It should be no surprise to find that someone as vehemently opposed to Spinoza’s materialist monism as Fichte, should also be opposed equally to Spinoza’s underlying, crypto-political project of providing the philosophy, a counterpart to Sarpi’s politics, that would serve the interests of his exiled community in a new ‘Republick of Merchants’.
Practically all official histories present the liberal account that capitalism and the emergence of liberal freedoms went hand in hand as part of the general process of modernisation: feudal restraints were removed domestically, and the expansion of international trade produced economic growth. Marxism is rooted in this same liberal narrative. Marx saw the expansion of the productive forces of society as resulting from an unfettered exchange economy - ‘universal commodity production’ - and he thought the role of the state in capitalism’s development was primarily negative: capitalism succeeded where the state did not hold back the dynamic forces at work in ‘bourgeois society’.
Fichte’s legacy remains a philosophico-historical alternative to the propaganda of the liberal-Marxist-capitalist nexus.
In his philosophical works, Fichte had already turned Spinoza on his head
The great Spinozist presupposition was no longer anterior to the individual i.e. the Substance, hypostasis, of which man is merely one mode amongst the multiplicity of modes. Rather, the Absolute I became the presupposition and all else resided there. Fichte had superseded Spinoza’s secularised kabbalistic Judaism with a secularised capax Dei, God incarnated in man, the restoration of humanism in the Renaissance tradition of Dante.
What followed naturally from this was a fresh look at the nation state. Again, not surprisingly, consciously or not, Fichte followed the pattern of Renaissance states.
His main concern was to establish economic autarky within defined and policed borders, not as a matter of principle in its own right, but as a means of wresting control from a resurgent globalising oligarchy. This oligarchy had mutated from the former tripartite oligarchical alliance of landed nobility, Jewish traders and Venetian financiers, to an Anglo-Dutch oligarchy which exhibited many of the attributes that Sarpi had projected two hundred years earlier.
Fichte presented his ideas in The Closed Commercial State (1800),in which he postulated the withdrawal from foreign trade, the introduction of a national currency, a system of price controls, the balancing of production and consumption, and the regulation of the workforce — as means of securing the industry and the economic independence of all its citizens.
His comprehension of the enduring tensions between commercialised society and political freedom was ahead of its time. It was his philosophical idealism, rooted in a reading of Kant, and opposed to Spinozist materialism, that motivated his recommendations, i.e. the desire not simply to subordinate the individual freedom of the Absolute I to the external imperatives and needs of globalised capitalism.
Fichte’s argument is a simple series of steps from abstract general principles. His Science of Knowledge (1794) established that a people’s moral status should be derived from their freedom and equality. As such, they need to live in conditions reflecting this moral status, which means there must be both international peace and sufficient economic equality for all to be independent and free from domination. Moreover, everyone should have work, because work, provided that it is carried out without coercion, counters natural human indolence and helps bring our desires and our capacities into balance. Trade, on the other hand, produces war, inequality.
The result of these views was a work in which Fichte propounds a blend of socialist political ideas and autarkic economic principles.
© John Dunn.