Reasonable ideology? Negri’s Descartes

Issue: 114

Dan Swain

Antonio Negri, Political Descartes: Reason, Ideology and the Bourgeois Project (Verso 2007), £6.99

In the postface to this work Antonio Negri recalls the confusion and incredulity with which it was met on first publication: ‘What could a Marxist do with Descartes?’, ‘Why is Negri wasting his time on Descartes?’ (p317). Exactly the same questions come to mind upon the decision to publish it in English in 2007 as part of Verso’s Radical Thinkers series. What can we, as Marxists in the 21st century, learn from an examination of a 17th century thinker? Negri is less than clear on this in the main body of the work, but it is clear from his postface that he considers Descartes’ thought to be of particular significance for two key reasons. First, it demonstrates the connection between philosophical theories and politics. Second, significant parallels can be drawn between Descartes’ position and our own. For Negri ‘the present and the era in which Descartes’ work was conceived resemble one another’ (p320).

Negri traces the development of Descartes’ thought in painstaking and often baffling detail. He identifies in Descartes’ early work a renaissance optimism that is distinctly lacking in his later writings. The Descartes who arrived on the intellectual scene in the 1610s is portrayed as one very heavily influenced by renaissance notions of science and a belief in our ability to understand and control the world. Descartes’ early optimism was a reflection of the early optimism of the bourgeois project—of the striving of a new class to free itself from the fetters of the old order, and to remake the world in its own image. Negri writes that Descartes was part of ‘the offensive vanguard of the bourgeoisie…the social group that emerged from the first wave of mercantile and capitalist development of the 1400s and 1500s which, in the 16th century, consolidated its power through the parliaments and the law courts’ (p93). His early thought was strongly tied to his class position, and the fortunes of that class.

However, by the time of his later, most famous publications in the 1630s and 1640s much of this had changed. In these works he was preoccupied with the difficulty we face in knowing anything, because we might be dreaming, or deceived by a demon. All that we can know is that we ourselves exist. This existence, however, is merely the existence of a thinking being, of thought. For Descartes our senses are unreliable—the only way we can come to knowledge is through thought. Descartes did not deny the existence of an external world, but he claimed it is not knowable in the way thought is. Since knowledge is confined to thought, science becomes the study of ideas, rather than a project of understanding and potentially changing the physical world.

Negri argues that, in establishing this self-imposed limit to the extent he can grasp and shape the world, Descartes was creating an ideology for his class, to help it move through a period of crisis. Negri argues that the change in Descartes was the result of the experiences of his class in the 1620s, a decade marked by economic crisis. This was a time when the previously smooth and seemingly relentless development of mercantile capitalism stalled, and the newly formed bourgeoisie was thrown into doubt, when ‘the bourgeoisie must step back and abandon the demand for power over society as a whole’ (p116). Descartes’ later philosophy was a ‘reasonable ideology’, a philosophy that allowed the bourgeois class to cope with this period of stagnation, consolidation and regrouping: ‘It was a question for him, on the one hand, of confirming…the nascent power of the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary potential of its action… But on the other hand it was a question of bending the absoluteness of the original position to the concreteness of a historically sustainable political project’ (p322).

Negri’s account is presented in impressive and often overwhelming detail. What it demonstrates most clearly is the important connection between philosophy and politics. Descartes’ metaphysics is presented as entailing a specific notion of politics and social change. It both articulated the aspirations of a class at a particular time and fixed the boundaries of what was politically possible. Alex Callinicos has recently made a similar point about the importance of philosophy to politics. In The Resources of Critique Callinicos studies a range of theorists, including Negri, observing that the wrong philosophical theory can severely limit our political ability to criticise, and therefore change, the present. Seen in this light, Negri’s claims are interesting and significant, even though the connections between certain aspects of Descartes’ philosophy and the bourgeois project could have been better spelt out.

What about Negri’s other central claim, that there are analogies to be drawn between the present day and the early 17th century? Here, I think, he is on weaker ground. Negri claims that the position of the revolutionary subject—the subjective force capable of changing society—today is analogous to the position of the bourgeoisie during Descartes’ lifetime. It is unclear how significant the parallels are, even leaving aside the fact that the revolutionary subject Negri has in mind is not the working class but his own concept of the ‘multitude’. Negri is right that in the current era the spread of global capitalism and neoliberalism is an indication of the ruling class on the offensive, just as the old feudal lords were in Descartes’ time. Yet Negri also claims that we are in ‘an interregnum between the old forms of capitalist government and the new ones of a global governance’ (p320). However, recent years have shown that many of the old forms persist.

We remain in a world dominated by major corporations tied to nation states; global institutions, far from becoming a new form of power, are consistently undermined. Furthermore, while Descartes’ bourgeoisie was a class that could not take power, surely the working class today is more than capable of doing so. What is appropriate for them is not a ‘reasonable ideology’, designed to sustain them through a period of defeat, but a revolutionary ideology.