The Politics of Psychoanalysis; Samo Tomšič on The Capitalist Unconscious

Samo Tomšič currently works at the interdisciplinary laboratory Bild Wissen Gestaltung at the Humboldt University in Berlin. In 2015, he wrote The Capitalist Unconscious; Marx and Lacan.

Interview by Dennis Schep

Dennis: Why Marx and Lacan?

Samo: The underlying question is: Why Marxism and psychoanalysis? Looking back, one would perhaps conclude that most past attempts to combine these fields of thought ended up in failures. Then there were the years of postmodernism, when Marx was no longer perceived as a key economic thinker and instead became an exotic curiosity in cultural thought. Freud, too, was no longer taken as the founder of an efficient clinical practice and the interest in his work was mostly limited to his cultural writings. However, it is no coincidence that since the crisis of 2007/2008 both made a return, since they essentially are thinkers of crises. They explore the causal link between critical developments in society and the production of what could somewhat pathetically be called “damaged life.”

Marx, on the one hand, thematized the subjective damage caused by capitalism in various ways, exposing the devastating consequences of precarization, exploitation, drive for profit etc. Then there is the political-economic notion of homo oeconomicus, which is less a description of human nature than an ideological tool to reshape the human subject in accordance with liberal and neoliberal fantasies about society, market, and value. In a system proclaiming that “greed is good” – in the first place, of course, the greed of the system – the duty of every individual is to constitute him-or-herself as a narcissistic egomaniac. Although this notion of subjectivity lost its ideological efficacy during the last crisis, the damage its enforcement created remains.

Freud, on the other hand, departs from the damaged subjectivity he calls neurosis, for which he proposed an etiology that is not only sexual, as we often hear, but also socio-economic: he examines the link between social and libidinal structures. Freud rarely spoke of capitalism, instead he used the more neutral term “culture,” but looking at texts like Civilization and its Discontent (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur) we can easily see that he talks about capitalist societies. He implicitly understands his clinical work as a critique of the capitalist social condition. In the end neurosis is a social symptom.

D: And Lacan?

S: Lacan brought Marx and Freud together in a very particular way, and at a critical moment, in the immediate aftermath of May 1968. His strategy went against the “optimistic” take of thinkers like Marcuse and Reich, who claimed that psychoanalysis would open the door for the liberation of sexuality. Partially, they were right: certain emancipatory developments would not have taken the course they did without psychoanalysis. But like many other attempts at emancipation or liberation, the sexual revolution failed. Capitalism was already dissolving old social structures and family relations, replacing them with a new libidinal economy that at first glance implied a more liberal attitude toward sexuality. Marcuse was aware of this development when he spoke of “repressive desublimation.” Lacan hinted at something similar, but not quite the same, when he described the superego as an imperative of enjoyment. Lacan’s point was that on the level of thought, but also in a social framework, there is a close connection between work and enjoyment, or between enjoyment and exploitation. This means that the subject is not so much the one who enjoys but is rather “enjoyed” by the system. In contrast to the celebration of enjoyment and sexuality, psychoanalysis departed from the insight that power-relations are always-already libidinal relations, or that our libidinal economy is an essential component of our social economy. This means that “our” subjective mode of enjoyment is never transgressive or subversive in relation to the capitalist mode of production. Psychoanalysis registers the unbearable character of the capitalist mode of enjoyment.

D: So people like Freud and Lacan offer a corrective against certain idealizing uses of psychoanalysis by emphasizing that negativity is always already there, not something that limits the drive from the outside. Is Marx on board with that kind of argumentation? Did he not believe that capitalism oppressed the masses, and that communism would free them?

S: Psychoanalysis corrects a certain utopian Marxist vision of a society without alienation where human relations would finally be authentic and uncorrupted. I think these elements are extremely marginal in Marx’s mature writings, and appear only for strategic reasons. They have nothing to do with the scientific project of a critique of political economy. The mature Marx no longer talks about the abolition of alienation, like he did in his 1844 manuscripts. Marxism and psychoanalysis share a basic insight into the nature of human subjectivity and human relations: there are no social relations without conflict, contradiction, negativity, struggle, etc., just like there is no thought without the unconscious. I find it absurd and illusory to claim that the aim of emancipatory politics is to abolish alienation: there is no state in which the subject would be completely transparent to itself, except if we were to abolish language, which is not just a major source of alienation, but simply is alienation.

What I am after is a notion of alienation that is not only negatively charged. In Marx and Freud alienation and the unconscious function as critical notions, which communicate a lesson about the nature of thought and human relations. For instance, when Marx and Engels write that all hitherto human history has been a history of class struggle, they do not mean that with the abolition of the class structure of society all struggles will be over. They merely say that class struggle will vanish as the privileged or overarching struggle through which all other interhuman conflicts are channeled. Something similar can be said about the psychoanalytic notion of repression, which is often understood as a strictly negative force, but of which Freud explicitly states that it is a productive operation: rather than oppressing some sort of authentic sexuality, it constitutes and determines a specific libidinal economy. For psychoanalysis the goal was indeed to overcome repression, but this does not mean that it targeted some uncorrupted and authentic state of enjoyment, sexuality, or the drive. Freud makes clear that the drive is no transcendental force which is subsequently corrupted by its various “vicissitudes,” but that it is entirely dependent on these vicissitudes. For Freud and Lacan, sublimation is the transformative process which changes the sexual goal and thereby turns an auto-destructive or repressive mode of enjoyment into a more “bearable” one. But this does not suggest that at the end of the process the subject stands in a harmonious relation to enjoyment. If psychoanalysis would promise this, it would truly be a scam.

D: We can tease out this radical side of psychoanalysis, but in your book you also bring up Lacan’s conservatism.

S: As a private person Lacan sympathized with De Gaulle, and when it comes to theory his interest for Marx was surely limited. But the theoretical effort denoted by the name “Lacan” is susceptible to significantly more than conservative readings. When he told the students at Vincennes in 1969 that they were hysterics longing for a new master, we can dismiss his remarks as cynicism, but I believe he wanted to draw attention to the fact that these students were wrong to think sexual liberation or enjoyment is a systemic transgression. Capitalist relations of exploitation are anchored in a strictly determined libidinal economy. Lacan proposed the exclamation “Enjoy!” as the prosopopoeia of the superego. His exegetics usually derive the imperative of enjoyment from the work of Marquis de Sade, but I always wondered whether the advertisement for Coca-Cola, this capitalist commodity par excellence, did not play a role as well: “Sade with Coca-Cola” as a supplement to Kant avec Sade. Capitalism could not have formulated its own lesson and the deadlock of enjoyment it produces in the subject more effectively: on the side of the subject the endless chase for an enjoyment that is never there, and on the side of the system the extraction of surplus-value, this enjoyment of the system, from the subject’s endeavor to live up to the imperative of enjoyment.

It is interesting to contrast the appearance of the superego in Freud’s and in Lacan’s work: in Freud the superego is the seat of prohibitive demands, the prohibition of enjoyment rather than the injunction to enjoy. One could explain this contrast by looking at the transformation from the late-19th century puritan industrial society to the liberal consumer-oriented capitalism of the 20th century. Of course, this does not mean that we got rid of the prohibitive aspect. The prohibitive superego is again on the rise since the last crisis and what it ruthlessly demands from every subject is unconditional sacrifice for the perpetuation of the system. This is one possible lesson that can be drawn from the European debt crisis.

D: As a person, Lacan was not a Marxist. Was Marx a Lacanian?

S: He was as much a Lacanian as Lacan was a Marxist. But I do believe that both Marx’s critique of political economy and Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis obtain their full critical edge only under crisis-driven social conditions. Hence, it is no coincidence that today there is a renewed interest in the link between psychoanalysis and Marxism. As individuals, Lacan the French bourgeois and Marx the proletarian could not be further apart, but I do not believe this should prevent us from thinking about the alliance between their works. They expose the “shared negativity” – to use a well-pointed term proposed by my colleagues from the project Klassensprachen – which binds all subjects. The psychoanalytic “obsession” with the problematic of enjoyment is essential for the project of a critique of political economy, because it shows that the system holds us the strongest in “our” mode of enjoyment.

D: So we can use Lacan against certain idealizing readings of Marx, and we can use Marx to politicize psychoanalysis?

S: Exactly. Among Lacanians we find way too many “reactionaries,” probably because they struggle to maintain the privileged status that psychoanalysis enjoyed in the past, especially in France. But psychoanalysis has been threatened throughout its history. In the United States it was instrumentalized as a tool for reintegrating people into the existing social framework, but it was dropped as soon as more “efficient” techniques were developed. Despite everything that went wrong, psychoanalysis, at least in its Freudo-Lacanian guise, stands for an important chapter in the history of critique and remains a battlefield which needs to be reclaimed again and again for emancipatory purposes. Freud demystified the role of culture, and particularly of capitalism, in the production of psychopathologies: after psychoanalysis, one can no longer pretend that there is a clear divide between individual and social structures (which surely does not prevent one from bypassing this lesson). If one thing is characteristic for the advocates of capitalism it is their tendency to “individualize problems”: if you experience depression, panic or precarity-induced anxiety, it is your own problem. For psychoanalysis, in contrast, there are no private problems.

D: I was hoping you’d get at this issue, as it cuts right to one of the central themes in your book: that of the subject, which is precisely not an individual. You polemicize against identity politics or any kind of politics that would be based on particular interests.

S: Yes, and this polemic revolves around the illusion that there is something like a private interest, to which I would contrast the idea of “shared negativity” and the emancipatory political interest that I think can be associated with it. Even Adam Smith, who is still celebrated among liberals and neoliberals as the theoretician of private interest, showed that there is a direct and highly problematic continuity between the apparently private interests of individuals and the structural interests of the capitalist system.

To return to what we talked about earlier, capitalism did not invent alienation or the unconscious, but it did invent an efficient way to exploit them. The goal of emancipatory politics would be the collective managing of alienation rather than its abolition. The point of psychoanalysis is not to aspire to some fictitious ideal state in which the subject would get rid of all its symptoms or become the master of its unconscious. The goal is to enable the analysand to work against the resistance of the system and against the damaging effects this resistance introduces into our lives. When psychoanalysis insists that there is no subject without a symptom it is not glorifying illness or denouncing all hope for change as illusory. There is a clear imperative of the cure in psychoanalysis, but this does not amount to some sort of fictionalized normality. Rather, psychoanalysis deconstructs the idea of “normal ego” and strives to create the conditions for the subject to exist in a more or less bearable way. Capitalism does not do that: it exploits illness and ultimately wants us to be ill, while at the same time bombarding us with fictions of normality, homo oeconomicus being merely one fiction of what “normal subjectivity” is supposed to be.

D: So any anti-capitalist struggle should not be rooted in individual interest, but rather in a notion of the subject that is not individual.

S: Precisely. The paradox is that the emptier, the more impersonal, the more “abstract” the subject appears to be, the more it exposes the negativity that concerns everyone. The more Marx describes the logic of the capitalist mode of production, the more he exposes contradictions and conditions of exploitation to which everyone is subjected. Inversely, the more he focuses on the empirical conditions of the working class, the more he gives rise to the misunderstanding that all class struggle comes down to a confrontation between the 99% and the 1%. Of course this is the concrete appearance of the class struggle, but class struggle also names the structural contradictions and deadlocks of capitalism that traverse and split every subject. We blunt Marx’s theory if we restrict it to the critical description of empirical conditions. Capital begins with the analysis of the logical and structural conditions of the capitalist mode of production, on the level of which there is no difference between a banker and a worker. Of course, in the concrete social framework they are worlds apart, since the former is the personification of capital and the latter the personification of labour power. But considered as subjects of capitalism they are subjected to the same exploitation and to the same mystifications. For Marx there is nothing inherently good or revolutionary in the worker and nothing inherently evil or reactionary in the banker.

D: In the concluding chapter, you argue that politics is not in sync with modernity. Could you explain what you mean there?

S: I adopted the thesis from Jean-Claude Milner and tried to link it with the ongoing debates on communist politics. I think that the latter could be associated with what Freud called working-through, that is, working against the resistance of the established economic system, whether libidinal or social. Even though capitalism presents itself as modernity as such, at its core it perpetuates premodern structures of domination and exploitation. When Lacan described capitalism as the modern form or the perversion of the “master’s discourse” he meant that it comes down to the exploitation of alienation. Marx points in the same direction when he says that the feudal lord has been transformed into the modern capitalist and the serf into the modern proletarian. The question is whether modernity is merely perverted premodernity, or whether it entails a political antagonism which no longer defines itself in relation to the couple “exploitation of alienation – fantasy of dealienation.”

Modern science does not have the problem that something old persists. If there is one truly accomplished revolution in human history it is the scientific one. Of course, this does not mean that modern science is without epistemic antagonisms, and its central role in sustaining capitalist social conditions makes it one of the main political battlegrounds. The reason why modern science was important for Lacan was that it created the epistemic conditions for the Freudian discovery of the subject of the unconscious. Lacan openly insisted that this is the subject from which politics would need to depart. Instead, the politics offered by capitalism departs from fictions of dealienated subjectivity, thereby concealing the link between alienation and exploitation. Attempts at communist revolution failed to bring about a politics which would not be defined by this link, partially because they, too, fantasized about dealienated subjectivity and authentic human relations. In contrast to these scenarios, a thoroughly “modern politics” would consist in a collective effort of managing alienation, just like Lacan spoke of the end of analysis in terms of “managing the symptom” (savoir-y-faire avec son symptôme).