The Capitalist Unconscious
Samo Tomšič highlights the overlapping and often complementary features of the thought of Karl Marx and Jaques Lacan.
Despite a resurgence of interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly in terms of the light it casts on capitalist ideology—as witnessed by the work of Slavoj Žižek—there remain remarkably few systematic accounts of the role of Marx in Lacan’s work.
A major, comprehensive study of the connection between their work, The Capitalist Unconscious resituates Marx in the broader context of Lacan’s teaching and insists on the capacity of psychoanalysis to reaffirm dialectical and materialist thought. Lacan’s unorthodox reading of Marx refigured such crucial concepts as alienation, jouissance and the Freudian ‘labour theory of the unconscious’. Tracing these developments, Tomšič maintains that psychoanalysis, structuralism and the critique of political economy participate in the same movement of thought; his book shows how to follow this movement through to some of its most important conclusions. Here we present the book's introduction. The Capitalist Unconscious, along with all other books on our Critical Theory Reading List, are 50% of for the month of September as part of our Back to University Sale.
Karl Marx is just one of the many theorists referred to in Jacques Lacan’s teachings. Other classic thinkers seem to have left a much deeper mark on his work, notably Plato, Descartes and Hegel. Why then, among such an abundance of influences, should one privilege Marx? Is it in order to make Lacan yet another representative of the Freudo-Marxist orienta- tion, a tradition marked by a rather failed endeavour to ground radical politics on the liberation of desire? Or is the aim simply to turn Lacan into a leftist thinker?
Such an attempt is, of course, immediately countered by a wealth of biographical trivia and more or less trustworthy anecdotes regarding Lacan’s political preferences, which, it is said, inclined towards Charles de Gaulle’s conservatism. We should also mention his notoriously ambiguous reaction to the student and worker uprisings in the late 1960s. While figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and many others of comparable stature strongly identified with the promise of a communist revolution, Lacan went against the intellectual current and labelled himself a liberal. Moreover, he portrayed the students as hysterics who demanded a new master; he reduced the political definition of revolution to its astronomical meaning of circular movement and finally argued that the student demands were merely manifesting the transformation of capitalism into a ‘market of knowledge’ or, to recall the formula that may today already sound anachronistic, ‘knowledge society’. All these consciously controversial statements make Lacan appear more like a predecessor of the nouveaux philosophes than a revolutionary thinker.
In addition to these episodes, the various reservations against reading Lacan as a thinker whose ideas were consonant with Marx’s were best taken up by the man himself. He saw the most subversive aspect of his teaching in the fact that he did not pretend to have a solution for social antagonisms. Indeed, among Lacanian psychoanalysts, one often encounters a restraint in discussing political matters, a peculiar distance that often drifts into cynicism and seeks legitimacy in Lacan’s ambiguous remarks on revolutionary movements. Hence the inevitable question: if psycho-analysis recurrently appears as a form of sophistry that relativises the scope of leftist political struggles and questions their resistance to capitalist forms of exploitation, then why argue for its continued political relevance? Why associate Lacan’s structural psychoanalysis with Marx’s critique of political economy, which provides, and on this point at least both its supporters and opponents agree, the paradigmatic case of a discourse that claims to have a solution?
Lacan’s teaching is generally associated with its famous motto of a ‘return to Freud’. In the following pages I argue that in the late 1960s Lacan initiated a second return to Freud, in which the reference to structural linguistics (particularly Saussure and Jakobson) was supplemented with Marx’s critique of political economy. This development inevitably led to a radicalisation of the structuralist research programme and also a rejection of the stereotypes that public opinion, on the Left as well as on the Right, formed about Marx and Freud and their methods, concepts and goals. Some leftist voices would probably claim that psychoanalysis prospers only in the capitalist universe and even that it was historically invented to be nothing more than a class-therapy, serving the mental well-being of the bourgeoisie. Such critiques could easily find theoretical support in Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, who, despite their philosophical differ- ences, strived to show that several psychoanalytic currents actively contribute to the normalisation of desire and thereby openly reproduce capitalist forms of domination. Neurotisation of desire, reduction of psychic conflicts to the Oedipal triangle of Father-Mother-Child, as Deleuze and Guattari have insisted, is the paradigmatic case of an ideological operation that maintains desire in the capitalist–patriarchal order. We nevertheless have to acknowledge that Lacan insistently countered these criticisms, for instance by demonstrating the mythical status of the Oedipus complex in Freud’s theories and by dethroning the infamous primacy of the phallus – which the critiques of Freud continue to reduce to its anatomical signification, thereby reproducing the vulgarised version of Freudianism, which has barely anything in common with the epistemic complexity of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
There are also the voices of free-market ideologists, cognitive- behavioural therapists and neuroscientists, who immediately recognise in psychoanalysis a time- and money-consuming practice, incapable of providing society, that is, the demands of the market, with what it requires: an adaptable and flexible workforce. So while for the leftists all psychoanalysis does is normalise, for neoliberals it never normalises enough and should therefore be abolished. In opposition to these two options, the guideline of the present book will be that psychoanalysis remains a symptomatic point, both epistemologically and politically speaking, that offers a particular critical insight into the production of capitalist subjectivity.
As for Marx, his work is often criticized as being at once utopian and disastrous. Marx is said to have composed something equivalent to a gospel that, in its endeavour to dissolve the capitalist mode of production, also promises the abolition of all forms of social antagonism. One often encounters the notion that Marx called for unmediated and authentic human relations, the association of free men mentioned in Capital but left unexplained, and hence for the elimination of all possible variants of subjective and social alienation. This is how both humanist Marxists and psychoanalysts (first and foremost Freud) perceived Marx’s critical project. That said, we could certainly claim that Marx never intended to elaborate a communist worldview and that speculation about the future social order did not belong in his mature critical work. In addition to this, Capitalopenly refutes the conventional reading of the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the opposition of theory and practice, interpretation and revolutionary change.
Marx’s critical project repeatedly shows that the passage from interpretation to political action involves a move from the production of philosophical, political and religious worldviews – which, as Freud would later mockingly claim, spend their time filling in the gaps of reality – to a materialist interpretation that, in quite the opposite fashion, uncovers the very gaps that existing worldviews strive to foreclose. By detecting these structural gaps, the materialist method provides a rigorous understanding of logical relations that support the capitalist social link, thereby also detecting the structural disclosure that enables one to address the question of change. It is precisely at this point that Lacan intervenes in the debates regarding Marx’s epistemological and political coordinates, proposing a structuralist reading that implies a much more unorthodox, albeit no less politically radical, Marx.
Psychoanalysis is neither gospel nor worldview, and the departure for Lacan’s reading of Marx is that his critique of political economy should not be treated as an epic tale of the historic necessity of communism either. Nor is it a vitalist attempt to liberate living labour from the vampirism of capital. Marx’s gothic metaphor of the ghostly negativity of capital versus the creative potential of living labour is misleading. Recall that the critique of political economy begins with an examination of value, containing a rigorous logic; it could even be considered the most Hegelian part of Capital, a condensed Marxian equivalent to the Science of Logic. The analysis of the value-form indicates that Marx locates the revolutionary potential not so much in a specific consciousness, that of the working class, but in a structural negativity, labour-power, which occupies the place where the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production are brought together. At the same time, the appearance of capital is associated with a vitalist fantasy, ‘money-breeding money’, in which psychoanalysis helps us to discern the fictional hypothesis of a subject without negativity. Marx’s mature critical project most incontestably intersects with psychoanalysis at the point when it reintroduces negativity qua subject into what appears as the purely vitalist and autonomous machinery of capital, expressed in its presumed power to ‘bring forth living offspring’ or to ‘lay golden eggs’. Marx thus continuously moves on two different but intimately related levels, that of the logic of production, which explains how the abstract and seemingly neutral relations between values support and reproduce concrete social antagonisms, and that of the logic of fantasy, which examines the reproduction of objective appearances, whose function is to repress, distort and mystify the existing structural contradictions. The logic of production and the logic of fantasy are the two basic components of Marx’s notion of critique.
Only by reintroducing the negativity that capitalism simultaneously produces and forecloses – there is no capitalist mode of production with- out labour-power as a source of value, but there is also no capitalist fetishisation of social relations without the foreclosure of labour-power – can the critical project succeed in uncovering the logical paradoxes that are the necessary precondition for thinking social change and for the production of a new subjectivity that no longer depends on the abstract universality of the value-form. This means, then, that Marx’s localisation of labour-power in the general structure of the capitalist mode of production unfolds a theory of the subject. For Lacan the logical, and even homological, response to this subjectivised negativity is the subject of the unconscious. The analysis of the structural deadlocks of capitalism, Marx’s central effort in Capital, is thus necessarily accompanied by a new – de-psychologised and de-individualised – understanding of the subject. With these two features Marx, as Althusser has insisted, rejected the humanist and the cognitive comprehension of the subject, distinguishing between subjectivity that is still embedded in the empiricist theories of cognition and in various, essentially idealist worldviews, on the one hand, and the subject that is implied by the autonomy of exchange-value, on the other. A materialist theory of the subject rejects both empiricism and idealism, which come together in their efforts to reduce subjectivity to consciousness.
One of the foundations of Marx’s critique is precisely the autonomy of value, which operates in every ‘innocent’ act of exchange. When Marx departs from the gap between the use-value and the exchange-value that determines the double character of commodities – he in fact anticipates the main achievement of structuralism: the isolation of the system of differences. Furthermore, this autonomy is envisaged as the terrain where the change that would destabilise and potentially abolish capitalism needs to be thought. The change of the mode of production is in the last instance a structural displacement in the organisation of production. The notion of the subject finds its place in this precise context. Far from rejecting it as a mere bourgeois category, Marx’s critique of the subject provides the necessary tools to differentiate between the (economic, political, juridical and cognitive) fiction of the subject and the real subject of politics. If the former is criticised as abstraction, the latter is revealed as negativity, so that thetension between abstraction and negativity is the kernel of a materialist theory of the subject. The Marxian lesson is here entirely univocal: the subject of cognition (including Lukács’s notion of class-consciousness) cannot be the subject of politics. On the contrary, the subject of politics that a materialist critique can only be decentralised, de-individualised and de-psychologised. Lacan enters at this point by stressing the epistemologically and politically subversive potential of the critique of political economy in the claim that it was none other than Marx who invented the notion of the symptom.
That Marx was the first theoretician of the symptom implies that the
Proletariat is the subject of the unconscious. This means that the proletariat designates more than an empirical social class. It expresses the universal subjective position in capitalism. But as a symptom, that is, as a formation through which the repressed truth of the existing social order is reinscribed in the political space, the proletariat entails a rejection of the false and abstract universalism imposed by capitalism, namely the universalism of commodity form. With the shift from the proletarian seen simply as an empirical subject to the subject of the unconscious, the notion and the reality of class struggle also appears in a different light. It no longer signifies merely a conflict of actually existing social classes but the manifestation of structural contradictions in social and subjective reality, thereby assuming the same epistemological-political status as the unconscious. Neither class struggle nor the unconscious stands for some invariable transhistorical essences – their entire ‘consistency’ lies in the distortion of appearances that accompany the reproduction of the given order.
Marx and Lacan reject the simple opposition between negativity and positivity, dead and living labour, abstract structure and concrete experience, structure and genesis. The failure of Freudo-Marxism and other attempts to free the creative potential of unconscious desire and of living labour suggests the conclusion that capital is creative potential, that capital is Life, and that capitalism isa specific form of vitalism. Of course, this does not imply that every vitalism should be denounced as being, in the last instance, a vitalism of capital. It merely strives to problematise the simple and all too comfortable opposition of the ‘bad’ negativity, alienation and lack of being, on the one hand, and the ‘good’ positivity, creative potential and fullness of being, on the other. The dynamics and adaptability of capital – its capacity to mystify, distort and repress subjective and social antagonisms, assimilating symptomatic or subversive identities and so on – sufficiently indicates that capital should be understood as life with- out negativity, or more precisely, that the efficiency and the logic of capitalism is supported by a fantasy of such life, subjectivity and society. With regard to this vitalist fantasy, Marx’s critique of fetishism turns out to be more than a mere philosophical curiosity in the entirety of Capital, since it targets precisely the hypothesis of the inherent creative potential of the three central capitalist abstractions: commodity, money and capital. The critique of fetishism is the critique of capitalist vitalism, of vitalism as a spontaneous capitalist philosophy. If we recall Marx’s enumeration of the four fundamental concepts of economic liberalism – freedom, equality, property and ‘Bentham’ (private interest) – we again encounter the fantasy of a subjectivity and society without negativity, notably without class struggle, this principal Marxian name for the negativity that traverses society and the subject.
Freudo-Marxism’s most visible representatives, Wilhelm Reich and
Herbert Marcuse, seem to have walked into a similar vitalist trap. In their respective readings, they adopted the opposition between drives and culture that echoes in Freud’s late dichotomy of Eros and Thanatos. Based on Freud’s cultural writings, they declared sexuality the privileged terrain of emancipatory struggle and opposed its creative vitality, its ‘polymorphous perversion’ to the cultural tendencies, to normalisation and notably to the commodity form as the general agency of capitalist normalisation. Freudo-Marxism thus amounted to what Michel Foucault rightly criticised as the ‘repressive hypothesis’, a hypothesis that seduced even Deleuze and Guattari in their critique of psychoanalysis. The minimal common ground between Freudo-Marxism and schizo-analysis could be seen in the idea that the efficiency of capitalism is rooted in the repression of sexuality, the inhibition of drives and the neurotisation of desire. Social oppression is equated with psychic mechanisms of repression, the class conflict becomes an external form of psychic conflict, while libidinal energy is channelled into the restrictive mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production and subjected to alienation (castration and commodification). Here we should recall that Freudo-Marxist interpretations focused predominantly on Freud’s ‘second topic’ (id, ego, superego), in which a problematic substantialisation of the unconscious, by means of rather speculative biological metaphors, phylogenetic fantasies, and most importantly by the energetic model of the psychic apparatus, indicate the possibility of a more vitalist version of psychoanalysis.
With the failure of the Freudo-Marxist attempt to ground politics on
sexual liberation in mind, it is not surprising that Lacan decidedly rejected direct translations of psychoanalytic contents into Marxist contents. He instead accentuated their logical affinity, thereby taking a necessary step back to the common epistemological ground of psychoanalysis and the critique of political economy. By placing the accent on logic, Lacan also relativised the expectation that Marxism and psychoanalysis contain a corpus of positive knowledge that could potentially lead to a new political worldview.
The dialectics of Marx’s Capitalsufficiently shows that the revolutionary character of critique is not in the promise of such a worldview but in its method, in the analysis of structural relations that sustain the apparent universality of commodity form and the fantasmatic vitalism of capitalist abstractions. And if Marx’s political project indeed contains a ‘communist hypothesis’, then the term ‘hypothesis’ should be read in pair with Newton’s hypothesis non fingo. Why? Because the communist hypothesis, grounded on a materialist science of value, most certainly does not assume the same status as the pseudoscientific hypotheses of political economy: the fetishist hypothesis of the vital forces of capital, the liberal hypothesis of the homeostatic and self-regulatory nature of the market (Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’) or the hypothesis of the capitalist social relation founded on abstract freedom and equality, and supplemented with property and private interest. The communist hypothesis assumes a different status and is inscribed in the epistemological horizon of scientific modernity, on which Marx strived to ground his science of value and his critical method. This inscription can be demonstrated in the way materialist dialectics approaches social reality. It uncovers the immanent breaks in existing social appearances, thereby repeating the way modern science uses the mathematical apparatus in order to grasp the real of physical appearances. The dialectical materialist method, following modern epistemic ideals, discerns the structural real, which amounts to Marx’s central hypothesis in Capital: there is no such thing as social relation. Or to quote The Communist Manifesto, ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’, which means, first and foremost, that History does not exist. The plurality of class struggles reveals the decentralisation of history in the same way as the unconscious exposes the decentralisation of thinking. Capital also contains a critical epistemology, which problematises the mobilisation of scientific methods and knowledge in the historical transformation of labour, in the genesis of capitalist social abstractions and in the introduction of two new figures of negativity in the social link: labour-power and surplus-value. It is in these that Lacan will recognise his subject of the signifier and object a.
Freud summarised the movement of modern scientific revolution in three major insults to human narcissism, linked with three scientific decen- tralisations: of the universe (Copernicus, but one should rather say Newton), of life (Darwin/Wallace) and finally of thinking (Freud). He thereby undoubtedly indicated that the discovery of the unconscious – a specific manifestation of negativity, a form of knowledge without the subject of cognition, and finally a real discursive consequence – is made possible only in the horizon of modern science. More precisely, the Freudian theory of the unconscious becomes possible only once the consequences of modern scientific revolution have already been extended to the field of human production – in short, after Marx’s ‘epistemological break’, as Althusser would have put it.
Scientific revolution as a process that enables us to think the function and the place of negativity in the social link became the basis for the structuralist coupling of Marx with Freud already in Althusser, who undoubtedly inspired Lacan’s interest in the critique of political economy. Althusser was the first one to associate Marx systematically with the structuralist program, insisting that, by thinking negativity in history and thought, Marx and Freud subverted the very notion of science. Althusser described psycho-analysis and the critique of political economy as ‘conflictual sciences’. Their antagonistic character comes from the fact that they both depart from the ‘persistence of the negative’ in the social and subjective sphere, rather than from its foreclosure. In this light, alienation also appears as constitutive of the subject and of society, a process that no longer stands merely for deprivation but also and above all for transformation. One of the main points in Lacan’s reading of Marx lies in the attempt to overcome the opposition between vitalist positivity and dialectical negativity by reinterpreting the very concept of alienation.
To repeat, the present book starts from the assumption that the reference to Marx signifies an important development in Lacan’s teaching and inaugurates a second return to Freud that displaces the accent from structural linguistics to critique of political economy, and from the representation of the subject to the production of jouissance. Jouissance (enjoyment, or what Freud called libido) thereby reappears as the central problem of psychoanalysis; this was already the case with Freud, but it was systematically neglected in the progressive subordination of psychoanalysis to the ideals and demands of economic liberalism, through which the adaptation and reintegration of individuals into the existing social order became the main goal of analytic treatment. Jouissance does not only offer a privileged entry into the political importance of Freudian theory, it also reveals a limit of classical structuralism: to think the subject and the object that are produced by the autonomy of the signifier.
We should recall that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious places the main accent on the role of labour (Arbeit) in the satisfaction of the unconscious tendency (desire or drive) and that it constantly uncovers the productive dimension of the unconscious. This reference to labour should be taken literally. By placing the energetic notion of labour-power at the core of his discoveries Freud outlined a labour theory of the unconscious. Lacan’s main point of interest in the late 1960s evolves around this important aspect in Freud’s theory. In the concept of jouissance, Lacan brings together Freudian ‘psychic energy’ (libido) and the notion of unconscious labour. In order to fully determine the revolutionary character of Freud’s discoveries, a theory of production was needed, a theory that Saussurean structuralism could not offer. But Marx did.