2013년 8월 22일 목요일

[발췌: Book Review] L’Intérêt Souverain: Essai d’Anthropologie Économique Spinoziste

출처: Review of Radical Political Economics, Winter 2008, 40: 130

Frédéric Lordon, L’Intérêt Souverain: Essai d’Anthropologie Économique Spinoziste (Editions La Découverte, 2006)

reviewed by Laurent Gubert (ENS)

※ excerpt:

In France, heterodox economists have recently engaged in a controversy over the appropriate method to counteract the growing influence of rational action theory. On the one hand, the regulation school advocates an anthropology inspired by the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. On the other hand, the convention school has espoused an interpretive approach to rationality and promotes a pluralistic stance that is akin to pragmatic sociology (Boltanski and Thévenot 1991/2006). One of their biggest disagreements relates to the concepts of "interest." The conventionalists reject the way Bourdieu makes use of this concept because they think it is reductionist, but the regulationists accuse the former of caricaturing Bourdieu and of falling into "moralism" when portraying the individual as a "moral being" (Amable and Palombarini 2005). A regulationist, Lordon takes sides with Bourdieu, but in a distinctive manner. Firstm he claims to be a Spinozist. Second, in his latest book, he enteres the debate by challenging the neo-Maussian view (e.g., Goudbout and Caillé 1992/1998) on gifts and altruistic gestures in Western societies. His main contention is that once you discard the fallacies produced by wishful thinking, you realize that defeating rational choice requires an alternative, broader notion of self-interest.

  In Spinoza's thought, self-interestedness proceeds from striving to persevere in one's being (conatus). This self-interested nisus reflects an individual's power of existing. Therefore, in every case, even in that of a one-way gift, referring to "disinterestedness" seems just like renouncing the principle of sufficient reason. It does not mean that 'selflessness" or "altruism" do not make sense as motivational concepts. It only means that self-interest is ever ultimately causative when viewed as an intrinsic drive toward perseverance in being. As such, the conatus is a value-neutral postulate for social science. Of course, it remains devoid of theoretical relevance unless the way it concretely actualizes is accounted for according to the various social definitions of "being." That is why Lordon draws on Bourdieu's conception of "interest" as an effect of the "complicity" between an incorporated way of being (habitus) and the specific type of requirements, goals, and incentives that are mostly taken for granted by those who fully commit to a given "social game" (Bourdieu, 1997/2000). The more one is truly and effortlessly interested in something, the more one is likely to ignore how much the way she shows interest in this something is illustrative of her unwitting ability to further her own interests in relation to the matter at stake. To put it in a nutshell, the more adjusted one' habitus, the more disguised and powerful one's conatus.

   As will be seen, Lordon appeals to Spinoza's philosophy of affects to elucidate the nature and function of the evaluative operations that are often unconsciously performed by social agents, without failing to take into account the variations in the latter's level of reflexivity. The aim is to show that the various forms of "interest"ㅡi.e., the various disguises of the conatusㅡrelate to different mixtures of sad and/or joyful affects and different degrees of self-awareness, ranging from bodily passion to enlightened action. This is a way of amending Bourdieu's social theory by restoring the missing link between the actual motives and the alleged motivations, which are both essential to understanding how individual behaviors objectively partake of an overall social logic. Still, Lordon's contribution pertains chiefly to the field of economic anthropology.

  Indeed, Lordon conceives of utilitarian interest as the least deceptive embodiment of the conatus, and of market exchange as the least sophisticated of the settings in which it takes a socially constructed form. Through a sort of thought experiment, he assumes that prior to the advent of the social, mimetic rivalry must have fueled a cutthroat struggle to seize and appropriate "things." Therefore, symbolic goods are substitute for the latter, and the symbolic realm is subsequent and remedial to the violence arising from the fact that the conatus is basically a mere acquisitive urge as long as grabbing things remains the only means to persevere in being. More generally, formal and informal social institutions turn out to favor the containment and/or sublimation of rapacious proclivities. In this respect, owing to investments in forms (contractual system, monetary payment, serial production of standardized commodities, etc.), market economy has enabled a limited return of the repressed. On the contrary, the tribal practice of the ceremonial gift exchange may have been the earliest social transfiguration of the conatus, under the shape of a search for prestige in symbolic contests. However, for the most parts Lordon does not focus on the question of gift as an agonistic group ritual, but on that of the personal gift as a trick of the conatus. He starts by inquiring how this question was treated in ancient and pre-modern times. In particular, he highlights the contradictions in the intricate medieval doctrine of the legitimate counter-gift(antidora) and also puts forth an interesting reading of Seneca's On Benefits, a text that, contrary to its original purpose, offers a compendium of tricks to maintain appearances. The main conclusion Lordon draws from this work in exegesis is that the conatus often acts under misleading guises and that his social comedy is functional.

  Now, if self-interest always prevails, what are the apposite distinctions to be made? Lordon borrows from Spinoza the one between "passive" and "active" affects. For instance, when men are slaves of their affects (servitude), the hidden reward for their beneficence or generosity toward the unfortunate lies in the soothing of their compassionate sadness. When they are aware that acting selflessly may in the end serve the rational pursuit of a common good, they are no loger under the infulence of a passive affect, but in a state of positive lucidity (fortitudo). In this respect, Lordon stresses the importance of what he calls the "sociation gift." Historically speaking, this form of self-interested reciprocity must have resulted from the ever-increasing insertion of individuals in chains of dependence. Aimed at the maintenance of social links that are deemed productive in one way or another, the "sociation gift" comes close to enlightened selfishness. Yet, it is not based on conscious calculation, but involves a pre-reflexive capacity to weigh and estimate (timesis) notwithstanding the lack of obvious scales. Lordon talks about idiosyncratic "shadow prices," but later on he indicates that this is nothing but a convenient metaphor, because the way an individual evaluates the terms of social exchange is determined by the combinatin of his affects.

  Let me clarify this point by considering how Lordon accounts for the one-way gift, i.e., the gift one makes while knowing she knowing she cannot expect anything in return. Like Bourdieu, Lordon sets forth the idea that selflessness brings specific profits. They primarily consist of an inner feeling of collective approval. This joyful affect is straight and immediate, and thus always stronger than the costly, complex, and merely intellectual pleasure deriving from the knowledge of the interests at stake. People draw pleasure from the belief in genuine selflessnessㅡand therefore cling to itㅡbecause they have internalized a set of social norms that are in accordance with the needs of the group. Lordon concludes that a joyful affect is an interest which is "experienced in the first person" (201). It may be an "altruistic" interest, as well as a "selfish" one, as in particularly the case in the contexts where people are socialized and equipped to behave as full-blown strategists. Also, it may be both. For instance, in the economic sphere of market societies, egoism and greed are held to be legitimate insofar as they are beneficial to social welfare.

  Here, Lordon addresses the hackneyed problem of ideology, but in his own way. Notably, he does not clearly distinguish between social beliefs and common values. This relativism is typical of the critical stance in social sciences, and opposite to one of the core assumptions of conventionalist economists: namely that both speech and action reveal a limited number of underlying "grammars" and normative constructs, at least when social actors strive to coordinate with each other on a general and lasting beliefs. If we follow Lordon, the normative merely screens the causative, and the actors' alleged ethics is above all a sort of functional self-deception, in the sense that it makes possible the functioning of social institutions. The problem is that Lordon cannot fail to be right, for Spinozist theory supposedly accounts for our reluctance to see that we are always driven by "interests." I do believe that a pluralistic, actor-centered anthropology is far more satisfactory as an alternative to rational action theory, not only because it is more accurate, but also in consideration of its higher political relevance. Indeed, scientific social critique is only a self-validating monologues as long as it denies the fact that the people under study are themselves endowed with a critical capacity (see, for instance, how Boltanski and Chiapello (1999/2006) show that critique is a key element to explain the metamorphoses of capitalism).

  To conclude, Lordon's book is worth reading for two reasons: first, because it is a most systematic attempt to devise and apply a broader notion of self-interest; second, becasue it raises issues that no heterodox economist can easily dismiss. Some readers will ask why Lordon does not discuss the abundant literature on "ethics and economics," or that on "social trust." The answer probably lies in the very nature and purpose of the book: an orderly heterodox manifesto aiming at the design of a brand-new research program in social sciences. Those skeptical as to whether a Spinozist framework can serve empirical research should take a look at Lordon's study of the 1999 takeover battle between the main French banks (Lordon 2002)


Amable, B., and S. Palombarini. 2005. L’économie politique n’est pas une science morale. Paris: Raisons d’agir.
Boltanski, L., and E. Chiapello. 1999/2006. The new spirit of capitalism. London: Verso.
Boltanski, L., and L. Thévenot. 1991/2006. On justification: Economies of worth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bourdieu, P. 1997/2000. Pascalian meditations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Godbout, J., and A. Caillé. 1992/1998. The world of the gift. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Lordon, F. 2002. La politique du capital. Paris: Odile Jacob.

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