The Lacanian epiphany of capital


By Eleutério FS Prado*

What we find in Lacan, in the end, is an epiphany of capital. The manifestation of sociality in the sphere of commodity circulation appears as an anthropological determination


As we know, in Seminar XVI, From one Other to another,[I] Jacques Lacan makes a structural connection between Karl Marx's category of surplus value and his notion of surplus enjoyment. The first, as we know, belongs to the critique of the capitalist mode of production and the political economy that flatters it, theoretically of course; the second, it is possible to verify, appears in the understanding of the destiny of desire that he himself develops in his psychoanalytic theory. It should be noted, however, from the outset that the Frenchman reads the German author through the lens of his own understanding of language – not that which can be learned from Marx, as we will see later.

To begin with, see how he introduces the question: “It is from a homological level based on Marx that I will start to introduce today the place in which we have to locate the essential function of the object “a””. Now, what special object is this that deserves the name “a”, the initial for “autre” in French? It is, according to him, the ultimate cause of desire; It is, it is believed here, just something postulated from Lacan's own metapsychology. For, so named, it seems concrete; but it is only a nominal abstract – at least at first glance. In any case, desire, thought of in this way, is not a desire for this or that, but is guided by an “oceanic” lack.

Now, what does an insurmountable lack, installed in the psyche of the social individual, implicitly welcome? In a society where desire is directed above all towards money in its fictitious form[ii], in which capital increasingly fructifies as fictitious capital, thinking about human desire as if it were moved in this way would not be falling into ideology – that is, remaining in a socially necessary appearance? Well, before an answer can be given, the basis of this supposed homology needs to be further examined.

Behold, the surplus of enjoyment originates, according to him, in the incessant search for this “autre” object which, far from being something concrete, is in the psyche only to represent a certain infinity of human desire. For this reason, he states that it seems like a lost object even if it never existed and that – this is crucial – it will not be reached by those whose destiny is to search for it in vain. Consequently, with regard to concrete objects, human desire appears to be not only always renewable – which would be quite reasonable – but greedy, insatiable and insatiable.

Lacanian psychoanalysis thinks of the object “a” as an anthropological determination, making abstraction, ab-initio, of the existential condition of the human being in capitalism. It focuses on social individuals as if they were transhistorical beings who suffer psychically from the evils of the world, taking them at the same time, in a contradictory way, as subjects and as alienated.  

Now, the individual in modern society feels endless anguish because in the world he inhabits there is almost no solidarity – and it is lacking because the logic of competition predominates and infiltrates every pore of society. The family itself, which should be a shelter outside the competitive sphere, is torn apart and increasingly succumbs to the iron demands of this world. The needs submitted to the determinations of this sociability, whether they come from the “stomach or fantasy”, stimulated as they are now by advertising and marketing, are compulsively recreated.

In this historical situation, Lacanian psychoanalysis argues that humans are trapped in the symbolic structure formed by language. Thus, instead of thinking that desires are anchored in needs, we believe that they come from an infinite demand; behold, they were captured by a mythical object that lives in the linguistic unconscious of each and everyone. From this perspective, as a psychoanalyst says, “anxiety reveals a void in the object that causes desire”. Now, this named object is clearly a hypostasis of the genre “object”, to which Lacan gave an enigmatic name so that it would appear to be a mythical object, a determinity supposedly inherent to the human condition as such.

Why, however, does this hypostatic object seem to make sense? Here is a crucial question that can only be answered at the end, after a round of arguments. In any case, as this object is placed as a vanishing point, it cannot be reached. And?

“Hence” – says an article by the aforementioned psychoanalyst – “the infinity of empirical objects that serve to replace this empty place, in a vain and inexhaustible search, in the personal saga of each desiring subject”. [iii] From this perspective, desire no longer seems to be tied to needs, it does not seem to disappear and gradually renew itself with the sequential satisfaction of these needs. Supposedly incited from a fugitive point inherent to the symbolic order, it then appears in this psychoanalysis as a bad infinity always already inscribed in the human “soul”. It is from this perspective that Lacan reads Freud, evidently “correcting” his “falls” into a materialism that, in his view, demeans the symbolic.  

The supposed homology

There is, therefore, according to Lacan, a homology between Marx's surplus value and his surplus enjoyment. Just as the capitalist supposedly renounces consumption to, through investment, obtain surplus value in the form of profit, he also renounces immediate enjoyment to obtain, later, a surplus of enjoyment. There is, according to him, “a discourse that articulates this renunciation and that makes evident through it what I call the function of over-enjoyment”. In this vein, he continues: “the surplus of enjoyment is a function of the renunciation of enjoyment under the effect of discourse. And this shows the place of the object “a””.

But, after all, how does he understand Marx's category of surplus value? It originates, as we know, from the greatest difference between the value produced by work and the value of labor power. This is how it appears in The capital. Now, Lacan captures the surplus value in the circulation of goods[iv] as an effect of an apparent incongruity. See, firstly, how he himself articulates this referring to the market – and not to the production of goods, as would be correct:

Marx starts from the function of the market. What is new for him is the place in which he situates his work in this market. It's not about the work being new, but about it being bought, about there being a job market. This is what allows Marx to demonstrate what is inaugural in his speech, which he calls surplus value.[v]

Consider the consequences of trying to capture surplus value in the sphere of circulation, where – it is clear – it does not appear as such. There, in appearance, we only see profit, an old mystery of capitalist production. This surplus in relation to the cost of production, as we know, has been the subject of many mystifying explanations, the best known of which says that it comes from – or is associated with – the marginal product of capital. Lacan is no exception to the rule.

Furthermore, the French master speaks in a common vulgar way that there is a labor market in which labor is purchased, when, in fact, there is a market for renting labor power. Then, the latter is acquired for a certain period of time, be it a day, a week, a month, etc., during which the worker provides work to whoever bought/rented him, that is, the capitalist who owns the means of production, thus as well as free money for investment in productive activity in general. Marx – please note – does not invent notions to explain apparent conjunctions between phenomena, but, on the contrary, seeks to present the concrete as concrete thought and, thus, clarified.  

But how is it possible to capture surplus value in the circulation of goods? As Lacan leaves this issue in obscurity as is his cryptic style, it is necessary to resort to a qualified interpreter to clarify this point, a point that in the end will prove to be a huge mistake. For Samo Tomšič, Lacan presents the origin of surplus value in terms of the representations he finds in Marx's own text. Now, this is convenient because surplus value thus “arises” from the examination of signifiers – and not from the careful examination of the social object commodity in its concrete developments.

In Marx's exposition, the commodity initially appears as use value and exchange value, but it reveals itself as a contradictory unit of use value and value, a value that manifests itself on the surface of the market as exchange value. Value is a form of abstract work, a socially posed reduction of concrete work that always involves an expenditure of human strength, something that only happens in capitalism. This gains universality only in the form of money – a really existing social form. The money that appears to create money, that is, that appears as capital, is finally understood as an expression of the value that is valued, a creation expropriated from the salaried worker in the sphere of commodity production.

Before examining Lacan's own explanation, something needs to be said about a crucial term he employs. It is known that signification, in structuralist linguistics that comes from Saussure, is formed by the union of the material signifier and the conceptual meaning constituting the sign. Now, the sign is thus seen as an elementary form of thinking consciousness, even if the sign system is already a source of social unconsciousness in this theorization. Therefore, the relational structure that constitutes it as such has the power to determine individual consciousnesses. Going further, Lacan further distances the sign from the referent, breaking the unity of the sign, giving privilege and prominence to the signifier. In doing so, the meaning beneath the signifier becomes hidden, fluctuating and enigmatic, emerging only, partially and even elusively, through chains of signifiers. Thus, he grounds the human psyche in the unconscious – and not in a struggle of consciousness to overcome unconsciousness and alienation.

Having made this note of clarification, see what Tomšič says in an article written with the purpose of explaining the supposed homology between surplus value and surplus enjoyment, as claimed by the master psychoanalyst. The first will appear – mind you – as “a difference in representation”:

[Lacan] grasps [a] discrepancy […] that reveals the capitalist mode of production as a non-relationship between two different circulations. As we know, M—D—M circulation formalizes the exchange, sale and purchase [of any goods, but also of labor power], establishing an equivalence […]; the circulation D—M—D (which Marx also writes as D—M—D', where D' = D + ΔD), on the other hand, no longer posits an equivalence, but a non-equivalence or a difference within the equivalence apparent. Lacan thus speaks of a gap found in this representation; Now, it is within this gap that surplus value is produced. Marx considered the proletarian as a social symptom precisely because he is a sign of the gap between the two circulations, a sign that there is no social relationship.[vi]

There, the magic was done: the surplus value appeared in circulation – and not in the production of merchandise as stated in Capital – critique of political economy. If Marx presents value and, thus, surplus value, as an effect of the position of work in capitalism, something that is implicit in the language of commodities, Lacan starts from this language as it appears precisely in the appearance of the system, that is, in the sphere of commercial circulation. And he does so because, as he said in his Rome Speech (1956), “in the beginning is the word” [vii] – and not action or social work.[viii]

The question of language

For Lacan, natural language is there, but it results from the interaction of individual psyches. He thinks about this environment in which meanings are formed in the same way that Adam Smith thinks about the formation of the language of commodities. Instead of prices, there are signifiers. Thus, for him, the linguistic system is formed through a social process in which individuals' apparently intentional acts of speech produce an unintentional result. Language, thus formed, gains its own structure, becomes a complete reification and, in this way, obtains its own autonomy, as well as the capacity to determine individual psyches. It is based on this implicit analogy that he will say that individuals alienate themselves in language, that they foolishly delude themselves in the torture house of language – a language that does not supposedly spring from social need and that lacks immediate historicity.

For Marx, differently, meaning is a result of practical social activity, not only of the activity of the mind, but also of the human body as such; Thus, language is an inherent product of the praxis that shapes it as such. Thus, by demanding this praxis, language already poses both a demand for adherence and a critical request for humans. It therefore becomes understanding and dialectical reason and, therefore, cannot be taken as an inevitable source of alienation. Lacan, ultimately, is in the camp of idealism on the philosophical plane and conservatism in the sphere of politics. His merit consists, perhaps, in providing comprehensive but also instrumental knowledge for psychoanalysts. On a philosophical level, he provided the basis for criticism that mocked and continues to mock the transformation of society.  

In reading Karel Kosik, to understand the Marxian concept of praxis human-social one cannot separate – nor prioritize one over the other – language, as a symbolic action, from action, as a mere material operation, because they coexist and sustain each other in the process of transforming the world. Praxis, therefore, is the unity of material practice and linguistic elaboration and, therefore, of the bare labor and historical clothing of language. The latter, for Marx, as we know, is the practical consciousness (but also unconsciousness) that permeates social relations in general. From this perspective, “praxis” – says Kosik – “in its essence and universality is the revelation of man as an ontocreative being”.[ix]

Having said this clarification, a mystery still remains: the term non-relationship (non rapport, in French) used by Tomšič does not appear in Marx, as it does not belong to his vocabulary; Furthermore, it would be better translated, perhaps, by the term “disjunction”. As we know, for this classic author, social relationship is the internal, immanent bond that constitutes every form of sociability, in particular, for example, that existing between personified capital and the salaried worker. In this context, the use of the term non-relationship would become absurd.

Now, the meaning of social relationship found in Marx does not coincide with the meaning of the same term in Lacan's structuralist jargon since it refers to certain constant patterns of social interaction, mediated by language, which are imposed on social “subjects”. When saying that “there is no social relationship” in capitalism, Tomšič gives expression to a disjunction because, for the French master, capitalist and worker do not form a unit (as they do not report to each other, they are placed – he admits – in a non- relationship) – do not form, in other words, a unity of opposites as would be said through the dialectical understanding of the concrete world. Consequently, from his perspective, there can be no revolutionary transformation: it may even seem the opposite, but those who propose it are agitated because they just want another master, another lord – he said on one occasion, showing that he would like this master to be himself and not a possible revolutionary leader. 

From this perspective, furthermore, also because the two chains of signifiers (M – D – M and D – M – D´´), mentioned as if they were just “that”, that is, two chains each with three signifiers, do not form a coherent unity, but, on the contrary, they do not relate to each other, there is also, from this perspective, a disjunction. The rabbit came out of Mr. Lacan's hat, as if no one – that is, Marx's dialectical exposition of the logic of exploitation that subsists in the capitalist mode of production – had put this domestic animal there.

When presented by Lacan in this structuralist way, surplus value appears as an effect of discourse, as something that arises from the language of commodities and that was formalized by Marx – not as coming from the reduction of concrete labor to abstract labor – a reduction that constitutes a real abstraction –, through the capitalist process of production and circulation of goods. Now, this raises the possibility of stating the homology as was done by the French psychoanalyst, since the Lacanian surplus of enjoyment is also an effect of capitalist discourse, which, according to this author, expresses nothing more than the logic of insatiability of human desire in its incessant search for object “a”.

About homo alienatis

As speech does not process itself, it needs the support of human action. Now, within this conception of the world, Lacan will think of this support in the form of homo alienatis.[X] This appears as a counterpart to the structured system of signifiers, called the Other by Lacan, that is, as a subject denied as such, but which is still called a subject. It is, therefore, a “subject” since it is constituted through an insurmountable alienation.

In the words of a Brazilian psychoanalyst, “for Lacan, alienation consists in this condemnation of the subject who appears, on the one hand, as (…) an organized one of meaning (…) posed by the Other; on the other, as aphanisis, that is, as fear of losing that desire [which, as we saw, is insatiable].”[xi] Therefore, for the French psychoanalyst, alienation is fundamental; is an irrevocable condition of the “subject”[xii], which is imposed on you through the necessary entry into language; this “subject” therefore suffers a supposed “loss” when participating in this structured and structuring system; As a support that he is, there is nothing left for him to do but make a constant effort – in an always blind walk, possibly – to try to make sense of everything that concerns him. In doing so, he seeks the object “a”, strives to obtain the most enjoyment.

Therefore, it should be clear that Lacan conceives the social “subject” as someone who fully conforms to the logic of capital that effectively thrives in the suicidal development of the capitalist mode of production. He was able to build an anthropology through a primary foundation: for him, there exists and persists in the human psyche an insatiable process of accumulation of “more enjoyment”. And this logic was exposed by him not directly dealing frankly with the social relationship between the capitalist and the salaried worker, but, on a more abstract level, with the social relationship between the master and the slave, thus resuming, in his own way, the content of a famous chapter of Phenomenology of Spirit of Hegel.

To understand the issue, it is necessary to remember that, unlike other animals, human beings know their helplessness and live under the prospect of death; He has needs, he knows he has to fight, he is aware that the result of the fight is, in the end, his own defeat. As he is, moreover, an intrinsically social being, he will have to fight for his own existence in society. As a result, the daily struggle that he fights and has to fight becomes dramatic since he not only wants to live, but he has to live and fulfill himself, projecting himself into the future in his own way and according to his will. His needs come not only from his stomach, but also from belonging, always surrounded by fantasies.

Hegel, at this moment in his dialectical exposition in Phenomenology of Spirit, deals with a contradiction that persists in pre-modern and modern society: the human being, as a moment of development of the Spirit, through work and language, fights and has to fight not one, but two simultaneous struggles: for survival and by recognition: natural individual and corporate being are in contradiction. Being alive and being part of society are initial conditions for helplessness to be counteracted. In the Hegelian allegory, the overlap and mutual dependence of two crucial oppositions are presented, that of “life versus death” and that of “freedom versus slavery”. And they are contradictory: the simple option for life in conditions of need implies the loss of freedom; the option for a possible heroic death appears as a condition for him to become a subject recognized as such, someone who affects his own destiny.

In the original scene, there is a confrontation between two self-consciousnesses, one of them, the one that chooses life, will be the slave and the other, the one that chooses death if necessary, will become the master. In this fight, both survive because the first chooses to assume the condition of captive. In other words, the one who will give rise to the slave, to guarantee its own existence, “chooses” the loss of freedom. The one who will become the master, however, also ends up not gaining freedom because she starts to depend on slavery to survive. The result, therefore, is a double frustration of the subject's existential condition: the struggle under the condition of scarcity implies the loss of freedom for both social actors - that is, they remain in the condition of subjects, that is, of mere “subjects”.

In this purely Hegelian context, domination and the “exploitation of man by man” appear to be a dead end. However, hope remains, because the slave works, not only works, but suffers existentially. As he does not work alone, but collectively, together with others, he can transform his subjection into struggle. Together, then, those who work and suffer can wage a struggle for recognition, that is, for the realization of equality, freedom and emancipation. Only collectively, in solidarity, can human beings take good care of their helplessness, becoming possible subjects.

Now, already in the original formulation, individuals are present, only individuals as such, even if as social individuals. Hence the impasse. In the plot presented there, Lacan introduces the logic of infinite development that does not appear in it and that Marx presented as inherent to the movement of the “automatic subject”.[xiii] capital. And he does so by taking object a from his own head. In doing so, he subtly transforms Hegel's allegory.

This is why he considers the human himself not as a being governed by necessity, but as a needy, inherently unlimited and compulsive “subject”. In his reading, whoever becomes a slave does not give up enjoyment, but has to fight for more enjoyment under disadvantageous conditions. To this end, he starts working for others in the present and in the future. The second, still in Lacan's reading, renounces jouissance, but, having conquered the position of master, he will be able to obtain more jouissance in much more favorable conditions, even if he continually frustrates himself.

What must be clear, therefore, is that in neither case can alienation be overcome. Because, the logic of infinite development that now lives in the psyche of both, slave and master, or rather, capitalist and worker, remains active. Noting that where it is simply written subject it should be read “subject”, see what Tomšič says: “Lacan, consequently, seems to complain that it is not just a homology between two surpluses, but also the subject itself: the subject of capitalism is the same as the subject of the signifier”, [xiv] that is, of language understood as a systemic web of signifiers. Yes, it does seem that way, but only because this “subject” is the homo alienatis constructed by Lacan's own metapsychology.  

The ocean shortage

Therefore, the time has come to show what an “oceanic” lack justifies: that which comes to deny it without ever denying it – but which, on the contrary, operates to sustain and replace it. Lacan himself presented this subject-process that prevails in the economic system of capital through what he called capitalist discourse. Capital in this discourse will appear as money-capital, that is, in a fetishized way, because it is apprehended only as it appears in the circulation of goods, especially in contemporary capitalism. And the object “a”, consequently, appears there as a transfiguration of the intrinsic logic of capital that is realized through the consumption of an infinite sequence of goods. And this is possible because Lacan previously reified what goes against helplessness, a condition that the individualist sociability of capital feeds – that is, satisfies and recreates at a higher level – continually.     

The capitalist discourse[xv], whose diagram is below, presents itself as a closed circuit in which a logic of infinite development is inscribed: the consumer drives the money-capital towards investment; this drives the production function which, in the form of a factory, produces new things; This allows new goods and services (gadgets) to constantly appear on the market, which are continually purchased by the consumer. Thus, the latter obtains satisfaction/dissatisfaction perennially. In this capitalist discourse, the worker and work are formally absent – ​​in fact, work is implicit in the production function as another factor of production.    

The dynamics present there, however, are not that of capital itself, which accumulates indefinitely because it feeds on profit, always on more and more profit – an apparent form, as we know, of surplus labor and surplus value. . The engine of this infinite process of circulation, presented in this way, is not, therefore, the insatiability of the automatic subject, but an insatiability manifested by the consumer in the market to acquire goods, or rather, goods and services as the vulgar economy is based.

The consumerist demander's eagerness to acquire goods and services comes from the fact that they seem to meet ex-ante your desire, but they never satisfy it ex post, since it comes from an admittedly “oceanic” lack-to-have. The English term gadget, used by the psychoanalyst to refer to goods and services that will be consumed in series, indicates that they, as goods, appear only as fleeting representatives of object “a”, that well-invented object that, by assumption , makes desire insaturable.

The capitalist then appears as a servant of this desire which, being the desire of the consumer in general, also represents his own desire; Lacan, as seen, understands this search as an infinite demand for more enjoyment. He promotes – introducing here a Marxian term not endorsed by the great French master – the development of productive forces – science and technology above all, incorporated into means of production, so that an “immense collection of goods” continues to be produced to satisfy this desire .

The hypostatic object “autre” thus appears as something plausible. If it supposedly lies in the dark of the unconscious, it has already come to light in France as a bad Germanic infinity. For, a trivial sequential logic – a logic that mathematics had already represented speculatively – had been critically seen by Hegel as a bad infinite. The American philosopher, Adrian Johnston, then concluded, pragmatically, that this logic seen in bourgeois man was already present in primitive man; therefore, is it not true that Marx, in his reflection on history, concluded that “human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape”?[xvi] Now, in this line of reasoning, going from psychoanalysis to social being, he peremptorily concluded that the logic of capitalism elucidates the unconscious, that this historical form has a transhistorical foundation in man as simply man.  

Now, all of this – and especially this ending – we believe here – justifies the title of this article: what we find in Lacan, after all, is an epiphany of capital. The manifestation of this sociality in the sphere of the circulation of goods thus appears as an anthropological determination. Therefore, the latter presents itself not as such, but transfigured into an infinite logic of desire that supposedly inhabits, as an existential condition, the very social individuals who support it and who, therefore, harbor endless anguish. Faced with this bleak picture, he also presents an office consolation, namely, the “liberating” speech of the psychoanalyst: this is how he treats the other as a “subject” so that capital subsists, even if not in the vulgar way as in psychology of the ego was developed in the United States.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).        

**This article benefited greatly from Jorge Novoa's comments; they allowed a substantive improvement in the original writing; however, if there are still errors, the responsibility lies entirely with the author.  

[I] Lacan, Jacques – From one Other to another, Seminar XVI. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2006.

[ii] See Prado, Eleutério F. S. – From gold money to fictitious money. In: Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, January 2016.

[iii] Viola, Daniela T. D. – The formulation of the object “a” based on Lacanian theorization about anguish. Malaise and Subjectivity Magazine. Vol. IX (3), September 2009.

[iv] As well remembered by Jorge Novoa, who commented on this writing with enthusiasm, there are also many economists and sociologists, including Max Weber, who, even after Karl Marx had shown the error, insisted and still insist on analyzing capitalism solely from the perspective of commercial circulation.  

[v] Lacan, Jacques – From Another… Op. cit.

[vi] Tomšič, Samo – Homology: Marx and Lacan. In: Journal of the Jan van Eyck Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 2012, p. 98-113.

[vii] Here is what it says: “We start from the action of the word insofar as it is what establishes man in his authenticity, or rather, we apprehend it in the absolute original position according to which “in the beginning was the word…” of Gospel IV, which “Faust's action cannot contradict, because this action of the verb is coextensive with it and renews its creation every day. See Lacan, Jacques – Discours du Rome – Sur la parole et le langage.

[viii] According to Fougeyrollas, a critic of Lacanism who wrote in the 1970s, this means that, for him, “theory comes before practice”, which, evidently, contradicts a fundamental thesis of historical materialism in its original formulation. See Fougeyrollas, Pierre – L'obscurantisme contemporain – Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Althusser. Paris: Spag-Papyrus, 1980.   

[ix] Kosik, Karel – Dialectic of concrete. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969, p. 202.

[X] Prado, Eleutério F. S. – The construction of homo alienatis. Article posted on the portal the earth is round in 03 / 09 / 2023.

[xi] Barros, Douglas R. – Oh, how delicious this alienation is! In: The cradle – a psychoanalysis magazine, 12/12/2021.

[xii] As Jorge Novoa says in his commentary, the real subject subject, that is, the salaried worker, did not necessarily adopt La Boétie's “voluntary servitude”.

[xiii] In his comment, Jorge Novoa recalls that capital, even though it is determining and, therefore, not determined, is also not a true subject because it does not have its own consciousness. It is pure action that unfolds under the language of commodities.

[xiv] Tomšič, Samo – Homology… Op.cit.

[xv] The capitalist's speech was presented as an addition to four others, supposedly more basic, in the writing Du discours psychanalytique, which was read by Jacques Lacan at the University of Milan on 12/05/1972. As we know, he called the primary discourses of the master, the university, the hysteric and psychoanalysis.

[xvi] See Johnston, Adrian – The plumbing of political economy: Marxism and Psychoanalysis down the toilet. In: Psychoanalysis and the mind-body problem. Ed. Jon Mills. New York: Routledge, 2022. A critique of this author's theses can be found in the article “Marx with Lacan” by Adrian Johnston, which is published at -lacan-de-adrian-johnston/

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