loaded ‘metaphysics of liberalism’. The results have been mixed. In L’intérêt souverain (2006), Lordon applied this approach to re-casting theories of the gift in terms of the self-interest of conatus, while also polemicizing against the sociologists around Alain Caillé and the Mouvement anti-utilitarisme en sciences sociales (MAUSS), opponents of neo-classical economics, who were chided for converging with the very liberalism they nominally opposed, thinking of interest solely in the mode of homo oeconomicus. In 2008, Lordon co-authored with André Orléan an essay bringing Regulation Theory and Spinoza jointly to bear on the genesis of money and the state, a contribution to the collection Spinoza et les sciences sociales (2008), which he co-edited with Yves Citton.

The horizon of crisis is palpably present in Lordon’s attempt to rethink the question of labour ‘from the ground up’, combining a Marxian understanding of wage labour with a Spinozian anthropology of the passions, in Capitalisme, désir et servitude (2010), published by La Fabrique. [11] Here Marx supplies the fundamental framework: capitalism begins with ‘bare life, in need of reproduction’, its precondition the full dependence of labour on the market after the enclosures of the commons. The ‘basal desire’ for money as a means to survive allows the capitalist employer to ‘capture’ the workers’ desires for his own ends. The deteriorating balance of forces between the two has allowed neoliberal capital to indulge in the delirium of unlimited capture, as in employers’ proposals to lower unemployment by deregulating redundancies—the meta-desire to benefit from institutional conditions for the unrestricted pursuit of desire. At the same time, the market, media and advertising supplement this capture with a capitalist ‘regime of desire’: while the spur of hunger was a sad affect, the spur of consumerism and entrepreneurialism can be experienced as a joyful one. In recognizing, with Spinoza, the irreducible role of the passions in human affairs, Lordon hopes to bid farewell to the allegedly utopian tendencies in Marx, insisting instead on the, at best, regulative character of communism. Lordon’s wager is that Spinoza’s theory of the passions can both elucidate our psychic investments in the capital-relation and delineate some parameters for the struggle against domination; yet the upshot is little more than schematic recipes for converting sad into joyful passions. Like many of his contemporaries, Lordon tends to over-estimate the psychic power of neoliberalism while under-estimating the force of misery evident in austerity; the relation of Marxian ‘need’ to Spinozian ‘passion’ remains untheorized. In contemporary conditions, Spinozist visions of radical democratic progress, understood as the ‘enrichment of life by joyous affects’, appear as considerably more utopian than the imaginary of transition in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, for example.

The range of Lordon’s intellectual interests is on display in the essay collection La société des affects (2013), put out by Seuil, which argues for a ‘new alliance’ between philosophy and the social sciences, charged with elaborating a ‘language of concepts’. In these essays, against liberal theories of atomized subjects of choice, Lordon develops his proposal for a structuralism of the passions. This is not the combinatorial structuralism of a Lévi-Strauss, but the generic assertion, which Lordon claims can be sourced in Marx, Bourdieu, Durkheim and Mauss, inter alia, that human beings are in the first instance moved by their passions, which in turn, in the final analysis, are determined by social structures. Unless we follow these thinkers in getting rid of political and social philosophies of the subject, he proposes, no such structuralism can emerge, and we shall continue to treat passionate individuals and impersonal structures as incompatible terms, devolved to separate disciplines. Lordon’s turn to Spinoza can thus be seen as supplementing the Regulationist approach, positing a regime of desires and affects which doubles and supports a given economic configuration. The concern of a Spinozist social science is thus, in his words: ‘the place of the passions in the institutional configurations that support regimes of accumulation’—but also, ‘the conditions of their destabilization’. Like the Regulationists, then, Lordon is chiefly concerned with periodization: with the historical and geographical varieties of capitalism, with both analytical and prescriptive investigation into systemic change, and with the possible transitions out of capitalism. But the turn to Spinoza is also intended to supplement and surpass Regulation Theory in another, political sense, by foregrounding the formation of ‘common affects’, of group passions, as a conditio sine qua non of social transformation. Two central essays attempt to recast the question of institutions, challenging retooled theorizations of legitimacy, with their persistent disavowal of struggle, and exploring with Spinoza the motivational power of the feeling of indignation, culminating in a reflection on French factory occupations of the early 1970s. In his most recent works, direct responses to the Eurozone crisis, this concern with our collective investments in institutional and state power comes to the fore.

Politics of the eurocrisis

Building on his participation in the anti-austerity Économistes Atterrés network, and especially on his blog for Le Monde diplomatique, Lordon’s La Malfaçon (2014) skewered the ‘Europeanist’ leanings of the French centre left, above all the journalists, academics and economists close to the Parti Socialiste. Published by Les Liens qui libèrent, La Malfaçon—roughly translatable as ‘defective goods’—detailed with acerbic verve the ‘constitutionally right-wing’ character of the European construction and the confiscation of sovereignty at the heart of the single-currency system. The language of the Stability Pact, with its ‘permanent constraints’ and ‘automatic brake mechanisms’, got a mordant close reading; proposals from Hollande’s circle for ‘economic governance’ or a ‘democratic leap’ were ‘cardboard solutions for Potemkin thinking’. [12] Eurobonds, Lordon demonstrated, would involve further dispossessions of sovereignty, a form of ‘technocratic vassalization’. [13] The German authorities’ fearfulness of debt-monetization misconstrued the country’s political-economic history: not the inflation of 1923 but Brüning’s austerity of 1931 was the proximate cause of Hitler’s triumph. Berlin now dominated Europe not through a will to power but, far worse, through needless fright; in a blind pursuit of its own monetary reason, lacking any wider project—and knowing that shared monetary sovereignty was bound to be an open wound. [14] Lordon called for ‘a shock therapy of our own’, a break with the euro and creation of a common (rather than single) currency, if need be in a Europe without Germany. A return to the national level was the most viable way to ‘deconstitutionalize’ economic policy. In a spirited concluding chapter, he argued for the left to reclaim la patrie from the Front National by means of Article Four of the 1793 Constitution, granting full citizenship rights to any foreigner who has been resident in France for a year—‘no risk the FN will take that nation from us.’ [15]

The critical ideological component of La Malfaçon was the imperative to reconquer the oppositional language of nation and sovereignty, sequestered by the far right and abandoned by the left. In his latest book, Imperium: Structures et affects des corps politiques (2015), Lordon attempts to give that strategy a political-philosophical basis. Imperium should be read as both a constructive and a polemical project, a Spinozist treatise on the passions of state and a conjunctural intervention in the current European political crisis, building on Lordon’s distinctive research programme. But if the polemical targets of La Malfaçon were primarily the ‘neurotic right’ of the French PS and German SPD, Imperium’s arguments against a post-national consensus are mainly oriented leftwards—at potential friends, rather than political enemies. Lordon confronts contemporary anarchisant proposals for emancipatory politics with the fallacies—paralogisms—that beset a communism shorn of ‘belonging’, of the common affects and institutions that could hold it together. A transition beyond the state as we know it would not mean a termination of the state as such. Among the diverse targets of Lordon’s critique, sometimes explicitly addressed but rarely discussed in depth, are Badiou, Negri, Graeber, Dardot and Laval, the Invisible Committee; but he often seems to be speaking over their heads to Bakunin, as the quintessence of left-libertarian thinking.

The constructive complement to Lordon’s polemic involves enlisting Spinoza’s political theory of affects, as developed in the Ethics and the Political Treatise, to produce a general theory of the ‘state’—or, more accurately: a theory of the ‘general state’—grounded in a sociologically informed political anthropology. Building on Lordon’s prior efforts to generate Spinozist theories of capital and the social, Imperium proposes that a critical realism concerning the state can instruct left-wing thought in the weakness of a political optimism that would ignore our passionate and discordant nature. To ignore these minimal traits of political anthropology is to succumb to illusion. A Spinozist materialism, on the contrary, in a definition from Althusser that Lordon likes to recall, means at the very least ‘not telling ourselves stories’. The dictum is especially important in a moment of crisis, such as our own, in which the price of self-delusion is all the greater.

Lordon is the author of Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire amongst many other works. Alberto Toscano is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and is the author of The Theatre of Production and Fanaticism

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