the catastrophic drive

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Medusa, crayon on paper, 21x29cm, 2021.
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By LUCAS POHL & SAMOTOMSIC

The capitalist system as a jouissance machine with catastrophic consequences

The apocalyptic narrative has probably been more widespread than any other in modern times. It appears in many forms and influences the character of the present historical moment: there are Hollywood blockbusters, as well as science fiction novels, TV documentaries; then there are video games, blog posts, art projects, newspaper reports, and entire volumes devoted to the topic.

In the first few weeks after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it began to dominate in mainstream media and the general public, as well as in political debates and everyday life in many parts of the world, there came that moment when it seemed like the end of the world had finally arrived. The images of overflowing hospitals in Italy, the blockade of entire suburbs in Spain, the queues in front of gun stores in the US and the empty shelves in supermarkets around the world – in other words, images that most people know for culture medium suddenly began to spread throughout the daily press and social media of all kinds. Suddenly, the fictional scenarios of end-time stories published and broadcast by the entertainment industry over the last few decades seemed to finally become reality.

The “corona apocalypse” started to run and spread on social media and thus certainly captured the spirit of that moment. In other words, it presented a situation so completely disordered that it was hard to imagine how things could return to normal. Although these events had several unexpected side effects, at least for a moment they seemed to corroborate the well-known and questioned slogan attributed to Frederic Jameson, according to which “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

The first weeks of the pandemic demonstrated in principle the validity of this strange statement, namely that it is surprisingly easy to imagine that the end of the world has arrived, without conceiving that capitalism is meeting its end.[I] But the registered environmental effects of the temporary blockade and the economic measures adopted by at least some European states also showed that the neoliberal dogma “there is no alternative” can be overcome much more easily than the current capitalist imaginary judges.

A key motif underlying the apocalyptic imagination is that the end of the world not only means a destruction of the face of the planet, but also, and perhaps most prominently, an end "of social life" and therefore of morality, justice and reason. If there is a lesson to be learned from all these zombie apocalypse stories, which have been told over and over again in recent years, it is that the real “enemies” are not zombies, but human beings themselves.

Of course, zombies are an obvious threat, an external danger, but what now looms more threatening is a hidden danger, an internal threat emanating from other human beings. The basic premise underlying this narrative is that the end of the world leads to the end of the State and the legal system, and therefore confronts men with a return to a kind of Hobbesian “state of nature”, where humans are no longer trapped to the constraints and limitations of society.[ii]

The apocalypse presents a world in which there are no laws, except the “laws of nature”, a world dominated by the “war of all against all”. In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, this vision of the end of society took on a strange reality. Indeed, one of the reasons why it was so easy to imagine the end of the world at that moment was that one could witness a certain social breakdown.

Now, consumers had to fight for toilet paper; in certain countries this refused medical help to the sick; Radical populists like Bolsonaro or Trump were pushing for a return to business as usual. Lo and behold, all these examples suggested that the war of all against all was not in the distant and phantom past, but was present virtually here and now. And this reality was being intensified in the crisis situation.

The most recent developments are no exceptions; they confront us with the end of the social and the rise of the “asocial”. Zygmunt Bauman captured this proto-Hobbesian notion of the apocalypse in a nutshell, asserting that society is necessary because otherwise humans would end up only caring about their personal well-being.” When it happens, this situation would guide individual conduct towards the desert of asociality; it would therefore need to be constrained, adjusted and counterbalanced by the power given and the authority provided by the “principle of reality”.[iii]

The basic assumption here is that society, as a sphere of the social, is necessary because it prevents human beings from becoming non-social beings. When the realm of society begins to lose control of the situation, as it seemed to be happening over the first few weeks of the pandemic, this leads to the denial of the social and opens the way to the “desert of asociality”.

Does Bauman's line of argument not quite accurately capture the neoliberal doctrine, as formulated by Margaret Thatcher's famous statement that "there is no society"? See: is the asocial no longer here, within the social? Is it not already in the very economic doctrines that are violently implemented and put into practice at the price of the progressive dissolution of the social?

Beyond this point of view, the asocial not only describes individual characters and actions, but rather the structural trends and developments of the capitalist socioeconomic order itself. In this article, I intend to examine more closely the notion of sociality that underpins capitalism. In contrast to the tendency to imagine the end of the world outlined above, this path will allow us to consider the asocial not as a counterpart or as something “outside” of society, but as something that plays a crucial role “inside” the social itself. It is only through the asocial that one can properly understand current society – and by society one means capitalist society and the way it works.

While it is not difficult to imagine the apocalypse as a kind of “big bang” catastrophe that puts an end to the social, it is more difficult to take into account the catastrophic dimensions that are immanently at work in our everyday capitalist life. Capitalism implies production for production's sake, and this is how Marx argues. He points to self-sufficient production, which serves no other purpose than increasing profit. Behind the appearance of utility, there is the imperative of the uselessness of work within capitalism, and behind the appearance of the social, there is the dimension of the asocial.

It is argued here that capitalism can be described as a non-social (rather than social) mode of production as it produces “overproduction” as production takes place for its own benefit. Capitalism is a system that always and inevitably comprises the negation of the social and, therefore, incorporates what Freud called the “death drive”. Next, we extract the consequences of this argument by presenting an approach that aims to understand the end of the world as a gradual “surplus product” of capitalism, as the reverse of the economy oriented towards growth and the self-valorization of capital.

Freudian-Marxist Lessons

Freud first introduced the notion of the death drive in Beyond the pleasure bases, in 1920. The notion made many psychoanalysts raise their eyebrows; moreover, it deeply divided the psychoanalytic community. But the “death drive hypothesis” intended to fulfill a double function. On the one hand, it should explain certain individual psychic phenomena, such as the compulsive repetition of unpleasant and traumatic events, aggressiveness and neurotic guilt, but also the peculiar intertwining of pleasure and displeasure, such as is notably shown in sadism. and masochism.

On the other hand, the death drive quickly proved to be a useful tool for interpreting the destructive tendencies that sustain the capitalist cultural condition, as it was later elaborated by Freud in essays such as A civilization and its discontents, in 1929. With this change from the individual to the social, Freud proposed a radical and quite disturbing vision of culture, which points to a specific way of satisfying the drive, “die Wendunggegen die eigene Person”, the act of turning against oneself.[iv]

It seems quite symptomatic that Freud's theory of drives took such a dramatic turn at one of the most critical moments in history. The study, which was named Beyond the pleasure bases development began in March 1919, shortly after the First World War. With this type of total war, unprecedented in history, as with other overtly destructive features of modern life, a new pathology began to proliferate, the traumatic neurosis.

It is also significant that Freud's text was written during the greatest pandemic of the 1918th century. Caused by an influenza virus, which began to spread across the globe in the spring of 50, the pandemic claimed the lives of an estimated XNUMX million worldwide, including Freud's own daughter, Sophie.[v] This historical and biographical contextualization is not intended to minimize the weight of this groundbreaking change in Freud's work.

Even given this personal and political nexus, which may have motivated, at least in part, Freud's confrontation, leading him to work with the traumatic impact of the war, with the crisis and with death, the most interesting part of Freud's diagnosis it's somewhere else. The death instinct hypothesis was elaborated in an era whose general atmosphere bears fantastic similarities with our catastrophic times.

Perhaps even better, it anticipates the current crisis-driven present, in which destructive developments such as climate breakdown, economic instability, the return of racism and sexism to the center of political life, global warfare and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, expose the problem that motivated Freud's later work on the intimate link between culture and trauma or, even more specifically, capitalism as organized systemic trauma, a system that is out of control.[vi]

Although Freud's cultural diagnosis was made in an entirely different historical condition, in its structural aspects it intersects with something similar observed by Marx. From a psychoanalytical point of view, it is significant that the term “Drive” appears whenever Marx takes an important step in his discussion of the dynamics of capitalist abstractions (money, value and capital) or of the contradiction between capital and labor.

The drive does not enter the scene in the form of an enrichment drive (Bereicherungstrieb), accumulation drive (Akkumulationstrieh), drive for self-worth (Selbstverwertungstrieb) and even “drive towards the unlimited extension of the working day”? With this passage from enrichment, which can still be associated with individuals, to the self-valorization of capital, which directly concerns the immanent dynamics of value, Marx draws attention to the underlying structural contradiction between society and subjectivity, on the one hand, and the tendencies of the capitalist economy, on the other.

Unlike his colleagues in the field of political economy, who at first sight identified the passions, motivations and driving forces operating in economic affairs – most notably Adam Smith with his notion of private interest – Marx rejects the simplistic view in advance, according to which the drive is a psychological characteristic of individuals. It can appear as such in the figure of the miser and the capitalist. But this personal facade cannot lead to ignoring that, unlike the miser, the capitalist fulfills the task of socially managing capital's structural tendencies.

Marx's movement from the phenomenology of individual greed to the structural tendencies of the capitalist mode of production encounters the same compulsion found in Freud, and he explains this compulsion through an impersonal force belonging to economic abstractions and processes themselves.

In doing so, Marx thus undertook a complete “depsychologization” of the drive. Understood as a structural and not a psychological force, the drive profoundly questions the assumed freedom and autonomy of economic subjects and, moreover, is responsible for a compulsive action that dominates individual lives, minds and bodies, but also intersubjective social relations.

In the background of this conceptual decision, Marx broke with classical political economy. As already mentioned, Adam Smith formulated a hypothesis that only seems to point in the same direction. This hypothesis, by the way, obtained an enormous ideological impulse in the decades of neoliberalism, namely, the hypothesis of the natural inclination of human beings to selfishness. To an inattentive eye, Smith's notion of private interest could appear as a kind of conceptual predecessor of the drive. In fact, it's your mystification.

In the apologetics of capitalism, greed played an ambiguous role: on the one hand, it was regarded as a natural force that reflected the human struggle for self-preservation, and, on the other hand, it appeared to be an eminently cultural or social force, which was presumably capable of maintaining relationships. stable social. Greed is a central component of capitalist naturalism, the point at which defenders of capitalism strive to establish the link between capitalism and human nature.[vii] In this respect, capitalism has always understood itself as that social order which is most in accord with the presumably natural inclinations of human beings.

This psychologizing of greed resurfaces in psychoanalytic and economic contexts that are otherwise critical of capitalism, as in Otto Fenichel or John Maynard Keynes. Both criticized the capitalist drive to enrich and its naturalization. However, they neglected that Freud and Marx use the concept of drive in order to move from psychological to structural reality, from the personal to the impersonal. In addition, Marx's historical and formal analyzes already show how the enrichment impulse, criticized since Plato and Aristotle, undergoes a far-reaching metamorphosis, since the invention of surplus value founded the modern socioeconomic order.

Jacques Lacan picked up on the resonances between psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy, insisting that there is a fundamental homology between Marx's explanation of the function of surplus value in the capital drive and Freud's explanation of the drive's constant pursuit of more pleasure. (pleasure gain). To locate this homology, Lacan coined the term “plus-enjoyment” (plus-de-jouir). Both of these surpluses, in the fields of work value and fruition, aim at the objectification of a “more and more” that makes the satisfaction of the drive a practically infinite task. Lacan's explicit thesis is that surplus value must be considered as systemic enjoyment and, correspondingly, the capitalist system as a machine of enjoyment with catastrophic consequences.

*Lucas Pohl is a professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

*SamoTomsic is a researcher at the Bild Wissen Gestaltung interdisciplinary laboratory at the Humboldt University in Berlinn. Author, among other books, of The Capitalism Unconscious: Marx and Lacan (Verse).

Translation: Eleutério Prado

Book excerpt Imagining apocalyptic politics in the anthropocene (Routledge)

 

Notes


[I] Given the changing nature of the situation in which we are writing here, it seems appropriate to add for context that this article was written in April 2020. Furthermore, the topic is discussed from a Western European perspective.

[ii] A classic scene from a zombie movie would be the one where the protagonist escapes a zombie attack with the help of a random stranger who suddenly appears outside or out of nowhere. The stranger takes the protagonist to his hideout and offers him food as well as a place to sleep. Soon after the protagonist starts to feel safe again, he realizes that things are not what they seem. Suddenly, the stranger's true intentions are revealed and the real horror begins. So the basic lesson to be learned from the zombie apocalypse is not how to survive despite the attacks of these undead, but how to survive despite other humans. In the zombie apocalypse, survivors learn that “their neighbor is not only a potential source of help or even a sexual object, but also someone who tries to satisfy their aggressiveness by subordinating them, who seeks to exploit their ability to work without paying them anything, use them sexually without consent, confiscate their property, humiliate them, cause them pain, torture and kill them”.

[iii] Bauman formulates a line of thought resorting to Freud's famous thesis on the antagonism between drives and culture (that is, society): “Freud would present the socially exercised coercion and the resulting limitation on individual freedoms as the very essence of civilization. Civilization without coercion would be unthinkable since the "pleasure principle" (i.e., the constant desire to seek sexual gratification or humans' innate inclination towards laziness) would guide individual conduct towards the desert of asociality if left unchecked, reduced and counterbalanced by the given power and authority provided by the “reality principle”. In the reading of Freud presented here, it is proposed to correct this perspective: the conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle is internal to “culture”. And, in fact, what is interesting about Freud is that he makes it possible to detect antisocial tendencies within the social, that is, within capitalism.

[iv] In English it is usually thought that such a destiny or drive (Triebbschicksal) as something that “falls on the subject himself” (Freud 2001: 126). What is lost in this translation is a certain ambiguity of the German term “against”. If it basically means "against", it can also mean "for". Despite this ambivalence, Freud's main concern is to call attention to the contradiction between the satisfaction of the drive and the individual's self-preservation.

[v] Sophie's son plays a prominent role in Beyond the pleasure bases. It is about the child who plays the game of "fort-da” (outside) to fill the absence of the mother. Freud eventually evokes Sophie's permanent "being outside".

[vi] In your Civilization and its discontents, Freud takes an important step forward in this controversial terrain. The date of its publication (1930) coincides again with a destabilizing social and economic reality, the great depression, in which the contradiction between the tendencies of capitalism and the self-preservation of humanity appeared again in all its brutality. Long-term structural processes, such as economic crises or the climate emergency, which bring the contradiction between the reproduction of capitalism and the interests of humanity to an entirely new level, only increase Freud's relevance as a thinker of the crisis.

[vii] One must remember a remark by Marx in the german ideology according to which the institutions of the bourgeoisie are considered natural while feudal institutions are considered artificial.

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