Our first meeting for the academic year 2017/18 will take place 3.00 – 5.00pm, Thursday 12th October, in the Paul Hirst Room, Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, at 10 Gower Street London WC1E 6HJ,
Steph Marston (Birkbeck, University of London) will give a paper entitled
Spinoza on rebels and reason
Spinoza’s apparent preference for democratic political organisation is often characterised as paradoxical, given his own experiences of populism and political turmoil. Relatedly, some readers of Spinoza have questioned whether his political philosophy has the normative resources to distinguish between good and bad government, or to provide a sound basis for criticism of oppressive rulers.
Della Rocca (2010) has an innovative treatment of this question, looking at Spinoza’s insistence that there is no right to rebel against the state. How can Spinoza unequivocally condemn the rebel as undermining the right of the state, even while conceding that a successful rebel de facto acquires that right, the right to rule, in virtue of her rebellion? His answer lies in an appeal to rationality that entails that each individual acting in accordance with reason should understand things not merely from their own point of view but also from the broader perspective of the state in which they live. In this way individual interests can be contextualised and the pursuit of one’s own interest reconciled with that of the state. The rebel therefore fails to act according to the dictates of reason.
In this paper I raise a problem for Della Rocca’s reading. I show that in the question of failing to take account of the state in determining her own interest, the position of the rebel is saliently similar to that of the dissenting voter in a democracy. On Della Rocca’s thesis, therefore, dissenting voters may justly be condemned on the same basis as the rebel. Yet Spinoza’s condemnation of the rebel sits within the TTP, side by side with his apparent favouring of democratic forms of government.
A potential Spinozistic response might be that the dissident votes according to her affect and not her reason, and as such is not justified. Such arguments are often used to cast doubt on the justifiability of voting decisions even where they have been successful (e.g. the election of the Syriza government in Greece, or Donald Trump in the USA). This should give us cause to question whether such a response is truly Spinozistic – for Spinoza would certainly endorse the right of the victorious dissident electorate.
In this paper I follow Del Lucchese (2015) in arguing that the question of rightness in rebellion or dissent is not one of reason as against affect but one of constitutive power as against constituted power. The rebel or the dissenter can be both acting in accordance with her own right and against the right of the state – whether or not she violates any actual laws. The fact that an individual may find herself in this position is not indicative of a failure of normativity in Spinoza’s political philosophy; rather it is an example that helps us to understand Spinoza’s association between human freedom and living in the state.