libidinal capitalism

Jo Spence, Libido Revolt Part I and Part II, 1989


Author's prologue to the recently released book

Several exercises of “libidinal economy” are rehearsed in this book. What does that mean?

Firstly, a kind of listening, welcoming phenomena that draw attention, not only to discourses or identities, calculations or interests, but also to positions of desire and fluctuations in mood, desires and reluctances, as well as soul states.

Jean-François Lyotard, in his book entitled libidinal economy, teaches us the distinction between signs and intensities: what is said and what happens, the level of information and the level of forces. Our ear, hypersemiotized, registers (and believe me!) the rhetoric, the declarations, the gesticulations, but misses the operations, the actions and the movements that slide “beneath”.

It is an unwary ear, which fetishizes signs, which believes in what is said and shown, takes things literally. But it is not enough to talk about something (revolution, community, care) for it to exist. And vice versa: there are imperceptible existences, without a name, without a term of reference, without a label.

Secondly, a certain idea or image about how capital works. If political economy describes it as governed by laws and interests, often contradictory, in conflict and permanent crisis, if geopolitics analyzes it as a system of power relations, libidinal economy shows it as a body assaulted by drives, a surface crossed by intensities, a nervous, emotional and affective system, which suffers from pathologies.

Libidinal capitalism is a monster, a centaur specifically, divided between a drive for self-preservation, stabilization, normalization and a demented drive for conquest, pillage and plunder. A dual regime, promise and poison, productivity and destruction, well-being and war, crossing every institution and every device, every object of consumption and each one of us.

Our bet here is the following: the world moves essentially as each one of us is moved (and moved) by affections. “Libidinal deafness” prevents us from understanding where capital, or the new rights that serve it so well today, draws its energies, how it operates, firstly, within ourselves, and what resists or escapes it.

Talking to a Scorpio

“The limits of the planet impose the need for change”, “another world is not only possible, but also necessary”. I wonder what idea those who speak of the human in this way have, of change as a necessity, a duty, a matter of reasons and arguments.

Have you never heard the fable about the scorpion and the frog? The frog is the good progressive conscience, full of convincing reasons, but always perplexed when the scorpion stings it in the middle of the river. When, for example, against all logic, the extreme right wins an election supported by the vote of the popular classes.

Human beings are the only animals that self-destruct and that enjoy doing so, they are the only ones capable of destroying their environment, their living conditions, their own ecosystem. It is a “crazy” animal, said Cornelius Castoriadis, in the sense that it is not programmed to obey or conform to a biological or functional purpose, but, on the contrary, it is a twist, a deviation from plans, a confusion, an obstacle. For better or worse, a flaw in the logic of the universe.

How do you talk to a Scorpio? He does not pay attention to reasons, pedagogies, morals or even interests, including his own.

The belief in some kind of “savior objectivity” (political, technological, state), capable of making the necessary change in our name but without us, has already found its refutation in the failure of the communist revolutions of the 20th century. But illusions have thick skin. The objective limits of orthodox Marxism today give way to the physical limits of the planet asserted by ecologists. However, there is still a search for some type of revolutionary automatism, an overwhelming logic, an objective necessity around which morality and pedagogy can be created. Yesterday the economic catastrophe, today the collapse.

We find again in the old Marcuse, now buried by the clichés of the time, a more fruitful idea: there is no rupture between internal nature and external nature. In other words, no modification in our relationship with the world is possible without at the same time modifying our sensitive disposition, our instinctual structure, our receptivity. The need for change is powerless without a desire for change. Degrowth is mere rhetoric or moralism without a diminution of desire. But we know nothing about desire. The left knows nothing.

The political or economic revolution does not understand; however, there is no objective change without subjective change, but at the same time subjectivity is a “nest of vipers” (or scorpions). No good nature, no blank sheet. The human being has a body, the body has drives and the drives are two: Eros and Thanatos. How do we talk to bodies?

The collapse is psychic, social and ecological

The “overflow malaise” can trace some transversality (always conjectural) between the psychic, social and terrestrial dimensions of life under capital.

On an intimate level, overflow is expressed, for example, in the “lack of time” as a seasonal evil, in the relationship of anxiety and impatience with everything, in the perception of an increasingly greater acceleration.

“I can’t keep up”, “I can’t get there”, “I have no life”: in colloquial language, the symptom appears if we listen to it (libidinal).

On a social level, the overflow is expressed in the explosion of the most basic institutions of social ties: schools, health centers, public administration. Impossibility of listening, minimum attention span, precariousness of resources, inability to deal with the proliferation of malaise that is looking for obstacles instead of shelter.

On the terrestrial plane, the overflow is expressed as a generalized feeling of “crossing all limits”: climate emergency, general depredation, destruction of ecosystems. The collapse is at the same time psychic, social and ecological. Exhausted bodies, stressed bonds, scorched earth. Exhaustion is the symptom, no one can take it anymore. But what is this a symptom of?

The deranged drive of capital now prevails over the conservative drive. Market conditions replace state conditions, deregulation replaces regulation. Both in the institutions of social bonds and in the relationship with oneself and the world. We are gears that increasingly accelerate the very movement that destroys your life. That voracity that never finds peace or rest, that constant agitation or restlessness, of never being at home, that anxious impatience, that consumer relationship with everything, all of this is what we carry with our bodies.

The hamster is in the wheel. But where is the emergency brake?

Politics of desire, politics of Eros

Neoliberal utopia is the definitive encounter between life and capital, but the malaise resists and insists. The symptom cannot be eliminated.

The new right can be understood precisely as the “denial of symptoms”. Denial of exhaustion, of impotence, of everything that doesn't fit and hurts. Denial of climate change, violence against women, social inequalities. They capture pain and suffering, discomfort and rejection, which is their libidinal strength, but at the same time they reintroduce it into a logic of victimization. “Someone will be blamed for what happens to me”: trans people, the unfortunate, the environmentalists. They thus support the same system that manufactures agitation in industrial quantities.

Is it possible to break the diabolical connection between the yield principle and our physical and unconscious energy? Calm the mortifying and deadly commands of the superego? Stop being the hamster in the wheel? Having a different relationship with discomfort, not victimized and denying, but affirmative and creative. Taking care of pain as energy for transformation and a lever for change.

Freud assumed that know-how with discomfort (what he called “sublimation”) was only within the reach of a few brilliant individuals, such as Michelangelo or Leonardo. He distrusted the masses, in whom he saw only a phenomenon of regression, of submission to a new father, of self-abolition of singularity. He cannot be blamed since the fascist masses persecuted him. But a collective movement can perform the function of creatively working through the malaise. It is historically proven. Not only Leonardo or Michelangelo, but also John or Paul. That is, anyone. We think about punk without going too far: wouldn't an alchemical work with the malaise of the time be capable of transforming despair into a way of life, a challenge to the established, to new beauties and new encounters?

The politics of desire, which we think about here with the help of Herbert Marcuse, Jean-François Lyotard or Franco Berardi (Bifo), are precisely forms of creative sublimation, neither compensatory nor repressive, neither victimistic nor revengeful. Ways of knowing-how with discomfort that are not simply self-referential and private, each isolated with its own neurosis, but above all common and duly shared. Under political practice, a therapeutic, aesthetic, erotic practice. An anthropological mutation of the force of Eros.

“Only love frees us from repetition”, says Jorge Luis Borges. “Only Eros can subdue the death drive”, explains Freud. “Only love can indulge pleasure in desire”, suggests Lacan. The destructiveness of our Western culture is not only institutionalized, but has also already been psychically embedded. In the adherence and fascination with brute force, in the indifference and cruelty towards superfluous populations and human beings in general, in the feeling of permanent guilt and indebtedness towards the commandments of the superego. Only Eros can speak to the scorpion. It's the only emergency brake capable of stopping the hamster's mad dash on its wheel.

Transform the struggle for existence (struggle for life) that so decisively makes up life in the West – in the form of a war to conquer oneself, others and planet Earth through work – in the pacification of existence. May the commandment of performance be suppressed, through the quieting of ever more enjoyment, or even through a creative and meaningful activity that carries the reward in itself. Stop “making a living” – life as a trophy in a world considered a battlefield – but start living.

*Amador Fernández-Savater He is a journalist, editor and social activist. Author, among other books, of Fuera de Lugar (A. Machado Libros).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.


Amador Fernández-Savater. libidinal capitalism. By Amador Fernández-Savater. Barcelona, ​​Ned Ediciones, 2024, 224 pages. []

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