The infinity of desire and wealth



Psychoanalysis and criticism of political economy

in ancient greece

Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, certainly knew the difference between the sensible and the unreasonable, the measured and the excessive, in matters of desire and wealth. And this perception is very clear in his discussion of the possession and acquisition of goods under the conditions of ancient Greece, which is found, as is well known, in Chapter III of The politics.[I] Therefore, how is it possible to return to its age-old wisdom regarding a slave society in order to better understand the internal relationship between desire and wealth in capitalism, in the perspective of the encounter between psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy?

As will be seen in the course of the exposition that follows, there is nothing impertinent about this investigation. Behold, there is a line of thought that accommodates capitalism in a supposed nature of the human psyche and it can be contested. The foundations of possible criticism were laid here decades ago.

As is known, for the Stagirite the economy consisted of the domestic economy. From this perspective, he asks himself, initiating a questioning, if the art of acquisition is part of the activities related to the domain of the domus. Now, the first provides and the second makes use of the goods obtained.

He distinguishes, then, in the first place, what he classifies as natural means of obtaining goods, which are hunting, fishing, agriculture and domestic industry. These are, for him, just and necessary. “There is, therefore, a kind of art of acquisition which is by nature a part of the domestic economy, since the latter must have available, or itself provide, those things likely to serve the people, necessary to life, and useful to the composite community. for the family and for the city” (op. cit., p. 36).

In the course of his argument, the philosopher implicitly distinguishes two types of wealth: the concrete and the abstract. The first is based on necessity and consists of goods that are useful in their own right and the means to produce them. The provision of wealth of this kind, therefore, itself calls for acquisitive art of the first kind before mentioned. Note that this kind of wealth is characterized by a qualitative infinity; goods can be multiplied, but none of them in particular can be used, in principle, in infinite quantity. In other words, the consumption of specific goods in general is always satiable.

But what would abstract wealth be? How does it arise? What would your characteristics be?

In sequence, answering this question, Aristotle will mention that there is a kind of wealth that is not subject to limitation, that there is consequently an art of acquisition that does not impose limits to enrichment. He calls the latter “chrematistic”, thus designating the way to obtain wealth through the market. In its simple form, he says, it is close to economics since any good can be obtained by exchanging it for another in order to meet the needs of families and the city. However, as society concentrated in space and became more numerous, simple exchange became insufficient and had to be replaced by commerce, which does not develop without money. And this constitutes the basis of abstract richness, a richness that is worth all others.

Instead of directly exchanging one good for another, commerce began to use a material in transactions that, by itself, was useful and easy to conduct in different circumstances. And the use of this material transformed the way of exchanging: the latter became indirect, that is, mediated. The first matter that received the form of money was some metal like iron and silver. Initially, it worked in commerce based only on its size and weight characteristics, but to avoid constant measurements and prevent counterfeiting – he says – money minted by the State started to be used.

Money is not, as it appears at first glance, just an innocent means of providing goods; in fact, it creates a specific way of accumulating. As commerce provides profits, “hence emerged the idea that the art of getting rich is especially linked to money” (idem, p. 38). And, on the assumption that this art creates a lot of wealth and possession, it has come to be assumed that wealth properly consists of a large amount of money. The accumulation of money, unlike the provision of common goods, appears to be insatiable.

If the desire for goods in general is regulated by the need that goods themselves satisfy, it always has its own measure; the desire to accumulate money, on the other hand, has no limits, it runs beyond the need and thus tends to excess. The philosopher then points out the difference between these two types of wealth, the abstract and the concrete, noting that a man rich in minted metals can, in principle, be lacking in basic necessities. “It is possible” – he mentions – “until the absurdity of a man having money may often lack the minimum necessary for subsistence” (p. 38). It is evident, it may be added, that if he spends a little of his money to buy food, he is transformed from an accumulator into a consumer or a spender; in transforming himself, he sacrifices his infinite desire for a finite desire, simple and in accordance with nature.

In commerce – he indicates – the “art of getting rich is related to money, because money is the first element and the end of commerce”; well, “the wealth derived from this art of getting rich is unlimited” (p. 39). Karl Marx, as you know, in the first chapters of The capital, synthesized this difference pointed out through the circuits of merchandise and money as capital. In the first case, the commodity is exchanged for money in order to obtain with it another commodity, M – D – M; well, the synthesis of this operation is M – M; in the second case, money is exchanged for merchandise in order to obtain more money with it, M – M – D', whose synthesis is now M – M'. In the first case, the exchange is limited by the need for consumption; in the second, exchange is subordinated to an unlimited end.

The existence of money, moreover, can modify the behavior of the social individual: he can become an acquisitive and accumulating being. Behold, certain people then engage in getting rich trying to increase their wealth to infinity. “The reason for this” – says Aristotle – “is the close affinity between the two branches of the art of getting rich” (p. 39). People, some people at least, even come to believe that their duty as “head of the family” or “citizen of the polis” is to increase their possessions indefinitely, giving rise to a new ethos. The following passage is very important for the purposes of this exposition: “Therefore some people suppose that the function of the home economy is to increase possessions, and are always under the impression that their duty is to preserve their value in money or increase them infinitely. The cause of this state of mind is the fact that these people's intention is just to live, not to live well; as the desire to live is unlimited, they want the means to satisfy it to be unlimited as well” (p. 39).

How does Aristotle explain, therefore, the appearance of the infinite desire to accumulate money in the society constituted by the city? He is awakened by the appearance of money, but he is grounded in a human condition that he safely sees as transhistorical. The infinite accumulation of money comes, then, to appropriate and mobilize the infinite desire to live, but what does it consist of?

Provoked by money that acts first in commerce, but also in usury, that is, in money commerce, it is anchored, according to the quoted text, in something of the human condition; something that manifests itself in a disproportionate way. Now, for Aristotle, a tendency to immoderation dwells forever in the human soul. But it is not what explains the appearance of money. This emerges as a representative of value, starting to act as a means of exchange. It responds immediately to the imperative of the growing social division of labor, but its emergence is ultimately due to the lack of means and goods to satisfy everyone satisfactorily.

Aristotle thus discovers a contradiction in the art of obtaining wealth in great society, as Adam Smith will later say. He says, first, that this art unfolds in two, that which is related to the domestic economy and that which refers to commerce. Faced with this conflicting opposition, even if he considers it inherent in the provision of goods in the society of his time, he does not refrain from making an ethical judgment. The first is “necessary and praiseworthy”, while the second is “justly censured”; the latter defies nature because that is how “men earn at the expense of others” and “their earnings come from their own money” (p. 41). The men referred to here, as is known, are only male men, that is, those who have full citizenship in the polis – in this category, therefore, neither women nor slaves are included.

Before moving on to focus on modern society in the light of critical reflections on political economy and psychoanalysis, it is necessary to emphasize a central point. As Aristotle bases the pursuit of money on the desire to live, here it is thought that he implicitly assumed an idea of ​​drive. And by the desire to live, it is understood that living always consists in desiring.

Sigmund Freud

Crossing then a bridge of two thousand four hundred years of civilization and barbarism, one arrives at a new city whose reproduction logic is much more complex than that of the Greek city. Consequently, grasping the connection between this logic and the disposition of the human psyche to receive it requires a very difficult synthesis. The aim here is to cover it, in a first glance, from the classic book by Herbert Marcuse, eros and civilization. [ii]

In any case, this article argues that the Stagirite's basic thesis is true and that it was maintained and developed by Karl Marx in his works critical of the capitalist mode of production.[iii] According to her, the insatiable desire to accumulate wealth, as well as the ethos that is characteristic of it, comes from the institution of money or, more properly, capital. This is what is already found in the third chapter of the classic book: “This contradiction between the quantitative limitation [of every sum of money] and the qualitatively unlimited character of money impels the hoarder incessantly to the work of Sisyphus of accumulation” (op. cit. , p. 133).

“This absolute drive to get rich, this passionate pursuit of value, is common to both the capitalist and the hoarder, but while the hoarder is just the insane capitalist, the capitalist is the rational hoarder” (idem, p. 130).

With Freud, the understanding of the human psyche becomes much more complex and deeper. As Herbert Marcuse explains, if he initially considers a vital drive linked to self-preservation as opposed to an erotic drive, in a later moment, he will understand the first of them only as a subordinate moment of the second, which starts to respond for the evolution of life as a all. In a final moment, he will oppose the death drive to the life drive and both are subordinated to a tendency of organic, biological life, to return to a “previous state of affairs that the living being was forced to abandon, under the disturbing pressure of forces external” (op. cit., p. 42-43).

In Freud's final understanding, there is certainly a duality of opposing forces – Eros and Thanatos –, but his theory seems to require that this duality be understood as a duplicity, in such a way that the drive now figures as the bearer of a contradiction inherent to the vital process, which manifests itself through tendencies and counter-tendencies. The internal and external conditions of the history of social individuals constantly demand the mobilization of erotic impulses or impulses of aggression or death, but the drives, when awakened, demand returns of pleasure – or jouissance.[iv] Erotic drives establish or maintain social bonds and aggression drives break them when they exist.[v]

At the center of Freud's conceptions there is always a struggle of opposites. Behold, he discovers contradictions within his own psyche. Now, as we know, contradictions, now thought of dialectically, guide Marx in understanding society. That is why a central chapter of Marcuse's book begins like this: “Freud describes the development of repression in the individual's instinctual structure. The struggle for the fate of human freedom and happiness is waged and decided in the struggle of the drives – literally a life-or-death struggle – in which soma and psyche, nature and civilization participate” (p. 41).

The conditions in which this struggle takes place are synthesized in the opposition between the principle of pleasure – and enjoyment (perhaps) – and the principle of reality. In the course of human life, the life impulses and the death impulses are not only constantly in combat, but, depending on the conditions, one intervenes in the other, their opposites, in the course of social existence.

The principle of pleasure (and enjoyment) sustains life itself and manifests itself as vital impulses. But, in the face of difficulties, aggressive impulses can also appear manifesting themselves as destructiveness. The reality principle responds to coercion and repression of desires, giving rise to contrasting attitudes that are based either on love or hate, on peaceful coexistence or on violence, on construction or on destruction – in short, Eros and Thanatos.

According to Marcuse, Freud's theory in the course of its development required the formulation of a new concept of the human, that is, of a “subject” formed by id, ego and superego. The first is the domain of the unconscious, where the source of drives is found. Their logic of action comes to be exerting pressure only to obtain satisfaction of their needs (in a broad sense) by setting ends and objects for the social individual. Under the influence of the external world, its obstacles and its demands, the ego develops, seat of the conscious whose function is to mediate between the id and the external world itself. In fulfilling its mission, the functions of the ego consist, on the one hand, in coordinating the person's actions and, on the other hand, in controlling the instinctual impulses of the id, in order to minimize conflicts with reality.

The superego is that part of the ego that develops to guard social norms, to represent the norms established by society before the “subject” itself, and to repress drives. According to Freud, in general, it is the “ego that carries out repressions at the service and at the behest of the superego; however, repressed, repressions soon become unconscious, starting to act as if they were automatic” (idem, p. 49). Here is – see in passing – what generates an elusive feeling of guilt because its source remains veiled. 

To understand the relationship between the instinctual structure of social individuals and economic life, Marcuse presents the following consideration, which is considered here as key: “The principle of reality supports the organism in the external world. In the case of human beings, this world is historical. The external world which the evolving ego confronts is, at any stage, a specific socio-historical organization of reality which affects the mental structure through certain agencies (...) A repressive organization of drives underlies all historical forms of the principle of reality in civilization” (p. 50).

What, for Marcuse, characterizes the reality principle? This is a fundamental condition that he calls "ananka” or lack. Existence is struggle and the struggle for existence takes place in a “world too poor to satisfy human needs without restriction, renunciation and constant delay” (p. 51). In summary, any possible satisfaction requires effort, needs work and speech, implies struggles with others.

Faced with tasks that never end, as long as they remain alive, social individuals have to renounce pleasures, surrendering themselves willingly or unwillingly to sacrifices and even occasional suffering. The basic human drive is to strive for pleasure and the absence of pain, but as this drive is often thwarted by reality, it has to be repressed. The contradictory drive then produces different results that oscillate between good and evil, between virtue and vice, and can turn against others or in favor of them or even revert against or in favor of the individual himself. Unsatisfied pleasure produces the neurotic condition – psychic illnesses in general – or it can eventually be sublimated.

Having presented what he calls the performance principle, that is, the historical form of the reality principle, Marcuse is interested in investigating the question of exploitation and domination, since the ways of solving the problem of scarcity – and of distributing the benefits burden and gains of the solution historically found – vary as the modes of production change. Here, however, the concern turns to understanding an entire ethos posed by the existence of money, hoarding and capital.

In Freud's conceptions of the psyche – and this seems quite right – there is indeed a drive disposition that can be associated with infinite accumulation. For he conceded that a partial drive, the infantile anal drive, can take hold and become the foundation of an attitude towards accumulation in adult life. “So, for example, a person can have the impulse to keep money and other objects, because he has sublimated the unconscious desire to retain feces”.[vi] A thesis that, at least for an economist, seems timid to explain the compulsion to accumulate.

It is, however, a possibility that may not manifest itself in other circumstances. There does not seem to be, therefore, in Freud's understanding of the social being, a constant that could support the thesis that the pursuit of pleasure would be infinite in a quantitative sense, that is, that the original drive would be naturally insatiable. Furthermore, it seems excessive to think that Freud implicitly explained capitalism from the impulses that supposedly move individuals.

In any case, being in principle infinite in a qualitative sense – the desire to live, according to Aristotle, is “infinite” –, the human being is generally dissatisfied because the drives always foment desires for new experiences. Now, they remain so under social conditions which are characterized, as has been said, by want. Therefore, only to the extent that a social form appears characterized as such by a principle of quantitative infinity, the desire to live can and even must be captured by this logic. The human being may then appear, erroneously, as intrinsically insatiable, that is, as a being suited to the logic of capital accumulation.

Finally, we now consider what a very contemporary author – Adrian Johnston – says about this, who is seeking to bring together the knowledge of psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy in an innovative way. Instead of Marcuse, who starts from Freud, he thinks more strongly from Jacques Lacan. in your book The temporality of the drive[vii], he presents what he calls the “fundamental dilemma of the drive in general”: “the drive paradoxically 'enjoys' what it desires exclusively to the extent that it never fulfills that desire” (op. cit., P. xxiii-xxiv). Well, this interpretation made by Adrian Johnston seems to make the drives insatiable.

In any case, here is what it says: “The drives are not repressed simply because they are in conflict with the social and legal reality of the outside world (environment). Even if the external impediments are eliminated, the drives would still manufacture their own repression in order to preserve the phantasmatic forms of jouissance” (p. xxiv).

In fact, supposedly based on theorizations of Jacques Lacan, he states in this quote that the drive itself creates barriers for itself regardless of any external restrictions. She is satisfied (or rather, enjoys) through perennial dissatisfaction. Now, thought of in this way, it becomes of the order of the bad infinity, a characteristic of the evolutionary logic of capital! - it is not? If so, another text needs to be written to examine the issue of infinity of desire and wealth with this author's considerations in mind.

And this is the problem that, after all, I intend to consider in a future article.

* 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).


[I] Aristotle, The politics, translated by Mário Gama Kury. São Paulo: Editora Madamu, 2021.

[ii] Marcuse, Herbert- Eros and Civilization – A Philosophical Interpretation of Freud's Thought. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1968. According to Samo Tomšič, “Herbert Marcuse was indisputably the one who most involved critical theory with Freudian psychoanalysis.” For him, “the libidinal economy within the [capitalist] system was now organized around the mechanism of 'repressive desublimation'”. “From the psychoanalytical perspective – completes Tomšič – “capitalism appears in fact as a culture of imposed jouissance”. To see The SAGE Handbook of Marxism, Vol. 2, ed. by B. Skeggs, SR Farris, A. Toscano and S. Bromberg, London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2022.

[iii] Footnote number five of the first chapter of The capital summarizes Aristotle's thesis on the existence of two opposing arts of acquiring goods: one produces the “good life” and the other generates “unlimited life”; the coming of chrematistics transforms the purpose of life by making the human being an insatiable being because now he seeks an infinite richness. See Marx, Karl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book I. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1983, p. 129.

[iv] There is a complication here, because jouissance (Lacan) is not pleasure (Freud). But what is enjoyment? That which the drive craves and which remains unconscious. 

[v] See Tomšič, Samo – Does society not exist? ou

[vi] See Fromm, Erich – The fear of freedom. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1970, p. 229.

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

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles