the autophagic society



Commentary on Anselm Jappe's Newly Edited Book

Anselm Jappe's new book is subdivided into seven chapters between the prologue and an appendix. In the brief introduction, the author uses the myth of Erysichton to offer an overview of the subject of his study, relating the insatiable hunger of the protagonist – who even devours his own body – to the situation of contemporary capitalism.

Jappe introduces two central and interconnected themes to expose his thought: commodity fetishism and narcissism. An insatiable system, which cannot stop the incessant search for more value, increasingly dependent on mass productions, in addition to consuming itself ends up shaping a subject that the author calls narcissistic.

The narcissistic personality does not emerge with market society. There are several factors object of study of psychoanalysis that point out causes of egocentric and narcissistic personality. However, it is possible to establish a relationship between the affluence of the personality with narcissistic traits in profusion and the development of the mercantile exchange system.

“Of the fetishism that reigns in this world”. With this title, the first chapter seeks to show that the germ of the characteristics that shape “modern man” was already present in the ideas of several thinkers since the beginning of what can be called market society. Between fetishism and narcissism, the connection is direct, developing in parallel in the historical course of capitalist society. The automatic subject, in Marxist terms, is the source of the narcissism observed in modern society.

Descartes' thought is shown to be exemplary of the movement in favor of the rise of the ego, of the increasingly isolated individual nurturing feelings of arrogance in relation to the world. The separation of body and soul, the prevalence of the human spirit as a separate creator of the world; the submission and even denial of what is of the order of the sensitive – linked to matter –; the questions of the intellect separated from the material environment that surround it found in Descartes' thought are illustrative of the presence in exponents of modern thought of a certain hypertrophy of the subject, separated from the world that surrounds him.

Unlike previous periods in which the strength of religion was practically a determinant of human thought, narcissism involves an individual who does not recognize himself as part of the whole, does not integrate into the environment. On the contrary, the environment that surrounds him must submit to his designs.

The denial of the sensible order, of what applies to the senses, as opposed to the superiority of reason, is also present in the thoughts of Kant and Sade. In different ways, both oppose rationality and discipline to a world dominated by will, by an irrationalism considered almost animal given by what is related to matter.

If in Kant the domain of the intellect that is not constrained by the environment is synonymous with freedom, for Sade discipline and self-control are correct ways to achieve ends. The superiority of a spirit that does not integrate itself into the sensible world in an unreflective way, that avoids it as if it were related to the animalistic, all this thought refers to the elevation of the world of reason, of recollection, isolation and abstraction from the material environment. In Sade, this absence of world gives rise to a desire to destroy an environment devoid of meaning.


narcissism and capitalism

The theme of narcissism was treated laterally by Freud, containing sparse comments throughout his work. Anselm Jappe takes up several of these approaches culminating in expositions after 1920 when distinctions between “id”, “ego” and “superego” were made.

In short, narcissism would be equivalent to the child's feeling of omnipotence linked to the mother after birth, who understands the world as submissive to her desires. To be more precise, the theme involves distinct categories such as omnipotence and dependence. The baby's natural dependence on the mother given her almost zero self-sufficiency. In parallel, there is a sense of omnipotence, whether of the baby or in the prenatal period of the being who satisfies her needs without great effort.

At that moment the pleasure principle would reign supreme. The later reality of separating and facing the challenges of the objective world is posed with a certain amount of suffering. However, this separation and awareness of the misfortunes of real life end up providing an elevation of the self, a complexification of the understanding of objective reality and individual development.

Primary narcissism, in Freudian terms, refers to the return to an intrauterine state of total fusion, of complete calm. The reference to Nirvana recalls a state without disturbances or turbulence, free from a world full of enigmas, questions and challenges.

Narcissism as a social form is something different from the pathological, subjective form. Even though there are several approaches on the subject, the considerations of this work converge to a symptom arising primarily from the modern and contemporary social form in which the subject is inserted. In the case of the object form of psychoanalysis, things are more directly linked to relationships to which the individual is subjected in childhood, generally within the family. Even if there are connections between them, it is healthy to maintain a certain distance between the approaches, mainly in the causes of the observed phenomena. The symptoms have many more connections, perhaps differing in intensity. In any case, it can be said that the narcissistic subject's relationships with objects are projections of his ego. There are no enriching relationships, only ways to nurture your own self.

Resuming the path of thought throughout the progress of capitalist society, but now analyzing the social criticism that emerged at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, it can be said that psychoanalysis was controversially absorbed by critical thinking right from the beginning. Since Lukács there have been myriad ways of judging Freudian analyses. From its non-acceptance because it is a somewhat naturalistic theory that does not refer to social influences and transformations, to an excessive importance given to libido as a transforming energy, things of the mind were incorporated into social analyzes in different ways by several thinkers in the last century.

A rather heated debate between representatives of the Frankfurt school is discussed in this chapter. Both Adorno and Marcuse engaged in criticism of the approach to psychoanalysis by representatives of what they termed “Freudian revisionists”, specifically Erich Fromm. Very briefly, Fromm's ideas are less connected to Freud's "biological" issues, such as libido and the Oedipus complex, and give more relevance to cultural issues, such as education, to overcome the state of affairs given by the format repressive society.

For Adorno and Marcuse it was as if Fromm and the revisionists considered the possibility of overcoming social problems inserted in the logic of capitalist society without this logic needing to undergo major transformations. On the other hand, for these authors, this “biologist” Freud, far removed from Fromm's analyses, points to the symptoms of an atomistic, repressive and individualistic society. That is, it would be a much more realistic analysis than Fromm's.

For Marcuse, general repressiveness reveals itself in early childhood, something the revisionists paid less attention to. Marcuse, as is well known, gave great value to technological evolution and the possibilities of overcoming libidinal repressions that would occur through the release of excessive and intense work. This release of drives given by the reduction of working time would provide a more balanced society.

The debate involves several complexities, but, as you can see, it takes place within the limits of the capitalist order. The automatic subject of fetishistic logic remains untouched.

The social debate involving psychoanalysis lasted throughout the 1970th century, however, the narcissism category only took shape in the 1970s through Christopher Lasch. Lasch links narcissism to several characteristics identified in the post-war period, especially from the XNUMXs onwards. The appearance of the modern family, with the decline of the figure of the oppressive father, the diminishing importance of the small family business, the abundance of merchandise, everything this would contribute to the decline of the repressive and authoritarian figure and the rise of an inflated ego of the subject.

Contemporary capitalist society assigns responsibility for success to the individual. At the same time it limits the conditions for doing so. The superego originated from repressive figures easily identified as the father or an oppressive employer is replaced by a superego whose sources are diluted in the social environment conferred by an individualistic environment, which attributes the success of each one to their own effort. Therefore, failure comes from this same condition.

As Jappe says “citizens of contemporary society constantly oscillate between feelings of omnipotence and impotence”. Feelings very close to those of the newborn and his relationship with the mother. There is an attempt to control the world around them, to manage the surroundings so that the environment is submitted to their advantage.

Even pointing to causes linked to the developed capitalist society (he also takes into account the consumer society as a promoter of the narcissistic profile), Lasch does not go to the heart of the question regarding the major causes of this phenomenon. Both he and previous critics of developed society keep their analysis internal to the capitalist order, proposing solutions that do not overcome it.

Continuing the longest chapter of the book, Jappe invests in better characterizing this phenomenon in contemporary times.

The direct link between technology and narcissism can be said in shorthand as if it were a trait of magic. Pushing a button is all it takes to get what you want. At the same time the dependency relationship is total. Sources of energy, food and employment originate so far outside the individual that he may not have access to them without any interference in it. Again, the omnipotence/impotence dynamic present in Freudian narcissism is presented.

By not establishing more “complex” relationships with objects, the narcissist does not enrich his inner world, he has his psychic evolution and critical sense pruned. The world around you must be at your beck and call. What gets in the way, makes it difficult, challenges ends up away.

Anselm Jappe uses examples from everyday life to illustrate the meaning of finding oneself. Wines adjusted to suit palates, the enhancement of the sweet taste in food, even museums that are extremely didactic. There are countless examples of adjustments and adaptations so that the objects are presented as easily consumable and salable. The less to be deciphered, the less nuanced, the better.

The narcissist only seeks to recognize himself in the world around him. Objects are mirrors of his being, which, little developed, seeks relationships with what is already familiar to him, investing little in the enrichment of his self. Just like abstract work, narcissistic relationships with the world are aimed more at quantity than quality. Fetishism and narcissism as sides of the same coin.


Contemporary thought in the face of fetishism.

It is possible to distinguish two phases predominantly present in the last 250 years of capitalism: an authoritarian “Oedipal” phase and a “narcissistic” phase of dilution of authoritarianism and greater permissiveness, which has its beginning pointed to the beginning of the 70th century, but which From the XNUMXs onwards, it reached its peak.

The narcissistic phase is marked, as already mentioned, by the potentialization of individualism and disintegration with the environment. Individual interest prevails, not collective interest. The pursuit of boundless jouissance as pointed out by the philosopher Dany-Robert-Dufour. Dufour cites Freud for whom the Kantian categorical imperative was directly linked to the Oedipus complex on the way to consciousness.

It is simple to point out a correlation between the characteristics of modernity, where authority was diluted, and a problematic formation of the subject, from the oedipal perspective. The desire barred by the authoritarian figure seeks solutions through neuroses and sublimations. This desire, which was previously prevented, starts, in Dufour's words, "to be replaced by direct fruition". The difficult – often authoritarian – and character-forming filter ceases to exist, giving way to the character of incessant consumption.

It is as if this limiting figure gave rise to a state of complete freedom for the being, being subjected and limited to the principle of pleasure, and this subject started to be engulfed by the spectacle of merchandise, which gives him infinite possibilities of satisfaction. Instead of emancipation from paternal authority leading to autonomy, it leads to dependence on constant stimuli and satisfaction, as happens with the figure of the newborn.

Although having pointed to the right side of the question, Dufour and the so-called neo-Lacanians – according to Jappe – err in considering the source of the problems as being the loss of the role of the father in modernity, leading to a condition of boundless drives. Nor would he have directed the criticism to the heart of the matter, which would be in the capitalist order and its developed form.

This developed form of capitalism includes, as indicated by Boltanski & Chiapello in The New Spirit of Capitalism, ways of adapting capital to the criticism received from society. The 1968 protests contained demands for increased wages for workers and greater autonomy. Managers ended up incorporating the demand for more autonomy and the capitalist order reinvented itself, adapting to part of the criticism it received. The universe of capital becomes more flexible, just like society itself, which has been changing.

There are several characteristics that can be considered as signs of changes in developed society. The “disappearance of childhood” and the “infantilization of adults” are two of them.

In the case of children, their intense participation in economic exploitation through consumption is noted. It is possible to perceive this when realizing the massive investments of the advertising industry in this age group.

In parallel, there is an “impoverishment of the imaginary”. Submitted to an ocean of images from an early age, the child has hindered his creative development limited to what he is given.

In the case of adults and their infantilizing return, we can see the reduction of barriers between behaviors previously considered childish and adult behaviors. Games, immediacy, enjoyment, biting consumption. Attributes previously listed as childish are now accepted and encouraged characteristics in adults. The world of work itself has been transfigured to present itself as entertainment and it is currently difficult to determine the boundaries between work and leisure, both subject to the rules of competition and performance.

Technological progress has allowed the simplification of procedures used by the user. The work no longer demands a slow and refined training linked to experience. The replacement of experience by emotion and events is remarkable. Referring to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and the course of consciousness in its formation through the accumulation of lived experiences, Jappe reinforces an important characteristic of the subject of developed capitalism: the diminutive critical spirit.

The narcissist has difficulty living experiences due to his own condition of problematic establishment of relationships with objects and seeks only himself in the world that surrounds him. By establishing few relationships and little development, the narcissist considers himself self-sufficient, holding many answers since he perceives himself to be master of himself. By not being open to experiences and relationships, because he feels at peace in the encounter with himself, with what he already knows, the narcissistic spirit shares a feeling of knowing everything and being at his disposal. In addition to the fleeting and superficiality that calm the sensations. Omnipotence and impotence, death drive, nirvana: characteristics that are always around the subject that forms.


The crisis of subject form

Anselm Jappe is a critical thinker of value, who considers the structuring form of capitalist society as the primary cause of the hardships of market society. Unlike the class struggle for the critique of value, the nerve that sustains capital is abstract work, value, commodity fetishism. The emptiness of abstract work, which does not contemplate differences or qualities, only quantities, correlates with the contemporary subject form, shaped by the society that surrounds it.

Like the abstract work, the subject form is emptied of contents. By not establishing intense relationships with objects, the narcissist experiences an excess of himself, underdeveloped and dependent on frequent sensations and stimuli that are empty of meaning. This existential void leads to a search for fulfillment through what makes recognition possible at any cost. Violence to the outside and to the inside at the limit is revealed as a way to reduce this drive without a certain direction.

The death drive as a reduction of tensions, in the Freudian way, as a way to seek a state of nirvana where calm reigns is characterized by the effort to find a situation similar to that of prenatal fusion, comparable to the narcissistic state. The violence perpetrated by home schools or other forms of large-scale deaths, in many cases, are characterized by the search for ways out of the narcissistic existential void of the contemporary form of subject.

If, on the one hand, the contemporary narcissistic subject at the limit can resort to extreme ways of overcoming his state of individuality and inner emptiness, even attacking his own life, on the other hand, capitalist society devours itself by consuming its source of value represented by work. alive. And by consuming it, you are forced to drive the search for profit more and more in a movement that cannot stop.

This does not mean a natural collapse of capitalist society, on the contrary. It could signify the impulse to a form of barbarism that is as accentuated as its most valuable source is weakened.


What to do with this bad guy?

Anselm Jappe imagined as the first title of this work “The adventures of the subject” as a continuation of his previous work The Adventures of Commodity. By tracing the modifications of the subject form over time in parallel to the rise of the developed capitalist society and the domination of the commodity form Jappe reveals the integration between subject and market that are formed and modified together.

Even though he does not declare himself a historical materialist, Jappe draws on the source of materialism by considering the unconscious as formed from stimuli and perceptions of everyday life. Necessarily linked to forms of survival, production and consumption. The automatic subject, a figure that represents value, is the great driving force that coordinates the world of capital and shapes the material environment and individuals who act as things subjected to the magical movement of commodities. Commodity fetishism in the Marxist formula.

Individualism and competitiveness, characteristic of contemporary society's way of life, are a direct result of the dominant mercantile form. The search for individual interests without concern for the environment, the environment being used only as a resource to obtain ends of personal benefit. Detachment from the world, non-integration and little experience of true experiences are, as already seen, characteristics of narcissism.

All the technological attributes that facilitate and promote images represent – ​​in addition to strengthening the figure of the being who waits for everything at hand quickly without considering the social apparatus behind any product or service – a decline in the spread of reading and creative and reasoning capacities . The ecological crisis itself proves to be difficult to solve in a reality where ever-increasing gains in productivity are needed.

I end here the attempt to condense in a few lines the wealth of ideas contained in this book. Analyzes involving narcissism and fetishism are often considered close to petty bourgeois readings, taking into account that part of humanity is far from minimum consumption standards. However, even if the idea of ​​a consumer society as a whole is open to criticism, the point is that the subject shape is being molded and influenced, changing little by little, dripping even in societies that lack the basics to live. The contemporary subject is molded as a category, as a predominant form of ways of acting and thinking in every corner under the control of developed capitalist society. With nuances, but imposing.

This is a work that has the rare quality of being both dense and enjoyable from start to finish. A book that deserves to be read slowly, as it is extremely rich in content and with connections in different areas of thought. Undoubtedly, a great work.

*Alexander Maruca He holds a degree in social sciences from the University of São Paulo (USP).



Anselm Jappe. The autophagic society: capitalism, excess and self-destruction. São Paulo, Elephant, 2021.


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