The economy of the unconscious – psychoanalysis and capitalism

Image: Alexey Demidov


Capitalism is a socioeconomic system that places the subject in a permanent state of discontented search

What are – if any – the results of the connection made by the last Lacan between the libidinal economy (centered on jouissance, on desire, on the “object a”, etc.) and political economy in general, as well as, specifically, historical-historical criticism? materialist of political economy? Likewise, how to interpret Lacan's glosses on Freud's analogies with the capitalist-entrepreneur who puts an interface between psychoanalysis and Marxism? Samo Tomšič, in his 2015 study, The capitalist unconscious: Marx and Lacan, thus addresses this second question:

Freud does not say what the Freudian-Marxists will later say, namely that the unconscious explains capitalism; he claims precisely the opposite: it is capitalism that elucidates the unconscious. The unconscious discovered in The Interpretation of Dreams it is nothing more than the capitalist unconscious, the interweaving of unconscious satisfaction with the structure and logic of the capitalist mode of production.

I have two qualms about this reading of Tomšič. The first reveals a concern: at least from a Lacanian perspective, I think he runs the risk of over-historicizing the psychoanalytic unconscious. Neither Lacan nor I would disagree that the structures and dynamics of the unconscious are significantly influenced by sociohistorical forces and factors, including those of capitalism. But I believe that Lacan would maintain that the contributions of capitalist modernity to the discovery and theorization of the Freudian unconscious fall into Marx's thesis according to which "the human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape". In other words, the explicit emergence of the analytical unconscious in modern capitalism reveals a metapsychology already implicitly operative in the species Homo sapiens long before the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.

However, if Samo Tomšič understands by “capitalist unconscious” the “interweaving” between a transhistorical unconscious and capitalism, understanding the latter as a mediating socio-historical formation, then this first reservation of mine is mild or even debatable. Lacan himself, in Seminar XVII, gives an example of his openness to this approach when, once again appealing to Marx, he recognizes that, under capitalism, “the interests of the subject” (that is, drives, desires, etc.) are “entirely mercantile” (entièrement dealers).

That is, there is indeed an interweaving between the libidinal economy and the political economy of capitalism in such a way that, within this socioeconomic (and symbolic) order, the subject's libidinal interests are mediated and inflected by the demands and dictates of the mode of production, characterizing this, thus, as an enveloping order in addition to being subjective. In the same way, Lacan, already in the Seminar XIV (the logic of fantasy [1966-1967]), suggests that, under capitalism, the love life of humans is commodified through sexual and amorous encounters arranged through the trade in so-called “market meat” (a point that Lacan would see even more relevant today). considering the roles of the internet, social media and dating apps in orchestrating lust-laden couplings).

My second hesitation about Tomšič's thesis will not be easily dispelled. On the one hand, I agree with him that pre-Lacan variants of Freudo-Marxism (including and especially those associated with the Frankfurt School) tend to err in making psychoanalysis one-sidedly explain capitalism – but not vice versa. Now, Tomšič is quite right that a Lacanian approach, which could be labeled Lacan-Marxism, tends to compensate for this one-sidedness by emphasizing how capitalism explains psychoanalysis. Lacan's aforementioned appeals to political economy show that Marxism is indispensable for conceptualizing libidinal economy and thus confirm this aspect of Lacan's interpretation.

However, on the other hand, Tomšič seems to fall into another one-sidedness. By opposing a Freudo-Marxist elucidation of capitalism through psychoanalysis, he seems to want to seek only a Lacan-Marxist elucidation of psychoanalysis through a Marxist understanding of capitalism. In my view, playing Lacan-Marxism against Freudian-Marxism generally leaves something unfinished. One is prevented from revisiting the way in which psychoanalysis illuminates capitalism after going through Lacan's reflections on how capitalism illuminates psychoanalysis.

Failure to complete the picture is equivalent to renouncing certain insights undiscovered by more traditional Freudo-Marxism. In other words, a Lacan-Marxist illumination of capitalism by psychoanalysis brings to light certain facets left in the dark both by the one-sided illumination of capitalism by Freudo-Marxism and by an equally one-sided Lacanian illumination of psychoanalysis by capitalism.

In terms of a Lacan-Marxist explanation of capitalism through psychoanalysis, Lacan's Freud elicited parallels between the capitalist as such and the accumulator of “libido-capital”. O "qua plus-de-jouir” of Lacan, in particular, showed that capitalism is not organized to bring contentment, fulfillment, gratification, satisfaction or the like even to capitalists themselves.

As in the Lacanian dynamics of surplus enjoyment, in which desire incessantly and endlessly pursues the phantasmatic “petit object”, something infinitely elusive, the same happens with the accumulation of surplus value by capital. You see, surplus value is quantitative and as such is, in principle, potentially infinite. As such, it offers no prospect of an end to its incompleteness and insatiation to those who pursue this ever-expanding numerical excess. There is no economic prospect of an end to this process, at which point a “great and fat cum” would be obtained. And that goes for even the most successful of capitalists, that is, the one who was able to perfectly obey the logic of capital.

However, capitalists continue to pursue this insatiable “journey” as if there were a final point to be aimed for and reached. This indicates that the drive of capital, which is shown in the circuit of D – M – D′, is nothing more than a painful repetition compulsion (Wiederholungszwang). And this fatal drive is similar to the death drive even for the most privileged bearers/personifications of capital.

Both critics and defenders of capitalism often claim that this socioeconomic system is animated by private narcissistic motivations of greed, greed, selfishness, and the like. But, when seeing the similarity of the cycle M – M – D′ with Lacanian jouissance, one is left under the strong impression that the drive of capitalism, the very engine of this mode of production, is something different from the personal pleasures pursued by the enlightened cynicism of cold but pragmatic calculations of measuring gains and losses.

Although most of the Lacanian field I have just covered is situated in Lacan's teaching period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, his fourteenth seminar of the mid-1960s lays the groundwork for much of he says later on the subject of economics as (political) economics. First, at the April 12, 1967 session of the Seminar XIV, Lacan portrays Marxism and psychoanalysis as sharing in common a focus on “economics” in the broad sense that it refers to a latent structure. Subsequent observations in the same direction, made in the sixteenth seminar, confirm that Louis Althusser's contemporary, but now classic – and almost structuralist – reformulation of Karl Marx's work (circa 1965) is the source of inspiration for Jacques Lacan .

Of course, Althusser already draws on psychoanalysis (including the Lacanian type) in portraying socioeconomic structures according to historical materialism under the assumption that various unconscious dimensions and dynamics remain. Furthermore, Althusser employs the interlinked concepts of "structural causality" (blending Spinozism and structuralism) and "overdetermination" (borrowed directly and overtly from psychoanalysis) to capture this social formation "as a whole" (i.e. infrastructure and superstructure combined). . Thus, he captures this whole immanently, albeit elusively, becoming capable of configuring entities and events situated within such formations. This type of historical-materialist causation and determination la Althusser is very similar to Lacan's portrayals of the influences of the symbolic order as the great other (ie the Other) in the formation of speaking subjects subject to sociolinguistic signifiers.

A week after this Althusser-inspired identification of overdeterminant structure as the common denominator between Marxism and psychoanalysis, at the April 19, 1967 session of the Seminar XIV, Lacan talks about the economy of the psychoanalytical unconscious. He states that “the value of jouissance… is at the origin of the economy of the unconscious” (la valeur de jouissance… est au principe de l'économie de l'Inconscient). Then, during the April 26, 1967 session of this seminar, he adds that "the economy of the unconscious... is commonly called the primary process" (l'économie de l'inconscient… ce qu'on appelle communément le processus primaire). Lacan's use of the expression “jouissance value” signals that he has Marxist theory in mind when speaking of economic issues in this context of 1967. But what does the thesis according to which the economy formed by the primary processes of the unconscious organize itself in around "the value of jouissance”, contributes especially with regard to the implications of psychoanalysis for Marxism?

The April 26, 1967 session of the fourteenth seminar also contains some revealing specifications about jouissance made by Lacan, specifications with clear implications for the related concept of jouissance value. In particular, Lacan makes reference to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, admitting that he provides Freud with a founding myth for psychoanalysis.

By suggesting that Oedipus himself is an Oedipal subject who actually dares to transgress the fundamental prohibitions against parricide and maternal incest, Lacan proposes that the tragic conclusion of Sophocles' play reveals the guilt-laden rot, the horrifying rot, of the last fruit prohibited if and when it comes to be seized. Upon being confiscated, this fruit unexpectedly goes from tempting (when inaccessible) to repulsive (when accessed and obtained). The realization of fantasies, such as the transformation of expected enjoyment into obtained enjoyment, does not provide the maximum of intense and purely pleasurable enjoyment with a capital G — quite the opposite.

About Oedipus Rex, it should be noted that, in its conclusion, Oedipus is transformed into an excretory apparatus and into excrement, being expelled from Thebes in a traumatic way. With the rest of the trilogy Oedipus of Sophocles, we have the ex-king who cast himself out floating miserably before being finally swallowed from the scene forever, thus transforming himself into Oedipus at Colonus (in the colon, in the anus). Is at Antigone, one of Oedipus' unfortunate children, Polynices, is expelled from Thebes by Creon to become excrement. Thus, it comes out of animals that eat (and then excrete) its unburied corpse. Now this is admittedly a coprophilic reading of Sophocles.

That said, the economy of the Lacanian unconscious, with its primary processes, is organized as a dynamic of endless turns around a supposed bush (that is, the object of jouissance) as if there were a desire to carry out the final act of really get something from its leaves. However, despite the appearance of this “as if”, the main point is precisely never to consume such promising greens. If the bush is hit, it disappears; in doing so, it is revealed that he always marked an absence, namely, what the Lacan of the Seminar VII (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis [1959-1960]) describes as “the empty thing”, that is, “das Ding".

If – and when – such a disappearance and revelation were to occur, the entire unconscious economy that orbits around the (absent) center of jouissance would stop and collapse. There would be a psychic collapse of such a “market” causing the libidinal economy to sink into the depression of “subjective destitution”. The primal repression that hides from the libidinal investor the truth that the economy in which he participates is, in a sense, a gigantic Ponzi scheme erected on nothing but empty promises of “big fat pleasure, simple pleasure, pleasure that takes place in copulation” brute” (according to the aforementioned Lacan of Seminar XVII). A libidinal investor who went to the bitter end of King Oedipus and tried to withdraw money forever would end up empty-handed or, perhaps even worse, with a handful of shit delivered in place of the promised gold.

Taking into account the immediately preceding clarifications about jouissance as involved in Lacan's notion of the value of jouissance, what does this indicate about the economy of not only the libidinal economy of psychoanalysis, but also of Marxism's historical materialist critique of political economy? At the Seminar XIV and elsewhere, Lacan clearly means to suggest that his reflections on jouissance and the value of jouissance are of direct relevance to a Marxist-type analysis of capitalism in particular. But what exactly is this relevance?

Through the terms “value-enjoyment” and “plus-enjoyment” (plus-de-jouir), the Lacan of the 1960s and 1970s signals the relevance of his concept of jouissance especially for the telos around which the capitalist mode of production is organized, that is, surplus value (expressed in the line (′) that overlaps D in M ​​– M – D′). During a lecture in Milan in 1972, Lacan, speaking of capitalism, observes that "this is all that makes the system work... surplus value". Thus, if surplus value is similar to enjoyment (as enjoyment value and/or surplus enjoyment), then capitalist societies revolve around the incessant and unpleasant pursuit of an illusory enjoyment that is impossible to obtain. The carnival-like market is far from all fun and games.

If, according to Lacan, capitalism is ultimately more enjoyment than pleasure, this is visibly contrary to the image of capitalism as directly and unabashedly hedonistic, a system sustained and strengthened by gratifications, happinesses, satisfactions, excitements of countless kinds and on and on.

Not only the non-capitalists, not only the exploited under capitalism, are unable to enjoy the surplus extorted from them; not only are the consumers of capitalism kept in a state of constant desire formed by ever-unsatisfied new desires, so as to keep them moving relentlessly along the endless chain from purchase to purchase, with no purchased commodity delivering the advertised satisfaction. . Even the capitalists themselves, including the biggest ones, those belonging to the big bourgeoisie, prostrate themselves and exhaust themselves in the incessant search for an ever greater surplus value (infinitely greater, in principle).

In fact, the consumerist pursuit of the “journey” in the sphere of exchange, in which commodities swarm, is itself an effect, a mere echo, of the capitalist pursuit of the same “journey” in the sphere of production, that is, the search for incessant surplus value. For all capitalists and workers, as well as producers and consumers, what could be called capitalism's "The Thing" (as Lacan's conception of the term "das Ding") sustains all those who are trapped in this socio-economic system, in a permanent state of dissatisfied search. Capitalism makes addicted people of us all. So everyone ends up impoverished in one way or another.

* Adrian Johnston Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico.

Excerpt from the collection article Psychoanalysis and the mind-body problem. Ed. Jon Mills. New York, Routledge, 2022.

Translation: Eleutério Prado.

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