The Infinity of Desire and Wealth II



Approximation of two fields of knowledge involved in the investigation of the relationship between psyche and capitalism


In a previous article, posted on the website the earth is round, the relationship between these two infinitudes was discussed a little by examining their encounter in The politics Aristotle and Freud through Marcuse de eros and civilization. This is where we need to go further.

As is known, already in Freud one finds a persistent tendency to put history between parentheses in the characterization of the psyche; in his investigation of the causes of the evils of the mind, he seeks to find anthropological invariants. When you read, for example, your Beyond the pleasure bases, it is clearly seen that the text is developed around the issue of finding principles that account for the complexity of human behavior. As the evils that affect social individuals appear as conflicts, the principles sought are always dual and they inexorably imply a struggle of opposites – strictly speaking, not dialectic. Furthermore, they are always based on the opposition between life and death.

Here is what is said in the work consulted: “We start from a clear separation between instincts of the Self = death instincts and sexual instincts = life instincts. We included the so-called conservation instincts among those of death, something that we have now rectified. From the beginning, our conception was dualistic and today it is more clearly dualistic than before (…) we now call the opposites (…) life and death instincts”.

In this text, as is known, Freud associates the life and death drives, respectively, with the allegorical figures of Eros and Thanatos. The pulse of life responds to pleasure. The death drive exists and is shown through the action of repetition that causes displeasure: behold, “in psychic life” – he says – “there really is a compulsion to repeat that surpasses the principle of pleasure”. And it demonstrates, according to him, that “the goal of all life is death”. In other words, if the organism came from the inanimate and is there alive, it has as its goal to return to the inanimate. What, ultimately, the life principle can do in the course of existence is to open up alternatives for social individuals, thus creating for them a path of their own to death.

It is interesting here to point out that, in Freud's formulation, the logic that presides over repetition is qualitative and that, therefore, it is not strictly of the nature of the bad Hegelian infinite – although it is not also a good infinite. As is known, this philosopher associates this notion with the limited and unlimited progressions found in mathematics. The repetition of behavior thus envisaged implies an apparent replacement of the same, always in the same way, constituting an identity that persists; however, in fact, as this “same” unfolds in a time that is not “spatialized”, it poses and cannot fail to pose, inexorably, qualitative differences. Drives, thus thought, can be captured by the logic of capital accumulation – but this would be similar to what was found in Aristotle and Marx. An innovation, however, is found when examining certain successors of Freud.

Death drive and capitalism

See what a Lacanian – and Marxist – author is studying. Seeking to bring together the two fields of knowledge involved in the investigation of the relationship between psyche and capitalism, Adrian Johnston also conceives drives as transhistorical “forces”. “My own view of the interface of Marxism with psychoanalysis does not amount to a simple and direct historicization of the latter – specifically, it does not maintain the thesis according to which the impulses of the libidinal economy are just and solely socio-historical creations of political economy. of capitalism”.[I]

Now, it can also be seen here that this author is also looking for a founding anthropology, bias that Bento Prado, in his book Hegel and Lacan,[ii] found in Lacan himself. Now, this justification has a very high cost; it leads him to face a difficulty, or even an insurmountable barrier, since he wants to reconcile an author who thinks of the human with a fixed bias with a rigorous dialectical author who thinks of it in the process of becoming.

Note for the time being how this author seeks to reconcile these different ways of thinking: for Johnson, the human way of being is – yes, to a certain extent – ​​influenced by historical conditions. But these are only external and juxtaposed to what is not influenced by temporality.

“[T]his thesis, stated more precisely, is that the distinguishing features of capitalism – centering human life around exchange value and the generation of surplus value (as this was presented in Marx's critique of economics) politics) – introduces, as it were, a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind between premodern and modern libidinal configurations – though this is arguably such a difference in degree as to approach a difference in kind. ”.[iii]

Therefore, the historical emergence of capitalism in this stated view seems to have a solid support point in the very way of being of social individuals. Behold, they themselves are governed by a principle of infinity that may or may not be constrained in the course of humanity's evolution.

The passage from pre-modern society to modern society, according to Adrian Johnston, engenders a difference in the drive's way of acting, but this difference does not amount to a qualitative change; differently, it is a difference of degree; but it turns out to be a change of degree so great that it is, according to him, almost a qualitative difference. If in pre-modernity, desires were strongly constrained by the then prevailing institutions and even by the modes of production (slavery and feudalism) and, in modernity they started to open up to infinity; they passed, therefore, from a cloistered ambition to an infinite greed.

And the reason for this transformation was the historical passage from a society in which capital (in the form of commercial capital and interest-bearing capital) existed only in the interstices of the production of consumer goods, be it slave or feudal, to a society in which it (now in the form of industrial capital and finance capital) is at the heart of generalized commodity production.

Behold, the capital relation as such constitutes the capitalist mode of production. And merchandise, as we know, are use values, consumer goods, destined for markets and which therefore acquire exchange values. In its infinite journey, capital makes use of the commodity as a transitory form to realize itself above all as money in search of more money. In Hegel's language, the capital that existed in itself in medieval and ancient society it became if in modern society. For this to have been possible, the human psyche has to give, for better or worse, support to the capital relation. According to the conception of drive defended by Johnston, it not only supports, but proves to be well suited to fulfill this “task”.

It seems sensible to think that the human being has a distinctive character in relation to other animals: he speaks, he is a being that constitutes himself, expresses himself and realizes himself through language. Therefore, he does not have mere instincts that remain constant, but his power comes to the fore and becomes an act, necessarily, in this environment: the human being is and is in the world of words even if he comes into contact with the outside world - or or to society and socialized nature – also through its own body and concrete activity – praxis. What does not seem sensible is wanting to reconcile Marx's subject in becoming with the withered subject - alienated ad perpetuam – of Lacanism. As Paulo Arantes warns, “the dialectic does not recognize any first and irreducible configuration, as seems to be the drama of alienation reflected in Lacan's mirror”.[iv]

The drive according to Lacan

To better explore the concept of drive in the French psychoanalyst – here if we rely on Adrian Johnston's exposition – it is necessary to start with Freud. The drive, according to this author, is a complex that develops while maintaining four moments or four dimensions. In his crucial 1915 essay, Drives and their vicissitudes, Freud indicates that the drive is, by definition, a combination of elements that he calls “source” (Which), "pressure" (Urge), "goal" (Objective), and “object” (Object). In the same essay, he notes that the drive (Drive) has to be thought of as the result of a process of socialization of the speaking being, of his necessary entry into the world of language, placing himself from then on between the somatic and the psychic. In this investigation only the last two elements need be explicitly considered.

In this perspective, according to Freud, there is a primordial object that attracts the drive, that acts in the unconscious, that constantly incites human desire in general, which he indicated as “that special thing” (das Ding). As such, it is an object that effectively sheltered and nourished the child before and shortly after birth; in concrete terms, this object obviously becomes the womb first and then the mother's lap and breasts.

After the child grows up, after he has gradually acquired the capacity for language, he continues to look for this object and will do so all his life as if it were an ideal model of satisfaction. However, what appears to him as something sublime is lost forever; for, now, the infant can only effectively seek substitute objects that will never bring him the satisfaction sought in its fullness. But in this way, the now subject – which is not, as we know, the Cartesian subject – goes through life itself in a troubled way, with ups and downs.

It is necessary to note at this point how Lacan thought about this constitutive attribute of the human, which appears to be fundamental from the point of view of psychoanalysis. Johnston explains that the French psychoanalyst conceived this special thing (das Ding) with a duplicity: he then selected what would be supposedly abstract and timeless in the concrete things sought throughout the subject’s life and called it “object a” (where “a” is a mathematized indicative of the word “autre” in French). Note that he would have called it “object x” if he had considered it as an unknown. Calling it “a” makes it appear as something well defined, as a crucial “parameter”, or even as an apparently perfect analytical notion.

Here is how Adrian Johnston presents it: “Although dubbed the “cause of desire”, object a has the status of an object of the drive – “this object, which is the cause of desire, is the object of the drive par excellence – that is, the object toward which the drive turns. As a paradigmatic drive object, object a is not merely some particular type of material object (for example, a certain part of the body)”.[v]

An important note is necessary here: where, for Freud, there was only an absence, a longing, a “thing” that remained in the past, now with Lacan there is a present absence, a lost object placed as an existing object, which can be even be thought of, implicitly but effectively, as a quantitative infinite. In the words of this scholar of the work of the French master, “object a is the Lacanian matheme that designates a loss introduced by the temporalization of the object of the drive”.[vi] If Lacan presents this object as a privileged object of the drive, he had previously constructed it as a formal category of his own metapsychology. It is understood, therefore, as a central constituent of the structure of the drive complex.

If the quantitative infinite nature of object a, stated here, may seem unusual, see what Lacan himself says when he calls it surplus-enjoyment and compares it with Marx’s category of surplus-value – which designates, as you know, a quantity of value produced by the worker but appropriated without compensation by the capitalist. at the seminar From One Other to Another (16), maintains that it is from “a homological level based on Marx that I will start to introduce (...) the essential function of the object a".[vii] Moreover, according to Lacan, the genuine objective of the drive is the repetition of the same circuit, towards an established objective, but impossible, which has the nature of the bad Hegelian infinite; and this, as we know, can be exemplified by the following finite difference equation: if xt = xt-1 + 1 then xt→∞.

In addition, as is well known, an author such as Slavoj Zizek presented the model of the movement of the drive as the busyness of Sisyphus, who takes a large stone up a hill again and again only to see it roll down a hill, thus adding more work. to the work accumulated in the past, in an infinite way.[viii] But it didn't just do that; he also considered this repeated work – which lacks the sociability that turns concrete work into an abstract one – as homologous to Zeno's third paradox: “we can never cover a certain distance X, because, to do so, we must first cover half of that distance, and, in order to go halfway, we must go a quarter of it, and so on ad infinitum.”[ix]

The logic of infinite evil

Now, what is the consequence of thinking the logic of the drive in this way? For Freud, the barriers that the drive faces to be realized are external, they come from the social reality that is characterized by lack and by the eternal dispute for sources of pleasure that are scarce. However, for Lacan, it is the drive itself that, when effectively seeking an impossible object, creates an internal barrier that it itself cannot overcome. It should be noted here again that, according to the French psychoanalyst, the drive seeks object a, that is, a present absence and, therefore, an object that causes perennial frustration.

Here is what Adrian Johnston says about it: “The object a, therefore, is conceivable as a by-product of the instincts' compulsion to repeat; O a… is linked purely and simply to the repetition itself. Lacan's central point is that the loss of the drive object is not, as Freud supposes, a simple result of the imposition of external barriers to the inner world (Innenwelt), that is, of the subject's instinctual life. Instead, the drive repetition compulsion (Drive) (...) participates as an internal saboteur, a source of failure intrinsic to the basic function of the drives. The drives are complicit in the generation of loss (...) that they so tirelessly seek.[X]

The difference pointed out between Freud and Lacan can be expressed synthetically: for the first, if the death drive seeks dissatisfaction through qualitative repetition in the hope that, in the end, pleasure will come; for the second, the drive seeks dissatisfaction, but constantly obtains another kind of satisfaction, which is said to be unconscious (jouissance). Even if both conceive the constitutive determinations of the human as transhistorical, the human being for Freud is a desiring and dissatisfied being, but for Lacan he is a being more than desiring, as he remains insatiable and frustrated – even if he enjoys it. Here, then, is the first foundation of the tragic man.

Behold, the logic that governs the drive according to Lacan is supposedly similar to the logic that governs capital accumulation. The first results in infinite loss, the second in infinite gain; one would be the mirror image of the other. And it is precisely because of this inversion that the Lacanian drive and capital are suited to each other, as will be shown later on. Now, the pretense of homology that fuels this discourse is wrong. Value in Marx comes from a reduction of concrete to abstract labor made by the generalized mercantile social process. The category of reduction does not seem to be thinkable through the neostructuralist “symbolism” of Lacanism[xi] – hence the confusion.

Thus, from Freud's perspective – even if he distances himself from the tradition initiated by Aristotle and present in Marx – it is necessary to state that there is not only a difference in degree between the libidinal configurations of pre-modern and modern human beings, but a really qualitative. The drive – that is, the psyche's internal struggle to find satisfaction – seeks “that special thing” through substitutive things, but these never prove to be sufficient for full satisfaction to be obtained. That's why the dissatisfied beings that are humans are always launching themselves into new pursuits of satisfaction. And when this quest proves to be blocked or even impossible, they become psychically ill.

From this perspective and apparently, desire only appears quantitatively infinite when it has been captured and is subsumed under the logic of capital accumulation. As Marx explains in the second chapter of The capital, in capitalist sociability, in the external presence of this principle of infinite development, people are transformed into supports for goods, money and capital.

As a result of the very nature of the mode of production, the individuals who participate in it forcibly also become personifications, they need to invest their own person in the figure of guardians of things that have socially recognized value, directing their own will towards these things. The capital relation inverts the relation between people and things, since the latter begin to lead them in the daily practical life of the society that sustains them.

One author, Todd McGowan, has extensively explored the complex relationship between drive (from Lacan's perspective) and capital (from Marx's perspective). To understand it better, it is necessary to know that, for Lacan, the drive is above all a death drive. But it – according to him – would not be above all an aggressiveness inherent in human beings or even an impulse to return to an inorganic state (a simple synonym of death). In fact, it would be a psychic impetus (based, however, on the somatic) to return to the traumatic loss that occurs in childhood of what Freud called the “special thing” that human beings aspire to (das Ding), from which Lacan created the mathematized notion of “object a”.

Here is how Todd McGowan describes it: “The death drive emerges along with subjectivity itself as the subject enters the social order and becomes a speaking social being, sacrificing a part of himself. This sacrifice is an act of creation that produces an object that exists only because it is lost. And this loss of what the subject does not have establishes the death drive, which produces jouissance through the repetition of the initial loss”.[xii]

From this foundation follows, then, the central thesis of his most significant book, capitalism and desire, [xiii] which he himself summarizes as follows: “Capitalism engenders accumulation and promises a satisfaction it cannot deliver. This failure has its origins in the structure of the subject's psyche and in the way in which the subject finds satisfaction. The psyche is satisfied with the failure to fulfill its desire and capitalism allows the subject to perpetuate this failure, believing all the time in the idea that he pursues success. The link between capitalism and the psyche contains a dynamic of realization. The system creates the possibility of a satisfaction that is structurally unattainable while at the same time allowing the true traumatic source of the satisfaction to remain unconscious. This double deceit creates an articulation with a staying power, a dynamic that seems to be inscribed in the genetic makeup of social individuals”.[xiv]

Now, if we are not making a mistake here, the way in which Lacan thinks about the drive creates a theoretical problem, but also an ethical one, since it seems that capitalism accommodates itself well in human nature itself. As Lacanian psychoanalysts think of the drive object as a mathematized object (that is, as object a), they judge the drive as the bearer of an infinite principle of development, as a bad infinity.

Here is how Todd McGowan tries to deviate from a conclusion that seems to come from the unequivocally settled premises: “Associating capitalism with human nature is an ideological gesture, but the feeling that capitalism is suited to the human way of wanting is not entirely true. ideological”.[xv] In the understanding of the critical reviewer who writes here, he fails in his attempt to save Lacanism as a rigorous critical knowledge, as he falls into contradiction.

* 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).

To access the first article in the series click on

[I] Johnston, Adrian – From closed need to infinite greed: Marx's drive theory. In: Continental Thought & Theory, vol. 1(4), p. 272.

[ii] Prado Jr., Bento – Hegel and Lacan – Five Lectures in the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. Zagodoni Editora, 2022.

[iii] Op.cit., P. 272.

[iv] Arantes, Paulo – Hegel in the mirror of dr. Lacan. USP Psychology, São Paulo, Vol. 6, nº 2, 1995.

[v] Johnston, Adrian- Time driven – metapsychology and the splitting of the drive. New York: Northwestern University Press, 2005, p. 184.

[vi] Op. Cit., P. 185.

[vii] Lacan, Jacques – The seminar from one Other to the other. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2008, p. 16. It should be noted that homology presents an ontological identity and, therefore, differs from analogy, which apprehends only one aspect of the compared phenomena.

[viii] As is known, Marx also used this metaphor: “this contradiction between the quantitative limitation and the qualitatively unlimited character of money impels the hoarder incessantly to the Sisyphean work of accumulation. It happens to him like the conqueror of the world, who with each new country only conquers a new frontier”. This is an analogy: there is repetition in both cases, but the logic of accumulation is quantitative and that of Sisyphus is qualitative.

[ix] apud Johnston, Adrian – op. cit., p. 192. Note that Zeno's paradoxes stem from false but apparently quite logical reasoning. They appear because, in considering motion, Zeno considers only space and not both space and time.

[X] Op. Cit., P. 190.

[xi] See on this Fraser, Nancy – Against “symbolicism”: uses and abuses of “lacanism” for feminist politics. Gap Magazine, 2017.

[xii] McGowan, Todd- Enjoying what we don't have – The political project of psychoanalysis. New York: University of Nebraska, 2013, p. 13.

[xiii] McGowan, Todd- Capitalism and desire – the psychic cost of free markets. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

[xiv] Op. cite., P. 35.

[xv] Idem, P. 35.

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