Lacan, critic of Marx

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By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO

Considerations on the Lacanian concept of “object a”

As psychoanalysts know, but probably not the common reader and critics of political economy, the “object a” currently appears as a central concept of contemporary psychoanalysis. But what then is this object, the notion of own labor, on the basis of which Lacan launches a subtle critique of the author of The capital?

Lacan started from the discoveries of Sigmund Freud, of whom he claimed to be a faithful follower – which, incidentally, can be doubted. Well, all those who came across it for the first time – if not for the second, third, etc. times – realized that it is an enigmatic concept and difficult to understand. In this note, we intend to discuss this enigma using certain logical categories, which will appear here at the appropriate time. For the time being, we will simply try to describe it as a category of psychoanalysis.

 

The “object to”

In psychoanalysis texts, it is first clarified that the “a” – a small “a” – added to the term “object” comes from for another in French, a term that corresponds to the term “other” in Portuguese. Since desire always aims at something, it forms a relationship of mutual determination with this other. Then, this “object other” is presented with the object cause of desire. Without this object being clearly identified here, a first step is taken in its understanding.[I]

When the child starts, in the course of his growth process, to identify those around him (mother, father, siblings, etc.) as other people, he becomes aware of himself, at the same time, as a person. Now, this distinction is only consolidated when the child learns the language of the parents and becomes capable of naming. Thus, she begins to distinguish, within the family, the duplicity “I/others”. In this differentiation, desires necessarily arise in the child that are directed towards the family members, seen as others. Furthermore, desires begin to be directed not only towards other people, but also towards other things, everything that eventually falls within the “subject's” interest and reach.

Examples of both cases are: the child, who plays alone, wants to be hugged by the mother, but she is now reading her newspaper; she wants the cart that is in her brother's possession; she wants her younger brother to go back to the maternity ward and stay there forever, etc.

By “subject” from now on, not only children are understood, but all people, that is, human beings in general. These, then, are understood as fundamentally desiring incomplete subjects. It is in this context that one can begin to speak primarily of the “object a”. Would it be a genus of objects of desire in general? Or, rather, a species of such a genus?

Can other people and other things, as objects of desire, be regarded simply as species of the genus “object a”? No! Even if it is an abstraction, even if this object is indeed an object of desire, it is not a genre. Could it be a species? No! It is an imaginary object while the other objects are really existent. Does the genus then come to be posited as a singular species of the same genus? See: when acquiring a proper name, it becomes something unique. As there is a quid pro quo here, could it have any rational sense?

The “object a”, in the first place, is placed not in objective reality, but in the sphere of the imaginary, that is, in that part of the psyche that is inhabited by images and fantasies about the world around. Second, he is never that particular, specific, well-defined object to which the desire turns. In a way, the “object a” associates with the objects of the world, but does not identify with them. It is no wonder, therefore, that he appears as enigmatic.

To begin to unravel the mystery, it is necessary to see that Lacan presented it through an analogy that aims to separate it from the objects of reality. According to him, the “object a” is something close to an “agalma”, that is, “something precious” that is contained in trivial things and that, in ancient Greece, were offered to the gods. The agalma was brought to them through an offering whose materiality was irrelevant, even if it was a rare gem. The identity between the “object a” and the agalma, however, is not exactly found in a specific property that both have in common.

What is common between them is that both, apparently and in principle, must be understood as products of conceptual reductions. The agalma is associated with the offerings, but it exists in itself and can be transported by them without being confused with them; the “object a”, likewise, can live together with the determined objects of desire without, however, identifying itself as any of them.

For Lacan, both are products of the imagination and, as such, surreal. But, even so, they do not have an effect on the psyche, as well as effectiveness in conducting human action. From a logical point of view, both appear to be the result of reductions made on the basis of the concrete variety of both offerings and possible objects of desire. They derive from them and from them by means of abstractions, but these – as already mentioned – do not posit their respective genres; distinctly, they put on something they can supposedly just transport.

Where would be the source from which Lacan drank to think this abstraction whose character does not seem explicit? It is certain that he immediately gave it a proper name which conceals its proper logic. It may have been in the psychoanalytic tradition. But it is certain that he found a homology between it and surplus value as it is presented in the first four chapters of The capital from Marx.[ii]

For the latter author, as is known, something adheres to the goods that are produced and circulate in the capitalist mode of production. This something is value, which consists of a quantum of abstract work. If physiological labor is the common thing or generic condition of the concrete labor necessary for the production of use values, it is also the source through which the economic system of capital itself reduces concrete labor to abstract human labor. The values ​​thus constituted manifest themselves in exchange values ​​without being identified with them. This reduction process was later called “real abstraction” to indicate that it does not occur in subjectivity, but objectively; now, this way of conceptualizing seems inappropriate both in the case of “agalma” and “object a”.

In the first case, a generic quality of work – the time spent working – allows for the reduction of concrete work times to abstract work time. A determination of the genre is thus posited as a real singularity: it figures alongside concrete works, but it is concrete work posited really as abstract work, as value.

Now, human desires, like the utilities of particular commodities, are incommensurable with one another; they have nothing in common from which a reduction can be made.[iii] Therefore, this assumption made before can be discarded. The objects of desire are also heterogeneous among themselves. Consequently, the “object a” consists of an imaginary totalization presented by Lacan himself based on his studies and his psychoanalytic reflections. The structuralist abyss into which he falls goes unnoticed, because he treats this abstraction as if it were just something imaginary, something that actually occurs in the minds of humans in general. Therefore, moreover, this reduction, even having the appearance of a measure, does not appear explicitly as a measure.

However, the “object a” appears in the work of this psychoanalyst not as total jouissance, but as a lack of more jouissance. The “subject” generally obtains enjoyment in the pursuit of the objects of desire, but he is never entirely satisfied; behold, driven by the unconscious, the jouissance he seeks is always an unattainable jouissance. Therefore, every jouissance leaves a lack of jouissance, a surplus-jouissance. Lacan does not define the “object a” as a measure, but its character as a measure somehow appears here.

 

More work

Consequently, the homology of the “object a” does not occur directly with value as such, but with part of it, the “surplus value”. This arises from the capitalist production of commodities after their values ​​have been realized in the sphere of circulation. As we know, for Marx, surplus value comes from surplus labor. As is also known, this surplus value is sought by the capitalist in the form of profit, in an incessant search that can never fully satisfy him – or rather, it will always seem insufficient. Just as the “value that values” is added to surplus value, the subject of the unconscious wants to obtain, through the “object a”, an additional jouissance, a surplus jouissance. Lacan himself refers to the “object a” as the locus of surplus-enjoyment, with that which gives rise to this “more”. Now, both the capital that effectively moves the capitalist economy and the desire thus conceived are insatiable – and this point – it should be noted – is fundamental.

And this raises a question: is the supposed insatiability of desire a general human condition as Lacan wants it or a possible determination of the individual in capitalism, which is imposed on him by the logic of capital? In this second case, the “object a” would just be the name of an illusion produced by the way of being of the really existing compulsive subject, capital, as soon as it introjects itself into the unconscious of social individuals. If so, this way of being would only be posited in capitalism. However, even in this mode of production, people's desires do not always obey the logic of the bad infinite. Even if he is always reborn as life goes on – he would not necessarily be compulsive. There is resistance and common sense and, therefore, not all people in capitalism are subsumed under the compulsion of capital – and even those who are, perhaps the vast majority, are not always in the same way. The social class of the individual, for example, makes a difference.

In any case, Lacan encounters a duality whose poles – the desiring individual and capital as an “automatic subject” – seem to suit each other. In this case, the “object a” figures, therefore, as the always insufficient nourishment of desire; a purely imaginary nourishment, but one that would have its own strength because it would sustain desire as such, which, in turn, would sustain the subject, or rather, the quest to be a subject of each person in particular – a quest that Lacan understands as inexorably frustrated even if it is admitted that there are better and worse ways of trying to fulfill oneself as a subject.

In general, this target that contains “object a” figures in the register of the imaginary. It thus appears as the phallus in addressing sexual desire, as the beauty sought in artistic creation, as the surplus wage that would support the worker's family, as the surplus money that increasingly enriches the capitalist, etc. Behold, the “object a” is what can be associated with particular objects, without being confused with them, since it is the object of desire in itself. It is an abstract desire that was supposedly generated from specific desires, disregarding the finitude of all of them.

 

Lacan's critique

Now, this conjecture, which until now has only been presented, can be proved based on Lacan's own texts.[iv] Here is what he said in a very direct but also ambiguous way, in radiofonia"added Value [plus-value] is marxlust [desire-Marx], Marx's surplus-enjoyment”. Now, as we know, surplus value for Marx, as well as value as a whole, is a supersensible sensible property of the commodities themselves and not something merely psychic.

Capitalist sociability, for Marx, creates really existing objective meanings. From this perspective, he dialectically exposes the result of an entire investigation carried out by political economy and by himself on this real object that consists of the capitalist mode of production, an object that has capital as its engine, in its condition of compulsive subject. Now, this subjectivation of the category of plus-something, made by Lacan, needs to be clarified much more.

Here is how Lacan praises and criticizes a central point of The capital, whatever it may be, the one in which Marx discovers surplus value in the transaction between the capitalist and the worker. Here, the latter's labor power is sold to the capitalist for wages, which represent only the cost of its reproduction – not the total value it generates. The apparent difference is profit, but its essence is surplus value. Here's the compliment first:

It is hard not to see that, even before the advent of psychoanalysis, a dimension, which must be called the symptom, had already been introduced; it was articulated to represent in fact the return of truth in a failure of certain knowledge... It can be said that this dimension is highly differentiated in Marx's critique, even if it is not explicit there. It can also be said that part of the reversal of Hegel carried out by him is constituted by the return (a materialist return since it shows his figure and body) of the question of truth.

Here, now, in sequence, his criticism. Before reading it, see that Marx deals with the objectivity that is presented in the language of commodities; for Marx, it should be noted, this language is formed by signs[v] intransparent and that hide their meaning – but not Lacan. This conceives language, fundamentally, as an articulation of signifiers among themselves. Meaning, now, is found in the structure of these signifiers – and no longer in the signifieds per se. There is no doubt, however, that for Marx and for Lacan, meaning is presented through signifiers. But, for the former, who takes the signifier as appearance, it comes from the abstract work placed in the production of the commodity (essence), while, for Lacan, the meaning is posited by the articulation itself as such.

Freud distinguished himself from the rest because he clearly linked the state of the symptom to the state of his own operations. For Freud, this operation consists of the operation of the symptom itself, in two ways. Unlike what is done with a sign (...) a symptom can only be interpreted in the dimension [of the constitution] of meaning. A signifier has meaning only through its relation to another signifier. The truth of the symptoms lies in this joint. The symptoms [especially in Marx] remain vague when they are understood as an irruption of [underlying] truth. In fact, they are truths, (…) but only when they are materialistically posited as truths that are placed at the bottom of the chain of meaning.[vi]

Before continuing, it must be said that it is doubtful to judge that Marx thought of capitalism based on symptoms, although this statement may not be, perhaps, unreasonable. Marx, as is known, presented in The capital the dialectic exposition of the capitalist mode of production that capital itself regulates.

 

return of truth

In sequence, with the help of Pierre Bruno's text, it is necessary to better interpret Lacan's statements presented above, especially the criticisms he addresses to Marx. According to the text consulted here, for Lacan, Marx and Freud coincide in taking the symptom as a “return of truth”. Both are thus materialists and oppose Hegel's idealism which sees truth in the "cunning of reason". However, Freud's materialism differs from Marx's materialism. According to Bruno, “while for Marx, the symptom is a symptom of an [underlying] truth, for Freud, the symptom is already the truth itself [present there]”. In other words, the critique of political economy seeks to reveal an “essence” while psychoanalysis would remain in appearance.

In this intellective operation, note that surplus value becomes surplus enjoyment. How did this become possible? In the passage from the category of sign to the category of signifier (which, in itself, has no meaning) – made, as we know, by Lacan's ingenuity – there is an ontological operation that separates the symbolic reality – seen as the world of the man par excellence – of the underlying real world, that is, of the effectively existing materiality. The latter thus becomes a world transcendent to the symbolic. Now, this operation changes the character of human and social praxis. Instead of praxis meaning the action of the body and mind in the world, there is now a “praxis” that restricts itself to the action of the mind in the symbolic world and leaves the real behind as a sphere of the unknowable as such. This, then, is why Marx's surplus value becomes Lacan's surplus jouissance.

And this can be proved textually. Note, first, that Lacan considered Marx a puritan who, as such, always repressed his own desires and, thus, did not take these desires into account in his investigation in the field of economics. Moreover, he believed that he was enchanted by the measurement and calculation of what fulfills desire, an abstract measure that permeates political economy as a whole. As a result, he treated surplus jouissance as something that can be measured, that can enter into social accounting. Having presented these prejudices about Marx's genius, but necessary for a good understanding of the passage that follows, see now how he himself presented his criticism: "If he had not made an unceasing effort to castrate himself , if he had not computed the surplus of enjoyment, if he had not converted this surplus into surplus value, if, in other words, he had not founded capitalism [on this notion], Marx would have realized that surplus value is surplus enjoyment. .

By carrying out this operation, it should be noted that Lacan implicitly passed from production to the circulation of goods, that is, from the essence of the mode of production to its appearance. For it is in circulation that the price of the commodity is formed, and thus also the price of the commodity labor power, which is always lower than the first price. And this difference, which appears as profit, can then be understood as something that satisfies the capitalist's desire, which provides him with a source of surplus enjoyment, possibly frustrated. The capitalist invests and, in doing so, loses enjoyment; so he always wants to recover it at a higher level. Lacan, then, will consider that the disproportion of jouissance is a characteristic of the capitalist discourse, a discourse in which the true reality of capitalism can be apprehended.

Both Marx and himself, in Lacan's understanding, consider capitalist profit as a symptom. But there remains a crucial difference: if, for the first, the symptom would be a symptom of a truth that lives in commodity production, for the second, this truth is found in the symptom itself, that is, in the way it manifests itself in circulation. mercantile, in the signifiers associated with goods.

According to Bruno, “the difference in Marx's position [in relation to psychoanalysis] can be established in a simple way: while for Marx, the symptom is a symptom of a truth, for Freud [according to Lacan] the symptom is the truth itself”. “The symptom” – says Pavón-Cuellar– “is incorporated in the proletarian condition, which is shared by all human beings, since they are all reduced to being labor forces”. As such, they are put to work in capitalist enterprises and, in doing so, realize “the discourse of the Other”. There would thus be a theory of exploitation founded on subjectivity (loss of jouissance) – and not on socially significant objectivity. And this point gives rise to the strongest Lacanian criticism of the author of The capital.

The attack can be presented as follows. Marx undoubtedly discovered a loss; but, by locating the truth of profit in the exploitation of the worker, he considered this damage as an objective damage that falls on an entire social class, the proletariat. In doing so, he took this class as a “mass”, that is, as a dormant collective force that could awaken, which could thus come to be an effective subject in the course of history. He considered, then, that this collective agent “in itself”, to eliminate the loss that capitalism imposes on it, needed to become “for itself”, transforming itself into a revolutionary force.

Thus, in order to effectively establish itself as an effective subject, this class needed to adopt a new “lord”, a party capable of leading it to revolution.[vii] By doing so, implicitly, she would already be submitting herself to an authoritarian master who knows the end of history, as well as the means to reach it. For this very reason, the “proletarian revolution” so dreamed of by the communists could not have eliminated capitalism, but could only have responded to it in another way, which is this, in the form of real socialism.

Now, this thesis, despite its conceptual straying, seems to have been proven in history. However, it cannot be corroborated by Marx's texts. There is no statement here that the socialist revolution requires the leadership of a single centralized party – the party that, in fact, came to be at the origin of real socialism. On the other hand, it is safe to suggest that, according to Marx, the class itself comes into being through historical emergence, not with the spur of a voluntarist party.

On the contrary, there is the affirmation that socialism, as a new mode of production, requires that “workers be freely organized”, that is, that they participate in a true democracy. The one-party thesis, as is well known, only became dominant at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. Notorious leaders, by the way, such as Rosa Luxemburgo, thought of the party as the “proper movement of the working class”; others, like Lenin, conceived the party as a vanguard carrying the interests of the working class and knowledge about the course of history.[viii]

As the latter conception prevailed, the path to the historical failure of socialism was opened. Given the hegemony of capitalism in the world economy, socialism in a backward country could hardly escape the logic of competition, that is, the logic of capital. This is how the revolution overthrew a master to put another in his place.[ix]

* 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).

 

References


German, Jorge. Capitalism – Crimen perfecto or emancipation. Barcelona: Editions NED, 2018.

Almeida, Angela M. From One Party to Stalinism. Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2021.

Bailly, Lionel. Lacan – Beginners Guide. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009.

Bruno, Pierre. Lacan and Marx – The invention of the symptom. London/New York: Routldge, 2020.

Pavon-Cuellar, David. “Marx in Lacan: proletarian truth in opposition to capitalist psychology”. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, flight. 9, 2011.

Prado, Eleutério FS Critical materialism and symbolic materialism. In: https://eleuterioprado.blog/2021/08/23/materialismo-critico-versus-materialismo-sibolico/

Safatle, Vladimir. Ways of transforming worlds – Lacan, politics and emancipation. Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2020.

Tomžič, Samo. The Unconscious Capitalist: Marx and Lacan. London: Verso, 2015.

 

Notes


[I] Here follows the exposition of chapter 8 of the book by Lionel Bailly (2009).

[ii]Tomžič, for example, states that the “object a, an object of jouissance, is also the object that is logically associated with surplus value” (2015, p. 50).

[iii] This lack of rigor is also found in the neoclassical theory of prices, since it is based on a totalization of the specific utilities of goods in a given “total utility”, an impossible measure since the former are incommensurable with each other.

[iv] Here follows Pierre Bruno's exposition contained in appendix 1 and 2 of his book Lacan and Marx. The first one is called Lacan's Portrait of Marx; And the second The insatiable.

[v]Signs are duplicities formed by meanings and signifiers, not necessarily fixed or even stable on a daily basis. For Marx, signs form social objectivity. On the contrary, Lacan dismisses signs as illusions, to see objectivity only in signifiers as such.

[vi] On this distinction, see Prado (2021).

[vii] This is how Jorge Alemán criticizes this “illusion” of Marx and Marxists in general: they admitted that “there is a kind of supposed subject who knows the course of history, that is, a class that itself knows how to conduct the process and reach to the ultimate goal of dissolving classes. See Alemán (2018).

[viii] See Almeida (2021).

[ix] See Safatle (2021).

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