The immanent paradox of the social

George Grosz, The Eclipse of the Sun, 1926.


The antisocial tendencies of capital, where surplus-value is defined by uselessness

At the outset, it may be worth remembering Lacan's occasional “definition” of jouissance, which condenses the various complications at play at the level of the drive and its satisfaction: “jouissance is that which serves no purpose”, no use. In other words, jouissance contributes nothing to the satisfaction of needs and has no use or purpose except itself.

Understood in this way, jouissance means “pleasure for the sake of pleasure” – and the term “more-enjoyment”, which Lacan coined with reference to Marx's surplus-value, intends to raise the distance between jouissance and utility to a concept level. Likewise, according to Marx, surplus value points to an essential characteristic of capitalism, the organization of production around the imperative of perpetual growth and increase in value, that is, around “production for production's sake”. We will return to this crucial characterization later.

The surplus jouissance, therefore, represents the jouissance characterized by its uselessness. “Enjoyment is waste”, as Alenka Zupancic states. This characteristic concerns specifically the capitalist mode of jouissance.[I] But then, what does this say about the capitalist social bond? Freud already drew attention to the libidinal character of social relations, that is, in other words, he stated that these relations should be considered as libidinal bonds.[ii] Viewed through the lens of drive theory, the social is immediately torn internally between consistency and dissolution. The pair Eros and death drive contains a tension.

In the form of Eros, the drive supposedly forms links between men and, in this sense, actively contributes to the constitution and reproduction of social ties. This “socialization” of the drive allows Freud to state that Eros is “the preserver of life” since it “keeps everything together in the world” by imposing the externalization of the narcissistic libido, turned towards itself. But it would be wrong to see an agency of balance in Eros, since Freud introduced the death drive precisely as the libidinal force that tends to restore the ultimate balance, which is the inanimate state. Eros thus emerges as a force that fights to preserve the imbalance that is the way of life. It can unite “everything in the world”, but at the price of sustaining disequilibrium. From the point of view of the death drive, this unstable libidinal bond tends towards its own dissolution.

Freud believed that, due to this internal contradiction of the social/libidinal, it made sense to maintain the duplicity of the drives. Lacan's return to Freud notoriously shifted the accent on the immanent split of the drive, according to which Eros and the death drive are two faces of the same force. It thus suggests that the social bond should also be thought of in its immanent tendency to dissolution. The death drive consists of a specific dimension of Eros, its determined negation, the backfire of the preservation of life. Or rather, the opposite of the preservation of life inherent to the erotic drive, regardless of individual barriers. Furthermore, the death drive names the antisocial force contained in social bonds, an immanent paradox of the social.

The homology of Lacan's surplus enjoyment and Marx's surplus value suggests that surplus value - understood as a fruition of the capitalist system[iii] – is also useless. And, like surplus enjoyment, surplus value is also a non-social product of social production. Marx's discussion of the change in status of the mode of accumulation from premodernity (the figure of the miser) to modernity (the figure of the capitalist) addresses this complication. Capitalism's main conquest consisted in the externalization of the accumulation drive.

And this externalization curbed individual greed or mania, which are characteristic of pre-capitalist modes of production. In these modes of production, the drive had the character of a finite force, dependent on the “personification” of the miser and his treasure. Capital, in turn, overcomes the boundaries of the treasury and represents the liberation of the creative potential of value in all its abstraction (Marx occasionally speaks of the Zeugungskraft of money, procreative force, which is precisely unlimited).

Furthermore, the success of capitalism consisted in founding an entire mode of social production on the relationship between destruction and growth, two aspects of the same uselessness: surplus value can only be extracted from natural resources under the condition of environmental destruction; and it can only be extracted from living bodies on condition of their consumption and exhaustion, hence, again, their destruction. Although it seems that capitalism embedded in the social is something that appears antisocial as in the case of the miser, it actually freed the antisocial, totaling a social and economic order, in which the social is an extension of the antisocial (just as for Freud, the reality principle is an extension of the pleasure principle).

Sustaining capital's self-valorization drive, surplus value is placed as an object through which the social is converted into the antisocial. Marx took aim at the non-social tendency of the capital drive when he described capitalist production as "production for production's sake".[iv], a self-sufficient production that is not guided by an external social purpose. To repeat, if surplus value is the enjoyment of the capitalist system, then this implies that the aim of capitalist production is the expansion of uselessness and the progressive dissolution of the social through the asocial.

The main objective of overproduction is to satisfy the systemic drive to value value. If something like the satisfaction of human needs and the preservation of life still occurs in the valuation process, it is merely complementary; in no way does it consist of something that stems from the immanent tendencies of capital. In the end, capitalism's perseverance in maintaining “business as usual”, even in the age of accelerating climate breakdown and systemic destruction of living conditions, only further demonstrates that the logical development of capitalism moves from the social to the asocial. The climate breakdown then appears as capitalism's ultimate surplus product, the equivalent of its disastrous pursuit of futility in the guise of perpetually rising profit and economic growth.

Ironically – and anticipating in his work, moreover, the liberalism and neoliberalism of the XNUMXth century in the search for legitimacy that consists in giving a social role to selfishness –, Adam Smith intuited the asocial dimension of capitalism in general and of interest in particular. which, according to him, allows human beings to sustain their social relationships. Smith, for example, draws attention to the fact that the private interest of corporations like the West India Company is necessarily in open contradiction with the public interest.

With this contradiction in hand, Smith makes no effort to resolve the problem; it assumes that there is no immanent tendency of the world market towards equilibrium; differently, he introduces the notorious “invisible hand”, thus resorting to a metaphysical force to supposedly grant a social role to the rich, corporations and the market.[v] We may recall in passing that the invisible hand appears in Smith's work only a few times. A much more common concept is the term "providence" with its obvious metaphysical charge. Now, this is how Smith's political economy is given a theological and teleological turn. At the same time, the invisible hand and providence represent the regulatory forces, which push for the social incorporation of the antisocial tendencies of the rich, corporations and, ultimately, capital.

To translate this into Lacanian language, if the “market” is the modern figure of the Other, the symbolic order, in which we are all immersed as political subjects and as social beings, then the invisible hand and providence represent “the Other of the Other”. , the metaphysical guarantee of the completeness, stability and balance of the Other, that is, of the market. This, therefore, starts to have a fundamentally social character – albeit mediately.

Now, the hypothesis of the Other of the Other is inoperative. Consequently, the market consists of a permanent structural imbalance and, even more, of a fundamentally asocial order, whose perseverance and reproduction ultimately imply the death of the human subject. To assert that "society does not exist" or that "greed is good" is to take the step that was as yet unimaginable for Smith, fully embracing the antisocial tendency of the capitalist drive toward permanent economic growth, toward increasing value solely in the name of your increase.

Populist denial of the reality of climate breakdown, or even open indifference to its unfolding consequences, provides another, more contemporary expression of capital's antisocial tendencies. no trace of the lost belief in capitalism as a mode of social production. In this sense, populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Viktor Orban, as well as entire political parties such as the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) or the US Republicans, in fact serve as the ultimate exemplification of the antisocial tendencies of capital. .

One hears that the goal of populists is to cause fear or anxiety. But is this really the case? Already a superficial glimpse shows that the aim of populism is causing resentment, an asocial affection par excellence. Unlike anxiety, which despite all appearances can motivate the subject to social action, resentment aims at the repression of the other and even annihilation, as the recent developments of the refugee crisis have shown. Therefore, it is completely “logical” that populism imposes racism (annihilation of the ethnic other: refugees, migrants, Muslims, Jews, etc.), sexism (annihilation of the sexual other: homosexuals, transgenders, women) and, finally, classism. (annihilation of the economic other: proletarians, self-employed, homeless, elderly, etc.).[vi]

In the same movement, the populist denial of the collapse of the climate points out that another ideal, which founded modernity, has reached its limit, the ideal of “domination of nature” shared by modern science and the capitalist economy. The idea of ​​domination – and therefore of exploitation – suggests that the alteration of the environmental conditions of life and the progressive dissolution of the social are reverse faces of each other: if climate disruption confronts us with the hidden truth of modern epistemology as an economic ideal, so too exposes the realization of the antisocial dimension of capitalism. In this respect, climate breakdown is the ultimate surplus product of capitalism.[vii]

Advocates of economic growth in our age of irreversible and accelerating climate breakdown ultimately concede that capitalism does not allow for the existence of a social economy–but only an asocial economy, which continually dissolves social relations and environmental conditions around the world. life. With regard to this capitalist tendency, Marx's abbreviation M–M' (ie, the money that makes money) means much more than the self-valorization of capital. If in capitalism economic exchange is considered the paradigmatic realization of the social bond – what Marx abbreviated as M – D – M (commodity – money – commodity) – then the subversion of the social dimension of exchange is already indicated in its capitalist inversion, or that is, M –M – M' (money – merchandise – increase of money).

What is truly fictitious in M–M' is the social realization of “automatic growth”, of a supposed social dimension of surplus value. Repeating once more, Lacan's homology implies that surplus value is defined by uselessness and, in that respect, behaves like jouissance according to Freud. In both contexts, the object of the drive is a surplus of the asocial over the social, the parasitism of the asocial over the social. Both surpluses ultimately amount to systemic waste, another type of surplus object, which already at the level of its phenomenology demonstrates nothing but uselessness.

*Lucas Pohl is a professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

*Samo Tomsic is a researcher at the Bild Wissen Gestaltung interdisciplinary laboratory at the Humboldt University in Berlinn. Author, among other books, from The Unconscious Capitalism: Marx and Lacan (Verse).

Translation: Eleutério Prado

Book excerpt Imagining apocalyptic politics in the anthropocene (Routledge).

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[I] One can cite here the usual criticism of consumerism, although the restriction of excess jouissance to consumption would run the risk of psychologizing jouissance and the drive again, thus removing the systemic dimension or the uselessness of the picture. Lacan's implicit thesis is that the organization of jouissance around useless surplus is what characterizes the epoch or capitalism.

[ii] Freud's most systematic account of this issue is Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.

[iii] The formulation “enjoyment of the system” addresses the continuum between the subjective mode of jouissance and the social mode of production, that is, systemic jouissance (jouissance belonging to the system) and individual jouissance in and of capitalism.

[iv] In the same context, Marx speaks of or “accumulation for the sake of accumulation”, which only additionally identifies the social character of capitalism.

[v] Here is how Smith exposes the invisible hand: “Therefore, since each individual seeks, as far as possible, to employ his capital in fostering national activity, and so directing that activity that its product will have the maximum possible value, each individual necessarily strives to increase as much as possible the annual income of society. Generally, in reality, he does not intend to promote the public interest nor does he know how far he is promoting it. By preferring to encourage the activity of the country and not of other countries, he only has his own security in view; and directing his activity in such a way that his produce may be of the greatest value, he aims only at his own gain, and in this, as in many other cases, is led as by an invisible hand to further an object which was no part of his intentions. . Incidentally, it is not always worse for society if this objective is not part of the individual's intentions. In pursuing his own interests, the individual often promotes the interest of society much more effectively than when he actually intends to promote it. I have never heard that great things have been done for the country by those who pretend to trade for the public good. Indeed, it is a device not very common among merchants, and it does not take many words to dissuade them from it.” It is quite peculiar to see Smith formulate here of himself “they do it without knowing it” (they don't know it, but they do it, according to Marx). For Smith, the social is a compulsion in the lives of the rich, which obliges them to curb, if not overcome, their selfishness. Marx turns this optimistic perspective on its head: the compulsion comes from the antisocial tendencies of capital itself and sabotages every attempt at internal social action.

[vi] To these three characteristics one can add a fourth, anti-science, the rejection of critical knowledge about nature, society and subjectivity.

[vii] During the corona pandemic, the true duty of every citizen was clearly formulated: to die for the economy. The fact that this message came from the mouths of populist leaders should not lead us to believe that liberal defenders of the status quo did not subscribe to it. Capitalism is basically based on imposed sacrifice. Lacan intuited this when he insisted that capitalism imposes the renunciation of jouissance as a condition for the production of surplus jouissance. The first figure of enjoyment that must be renounced for capitalism to live (that is, to accumulate more and more) is life itself.

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