According to the National Review, conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk has recently added the name Baruch Spinoza to a list of enemies that includes so-called “cultural Marxists” Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Derrida and Foucault are familiar enough names, especially to anyone who remembers the political correctness debates of the 1980s, in which postmodernism was declared the enemy of reason and even America. But Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch rationalist, seems distinctly out of place and nonthreatening. At least initially.
One of the things that distinguishes the current panic over “wokeness” from the earlier political correctness debates is that, while the latter was about defending the Western canon against postmodern identity politics, today’s culture warriors increasingly trace the roots of ideas like what they call critical race theory back to fixtures of Western philosophy like Immanuel Kant — a view that was recently repeated in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Now, it seems, Spinoza has joined a centuries-old conspiracy to destroy our Western values with something called “social justice.”
However, if you take a step a back from the increasingly paranoid turn in right-wing culture wars, you could argue that Spinoza is actually a worthy enemy for the Right. After all, Marxist philosophers and theorists have repeatedly turned to Spinoza in the past. In fact, there is an entire tradition of “Marxist Spinozism,” from Louis Althusser to Antonio Negri.
It seems unlikely though that Charlie Kirk has been reading Frédéric Lordon’s Figures du Communisme. Rather than focus on Spinoza’s embrace by the Marxist left, a better question might be: What specifically did Spinoza write that poses a legitimate challenge to right-wing kooks?
Spinoza’s main political intervention during his lifetime, the Theological-Political Treatise, has the wordy subtitle: “By means of which it is shown not only that the freedom of philosophizing can be allowed in Preserving Piety and the Peace of the Republic: but also that it is not possible for such Freedom to be upheld except when accompanied by the Peace of the Republic and Piety Themselves.” In other words, Spinoza advocated for the freedom to think and philosophize.
Given that much of the Right, from Donald Trump to Elon Musk, has coalesced around the demand for “free speech,” Spinoza would seem a natural ally. But, it is precisely in how Spinoza configures this demand for speech, and how he understands the connection between philosophy and politics, that shows he is anathema to everything the Right stands for.
For starters, for Spinoza, the true enemy of the freedom to think, speak, and philosophize is not state censorship at all, but something else altogether: superstition. And superstition is something today’s right-wing demagogues traffic heavily in.
Writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, Spinoza was acutely aware of the way Scripture became not just an authority of knowledge but for politics as well. He was even banned from the small Jewish community in Amsterdam for his heretical beliefs and witnessed firsthand the struggle between modern philosophy and the political authority of religious scripture.
The conflict between the authority of scripture and science defined Spinoza’s period, affecting thinkers from Galileo to Descartes. Uniquely, Spinoza saw the dispute over superstition and reason not as one between rulers and the people, as liberal philosophers argued, but as intrinsic to all political life and, more intriguingly, as a struggle internal to every individual.
In other words, superstition is not just an external power, like state censorship, but is the force of obedience that in a sense comes from within us.
As Spinoza writes,
The supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation, and count it no shame, but the highest honor to spend their blood and their lives for the glorification of one man.
Long before Karl Marx, Spinoza’s formulation offers something akin to a theory of ideology: it’s not as though the ruling ideas are just the ideas of the ruling class, while the rest of us suffer passively under their domination. People actively fight against their own interests, and their own liberation. Instead of striving to be more free and rational, they struggle to maintain their servitude and with it the authority of those who claim to know for them.
To grasp this paradox — that people can fight for their servitude as if it were salvation — it is necessary to understand the connection Spinoza draws between knowledge and politics, which holds the key to understanding the power of superstition. The relationship between knowledge and politics, how we think and how we live, is at the center of Spinoza’s philosophy. In fact, while Spinoza’s contemporaries were separating their method for knowing the world from their way of living in it, Spinoza, in one of his most provocative formulations, saw thinking and living, mind and body, as two sides of the same reality.
Reading the Ethics
Spinoza’s central work, the Ethics, is as much a book about the nature of knowledge, reality, the mind, and the body as it is a guide for how to live. There, Spinoza shows that we are subject to superstition because we are born conscious of our desires but ignorant of the causes of things. Moreover, we necessarily fill the gaps in our understanding of the world with our desires: we call things chaotic because they do not fit with our plans, or evil because they seem to threaten our desired way of life.
What Spinoza calls imagination, or inadequate knowledge, is what happens when we confuse the way something affects us for what it is. For example, our fear of snakes becomes misrecognized as a quality of the snake itself, which we then perceive to have evil properties. Since, according to Spinoza, we always act in light of some end, trying to realize our desires and plans in the world, we also tend to interpret the world in a similar manner, as if all things in it were guided by a determinate end. In that way, things that help us in nature are understood to be the product of a divine plan to assist us, while the things that harm us are understood to be a judgment or punishment for our actions.
It is at that point that what Spinoza refers to as prejudice, the basic ignorance of causes and lack of awareness of our own desires, becomes superstition, a doctrine or dogma that claims to know the true motives and causes of the world. The default in our knowledge becomes a doctrinal way of making sense of the world.
In other words, prejudice turns into superstition when our ignorance and desire are socialized: when the belief in final causes becomes something that people can exploit by convincing others of their interpretation. Prejudice is an attempt to make sense of the world with the little that we know, based on our own desires; superstition is an attempt to organize that basic striving of individuals to grapple with the world with the ultimate goal of gaining power.
Of course, the dilemma that Spinoza wrote about, in which natural prejudice is exploited by superstition, was specific to the social dynamics of a period in which ignorance could be manipulated through Scripture. However, Spinoza’s ideas extend beyond the critique of religion. Spinoza’s fundamental point is that we all start from a point of fundamental ignorance, unaware of the causes of things; the relevant political distinction, in Spinoza’s day and our own, is between those who exploit that ignorance and those who seek to overcome it. For Spinoza, liberation is just that: a striving to overcome ignorance through the transformation of how we think about the world.
“A Good Conspiracy Theory is Unprovable”
This brings us back to Charlie Kirk and the world of right-wing talk radio, podcasts, and TV media — a world full of prejudice and superstition.
In a sense, the entire right-wing media sphere begins from simple desires, often to hold onto one’s status or sense of security in the world. What matters in the world of Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, and others is not the nature of the threats or their actual causal relation to the insecurity we are feeling. What matters is the way that they affect us and influence our desires.
To take contemporary examples, things like mandatory corporate diversity training or learning about the history of slavery in school can make one feel bad. One deduces that the effect (knowing the history of slavery) must be the cause of what one is feeling, so that the specifically bad way we feel about diversity training or slavery can somehow explain its causal condition. Effects are turned into causes. If learning about slavery makes one feel bad then it must be because it was designed to do so.
Critical race theory exists to make people feel bad — and advance the cause of “liberal guilt” — in the same way that snakes are evil. An effect of the thing has become its defining attribute.
This inversion, taking effects as causes, becomes a formula for making sense of the world. The less one understands the real causes of the economic and political factors that have made the world bewildering and threatening, the more willing one is to make sense of it in terms of our desire and the unseen intentions that inform them.
Since, according to Spinoza, desires and intentions are how we act in the world and make sense of our actions, they also become the way that we interpret the workings of the world. Conspiracy theories, we might say, are the secular version of the final-cause frame of mind once associated with Scripture and religion: through the conspiracy theory, we see behind the world to the darker forces orchestrating devious plans.
In this conspiratorial thought, the effect of a thing becomes a cause, and everything is interpreted according to intentions and plans: not only is the “final cause” taken as the interpretive principle, but in doing so, the real effects of material things are inverted to become causes, and, eventually, sinister plans. Following that same logic, the world becomes a series of signs to be decoded — usually by a self-anointed “free thinker” — in order to see the true intentions underlying them.
This actually has much to do with freedom of speech and philosophy. It certainly is true that Spinoza was an advocate of the freedom to speak and voice opinions, even (possibly) conspiratorial ones. In fact, Spinoza, who always grounded his understanding of politics in an understanding of both human nature and broader natural processes, foresaw that it was inevitable and natural that people with different experiences and histories would see things differently. Any attempt to suppress our natural divergences would only make it so that people did the same things, said the same things, and thought the same thoughts. Which would be both tyrannical and doomed to fail.
However, this does not mean that the proliferation of opinions and prejudices is itself good or worthwhile. Spinoza’s political ideal may have been, as philosopher Étienne Balibar put it, “as many people, thinking as much as possible,” but the point was not to celebrate a multitude of conflicting prejudices free to vent and rage at each other. For Spinoza, the point of freedom of thought and speech has a determinate end: to arrive at “adequate,” or true knowledge.
How do we arrive at true knowledge? This happens through what Spinoza called common notions. Notions are “common” when they involve understanding the causal relations — physical, natural, but also social, economic, and political — that affect everything (i.e., that are held in common). Understanding things through their complex and intersecting causal relations is the opposite of understanding things through their effects: the latter, characteristic of conspiracy theories, can find only intentions. Spinoza’s knowledge in common recognizes that the world in all of its complex causality not only exceeds our intentions but the intentions of any one individual, class, or group. This is one of the important points of contact between Spinoza and Marx, of which there are many.
For Spinoza, the question of speech was ultimately about power, understood as an increase or decrease in our collective and individual power to act or think. Nearly four hundred years later, this still seems to be a good way to approach the central question of freedom of speech: rather than focus on the abstract right to say something or not in a classroom or internet forum, it might be more useful to ask how can such spaces be used to spread common notions and help us make sense of our collective conditions, rather than disseminate prejudices and superstition.
Charlie Kirk and the world of right-wing radio are right to see Spinoza as their enemy. Although they are not quoting Scripture, they are on the side of superstition in the specific sense that Spinoza had in mind: they build their base of power from inadequate ideas, cobbling together a worldview that only sees the effects of the complex interaction of social, political, and economic factors.
Most importantly of all, right-wing conspiracy theorists do not seek to transform ignorance but exploit it, captivating their audience with a never-ending search for signs of impending danger. Naturally, this suits them just fine since they are the self-anointed interpreters of those same ciphers.
For the rest of us, however, we can’t let our very real fears and anxieties be connected to imaginary causes. The costs are too high: at stake is our understanding of the actual causes of our fears, and, with that comprehension, the collective power to grasp the conditions of our knowledge and transform them.