The interaction between Marx and Freud



The critique of political economy and psychoanalysis have never been satisfactorily reconciled.

Yes, it is necessary to agree that sociological knowledge in general cannot do without knowledge about the psychic dispositions of socially situated individuals – and vice versa, it must be emphatically added. And this also applies to the critical theories of capitalism and the human being subjected to the conditions of life typical of this mode of production. However, the two main theories of this kind, elaborated in modern times by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud respectively, the critique of political economy and psychoanalysis, have never been satisfactorily reconciled.

In other words, according to Samo Tomšič, even if the critique of political economy requires a critique of libidinal economy, “the interaction between Marxism and psychoanalysis has always been marked by mutual distrust, criticism and distancing” (2022a). Now, it was with the aim of overcoming this situation that he wrote the remarkable book The capitalist unconscious – Marx and Lacan (2015), as well as, in addition, several other texts published in sequence. Here, a critique is made, or rather, a critical appropriation of the article Labor/trabalho (2022b) in which this author seeks to approximate the notion of mental work that appears in A dream interpretation with the category of social work that permeates The capital as a whole.

Just as Marx established a sociological connection between abstract work and surplus value in generalized commodity production to explain the dynamics of capital accumulation, Freud would have presented, according to him, a psychological connection between mental work and enjoyment (still under the name of pleasure). to explain the psychic dynamics of individuals in social life. Thus, in this perspective, Tomšič states in the article under discussion that “the mental process can and should be seen as productive work”. According to him, the father of psychoanalysis would have equated “thought and work”, thus formulating a “theory of the work of the unconscious”.

Now, this approximation depends on a controversial assumption: Freud, according to him, when entering this path, would have “stumbled upon the problematic of abstract work”. It will be? Here it will be argued that this conjecture is untenable. However, even if this background homology cannot be considered true, this note seeks to show that a large part of his central thesis seems quite interesting.

In any case, the argument set out in the text under study states that, in The interpretation of dreams, the fulfillment of desires and the pursuit of pleasure appear as inherent results of a mental activity that Freud calls work: “the work of the unconscious” – he says – “creates the conditions of possibility for the satisfaction of unconscious desires”. More than that: “the work [of the unconscious] in the dream develops in a conflicting field; it mediates between the desires that originate there and the mechanism of censorship and repression that troubles the path of achieving satisfaction”. Finally, according to Freud, the work that dreams do (a manifestation of the unconscious) does not consist in thinking, calculating or judging; it only manipulates the existing significant material in thought and gives it a new form that aims, ultimately, to circumvent the censorship of the instance that Freud called the superego.

From all of this, Tomšič draws a fundamental conclusion for his effort to try to bring Freud closer to Marx. It is necessary to quote it, noting its crucial importance in the argument: “the absence of thought, calculation and judgment makes the unconscious mechanism qualitatively distinct from conscious thought; It is because of these “absences” that unconscious activity can be described as abstract work”. In other words, in the conscious mind, the work of the mind would be concrete because there it always produces determined thoughts, but in the unconscious the work would be abstract since it would have the nature of nonspecific work.

Even if one continues to follow his argument, it is necessary to remember here that abstract work in Marx does not consist of “work in general”. For it comes from a real abstraction that objectively occurs in the economic system and that objectively posits work as a measure of value in the world of commodities. The transformation of concrete work into abstract work presupposes work as a genre, that is, as a human force or as an expenditure of physiological energy, but it does not and cannot consist in a mere generalization.

Well, the real abstraction that Marx talks about consists of a reduction: it is about putting an objective measure, something that economic agents do when participating in production and mercantile circulation, without being aware that they are doing it. It is not, therefore, merely a hypostatized subjective abstraction or a conceptual and scientific abstraction.[I] As a result, the abstract work of the mind that figures in Tomšič's text is just an imaginary assumption. Therefore, it must be said that the work that produces the dream, even if it does not have the nature of conscious thought, is also always concrete and only concrete.

Now, this author does not think so, he thinks that the work of the unconscious is abstract, and, therefore, insists on the presentation and justification of such supposed homology. Behold, the work of the unconscious – he then states – always takes place in a context crossed by contradictions and, for this very reason, manifests itself through psychic conflicts. On the one hand, it seeks to create the conditions for a certain degree of satisfaction to arise; for this, he seeks to reach a compromise between the liberation of what is repressed in the unconscious and the censorship/coercion of the superego. In other words, as contradictions and conflicts hinder and insist on constraining him, the work of the unconscious tends to manifest itself in the form of compulsion.

What originates the demand for satisfaction was called by Freud, first, unconscious desire and, later, drive. Due to the difficult context in which it occurs, the work of the unconscious, instead of satisfaction, can generate frustration and even, eventually, despair. In this case, the phenomenon of a “satisfaction” sought appears that will not be felt as satisfaction, but as dissatisfaction, in a negative way. Well, the psyche thus thought allows a counterpoint to be made between the way the mind works and the way capitalism works.

This is how Tomšič takes a crucial step in presenting a supposed homology between social and psychic work: “This inversion of pleasurable satisfaction, this disturbing experience, division or alienation of the conscious mind, suggests that there is something involuntary, compulsive and eventually threatening in the mind. pleasurable satisfaction fed by the work of the mental apparatus. There is, then, an intimate connection between unconscious work and compulsion.. And this brings the psychoanalytic conceptualization of mental work closer to Marx's critique of political economy. There, work is also understood as a compulsive social activity, in which value production and exploitation occur, linked to each other. In capitalism, work brings with it the continuous presence of compulsion in the lives of individuals. It can be argued, therefore, that Freud's exposition of the compulsive character of unconscious work, in its own way, exposes the mental consequences of this universal capitalist compulsion.

At this point, it seems appropriate to pose a question: Freud, as is sometimes believed, thinks the characteristics of the psyche in a transhistorical way, while Marx takes capitalism as a historically delimited mode of production. Now, Tomšič does not clarify this point in the selected passage. Before an answer can be found, it is necessary to continue expounding the first author's theory of how the human mind works.

The philosophical tradition thinks of human beings as rational beings; she thus admits that the mental activity of the being who speaks is centered on the activity of thinking logically. However, this – precisely this – was disputed by Freud. For him, mental activity has a double objective: on the one hand, it seeks useful results using reason, but, on the other hand, it seeks to obtain pleasure (jouissance). These objectives are, however, articulated, the use of reason is not an end in itself, but consists of a longer path to obtain satisfaction.

“Recognition of the dual character of mental activities – seeking utility (meaningful actions) and striving for pleasure gains – is indeed crucial. Both activities are inseparably intertwined, or rather, they are two sides of the same process, which is why Freud's main point is that utility ends up being just a diversion for the production of pleasure”.

The point highlighted by Tomšič is that Freud, by thinking in this way, distorted the philosophical tradition by presenting the human being as a living being who is moved by a strongly compulsive and involuntary mental work. Reason, therefore, does not dominate in its own house, but is subordinated to the impulses that seek satisfaction. The contradiction between the drive and repression – the latter stems from what Freud called the principle of reality – appears accentuated here because the drive itself is taken as a “constant force” that indefinitely demands satisfaction, more and more satisfaction. It is, therefore, a search for satisfaction that never ends and that accompanies human beings throughout their lives.

It is evident at that moment that Tomšič's exposition goes towards showing that there is a homology between capital's compulsion for more work in the social sphere and an instinctual demand for more work in the sphere of the psyche.[ii] Both these "forces" seem to him, in this sense, to be equally insatiable. To take another step in this direction, this author recalls an argument according to which Freud's theory of the mental apparatus presents the problem of a parasitism of the infinite on the finite.

“The infinite is a characteristic that disturbs finitude from within, preventing it from ever being truly finite, making it always go beyond itself. The infinite could be described as a form of finitude that surpasses itself, that destabilizes or disarticulates itself. This holds true for the relationship between consciousness as a figure of finitude and the unconscious as that which disturbs and decentralizes consciousness from within. In the Freudian scenario, the constant force of the drive behaves in the same way in relation to the body, perpetually disquieting it from within. The work of the unconscious is an expression of this disturbance, even its manifestation”.

Well, the premise that sustains this argument is the one that says that mental work is abstract work just like the work that creates value in capitalism. However, as previously argued, this premise is false. Thus, the parasitism of the infinite on the finite is not identical in both cases. In the first case, the infinity of the search for satisfaction is qualitative, whereas in the second case it is quantitative. The psyche is always – it seems quite certain – in search of new forms of satisfaction; she thus creates new desires and new goals, even if at times she tends to remain in a repetitive compulsion. And that makes all the difference; for, thus, the human being poses as a dissatisfied being. Capital, on the other hand, feeds on surplus value, the product of the reduction of concrete labor to abstract labor in the form of socially necessary quantities of labor to produce the various commodities. Capital, as Marx says, is configured in this perspective as insatiable.

In Hegel's terms, in one case you have a good infinity at least as a possibility; in the second case, one necessarily has a bad infinity. The virtuous circle that internally creates its own conditions for evolution and eventual success differs from the vicious circle that is based on the subordination and exploitation of work and nature. The repetitive compulsion that affects and vitiates the virtuous circle of the human being's self-realization process cannot be considered as the normal situation of the human psyche – but it becomes an abnormal situation that requires psychoanalytic effort.

Later, Jacques Lacan specifically called jouissance what Freud still called pleasure. While the first started to be located properly in the unconscious, the second boiled down to the satisfaction obtained consciously. Tomšič reports on this that “Freud already conceived jouissance [Lust, in German] as an essential surplus product of mental work” and that Lacan departed from there to reinforce the homology in question. To do so, he forged a new imaginary notion, the notion of surplus-enjoyment, in such a way that Freud's "enjoyment gain" came to mean a "psychic gain".

Here is what he says about it: “With this move, Lacan complemented Freud's epistemological bet with a political one, in which the critique of political economy came to play a role remarkably similar to that of energetics in Freud, thus adding to Freud's epistemology an even more explicit critical turn”.

The time has therefore come to show how the erroneous identification of abstract work with physiological work is at the root of the false homology “shown” by Tomšič, which in fact was “presented” by Lacan. This is how he tries to justify the conceptual sleight of hand that endows the human being with a drive-subject very similar to the characteristic impulse of the “automatic subject”, that is, of capital: “The silent background of the distinction between abstract and concrete work ( or between labor and work) is again energy, from which the notion of Arbeitskraft migrated to the social sciences and, eventually, to psychoanalysis. Marx refers to this expenditure of labor power in the physiological sense. That this expenditure is a matter of economic calculation and abstraction is explained by the reference to value: production of abstraction. On the other hand, we have the expenditure of labor power as a concrete bodily or mental experience”.

The transformation of concrete into abstract work in Marx has nothing to do with energy. Behold, it is founded on the logic of reduction, which constitutes a measure in general, in any field of reality. Physiological work is the generic presupposition of all social work; it is a necessary condition for the mentioned reduction to be carried out by the social process engendered by the reproduction of the capital relation. It is the reduction that posits work in general as abstract work, as a real abstraction.

Now, it is important to consider, first, how Tomšič characterizes the meaning of Marx's work. It should be noted, curiously, that, instead of exposing how the formation of value in capitalist sociability creates metaphysical objects as is exposed in the section on commodity fetishism, he exposes himself to metaphysics: “The main effort of the mature critical project of Marx consisted in examining the negative consequences of this expenditure of human labor power, consumption, depletion and, ultimately, the destruction of bodies of work. In the socioeconomic context, the double character of commodities – and therefore of work – also exposes a problematic link between sensible materiality and economic abstraction (a link that Marx occasionally called “sensible supersensible”). The impasse in which the subject-worker finds himself in this process is indicated in the double use of the term “all [work]”: work is divided between abstraction and concretion, assuming double status all the time and entirely”.

Now it is necessary to see how Tomšič presents the homology between what supposedly happens in people's minds in Lacan's viewfinder (or Freud as read and interpreted by Lacan) and what happens in the economic sphere of modern society. Note that the French psychoanalyst called surplus jouissance – not enjoyed – “surplus jouissance”: “The introduction of surplus jouissance thus recognizes that the same absolutization of a regime of symbolic abstraction [in the minds of individuals] is at stake in the process analyzed by Marx in the economic sphere. It is a process that ends up producing two central modern abstractions, namely, abstract work (…) and surplus value. The shift from value to jouissance suggests that the modern regime of valorization is also at the root of a metamorphosis of jouissance, since an accent is placed on jouissance in objectified form, jouissance as a privileged object, around which the libidinal economy ( desire and drive) is organized”.

Now, why does jouissance assume an objectified form in the modern age? Tomšič indicates that Freud had already made a distinction between erotic life in antiquity and erotic life in modernity. In the first, according to this classic author, jouissance was envisaged by itself, but in the second, it comes to be envisaged through the object. One dares to disagree here, making a hypothesis. What changes from pre-modern society to modern society is the nature of the object itself. If before it was largely use value, now it has become a commodity, use value and value – in fact, value above all.

As for Freud – and this is very interesting – the way of jouissance is not transhistorical. However, being unaware of the critique of political economy, he cannot be clear about the crucial difference between modern society and that which preceded it. Behold, we have gone from a world focused on subsistence to a world governed by accumulation. Thus, in view of the advent of this compulsively acquisitive sociability, one cannot help thinking that the libidinal realization of individuals begins to take place primarily through merchandise, noting in addition that everything tends to acquire this form in capitalism.

Despite being historical, the current way of enjoying is not governed by a subjective abstraction. As was clear earlier, just as there is no abstract work in the psychic sphere, there is no real abstract jouissance either, and therefore the term surplus jouissance seems like a mistaken invention. If it seems to make sense, it is because the economic system of capital relations, in modern times, colonizes the unconscious, starting to guide it through the fetish of merchandise.

This, however, does not mean that the false homology proposed by Lacan does not contain a grain of truth, as long as it makes exclusive reference to the historical epoch of capitalism: “It is worth retaining a point of this Freudian description of the metamorphosis of “pleasure” between antiquity and modernity. Behold, the emphasis now given on the object is equivalent to a libidinal fixation (drive fixation). This has significant consequences for the problem that unconscious work and social work continually face. When this object is defined as surplus, the impossibility of satisfaction becomes explicit: satisfaction becomes indistinguishable from dissatisfaction and the drive is fixed on the “more” of jouissance, therefore, on its constant increase or growth. The German term Mehrwert (surplus value) summarizes this fusion of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. It also recognizes growth as an inherent characteristic of the object. The emphasis on gaining pleasure or surplus enjoyment in Freud and on surplus value in Marx reflects this shift from the “pre-modern” to the “modern” mode of production of value and its corresponding mode of enjoyment”.

Therefore, it cannot be presumed or affirmed that there is an adequacy between a supposed transhistorical nature of the human being in general and the accumulation of capital. However, this illusion appears in Lacan's reading, in such a way that it continues to be admitted by many of his followers.[iii]

This, however, is not the case for Tomšič. For, conclusively, he says in his article that “neither surplus-value nor surplus-enjoyment exists outside of capitalism”. Both, he adds, “are conditioned by the transformation of work into a virtually endless process”. Here it would be added that the process of transformation of concrete work into abstract work in the social sphere, the origin of the insatiable accumulation of capital, conditions the drive behavior of individuals, even if the “work of the unconscious” never ceases to be just “concrete work”.

Finally, this way of conceiving the psyche perhaps explains why human beings become supporters of the poles of the capital relation, personifications of labor power and capital respectively, in the capitalist mode of production.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Complexity and praxis (Pleiad).



Althusser, Louis. Value analysis. In: read capital. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1975, p. 196-211.

Kirshner, Lewis A. “Rethinking desire: the objet petit a in Lacanian theory.” In: Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2004.

Tomšič, Samo – The Unconscious Capitalist – Marx and Lacan. Verse, 2015.

___________ – Marxism and psychoanalysis. In: Blog Economy and Complexity, 2022a.

___________ – Labor/work. In: The Marx through Lacan vocabulary: a compass for libidinal and political economies. Ed. David Pavón-Cuellar. Routlege, 2022b.



[I] As is known, this is how Althusser thought about value: “value is not given, nor highlighted, nor highlighted: it is constructed as a concept” (1975, p. 200).

[ii] Surplus work in the social sphere is converted into surplus value, which is then appropriated and accumulated by the capitalist; already in the mental sphere, the surplus work required by the drive is supposedly converted into surplus jouissance that would not be accumulated; it would ultimately result in more frustration. The work of the unconscious turns the human being into a masochistic being!

[iii] It is irresistible to set an example; here is what the North American psychoanalyst Lewis A. Kirshner says: The concept of “petit object” is central to Lacan's theory of desire, which arguably represents his greatest contribution to psychoanalysis. It is an expression of the need inherent to human beings, whose incompleteness and early abandonment produce a search for fulfillment beyond the satisfaction of biological needs. The “object a” is a fantasy that functions as the cause of desire; as such, it determines whether the desire will be expressed within the limits of the pleasure principle or “beyond”, in search of an unlimited enjoyment, an impossible and even deadly enjoyment” (Kirshner, 2004). This is how this author extrapolates the historically situated clinical experience to present the human being, through a first foundation, as an insatiable being. Such a really non-existent being is obviously transhistorical.

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