Conatus and Debt – A Few Thoughts

Reading yet more Jason Read today, as a way of easing myself into reading Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire. A few things struck me about his discussion of capitalism that help me understand why we go to the lengths we do in order to ensure a certain kind of participation in the economy.

Read brings together two noted ‘neo-Spinozists’ – Frederic Lordon and Yves Citton – to understand the core of ‘Spinoza’s anthropology’, the conatus: ‘For both Lordon and Citton it is the conatus, the striving underlying every existence that makes possible a new thought of social relations’ (176).

The conatus is simultaneously irreducibly singular and irreducibly social: ‘we each strive in different ways, but the direction and orientation of this striving is shaped by affects and the history of encounters. Spinoza’s conatus overcomes the dualism between holistic and individualistic accounts of social relations, starting with neither the society nor the individual but the relations that are their mutual constitution‘ (176, emphasis added).

A particularly helpful insight is drawn from Lordon’s work, to help answer a question that Marx was able to formulate but not solve: ‘why is it that workers continue to come to work everyday, subjecting themselves to exploitation?’ (177). In Spinozist terms, ‘why do workers struggle for exploitation as if it were liberation?’ (177). Read uses this question as a springboard to illuminate Lordon’s alteration of a typically Marxist framework, away from strictly viewing the problem as a transformation of the mode of production and the alienation from work, towards understanding the way capitalism fundamentally reoriented the conatus (178). Read recounts two transformations that Lordon identified: the transformation of Fordism, then of Post-Fordism.

Fordism is most easily identified as a change in the mode of production, the transformation of industrial production via the assembly line. This transformation ushered in numerous related social, political, and economic transformations. Most importantly for this discussion is the way Fordism reorganised conatus away from labor itself (from activity) and towards consumption (179). Work, in its sadness and alienation, became the means to satisfy the joys of consumption. Or, in other words, Fordism reorganises workers away from the active joy of labor to the passive joy of consumption. Significantly, ‘passive joyful affects are those that increase our power of acting, while remaining outside of our control’ (179).

Post-Fordism breaks with Fordism in that it destroys the implied stability of Fordism. Post-Fordism, like Fordism before it, ‘is first and foremost a transformation of the norms and structures that organise and structure action’ (179). Thus, Post-Fordism entails not only a loss of security (job security, social security, etc.) but a replacement of the conatus from one striving for hope (I will become middle class, my children will be better off than I am) to one striving for the abeyance of fear (I fear that I will lose my middle class status, my children will not be better off than I am, unless…). It is that ‘unless…’ that invests individuals in the Post-Fordist regime in which work itself becomes the object of desire (180). Under Fordism, for example, money was desired because it provided the means to engage in consumption, an expression of hope. Instead, money becomes the ‘that which wards off fear’ (180): ‘Money becomes part of the desire for security, the only possible security: one’s skills, one’s actions, will have no value in the future, but money always will (Lordon 2014, 24)’ (180).

This brings me finally to precarity and then to debt, specifically as a strategy to transform the social conditions of work via individual action.

Read offers a reading of precarity in his discussion of Lordon that is quite useful, and helps to counteract the overdetermination of precarity discourse(s) by the European, social welfare experience. He argues that precarity is best understood as an affective concept – rather than as a primarily sociological one: ‘It is less a matter of some objective shift in the status of security than it is a shift in how work and security is perceived. If precarity can be used to adequately describe contemporary economic life it is less because everyone is working under some kind of temporary or part time contract, although these have become significant, than it is because of a constant sense of insecurity infuses every work situation’ (180). I would add as well, the constant sense of insecurity that infuses every non-work situation, especially when work is tied deeply to national and individual development.

The problem of migrant debt is approached at the policy-level in a typically neoliberal fashion – as one of an education gap. If workers were merely educated about the risks of engaging in debt-financed migration, then workers could/would make better choices about taking on (sometimes astronomically) high levels of debt given the uncertainty that accompanies it. Read/Lordon/Spinoza help us understand why education itself is not enough – the connection between the intellect and the economy is bypassed by the affective experience of seeing debt as a means to both ward off insecurity and participate in consumption. Thus the rational calculation that should lead migrants and potential migrants (and, of course, anyone who seeks out student, consumer, or household debt – but my interest is specifically in migrant labor) to consider the very real problems with entering into exploitative labor migration arrangements. When debt can easily match (or exceed!) several years worth of base salary. These arrangements, when combined with laws that require bond to a specific employer, limited housing mobility, and lack of clear legal avenues of redress, lead to exceptionally exploitative conditions, outright abuse, and in some cases death. Debt then joins threats of deportation as a significant source of precarity, even as debt also forms a strategy of striving to participate in national development, global capitalism, and Western-style consumerism.


‘The things that we strive for, those that we call good, such as money, which Spinoza argues “occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else,” have as their necessary precondition not only the encounters that frame our imagination, but the destruction of other objects, other relations. As with the example of money, it is because money has not only been associated with personal pleasures, a child’s first allowance and the pedagogy of consumption, but the entire sphere of social goods, that it becomes an object of desire.’ (178)

‘Capital needs to be countered at the level of ideas as much as social relations.’ (175)


**All references refer to: Read, Jason. 2015. “The Order and Connection of Ideology Is the Same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation: Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination.” Philosophy Today 59 (2): 175-189.

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