March 29, 2024

Losing Strategies: Spinoza and Marx

Jason Read

Cover detail of Jason Read, The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work (Verso, 2024).

This is an edited and slightly revised excerpt from Jason Read, The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work, out from Verso.

One of the pressing questions of the present is why so many have confronted the declining wages and security offered by wage labor not by organizing or contesting these conditions, but by adapting to them, working harder and longer and developing an entire culture of the hustle. Why do people fight for exploitation as if it was liberation, to paraphrase Spinoza by way of Marx? Why have so many adopted such a losing strategy? In order to answer this question it is necessary to look at how Marx and Spinoza think about strategy—the strategy that underlies our own actions and decisions in this world, and the philosophical strategies that Spinoza and Marx employ.

Every strategy is situated by the material conditions that provide not only its tools and instruments, but also the social relations that determine its goals and its affective and conceptual dimensions—its sense of possibility. Every strategy is situated; as a conscious intent it is as much an effect as a cause—the effect of past actions as much as the condition of future actions.1 The situated and determined nature of strategy can be grasped by looking at the particular philosophical strategies of Spinoza and Marx. Their strategies can be found in the respective critical interventions that take place in the opening section of Capital (“The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret”), and in the appendix to Part I of the Ethics. These texts are well known. The first has given us the concept of commodity fetishism, reification, and various criticisms that extend far beyond its specific engagement. The second has been described by Althusser as “the matrix of every possible theory of ideology,” providing a criticism of the spontaneous ideologies of the free subject and an anthropomorphic god.2 Their influence on later theories of reification and ideology cannot be ignored. Prior to this history, however, there is the specific role these texts play within their respective books and arguments.

Both texts can both be described as preemptive, in the sense that, as much as they are situated within the arguments of their specific books—discussing the particular problems of the commodity form and of the anthropological-theological imaginary respectively—they come before their philosophical conditions. Spinoza’s text begins to expound something of the human tendency to see ourselves as a kingdom within a kingdom, before developing the fundamental propositions detailing knowledge, affects, and desire which make up parts II, III, and IV of the Ethics. Marx’s text presents Robinson Crusoe, the medieval world, and the famous “free association of producers” before developing the very idea of a mode of production, a social structure. In each case, this preemptive strike is necessary: both Spinoza and Marx recognized that what they were asserting went against prevailing common sense—the prevailing understanding of subjectivity, God, and the universe, according to Spinoza, and the entire economic and social order, according to Marx. They also recognized that the causes or conditions of this “spontaneous philosophy” are not ideas and propositions, not arguments of philosophers, but life, understood as causes and conditions that shape actions and imagination. These causes and conditions of life are where each philosophy confronts its absolute enemy, its absolute outside, whether it be in the form of the entire anthropo-theological imaginary of the free subject and a teleologically oriented God, or in the reified and ahistorical acceptance of the value form. These conditions are where concepts intersect with polemic, where an argument confronts the world, and worldview, that is opposed to it.

What is confronted by each of these texts is less a specific philosophical position, or a figure from the history of philosophy, than an entire common sense or way of thinking. Both the section on “Commodity Fetishism” and the Appendix of Part I address the way in which the world necessarily appears to everyone: as a common sense. Marx and Spinoza are more interested in the spontaneous philosophy of capitalism and religion than the explicit doctrines of economy and theology. This spontaneous ideology is both a product of a particular state of production, a particular organization of technological and social conditions, and the precondition of a way of thinking and acting; in other words, it is doubly determined. In the first case, it appears to be made up of objects—commodities that possess value in and of themselves, independent of any human action. In the second case, that of Spinoza’s critique of anthropomorphic and teleological thought, there is the way in which the world appears, first as something exterior to us—as something that we act on, something that, if it is governed at all, is regulated by an unknowable but human-all-too-human God. Despite the different causes—a difference that relates to the different object of critique, in one case religion and in the other political economy—each text deals with the question of value, with the extent to which the value that a thing embodies, in terms of its worth or merit, is itself a quality of a thing or a subjective state, a mode of imagining. Of course, this might seem like a mere equivocation with respect to the concept of value, a vacillation between its ethical and economic meaning. What sustains this connection in this case is that, for Spinoza and Marx, there is an overlapping sense of the fetish, the way in which an activity is attributed to an object. Our desires are misrecognized as qualities of objects; our labors, in the collective sense, are distorted to become the value of the commodity. Value, the worth of things, the estimation of something as good or bad, is not an intrinsic quality, nor is it a purely subjective state. It is something produced by actions, structures, and relations. For both Marx and Spinoza, value has to be thought in terms of its genesis, a genesis that includes the structures and relations that constitute it, and the way it necessarily appears.3

Despite this convergence, it is possible to see a strong divergence in terms of these authors’ objects of criticism, not just in the sense that Spinoza is a critic of religion and Marx is a critic of political economy, but in the broader sense that Spinoza is examining the spontaneous philosophy of the subject and Marx is examining the spontaneous illusion attached to the object, to the commodity. In Spinoza’s text, the first illusion is that of individual autonomy. We are born ignorant of the causes of things and conscious of our desires. From that original ignorance it follows “that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes].”4 In Marx’s text, the constitutive illusion is that of a world of objects, the way value appears as an attribute of things rather than as the product of a social relation. As Marx writes of the commodity:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible.5

Or, to put it in Spinoza’s terms, for Marx we are ignorant of the production of things, but conscious of their value. What we perceive, or are aware of, is the value of the commodity; what is effaced or obscured is the process of production. These critical and polemical texts have different objects of criticism: for Spinoza we are ignorant of ourselves, of the subject, while for Marx we are unaware of the world of objects.

While such a division is faithful to the overall logic of each text—Spinoza is, after all, a critic of the illusions of the free subject and Marx of the fetish of the market—it overlooks a crucial point of overlap, the nexus where a perception of the world becomes an understanding of the self or where an understanding or misunderstanding of the subject shapes an understanding of the world. With respect to Spinoza, it is not just a matter of being unaware of ourselves, of the causes of our desires, but, from this opacity, that we interpret or misinterpret the world of objects. It is possible to argue that this is a theory of the fetishism of the object, a fetishism that obscures the social relations of imitation and collective desire in the same way that the commodity obscures the social relations of labor. As André Tosel argues, “Before the fetishism of the commodity that Marx has analyzed, and which corresponds to an industrial capitalist society, Spinoza criticized the fetishism of the object of utility, which corresponds to a society dominated by simple instrumental activities.”6 As much as Spinoza’s thought could then be understood to characterize a precapitalist economy, an economy focused on the fetishization of use value rather than exchange, later sections of the Ethics converge with Marx’s thought on a fundamental point integral to the latter’s critique of capitalism. Fetishism, as Tosel argues, can be extended from the commodity to the way in which the economy is perceived to be less a social relation, the product of human actions, than a natural relation, a product of its own natural laws.7 It extends from the fetish of the object to the religion of daily life, from social relations perceived as a quality of objects to the object-like quality of social relations. Spinoza offers an understanding of the affective tenor of this fetishization. As Spinoza stresses, the more we imagine a thing to be necessary and not free, the less we become angry or indignant.8 The more we understand the economy to be governed by its own laws, the more we understand its various effects not as the product of a social system but as facts of life—and in turn, the less we become angry or indignant at its vacillations. Spinoza’s critique of the subject, of the kingdom within a kingdom, extends from this to become an entire imaginary and affective constitution of the world.

In a similar manner, Marx’s criticism of the way objects appear as bearers of value necessarily encroaches on the subject as well. This can be seen primarily in the way Marx fundamentally displaces the subject as the origin of meaning and value. The illusion, the value of commodities, is not the product of individual misrecognition or even some limitation of human consciousness, but is a social process.9 Nonetheless, it is a social process to which individuals contribute while being unaware of the role their participation plays. Commodity fetishism is less a subjective error, a misunderstanding of the world, than a necessary appearance of a social process, a social practice that also produces subjectivity. The fetishization of commodities extends, ultimately, to the commodity that one brings to the market in their person, namely labor power. It is not just commodities, things, that are fetishized, seen to possess value, but also subjective qualities and states that are all seen to have values, just as the world of things does.10 As Georg Lukács writes,

Subjectively—where the market economy has been fully developed—a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.11

One looks at the aspects of one’s personality—one’s talents, interests, or physical appearance—and sees them all as so many commodities, so many ways of developing one’s value in the market. The constitution of objectivity becomes a constitution of subjectivity, as value is a way not only of seeing the world but of seeing one’s own activity and possibility. As Marx describes this process of subjectification, “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition, and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws.”12 The external world is not just accepted as a matter of fact; it ultimately reshapes and remolds the subject. Marx’s understanding of the fetishization of commodities extends inward into the subject’s own capacities and existence as commodities sold as labor power.

There is a fundamental tension at the heart of Marx’s understanding of the constitution of the subject as a bearer of labor power, a tension that has defined much of the history of Marxism in the twentieth century.13 The tension has to do with how much this remaking of the individual into labor power, into an employee, is experienced either as an ethic (something constitutive of identity), or as alienation (an undermining of identity and subjectivity). It is a question of how the person selling their labor experiences this relation. Is it perceived as a loss of self, time, and autonomy, or is it an expression of their desires, a realization of self? In posing it this way, I am approaching the question of alienation and its limits from a different direction than how it is conventionally understood. It is less a matter of humanism, of the supposed human essence that underlies any such theory, than of its efficacy in describing and capturing the experience of work. The concept of alienation presupposes an experience of alienation, that selling one’s labor is experienced as sadness, loss, and a negation of one’s potential. Alienation can be understood as a way of grasping a particular affective composition of labor, a dominance of the sad affects, of fear, frustration, and anger.14 The fact that alienation corresponds so well to much of the experience of work during the heyday of Fordist production explains, in part, its popularity as a critical concept during that period.15 This makes it possible to also understand its decline in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The critique of work as alienating has been incorporated not just by critics of capital but also by the entire field of human-resources management, which has, since the middle of the twentieth century, integrated the alienating effects of labor into strategies of human relations.16 The critique of the alienating effects of labor has led to various attempts to transform the workplace, not by establishing worker control but by infusing work with activities meant to be fun and engaging. The most influential responses to alienation are to be found not in debates about work and human nature in philosophy, but in the way in which work, at least in some fields, has been restructured to offer different sorts of engagement. Moreover, the more people live their social lives in and through work, the more work is transformed from an alienation of human beings from human beings to their only social contact, the only social life some have. It is not alienation that we see in contemporary work but, more often than not, motivation, a desire to realize oneself in and through employment.

What Spinoza adds to this is the idea that this reshaping is not just an adaptation to an external force, a willingness to deal with the way of the world, but is often actively assumed and strived for. If we return to Spinoza’s definition of desire, of the striving that defines every human life—“Desire is the very essence of man in so far as his essence is conceived as determined towards any action by any given modification of itself”—what is striking is that it does not assert determination as the opposite of desire but instead posits desire as an expression of determination.17 It is not a matter of posing an opposition between determination and desire, but of thinking desire itself as a determination. “To be disposed in a particular fashion is immediately to desire to do, think, and be according to this disposition.”18 For Spinoza, determination is to be found not only in those instances where one feels constrained or coerced but in those where one actively, even passionately, desires something. In order to overcome seeing oneself as a kingdom within a kingdom, it is necessary to see the way in which passions and desires are not opposed to determinations but are reflections of them. As Spinoza writes,

The drunk believes it is from a free decision of the mind that he says those things which afterward, when sober, he wishes he had not said. So the madman, the chatterbox, the child, and a great many people of this kind believe that they speak from a free decision of the mind, when really they cannot contain their impulse to speak. Because this prejudice is innate in all men, they are not easily freed from it.19

To Spinoza’s formulation we could add that the employee freely believes that they want to work. What is called motivation is nothing other than identifying with one’s compulsion. In each case, it is a matter of grasping a determination, a heteronomy, not just in those moments that feel constrained or confined but at exactly the point where one feels free.

What is the process by which determination becomes desire? Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton have given us two different variations of this, the first focusing on material conditions and the second on the symbolic dimension. These two aspects are, in some sense, two different ways of looking at the same thing, the same social relation, grasped in terms of bodies and their coordination and minds and their automation. However, they also function in different ways in understanding the orientation of desire. In the first, it is imposed through necessity; as selling one’s labor power becomes the only condition of survival, living is aligned with making a living through wage labor. Wage labor appears to be the only way to make a living because all other ways are effaced. The constraints of society appear less as particular institutions, regimes of accumulation, and social relations than as the way things must be; their historicity and contingency are effaced in the present order. This structural condition is supplemented by an ideological dimension insisting not only that one must identify with their job, find their passion in their labor, but that such a condition is also to be actively desired. Having to work, to dedicate oneself entirely to work, is presented twice, as it were—once as a necessary condition for survival and second as an aspiration integral to one’s identity. To frame it according to the division of work and action, we could argue that work is defined as both production and action, both as the constraint of necessity tied to survival and as something freely undertaken to identify and distinguish oneself. The particular double determination in capitalist society is one in which work vacillates from a necessary fact of life to an object of desire, from making a living to finding meaning. The oft-asked question “What do you do for a living?” vacillates between these two senses; it indicates something of necessity, of one’s economic situation, and also something of freedom, one’s supposedly chosen path in life. It is both what one has to do and who one is. Work as necessity and work as subjectivity, as body and as mind, do not just coexist as two different ways of grasping the same thing but are subject to their own logic of alternation, as material necessity and ideological meaning reinforce and also undermine each other.

At this point, it is necessary to return to the differences between Spinoza’s and Marx’s preemptive critiques, despite their overlaps and intersections. Spinoza, in the appendix to the Ethics, criticizes the illusion of the free subject, while Marx in his section on commodity fetishism criticizes the illusion of the objective value of objects, of commodities. This objective value culminates in the way in which the economy itself appears less as the production of individual actions and relations than as its own law-like structure. The supposed opposition between Spinoza’s and Marx’s critical objects obscures to what extent these two spontaneous ideologies—the individual as a kingdom within a kingdom and the fetishization of the economy—necessarily reinforce each other. The more the social and economic world is presented as governed by unchanging laws that define the market, the more the only possible response to such a world is located on an individual level. One must adapt, conform, become competitive, figure out the best way to sell your particular commodity, your labor power.20 The more the economic order is presented as a set of natural laws, the more the only possible response is an individual one that puts an emphasis on both adapting to those laws, on flexibility, and on responsibility as an ethical norm. As Grégoire Chamayou writes, “Economic irresponsibility and ethical responsibility, the concrete dissolution of morality and abstract calls to moralization, go hand in hand while forming a contradictory unity.”21 The fetishism of commodities (and with it the economy) and the individual as kingdom within a kingdom may have been articulated through two different critical strategies, but in contemporary capitalism they converge in a world in which the economy as a system of natural laws and the free subject are two contradictory sides of the same world.

These two contradictory sides come together in a strategy that is actually an impasse. With only the individual to act on and through, and with a world in which the social has been reified into natural laws, the only possible strategy left to many is to adapt to those laws as best as possible, to work, hustle, and commodify one’s subjectivity as labor power. While this strategy might have its temporary gains for this or that individual, it is a losing strategy, as it further cements capital’s rule over work and life.


Franck Fishbach, Marx with Spinoza: Production, Alienation, History, trans. Jason Read (Edinburgh University Press, 2023), 70.


Althusser, “The Only Materialist Tradition, Part I: Spinoza,” trans. Ted Stolze, in The New Spinoza (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 6.


Alexandre Matheron, Individu et communauté chez Spinoza (Les Editions de Minuit, 1969), 90.


Spinoza, Ethics, EIAppendix.


Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin, 1977), 163.


Tosel, Spinoza; ou la crepuscule de la servitude: Essai sur le Traité Théologico-Politique, Aubier, 1984, 33. My translation.


Tosel, Du retour du religieux: Scénarios de la mondialisation culturelle, vol. 1 (Éditions Kime, 2011), 141.


Spinoza, Ethics, EIIIP49.


Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner and Gregory Elliott (Verso, 2017), 67.


Balibar, Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology, trans. Steven Miller (Fordham University Press, 2017), 199.


Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone, (MIT Press, 1972), 87.


Capital, vol. 1, 799.


Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia (Semiotext(e), 2009), 35.


Frédéric Lordon argues that alienation must be understood as universal in the sense that everyone’s affects are determined by their encounters and relations, but this does not prevent people from making a distinction between being motivated by sadness versus desire. Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital: Marx and Spinoza on Desire (Verso, 2010), 58.


Berardi, Soul at Work, 84.


Gerad Hanlon, The Dark Side of Management: A Secret History of Management Theory (Routledge, 2016), 152.


Spinoza, Ethics, EIIIDI.


Jacques-Louis Lantoine, L’Intelligence de la pratique: Le concept de disposition chez Spinoza (ENS, 2019), 162.


Spinoza, Ethics, EIIIP2Schol.


Barbara Stiegler, Il faut s’adapter: Sur un nouvel impératif politique (Gallimard, 2019), 284.


Chamayou, The Ungovernable Society: A Genealogy of Authoritarian Liberalism, trans. Andrew Brown (Polity, 2021), 182.

Marxism, Philosophy, Labor & Work

Jason Read is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (SUNY 2003), The Politics of Transindividuality (Haymarket 2018), The Production of Subjectivity: Marx and Philosophy (Haymarket 2023), and The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work (Verso 2024). He blogs about philosophy, politics, and culture at


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