Does society not exist?

Image: Fidan Nazim qizi


Considerations about competition, solidarity and social bond


In 1964, the Abbey of Royaumont, in Ilê-de-France, hosted a colloquium on Nietzsche, where Michel Foucault presented his famous lecture “Nietzsche, Freud and Marx”. In it, he argued that these three names represent a radical break in the history of interpretive techniques. Here, they expose the autonomy of the symbolic order (of moral value, in Nietzsche; of economic value, in Marx; of linguistic value, in Freud), thus exposing the decentration of the human subject.

Together, Nietzsche's genealogy, Marx's critique of political economy, and Freud's psychoanalysis deliver yet another insult to human self-love, comparable to the Kränkungen scientific – which Freud associated with the Physics of early modernity (decentering of physical reality; abolition of the geocentric cosmological model) and evolutionary biology (decentering of the evolution of life; abolition of the human exception in the hierarchy of beings).[I]

With Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, understood by Michel Foucault as the founders of modern human sciences, an even more fundamental decentralization took place, which subverted the relationship between human beings and the symbolic order, the main means of establishing and sustaining social ties.

Michel Foucault's focus was solely on the regime of interpretation, its openness and infinity, which ultimately overrides the virtual infinity of language. However, the thought of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud is crossed by another common problem, also linked to the autonomy of the symbolic order, but which also concerns its material causality and, specifically, the production of affective states. In other words, a crucial topic of his investigations is the not unproblematic connection between the symbolic and the corporeal.

They examine the symbolic order – in its three fundamental axes: moral, economic and linguistic – in its problematic connection with the living body. Returning to Foucault's concern with the infinity of interpretation, it can be added that the main problem in Nietzsche, Marx and Freud revolves around a “parasitism” of the infinite (the symbolic) on the finite (the body). In all three systems of thought, the force that expresses this problematic parasitism is called the "drive" (Drive ).[ii]

Briefly, the drive represents a force that is both symbolic and bodily, the force of symbolic abstractions in the living body and the expression of its organizing power. The symbolic order is never just an abstract system, but always already represents an organization of materiality – in other words, an economy – be it moral, social or libidinal.

The common feature of these three obviously different and apparently independent economic orders is that they all represent “affective economies”. As the term directly suggests, we are dealing with the issue of the production and organization of affections precisely through discourse (social bond), and the lowest common denominator in Nietzsche, Freud and Marx boils down to the conception of social bonds as affective bonds. His intellectual efforts revolve around the issue of systemic affects and, more specifically, affects that expose a permanent tension between the constitution and dissolution of social ties.

For Nietzsche, the main systemic affect is resentment, a continuous feeling of injury and injustice that has become detached from its cause and organized into an autonomous system of values, turned against the affirmation of life. This affect is, therefore, deeply ambivalent: it not only signals that a continuous exploration takes place, but also provides a specific satisfaction to the suffering subject.

For Freud, the defining “emotional state” of modern subjectivity and, therefore, the main systemic affect is Discomfort (discontent, malaise, dissatisfaction). It is this affection that confronts the subject of capitalism, with its effective status in the social bond.

Finally, in Marx, although systemic affects may seem less overt, his notion of the fetish directly situates not only the objective appearance of economic abstractions (commodities, money, value, capital), but also the affective power that this appearance exerts on minds. and bodies of economic subjects. Furthermore, Marx examines the transformation of avarice (greed) into the impulse of capital understood as a material and symbolic force; this leads him to think of surplus value as a systemic jouissance.

At the heart of these endeavors is a crucial problem: the modern socioeconomic order and the modern moral/cultural order (and capitalism is ultimately constituted by both) as a system of organized aggression and violence. While Marx and Freud confront this issue directly in the capitalist organization of production and enjoyment, Nietzsche remains trapped in its mystified expression.

Rather than recognizing the link between the social proliferation of resentment and the expansion of competitive relations in all spheres of social existence, including subjectively, Nietzsche proposes a transhistorical genealogy. It comes from a constitutively weak subjectivity (“slave”) that progressively imposes itself, putting a system of values ​​directed against life, and particularly against the possibility of a life without negativity, which Nietzsche theorizes in the self-affirmative figure of the master-aristocrat.

The “rational core” of Nietzsche's critique of morality consists of understanding ressentiment as radicalized, absolute envy, which, turning against life, implements an essentially antisocial morality. In Jacques Lacan's terms, at the heart of Nietzsche's critique of ressentiment is the link between the renunciation of life and the production of surplus enjoyment, a link that can be directly associated with the problems addressed in Marx's critique of social economy and in the critique from Freud to libidinal economy.


The withering of the social

We could describe neoliberalism as a socioeconomic doctrine that fully unleashed the proliferation of antisocial affects. This was the immediate effect of its social engineering, or rather anti-social engineering, summed up in Margaret Thatcher's notorious statement: “There is no such thing as society”. Her statement appears in the following context:

I think we've gone through a period where many children and people have been led to understand that if “I have a problem, it's the government's job to deal with it!”; if “I have a problem, I'm going to get a bag to deal with it!”; if “I am homeless, the government has to house me!”. In this way, they throw their problems onto society, but who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and families, and no government can do anything except through the people and the people look to themselves first.

There is no society; there are only individual men and women and their families, who look first to themselves – it is on them, then, that the gaze of an elected government must be focused. The juice of Margaret Thatcher's statement was immediately seized upon and adopted as the ultimate slogan of neoliberalism. This observation can also serve as a key entry point into understanding neoliberal political ontology.

The use of the expression “there is not” suggests that we are dealing with a strong ontological claim, since a weak claim would only deny the reality, but not the potentiality of society's existence. If society does not exist, this does not mean that it cannot come into being. A weak ontological claim would anchor society as potentiality: society can then become a political project, an object of shared political work and political practice, a form of “being-together” or “being-with”. The existence of society may, therefore, not be guaranteed, but that does not mean that the notion of society does not mark a way of organizing social ties that could eventually be inscribed in the order of becoming.

Margaret Thatcher's strong ontological claim, by contrast, insists that something like society "is not" – in other words, has no place, even as an assumption, as a hypothesis of possible organization of intersubjective interaction and political existence. There is no place – let us understand this in topological terms – where society can arise or be brought into existence.

Consequently, there is no social being as such. Where others have taken over something like society, there is nothing – there is only a void or a hole, which cannot be filled. Margaret Thatcher's ontological assertion has other consequences. More than anything else, it formulates a prohibition: no political project of society can come into being and thus emerge in the order of being. The task of politics cannot be to force something that does not exist.

Margaret Thatcher's axiom is therefore, above all, an ontological prohibition of the social: society must be expelled, not just from political programs, but from the order of being. Neoliberalism is ultimately a political ontology, which performs a radical exclusion of sociability in the name of an alternative vision of the “social” being organized around competitive economic relations and traditional family structures, hence around economic deregulation. and patriarchal regulation.[iii]

By denying society all positive ontological status, or all participation in the order of being, even negative, Margaret Thatcher demonstrates (without knowing it) Jacques Lacan's insistence on the nature of ontology as domination. Understood as an exemplification of the master's discourse (or the discourse of domination), ontology assumes the right to decide not only what is and what is not, but also what should be and what should not be.

While insisting to the contrary, ontology never talks about being in a neutral way; when commanding, discursively produces the effect of positing being. This holds true for (political) non-being: what the ontological-master (here, Thatcher) says does not exist (or simply is not) in fact must not exist (and must not be). The negative ontological statement is, ultimately, a performative production of non-being with very real material consequences, notably, the increase of social misery and marginalized groups, the intensification of systemic violence and so on.

Society must not come into being, since such an ontological imposition of sociability would mean, from the neoliberal point of view, not only to institutionalize waste and laziness, but also to seek a form of social life and pleasure that would no longer be organized. around the economic imperatives of increasing value and the pursuit of economic growth.[iv] As its name suggests, the “welfare state” enforces (neoliberals would probably say “forces” or “imposes”) the existence of society and thereby restricts, if not actively undermines, the unfolding of the creative potential of society. ("social") economy, competition and the deregulated market.[v]

Margaret Thatcher, therefore, did not bother to hide or mystify the fact that neoliberalism fundamentally consists in the struggle to build an antisocial state and reinforce a system of organized antisociality (which capitalism, ultimately, always was). . Any intrusion of capital into the public and private spheres must ensure that life is not wasted and remains organized in such a way that the greatest possible amount of surplus value can be extracted from it. If we let life take its course, it is supposedly defined by excess, as “life beyond one's means” – or at least that is the suspicion that defenders of capitalism repeatedly level at society.[vi]

Society must be expelled from the order of being because it is in contradiction with the market, which certainly exists for neoliberalism. The market plays the role of the big Other, the symbolic space in which subjectivities and intersubjective bonds are produced.

This is where the second part of Margaret Thatcher's commentary comes in. Society may not exist, it may not even exist, for what it truly is – or what neoliberalism acknowledges to exist – are individuals and their families, that is, bodies and reproductive units organized according to “traditional” binary terms. . The organization itself is embedded in a symbolic space determined by relations of competition, so that the sociability of capitalism is best exemplified by competition and property relations.

The story, however, is more than just familiar.

For Aristotle, the human is a political animal, which means a relational animal. We cannot think of the human being without the bonds that he establishes with other human beings. In other words, we cannot think of the human being outside the social being, understood as a relational being or simply as a relationship and, more specifically, as a bond. Despite emphasizing individuals (and their families), neoliberalism has failed to completely deny the constitutive “relationality” of the human being.

Instead, it specified this “relationality” by restricting sociability to economic exchange, which is for neoliberalism the minimal and still acceptable sociability. And, to repeat, economic exchange is further specified through competition, which, on the one hand, defines the human being as a competitive animal, while also recognizing that sociability – at least that kind of sociability – is inevitably sustained. by aggressiveness, which can eventually find its affective expression in greed, resentment and envy. Or, as Margaret Thatcher put it, "Individual men and women ... look to themselves first."

But the neoliberal political ontology, with its antisocial program – the abolition of all social bonds that are not anchored in the economic relation of competition – represents only an advanced stage of the inherent antisociality of capitalism. Marx already identified this anti-sociality in his examination of the capitalist organization of production around self-sufficient accumulation, which he described as "production for production's sake",[vii] and not for the preservation and improvement of social and “individual” life.

Surplus value and capital, understood by Marx as the impulse of self-valorization, point to the antisociality that was already at the heart of economic liberalism and would undergo the next phase of deregulation in the decades of neoliberalism. The antisociality of capitalism gets its full expression in the neoliberal tendency to dismantle social ties, particularly the welfare state as a weak social democratic institutionalization of economic solidarity.

Neoliberal antisocial engineering boils down to the following imperative, as emphatically formulated by Wendy Brown: “society must be dismantled”.[viii] This programmatic aspect is linked to an issue addressed by Marx, namely the problem of surplus population. With the notion of an industrial reserve army, Marx openly addressed a structural tendency of capitalism, which accompanies the continuous process of dismantling social ties and the “becoming-redundant of humanity”, the progressive transformation of the human being into an abject being.[ix]

This disturbing systemic tendency is reflected equally in Freud's diagnosis of the cultural malaise and in his reflections on what he elsewhere calls "pure death drive culture." The proliferation of cultural malaise, understood as a systemic affect, signals that capitalism must be seen as a system that works against humanity and that becomes, moreover, an increasingly uncontrolled system. The intensification of systemic violence (economic, sexual, racial, environmental and so on), the dismantling of the social and ecological conditions of life, is the main expression of this system gone mad.

The Marxist analysis of overproduction (in its dual aspect, consisting of the production of surplus value on the one hand and the production of overpopulation on the other) and the Freudian analysis of cultural malaise (also in its dual aspect, consisting of the violence directed outwards in the form of the destruction drive and violence directed inwards in the form of the death drive or superego cruelty) both revolve around the perception that humanity progressively becomes redundant in the eyes of the globalized capitalist system: humanity is progressively deprived of social bonds.

Friedrich Engels spoke about the disappearance of the state in the transition from capitalism to communism. The German term is abstain, whose organic connotation suggests a continuous process of decomposition. Communist sociability would then be organized in a post-statist way that would allow for the full practice of the common good and thus guarantee a livable life. It is more than ironic that neoliberal capitalism proposes its own version of the disappearance of the state or, at best, reduces it to the role of a repressive apparatus whose task is to safeguard the total subversion of the political through the economic and the social through the antisocial. .

Neoliberal capitalism thus reinforced the capitalist program for the withering away of the social. This does not mean that the social has fully existed, without internal impasses, contradictions and antisocial components. But what we are left with today is the accumulated damage of several centuries of capitalist imposition of antisocial tendencies in all spheres of human existence.

*Samo Tomšic is professor of philosophy at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg. Author, among other books, of The Labor of Enjoyment: Toward a Critique of Libidinal Economy (August Verlag).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.


[I]Freud, of course, already added his own psychoanalytic invention to this list: decentering of thought; dethroning the primacy of consciousness and the ego in mental life.

[ii]It should be added at once that Nietzsche more regularly uses the term instinct (instinct) and this reflects his problematic biologism.

[iii]Neoliberalism was initially also conceived as a moral order, which assumes the inherent rationality and self-regulation of markets. Hence the centrality of the notion of freedom, which, however, quickly unfolded its antisocial potential, as it has always been understood as freedom from any constraints.

[iv]We are dealing here with the inverted “principle of constancy” of capitalism – inverted because, contrary to the Freudian pleasure principle, which pursues a state of equilibrium (renewal of ideal homeostasis, or the state of absence of excitement), it pursues, on the contrary, , a state of perpetual disequilibrium. Surplus value in Marx and surplus enjoyment in Lacan (or what Freud calls pleasure gain , pleasure gain) end up naming the structural instability in the organization of social production, or “the imbalance of the entire structure of accumulation”.

[v]Again, competition is understood here as a social bond and as the fundamental logical determination of our social being or our “being with others” in the capitalist universe.

[vi]Marx mocked this economic prejudice early on in his critical reflections on so-called primitive accumulation.

[vii]Marx plays the ventriloquist to establish the imperative: “Accumulate, accumulate! This is Moses and the prophets! Save, therefore, save, that is, reconvert as much surplus-value or surplus-product as possible into capital! Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination. Accumulation and production, therefore, are good for nothing, and in this respect not only antisocial, but radically antisocial. The characteristic of “being useless” unites accumulation and production with Lacan's definition of jouissance.

[viii]  The theses of Brown's book can be read as a critique of Foucault's account of liberalism and neoliberalism, which is more about the imperative “society must be defended”. In The Ruins of Neoliberalism, Brown is also less about the end of neoliberalism than about its authoritarian core: the ruins of neoliberalism are the ruins produced by neoliberalism, which are precisely the ruins of society and sociability.

[ix] We find this assertion also in the more recent discussion of the notion of Lumpenproletariat.

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