the speech of homo economist



Jacques Lacan's capitalist discourse is a structuralist mystification

the figure of homo economist as a way of characterizing the way of calculating and acting of the featherless biped when it is involved in commercial activities, it appeared together with the birth of political economy,[I] roughly speaking, in the XNUMXth century. The best reflection on this achievement in the field of modern science was made by John Stuart Mill in his The definition of Political Economy and its research method, published in 1832. Then, considering this knowledge as a moral or psychological science, he explicitly defines political economy as follows:

The science that deals with the production and distribution of wealth insofar as they depend on the laws of human nature (…) on the moral or psychological laws of the production and distribution of wealth.[ii]

However, what is wealth? John Stuart Mill, in his seminal article, presents a definition in which wealth appears as a collection of goods and services that have utility and that need to be produced by human labor: “Wealth [consists of] all objects useful or convenient to humanity , with the exception of those that can be obtained in indefinite quantities without work”.[iii]

However, what are the laws of human nature, to which John Stuart Mill makes emphatic reference? To provide a structural answer to this question, define the homo economist in the form of a subjective abstraction: “Science proceeds by investigating the laws which govern the various operations [connected with the production and distribution of wealth], under the assumption that man is a being who is determined, by the necessity of his nature, to to prefer a greater portion of wealth rather than a smaller one in all cases.”[iv]

Political economy presupposes a definition of man as a being who invariably accomplishes what [he desires, to obtain] (…) the greatest sum of necessary things, conveniences and luxuries with the least amount of work and physical self-denial required in the existing state of the world. knowledge.[v]

Note, then, that John Stuart Mill defines this main actor in the social scene investigated by political economy as a being driven by an “oceanic” desire and who therefore appears, strangely, as insatiable. And this desire that lives in your mind – he says – is inherent to you, as it belongs to your own nature.

He lives in a state of society, but political economy considers this man “individually, as if no other human being existed besides himself”.[vi] One could not speak of this atomism, however, as if it were a kind of autism, but perhaps one could consider that the economic agent, thus conceived, suffers from an autistic illusion. This illusion is imposed on him by the form of the indirect social relationship which, according to Marx, turns out to be a social relationship of things, that is, of goods.

Although the social scene is clearly modern society, John Stuart Mill seems to define the homo economist as an anthropological foundation. In the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, it can be said, then, that this homo participates in a discourse in which there is no direct social bond, since the social relations that it implicitly establishes, as Marx says about commodity fetishism, manifest themselves as social relations of things. In any case, it can be said that he presents typical behavior in which there is a deficit in communication and social interaction, as well as a surplus of repetitive and stereotyped attitudes. His motivation is selfish and his behavior is rational, as he uses the means optimally to always obtain the best result for himself.

Therefore, the moral philosopher Stuart Mill is shaken and vacillates in the face of this observation, stating in his aforementioned article that this homo comes to economic science through a methodological procedure, which appears necessary and, more than that, is intrinsic to it – and “not because every political economist is so ridiculous as to suppose that humanity is really constituted in this way” .[vii]

Now, this monstrous figure is a category of economic science, which has veracity, because it turns out to be – as Karel Kosik says – “a historical form of objectification of man”: “The homo economist It is man as part of the system, as a functional element of the system and, as such, must be provided with the fundamental characteristics essential to its functioning. The hypothesis that the science of economic phenomena is based on psychology (…) uncritically accepts the phenomenal appearance of reality. (…) If the homo economist is an abstraction, but it is a reasonable abstraction.”[viii]

Next, we will try to show here that the homo economist of classical political economy, truer than that of neoclassical theory, forms an existential unity with the homo alienatis[ix] of Jacques Lacan's metapsychology, which he calls the barred subject, truly constituting himself as a subject subjected to the system of capital relations.

By homo alienatis This is understood as the “subject” alienated from the object “a”, that is, from the metaphysical object, supposedly lost, which functions as the ultimate cause of human desire in general and which makes it insatiable. Now, in the second chapter of The capital, this class of “subjects” is presented as formed by “economic characters embodied by people [who] are nothing more than personifications of economic relations”.[X]

To achieve this objective, it is necessary to make a critical presentation of what he calls, from a structuralist perspective, capitalist discourse. Therefore, we seek to provide a heuristic proof that the double signifier presented below makes sense.

Note that it is presented here through a kind of problematic reason, in which the superior position is occupied by the signifier of appearance and the inferior position is occupied by the signifier of essence. The bar that separates the two signifiers that form this contradictory unity indicates that the truth of the “subject” that is in the light needs to be investigated and discovered in its dark cave with the beacon of criticism. This is a synthetic way of saying that the first signifier presents and hides the second, in such a way that this unity of meaning expresses the conscious/unconscious duplicity.

In words, the homo economist vulgar is in essence the homo alienatis.

The truth of the “apparent rational subject” of political economy turns out to be, ultimately, a “subject” alienated from the economic system, a social organization in which the capital relationship prevails, as Karel Kosik suggests. Now, this hidden dimension of his was thematized by the psychoanalyst who never strives to be clear, Jaques Lacan, through an extension of the four fundamental discourses of psychoanalysis.

Therefore, it can be seen that the term discourse has in its corpus theoretical a specific meaning. This consists of a way of establishing social interaction based on the possible mediation of language and is usually represented schematically by a structure of positions that contains signifiers and directions. Lacan proposes that discourses are ways of using language to establish social bonds, as well as to obtain consistency in such relationships. In his understanding, discourse is always based on the significant structure, that is, on an organization of signifiers (or even, to be more explicit, on the material part of words).

In this sense, the privileged discourse of capitalism – which Lacan calls the discourse of the capitalist –, that is, that which prevails and dominates in the capitalist mode of production, is represented by four signifiers organized in a matheme (term from the Lacanian lexicon), as if shows below:

In this matheme, S1 it is called the master signifier and it indicates the ability to command and, more than that, the command characteristic of the person who occupies this position in a social context; for example, it indicates the slave owner if the context is slavery as a genre of a type of exploitative sociability. The significant S2 represents a means of enjoyment, something or someone that the S1 to obtain satisfaction. In this same social context, he indicates the slave who, with his knowledge of how to produce goods and services, is capable of meeting the desire of the slave master.

“a” indicates the metaphysical object of desire which, for this very reason, is not satisfied with being this or that, one good or another, but is projected as a bad infinity, thus indicating that the desire that aims at it is insatiable. In Lacan's theorization, the object “a” is that which presents the first foundation of the human being in general in its maximum abstraction – and not a historical injunction, an apparent result of sociability based on the capital relationship. Finally, $ is the subject of the unconscious as conceived by Lacan, which here is reinterpreted, in a true way, as a non-subject, but as an alienated, a subject. At the same time as it is the truth of S1, it is located in a distant or eccentric position in relation to the other signifiers.

Contrary to Stuart Mill, Lacan implicitly puts the homo economist like the man . Contrary to Lacan, here it is thought that this homo it is just a historical objectification. In this sense, the homo alienatis $ becomes the “subject” alienated from capital and the object “a” then consists, simply, in the subjectivation of the value that is valued, that is, in an imago of capital theoretically placed in the psyche of social individuals. For this reason, the object “a” can be represented in the appearance of the system (reduced and thought of as a discourse) by an infinite chain of goods.

In any case, below is the mathematics of the capitalist's discourse, which, as it is a mere discourse, presents capitalism only in the sphere of commercial circulation. In any case, here the original matheme is re-presented assuming a certain freedom of expression, with the aim of adapting it to the context of classical political economy.

Note that the positions $, S2, a, S1 of the matheme in its very abstract form correspond, respectively, to consumer, labor force, commodity and money as capital in its most concrete form. Before explaining what this structure of positions occupied by signifiers means, see what an illustrious Lacanian, Antonio Quinet, says about this discourse that has capitalism as its reference.

Read, therefore, the excerpt quoted below in which some critical clarifications were introduced in keys, which purposefully change even the content of the author's imprecise statements: “In truth, it is a discourse that excludes the other from the social bond [direct , but not the entire bond since this, in this case, is reified], as the subject [read this term with quotation marks] only relates to the commodity objects commanded by the master signifier [money as] capital. It is a discourse that does not form a [direct] social bond – as can be seen in its matheme, in which there is no relationship [of interaction] between the agent and another to whom this discourse is addressed. In the place of truth lies capital (S1) as the master signifier of this discourse; the subject [read in quotation marks] is reduced to a consumer ($) of things or gadgets (a) [that is, the goods] produced by the [workforce with a certain] science [and technology] (S2)” .[xi]

Now, see that this matheme is structured in the form of a circuit, which is indicated by the arrows on it. The latter together form an infinity, that is, a closed circuit in the form of an ∞ – a pair of glasses in which one sees, not by chance, mathematical infinity. Now, this occurs because the logic of infinite development of capital is imprinted on this abstract circuit, but not as it is presented in The capital, that is, in the sphere of production, but in the sphere of commercial circulation in which the fulcrum of the system disappears.

Consequently, this logic can be read as follows: the consumer, who is a homo economist insatiable, it drives money as investment capital; the latter, in turn, drives production which, from the perspective of classical political economy, crucially depends on work, which operates with certain means of production and with a determined incorporated and non-incorporated technology.

Work consists of the realization of labor power, a power that transforms things through concrete work. This work results in an infinity of commodities, which are use values ​​and exchange values. And they are infinitely purchased by the consumer, thus closing the circuit.

Therefore, through this discourse, it is seen that the engine of the dynamics of capitalism is found in the very homo economist as part of classical political economy and certainly vulgar economics – and not in the economic system of capital itself as found in Marx. Now, this vision of capitalism that finds its fulcrum in a supposed nature of the human being, who would be an irrecoverable egoist and an insatiable consumer, cannot be found, at least without reservations and without hesitations, in moral philosophers such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and even in realistic speculators like David Ricardo. They all know that the source of capitalism's dynamism is found not in the individual, but in society.

Now, ending this note, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that Jacques Lacan's capitalist discourse is a structuralist mystification that, implicitly, makes the system of capital relations an infinitely durable social good.

In order not to be too harsh in evaluating this formulation by the most famous psychoanalyst after Freud, this article ends with a quote from Pietro Bianchi: “Lacan, in fact, does not seem to have adequately understood Marxist analysis (…). Proof of this is found when Lacan tries to translate the functioning of discourses into an analysis of capitalism as a historical formation with the infamous fifth discourse – the capitalist's discourse. On this occasion, Lacan presents a profoundly non-Marxist account, based on a presumably infinite and manic impulse of consumption, triggered by capitalism, which would ignore the insurmountable limit of lack and castration”.[xii]

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).


[I] The term, as is known, was originally introduced by Antoine de Montchrestien, in 1615, in his book Treatise on Political Economy.

[ii] Stuart Mill, John – The definition of Political Economy and its research method. In: The thinkers, vol. XXXIV, Bentham and Mill. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1974, p.

[iii] Op cit., p. 298.

[iv] Ditto, p. 301.

[v] Ditto, p. 304.

[vi] Ditto, p. 298.

[vii] Ditto, p. 301.

[viii] Kosik, Karel – Dialectic of concrete. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969, p. 83 (

[ix] Prado, Eleutério FS – The construction of homo alienatis. Website: the earth is round, 03/09/2023.

[X] Marx, Carl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1983, p. 80.

[xi] Quinet, Antonio – Psychosis and social bonds – schizophrenia, paranoia and melancholia. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2009, p. 39 (

[xii] Bianchi, Pietro – From representation to class struggle. In: Journal of the Jan van Eyck Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 2012, p. 114-126.

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