Spinoza in Hamsterdam

I presented two papers last week on Spinoza, one in relation to pessimism, the other in relation to the war on drugs. Certainly not the common associations made, but both went down well. The abstracts are below, and I plan to put them back on the heat and extend them into something else at a later point. If you want to know more, email me.


1. The problem of mass desire and the multitude: a re-reading of Spinozan pessimism

London Conference in Critical Thought, RHUL, 6th June

Spinoza’s democratic political thought uniquely determined not how a state might rule its people, but rather how the rule – or will – of the people might be best served in a state. Yet although his endorsement of the multitude’s collective power remains consistent over his political writings, its overall objective shifts, as this paper analyses. In the Ethics, the democratic state must serve freedom, based on the common agreement of reasonable men (E4P18S); by the TTP, men’s natural right is desire alone, a more unpredictable force swayed by hope and fear, best served by a collective surrender of sovereignty to the democratic state (TTPxvi; also Letter 50). By the unfinished TP, the objective of the civic state is no longer the common advantage of free men, but civic security and stability. The will of the people becomes both the fundamental basis and gravest threat to a stable commonwealth.

Contemporary political theorists of power, particularly those within Post-Marxism, have increasingly turned to Spinoza to expound new, optimistic and revolutionary theorisations of constituent power and desire as defining political subjectivities (Negri, Balibar, Deleuze, and less explicitly Badiou). The post-Althusserian ‘Spinozan Turn’ reflects a crisis of Marxism and Anarchism to provide a new materialist democratic horizon for socialism, yet such a turn falters into ‘indignation’ and ‘discord’ if it cannot first theorise the role of the democratic state in constituting and managing mass desire, rather than its inverse. This paper uses Spinoza’s conception of the state to introduce an aporia for critical theory: the problem of shaping mass desire, and its relation to the state, either as counter-power or constituent power. This is pertinent in an era of destabilising politico-economic systems, ecological collapse, rising religious fundamentalisms, and a deterritorialised global political dissent which has yet to mount a sustained challenge to neoliberalism.

This inspired a number of questions about the danger of claiming Spinoza as a ‘utilitarian’ or pessimist, to which I stressed that there is no “correct” reading of Spinoza or any philosopher, but a usage that conforms to political and institutional norms and imperatives. And, as Balibar puts it, Spinoza is a ‘complex of contradictions’, whose unity fragments through close reading.


The paper bag compromise: applying Spinoza’s concept of the ‘state of nature’ to US drug legalisation in The Wire‘s Hamsterdam

Making a Difference: Graduate School Conference, University of Roehampton 7th June.

In season 3 of acclaimed TV crime drama The Wire, Major ‘Bunny’ Colvin experiments with a desperate solution to Baltimore’s irrepressible drug-related crime: total legalisation in an abandoned neighbourhood. Dealers and users are transported by police into the free zone of ‘Hamsterdam’, named after the Dutch city known for its liberal drug laws: as a result, major crimes decline whilst drugs users and sex-workers are able to access medical support. Drugs are consumed freely, so long as users adhere to Colvin’s social contract: no violence. Yet what also occurs is a grim vision of brutality and lawlessness, as children become ensnared in the disorder and misery of the ‘free zone’, which is ultimately shut down after violence and political scandal.

Amsterdam is also birth-place of Spinoza, 17th century philosopher and political theorist. Spinoza believed that what preceded civil society was a universal ‘state of nature’, without any moral laws, justice or rights. Like Spinoza, Colvin assumes that drug-users, like all living beings, are dominated by their addictive ‘passions’ to inevitably seek their own gain. Rather than vainly attempt to prevent this, the lesser of two evils is chosen, concealing their usage within the street-drinker’s geographical ‘paper bag’. Whilst The Wire depicts the failure of America’s ‘War on Drugs’, total legalisation without attending to its social causes also results in disaster. As Spinoza would explain, the ‘social contract’ can only manage, without improving, the collective lot of humanity. Only through understanding the social causes of our actions, and attempting to re-direct them by education, toleration and building peaceful communities, can societies move beyond hiding problems to overcoming them. Like Colvin’s Hamsterdam, this first requires facing our problems in the first place, however politically unpalatable.

I’ve been helping organising this conference for a while with a lovely hard-working group, and I hadn’t planned this paper, but seized the moment after a speaker dropped out in the morning. The paper and slides were produced in a couple of hours and it was a bit experimental, but the questions after on drugs legalisation and moral choice were great.


Nowhere fast? A Brief Critique of the Accelerationist Manifesto


A very old and slightly juvenile post about Accelerationism on here has been getting a lot of hits lately, and I’ve been following the discussions of this theorem since. The new #Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams is an excellent statement issued this month through the Speculative Heresy blog. I read through it a few times and found the new arguments original and exciting, particularly the case for scientific reason and self-mastery, energising me to make further comparisons with Spinoza and the present. But there’s a number of theoretical issues too which I think even McKenzie Wark’s too sympathetic critique allow to pass unchallenged. So I sent this off to Anticapitalist Initiative, a fine purveyor of left wing theory and discussion, who have published it today.

Take a look at my critique at Anticapitalist Initiative.

Read the original manifesto, and McKenzie Wark’s response.

Hysteric or neurasthenic? The role of class in the treatment of ‘shell shock’ during World War One


Managed to leave the capital twice last week, which was nice and pretty rare. One for business, one for pleasure. Below’s the talk I presented at the excellent Civilising Bodies Colloquium at the University of Exeter on Thursday 25 April. The paper itself is far longer, far more referenced, and takes in a broader swathe of the post-war experience. I’ll look to develop that and publish it somewhere. For now, here’s the abridged version delivered. As I presented this, behind me I projected footage from this film. I suggest that if you have time to read this, you arrange the display so that around half your screen displays the film. It’s intentional. The movements of the men depicted provide a commentary on this paper, and vice-versa.


Hysteric or neurasthenic? The role of class in the treatment of ‘shell shock’ during World War One
JD. Taylor, University of Roehampton.

The Great War of 1914-18 set Europe alight. Fresh-faced young men – Fathers, brothers, and children signed their lives away to death, or perhaps worse- a life of torture, haunted by their own memories, and visions of what they had seen. Male hysteria, known more commonly at the time as ‘Shell shock’, was one reaction to the new form of industrialised warfare, where enemies could not be seen, war seemed an endless prospect, and death reigned omnipotent. Although at first male hysterics were dismissed as cowards and ‘lunatics’, as war drudged on the sheer scale of the problem became apparent, and superiors as well as government were forced to confront the issue. For those who survived ‘The Great War’, these images of death and feelings of terror would forever haunt them. Caught in a No Man’s Land of male hysteria, many men serving broke down in the midst of war unable to cope, continue on, or simply function.

This paper explores the role of social class in relation to male hysterics – as well as those who observed them – through the diagnosis, symptoms and treatment of ‘shell shock’. It will do this by using the contemporary ideas of masculinity, psychology and eugenic theory as part of the context to promote further understanding of the issue. In turn it will conclude that social class had a profound affect on the expressions and livelihood of the male hysteric, and that the structure of class in Britain acted as a psychical ‘strait-jacket’. Whilst the paper is read, in the background you’ll see footage from “War Neuroses”, a 1918 film taken at Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, and Seale-Hayne, Dartmoor, England, shows the various symptoms of 18 British soldiers suffering from ‘shell-shock’ and their treatment by Royal Army Medical Corp neurologists during World War I. There’s something far more disquieting about seeing the movements of the male hysteric body, and what this paper does is place them in a new context of how social class defined its symptoms and diagnosis, evidenced in the largely lower-ranked ‘hysterical’ soldiers represented in the film.

As the first world war grounded to a stalemate by the end of 1914, the then secretary of state Lord Kitchener faced with a manpower shortage embarked upon a extensive recruitment campaign, rather than conscription which he knew would be opposed both by the British cabinet and popular opinion. Symbolised by the famous poster “Lord Kitchener wants you”. The poster succeeded on a number of levels: it offered the everyman an opportunity to be a war hero too like the heroic British examples in the boys‘ books of G.R. Henty, the tragic heroism of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, and the male adventure stories of Rider Haggard, and in the comics working class boys might have read. At the same time, its omnipresent accusatory finger pointed at every man eligible to fight, inciting him to enlist out of loyalty to ‘King and Country’: the poster suggested that it was right and proper as a Man and a loyal subject of the Empire to join up and enlist. The men who responded were of varying ages (though generally between 18-25), backgrounds and classes. For them, not only did a war ‘all over by Christmas’ offer valuable life experience and training, but it was also seen as a romantic adventure, a citizen’s act of duty to ‘King and Country’, and promoted as an honourable thing to do, a chance for every man to be a hero.

This mix of different classes to some extent played an important part in deciding both their role and ‘fate’, as class structures in Britain were recreated in rank, with the sons of the wealthy educated elite becoming officers, and their ‘working class inferiors’ becoming privates. Immediately different expectations and responsibilities were placed on them. Officers though in a higher standing than privates, faced certain death in leading men “over the top” of trenches and into attack but further to this they also had to maintain discipline and morale, and of course, ‘keep up appearances’.His decisions meant the life or death of those under his command, not only responsible for his own life, but for those around him. This itself would have been a huge pressure, and if he survived the war, he would have then had to deal with the ramifications of these decisions within his own conscience, a “survivor’s guilt” of even greater proportions.

Robert Graves, was one officer (later promoted to captain) who served on the Western Front, who buckled under the pressures of his duties, his experiences and the war, and continued to suffer from what he called ‘neurasthenia’ for many years after the war. Describing some of this trauma and psychological pressure in great detail, Graves documented the lifespan of the officer before succumbing to total breakdown, alcoholism and ‘uselessness’:

‘Between three weeks and four months he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or sequence of shocks. Then he began gradually to decline in usefulness as neurasthenia developed in him’.i

After a year or fifteen months, according to Graves, the officer was on the verge of breakdown. It was the psychological pressures of his role, the almost-impossible task to maintain discipline and morale in a situation war poets compared to the apocalypse or hell, with the added awareness that the officer’s average lifespan was considerably shorter than his men, that all contributed to the hysteric breakdowns many officers suffered. Class not only shaped the ranks that soldiers were divided into, but also dictated their conduct within those roles. Unlike the tough working class men Welsh miners Graves’ described who could indulge in a deft irony and black humour that could laugh about death and thus ease fears and anxieties, officers had to hold their “stiff upper lip” and continue to command their troops. Again Graves records the difficulty of keeping up appearances and a brave face, who recalled his feelings after an order came to launch an attack: ’Orders came that we were to attack again. Only the officers knew; the men were only to be told just beforehand. It was difficult for me to keep up appearances with the men; I felt like screaming’.ii

That is not to say that officers’ possessed the monopoly on war neurosis. Although officers were more likely to develop neurasthenia, it was working class lower-ranked men who would have formed the majority of cases of male hysteria. Although troops held less responsibility than officers, and had less of the dilemmas and guilt of decision-making, they were constantly living in close proximity to death, decomposing bodies and the fear of dying. The male hysteria of privates often displayed more ‘physical’ symptoms (as opposed to officers’ mental or ‘nervous’ symptoms), such as uncontrollable spasms, “wobbly legs” and mutism. It is the last symptom which I would like to explore here, as I believe it shows how class structures in the army affected the symptoms and perceptions of male hysteria.

Whereas officers (in the better-planned trench systems) could retire to dugouts or officers’ messes, soldiers often would live and sleep in the same places. Dealing with neurasthenic or badly-trained officers eager to assert their authority, or ordering them on a virtually suicidal attack, many soldiers would have felt angered and exasperated by their superiors. Yet to answer back to an officer spelled immediate punishment: a soldier could be sentenced by ‘Field Punishment Number One’ – a form of corporal punishment for soldiers for general acts of disobedience, drunkenness, or sleeping on duty, involving tying a soldier standing to a post or gun by his neck and feet for two hours a day, for up to 21 days. Disobedience was dangerous and humiliating, hence keeping quiet, forcibly remaining silent – mutism was a common hysterical symptom where the patient has become mute, or unable to speak. Psychologists interpreted this as a conflict between wanting to say something and yet knowing that what one wants to say is unacceptable, with potentially terrible consequences. It has been seen as evidence of self-censorship, repression, of perhaps guilt of what one might or could say, as for instance in Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s pioneering 1896 Studies in Hysteria, which argued that female hysteria and mutism (in the case of Anna O.) was an unconscious reaction and revolt to the repressive gender strictures in the 19th century bourgeois society of Vienna. Yet in the context of the British Army during the first world war, it could have been seen as a silent class protest, a physical symptom of class actually inducing male hysteria.

For psycho-analytic field-workers like Ernst Simmel, the paralysis of being unable to speak betrayed an unconscious repression, of anger, curiously, against superiors, which censored itself by preventing all use of speech. Mutism was supposedly rare amongst officers, whilst being one of the most common shell-shock symptoms amongst ordinary soldiers of the Other Ranks. W.H.R. Rivers was aware of Freud’s work, and he noted the importance of class, or rather rank, in the symptom of mutism, and connected it directly with the regimented hierarchy of rank within the army:

‘…A frequent factor in the production of war-neurosis is the necessity for the restraint of the expression of sentiments of dislike or disrespect for those of superior rank, and these restraints become particularly trying when-those who are disliked or despised are the instruments by which the many restrictions of military life are imposed or enforced’.iii

For Rivers then, mutism was an unfortunate hysterical reaction to higher ranks, and in some ways, a form of unconscious insubordination. Yet if mutism was a symptom of insubordination and class protest, I believe it stemmed from a lack of control most keenly felt in soldiers of the lower ranks. For although the officer had to deal with the added responsibility of men, he could feel at least a semblance of control over his situation: at least, his responsibility gave him control over others. For the ordinary private though, even the loosest control over his own fate was not possible. Death was as arbitrary as a stray sniper’s bullet or well-aimed shell; the enemy was stationed in an inaccessible trench across No Man’s Land and rarely if ever seen; and for working class soldiers, the war consisted of long periods of inactivity, and the occasional order to go “over the top” and invade the enemy trenches, attacks which usually resulted in large numbers of casualties . Hysterics became psychological casualties, men who had lost control of even their own bodies, victims of a war-induced madness – or as Gunner Hiram Sturdy put it, “this madness caused by pure unadulterated fear’iv. Although working class soldiers often pitied the hysteric, his willpower was still distrusted and if he was not dismissed as a coward, he would be ridiculed as a lunatic.

So far we have seen how class shaped the symptoms of male hysteria; now I would like to explore how the diagnoses of male hysteria were shaped by class. Charles S. Myers was the first not only to introduce the term ‘shell shock’, but also a dichotomy of diagnosing cases: either as ‘Hysteric’, generally regarding the uncontrolled movements, paralysis and mutism discussed earlier, or ‘Neurasthenic’, meaning a nervous exhaustion.v These two ‘conditions’ would become even more separated throughout the war, as neurasthenia increasingly became the diagnosis of male hysterics who were officers or from upper class backgrounds, and the more effeminate (and effeminising) ‘male hysteria’ reserved for the Other Ranks, made up of the working classes.For W.H.R. Rivers, male hysteria was a psychological conflict of two primal instincts, self-preservation versus fear, or as Rivers puts it: ‘a conflict between the instinct of self-preservation and certain social standards of thought mid conduct, according to which fear and its expression are regarded as reprehensible’.vi One outcome of this conflict is a retreat into ‘war neurosis’; though the exact nature of this neurosis is further shaped by the rank and social background of the male hysteric, particularly if he has received a prolonged education, and if he is an officer, and has therefore (for Rivers) had to deal with many more pressures and responsibilities, not least to keep up appearances.

As Rivers argues further,

‘…[T]here is little doubt that the average private enters upon his military training with less aversion from the expression of fear than the average officer, and that his simpler mental training makes him more easily content than the officer with the crude solution of the conflict between instinctive and acquired motives which is provided by some bodily disability…The liability of officers and men to different forms of war-neurosis is thus partly capable of explanation by differences in the conditions to which they have been exposed before the war’.vii

The social class of the male hysteric could then determine his diagnosis, whether it be the lowly, less-educated ‘hysteria’ suffered by privates, or the higher, more emotionally-refined ‘neurasthenia’ suffered by officers and ranks above. Furthermore if war neurosis was a retreat into illness out of a conflict of two different drives, then it was the male hysteric who was responsible for his malady: it was his unconscious lack of willpower, his unconscious ‘malingering’. At first, “shell shock” was seen as a fault of the individual – not of the war, or war itself – but a kind of prior weakness, a cloaked way of implying heredity of “feeble-mindedness” and degeneracy. If mental illness – or “feeble-mindedness” (a term that encompassed a lot of what would now be called learning difficulties and slower mental development) was a matter of “efficiency”, then it was simply incompatible with eugenic theory that the upper classes could be so “inefficient” to breed mental defectives. Eugenics and social Darwinism had become immensely popular before WW1 since the work of Francis Galton’s 1869 study Hereditary Genius; Before the war, the menace of “feeble-mindedness” prompted national anxiety, emblematic of a wider middle-class fear of ‘race suicide’, resulting in a number of bills for the care and provision of the ‘feeble-minded’ being brought before parliament. Neurasthenia was then a condition of the ‘nerves’, cloaked in oblique terms. Male hysteria was viewed by one eminent psychologist, F.W. Mott, as a product of prior inherited mental weakness – in 1919 he argued that 74 per cent of psycho-neurotic patients had been born in ‘neuropathic or psychopathic soil’.viii This prior mental weakness would have been associated with the degeneracy of the urban poor, thus making hysteria in some respects a working class sickness according to his perception.

If male hysteria in privates did not indicate prior weakness, then it was considered as a form malingering or cowardice. Rivers’ theory of difference between officers and other ranks in terms of male hysteria suited political and social requirements. In the year ending 30 April 1917, whilst the ratio of wounded officers to wounded men was 1:24, the ration of neurasthenic officers to men was 1:6.ix The phenomena of officers with hysteria – the noble manly sons of wealthy aristocratic elites, true citizens of the British Empire could cause a potential political crisis. The stigma of male hysteria was so damning that the solution inadvertently became to change the name of the condition, from “neurasthenia”, taking on nerves, or “anxiety neurosis”, a term that allowed for all the symptoms of hysteria without calling it something so demeaning, so shameful, so effeminising as hysteria.

In 1929 a the first of a number of war memoirs were published, documenting the experiences and travails of a small but considerable number of educated shell-shocked officers like Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves. Officers were often better able to describe their experiences of male hysteria, drawing on an extensive canon of religious and romantic motifs in English poetry to describe their ‘nerves’ and ‘neurasthenia’, without the effeminate overtones of hysteria. But the officers’ accounts also disrupted assumptions that hysteria was a symptom of working class hereditary degeneracy, with the (anti)war-poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves making ‘nerves’ almost noble in their poetic language, shaping “shell shock” into a cultural memory of war. But the active male hysteria of the working class private who never recovered his mind after the war, who was ineligible for specialist state support and unable, due to unemployment, to afford the expensive private fees of the psychological clinic, became increasingly alien and impossible to understand – why was he still afraid of shells when war was over? Hence “Shell shock” – the officers’ experience of war neurosis, a usage of nerves reserved only to the upper classes – thus became the post-war perception of male hysteria that we retain in popular memory today.


i Robert Graves, Good-bye To All That: An Autobiography, ed. Richard Perceval Graves (Providence, Rhode Island: Berghahn, 1995), 157.
ii See Graves, Good-bye To All That, 150.
iii W.H.R. Rivers, “War-Neurosis and Military Training”, Instinct and the Unconscious: a contribution to a biological theory of the psycho-neuroses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), 214.
iv Gunner Hiram Sturdy of the Royal Artillery Regiment, cit. in Peter Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 37.
vSee C.S. Myers, “A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock: (1), Being an Account of 3 Cases of Memory, Vision, Smell and Taste, Admitted to the Duchess of Westminster War Hospital, Le Tocquet”, The Lancet, I (13 Feb., 1915), 317-20.
vi Rivers, “War-Neurosis and Military Training”, Instinct and the Unconscious, 208.
vii Rivers, “War-Neurosis and Military Training”, Instinct and the Unconscious, 210.
viii F.W. Mott, cit. in Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Mens Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1999), 119.
ix See Bourke, Dismembering the Male, 112.

Debt: an Idiot’s Guide to Defaulting the Future

Negative Capitalism

Life has taken me by surprise by its speed: my book will be out at the end of this month. I’m nervous but excited, but have been so busy with life events that I’ve hardly prepared proper promotion. 

I’m really keen for the book to generate discussion! If you’d like to review the book for a blog or publication, ask me a question, find out about stocking, or any other request, just send me an email  – jdt@riseup.net.

If you’d like to buy the book, great – why not contact your local independent bookshop or library, and ask them to order it in for you? May cost a couple more quid but supports a valuable community venture and is in chime with the intentions of the book. Or alternatively, you can order from Waterstones, AmazonFoyles, even Sainsburys.  And if you’ve ordered online, you could add a constructive review of your thoughts, positive or ‘negative’ ?!

In the future I’ll write here about the process of writing and publishing a book, as well as starting to reflect on some of my experiences as a community worker/charity campaign coordinator, which came after writing the manuscript. But for now, you can read Chapter 4 of the book, included below, which hasn’t been published anywhere else before.

Thanks everyone for the support along the way.

– – – – – –

back cover

4. Debt: An Idiot’s Guide to Defaulting the Future

Negative capitalism generates its own ontological experience, embodied in Foucault’s description of a new ‘homo œconomicus‘, man as entrepreneur of himself, ‘being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer’.[1] Gary Becker too abstracts social and family life into machinic ‘human capital’.[2] Or think of that even more dreary contemporary term of ‘human resources’ in the modern corporation.The popularity of the BBC show The Apprentice with computer salesman Sir Alan Sugar gives the lie that each of us can make it big with the right amount of pluck and entrepreneurial determination. The general sleaziness, arrogance, and fundamental lack of social skills and intelligence of most contestants on this show demonstrate that the homo œconomicus, the man or woman of the neoliberal era, is a dangerous idiot. The show’s contestants are entertaining rather than inspirational, and one’s alienated enjoyment of these greedy and foolish characters masks how being entrepreneurial is increasingly a feature of daily working life, as managers impress upon workers the need to become more productive and develop their human capital for the organisation. But if financial capital’s power is now dependent on life itself to be economically productive and consent to its processes, then life itself – you and I – possess the democratic potential to say no, to draw on the negative and think and behave in entirely foreign ways to neoliberal capital.

Debt is both a means of control of the individual’s time and possibilities, and an exciting vulnerability within financial capitalism. The processes of neoliberalism have led to a negation of wealth into abstracted finance, the production of goods into services, politics into marketing, social relations into economic relations, and time into debt. Negative capitalism facilitates this increasingly sped-up capitalism through a negation of time into an endless present, a flattening of disciplinary space so that work, socialising, pornography and shopping increasingly happen in one universal location, often the small black screens on our walls or in our very hands, whilst the political agency and economic rights of the worker are increasingly negated. Being in perpetual debt means that one’s time spent not being productive is costly: how much interest has accumulated in this time on my debts? How much longer must I now work to catch up? Negative capitalism sustains itself through debt which in turn invests and colonises all future earnings, which are plunged into debt repayments, leading to new increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression in the UK. This anxiety is then manipulated by concerns over ‘security’ to generate new control architectures of surveillance and databases across the UK. But until now there has been no cohesive suggestion of a mass debt-strike. Rather than ever being vulnerable to the increasing interest rates of creditors and the increasing enclosure of public property by the markets, what if all those indebted were to strike back by refusing the only thing capital might need of them, debt?

A ‘man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt’: so Deleuze remarks in his “Postscript on Control Societies”.[3]The exercise of neoliberal theory into practice has largely been determined by debt, where after reaching the status of influential idea it was parachuted into the debt crises of New York City (1976), the United Kingdom (1978-9), Latin America (1982) and others. Neoliberalisation is a process that transforms all social and political relations into economic relations, conforming with Deleuze’s notion of the individual abstracted into a ‘dividual’, void of social content except economically-useful data.[4] Data is information, the basis of its own ‘information economy’, in effect a commodity – and when money is abstracted into financial capital, wage becomes a form of credit that workers sell in order to sustain present spending. By getting into debt, and in effect becoming credit commodities bought and sold by larger credit magnates – the worker becomes abstracted of future potential, their future time sold for a payment, that is, the debt to be repaid. Debt is paradigmatic of neoliberal control, the chief means by which subjects – be they individuals, businesses, or sovereign states – become subordinated and intrinsically controlled. Debt becomes an enclosure of the commons, what Steven Shaviro describes as a colonisation of the future, as individuals can no longer study, shop or afford to live in many urban areas without recourse to loans or credit cards.[5]

Debt on a mass scale has sustained and made possible the neoliberal project. In the UK, neoliberalism has been largely premised on huge national borrowing and a deregulation of credit controls, flooding the market consumers with cheap credit which has largely supplemented stagnating real wages and increasing poverty during this time.[6]As Marazzi argues, the servicing of debt has been a major commodity and source of disproportionate capital accumulation over the neoliberal era.[7] Post-Fordist financial capitalism has been presented with a problem of how to continue economic growth and production without producing further goods, resulting in what Deleuze calls a ‘metaproduction’ of financial speculation.[8]Marazzi’s research finds that economic growth over the last twenty years has been based on a manipulation of mortgage loans and re-mortgaging, effectively allowing home-owners access to cheaper and cheaper credit.[9]Post-Fordist growth has therefore become based on ‘non-wage incomes’, a somewhat euphemistic reference to debt, whereby losses are socialised (national debt, austerity) and benefits are privatised (bankers’ bonuses, MPs expenses, unpaid taxes).[10] Ultimately Western economies become ensnared in this speculative logic of borrowing and debt, where the powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the continued financialisation of everyday life by capital mechanisms. Public services are privatised; welfare-users and school-children become customers; whilst the final marks of citizenship (public service, safety) are replaced by CCTV and advertisements, the final form of civic information.

Debt also sustains and, in a very limited and problematic way, empowers many to participate in a consumer economy that would otherwise exclude the impoverished. Being in debt or depending on overdrafts and credit have become entirely normal in working-class and middle-class British life, but why has no-one stopped to ask what debt means? If it’s a sacrifice of the future to sustain the present, why does one need to replace one debt with another on a regular basis? What was the original source of crisis that required one to sell one’s future labour for credit in today’s currency, and was this crisis fair, or were each of us taken advantage of? Ivor Southwood describes how debt is the closest thing to a collective identity the British people have, aside from a fear of terrorism.[11]What if the collectivity of indebted British workers were not dupes of persuasive credit card schemes, but forced into debt by unfair economic circumstances which rightly need to be rectified? Beyond individual debt, this language of debt and the necessity for cuts has become a new ideology: the national debt is now used to justify political and economic restructuring in language of ‘sacrifice’. David Graeber has noted that much of the US debt is in fact owed to the Federal Reserve, effectively itself – interestingly the Federal Reserve was the engine of neoliberalism in the United States under Volcker.[12]Shaviro too argues that the ‘free market’ indeed forces us to be ‘free’: to cooperate in its price system as rational, efficient, “dynamic” individuals – a freedom which is increasingly based on credit to afford education, housing and consumer items.[13]This creates another experience of time beyond that of sheer instantaneity: the time of debt is one that extends into the future, speculating its own value that ‘ravages the present in the name of a future that will never actually arrive; and it depletes our hopes for, and imaginings of, the future by turning it into nothing but a projection and endless repetition of the present’.[14]Debt has individually and socially become the pretext for further intrusions, demanding ever further sacrifices, for debts which no-one is ever realistically expected to repay, but must strive to do so all the same.

Private debt links the contemporary neoliberal worker with the citizen of the earlier democracies: it allows us to purchase what was once common and accessible by ‘social rent’ – decent housing, basic appliances and media devices, some kind of full-time employment.[15]Sean O’Connell’s historical research into debt in working-class British communities found it to be a regular feature of working-class life long before the credit card. Working-class households, often led by women, have negotiated debt first with credit drapers, then mail-order catalogues, and now via the boom in doorstep moneylending since the 1980s onwards, as many became ‘credit orphans’ following increasing credit rating exclusions and deregulation.[16] The ‘personal finance industry’ and the no-win-no-fee insurance industries dominate television advertising during daytime hours when largely those unemployed, ill or caring for children will be watching TV, offering cheap loans, or advertising shops like Cash Converters or Bright House which have increasingly replaced the pawn-shop (and whose online store locator maps offer a topography of national poverty).[17]Perhaps the difference here is the recent phenomenon of both middle-class debt and national debt.

In a sense, neoliberalism was always predicated on a cheap trick, underscored by military power: allow workers to maintain living standards via cheap credit whilst wages in real-terms fall. As Graeber notes, money has always been something that never specifically existed, but has been a historical relation between banks and states seeking to pay for war.[18]The decision by US President Richard Nixon to end the fixed convertibility of gold to US Dollars on 15 August 1971, terminating the global Bretton Woods agreement, was forced in order to continue the hugely expensive Indochina wars. The postwar Keynesian consensus had guaranteed full employment, expanding public services and inclusive education on the unwritten ‘agreement’ that workers would continue increasing productivity, accede to modernising labour practices, and that unions would regulate workforces to manage discipline. The collapse of this Fordist consensus is marked here: when productivity stagnates, Western economic hegemony is challenged. Post-Fordist financial credit, premised on debt, was a breakthrough that living standards could temporarily be maintained or frozen, through access to cheap credit – buy now and pay later become the policy of both individuals and national governments, a temporary political quick-fix at the time to guarantee backing from powerful capitalists in exchange for tax breaks. Margaret Thatcher’s premiership demonstrates this in two ways: the support of the wealthy was assured immediately upon being elected in 1979, when she cut the personal income tax rate from 83% to 60%, whilst nearly doubling VAT from 8% to 15%, and cutting social spending; whilst she was able to temporarily buy public support through the sale of council houses to owners in the UK during the 1980s.[19] Obtaining credit was essential to continue purchasing basic items as prices rapidly rose through increased inflation and VAT. Thirty years on, decades of underfunded infrastructure is visible in the rotten, negated state of individuals, schools, housing, healthcare and communities. War becomes a powerful way of asserting Western hegemony whilst managing domestic unrest at home, with Pasquinelli arguing that it ‘has a distinctly cathartic role for the libido of a nation’.[20]Thatcher’s deregulation of credit controls in the 1980s gave new access to credit, and a short-term income was generated for many in buying and then subsequently selling (or sub-letting) council flats, but it took the controversial Falklands-Malvinas war of 1982 to establish real political support for Thatcher during a period of shrinking wages, rising inflation and unemployment, and overall social decline.[21]

A new economic and political identity was forged in the neoliberal era: ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism’ converged on a right-wing religious morality of restrictive family values alongside neoliberal free markets. Corporations were free whilst individuals and trade unions became heavily restricted and regulated. The current effects of the neoliberal project demand that less employed workers work for longer hours, resulting in increasing productivity as before but with far cheaper and more disempowered labour. The decline of the social state, unwilling but also unable to provide infrastructure due to declining tax revenues from the wealthy, and at the mercy inevitably of credit rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s have become the king-makers of contemporary global politics), suggests private financial interests and stakeholders may be demanded to assume political control, given their possession of economic and therefore social power already. The question is whether citizens will have the strategy to take responsibility for their own decisions. Will obesity, depression, war and alcohol/drug dependency prove effective contraception to a new social democratic movement that might destroy its own indebted servitude?

The manipulation of debt during the neoliberal era has offset future production to abortively sustain contemporary consumerism – an effective sale of future labour, the ultimate speculation and permeation of life by capital. This can be understood in the looming £191billion debt that students will owe by 2047, according to latest government estimates, a figure which has already risen from the £67billion estimate last year.[22]Find evidence of this in the increasing capital imbalance between capital-accumulating states (China, India, the oil-producing states) and capital-borrowing states (US, UK, Ireland and the southern Eurozone states), which has required these states to effectively guarantee through credit and bond-purchases the unsustainable consumerism and public expenditure of the citizens and governments of these indebted states.[23]In many ways debt has unnaturally allowed consumption and economic production in declining states, a temporary economic solution which defers bankruptcy or social collapse to an abandoned future – “when the shit hits the fan, we won’t be in government”. Keynesianism has the capacity to redirect state expenditure into socially munificent projects but this required precisely the international Bretton Woods international banking agreement dissolved in 1971. National currencies no longer have the power or ability to protect themselves against central banks and credit markets, and it is only military power that confirms the UK and the US as independent and powerful forces when their own currencies and economies are in such indebted, deregulated and hence uncontrollable disarray. Global financial exchange is underscored by nothing except the abstract debts of its workers, an abstract debt which would be fictitious were it not brutally underscored by bailiffs, police forces and national military machines.Thus debt has sustained impossible levels of consumption in declining states, a temporary economic solution which defers bankruptcy and social collapse to some unknown point in an increasingly unlikely and ruined future.

Despite various attempts at economic stimulus since 2008, the global debt crisis is again flaring up in the collapse of the Eurozone and further collapse of American currency markets, with rounds of ‘quantitative easing’ compounding the fact that money is now largely fictional, speculative and based on no value apart from the hegemonic power of those who issue it.At this stage, the only option for most western economies is to go into further sovereign debt (by selling bonds), whilst encouraging consumers to do the same. Whilst China may be behind many of the loans, negative capitalism has no responsible sovereign. The terrifying spectre haunting the neoliberal era is universal debt, with no obvious creditor, and no possible means of ever repaying a debt owed. The more literary readings of Marx’s works have attended to his metaphors of spectres, vampires, and the undead in his descriptions of capital.[24]Another spectre looming behind this is perhaps ‘zombie banks’, inflated by state capital to continue appearing as functioning, lending banks when in fact their activities or independence have long been nil, another iconic contradiction of the neoliberal era.[25]

Is capital itself undead, one that has deferred its imminent organic death by structural contradiction by a Frankenstein-like appearance of life as debt? Perhaps it is not capital which is undead, but workers, ‘life’, neither alive nor dead but abstracted, negated and organised into financial streams which are used to afford a decreasingly minimal basic biopolitical support – precarious labour, declining infrastructure, reduction of agency to forged consent, reduction of public spaces to privatised control. Negative capitalism abstracts all labour-relations into debt-creditor relations, where most workers are entirely disempowered and limited by their debts to maintain membership and complicity in a system of capitalist accumulation which they gain no real benefit from, and which many cynically admit is a rigged show. To compound the Kafkaesque ‘indefinite postponement’, there is increasingly no possibility for many nation-states of becoming bankrupt either.[26]Perhaps only a campaign of systematic mass-bankruptcies and hacking into financial systems and currency markets will effect some kind of redress of this negation of future and labour-in-potential by debt.




[1] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 147, 226, 269, 278.

[2] Indicated by Gary Becker’s pioneering work, Human Capital, 1964; see also Theodor Schultz, Investing in Human Capital, 1971.

[3] Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 181.

[4] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 57-67; Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 179-180.

[5] Steven R. Shaviro, “The ‘Bitter Necessity’ of Debt: Neoliberal Finance and the Society of Control”, Paper presented at Debt Conference April 29-May 1 2010, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 8-9.

[6] The High Pay Commission, Director’s Pensions: in it for themselves? (London: High Pay Commission, 2011), 4-7; High Pay Commission, More for Less: what has happened to pay at the top and does it matter? (London: High Pay Commission, 2011), 5-9; Wenchao Jin, Robert Joyce, David Phillips and Luke Sibieta, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2011. IFS Commentary C118 (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2011), 1-3.

[7] Marazzi, Violence, 33-37, 40-42.

[8] Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 181.

[9] Marazzi, Violence, 25, 33-34.

[10] Marazzi, Violence, 47.

[11] Ivor Southwood, Non-Stop Inertia (Winchester, UK; Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2011), 11.

[12] David Graeber, “The Debt is Not Nearly as Scary as You Think”, 21st April 2011, New York Daily News. See also Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 1-2.

[13] Shaviro, “’Bitter Necessity’ of Debt”, 8.

[14] Shaviro, “’Bitter Necessity’”, 9.

[15] Marazzi, Violence, 94-95.

[16] Sean O’Connell, Credit and Community: Working-Class Debt in the UK Since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50-52, 90, 127.

[17] O’Connell, Credit and Community, 188-191.

[18] Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), 361, 364, 372. On the cultural expense of the military, see Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 323.

[19] Graeber, Debt, 375-376.

[20] Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, 168.

[21] O’Connell, Credit and Community, 6, 91.

[22] Sarah Morrison and Brian Brady “Student debt will soar to £200bn, official figures show”, Independent on Sunday, 21 August 2011.

[23] Castells, Rise of the Network Society, xix.

[24] Marx frequently refers to zombies, vampires and the supernatural – see Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. (trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1990), 163, 176, 189, 255, 342, 416, 502-503, 548.

[25] On ‘zombie banks’ see Tyler Cowen, “Euro vs. Invasion of the Zombie Banks”, New York Times, April 17 2011.

[26] Every ‘outside’ is now within and ‘inside’ capitalist accumulation – even bankruptcy functions inside accumulation, leading to an infinite regression of debt. See Marazzi, Violence, 109-111.

I begin a PhD on Spinoza


I am very happy to announce that I will be commencing a full-time PhD from January 2013 at Roehampton University, London, on the role of desire in Spinoza’s philosophy. This is a fully-funded studentship with all fees paid, at last giving the space and time to concentrate on my research ideas without having to work full-time or even part-time. Ah! I have had so many ideas and plans generating for a long time, and now I have an opportunity to do something with these. To read, to think, to travel, to write, without having to hold down some gruelling job for 50-60 odd hours a week… yes!

It’ll only be for three years, and there is only so much preparation that can be made for the unforeseen crises, challenges and changes of circumstance that befall each of us over time. But it feels like my lights are now beginning to turn green: I can now drive, Negative Capitalism has a release date, and I’m feeling much better about things, an outcome of a number of personal choices. I now have an opportunity to contribute something interesting towards contemporary thought. This is the original proposal:


“On lines, planes or bodies”: the problem of desire in contemporary political philosophy analysed in the encounter of Spinoza and Deleuze.

Dept. Humanities, Roehampton University, supervised by Dr Nina Power and Dr Jenny Bunker.


Desire has been one of the central problems of contemporary political thought. Politicians, theorists, activists and researchers have each asked: how should government by the people, and local democratic initiatives function? What compromises must be made between collective desires and stability? And especially problematic for critical theory:how can the desire or dissatisfaction of oppressed communities be channelled into alternative social and political organisations?

Desire is an elusive, compelling yet rootless formulation for political theory, presupposing an individual or collective will that becomes the basis of political subjectivities. Yet in an era where politicians are no longer expected to manage or protect ‘the people’, but to provide them with what they want, the endorsement of desire has more problematically led new dangers to democracy: ecological destruction, ever-growing income inequalities, and a return to more fundamentalist religious and nationalist ideas. Is democracy just the facilitation of mass desire, or the careful government by all, for all? This research therefore examines how diverse understandings and applications of ‘desire’ have come to empower or limit political act and thought.

This research proposes to contextualise these readings of desire, and its political application, through the influential thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. It advances the hypothesis that Deleuze’s writings on Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, earlier on in his career were enormously significant in shaping his later thought; and that the problems of a purely positive analysis of desire stems from a wilful re-(or mis-) appropriation of Spinoza’s thought. The research intends to demonstrate how Deleuze’s specific, and at times problematic, readings of Spinoza shaped his later political work with Guattari, particularly in his assertion of power as constituted in its own free expression and liberation, rather than exploitation, codification or organisation. Such readings have inspired a far more libertarian political use of Spinoza (Macherey 1979; Negri 1982, 2000, 2004; Balibar 1985; Negri & Hardt 2000).

This research advances the hypothesis that such an ‘autonomist’ or libertarian reading of desire as freedom, and desire as constituent political power, inconsistently equivocates with the freedom of desire and contempt of state power represented by neoliberalism’s celebration of consumer choice determining the equilibrium of free-market capitalism, and of what Foucault calls ‘state-phobia’. Nina Power (2009) too has observed the subtle coercion of power beneath assertions of ‘liberated’ feminism and ‘liberated’ capitalism, in its contemporary neoliberal form. Deleuze’s ‘desire’ is inconsistent with Spinoza’s own account of desire, conatus, and his influential early modern argument for democracy and freedom of speech, honed in the midst of sectarian civil wars tearing across Europe. Spinoza’s ‘desire’ is more cautiously concerned with the effective protection and coordination of democratic power through liberal government, underpinned by a social contract.

The research will lastly analyse Spinoza’s political writings alongside recent psychoanalytic accounts of desire and maturity in democratic political organisations (Damasio 2003; Winnicott 1965) in order to provide a sympathetic, if more nuanced, practical, systemic – ‘Spinozean’ reading of democratic desire after Deleuze.


The research will carry out a close textual analysis of selected works in philosophy, political theory, and the history of ideas.This will be completed in three years: the first year will focus on reading and developing a conceptual framework around desire, staged in the encounter of Spinoza and Deleuze. The first and second chapters will be completed in year one, with most of the research for the third chapter also undertaken. The third and fourth chapters will be completed in year two, alongside the research for the fifth chapter. In year three the previous chapters will be reorganised and rewritten as required, and the fifth and sixth chapters produced.

The research has been speculatively organised into six chapters below, with indicative research questions.

Chapter 1, The Problem of Desire: Politicising Freedom

  • Contextualising the Spinozean turn: Althusser, Deleuze and Macherey, and the Marxist divergence from Soviet Communism
  • Reclaiming desire and repression as political conceptions
  • How does desire correlate or conflict with historical materialism and the dialectic?

Chapter 2, Deleuze after Spinoza: the Infinity of Philosophical Desire

  • Expressionism: Deleuze’s task of linking immanence and the infinite
  • The ‘new naturalism’: Leibniz and Spinoza’s immanence against the Cartesian mechanism
  • Conatus, or desire, as the ‘existential essence of being’?
  • Spinoza’s affirmation ‘practical philosophy’ as a philosophy of practice and creation?

Chapter 3, The ‘Affirmationist’ Consensus? Desire as Political Subjectivity

  • Desire as lack (idealism) vs. desire as flow (immanence): Deleuze and psychoanalysis
  • Desiring-machines: desire against the social, desire as counter-power?
  • Restoring the multitude: Ranciere and Badiou after Deleuze
  • ‘Affirmationism’: positive political activism vs. critique by negativity

Chapter 4, Spinoza before Deleuze: Sovereignty, Love, and the Sad Passions

  • Clarifying differences into One: the Ethics as a machinic system
  • Conatus, the desire to persist in being – a Machiavellian account?
  • Sad or joyful passions: redirecting desire as the basis of an ethics?

Chapter 5, Spinoza’s Democratic Thought

  • Sovereignty: an equal relation between king and subjects, or a constitutive one?
  • Spinoza as ‘anti-Orwell’? Fanaticism against the rational community
  • The ‘state of nature’ in early modern democratic thought: chaos or freedom
  • Democracy as a continual process, not institution, of self-governing

Chapter 6, The Democracy of Problems: Thinking Desire in Contemporary Critical Theory

  • ‘State-phobia’ and individualism: non-liberal manifestations of collective desire
  • Fundamentalisms, morbidity, ecological collapse: challenges to the ‘general will’
  • Psychoanalytical explanations of collective desire, and alternative philosophical projects of democratic government and ‘rights’ alongside or beyond desire.

Indicative bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis (et al.). Reading Capital (1965)
  • Balibar, Etienne. Spinoza and Politics (1985)
  • Damasio, Anthony. Looking for Spinoza (2003)
  • Deleuze, Gilles. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (1968)
  • Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus (1972)
  • Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment (2001)
  • Macherey, Pierre. Hegel or Spinoza (1979)
  • Matheron, Individu et communaute chez Spinoza (1969)
  • Negri, Antonio. Savage Anomaly (1985)
  • Spinoza. Complete Works (trans. Shirley, 2002)
  • Winnicott, Donald. The Family and Individual Development (1965).

Nowt Press – 13 Assertions

So, I was kindly contacted by Steve at Nowt Press to print a short essay. They’ve already printed some great essays and exchanges about The Fall and more. The printed word is difficult to dispose, transportable, easily shared in its current format, then difficult again to dispose. I’m trying to come to piece together a set of assertions about paper and physicality of the text, compared to abstraction and digitisation of information. So far, it’s resulted in two short stories written in the last week – ‘On Paper’, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of Stimulus Respond magazine, and ‘On Paper (reprise)’, which has no outlet yet. Maybe print it?! The second one is stranger. I’ll put a link up to the Stimulus piece when it’s up.

So, check out “A Brief History of Sacrifice in Digitised Economies: Thirteen Assertions” on Nowt Press. And if you like writing and publishing the strange and unusual, then I urge you to contact Steve at Nowt Press now.