the unconscious worker

Paul Nash, Landscape of a Dream, 1936-8


Combining Marxism and psychoanalysis consists of recognizing that the critique of political economy always requires a critique of libidinal economy and vice versa.

The fragile alliance between Marxism and psychoanalysis

In the last decade, crisis-driven developments in capitalism have triggered renewed interest in the theoretical and political intersections between Marxism and psychoanalysis. The political value of psychoanalysis continues to be linked to the fact that Freud significantly resignified the issue of alienation with his theory of the unconscious. Furthermore, he elaborated a complex denaturalized conception of sexuality and provided comprehensive insights into the intertwining of power and enjoyment.

The common thread of several historical and contemporary attempts to ally Marxism and psychoanalysis consists, therefore, in the recognition that the critique of political economy always requires a critique of libidinal economy and vice versa. However, the interaction between Marxism and psychoanalysis has always been marked by mutual distrust, criticism and distancing. Of course, working in his alliance does not imply that Freud's therapeutic method, his conceptual frameworks and clinical goals are entirely in tune with the perspectives of emancipatory politics.

Still, there are important lessons to be drawn from the notion of the unconscious and other fundamental Freudian concepts that question or criticize modern conceptions of subjectivity in terms of consciousness, autonomy, intentionality, and freedom. Another political perspective stems from Freud's focus on the social genesis of 'mental illness', his exposure of the traumatic impact of structural imperatives and social processes. In his writings on culture, Freud openly recognized in exploitation, war and crisis three essential characteristics of capitalism, which a traumatic etiology of neurosis must take into account.

Again, this recognition alone does not make Freud a thinker of emancipation, but his name and work are the site of a philosophical, epistemological, and political conflict, a terrain that the left should strive to claim rather than discard. Freud as an obsolete or reactionary thinker. Freud's paradigm of emancipatory appropriation remains the work of Juliet Mitchell (2000). A broader discussion of the place of psychoanalysis in the history of feminism can be found in Campbell (2016: 233-52).

Freud's analytic method has been suspected of being class therapy and his theories a reflection of bourgeois ideology (according to this clichéd critique, the Oedipus complex repeatedly describes the pathology of the bourgeois family, the central role of the father expresses the tendencies Freud's patriarchs, etc.).

Freud's occasional rejection of Marxism, as well as his insistence that psychoanalysis neither promoted nor amounted to a political worldview, seems to be trapped in clichés and superficialities. His polemic aimed to counteract the politicization of psychoanalysis that occurred in the works of the first Freudo-Marxists, such as Wilhelm Reich, Otto Fenichel and Otto Gross. These authors, as is known, opted for an alliance between psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism.[I]

Beyond the issue of political worldviews, Freudo-Marxism circumvented an important ambiguity in the way in which Freud conceived the connection between libidinal forces (drives) and social structures (culture). For Freud, the drive was, in the last analysis, a limiting phenomenon, neither “psychological” (cultural) nor “physiological” (natural). This implied that drive was distinct from instinct,[ii] a presumed natural force, on which culture would impose restrictive vicissitudes (triebschicksale) – destinations, in which the drive could only achieve mediated, partial or substitutive satisfaction. In their conviction that human libidinal forces must be released, early Freudo-Marxists restricted the wider range of Freud's views.

Most importantly, for Freud there is no uncorrupted natural impulse outside of their cultural destinies; the drive is a force that demands mediated satisfaction. As human libidinal forces do not know an uncorrupted natural state, the clinical task of psychoanalysis cannot consist in their liberation, but in the transformation of the problematic destination of the drive. Here, Freud strongly separates himself from Freudo-Marxism.

The Freudian-Marxist renewal of the opposition between drives and culture leads its representatives to a misunderstanding about the notion of “repression” (Verdrängung). This mental mechanism in Freud designates the most common destination of the drive, as well as its satisfaction through contours and deviations, while, in thinkers like Reich, it came to mean exclusively “oppression”.[iii] Furthermore, in the Freudian context, the drive represents a conservative force that is supposed to explain the compulsive subjective and social resistance against change in the prevailing mode of jouissance.[iv] From the Freudian perspective, jouissance, therefore, cannot be a subversive political factor; more than anything, it is an essential way of working for the system.

In contrast to the “Marxist wing” of the first psychoanalytic community, the Frankfurt School's view of the political implications of psychoanalysis seems more committed to the letter of classical Freudianism and its speculative developments, such as the death drive. Theodor W. Adorno famously wrote: “For psychoanalysis, nothing is true except exaggerations” (Adorno, 2005: 29). In fact, it was by expanding the meaning of short circuits, errors and apparently minor and insignificant disturbances in conscious thought that Freud ended up developing an unprecedented theory of human subjectivity and the cultural condition of the human being.

Herbert Marcuse was arguably the one who took critical theory's engagement with Freudian psychoanalysis the furthest. At first, his attempt to combine Freud with Marxism may be criticized by Michel Foucault (1976), that is, that he fell into the “repressive hypothesis”. This is the aforementioned conviction that cultural mechanisms in general and capitalism in particular deprive libidinal forces of direct satisfaction.

A closer look at Marcuse's views on the relationships between libido and social structures, however, shows that his position is more ambiguous. At the center of his critique is the link between pleasure and exploitation, which he examines through the shift from the old regime of repression to the specificity of repression in advanced industrial capitalism and its “one-dimensional” consumerist society. The libidinal economy within the system was now organized around the mechanism of “repressive desublimation” (Marcuse, 1991: 56-83).[v]

From the psychoanalytical perspective, capitalism actually appears as a culture of imposed jouissance. And Marcuse's developments already point to the connection between compulsive jouissance and surplus-value extraction or even to the conversion of jouissance into surplus-value. The latter would then represent the quantified, systemic enjoyment specific to the capitalist organization of the social and libidinal economy. It is also here that the Lacanian contribution to the renewal of Freudo-Marxism comes into play.

If Freud himself was at the center of Freudo-Marxist discussions, contemporary debates about the political meaning of psychoanalysis are largely focused on Lacan. Behold, his mature work combined Marx and Freud through an epistemological and philosophical reading that pointed to the existence of a homology between the two theoretical achievements. Behold, a structural problem is shared by them; and it cuts across the critique of political economy and psychoanalysis.[vi]

Just as for Marx “individuals are… personifications of economic categories, bearers of class relations and particular interests” (Marx, 1990: 92), for Lacan they are personifications of symbolic categories and discursive relations; their suffering bodies are the terrain, where the autonomy and causality of the symbolic order, including the economic one, manifest themselves as disturbance and compulsive action.


The Unconscious Worker - Freud's Theory of the Work of the Unconscious

Paraphrasing Foucault's notion of “power-knowledge”, it can be said that psychoanalysis, from the beginning, revolved around the “power-jouissance” nexus. Although Freud's first comments on the cultural condition still took place against the backdrop of the opposition between nature and culture, he soon realized that power relations and libidinal ties form a continuum.[vii] As Lacan occasionally observed “the only discourse is… the discourse of jouissance” (Lacan, 2006b: 78).

In other words, the production of jouissance cannot be eliminated from any symbolic system, speech act or social bond. Abolishing this problematic surplus would ultimately require the complete dissolution of language. For this reason, psychoanalysis also cannot subscribe to political ideals such as the “liberation of sexuality” or the “abolition of alienation”, which are often associated with popularized versions of Freudo-Marxism (justifiably with Reich, less so with Marcuse).

Capitalism itself seems to have introduced its own version of such liberation through universal commodification. Thus, to repeat Marcuse and Lacan's framing of the problem, he created his own regime of repressive desublimation and imposed jouissance. Needless to say, this development did not have any disalienating or liberating consequences for the subject. Perhaps, on the other hand, it has demonstrated that there is an incompatibility between jouissance and emancipation.

The etiology of Freud's neuroses reminds us that socioeconomic order plays a significant role in the genesis of “mental illnesses”. In writings like Beyond the pleasure bases (1920) and A. civilization and its discontents (1930), Freud openly insists that the proliferation of traumatic neuroses is an inevitable collateral damage of capitalism. On the one hand, there is the evident etiological connection between traumatic neurosis and two crucial aspects of capitalism, war and crisis; on the other hand, there is another aspect, and this one concerns the problem linked to the capitalist organization of work and enjoyment; they revolve around the insatiable systemic imperative of surplus-value production and around the superego's injunction to jouissance.[viii]

Seen in this light, traumatized or damaged subjectivity actually represents a “social symptom”.[ix] Of course, it would be wrong to see the neuroses as a creation of capitalism (Freud did not come to this conclusion). But economic and technological development seems to reinforce rather than reduce cultural trauma.

remember the figure grotesque version of the “prosthetic God” that Freud introduces in his discussion of the malaise of modern culture.[X] In contrast to the economic man of liberalism and neoliberalism, psychoanalysis accentuates the weakness of the human subject, whose artificial organs barely disguise his incomplete and alienated nature.

Lacan went further in this critical direction, remembering that the final point of alienation remains anchored in the abstract and practically infinite character of work: “it is true, then, that work (of dreams, among others) frees itself from calculating thinking and even judgmental. He knows what he must do. This is how it can be defined: it presupposes a “subject” who is The worker” (Lacan, 2001: 551). Lacan evokes here the controversial German conservative Ernst Jünger and his 1932 book, the worker, but it also aims at Marx and his “the ideal worker, transformed into the flower of the capitalist economy” (Lacan, 1990: 14).

Psychoanalysis thus faces the problem of abstract work, an economic category that Lacan explicitly associates with the Freudian description of unconscious work in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). As a structural being – that is, as the personification of an economic abstraction – the worker does not think, judge or calculate: in other words, abstract work refers to unconscious thinking. Although the “ideal worker” does not exist, Lacan explains the problematic mode of existence of the proletarian, a working body consumed by economic abstractions and systemic imperatives: “there is only one social symptom – each individual is really a proletarian” (Lacan, 2011: 18).

The proletarian refers to the subject of the unconscious, or, to be more precise, to the subject of the capitalist unconscious, since Freud and Lacan do not postulate the existence of a transhistorical or transcultural unconscious (unlike Carl Gustav Jung). From Lacan's point of view, Marx's figure of the proletariat and Freud's figure of the neurotic seem to share a common destiny. And they do so as they work compulsively, both physically and mentally, to satisfy an exploitative symbolic system that consumes their entire existence.

According to Marx, the capitalist organization of social work around “production for production's sake” (Marx, 1990: 742) and its imperative of constant increase in value confront the working subject with a virtually infinite task and with a truly insatiable demand. The mutual conditioning of production for production's sake and abstract work – one might say, work for work's sake – imposes on the working subject a compulsive action of the most problematic nature, which leads to exhaustion. In his analysis of production, Marx indeed came across a “parasitism of the infinite on the finite” (Milner, 1995: 67).[xi] In Freud, a homological problematic is at stake, but to assess the scope of this homology, it is necessary to give full weight to the notion of work (work, labour).

The latter is in fact an underestimated concept in Freud, overshadowed by more evident fundamental concepts such as the unconscious, drive or pleasure. However, by adopting the notion of work, Freud assumes a double philosophical thesis, which resonates well with Marx's term. First, the equation of thought and work: in The Interpretation of Dreams and in other founding works, intellectual operations such as condensing and displacing or visualizing the material of thought are described as productive work. The aim of these processes is to produce pleasure for the sake of pleasure. This implies that, at a certain level, thought no longer pursues the intellectual ideals formulated by philosophy throughout history (cognition, production of knowledge, unveiling of truth, etc.). Thinking involves an activity that serves no purpose:

Our mental activities pursue a useful goal or a direct gain of pleasure. In the first case, we are dealing with intellectual judgments, preparations for action or for transmitting information to other people. In this second case, we describe these activities as play or fantasy. What is useful is in itself – as we know – only a crooked path to pleasurable satisfaction. (Freud, 2001: 127)[xii]

The psychoanalytic objective is not to delimit useful intellectual activities from useless fantasies, but to show the broad consequences of their interweaving or blurring, the mobilization of thought – that is, of mental work – and, more generally, of discourse to produce more-enjoyment. This production is immanent to every process of thought, or, as Lacan came to say, thought é enjoyment. Both aspects of thought that Freud mentions in the quote above are as inseparable and, at the same time, as distinct as the use value and the exchange value of commodities. The main critical contribution of psychoanalysis to the critique of political economy can thus be reduced to the recognition of the link between thought, jouissance and work, supported by the recognition of its compulsive character.

A more general question emerges here: what to make of the fact that Freud repeatedly used metaphors and an economic vocabulary to explain the unconscious and sexuality – as the features of the libidinal economy become difficult to distinguish from the features of the capitalist economy. ? Freud discovered a crucial problem in the production of surplus jouissance, which is directly linked to what in German is called Verausgabung, consumption in the economic sense and exhaustion in the psychological sense. The more mental activities are channeled through the instinctual demand for more enjoyment, the more the subject's mental apparatus needs to support the laborious process that is thought as such.

The centrality of work in Freud's theoretical and clinical work draws attention to something like libidinal exploration, which manifests itself as consumption and exhaustion of subjectivity. In other words, Freud directly links the production of surplus enjoyment to the exploitation of work. If we recognize in Freud's economic vocabulary more than mere rhetoric or metaphors, it makes sense to conclude that his work proposes a labor theory of jouissance. Both Freudo-Marxism and Lacan assume that the proliferation of economic terms in Freud's work is no coincidence and that Freud's economic vocabulary must be interpreted through Marx.

The thesis that unconscious work and enjoyment form two sides of the same productive process in mental life goes against the “homeostatic” conception of pleasure that has prevailed in the history of European philosophy since Aristotle. At ethics to Nicomachus,[xiii]Aristotle equated pleasure with the state of rest, in which presumably no bodily or mental excitation takes place. Hence he conceived a state of homeostasis, seen as an ideal, to which human beings should aspire and guide their actions.

Aristotle describes the divine unmoved mover as the ultimate example of a state so pleasurable that it feels no need or demand for satisfaction. Human pleasure is also likely to tend towards this ideal homeostasis, when humans act accordingly. In Aristotle's ethical scenario, pleasure is understood as an affection that accompanies the satisfaction of needs and signals the renewal of homeostasis, the reduction of tension caused by the manifestation of a physiological need or a symbolic demand. The issue of surplus jouissance and the compulsive nature of unconscious work clearly have no place in this scenario.

Freud concentrated on two tendencies in the mental apparatus, desire and drive, which directly contradict the Aristotelian assumption of just measure and which explain the constant tension in the mental apparatus, the uninterrupted process of unconscious work and the striving of mental activities for production – not simply of pleasure, but of increased pleasure. The movement of desire is supported by the metonymy of lack; every object achieved comes as disappointment and failure and cannot fulfill the task of fulfilling the desire.

The movement of the drive, on the other hand, is sustained by the surplus metaphor; here an object fixation is at play, the object of satisfaction has been found and the drive cannot get enough of it, always demanding more, but in a totally different way from desire. For desire, every object comes with a lack, which directs desire towards another object, while for drive there is only one surplus object, which represents the ultimate materialization of jouissance. Desire and impulse each demonstrate in their own way the impossibility and fictitious status of ideal homeostasis; and, moreover, in contrast to Aristotelian fair measure, each of them outlines two scenarios, which demonstrate the immoderate of pleasure.

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

Translation: Eleutério Prado.



[I] The most recent account of the historical (dis)alliances between psychoanalysis and Marxism can be found in Pavon Cuellar (2017). Freud's critique of Marxism appears in the final chapter of his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Freud, 2001, vol. 22: 176-182). See also Dollar (2008: 15–29).

[ii] The English translation of the term Trieb in German contains this misconception. Thus, he sustains the impression that the Freudian doctrine of the drive was naturalistic and biological. Freud himself often resorted to biological metaphors to provide a "scientific basis" for his central notion. Even so, he never abandoned the idea that the drive represents a frontier phenomenon between the physiological and the psychological.

[iii] For Freud, repression contains an internal doubling, which distinguishes it from simple oppression: “it is a mistake to emphasize only the repulsion, which operates from the direction of the conscious about what must be repressed; just as important is the attraction exerted by what was originally repressed on everything with which it can establish a connection” (Freud, 2001, vol. 14: 79). Whereas oppression forbids satisfaction, repression constitutes it by postponement, displacement, or mediation. Lacan brought this nuance to the point when he translated repression as “renunciation of jouissance” (Lacan, 2006c: 17-19, 109-10), a renunciation that aims to obtain more-jouissance. Thus, for Lacan, this renunciation underlies what he calls “capitalist morality”.

[iv] The controversial notion of death instinct represents the maximum expression of the conservative character of the instincts. It is worth remembering that the phenomenon that led Freud to assume its existence was compulsive repetition. Early Freudo-Marxists rejected this notion. See, for example, Reich (1932: 303-51) and Fenichel (1985: 361-71). For a more up-to-date presentation of the death drive, see Zupancic (2017: 94-106).

[v] Marcuse's idea of ​​repressive desublimation is close to the Lacanian reduction of the superego to the imperative of jouissance (Lacan, 2006a: 648-9; 1999: 3).

[vi] A systematic account of Lacan's relationship with Marx can be found in the work of Slavoj Žižek (1989: 11-53; 2017: 149-223) as well as my own attempt (Tomšic, 2015). For a broader Lacanian view of the link between pleasure and capitalism, see also McGowan (2016).

[vii] In this regard, Freud's famous essay "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" (1921) remains representative of his critical examination of the link between libidinal economy and social power. The text served as the main source for the analysis of fascism by the Frankfurt School. See, for example, Adorno (2003: 408-33). For a scathing commentary on the relationship between the individual and the group in Freud, see Copjec (2014).

[viii] Here appears Lacan's thesis that surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment are homologous, or that in capitalism enjoyment obtains its socioeconomic expression in surplus-value. Thus, he says: “Mehrwert is Marxlust, Marx’s surplus enjoyment… it is surplus value as the cause of desire, from which an economy made its principle: that of extensive and therefore insatiable production of the lack of enjoyment” (Lacan, 2001: 435).

[ix] According to Lacan, the category of social symptom was invented by Marx; behold, he recognized the proletariat as a symptom of capitalism (Lacan, 2006a: 194).

[X] “Man has become, so to speak, a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but these organs did not grow in him and sometimes still cause him many problems” (Freud, 2001, vol. 21: 91-2).

[xi] To anticipate later developments, to conceptualize this problematic parasitism, Marx introduces the notion of drive, which brings his developments closer to Freud's critical examination of the intricacies of pleasure.

[xii] Freud uses the term Lustgewinn, which literally means pleasure-gain. Against this background, Lacan can propose the translation “plus-de-jouir” (more-enjoyment or more-enjoyment) in order to, in sequence, trace the homology between surplus-enjoyment and surplus-value.

[xiii] The following developments notably refer to Book X of the Nicomachean ethics (Aristotle, 1995: 1852-67).


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