Death drive – capital compulsion



Observations on the contribution of psychoanalysis to the critique of political economy

From the title presented, it is evident that the article deals with a theme that is supposedly at the intersection of psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy. It links, therefore, the teachings of two authors, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, who dealt respectively with the mode of reproduction characteristic of the psyche of modern man and of the capitalist economic system. It will therefore be necessary to show that the ambition to approximate, overlap and combine these two fields of knowledge makes sense.

This article investigates the topic in an introductory way. Therefore, the exposition must begin with definitions. And it will continue through a dialogue with classic authors. It intends to show that there is an affinity between the death drive and the compulsion of capital with the help of a writing by Samo Tomšič.

What is death drive? Freud, in his text Beyond the pleasure bases, states that, in his practical experience as a psychoanalyst, he was “led to distinguish two kinds of instincts[I], those who intend to lead life to death and the sexual ones, who always seek and carry out the renewal of life” (Freud, 2010, p. 214). In order to be able to distinguish them, it first presents the genus of these two species.[ii]: “restoring a previous state is really a universal characteristic of instincts” (idem, p. 236). What, then, would be the difference between them?

The instinct of life guides postures and actions aimed at obtaining satisfaction. Now, according to this author, “the course of psychic processes is automatically regulated by the principle of pleasure” (idem, p. 162). And it is negative: whenever the conditions of life create an unpleasant tension, the psyche seeks to lower or even suppress it, and in so doing generates satisfaction and even delight. This principle, therefore, seeks to “make the psychic apparatus exempt from excitation or keep its amount (…) constant or as small as possible” (idem, p. 237). Faced with a feeling of fear provoked by an illness, for example, this instinct leads the person to seek refuge in the knowledge of the sorcerer, the healer, the doctor, etc. so that they can master it.

The death instinct, admits Freud, underlies repetitive behaviors, dominated by compulsion: behold, clinical observation led him to assume that “in psychic life there is a compulsion to repeat, which overcomes the principle of pleasure” (idem, p 183 ). Here, therefore, it is no longer a question of lowering eventual tensions, but of reproducing inner impulses, which live in the unconscious, through a recursive process that imposes itself on the “subject”. According to Freud, not only does this instinct contradict the pleasure instinct, but it even seems “more primordial, more elementary, but instinctual” (idem, p. 184) than the first. Now, it manifests itself fully, for example, in the behavior of the masochistic individual.

It is evident that Freud's form of exposition creates a certain perplexity. It seems, at first glance, that human beings are inherently suicidal.



It is known that this principle suffered and suffers resistance even from some psychoanalysts. It is therefore very necessary to clarify it properly and critically in a way that overcomes the ambiguities of the original text. According to Samo Tomšič, it does not designate “an irrational and mysterious impulse towards death or even an inorganic state” (Tomšič, 2019, p. 201) – even if this seems to be suggested by Freud's own writing. “The death drive is responsible for radically distancing the unconscious demand for jouissance from the self-preservation tendencies found in the subject and in life itself” (idem, 202). That is, the pursuit of jouissance that arises distortedly from the unconscious to the conscious confronts the pursuit of pleasure that is oriented towards the preservation of life.

It should be noted that jouissance and pleasure appear here as opposing impulses with regard to the very existence of the person as such. The second, as already mentioned, implies the search for a lowering of the tensions that arise in the psyche in the life of the subject in all instances of society. It is therefore a conservative impulse. The first implies the maintenance and reproduction of certain internal tensions, which live in the unconscious of the social individual, in the search for an intensification of life. It becomes, therefore, a persevering force that abdicates pleasure in order to reach jouissance. It appears, therefore, as a consummating impulse of life itself.

Well, this requires more interpretation and it needs to be creative, even going beyond the meanings put forward by Freud himself. Now, the difference between pleasure and jouissance only becomes clear when one realizes that “death” is not, simply, the natural end of life or, perhaps, what results from suicide – but becomes the determined negation of “life”. – life taken, therefore, as a continuity of living, as mere stasis – a situation, therefore, that cannot last forever. Thus, death in this context means “life fighting for more life, for the production of a surplus of life against a background of lack of life” (idem, p. 202). Behold, one cannot affirm life without dying a little. Thus, one passes from the logic of being identical to the logic of being in the process of becoming, which is transformed and eventually grows in the process of existing.

The logic of pleasure is, therefore, the logic of the simple preservation of life that avoids all tensions that could disturb it; the logic of jouissance, on the other hand, consists of responding to a commandment of the unconscious in the search for a more intense living, for a more-living, which, inevitably, involves risks and eventually has some destructive consequence. Of course, there are positive ways of taking risks and, therefore, of enjoying ourselves, but there are also negative ways that cause suffering, which is sometimes useless. There are, therefore, healthy forms that realize the subject, but there are also forms that seem to realize the subject but, in fact, subordinate him to an adverse external power. Furthermore, there are forms that are unequivocally constituted as social “diseases”. Perhaps the latter have gained exceptional importance for the psychoanalyst because of the situations faced by the profession.

We have here, in any case, a dialectical interpretation that goes further than the original text and that transforms Freud's duality of opposites, the pleasure principle (that is, the maintenance of life) and the death principle (that is, , of the excess of life), in a duplicity of opposites that form a contradiction. Now, this contradiction portrays the condition of existence of the human being in general at all times in past, present and future history: either he withdraws in the face of adversities or he launches himself to face them.

The internal relationship between the two poles of this contradiction consists of a negation relationship: the position of one pole presupposes the negation of the other. Dialectics, as is known, uses negativity to apprehend movement: life is contrary to death, but there is no life without death, without that intrinsic negativity that resides in the life/death duality. It may seem strange, but this interpretation enriches Freud's conception, re-signifying the immanent relationship between life and death and contradicting the way they are presented in common understanding.

Thus, through Tomšič's interpretation of the original text based on Lacan, Freud's teaching becomes more radical: “life is not just a set of vital functions, which resist death as an immanent limit of life and thus exposes its finitude; it consists, in addition, of a conflictual force, internally divided, which refers to itself through resistance to its own immanent excess” (idem, p. 204). The renunciation of this excess – you see – reduces life to the vegetative state, to the peace of the cemetery.

Now, there is a delicate point here: in the constant overcoming of death – as a final point that “never” arrives – life itself poses virtually as an infinity, as an insistence on continuing to last, even if living consists of an inexorable approximation of the moment of death. That is why Tomšič says: “there is no life without negativity and, more crucially, there is no life without this virtual infinity” (idem, p. 205).



Once these notions belong to the field of psychoanalysis, the time has come to face the question of defining “capital”, an elusive being whose home is political economy. Well, she finds, as is known, in The capital, that is, in the critique of political economy. Synthetically, Marx defined capital as what passes in M ​​– M – M', that is, as an unlimited circulation formed by money that buys goods (means of production and labor power) to produce new goods, which, when sold, represent more money. The difference between D' minus D he called plus-value. Of this circulatory movement, as already indicated by Aristotle, he says that it is insatiable, that it consists of a virtual infinity. As is well known, he then explains the existence of surplus value by the difference between the value of the commodity and the value of the labor force contracted to produce commodities. Surplus value, in other words, stems from the surplus work dedicated by workers to this production.

Capital is, therefore, a really existing metaphysical principle – not static, but a process of becoming ever more, tending towards infinity – even if this clashes with the positivist mentality that dominates in modern science. For this very reason, it engenders in the person who appears as its “owner”, that is, in the capitalist, an “absolute drive to enrich himself, [a] passionate pursuit of value” (Marx, 1983, p. 130). The capitalist appears, then, as a mere support of this movement: his subjective goal – says Marx – is the valorization of value, something to which he subordinates himself. Less than a subject, the capitalist agent figures there, therefore, as a mere personification of capital.

As this “Lord” dominates an entire complex economic system that he himself sets in motion to a greater or lesser extent, he determines himself as an automatic subject and not just as a mere process of accumulation: “value here becomes the subject of a process in which he, through a constant change of the forms of money and merchandise, modifies his own greatness” (idem, p. 130). Surplus value apparently springs from capital. In fact, through its involvement in production, capital becomes surplus-capital, that is, value that is valued. Capital is, therefore, the mode of existence of a social relationship, the capital relationship, the link between this metaphysical being that rises to infinity and wage labor, which is always finite in each historical moment.

Capital now figures as a temporal objectification of the dialectic of the vital process that, in principle, governs all forms of society, albeit differently in each one of them. As such, however, it is in force only during a historical period since it is also subordinated to the same inexorable logic of life and death. While in force as capital, it consists of an objectification that imposes itself as the immanent principle of the functioning of a mode of production that, for this very reason, is called capitalist. It is, ultimately, the objectification of a specific social relationship whose logic consists of capturing part of the living work of salaried workers to transform it into more dead work, an amount that, increased or reduced, belongs to the capitalist.

This mode of production is evidently asymmetrical: while some prosper by capturing part of the living labor of others and accumulating it in the form of dead labor, these others decline, since, in order to continue living, they have to hand over part of their actual work to the former. In other words, they accept being exploited without being aware of it, as it seems to them that they receive a “fair” salary in exchange for their work. For this to become possible, as is well known, the workers must previously sell their own labor power to the capitalist, a transaction through which they hand over to the capitalist – or his representative – the administration, the government of his work, his way of working.

That's why workers, some more and others less, have to face the scarcity of goods necessary for life and psychic estrangement from the world of work. Now, this situation appears as the “normal” life condition of the working class. Behold, they face a situation posed by an entire economic system that moves independently of them and which seems as if it were something taken for granted. Hence, the world of merchandise – of the economic system of capital in the last analysis – appears as a social-natural world and, therefore, as a fetishized world.



Tomšič suggests that capitalism appears as that mode of production that best mobilizes the death drive – that is, in fact, life that exceeds itself by wanting to be more and more life. For this very reason, in the conditions of modern times, this drive of the individual in general is at the service of the compulsion of capital. Well, this explains the historical resilience of capitalism, the difficulty of overcoming it. But it also shows, according to him, that the expression “automatic subject” used by Marx to characterize capital reveals only its appearance, a supposed spontaneity, since capital, in fact, becomes a “compulsive subject” that uses and abuses the subsumption of work to itself. In this line of reasoning, he then presents capitalism as “a culture of death drive par excellence” (Tomšič, 2019, p. 206). In which, for that very reason, legitimate enjoyment is lacking – even if it does not lack compulsive enjoyment.

This way of mobilizing human beings' desire to live longer, however, is not ethically virtuous, even if during an entire historical period it was able to increase their ability to appropriate nature. Now, the human being thus became a producer of abundant wealth without poverty being eliminated from the face of the Earth. Behold, it does not promote the good life for anyone in a dominant way – it only poses the possibility of reaching a good bourgeois life for a smaller part of humanity. That is, it creates in the “upper” classes a culture of excess – productivism, accumulation of superfluous wealth, consumerism, narcissism, etc. – which only reflects the compulsive logic of production for the sake of production that prevails in the economic system. Thus, the obscene life of some is made at the expense of the misery of the majority.

At this point, one could come to the conclusion that the notion of death drive created by Freud would only be adequate to speak of the determining impulse of the struggle for life in capitalism and that manifests itself intensely, in the situation of analysis, as certain pathologies. Behold, the fight for life there can indeed acquire the character of mortification – at the limit, it can even become a life similar to that of a concentration camp. This is how this struggle appears as a degraded life, as a compulsion to survive under the formal, real (material and intellectual) subsumption of human activity (mainly work) to capital.

In general, one could perhaps speak of the drive for life and the drive for more-living. It doesn't matter, this way of presenting the intersection of Marx's and Freud's philosophical reflections allows us to reread the idea of ​​socialism and communism that the first author presents synthetically in the first chapter of The capital. In the final part of the section on commodity fetishism, Marx is led by his own argument to speak of the historical negation of capitalism.

Here is what he says in the first place: “the religious reflection of the real world can only disappear when the circumstances of practical life represent for men transparent and rational relationships with each other and with nature” (Marx, 1983, p. 76) . Well, when Marx talks about transparency there, he cannot understand that he is referring to absolute transparency in the social sphere, as Santos well showed (2021, p. 175). Well, the knowledge of psychoanalysis, based on the discoveries of Freud, but also of other scholars, teaches that total transparency is impossible both in the scope of the individual psyche and in the social scope. Marx, however, ultimately says that the capital form, and therefore the commodity and money forms, imply a form of alienation that has a double role: on the one hand, it consists of a way of hiding exploitation, on the other, makes life under these conditions more bearable.

At this point, a question arises: would the notion of death drive found in Freud be adequate to speak of the human condition in another mode of production in which the capital form had already been suppressed? Couldn't jouissance be, predominantly, a source of sublimation – and not of mortification – as it currently occurs in certain exceptional situations, for example, in artistic or intellectual work?

Here it is necessary to see that what was called socialism and communism to refer to the new forms of society organization after the outbreak of victorious revolutions have almost no affinity with what is found in Marx's text. It should be noted that they did not suppress, but rather, in the end, they deepened estrangement, alienation, life subsumed under the empire of capital accumulation, then under the despotic power of the “self-declared representative” party of the working class. These regimes, therefore, were and are in absolute contradiction with the author's idea of ​​post-capitalism: “the figure of the social process of life, that is, of the process of material production, will only be released from its mystical nebulous veil when, as a product of freely socialized men, it will be under their control, conscious and planned” (Marx, 1983, p. 76). And democratic, it should not be necessary to add.

* 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).



Birman, Joel – The drives and their destinations. Collection To read Freud. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 2020.

Freud, Sigmund – Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: Complete works, volume 14, (1917-1920). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010, p. 161-239.

Marx, Carl – Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book I. São Paulo: Editora Abril, 1983.

Santos, Vinicius – The abstract individual – subjectivity and estrangement in Marx. Jundiai (SP): Editorial package, 2021.

Tomšič, Samo – The labor of enjoyment – ​​Towards a critique of libidinal economy. Berlin: AugustVerlag, 2019.



[I] In the translation used here, the word “trieb” in German is translated as instinct, but it is more usual to translate it as pulsion.

[ii] It should also be noted that Freud's conceptions of drives vary greatly in his works (Birman, 2020); here only the one referred to in the main text is considered. All of them, however, consider the drives in the register of conflictual duality.

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