Summary Notes on Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire
Back in January, I published a “review” of Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Costs of Free Markets. It was a strange “review”, since it was far from a conventional book review. In it, I fleshed out the psychoanalytic (Lacanian) distinction between desire and drive that was operative in the background of McGowan’s book. I now want to share all of the summary notes I took on each of the chapters of Capitalism and Desire. This is where I’ll discuss the specific content of book (my favorite chapters being 1, 4, 5, 8 and 10).
Introduction: After Injustice and Repression
McGowan begins by discussing the connections between psychoanalysis and capitalism. He states that his work here is primarily a psychoanalysis of capitalism and not a critique of it (though, of course, it ends up being a critique). Next, he discusses the unique relation between capitalism’s principle of equivalence and the concept of equality. He explains the Marxist concept of inequality (exploitation) as that of the capitalist’s appropriation of surplus-value. From a discussion of a purely Marxist take on capitalism’s “evil” of economic exploitation, McGowan pivots to talk about how Freud-inspired thinkers (primarily the Frankfurt school) have viewed this “evil” as one of libidinal repression.
Todd goes on to explain Adorno’s main problem with the capitalist system. Adorno hated that it is a totality that seeks at all costs to eliminate singularity, difference and Otherness (just like Baudrillard) by assimilating all things in ways that neutralize their dangerous singularity.
“That all men are alike is exactly what society would like to hear. It considers actual or imagined differences as stigmas indicating that not enough has yet been done; that something has still been left outside its machinery, not quite determined by its totality.”
— Adorno, Minima Moralia
“An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.”
— Adorno, Minima Moralia
From here, Todd touches on Gross, Reich and Marcuse. The former two rejected capitalism because it is a system of repression. But Marcuse accepted that society requires some repression but argued that capitalism involves “surplus repression”. Ultimately, their position can be called the “repressive hypothesis”.
Foucault, however, critiqued and rejected the “repressive hypothesis” in the first volume of the History of Sexuality. For Foucault, the main problem with capitalism is neither exploitation (inequality) nor repression. However, Foucault, ultimately, just repeats the same type of argument against capitalism that Gross, Reich and Marcuse made, i.e., it prevents us from having the full enjoyment we are capable of. Foucault was all about the liberation of the “flows” (yeah, yeah, D&G). Foucault just switches out the words “repression” and “desire” with those of “power” and “bodies”. Foucault, therefore, didn’t really offer a third position from which to critique capitalism even though it may seem that way on a superficial reading of his work.
McGowan now begins to lay out his own third position — one that comes after inequality (Marx) and repression (Gross, Reich, Marcuse and, yes, Foucault) — which argues that the problem with capitalism is precisely in how it provides us with satisfaction (jouissance, enjoyment). It gives us jouissance while also keeping us desiring beyond this enjoyment towards a better future. It makes us find our actual enjoyment to be unenjoyable (a better enjoyment is right around the corner). According to McGowan, a new concept of revolution must be thought of, that is, one that does not use the logic of the promise (better tomorrow) of capitalism itself. Fourier, Owen, Jameson, Negri and Derrida are all leftists who remain entranced by the ideology of the better tomorrow (the promise).
McGowan’s theoretical position is aligned to the later Freud who linked repression to the subject’s intractable attachment to loss instead of to unacceptable sexual desire. This is the Freud of death drive (jouissance). What’s so important to grasp here is the difference between these two forms of repression. The repression of unacceptable sexual desires would, in fact, block the subject from attaining certain forms of enjoyment, whereas the repression of the subject’s enjoyment of loss does not prevent the subject from enjoying — it merely prevents the subject from realizing he or she is actually enjoying. This means that there is no enjoyment to be gained from de-repressing the subject — the subject already has his or her partial enjoyment in repetitious loss (and the fantasy of wholly perfect enjoyment is just that — a fantasy). Partial enjoyment is the only actual enjoyment there is to enjoy.
McGowan seeks to engage in a sort of Freudo-Marxism but one that uses the later Freud (and a lot of Lacan). This is a difficult task. One that he and Žižek have been working on for years now. In other words, McGowan’s theoretical perspective is firmly rooted in the ontology of the drive. This is what differentiates him and Žižek from Freudo-Marxist thinkers like Adorno, Gross, Reich, Marcuse, Foucault (yes, he’d hate being put in this group), D&G, etc. The point is not to free the subject from capitalism in order to enjoy a full enjoyment, but, rather, to see how capitalism manipulates the subject through the actual enjoyment it provides and through the desire it continually stirs up via fantasy. We must see how we (our death drive) enjoy our loss in capitalist society.
Chapter One: The Subject of Desire and the Subject of Capitalism
This is the chapter that lays out the basic conceptual matrix that McGowan will use throughout the rest of the book. It’s worth noting that his ways of thinking about desire, fantasy and satisfaction (jouissance, enjoyment) are deeply inspired by Lacan and Žižek, but McGowan uses these ideas with incredible clarity and concreteness. McGowan’s core argument is that capitalism manipulates our desire in order to keep us fantasmatically invested in the commodity system but this also occurs on the basis on the actual (partial) enjoyment we get from not getting what we desire. This is counterintuitive but McGowan is relying on the later Freud’s concept of death drive as well as Lacan’s interpretation of it. This will be explored below.
One of the biggest challenges in writing about capitalism is in properly defining it. What is the definition of “capitalism”? Capitalism is known for its elasticity, that is, it’s ability to bend, morph and reshape itself. How are we define a system that is defined by its incredible ability to reconfigure itself? It is remarkably capable of incorporating difference into itself. However, it does this by commodifying all things (Debord hated this). The logic of capital and commodification is to assimilate all differences but in a way that violently neutralizes their violent potentials. Both the supporters and enemies of capitalism would agree that capitalism is when the free market is positioned at the center of society and has the final say. However, this does not explain the psychical-libidinal appeal of capitalism. It’s on the level of libidinal economy that one truly discovers the true essence of capitalism.
McGowan insists that we should not link capitalism to culture if we are to understand capitalism’s libidinal rewards, that is, capitalism and culture must remain opposed to one another. Capital itself cares nothing for culture but only uses it for its own purposes. For McGowan, capitalism is not essentially Eurocentric, but, rather, a universal system (I agree with this). Capitalism remains fundamentally the same whether it is in France, Brazil, China or Pakistan (Capital must quantitatively increase no matter what) even if it bends itself to incorporate certain cultural traditions. The point is that capitalism offers subjects forms of enjoyment that culture does not, whereas culture provides a stable sense of identity and social belonging that capitalism fails to. Here we have a battle between capitalistic jouissance and cultural identity.
Capitalism is all about facilitating the fantasy that accumulation will eventually end in the realization of a perfect enjoyment. This is the hook of Capital. If we just get enough of the right commodities, then a sublime jouissance will be ours. But we never actually reach this fantasmatic type of enjoyment. Nevertheless, we do have certain forms of actual enjoyment, which keep us invested in the system. We are the subjects of the fantasy of the final commodity, but our actual enjoyment is found precisely in our failures to realize this desire. Capitalist ideology is the double deception of (1) there is a final commodity to attain and (2) we do not enjoy our failure to reach it. In truth, there is no final commodity and our enjoyment has its source in our failed attempts to get our hands on it. The truth of the capitalist subject is that it enjoys its failures to attain the unattainable commodity. This actual enjoyment in failure is precisely the enjoyment many Americans have lost and why they are currently so miserable.
Anyway, capitalism is not aligned to human nature (our natural essence), but, rather, it does fit nicely with the unnaturalness of our desire (metonymic-combinatory skipping from one object to another). This is what simulates the system’s “naturalness” and its affinity to human “nature”. Capitalism’s power rests in how it links itself up to human desire, which is unnatural owing to the fact that it is the result of the system of signifiers. Capitalism takes advantage of the alienation of the signifier, that is, in the split between the being and linguistic representation of subjects and objects. It is the signifier that opens up the possibility of things being more than they actually are or, in other words, having a fantasmatic supplement (sublime jouissance). The surplus is in the signifier! However, the signifier involves a certain simulatory transparency. This means that it seems as though the signifier does not in any profound way alter our perception of the object. The signifier seems to be distortionless, but this merely hides its opacity. We like to say that perception is theory-ladened, but a more precise formulation would be perception is signifier-ladened. We are always-already seeing through the distortions of the signifier (language in general). However, capitalism presents this division in the object and in the subject to be contingent and one that can be remedied — capitalist ideology says, “wholeness is possible”. Capital is a cunning linguist (a coder). As Saussure showed, the signifier produces a divided world.
Due to the structure of the mediating field of language, the subject is always oriented around absence (lack) and can never find a perfectly satisfying object because the object is always more than it is in its own being. In other words, we attach a fantasmatic surplus or supplement to actual objects that makes them more than they actually are. Capitalism, however, is the first social system that promises is to fill in this gap (ontological lack) once and for all. This is the source of its fantasmatic-ideological power over us. The lack (dissatisfaction) we experience is merely contingent — capital and the accumulation of commodities can fix it. Other societies have found ways to deal with lack (loss, absence) but capitalism promises to get rid of it altogether. Capitalism does this by substantializing the objet petit a (lost object, perfect object of fantasy, missing part of the subject) and, then, identifying it with commodities. Some commodity will actually be the bearer of the lost object and, thus, make the consumer-subject whole. In truth, the lost object is the retroactive product of the signifier.
McGowan, then, goes on to critique object relations psychoanalysis for also substantializing the lost object, just like capitalism. Both capitalism and object relations theory make lack into an empirical-contingent problems that can be solved, whereas Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis views lack as ontological and necessary, that is, it is constitutive of the very “being” of the subject. Here’s the big problem: if paradise, happiness or libidinal perfection was really lost, then it really can be regained. The point is to see that this state is a pure fantasy (illusion) — we never had it and never will. Here’s the takeaway: lack/loss is not a disruption in the subject’s jouissance, but, instead, the very condition of it insofar as the subject enjoys loss itself.
It’s because we are lacking subjects that we can enjoy at all. It’s the later Freud of the death drive who made this conceptual breakthrough. Our jouissance lies in the paths we take around the object, i.e, how we “circle” the object without ever getting it. Enjoyment is the path of loss. This is why Lacan said: “When you entrust someone with a mission, the aim is not what he brings back, but the itinerary he must take. The aim is the way taken” (Seminar XI, p. 179). This means that psychoanalysis must rethink the nature of the psychoanalytic cure. As McGowan puts it: “With the recognition of the constitutive role of loss in the psychic economy, psychoanalysis must alter its conception of the cure. Rather than simply ending repression or even overcoming loss, the cure has to involve changing the subject’s relation to its lost object, experiencing the intimate connection between loss and satisfaction” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 32). In other words, enjoy your symptom!
The speaking subject is a tragic figure owing to the nature of its desire. It fails to see that it is always-already enjoying itself due to how it keeps searching for a perfect enjoyment (one constituted in fantasy). Capitalism exploits this for its own sake by convincing us that wholeness will finally arrive with the purchase of a certain commodity. The point, however, is to face up to lack as ontologically constitutive of us. This, McGowan argues, is the point of the signifier “Rosebud” at the end of Citizen Kane. McGowan goes on to the discuss the role of the Other’s desire in relation to the subject’s desire. The Other’s desire is precisely what keeps us invested in the commodity system, since the Other (authority, master) “knows” what’s best to desire, which, in this case, is commodities. We take the Other’s desire to be a compass that reliably points to the north of our jouissance. The trick is to realize that there is no unbarred Other who knows precisely what he or she desires. The Other is always turning to other subjects for the content of its desire, just like you and I.
Capitalism, however, is a master manipulator when it comes to the subject’s desire. It conceals the fact that the only source of enjoyment is not getting what we want and holding out the ideological fantasy of a perfect enjoyment somewhere in the promised future. Capitalism keeps the capitalist chasing ever greater capital increases even though they never fully satisfy. Consumerism keeps the consumer chasing the newest commodity as if it will be the true bearer of perfect jouissance. Both production and consumption are sustained by the fantasy of perfect enjoyment. In truth, capitalism thrives by keeping us perpetually dissatisfied by bombarding us with fantasmatic images of sublime enjoyment in films, TV show, advertising, etc. It’s in recognizing that there is no such thing as perfect enjoyment (the promised future) that we can free our subjectivities from capitalism.
Psychoanalysis can help us to free ourselves by enabling us to see where our actual enjoyment lies (not where we fantasmatically picture it to be). The later Freud sought to show his analysands how their enjoyment is actually in their symptoms (modes of repetitious loss, ways of giving oneself too much trouble). To enjoy your symptom is to enjoy the obstacle that blocks your desire from attaining what it wants. Psychoanalysis can also help us free ourselves from the Other’s desire insofar as we come to see that this desire is as inconsistent, groundless, Other-centric and unsure as our desires are. We must accept that there is no big Other, i.e., no authority who possesses the secret knowledge of desire and enjoyment. Since the Other’s desire can never be the final guarantee of the subject’s desire, capitalism must flood the subject with fantasies that provide information on the true nature of the Other’s desire and enjoyment — capitalism is a plague of fantasies. All the “substantial” reality the Other’s desire has is in the subject’s own fantasy.
Fantasy is basically a buffer between the subject and the enigmatic and inconsistent desire of the Other. In this sense, fantasy is a kind of security system that guards the subject against the anxiety-provoking desire of the Other. Lacan expresses this by saying in The Logic of Fantasy that “in the final accounting the fantasy is a sentence with a grammatical structure”, i.e., a comprehensible unit that provides clear and stable meaning in reference to the Other’s desire. But capitalism’s true power lies in a two-step cycle. First, it highlights the enigmatic desire of the Other, and second, it presents fantasmatic answers to this enigma. Then it just keeps on repeating this vacillation — question, answer, question, new answer, question, newer answer, ad infinitum. In fact, both money and the stock market are organized around fantasy — speculative capital is fantasmatic capital. Fantasy is absolutely crucial to the functioning of capitalism. True freedom involves a certain freedom from the Other’s desire wherein the subject ceases to fixate on the Other and loses itself in its own partial enjoyment (drive satisfaction). However, capitalism is built around enslaving the subject to the Other’s desire.
Chapter Two: The Psychic Constitution of Private Space
This chapter addresses the question concerning the private space constituted by capitalism. Rousseau was very much concerned with the turn away from public service that capitalism brings even though he didn’t focus on capitalism itself. Rousseau says, “As soon as public service ceases to be the Citizens’ principal business, and they prefer to serve with their purse rather than with their person, the State is already close to ruin” (The Social Contract). In Lacanian terms, capitalism brings the subject to abandoned its sense of Symbolic duty and to fixate, instead, on the cultivation of Imaginary identity (egoic individualization) and Real enjoyment (superegoic duty to enjoy), i.e., one is now what one egoistically enjoys (consumes) and not what social Cause one serves. Anyway, our egoic-libidinal privatization process has grown so much as to now threaten the very existence of public space (the commons). Privatization of life goes hand in hand with the logic of capital. The big difference between public and private spaces is that the latter establishes who and who cannot enter them — public space is open to all. A private space is an exclusive space. Capitalism is a system of private property and private space, which is why public space is always a lingering threat to it.
The retreat from public space into private space is a retreat from subjectivity itself. Capitalism obfuscates the subject’s origin in the other’s desire, that is, it convinces us that we are first and foremost, ontologically speaking, private individuals. Wrong! Wittgenstein’s argument against private language in Philosophical Investigations can be said to be anticapitalist, since it rejects the capitalistic fantasy of the private individual. Language consists of rules and there’s no such thing as a private rule, i.e., language is intrinsically public. This means that the speaking subject is fundamentally public in its ontological constitution. Also, the subject’s very desire and jouissance have their sources in the social order (the public) insofar as society limits and prohibits certain forms of enjoyment. Society sets up the barriers and obstacles that the subject can transgress and, thereby, desire and enjoy. The reason why this seems counterintuitive is because we are so invested in the fantasy of the private individual who spontaneously has unique desires, which is pure ideology. In truth, we require a social obstacle (the big Other, the public Law) in order to desire and enjoy.
Capitalist ideology has us thinking that we ourselves are the sources of our desires and enjoyments, but the source is actually the Other (public). The Other’s disturbance is what enables us to enjoy. To turn against the public sphere is to turn against one’s own subjectivity. Privacy is an abstraction and a safeguard against an encounter with Other-centric (extimate) subjectivity. Capitalist ideology prevents an encounter with the truth of one’s jouissance, desire and subjectivity. The more privacy we have, the less jouissance we have. Politics has even become focused on the private sphere because it’s all about our personal forms of self-interest, e.g., think of “the homeowners who protest the construction of a nuclear power plant because it would threaten their property values” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 55). Insofar as capitalism is organized around self-interest (privacy), the public space is always a threat to it. Capitalism does not merely hate socialism — it hates the social as such. The first principle of capitalism (or its ideology) is that human beings at their fundamental level are seekers of their own rational and private self-interest. Wrong! “The great deception of the capitalist system is that it convinces us that we are self-interested beings when we are in fact beings devoted to imperiling and even destroying our self-interest” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 57).
The capitalist allegoric reaction to all things public has spurred on all of the neoliberal policies of hyper-privatization and the gutting of social welfare programs. Even Obama’s stimulus package exemplifies the neoliberal logic. Privacy and austerity caused the financial crisis, but, then, turned right around and blamed it on public debt and public oversight. The irony is that capitalism (modernity) is precisely what opened up the most robust public space the world has ever seen. This is because capitalism also necessitates exchange and exchange is a public phenomenon. But while capitalism made possible a robust public sphere due to economic exchanges, it also collapsed this sphere with the onset of consumerism, but consumption itself also contains a public dimension insofar as we need the Other to see us consume (this is what grants us our social statuses).
Neurosis is a reaction to the social (public). Psychoanalysis sides with the individual in its neurotic struggle against the social order (law, prohibition, etc.), but we must be careful in how we think about this psychoanalytic defense of the individual within the context of capitalism. Psychoanalysis also recognizes that the subject’s enjoyment depends on the very social order that makes it neurotic. On top of that, psychoanalysis holds that the individual cannot reach the truth about itself on its own. The truth is out there in the public space. Other people know the subject better than it knows itself insofar as they are always “reading the subject’s desire”, inferring this unconscious desire, from the subject’s explicit statements. For psychoanalysis, self-analysis is out of the question. We cannot know ourselves via introspection. Also, (Freudian-Lacanian) psychoanalysis is all about the public signifiers we actually use and not about the private inventions we identify with. For these reasons, psychoanalysis is opposed to capitalism and to privacy. Psychoanalysis publicizes what the patient would like to have remain in privacy. Capitalism wants us to think that we enjoy only in the private sphere, but psychoanalysis shows us that our enjoyment lies in the public obstacle. This is what Antoine Doinel realizes at the end of The 400 Blows, i.e., that his source of enjoyment is all of the public obstacles that he defies.
Now, we tend to think that capitalism is far better than totalitarianism precisely because the latter does away with all forms of privacy, but, as Arendt argued, totalitarianism is a system based on the principle of privacy. How could this be? McGowan explains, “It is precisely the attempt to cling to one’s private world and avoid the public that nourishes the totalitarian impulse that wipes out all privacy. A commitment to the public world itself sustains the private world as the product of the former. In this sense, totalitarianism is not the reverse side of liberalism’s insistence on sustaining the private world at all costs, but instead the ultimate end point of this insistence” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 66). In truth, capitalism has made it nearly impossible to have privacy from the capitalist system. We live in a world of surveillance that makes it harder and harder to live off of the capitalist grid. In this sense, capitalism itself is a threat to privacy. The ideological function of surveillance is to get us to totally react to it by fully identifying as private individuals. To truly identify oneself as a citizen of the public one must simply recognize that one’s enjoyment depends on the obstacles society puts in its way — we owe our enjoyment to society itself.
Chapter Three: Shielding Our Eyes from the Gaze
The name of chapter three is ‘Shielding our Eyes from the Gaze’, which implies that there is something deeply troubling, disturbing, traumatic, anxiety-provoking, etc., about the gaze. We seek to avoid an encounter with the gaze at all costs. But what is the gaze?
Capitalism operates by making itself present to all of us — it does not have to stealthily hide, like the Devil, in order to impose its will on the world. But while it does exist as our economic system, it also does not exist in the sense of being the substantial ground of our being. In other words, there are human subjects without capitalism, but this system makes us ideologically think that it is our ground. Capitalism is not ontological, it is not woven into the very fabric of reality, but, instead, the result of various political decisions. There were other modes of production (economies) that preceded it. The problem is that the decision that inaugurated capitalism is not like the revolutionary one in Russia during October 1917. The capitalist decision was not discernible like the communist one was. The haziness that cloaks the capitalist decision is what makes capitalism seem to be of the natural order of things. The reason why capitalist-consumer subjects hate politics (the State) as such is because it seems to always be interfering with the natural order of things that we call capitalism. The ideological power of capitalism relies on how it presents itself as being totally neutral (natural). If it is just part of existence, like water and dirt, then it makes no sense to oppose it. We must make the nonexistence of capitalism evident. How? By relying of the moments of crisis within capitalism. Economic crises point out that capitalism is not the unbarred big Other. Theoretically and politically speaking, economic crisis is the friend of the leftist. What is so appealing about capitalism is that it saves us from the burden of having to make transformative and structural political decisions. This leaves us “free” to only focus on our fun little decisions, e.g., what shirt to buy, what restaurant to eat at, etc.
In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be an economic-political alternative to capitalism, so people are not going to be politically engaged for that very reason. Politics seems to be a waste of time and energy because real politics (struggle over the structure of society) is not possible. To be a political subject is to see the given social order as a contingent arrangement — it can be other than what it is. Authentic politics is a rupture in the given, which is why capitalism seeks to neutralize this threat. It does this, in part, by obfuscating the role workers play in it. Capitalism seems like something that runs all on its own, but seeing that our labor (productive and consumptive activity) is capitalism collapses this ideological distortion.
Also, as McGowan explains, “Because it commands us to follow our own self-interest rather than question where this interest lies, capitalism can present itself as the economic system most proximate to the givens of our biology” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 73). In other words, capitalism’s ideology of self-interest is what simulates the system’s ontological naturalness and its affinity to human nature. But Freud, with the concept of death drive, destroyed the idea that humans are primarily focused on what is in their rational self-interest. Capitalism praises and preaches self-interest, but its the enjoyment we get from our death drive (self-sabotaging of self-interest) that it thrives on. If we were truly subject of self-interest, then we would have collectively organized and overthrown capitalism long ago. Mcgowan goes on to analyze how Ayn Rand, Adam Smith and, yes, Alain Badiou, all view capitalism as natural, which is exactly what it wants us to think about it.
Next up, we pivot into a discussion of gaze. An encounter with the gaze serves to break the ideological spell of capitalism’s “naturalness”. There is a homology between the subject’s relation to the visual field and the subject’s relation to capitalism. McGowan explains it like this: “capitalism and the visual field seem to exist on their own in a neutral state with regard to the subjects who engage them. They present themselves as simply partaking in the order of things. Just as no political decision inaugurates the capitalist system, none constitutes the visual field” (Capitalism and Desire, pp. 77–8). Vision is unique among the five senses insofar as it seems to be radically objective in a way the others aren’t. There appears to be no subjective distortion in the visual field, whereas we know our taste effects how we experience different foods. An encounter with the gaze reveals to the subject how his or her desire distorts the visual field (it’s what Žižek call “looking awry”).
The film Drive contains a great example of an encounter with the gaze (McGowan also discusses the gaze as it functions in The Searchers and It’s a Wonderful Life). The regular economic crises of capitalism are encounters with the gaze, that is, they force us to see how our desire for capitalism actually distorts our “vision” of the system (in these moments, we find that the system is not really what our unconsious desire leads us to think it is). The Great Depression, the economic crisis of the early 1970s (inflation, abandoning the gold standard, Nixon, etc.) and the Great Recession were all encounters with the gaze. An encounter with the gaze is a glitch in the illusion of naturalness or neutrality of the visual field that reveals its tendentious, desirous, preferential, unnatural framing — what we see is what we want to see and the encounter with the gaze is the encounter with this truth itself.
In other words, the gaze is the subject’s encounter with the distortions of its own desire. We feel like something out there in the visual field is looking at us when faced with our desirous distortions of that very field. We see our capitalist visual field as natural and neutral, harmonious and fair, but its the contours of our desire that make it so — an economic crisis breaks this illusion down (crisis time is gaze time). For capitalism, overproduction is always a crisis in waiting, which reveals the unnaturalness of the system. Simply put, there is a homology between the economic crisis and the gaze — both undo the illusion of naturalness and objective cohesion. The economic crisis (gaze) has no necessary response. We can react with either rightist or leftist political decisions. Fascism views the gaze (crisis) as having an external cause (e.g., the “Jew”), but the emancipatory Left views it as coming from the inside (intrinsic structure of the system itself).
Chapter Four: The Persistence of Sacrifice After Its Obsolescence
This chapter focuses on sacrifice and how it factors into capitalism, i.e., the secularization of sacrifice. Both capitalism and the Enlightenment reject the sacrificial ritual based on superstitious beliefs. Both of them champion utility, which views ritualistic sacrifices as a major waste of time. I like to put it like this: capitalism strongly represses sacrifice, waste and expenditure, which is exactly why they return with such a vengeance (the return of the repressed). The dialectical twist is that the extreme privileging of the useful over the sacred might itself not be all that useful after all. Anyway, there are points of sacrifice operative within capitalism. Joseph Schumpeter called these as points of “creative destruction”. As McGowan puts it, “Capitalism constantly sacrifices old mechanisms of production and old products for new ones, and this sacrificial procedure is the lifeblood of the capitalist system” (Capitalism and Desire, pp. 90–1). But his issue with Schumpeter’s position is that destruction and sacrifice are not the same thing insofar as sacrifice is tied to the sacred (the holy, the divine, etc.), whereas capitalistic destruction is a secular process. This difference between sacrifice and destruction must be stressed. For Freud, Girard and Mauss, there’s no getting rid of sacrifice and the sacred no matter how hard capitalism tries to repress it (Baudrillard made this insight into his greatest theoretical weapon against capitalism and he called it symbolic exchange).
Nevertheless, capitalism is also based around sacrifice insofar as workers must give up their time and energy to the capitalist as well as give up their wages to all the commodities they don’t really need. Capitalism hides sacrifice right there out in the open (like Poe’s purloined letter that Lacan wrote about). In integrating sacrifice into our everyday activities, into the banality of day-to-day life, capitalism conceals and dissimulates the presence of sacrifice. Consumer subjects only can enjoy sacrifice when they are unaware that they are doing it. We sacrifice unconsciously and secularly, but this negates sacrifice’s ability to generate cohesive social bonds. We can even call this the privatization of sacrifice. In truth, however, every society is rooted in sacrifice . . . yes, even capitalism!
To have things that are valuable at all, there first must be a sacrifice. As McGowan puts it, “societies sacrifice because loss is the source of value” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 92). Yes, we require food and shelter in order to continue to live, so we could say that these two are valuable to us in and of themselves, that is, their value does not have its source in sacrifice/loss, but this presupposes that we take biological life to be valuable in and of itself. But is bare life truly valuable to us? Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis certainly rejects this vitalistic point of view. For desiring subjects (human beings with libidinal economies), value is rooted in loss insofar as we enjoy self-sabotage (death drive). We desire, fantasize and enjoy through the absences generated by the signifier (language). This gives new meaning to the famous words “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. In other words, it is not through ignorance or stupidity that we enjoy sacrifice, but, rather, because of the very structure of our subjectivity. Sacrifice is written into human ontology — we are beings of sacrifice.
It is said that supply and demand determine the value of commodities, but, rather, it is the labor (what Marx called “socially necessary labor time”) expended on the production of commodity that determines its value. As McGowan explains, “The amount of labor invested in a product tells us how much we are willing to sacrifice for it. The more time someone will sacrifice to create a commodity, the more value it has. If no one will or has to work to produce something, capitalism ascribes no value at all to it” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 95). The reason why Marx hated capitalist profit so much is because of how it obfuscates the exploitative sacrifice of the worker’s surplus value. Worker’s sacrifice their surplus value to the capitalist in exchange for a wage (a wage that only covers a portion of the worker’s labor — the proportion necessary for the worker’s reproduction as a worker-commodity). In other words, workers are paid the full value of their labor power, but their labor power is capable of producing a surplus value that they are not paid for. Marx wanted the workers to own and have control over the surplus their labor produces — not the capitalists who exploit them. And even if we reject Marx’s theory of surplus value and the labor theory of value and, instead, adopt the perspective of the General Equilibrium Theory, we still find sacrifice is involved insofar as workers must sacrifice their time for money. No matter how we approach it, capitalism forces workers to sacrifice and, in fact, it puts pressure on them to increase the quantity of sacrifice.
The fact that all of our consumer enjoyment is structured around the exploitative loss and sacrifice of the worker is not easy to cope with. The consumer must take up a position of fetishist disavowal here. The consumer must say, “I know very well that my consumer enjoyment depends on the misery of workers, but, nevertheless, I’m going to continue to consume as if it does not. And, let’s remember, the vast majority of consumers are workers, which means that what we enjoy in consumption is our own misery in production, but this is why we want consumption and production to appear as vastly unrelated realms. McGowan writes, “factories are not placed in the vicinity of shopping malls” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 97). It’s is not enjoyable to think that your consumer fun is rooted in the suffering of others (especially that of you and your loved ones), so fetishistic disavowal is a condition of consumerism . . . but we always know in our hearts (unconscious) that this is an unethical situation.
But let’s take the misery of the worker another step forward. If it sucks to be a worker in America, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc., then what’s it like to be a worker in the Congo? Yes, consumer society has made it seem that capitalism has come to treat its workers better and better, but this view depends on extremely limiting one’s vision of what’s happening around the world. It’s true that things have gotten better, relatively speaking, for some workers in some countries, which is why McGowan says, “One would rather be a young woman toiling in garment manufacturing in the 1840s Manchester than a child mining coltan in the Congo in the 2000s” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 98). At it’s purest, capital has no problem in working young children to death if this means greater increases in profit. The logic of capital will never think twice about whether or not it’s immoral to eat your children alive. Walmart is responsible for the horrible conditions of workers in China, India and Vietnam. The low prices at Walmart depend of the misery of the workers in those countries. Apple also forces workers into terrible conditions in order to produce iPods, iPads and iPhones. This is a two-step process: (1) the mining of raw materials and (2) the assembly of the various devices.
According to the Enough Project (a group fighting crimes against humanity), Apple was historically one of the worst culprits among electronic manufacturers who relied on minerals mined in the Congo. The four minerals that are most essential for electronic products include columbite-tantalite, or coltan (for tantalum), cassiterite (for tin), wolframite (for tungsten), and gold. Tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold each play important roles in the functioning of electronic devices like the iPad and iPhone. Because the mines were under the control of various militia groups, they could enforce the most deplorable working conditions imaginable: forty-eight consecutive hours in unlit and gas-filled tunnels, child slave labor, rape of workers, death for the failure to achieve mining quotas, and so on. . . . Despite the geographical distance that separates the retail outlets selling iPhones and the mines in the Congo, these two sites enjoy an intimate connection. The sacrifice of workers in the Congo is the condition of possibility for the consumer’s enjoyment of the iPhone, though this consumer must remain able to disavow any knowledge of this sacrifice.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 101)
I can’t help but to think of Kanye West’s words on the song ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)’:
Good morning, this ain’t Vietnam, still,
People lose hands, legs, arms for real.
Little was known of Sierra Leone
And how it connect to the diamonds we own.
When I speak of diamonds in this song,
I ain’t talkin’ bout the ones that be glowin’,
I’m talkin’ bout Roc-A-Fella, my home.
My chain, these ain’t conflict diamonds,
Is they, Jacob? Don’t lie to me, mann!
I feel a part of me sayin’, “keep shinin’”.
How?! When I know of the blood diamonds?
Though it’s thousands of miles away,
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today.
Over here, it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs.
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs.
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses.
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless,
‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless.
And here’s the conflict:
It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold.
Spend your whole life tryin’ to get that ice.
On a Polo rugby it look so nice.
How could something so wrong make me feel so right?
Right?! Before I beat myself up like Ike,
You can still throw your Roc-A-Fella diamond tonight.
The situation in China is also horrendous. Many of us have heard about the suicide nets.
The manufacture of iPads has led to great death and destruction in China, including worker suicides, plant explosions, and daily interaction with poisonous chemicals. One of Apple’s suppliers in China, Foxconn, ran into such a problem with worker suicides that it constructed netting around the factory to curb the practice and forced workers to sign pledges saying that they would not do themselves in while working at Foxconn.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 101)
However, these types of horrors are baked into the capitalist system. Even if the working conditions in the Congo and China get vastly improved, capital will just move somewhere else it can continue to get away with this nightmarish mistreatment of workers.
Capitalist modernity makes it impossible to enjoy sacrifice and loss because, at the conscious level, the subject must believe he or she is geared towards utility and rational self-interest despite the fact that the unconsious is always focused on sacrifice and the enjoyment it brings. This means that capitalism must enable us to persist in sacrifice but just in ways that remain unconscious. Capitalism is built around fetishist disavowal: “I know very well that I do not get my enjoyment from acting in my self-interest, but, still, I nevertheless act as if I do”. But the objects we truly enjoy consuming involve self-sacrifice, e.g., buying an expensive bottle of wine is far more enjoyable to purchase than a side of broccoli is. We only really enjoy spending on money on things we don’t need — the enjoyment is located in the wastefulness, excess, etc., of the purchase. Buying things that are in one’s self-interest, things that give one greater safety, security and stability in the world, are not fun to buy. It’s not all that fun to buy a motorcycle helmet — oh, but a motorcycle?
McGowan, then, pivots into a discussion of how Keynes thought about the role of sacrifice in capitalism and, from there, we get a critique of capitalism’s ideology of utility. Capitalism uses utility as its greatest ideological justifier, but, in truth, capitalism cares very little about producing commodities that increase social utility. Nowhere is this truer than in food production. This system thrives on selling us self-destructive junk food (we sacrifice our health for the enjoyment we get from unhealthy food). As Marx explained in the Grundrisse, capitalism goes out of its way to produce new needs for new commodities — commodities we don’t really need, since the very need for them must be produced in the first place. No one needed an iPhone in 1987. Of course, the apologists of capital (e.g., Ricardo) try to get around this critique, but the argument is really just an ideological circle between capitalism and desire: “Ricardo’s logic cannot be countered because it is perfectly circular: capitalism gratifies human desires, but it is only through the free market that we can know those desires. Ricardo never articulates the nature of human desires prior to their fulfillment, which renders his solution so elegant and utterly irrefutable” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 109). The problem with this loop is that it cannot account for the origin of desire.
McGowan now discusses Bataille and his anti-capitalism. Bataille championed sacrifice and condemned capitalism for its failure to properly reckon with it. Bataille saw a fundamental connection between sacrifice and enjoyment, so his problem with capitalism is that its repression of sacrifice leads to the impossibility of enjoyment. The problem with Bataille, according to McGowan, is his ontology of excess energy. Bataille thought that we sacrifice in order to get rid of the excess energy built up inside us, but McGowan counter-argues that we sacrifice in order to create value via loss. Also, as we’ve just seen, capitalism does not abolish sacrifice, but, rather, ideologically conceals it. Capitalism lives off of sacrifice but only in its invisible form. Terrorism can be said to be an attempt to reintroduce visible sacrifice back into the social order.
Chapter Five: A God We Can Believe In
Chapter Five is all about the relation between God, desire and capitalism. Capitalism, unlike traditional societies, does not require its subjects to explicitly worship a transcendent entity. This involves a certain conceptual freedom for the human being. Science also ceases to allow for supernatural explanations of natural occurrences. However, capitalism really just kills off the old God and replaces it with the god of the market. But this god, unlike ones like Yahweh, do not limit human freedom, but, instead, accelerates it. In Lacanian terms, the market is the new big Other (social authority) in capitalist society. In capitalist society, one can still believe in some kind of spiritual entity called God, but this being is not the old one that actually had a meaningful presence in human affairs.
But this distancing of God from the world opens up new freedom for human beings. Freedom is not simply the ability to do whatever you want because your desire is socially mediated (desire is the desire of the Other, desire is Other-centric). True freedom is freedom from the Other (authority). McGowan discusses how Descartes and Kant each thought about the relation between God and freedom. But if modernity set human beings free from the big Other (God’s absolute authority), then capitalism offers subject’s a retreat from this new freedom (the irony, of course, is that capitalism claims to be a freedom-producing machine). The “freedom” of capitalism is a bullshit freedom and that’s why we enjoy it so much. In truth, capitalism involves the poverty of freedom. McGowan goes on to show how capitalist apologists such as von Mises and Hayek both take up a contradictory position towards freedom (their radical inconsistency towards freedom and coercion is made very apparent).
Von Mises presents himself as an apostle of freedom, as someone so committed to freedom that he will countenance extreme inequality to sustain it. But then, when he extols the virtues of the market, he praises its ability to rescue us from our freedom. This is one of those shocking moments when a thinker inadvertently exposes the unconscious desire at stake in her or his conscious project. According to von Mises, “The market process is the adjustment of the individual actions of the various members of the market society to the requirements of mutual cooperation. The market prices tell the producers what to produce, how to produce, and in what quantity.” Rather than confronting the burden of freedom when we decide on our life’s work, von Mises believes that the market decides for us. This is the crucial move in the thought of von Mises and many other champions of capitalism. They give the market the status of the Other for subjects within the capitalist economy. These defenders are even more perspicacious than Marx himself in displaying capitalism’s retreat from freedom at the precise point — the market — where it posits an absolute freedom.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 120)
McGowan now shows that Hayek is caught up in the same inconsistency:
In The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek repeats the same contradiction that entraps von Mises, though he discusses it in terms of the worker rather than the businessperson. Hayek argues that society should not provide any security of employment but instead allow workers to lose their jobs when these jobs cease to be socially necessary. Rather than seeing this position as coldhearted, Hayek views it as enlightened. One of the virtues of capitalism is that it eliminates socially unnecessary labor by rendering that labor unprofitable. Utility rules the capitalist universe and quickly eliminates positions that no longer contribute to the collective good.
When I examine the field of possibilities for my life’s work, the choice seems impossible. I could devote myself to medical research, stock trading, exploration of the cosmos, garbage collection, the study of history, or an almost infinite amount of other options. But when I look at the absence of career opportunities for history professors and the bevy for stock traders, the choice becomes clear. Even those who lack the privilege of choosing a career and must simply decide where to apply for a job receive guidance from the market, which tells them to apply at Walmart rather than at the local bookstore. The free market rescues me from the horrible freedom of having no grounds for deciding what I desire to take up as an occupation. . . . The magic of the market will direct us to the proper, socially necessary line of work. Despite Hayek’s insistence that only capitalism ensures our absolute liberty, here he describes its brake on that liberty as a virtue.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 120–1)
On the one hand, von Mises and Hayek celebrate individual choice but, then, also praise the various sorts of coercion the market imposes on individuals. The market informs the subject on what he or she should desire and it also determines one’s job opportunities. The market is highly coercive and, thereby, limits the subject’s freedom. To be honest, this section of the chapter titled ‘The Poverty of Freedom’ is one of the very best in the whole book and should just be read on its own. This is McGowan at his best. The main point being that the market is a far more effective God than God himself was when it comes to limiting, structuring and determining our desire, which amounts to limiting our freedom. The market is our big Other, our God, our absolute authority in all matters pertaining to desire, but belief in the big Other is unfreedom. True freedom is atheistic in regards to the big Other. The first words of Freedom are “there is no big Other”.
In an ontological sense, my freedom has its basis in the nonexistence of the Other, in the fact that there is no Other to tell me how to desire. I must interpret the desire of the Other that does not exist in order to constitute my own subjectivity as desiring. We are condemned to freedom not, as Jean-Paul Sartre would have it, because we could also decide to act differently but because there is no authoritative and substantial Other to tell us how to desire. Any such figure that we call on is the product of an act of belief, and this is what occurs with capitalism, as Hayek rightfully describes. In the form of the market, capitalism provides us with the image a substantial Other that we can believe in.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 123)
But freedom hurts. It is very difficult to own up to one’s ownmost possibilities and responsibilities. It’s very scary to be the only one responsible for your desire. Part of capitalism’s appeal is how it relieves us of our freedom while also sustaining the illusion of it.
Capitalism, in other words, tells us how to belong to our social order, how to fit in with the demands of society. There is no possibility here of the freedom to do something that does not fulfill the social demand. We can only act according to this demand, and capitalism excels by making this demand completely clear. Though we can believe that we freely chose our job — and Hayek argues that we always do — capitalism takes the weight of this burden off our shoulders by showing where we should direct our energies. The system of salaries and the announcement of positions available offer a schema for understanding the Other’s desire. This schema is the fantasy structure through which capitalism permits us to escape the nonexistence of the Other and thus the horror of recognizing that there is no one and nothing to tell us how to desire. . . . Instead of leaving us on our own with just our freedom and no idea of what we should desire, the market frees us of the burden of freedom, but we are able to keep the word. In the capitalist universe “freedom” saves us from freedom.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 123–4)
But by what means does capitalism direct and inform our desire in the act of consumption? The answer, of course, is advertising. Advertising let’s us know what the Other desires. “The Other desires people who consume our product.” Instead of freely interpreting the Other’s desire for ourselves, advertising does this for us and, thereby, saves us from our freedom. This means that every purchase brings with it a sense of recognition and validation from the big Other (social authority). In this sense, advertisement (along with the market itself) has become our new God. Ads and billboards essentially function as the eyes of “God” insofar as we see and judge ourselves through them. McGowan uses the novel The Great Gatsby to make this point.
Now we jump into a discussion of Adam Smith and the oft-debated question concerning the relation between his two books The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, which appear to be philosophically opposed to one another. His moral philosophy posits a moral sentiment that links us to others, whereas his economics is all about rugged individualism and private interest. The one thing that connects both of these two disparate works is Smith’s thoughts on God (the big Other who has the authority to direct our desire). Now, Smith doesn’t make explicit reference to God in his books, but God shows up anyway. Of course, Smith’s name for God (big Other) is the invisible hand. Smith claims that the invisible hand watches over both our moral and economic activities and guarantees to make them harmonious. McGowan says that Smith’s invisible hand is “a force that provides assurances that all our activities will work out for the good despite our intentions. This is the point at which Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations perfectly align” (Capitalism and Desire, pp. 132). Capitalism killed the old God and replaced him with a much more likable one called the invisible hand.
The solution to Das Adam Smith Problem is also the solution to capitalism’s hold on us as subjects. Capitalist modernity does away with God as a present force in social relations, but it installs him as a determining absence. The Other as an absent field that directs the desire of subjects arises with capitalism just as modernity destroys the figure of God as the guide for our desire. That is to say, God ceases to be a visible hand and becomes an invisible hand. The invisible hand traverses Smith’s disparate books as the unifying force between them. It also represents Smith’s most important contribution to the understanding of capitalism’s success. . . .
The lovers of capitalism — and who doesn’t belong to this group, even if unconsciously? — love it precisely for its invisible hand. Through this figure, it resurrects in a much more palatable form the God that it killed. The invisible hand doesn’t demand that we abandon enjoyable activities like bearing false witness and coveting our neighbor’s wife. Far from prohibiting them, it integrates these activities into the alignment of competing desires within the capitalist universe. This universe is one in which we all have a place and from which none need be cast out as long as we abandon our freedom and accept the verdict of the new god. The invisible hand not only solves Das Adam Smith Problem but also the problem of a horrible freedom.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 132)
The chapter concludes by emphasizing that the big Other does not exist or there is no big Other. In fact, McGowan says that the whole project of psychoanalysis is to get us to accept that there is no ultimate authority to tell us how to desire (we must choose our desire for ourselves in all its groundlessness). And the person who believes in the big Other (the invisible hand) is the neurotic. Capitalism accelerates neurosis.
Capitalism doesn’t feed the neurotic subject through its repressiveness but through its capacity for fostering the illusion that the Other exists. The basis of neurosis is not just the repression of sexual desire and its replacement with a symptom but the belief in the substantial existence of the Other, the belief that a self-identical social authority can issue clear demands that solve the problems of subjectivity and freedom. Neurosis is dependence on an external authority that enables the subject to avoid taking responsibility for its own acts. . . .
The problem with neurosis is that the social authority the neurotic obeys doesn’t exist. Though social authorities do make constant demands on subjects, they do not know their own desire and thus cannot direct the desire of subjects who look to them. That is to say, the authority cannot say what it really wants. Like the subject, social authority has an unconscious that prevents its unambiguous articulation of demands. Like the subject, social authority suffers from the divide between what it says and the point from which it articulates this demand. The demand is always articulated with signifiers, and signifiers always create a divided subject out of the pretension of authority. . .
The Other doesn’t really want what it demands because it has an unconscious just like the subject itself. The mistake of the neurotic is the belief that the Other exists, that the Other has no unconscious, which leads the neurotic to cling to the Other’s demand rather than confront the abyss of its own subjectivity. This attempt to cling to the Other’s demand always leads the subject astray — and represents the weak link in the capitalist chain — because the Other never wants the subject to do what it demands. The result is a neurotic failure on the part of the subject to find its satisfaction satisfying. Capitalism necessarily produces neurosis. It is not, as the contemporary world constantly reminds us, a repressive system, but it is, all the same, a neurotic one insofar as it allows us to find refuge in the market qua social authority.(Capitalism and Desire, p. 133–4)
So, in other words, capitalism steals from us the very freedom opened up by modernity (death of God). McGowan insists that we strongly oppose capitalism for this very reason. Freedom is freedom from God (big Other, absolute authority), but capitalism just sets up a new one in the absence of the old one.
Chapter Six: A More Tolerable Infinity
McGowan now discusses the role of infinity in capitalism and desire. Lukács defended Hegel against his Marxist attackers due to how he actually faced up to the basic structure of capitalism. But McGowan claims that Lukács didn’t go far enough in his support of Hegel. Why? Because, according to McGowan, Hegel already, prior to Marx, sees the way out of capitalism, which is due to his concept of infinity. It was Hegel who thought the concept of the true infinite is to be opposed to the “spurious infinite”. McGowan explains this Hegelian distinction for us:
What makes Hegel the most important anticapitalist philosopher, inclusive of Marx, is his conception of infinity. Up to Kant and Fichte, philosophers could only formulate what Hegel calls the bad infinite (die schlechte Unendlichkeit). That is, they portray the infinite externally, as the inability to reach an endpoint. To this day, this is how we commonly think of infinity. The break that Hegel introduces — a break more philosophically significant than any other he authors — is that of the true infinite. The idea of true infinite enables Hegel to simultaneously avoid two pitfalls — the finitude of the closed world of traditional society and the infinite progress implicit in modernity.
The bad infinite, for Hegel, has no limit. Like the series of whole numbers, it simply keeps going and going without reaching an endpoint. The finite, in contrast, has an external limit that it can never surpass. Animal life, which always ends in death, is finite. The true infinite adopts the limit from the finite, but this limit does not come externally. Rather than escaping limitation, the true infinite limits itself, like the subject that confines itself to a single project out of a multitude of possibilities.
In this sense, the true infinite is opposed to both the bad infinite that has no limit and the finite that has an external limit. For the true infinite, the limit emerges out of the infinite’s articulation of its infinitude. In the Science of Logic, Hegel offers a contrast between the bad and good versions of the infinite. He says, “The image of progression in infinity is the straight line; the infinite is only at the two limits of this line, and always only where the latter (which is existence) is not but transcends itself, and in its non-existence, that is, in the indeterminate. As true infinite, bent back upon itself, its image becomes the circle, the line that has reached itself, closed and wholly present, without beginning and end.” This idea of self-limitation or exclusion of its own limit allows Hegel to envision an alternative to capitalist modernity without regressing to the finite logic of traditional society. Though it occurs on the terrain of logic, it represents his great political breakthrough. His new version of infinity offers an alternative to capitalism that remains nonetheless within the spirit of modernity.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 136–7)
If, however, we want to really understand this point, then we must get a much more detailed understanding of how the Hegelian infinity relates to capitalism. Capital is all about the infinite insofar as its all about infinite growth, but what kind of infinity is this? In fact, infinite economic expansion is so central to capitalism that earthly limitations will just cause it to expand into the “final frontier”: “The logic of capitalism and its inherent relation to the bad infinite lend it to the conquest of space” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 138). Of course, the entropy law or the Second Law of thermodynamics throws a monkey-wrench into the capitalist machine. Even capitalism cannot escape the heat death of the universe, but it still wants to: “Capitalism struggles against the fundamental law of the natural world, despite an ideology that proclaims its natural status as an economic system” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 138). Capitalism thrives on the promise of a better future, which is why the new is so essential to its functionality, but if the future involves an absolute end, then capitalism has a big problem with it.
However, we see all kinds of disaster films or catastrophic narratives pouring out of Hollywood all the time, e.g., Emmerich’s 2012. They either depict capitalism surviving the worst catastrophes or actually being ended by them. Nothing is more terrifying to capital than the thought of an intractable barrier. In other words, capitalism cannot face up to its own intrinsic deadlocks. An infinity that affirms its own built-in limitations is the only alternative to capitalism.
The limit that capitalism cannot integrate is that of the true infinite. This limit is internal, a self-limitation of the socioeconomic system itself. A self-limiting system, precisely what Hegel theorizes with his concept of the true infinite, is the only tenable alternative to capitalism. It doesn’t pose an arbitrary limit that the capitalist system can quickly subsume but clings to the limit as constitutive of the system itself. To subsume the limit thus becomes unthinkable.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 140)
Capitalism is fundamentally linked to the bad infinite. It is a system that cannot function without never-ending growth. The end of economic growth is the end of capitalism itself. Both the idea and the fact of infinite expansion is essential to capitalism. The moment a capitalist sees an obstacle in the way of future accumulation in one enterprise, the capitalist will move on to another one. The mere idea of this limit can cause this abandonment.
Capitalism maintains its equilibrium not by sustaining a stable level of production but through increasing production, without any notion of an end to this increase. When the capitalist system confronts an obstacle (in the form, say, of a crisis), the answer is always increasing production. The future will necessarily be more productive than the present, just as the present is more productive than the past. Reversals can only be temporary.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 141)
But infinite economic growth presupposes infinite population growth, which, of course, is a huge problem. Even the defenders of capitalism are aware of this one. But to limit economic growth to prevent population growth is not feasible for capital.
The need for population growth to accommodate the expansion of capital leads even some defenders of capitalism to worry about the capacity of the system to include the excess population that it fosters. Capitalism demands an increasing population as both a labor force and a consumption force, but it also requires that there be too many laborers and too many consumers. Like capital itself, population expands to the point of instability rather than stability. In every aspect of capitalist society, expansion plays a central role because expansiveness inheres in the idea of capitalist production. For most of its champions, this is its great virtue; for many of its detractors, this is its great defect. But no one disagrees that one cannot even think the capitalist system without the idea that infinite expansion is possible. To render capitalism finite would be to destroy it.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 142)
However, the bad infinite of capitalism is future-oriented, which is why it has so much appeal. We know all too well that the present sucks, but the future can be way “better”, right?. And because desire itself is infinite, the system can always keep luring us along with the fantasy of a future of utopian enjoyment or, as McGowan says, “The infinite of desire justifies the infinite of production and consumption” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 144). But how does happiness factor into this discussion? Happiness economics is an economics that measures progress and individual welfare in terms of “reported subjective well-being” instead of level of income. The thing is that we can always be happier which makes happiness a bad infinite. This is a problem! McGowan says, “Whether capitalism relies on a desire for wealth or a desire for happiness, in either case it has a necessary attachment to an infinite and incessant progression” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 146). The TV show Mad Men did a wonderful job of showing how advertising depends on and cultivates our belief in bad infinity (future happiness). Sure, one might have a moment of happiness here and there, but these are fleeting and one is back to desiring more happiness very soon.
The problem of the bad infinite extends to ecology as well, but neither the bad infinite or even the concept of finitude is sufficient to aid us here.
An ecological alternative to capitalism must elude the Scylla of finitude and the Charybdis of the bad infinite, the Scylla of Rachel Carson and the Charybdis of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Doing so requires reconceiving nature not as an external limit to capitalism nor as a site of infinite possibility but as the internal limit of human society. The social order requires the natural world in order to function, but the unpredictability of this world constantly throws off social progress. Whether it’s an earthquake in Lisbon, the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa, or widespread death of honeybees, nature has the capacity at any time to throw social productivity out of joint. But this limit — this unpredictability and violence of the natural world — can become an internal limit of the social order, the basis for a true infinite. By starting with this unpredictability as the limit, social production would orient itself around addressing this limit without any possibility of ever transcending it.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 148)
However, there are all kinds of ways of “faking the limit”, which we must guard ourselves against. Some argue that we must impose moral-external limits (finitude) on the system. Some things are priceless and ought to escape the logic of the market. But, hell, even MasterCard tells us that some things are “priceless” in its ads. McGowan says, “Capitalism actually requires this barrier in order to constitute itself as infinitely expanding. What is priceless today, one can be sure, will have a price tomorrow, when something else will miraculously become priceless” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 149). The philosophers of the moral outside of capitalism are actually serving its interests (inadvertently or purposively). Capitalism eats up external limits — it feeds on them. The problem for capitalism is its own repressed internal limits (what Marx called “contradictions”). We also have trouble facing up to the internal limits in our subjectivities and find fantasmatic relief in the bad infinite. In other words, capitalism weighs on us in our relations to death and aging.
By articulating the difference between the bad and the true infinite, Hegel anticipates the psychoanalytic understanding of how the subject satisfies itself. Though the subject consciously imagines itself making infinite progress toward its goal of total satisfaction, it never arrives at this goal because the totally satisfying object exists insofar as it is lost. When the subject successfully obtains the object that it seeks, this object ceases to embody the lost object. But capitalism promulgates images of the bad infinite and hides the inescapability of the true infinite. The concept of the true infinite was Hegel’s way, given the conceptual tools available to him at the time, of formulating the self-limiting structure of subjectivity.
By structuring our existence around the bad infinite and its ideal of constant movement forward, capitalism focuses all our despair on death and aging. Though human beings have always despaired in the face of death, capitalist society brings this despair to a head. The end of one’s individual existence implies a failure of growth, the keystone of the system. The imminence of our death and our inability to continue growing becomes the fundamental limit that we must confront. And it comes to us as an external limit. Unless we drive wildly on the wrong side of the highway or take eighty-five pills of Valium or eat Twinkies with abandon, most of us will not cause our own deaths. Though we work to find ways to prevent death or offset aging, we know that ultimately we will fail in these efforts. This is the cause of incredible despair for the subjects of capitalism.
This despair leads us to spend vast amounts of money on products that promise to help keep the body fit, hide signs of aging, or hold death off as long as possible. To be aging or dying is to betray the bad infinite, to cease to develop, which adds to the existential horror. Not only does one cease to exist, but one also feels guilty for succumbing to this cessation. One should have done more to stay young looking (like tanning) and to avoid death (like staying out of the sun). The imperative of infinite progress manifests most clearly in the anxiety produced by aging and death under capitalism.(Capitalism and Desire, p. 150–1)
But even while capitalism disavowals the true infinity, it nonetheless is structured on it. The capitalist system does have built-in barriers operative inside it that threaten to end it. Marx went of his way to examine capitalism intrinsic “contradictions”. Marx’s problem is in thinking that transcending the limits of capitalism will unleash the bad infinite of production.
The problem with Marx’s conception of communist society derives from his investment in the capitalist bad infinite. In other words, Marx would have been a better revolutionary if he had remained a Hegelian. The revolution, as Marx sees it, would unleash the forces of production without any restriction at all from the mode of production, from capital’s need for self-valorization. This image of a future of unrestricted production jettisons the limit altogether. Instead of continually surpassing their limit (which is what occurs under capitalism), the forces of production would experience no limit at all. They would continue to grow unabated in concert with the growth of desire.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 153)
One is tempted to call this Marx’s fantasy (Deleuze & Guattari rely on a version of this fantasy in Anti-Oedipus), but this image is actually the opposite of Lacan’s concept of fantasy. Marx was neither Lacanian nor Hegelian enough.
Marx’s image of a society without a limit errs not just due to its fantasmatic nature, as many critics claim. The problem with this vision of the future is that it is not fantasmatic enough. In an actual fantasy the subject does not just envision the complete evanescence of the limit and untrammeled access to the object. Instead, the fantasy introduces an external limit where none exists, thereby enabling the subject to enjoy the object through this barrier. Fantasy focuses on the loss of the object and then shows its reacquisition, but the loss has primacy, which is why only the last few minutes of Hollywood fantasies are devoted to the object’s reacquisition. By completely eliminating the barrier when it comes to imagining the economy of the future, Marx betrays his own critique of capitalism and the communist fantasy of escaping it.
Here Marx’s analysis undergoes a shocking change: he compellingly identifies how capitalism stumbles on the true infinite while pursuing the bad infinite of endless progress, but then he theorizes communism as the perfect realization of the bad infinite when he proclaims that communism will remove all restraints on the forces of production. It is commonplace to laud Marx as a critic of capitalism and criticize him as a prophet of communism, but in this passage from the third volume of Capital the reason for this discrepancy becomes clear. The true infinite simply drops out of the analysis. This departure from Hegel right at the point of Hegel’s key insight creates a chasm between Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his image of the communist future. The one benefits from the conception of the true infinite while the other is handicapped by its absence.
The failure to sustain the idea of the true infinite leads Marx to misrepresent the nature of the dialectical shift that would occur with the transition from capitalism to communism. For Marx, communism will solve the contradiction between the forces of production and the means of production in capitalism — and thus allow for unfettered productivity. Hegel never conceives of dialectical transitions in this way. The transition or Aufhebung does not involve an elimination of the limit that haunts the prior structure, as it does for Marx. Instead, it involves a recognition that the limit is internal to the structure rather than external. Aufhebung requires, in other words, a recognition that the limit is not a contingent barrier but a necessary obstacle constituted through the structure’s own logical requirements.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 154)
McGowan concludes by arguing that a truly egalitarian-communist society would be one that embraces its own internal limits as being its very conditions, that is, it would embrace itself as a true infinite.
Chapter Seven: The Ends of Capitalism
McGowan now turns his attention to the ends of capitalism. When capitalism came along, it had to tear down traditional value systems and their ideals and replace them with its own ideal, which, of course, is maximized productivity. In other words, nothing matters more to capitalism than the infinite growth of capital. This is the primary end, goal or aim capital seeks and it is willing to employ any means to accomplish it. So, the end of production is the realization of profit, but the end of consumption is the enjoyment of the commodity. And in only emphasizing these ends, capitalism conceals from our attention the means involved. Of course, the main means is wage labor, that is, all the time we spend at our shitty jobs getting exploited. In dangling all kinds of consumer fantasies before us, capital misdirects our focus away from our material conditions.
The goal of the end replaces the repetition of the means and enables us to believe in the possibility of concrete and lasting accomplishments that will ultimately deliver us from incessant repetition. Capitalism directs subjects toward ends that they can achieve and obscures means that no amount of productivity will allow them to escape.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 158)
And, yes, the degradation of the means can even be an unconscious source of jouissance (death drive), but this still remains buried beneath our conscious aims. Capitalism’s ends-oriented perspective makes it highly comparable to utilitarianism, which also values the ends of moral actions as more important than the means — “the ends justify the means”. Lacanian psychoanalysis would explain capitalism’s ends-orientation like this:
To put it in the terms of psychoanalysis, capitalism focuses the attention of the subject not on the lost object that causes its desire but on the object that it desires. The capitalist subject is always looking forward to new objects that might attract its desire. In the capitalist universe, objects of desire proliferate and are highly visible. Just walking down the street forces multiple encounters with these objects in the form of advertisements, the cars that people drive, even the clothes that others wear. But the visibility of objects of desire in the capitalist system corresponds to the invisibility of the object that causes our desire.
The object of desire obscures the object-cause of desire or lost object. As we saw in chapter 1, the object of desire is an empirical object, existing in the everyday world, that one can obtain in the form of a new car, a new dress, or a new boyfriend. The lost object that causes desire, however, has no substantial existence and causes the subject’s desire only insofar as it is lost. The lost object is loss as such and functions to animate the subject as a being capable of acting in the world. We act — we take an interest in the world — because we begin with loss, with the loss of what we never had. This initial loss defines us as subjects. Thinking about desire in terms of the object of desire makes desire much easier to contemplate. Instead of being doomed to failure, it becomes a worthwhile investment. This realignment of our experience of desire constitutes an essential part of capitalism’s charm.
Though capitalism succeeds in deflecting attention from the lost object to the object of desire, it cannot make the object of desire satisfying when the subject obtains it. In fact, capitalism relies on the dissatisfaction that follows from obtaining the object of desire to stimulate consumption. If the commodity proves disappointing, the subject will have to buy another, more improved version. The eighty-inch television will surely provide the satisfaction that the fifty-five-inch one didn’t. The older wine will prove more enjoyable than the newer (and cheaper) vintage. But eventually subjects grow wary of this perpetual game of dissatisfaction. Though the commodity always promises a complete satisfaction, it never delivers on this promise. No television can ever be large enough.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 159)
Capitalism ideologically thrives by bombarding us with images of perfect enjoyment as well as promises about one’s own futural attainment of it, but, in truth, the system lives off of sustained dissatisfaction. Keeping us dissatisfied ensures that we’ll be buying more stuff (capitalism makes us enjoy the very process of failing to buy the last commodity that would perfectly satisfy us).
Despite the images of satisfaction that float around capitalist society, it is a society structured around the subject’s dissatisfaction. If consumption simply satisfied the subject, it would destroy itself and eliminate profit rather than increasing it. A satisfied customer ceases to consume enough to sustain a capitalist economy. The capitalist subject must thus live through a constant struggle between the image of satisfaction that others seem to have and its own perpetual dissatisfaction. Perhaps this contradiction sends them into psychoanalysis.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 160)
In fact, we can even argue, as McGowan does, that psychoanalysis emerged as a response to the widespread neurotic dissatisfaction capitalism gave birth to. Psychoanalysis at its purest actually seeks to undermine the influence that capitalism has on consumer subjectivity by bringing the subject to fully embrace the truth that enjoyment is actually found in various forms of loss and not in the accumulation objects. But, of course, capitalism can also corrupt psychoanalysis and turn it into a “therapy” of accumulation. Consider, for example, the ego psychology that Lacan incessantly criticized, which was a corrupted form of “psychoanalysis” that sought to strengthen the ego, which, for the consumer, involves all of the identifications made with commodities.
Next, we get a discussion of the recognition of labor. In capitalism, labor is merely a means to an end, i.e., realization of profit. Capitalism does not want us to recognize labor and the role it plays in making the rich richer. Capitalist ideology seeks to forge a sharp separation between labor (sacrifice) and capital (profit) just as it separates loss from enjoyment. The McGowanian point, of course, is to see both pairs together. However, capitalism is ends-oriented, which is why it has no qualms about putting workers into harsh conditions for the sake of the accumulation of capital (the ends justify the means). In Modern Times, the image of Charlie Chaplin being thrown about in the industrial machine perfectly represents this. These conditions continue to exist because capitalists refuse to see how labor is essential to profit — the ideological obfuscation blinds them to the role labor plays in the process of profit generation. This is why McGowan says, “The mistreatment of workers is inextricable from the capitalist conception of the world” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 162). The issue revolves around the very way we think about means themselves. Means are inherently traumatic!
Labor is the means toward the end of profit, and the site of the means is always traumatic. The trauma of means resides in its capacity not to be realized as an end. The means might lead to the end, but it also might not. The means might remain nonproductive, and labor might not realize a profit. Capitalism relies on the means of labor, but it refuses to grant the means any status of its own. There is, in other words, no space for the acknowledgment of pure means — that is, the means that might not realize itself in an end — within the capitalist system. The means is only there to be realized in the end of production.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 162)
Capitalism will not tolerate unproductive means. Means must always realize themselves in the desired ends. Capitalism represses unproductive means. But psychoanalysis shows us that human beings often find the means to be enjoyable in and of themselves (this is the repetitious circle of the drive). What the labor strike does is affirm the means themselves by refusing to act towards the realization of ends. This disrupts the capitalist system precisely because it is teleological through and through, that is, all that matters to it is its “final cause” or purpose, i.e., “the realization of value in the sale of the commodity” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 162). McGowan now pivots into a discussion of Aristotle’s concept of the final cause and how modern science rejects it. But while modern science absolutely shuns final causality (ultimate purpose, teleology), capitalism fully embraces it and ideologically weaponizes it against us.
Without the final cause, capitalism would lose itself in the satisfaction of the pure means and fail to actualize all the potential value that it unleashes. The psychic structure of the capitalist subject remains immersed in the final cause as the engine for its actions. The final cause directs capitalists toward the moment of value’s realization in the exchange process, and it turns attention away from labor. Means must become ends, and productivity must become the productive act. A system that values productivity above all else must cling to the outdated philosophy of the final cause.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 164)
The reason why the concept of final causality has had such a long philosophical shelf life is because it makes human beings able to think of themselves as their own masters, that is, as capable of freely choosing the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives. The idea is that we freely determine our futures based on the plans we have now. But the psychoanalytic insight is that our enjoyment lies in undermining our future plans and not in realizing them.
I may, for instance, begin with the final cause of finding a romantic partner who treats me with more kindness than my previous ones. I consciously choose one who seems to fit the bill. But because I am also an unconscious being, I will, for better or worse, choose someone who appeals to my unconscious desire, even if she appears to serve my final cause. Thus, I end up with a partner who treats me just like my previous partners did, in spite of the studiously conceived plan to avoid this eventuality. Perhaps straightforward aggressiveness now becomes passive aggressiveness. The same lack of kindness repeats itself now under the guise of kindness, but this guise allows me to avoid confronting the trauma of my own repetition. In the same way, we seek respite from the trauma of unconscious repetition by placing our faith in the final cause, and this respite is precisely what capitalism offers us.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 164)
The fact that capitalists repress the question concerning the means gives rise to all kinds of problematic effects (destruction of nature, mistreatment of workers, political corruption, extreme wealth inequality, etc.). However, capitalism also provides us with a sense of purpose (final causality) that modern science drained out of the world. As McGowan says, “Every act within the capitalist universe originates in a purpose: the capitalist’s will to create a profit, the consumer’s will to find a satisfying commodity, and the worker’s will to earn enough to live well” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 165). However, in truth, humans are unconsciously geared towards the means and the partial enjoyment (of the drive) they provide. Capital might be all about the ends but we are not! This signals a fundamental contradiction (tension, friction, antagonism) between capitalism and subjectivity.
The final cause appears determinative everywhere within the capitalist universe. There is no means that remains just a means. Every means must lead to an end, or else it has no worth at all. Capitalism capitalizes on every means by placing it under the regime of the end, a regime in which the final cause appears to bring everything under its auspices. But the final cause is nothing but capitalism’s retrospective illusion. No one acts on behalf of a final cause: no one creates a new commodity in order to realize a future profit; no one plays the lottery in order to purchase a new house; no one goes to church in order to attain eternal salvation. The purpose of the act exists within the satisfaction of the act itself, not in what the act actualizes. This is Spinoza’s great insight and the basis for his implicit critique of the incipient capitalist system. But in order to recognize the absence of the final cause and the presence of a series of efficient causes, one must change one’s perspective from that of ends to that of means.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 165–6)
McGowan moves into a discussion of the virtues of interruption and potentiality (Agamben’s work is his main reference here). Agamben links potentiality to the failure to realize own’s desire and not to its realization. To remain in a state of potentiality necessitates impotentiality (non-potentiality). Why? This is a strange logic. Potentiality implies actualization, but if one’s potential is never actualized, then is it not really impotentiality? I think we can define impotentiality as the subject’s unconscious attempts (and the enjoyment they bring) to sabotage his or her potential from being actualized. And capitalism itself relies on potentiality and interruption. It needs interruptions to open up new avenues of capital investment. McGowan mentions Arendt’s threefold distinction between labor, work and action in The Human Condition. Labor is the reproduction of life, work is the creation of the world (social values) and action is political activity. Arendt argued that both capitalism and communism reduce human existence to labor, which formed the basis of her critique of them. But McGowan’s Lacanian point is that no system can reproduce itself on the basis of nothing other than bare life. In other words, there must be some excess enjoyment in it that exceeds mere biological requirements in order to keep us going. We are beings of jouissance and not brute survival. Life, for us, is our surplus enjoyment, our libidinal excesses, and not brute biological functionality.
But what Arendt misses is the impossibility of a system continuing to survive just for the sake of surviving. Even when we claim to want only to survive, we must find some satisfaction in this survival or else we wouldn’t bother with it. Pure survival simply isn’t worth the effort, either for the individual or for the socioeconomic system. Every system needs a source of value, and in order to create it, capitalism relies on the interruption of the pure productivity — or, to put it in Agamben’s terms, the interruption of actuality — that it explicitly demands. Pure productivity cannot create value, which is precisely why Marx sees capitalism’s production of value infinitely shrinking. This process, for Marx, will ultimately lead to capitalism’s decay and overthrow. But capitalism finds new forms of value in those moments when productivity stops and when an interruption manifests itself. This is what Marx fails to anticipate, and his failure is due to his investment in productivity as the fundamental value. Withdrawal from the capitalist system energizes the system by providing it with a new potential that it must work to actualize.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 167)
McGowan now gives us two great example of how interruptions in actuality, in the status quo, go on to renew production. The first example is that of Duchamp’s Fountain, which was just a urinal he took and made into a work of art by placing it on display in an art exhibition. The second example is that of baggy pants. Both these examples show how capitalism thrives on unproductive interruptions.
Capitalist society is unique insofar as it relies on those who reject and resist it. They are the sources of new styles and fads that it comes to commodify. Traditional societies had to war against those who oppose them, e.g., Socrates in Athens, but capitalism just says, “thanks” to them. Whereas older social orders were deeply threatened by refusals to comply, capitalism welcomes them and sells them back to us. The kids who drove the events of May ’68 were all about nonproductivity, but capitalism revitalized itself through them. Why? “The assertion of nonproductivity within capitalism’s regime of productivity fuels the regime. Capitalism requires the assertion of nonproductivity in order to continue to survive, as nonproductivity renews capitalism by providing it with a limit that it must conquer” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 170). And just think about how many new products emerged thanks to the sexual revolution. Hell, we can even credit sexual liberation with the rise of the porn industry, Fifty Shades of Grey, Playboy, Victoria’s Secret, dildos, vibrators, blow-up dolls, sex manuals sold at Barnes & Noble, Tinder, Only Fans, etc. McGowan says, “Though some had the dream that sexual liberation would topple capitalism, the effect was quite the contrary. The movement opened a new market and allowed capitalism to expand into a previously unavailable domain” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 171). But none of this should fool us into disregarding the power of the means. The means are still revolutionary.
But this should not imply that valuing the means and nonproductivity is a fool’s errand, that it simply feeds the society from which it withdraws. The problem lies in the approach that we take to the means. Capitalism requires thinking in terms of the final cause, and prioritizing the means does not fit smoothly in this context. If we recognize capitalism’s dependence on the means and insist on the means for its own sake, we undermine the logic that sustains capitalist production. Once the priority of the means becomes apparent, we move beyond the confines of the capitalist system.
The linchpin of a critique of capitalism — and the formation of a workable alternative — rests on valuing the means over the end. Rather than acquiescing to capitalism’s use of means for the end of the production of value, rather than submitting the means to the reign of the capitalist final cause, we can turn our attention to the means in itself. Attention to the means is always the revolutionary gesture, even when it ultimately becomes transformed into actuality.
In other words, we must always treat productivity as nonproductivity, as a means that is not necessarily leading anywhere. If we insist on sustaining our focus on the priority of the means rather than its future end, we are already beyond the capitalist system. . . .
If subjects could be reduced entirely to their actuality and thus to their reproductivity, then they would cease to be political or ethical beings. A focus on the means and on nonproductivity frees us from the teleological force of actuality. This is why capitalism now presides over the evanescence of political contestation as such. Within a capitalist economy, the problem is not that potentially political subjects have become satisfied consumers but that all subjects value only ends. In such a system, the political act becomes unthinkable and even absurd. The step toward politicization requires a reorientation of our thinking in the direction of means. As long as we reside on the turf of ends, capitalism retains an advantage that no amount of consciousness raising could overcome. Only the uncovering of our own nonproductivity has the ability to tip the balance away from capitalism’s dominance. Any argument of behalf of authentic nonproductivity is inherently a critique of capitalism and an implicit decision for an alternative, but it arrives at that alternative solely out of the implicit logic of the capitalist system itself. The alternative to capitalism lies in the means that capitalism requires and yet cannot avow.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 171–3)
But, of course, the big question is: what system will replace capitalism? What is the alternative to capitalist society? We must not conflate a McGowanian politics of the means with the politics of resistance we see championed by Simon Critchley and Judith Butler. Resistance is invested in the reproduction of the capitalist system precisely because it enjoys resisting, but the politics of the means actually seeks to take power and give capitalism’s values the boot. As a Hegelian, McGowan doesn’t think we can philosophize our way to a new future, but he does think that we can seek out the immanent deadlocks within capitalism that lead the way to another order.
The philosopher cannot theorize a new future. But even though the philosopher cannot anticipate the future socio-economic system that might arise after capitalism, she or he can identify how another system already exists implicitly within the current system. This is possible with the category of the means. Though capitalism incessantly transforms means into ends, nothing necessitates this transformation, and in fact, it always occurs with many hiccups. The means are always present along with the end. Thus, privileging the means represents the alternative to capitalism waiting to be discovered. Its discovery depends on a philosophical act on our part. . . .
The means is a future that is already present within capitalism, and the task of the theorist — or even the task of the revolutionary — consists not in creating a new system but in identifying the implicit presence of this new system within the existing one.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 174–5)
Chapter Eight: Exchanging Love for Romance
Chapter Eight focuses on the relation between capitalism and love. Capitalism comes to replace love with romance. Romance is essentially the commodification of love, i.e., the “love” industry. Our entire society is set up to sell us on the idea that we can never be OK unless we are in love (which, of course, necessitates all kinds of commodities).
Love seems like a capitalist plot. The prospect of falling in love and the process associated with it form the lifeblood of many corporations — those dedicated to the sale of diamond rings, roses, chocolate truffles, flights to Paris, and so on. The ways of love that redound to benefit of capitalism are not visible only on February 14. It is difficult to look at the array of commodities available in today’s world and not see in almost every one some influence of the fantasy of falling in love. Gym memberships, diet soda, mascara, and leather jackets all hold within them the potential to render us worthy of love. Perhaps no one goes to the gym consciously trying to create a lovable body, but keeping oneself in proper shape has some relationship to acquiring and keeping a lover. Those who are fit tend to have much better prospects.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 176)
However, more important than actual love is the fantasy of love. This fantasy is what capitalism drastically exploits. Movies, TV shows, commercials, magazines and romance novels are all conduits of the fantasy of the perfect love affair. Simply put, capital uses the love fantasy as a way to sell commodities. Romance is the becoming-commodity of love. Nowhere is this clearer than in dating services. In fact, the dating service is the key to unlocking how “love” generally functions in capitalism. The dating service requires that you commodify yourself by selling your best qualities while hiding your unfavorable ones. The problem, of course, is that love, true love, actually embraces a person in all his or her imperfections. Desire desires a part of a person — love loves the whole person.
The dating service demands that clients list their favorable qualities. When I compile such a list, I portray myself as a desirable and potentially lovable commodity. I offer myself up to the dating service for others to examine, test-drive, and perhaps purchase. To do this, I must transform myself into a series of qualities and preferences that function as an advertisement for myself. The features that render me more appealing as a commodity are necessarily the ones that I emphasize, and I pass over in silence the features that would lessen my exchange value. I highlight my sense of humor and my doctorate in macroeconomics while making no mention of my baldness and chronic bad breath. Even my preferences become part of my commodity status. My love for the outdoors or for watching classic movies helps to render me more appealing. Preferences advertise me as much as qualities do. This mode of self-presentation reveals that one must transform oneself into a commodity when one embarks on the quest for love.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 177)
And, then, one must go on to list all of the qualities you desire in another person just like you’re writing a list for groceries. The difference lies in the fact that the dating service promises us a special commodity, i.e., lasting love. Ice cream is great but love has a far higher status in our fantasy space because it promises an eternal satisfaction. We can even say that “love” is the commodity of all commodities.
The commodity that the dating service sells is much more valuable than those sold by the grocery store because it carries with it the illusion of a complete satisfaction. No one believes that eating a particular kind of ice cream will provide such a lasting satisfaction that I will never desire ice cream again, but many in capitalist society believe that finding one’s soul mate will permanently solve the problem of desire for a love object. This difference bespeaks the pivotal role love has within capitalism. It is not just one commodity among many but the central commodity. One might say that all other commodities are modeled on the love object rather than vice versa.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 178)
But the dating service also offers something else. Namely, it offers love without love, that is, love without all of the traumatic, threatening, risky aspects of love that actually make love what it truly is. This is a very Žižekian insight insofar as McGowan is arguing that capitalism now sells us an object but without its dangerous element, e.g., coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, Coke without sugar and caffeine, etc. Now we just have to add “love” without love to that list. True love loves the other person in all their unpredictability, unknowability, etc., and not their observable qualities. To “love” a list of attributes is to not love at all.
But in addition to exposing the commodity structure of love in the capitalist universe, the dating service enables subjects to bypass the inherently traumatic nature of the love encounter. The list of desirable qualities that I provide the dating service is the key to the service’s ideological function. Such a list attempts to remove the trauma of love by eliminating its unforeseen power, its ability to attack the subject at the most inconvenient time and in the most unanticipated form. Though we may have a particular type that we find attractive, the beloved doesn’t necessarily fit this type. In fact, we can fall in love with someone because she or he isn’t the sort of object that usually appeals to us, not because she or he is. The dating service tries to mask the unexpectedness of love by making it thoroughly predictable. The dating service transforms love from a disruption into a stable structure for one’s life.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 178)
And even though many people now reject the institution of marriage it doesn’t change the fact that many of them continue to desire a love that will last forever. Every commodity strives to be the commodity of love — everlasting enjoyment. But the logic of the commodity has overtaken love. We relate to love like it’s a commodity. We also desire some new version of it just like the latest iPhone. Commodified love must be updated just like all other commodities. This is why McGowan says, “The dating service is a synecdoche for capitalist society as such. When I go to the dating service, I seek love as an object available for purchase, and this is the form in which love appears throughout the capitalist universe” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 179). In other words, the truth of capitalism as a whole is expressed by one of its parts called the dating service. Capitalism’s trick is to transform love into romance.
Love that one can purchase is no longer love, however. It is romance. Though capitalism appears to rely heavily on love, it necessitates a transformation from love to romance. This is capitalism’s ideological operation in the domain of love. By transforming love into romance and thus into a commodity, capitalism provides respite from the trauma of love. Capitalist society loves to talk about love, but even as it does so, it remakes love, which involves an object that we can’t have, into romance, which involves an object that we can.
The distinction between love and romance is essential for an analysis of the psychic appeal of capitalism. Romance domesticates the trauma of love, but it doesn’t eliminate it altogether. Capitalism gives love such a central place in its workings and encourages subjects to devote so much of their time to it because the trauma of the love encounter enlivens them and keeps them going. Without the traumatic satisfaction that love provides, life often ceases to seem worth living. While it relies on love, capitalism must contain its fundamental disruptiveness and mitigate its trauma so that the capitalist system can continue to function. This is what the transformation from love to romance aims at accomplishing. Though love isn’t a capitalist plot, romance is. Romance enables us to touch love’s disruptiveness while avoiding its full traumatic ramifications.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 179–80)
The main point, however, is that romance remains in the domain of desire, whereas love goes beyond it. This is why romance is always disappointing and love satisfying. This means that there’s a huge difference between the object of desire and the object of love. Žižek would say that romance is just love without love. McGowan explains these Lacanian distinctions like this:
Both romance and love begin with desire. The subject sees an other that provokes its desire and hopes that this other will respond by reciprocating this desire. The difference between romance and love is that the former never leaves the terrain of desire. The subject seeking romance sees in the other the possibility of the realization of its desire and thereby reduces the love object to an object of desire. This is why romance inevitably produces disappointment.
Love, though it disturbs the subject, does not disappoint. In love, one can find satisfaction with the love object. But love also removes the subject from the terrain of desire. Though love necessarily begins with desire, it doesn’t end there. When one falls in love, one falls for the other’s way of enjoying itself, for the other’s satisfaction with its own form of failure, its satisfaction with the absence of the object that would realize desire. Love targets the point at which the subject exceeds itself and is not self-identical. According to Joan Copjec, “when one loves something, one loves something in it that is more than itself, its nonidentity to itself.” We seek love to escape the constraints of our symbolic identity and to enjoy our nonidentity. In the act of love, one abandons oneself.
When one falls in love, one loses all sense of oneself and one’s symbolic coordinates. Love is never a good investment for the subject, and this separates it definitively from romance. This is why capitalism necessitates the transformation of love into romance. This transformation allows us to love on the cheap. Many theorists of love, like Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou, have remarked on love’s inherent disruptiveness. But this is apparent as early as Plato’s approach to the question of love.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 180–1)
McGowan discusses Plato’s Symposium (his great dialogue on love) and argues that Plato’s main insight into the nature of love is actually expressed in the form of the dialogue and not in its contents (a series of speeches on the subject of love). The key is in the form insofar as interruptions keep on occurring throughout the dialogue. This forges a conceptual link between love and disruption. Love turns one’s world upside down. Love drastically alters the course of one’s life forever. This sort of disruption is not what’s “best for business” (the efficiency of capital accumulation), so capitalism must neutralize the threat of the great destabilizer named Love. Baudrillard would say that what McGowan calls romance is the simulation of love (the signs and indications of love where love is actually absent).
One can never have the love of the other because one loves what the other doesn’t itself have. Even when the other desires us, something in the other remains outside our control. To subdue fully the otherness of the other and master it would effectively eliminate the other as a lovable entity. Thus, a successful love would destroy its object at the exact moment it achieved total success. Love always leaves the subject with a sense of its failure or incompletion, but this incompletion must be experienced as the indication of love’s authenticity rather than its absence.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 183–4)
McGowan goes on to further clarify the distinction between love and romance by emphasizing that the love object is loved precisely because it is lacking and contradictory. You love what the Other lacks and not any of his or her positive features. This is why you can never really say why you love someone. One can actually attain the love object insofar as it is an object of lack, but the moment the love object gets commodified (romanticized) it becomes unattainable because now it promises deliver completion, plenitude, etc. This enables capitalism to keep us desiring, which means that it keeps us chasing better commodities: “By transforming love into romance, capitalist society allows us to continue desiring. We can treat the love object like any other commodity and thereby escape its exceptional danger” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 186). And due to the fact that capitalism wants us to keep on desiring different objects (commodities), one could say that monogamy (faithful fidelity to one person) is actually anticapitalist. Love is a kind of “miracle” insofar as it can make undesirable features of the Other into indications of his or her subjective worth and beauty.
In love, as opposed to desire, the beloved becomes the ultimate authority to the lover. In other words, the little other becomes the big Other. The lover stops caring about how all other people view him or her, since it’s only the view of the beloved that now counts. This explains the phenomenon of public displays of affection. This annoys everybody in the couple’s vicinity, but they still engage in it anyway because all that matters to them is how they see each other. And the fact that authority figures frown on such displays has everything to do with how they serve to undermine said authority. This means that love is a threat to social authority as such. This is exemplified by Romeo and Juliet insofar as they both reject familial authority in demanding on being together. We are also willing to destroy ourselves for the sake of the beloved. Love involves sacrificing our security in the world by disregarding our social identities, e.g., one will sever familial ties, quite one’s job, change one’s religion, etc., in the name of love. Love is a form of trauma (shattering of one’s present world). In giving oneself to the beloved, one is willing to risk heartbreak, turmoil, etc. But the ideology of romance reverses all this by promising us a new identity rooted in our investment in the future. But this is nothing but capitalist ideology applied to love.
Not only does romance transform love into an investment, but it plays a crucial role in the development of capitalism by suggesting to consumers that they can find the perfect commodity, the commodity that will create wholeness for them. Every act of consumption has its basis in an attempt to access the lost object, to find the perfect commodity that would provide an ultimate and lasting satisfaction. Although this fantasy underlies every purchase of a commodity, with most commodities we see easily through the illusion. Very few buy a roll of toilet paper thinking that they’ve found their lost object once and for all. With a Twinkie, the fantasy becomes more tenable. But with a romantic object, one can fully invest oneself in the promise of the object. Romance immerses subjects in the capitalist fantasy of the perfectly satisfying commodity, and this commodity has a precise name — the soul mate.
When we talk about finding or having found our soul mate (if we do), we do not believe ourselves to be immersed in the capitalist economy. But this is an even more important terrain for capitalism than the convenience store where we buy a soda and candy bar or the stock exchange floor where companies are financed. The idea of the soul mate plays a crucial role in the promulgation of consumption. If I believe that a perfect commodity exists in the romantic field, this changes my relationship to all commodities. Commodities become more attractive insofar as each one stands in for the perfect partner. Though a hammer at the hardware store most likely cannot function as my soul mate, I will find more pleasure in purchasing it with the idea of an ideal commodity informing the purchase, and this is what the soul mate provides. That is to say, the idea of the soul mate underwrites all consumption within the capitalist universe.
The soul mate is the commodity in the form of the subject’s complement. This is why the idea of the soul mate has such importance for capitalism. The subject experiences itself as lacking whenever it desires, and no object can fill this lack. But the promise of the soul mate is the promise of completion, an object that would complement the lacking subject perfectly and thereby ameliorate its lack. No such complement exists outside of ideological fantasies, but capitalism requires subjects who invest themselves in such fantasies.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 191–2)
The fantasy of the soul mate is permeated with more capitalist ideology than the mall ever was. The soul mate is the great idealogical fantasy capitalism bombards us with. If one wants to strike at the ideology controlling oneself, then one must attack the fantasy of the soul mate. But, of course, there is no greater facilitator and disseminater of this idealogical fantasy than the Hollywood romantic comedy. The rom-com is capitalist ideology at its purest. And what’s most interesting is the usage of montage sequences in these films. The montage always comes as the couple is in the process of falling in love and not before or after it. It’s like the rom-com wants to fast forward through the most exciting and disturbing phase of love, which is precisely to obfuscate love qua disturbance.
Romantic comedies sacrifice this initial excitement in order to pass quickly over the traumatic disturbance that occurs when couples fall in love. The act of falling in love disrupts every aspect of one’s life. Even the quotidian details of one’s life become charged with anticipation and concern. By compressing this traumatic time in a montage sequence, the romantic comedy assures us that love can take place without any traumatic disruption. Love can simply be romance.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 193)
But while the rom-com is ideological to its core, it still provides depictions of genuine acts of love. We see this in Pretty Woman and Notting Hill (two of the best representatives of the genre as a whole). The insight here is that ideology often has to contain a trace of the real (truth) in order to be effective. These moments are when the romantic comedy temporally turns into a love comedy. What we must do is never confuse love and romance as well as be aware of the ideological function of romance. Love is a threat to capitalist ideology.
The replacement of love with romance reduces the danger involved with love. Though one still replaces the social authority with an individual other, this other, within the logic of romance, has the endorsement of the social authority. Thus transformed, love can make the lover feel better about her or his social status while in love, while authentic love should render the question of social status insignificant. The subject in love abandons the recognition of the Other or social authority for the recognition of the love object. Romance dilutes this act by replacing the love object with a socially authorized object. The result is an impoverished form of love — love without the traumatic core that makes love worth experiencing.
It is easy to see how the capitalist system uses love as a marketing strategy and as a model for all accumulation. In the midst of this transformation of love into romance, it is difficult to keep sight of love’s disruptiveness. Capitalism delivers us from it while simultaneously permitting us to believe that we remain within the orbit of love. But in the process, it robs us of the events that make our life worth living. Opting for romance instead of love is the profitable choice, but it costs us everything.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 195–6)
Chapter Nine: Abundance and Scarcity
This chapter deals with how the concept of scarcity factors into capitalism and capitalist ideology. Scarcity is the lack of enough resources to meet all of the needs and basic forms of satisfaction of a group of human beings. It turns out that scarcity is the sine qua non (essential condition, necessary factor) of capitalist society. In other words, capitalism would have never become the globally dominant mode of production that it is without scarcity serving as its ground. What capitalist ideology does is naturalize scarcity, that is, it convinces us that scarcity is a brute fact about life on earth, whereas, in truth, there have been numerous societies of the hunter-gatherer type that did not live under the constant threat of scarcity. Capitalism creates scarcity and, then, sells itself to us as the cure to it (just like how Christianity makes us into sinners just so it can offer us salvation). Capitalism is the solution to the very problem of scarcity that it itself produces. Capitalism is scarcity.
Now, capitalism only requires the threat of scarcity and not actual scarcity. Us consumers must believe that scarcity is just around the corner. The consumer’s constant sense of insecurity is a control mechanism capitalism uses to reproduce itself. However, this threat of losing all we have or not being able to attain the means of our own reproduction actually functions as a lure in relation to our unconscious. How could this possible be how capitalism gets its hooks into our subjectivities (libidinal economies)?
Though we imagine that scarcity and insecurity are what we seek to avoid, they actually provide an integral part of capitalism’s appeal. When we exist in a state of perpetual insecurity or scarcity, we can posit an external obstacle — the source of our insecurity — as the barrier to our satisfaction. In this way, we avoid confronting the internal obstacle that prevents complete satisfaction. By ensconcing us in scarcity, capitalism enables us to avoid the trauma of an always partial satisfaction.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 197–8)
Put differently, if we think that the source of our dissatisfaction, our inability to have perfect enjoyment, is out there in the external world and not an obstacle built into subjectivity itself, then we can sustain the fantasy of attaining perfect enjoyment. McGowan’s Lacanian point is, of course, that the barrier to this enjoyment is actually internal to the subject (objet petit a or the lost object is by definition non-actualizable, that is, it is a purely virtual object). In other words, it is impossible to perfectly enjoy due to the structure of human subjectivity (libidinal economy) and not because of external factors. This truth is too much for humans to deal with so they lose themselves in fantasies of perfect enjoyment. Capitalism facilities such fantasies via scarcity. And capitalism justifies itself on the basis of there being too few material resources to go around. All proponents of capitalism (e.g., David Ricardo, Lionel Robbins, Deirdre McCloskey, etc.) all embrace scarcity as an article of faith. As McGowan notes, “In fact, economics as a science only develops on the basis of scarcity. It doesn’t exist prior to the capitalist epoch, and its calculations about human behavior depend on the idea that the world is not abundant or plentiful” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 198).
Here’s the big issue: while we may yearn for abundance, completion and plenitude at the conscious level, we are actually attracted to loss, lack and scarcity on the unconscious level. This is why capitalism as had far more appeal to us than communism and socialism with their promises of utopian living. As counterintuitive as its sounds, scarcity is more appealing to us than abundance is.
It is my contention, however, that the psychic attraction that capitalism exerts stems in large part from the essential role scarcity plays within its theorization. We are drawn to capitalism in large part because it enables us to avoid thinking about the horror of abundance or postscarcity. Scarcity might be physically frightening, but it is not inherently traumatic. Scarcity is a psychically appealing presupposition, and the fact that capitalism requires this presupposition is part of its attraction for us.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 200)
We also tend to associate trauma with scarcity, but Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis shows us that it is actually psychical-sexual excess or libidinal abundance that traumatizes. It is the “too much” that really messes with us and not the “too little” (except in the most extreme circumstances). As we’ve already noted, scarcity enables us to believe that a full and perfect satisfaction is actually possible when, in fact, it is structurally impossible. But this scarcity also leads to the subject coming to view others as threats to his or her enjoyment. Scarcity gives rise to envy. The other now either has an unfair amount of enjoyment or has stolen enjoyment from the subject. But, oddly enough, this envy simultaneously links us together.
Even though the other appears as a threat to my enjoyment, we connect through our mutual envy. The firefighter envies the riches of the stockbroker, who, in turn, envies the celebrity of the rock star. This circle of envy knows no end in the world of scarcity, but it links subjects to each other and creates an intimate concern with the other’s mode of satisfaction. An abundant world precludes this mode of satisfaction and leaves us on our own.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 202)
The idea is that if we were all basking in abundance, then we would never concern ourselves with others. We’d simply just ignore the other if we were never lacking anything at all. Total abundance would turn all of us into libidinal “solipsists”.
Fantasy also involves the play of scarcity and abundance. It stages images of perfect enjoyment but only against the background of loss, lack, etc. This means that fantasy and capitalism share a certain affinity or even homology. They both keep us believing that full and perfect enjoyment is attainable but only against the backdrop of scarcity (the Lacanian term is “castration”). But to reject this fantasmatic scenario is to reject capitalism.
As individuals invested in the capitalist system, we may believe that we are doggedly in pursuit of future abundance as we endure the present scarcity, but it is actually the struggle with scarcity that appeals to us. We find unconscious satisfaction in scarcity, while our conscious thoughts focus on abundance. We need to presuppose both the existence of this scarcity and the possibility of its future elimination for us in order to continue to struggle within the determinants of the capitalist system. If we give up the fantasy of either present scarcity or the illusion of future abundance, we give up capitalism as such.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 204)
McGowan goes on to discuss how Lenin produced his own seductive socialist-communist fantasy of abundance by focusing it on the present struggle with scarcity as well as the failures of the utopian socialists (Fourier, Owen) to lure people with their promise of absolute abundance (no lack at all).
McGowan now turns his attention to the difficulties capitalism faces in sustaining scarcity. This involves an analysis of the business cycle. Economic crises or downturns are very challenging for the theorists of capitalism (e.g., Marx, Keynes, Friedman) to make sense of. One would think that they spell the end of capitalism but history has shown that these crises turn out to be the engines of the great renewals of capitalism. However, it is threat of abundance that, according to McGowan, triggers the bust in the business cycle.
As the capitalist economy approaches a state of abundance in which most workers have jobs and most businesses are operating at capacity, the system begins to suffocate on its own effectiveness. Individuals, business owners, and investors begin to draw money out of the system out of fear that a crisis will come, and this act itself produces the crisis. The crisis results from a loss of faith in the economy, but the loss of faith stems from the nearing abundance. As production approaches a state of abundance, producers and investors begin to fear that the markets for their products will disappear. They believe that an absence of scarcity will discourage consumption. And the closer the capitalist system comes to true abundance, the greater sway that fear about the future has over the capitalist. Depression or recession results when individual capitalists see others withdrawing their capital from the system. If I see someone else start to save rather than invest, I will follow suit because I don’t want to be the last one left with an investment that will not provide any return as a result of the upcoming scarcity. I believe that the other has an insight into this scarcity that I do not. The cascading withdrawal of capital from the system derives from an initial sense that abundance has become a real possibility, and this triggers a return to great scarcity in the form of recession or depression.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 208)
McGowan concludes this chapter with a discussion of the “gravediggers” of capitalism, that is, with proletariats (wage laborers). Marx predicted that the class of wage laborers would overthrow the system, but this revolution never happened. Instead, capitalism worked its way into the libidinal economies (fantasy, drive, desire, ego) of proletariats. In other words, capitalism seduced the working class and, thereby, turned it into the consumer class. Capitalism did this by understanding that scarcity (lack) and abundance (enjoyment) are interconnected for the desiring subject. Why did the proletariat never overthrow capitalism? Because our investment in a futural abundance is rooted in capitalism.
The horror of abundance stems from the radical break that we sustain between it and scarcity. In psychoanalytic thought, lack and excess both have a central role, but they cannot be clearly divided from each other. The subject’s lack is correlative to an excessive satisfaction that defines it. Because the subject lacks, it cannot find satisfaction in the way that other living beings do. Instead, it enjoys too much, and its every act is marked by this excessive satisfaction. As a result of the damage done by the signifier to the human animal, it becomes a figure of monstrous excess.
Both capitalism and socialism as traditionally conceived insist on the radical separation of scarcity and abundance. We exist now in a state of scarcity, and if we adopt the proper politics, we will accede to a state of abundance. This separation derives from the structure of fantasy, which presents abundance as a fully satisfying solution to the problem of scarcity. But the satisfaction that abundance provides is not removed from the lack associated with scarcity. We can enjoy having too much because we experience it through the mediation of loss.
The point is not simply that we will remember our former state of scarcity when we arrive at abundance but that any future abundance must include scarcity within it. Even when we have enough for everyone, lack will continue to structure our subjectivity. We will still experience ourselves as lacking subjects in an abundant world because no amount of abundance will provide the missing lost object. Abundance would make the psychic necessity of scarcity abundantly clear.
Even in abundance we will not lose scarcity. The mediation of loss will continue to inform our existence. But we will lose the image of a future enjoyment associated with abundance. That is to say, real abundance will take from us the illusion of future abundance, which is why we are constantly subverting the possibility of creating a society of abundance or postscarcity. Giving up this illusion is a political act in a world of enforced scarcity; giving it up entails abandoning the capitalist ground under our feet.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 211)
How do we kill capitalism in our hearts (libidinal economies)? By rejecting the ideological fantasy of some perfect enjoyment in a better future. McGowan ends by discussing scarcity and abundance through the lens of modernist literature (especially Hemingway and Faulkner). So what is to be done? Well, for starters, we must reject the privileging of scarcity, since this is capitalism’s great weapon of ideology. We must embrace abundance without any hope for or fantasy of any greater abundance. A politics of abundance must view abundance as a problem and not as a solution — that is the solution. It takes true courage to embrace your enjoyment without the fantasy of an even greater enjoyment. In capitalist society, this amounts to a political act.
Chapter Ten: The Market’s Fetishistic Sublime
This chapter is all about how the sublime operates in capitalism. McGowan is inspired by Lacan’s concept of the sublime or sublimation as developed in Seminar VII and Žižek’s application of it in The Sublime Object of Ideology. Every society is organized around and by the sublime in some way. This occurs at both the collective and the individual level. Our ability to enjoy ourselves hinges on some sublime object (objet petit a). This object is what makes life worth living precisely because it promises us a sublime enjoyment that we currently are lacking. Of course, this sublime object is impossible to attain, but that’s what makes it work.
Both traditional and capitalist societies are based on sublime objects, but the ways they understand and relate to the sublime are different. In traditional societies, the sublime was incarnated in religious and/or political leaders, e.g., gods, priests, despots, etc., and this meant that authoritative commandments had their origin in the sublime (a higher order of reality). For us, however, movie stars and professional athletes are more sublime than traditional authority figures. We hold Kim Kardashian in higher esteem than Jesus whether we are willing to admit it or not (every time we opt to scroll through Kim’s Instagram instead of reading some of Christ’s words in the Gospels proves who our true sublime object really is).
Capitalism allows for the beheading of kings, the mockery of presidents, the critique of popes, and the denunciation of preachers. All of traditional society’s bastions of sublimity find themselves exposed to desecration under capitalism. Capitalist society appears to function without the necessary ingredient for social reproduction. But sublimity doesn’t disappear under capitalism, even though it seems like it does.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 216)
What capitalism gives us is a sublime object but one that we needn’t obey with absolute faithfulness. In other words, capitalism cuts the sublime away from the authority figure. However, this also makes our enjoyment less intense. How so? Because it lessens prohibition. The stronger the prohibition, the more we enjoy the thought of transgressing it. Prohibition eroticizes. McGowan says, “This is the bargain the capitalist subject accepts: a less terrifying sublime in exchange for a lessened satisfaction that derives from the sublime” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 216). To properly grasped the nature of the capitalist sublime, we must turn our attention of one of Karl Marx’s seeming contradictions, which is that of the commodity.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx argues that the commodity-form desublimates the object, whereas in Capital he describes the sublimity (fetishism) at the heart of the commodity itself. Well, which is it? Does the form of the commodity desublimate or sublimate? The way to reconcile this “contradiction” is by seeing that the Marx of The Communist Manifesto has traditional sublimity in mind, which the commodity does destroy, whereas the Marx of Capital has capitalist sublimity in his sights, which the commodity produces.
Capitalism portends the end of the sacred or sublime location that could continue to reside outside of the system of exchange. Everything becomes secular and quotidian because everything can be exchanged for the right price. This is the universe we continue to inhabit today, a universe in which value is reducible to exchange value and in which nothing transcends the gravitational pull of exchange — not honor, not loyalty, not even love.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 218)
But commodification is itself a process of sublimation (fetishization). The commodity kills the transcendent sublime but replaces it with an immanent sublime. God is dead and the commodity killed him! McGowan discusses Kant’s concept of the sublime and how it involves a rejection of self-interest and utility. This Kantian insight relates to Marx’s analysis because it is the exchange-value, not the use-value, of the commodity that makes it sublime. McGowan explains: “Though capitalism preaches self-interest, the enjoyment that it offers — the enjoyment of the sublime commodity — is an enjoyment that depends on the absence of self-interest. Capitalist subjects value commodities for their transcendence of utility, and this transcendence produces their sublimity” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 221). The commodity’s seductive power charms both the producer and the consumer. The trick is to see that this sublime and fetishistic “magic” is really just the effect of not properly recognizing the labor that produces the commodity.
The commodity is sublime both for the producer and for the consumer. The producer experiences it as a magical entity that creates value out of nothing, and the buyer sees in it the power to inject a moment of transcendence into daily life. The invisibility of the labor that produces the commodity is integral to its sublime status. If the excess productivity of the labor becomes visible, then the commodity loses its sublimity and becomes an ordinary object to be bought and sold. Because it is an effect of the transformative power of an invisible labor, capitalism’s immanent sublime is difficult to recognize, unlike the transcendent sublime (that predominates in religious experience, for example). But it accounts for the interest that the producer and the consumer sustain for the commodity.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 221–2)
The “miracle” of the commodity, the creation of value out of “nothing”, must remain obfuscated because if it doesn’t, we discover that the sublime value created has its source in the surplus-labor of the worker. This is the exploitative mechanism that Marx discovered. It’s exploitative insofar as the worker produces more value for the capitalist than is contained in his or her wage. The source of the commodity’s sublimity is in its form or structure (exchange-value) and not in its content (use-value). However, every capitalist must disavow this truth because he or she insists on the consumer believing that his or her unique commodity is the sublime one (not the form of all commodities). But along with exchange-value, the commodity’s packaging can also be the sublime object, that is, the packaging itself can be the objet petit a or cause of desire. Why? Because the packaging blocks our immediate access to the object, i.e., it is a prohibitive barrier (we want what we cannot have). McGowan goes on to explain how the main purpose of advertisements is to sublimate specific commodities, that ism make them sublime.
We must note that the sublimity of the commodity relies on distance (financial, spatial, temporal, etc.). As McGowan puts it, “The commodity’s sublimity is futural” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 226). In other words, the sublime quality of the commodity lies in our fantasmatic anticipation of it. For the desiring subject, anticipated enjoyment is far better and more intense than actual enjoyment.
The prospect of consumption is always more gratifying than the act of consumption. We love to go shopping for the commodities we desire because in the act of looking at several possibilities we tarry with the sublime. The joy of shopping lies in the interaction with a seemingly infinite number of promises of future satisfaction. Before we purchase an object, it has a transcendent quality, akin to a religious icon from the Middle Ages. After the purchase, the sublimity rushes out of it, and we are left with an ordinary object that falls far short of our expectations.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 226)
We can see this dynamic at work perfectly in the purchase of a new car. It’s while shopping for a new car that the sublimity is off the charts, but this immediately starts to dissipate the moment we drive it off the lot. We, then, go to all kinds of efforts to preserve or restore the car’s sublimity by buying security systems for it due to “threat” of a criminal stealing it. All of this is based on the commodity’s sublimity being future-oriented, but Hegel argued for a kind of present-oriented sublime. We now get an excellent discussion of the concepts of the sublime developed by Kant and Hegel. But Kant’s concept of it runs into trouble:
Both capitalism and Kant bring the sublime into the field of immanence — for capitalism it moves from the king to the commodity and for Kant from the stars above to the moral law within — but neither goes far enough in this revolutionary act. The sublime, in each case, remains futural and thus reproduces the distance from the sublime that exists in traditional societies. It would fall to Hegel to rectify Kant’s error and to a future egalitarian society to rectify the parallel error of capitalism.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 229)
For Hegel, the problem with Kantian morality is that it locates the sublime in the imperative of the law (abstract principle) and not in the moral deed (concrete action). If the moral sublime is abstract, then it is at a distance from the subject, but if it is in the moral act, then it is as close as it can be. Kant makes the moral-sublime future-oriented in an unrealized principle, whereas Hegel makes it present-oriented in a realized deed. This makes Hegel an anti-capitalist.
Hegel’s vision of the moral law is Kant’s vision with the future subtracted from it. The moral law lifts us out of the everyday, but it does this when we accomplish moral deeds, not when we experience the moral imperative (as it does for Kant). Morality is not a sublime duty that we ought to accomplish but a sublime duty that we have accomplished and continue to accomplish. Hegel’s transformation of Kantian morality away from the ought or the future accepts Kant’s basic premise — that the moral law is sublime — while rejecting its link with capitalism — its emphasis on the future. Hegel’s morality preserves the radicality of the Kantian revolution while discarding its accommodationist structure. The Hegelian form of morality is thus antithetical to the form proposed by capitalism. . . .
When we conceive of the Kantian moral law as already accomplished, as Hegel enjoins us to do, the location and temporality of the sublime undergo a shift. The sublime is no longer a future event but a present one. It is no longer the promise of satisfaction but the attainment of it. This change in understanding the sublimity of the moral law can be translated into the theorization of the commodity’s sublimity. Though we attach the commodity’s sublimity to a future possibility, the sublime exists in the commodity form itself as already realized. The promise is already its fulfillment. This shift of perspective, which removes sublimity from the future, destroys the commodity’s power over us. One finds satisfaction in commodities, but one ceases to expect any more satisfaction. The Hegelian relation to the commodity demands the abandonment of one’s claims to dissatisfaction with the content because it locates satisfaction in the commodity form itself irrespective of the content.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 230–1)
The way to escape the seductive power of the commodity is by facing it head on. The realization that the true power of the commodity is not located in some distant, futural enjoyment, but instead right in its very form undermines the fantasy of a perfect enjoyment via the commodity way off in the future. This is the path of the revolutionary, but there is also the fundamentalist defined by his or her demand that capitalism make good on its promise of the better tomorrow. But this capitalist fundamentalist easily becomes a religious fundamentalist insofar as the sublimity promised by the commodity ends up getting shifted back to the divine realm of the transcendent God. In other words, the fundamentalist is the one who remains devoted to the sublime even after consumerism has failed to provide it. This leaves us with an either/or: either keep chasing the sublime through the disappointing chain of commodities or seek it in a higher reality that is “truly” sublime. But McGowan points the way towards a third option: the abandonment of the concept of a perfect sublimity. What we should really do is face up to the fact that there is no perfect sublimity to attain in some far off future. Freedom is freedom from the fantastic sublime. The sublime is nothing more than our failure to reach it, but this means that we actually touch the actual sublime in our failures to get the perfect sublime. We must realize that we already have has much sublimity as there is to have and this realization is the way we can free ourselves from our psychic, fantasmatic and libidinal investment in capitalism and the commodity.
The commodity doesn’t promise a false sublime and then fail to deliver an authentic version. No, its form of promise and failure constitutes the nature of the sublime. The sublime exists in our failures, not in our successes, and this is what we take pains not to confront. In this sense, capitalism lays bare the sublime that earlier epochs employed while simultaneously rendering it obscure. The task today is to be adequate to what capitalism reveals, to confront the sublime in its inevitable failure rather than to seek respite in the promise of its future realization. That is to say, when it comes to the sublime, we must be Hegelian rather than Kantian. We must follow the logic of the commodity to its end point in order to unlock the secret of sublimity.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 237)
Conclusion: Enjoy, Don’t Accumulate
So, now that McGowan has argued his way to his main point, that it is through freeing ourselves from the fantasy of a futural sublime (perfect enjoyment) that we are psychically freed from capitalism, he provides a short conclusion that recommends that we enjoy but not accumulate. Enjoyment itself is not the ideological enemy but accumulation, with all its false promises and fantasmatic trickery, is the rival we must oppose. We will not challenge capitalism by convincing people of how it dissatisfies them. The point of critique must be our enjoyment in capitalism and not our dissatisfaction with it.
Though dissatisfaction with capitalism seems necessary for any critique of the system, dissatisfaction as such inheres within the capitalist economy. Capitalist subjects remain capitalist subjects because they see themselves as dissatisfied beings in pursuit of satisfaction and thereby misrecognize the satisfaction they have found. The critique of capitalism must begin out of our satisfaction with capitalism and not our dissatisfaction with it. But the capitalist system never avows this satisfaction. Recognizing it requires the most radical act today — that of interpretation.
(Capitalism and Desire, p. 239)
People have a hard time confronting their unconscious forms of enjoyment because what they discover is that they enjoy things that go against their own interest (this, of course, is the way of the death drive). Nothing is more “self-evident” in capitalist society than the “fact” that all people are in rational pursuit of what’s in their self-interest, but the whole point of critique is to challenge what seems to be the most obvious “truths”. The most obvious “truth” in the eyes of a capitalist subject is that accumulation is the path towards happiness (ultimate enjoyment). But there’s a problem: “The imperative to accumulate doesn’t permit capitalist subjects to feel as if they no longer have any need to accumulate. According to the morality of capitalism, too much is never enough” (Capitalism and Desire, pp. 240–1). The ideology here claims that those who choose to pursue the accumulation of wealth and commodities will be rewarded by the system, whereas those we refuse this will be punished. The truth is that you will likely end up very, very far from rich no matter what your attitude is towards capitalism. Accumulation is only the ideological motor of capitalism, that is, it is not the true engine of the system. What really drives capitalism is our drives (jouissance, enjoyment). We get jouissance from our attempts to accumulate, but focusing on accumulation instead of jouissance distorts the situation. This means that “The political task today is to wrench satisfaction from the hold of accumulation by exposing the deception involved with accumulation” (Capitalism and Desire, p. 241).
The big ideological issue with accumulation is that it conceals the ways we actually get jouissance out of it. It is actually all of the sacrifices (losses) we make in the pursuit of accumulation that provide us with enjoyment. And sacrifice, of course, is the opposite of accumulation.
The problem with the model of accumulation is that it hides its own manner of producing satisfaction. While the accumulating subject aims at obtaining the ultimate satisfaction in the future, this subject satisfies itself in the present through the sacrifices that it makes to obtain the object it seeks. Accumulation serves as a cover for sacrifice — the sacrifice of time, of energy, of resources, of freedom, and so on. In doing so, it obscures the role that loss plays in all satisfaction. We don’t find satisfaction in having or obtaining a privileged object through acts of accumulation but rather enjoy the object in its loss or absence. The sacrifice that accumulation demands provides satisfaction because it recreates our experience of loss, but no one who is bent on accumulation can recognize the role that loss plays.
Capitalism’s privileging of accumulation obscures the role that traumatic loss plays in our satisfaction. There is no satisfaction without loss. Or to put it in other terms, we are not subjects who might obtain a satisfying object but subjects who can find satisfaction only through the necessity of the object’s loss. Even when we are right next to someone we love, we enjoy what is absent in the beloved, not what is present: that part of the beloved that we can’t decipher. Capitalism’s success derives from shielding our psyches from this necessary loss and its intrinsic connection to our satisfaction. But we can recognize the disappointment that accompanies accumulation.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 241–2)
The whole point of Lacan’s theory of desire, his concept of objet petit a, is that the lost object that causes desire is necessarily and structurally lost, that is, it is impossible to attain it precisely because it was never a real object we possessed. Once we have accumulated all of the objects we believe it will take to make us perfectly happy, we find ourselves disappointed and desire begins desiring other objects. Accumulation of commodities is essentially a waste of time, since it is doomed to fail. The ideological trick is getting us to think that accumulating enough objects of desire (commodities) will eventually bring us to possess the object-cause of desire (lost object, objet petit a). It won’t! We ought to embrace our jouissance without hope in accumulation. Karl Marx himself knew this to be so.
In the second volume of Capital, Marx makes a statement that summarizes capitalism and the possibility of undermining it. It is a statement worthy of Freud after 1920, and yet he made it roughly fifty years in advance of Freud writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Marx says, “For capitalism is already essentially abolished once we assume that it is enjoyment that is the driving motive and not enrichment itself.” Here Marx understands that capitalism depends on a psychic investment in the promise of the future and that a sense of one’s satisfaction is incompatible with the continued survival of capitalism. This is his most profound statement and his most important legacy. Until we accept that the satisfaction of loss is our driving motive, we will remain the hostages of an economy of enrichment.
(Capitalism and Desire, pp. 243–4)