In this time of global crisis, itself partly caused by globalisation, it seems useful to consider together both the Coronavirus and Capitalism. Indeed, a crude analogy between the two can immediately be made, the virus uses the human body with the sole aim of reproducing itself, and the tragedy of the human bodies that die as a result, are from the point of view of the virus, simply a form of bio-waste (the virus can only reproduce using living cells). As for Capitalism, it is based on the production of surplus value (profit) which seeks nothing other than further surplus value (based on the extraction of surplus labour from workers), and today, increasingly produces “human waste”, meaning, the ever increasing numbers of the unemployed and underemployed, “disposable labour” that once no longer needed by the capitalist system, is excreted via a logic whereby the production of surplus value produces surplus populations[i]. Of course, Capitalism (what drives both the global economy and subjective consuming) does not only produce human waste, but in its use of material resources also produces numerous forms of waste and emissions, both through the processes of production and via the end point consumption of the goods so produced, something that has given birth to the Anthropocene geological era we now live in, alongside the dangers of catastrophic climate change.
In this context it is extremely useful to look again at what Lacan, in 1972, defined as the capitalist discourse and to see how this discourse functions by hijacking nothing less than the subject’s libidinal economy[ii]. As with Lacan’s other discourses there are firstly four placeholders as follows:
placeholders that, in Seminar XIX (p. 169), he re-writes, indicating that all discourses make use of the semblant, as follows:
truth surplus jouissance
From here we come to the mutations of the master discourse that give rise to the capitalist discourse as follows:
- The arrow/address that goes from agent to other disappears (downgrading the social link)
- The arrow pointing upwards from the position of truth is reversed, meaning that the position of agent now directly accesses this previously unattainable place of truth
- $ and S1 exchange places
Master Discourse Capitalist Discourse
Lacan describes the capitalist discourse as “Wildly clever but headed for a blowout (because) … it suffices to say it runs on castors … but that goes too fast, that consumes itself, it consumes itself so much that it gets consummated” (p.11). Moreover, he states the crisis of the capitalist discourse is overt (and that in 1972!), while further on in his lecture, stating that a discourse is what makes some social link function. In effect, when we look at this discourse, we see that one crucial aspect of it is that it involves a flywheel like movement, a perpetual movement (indicated by the arrows) from the position of agent to truth to other to product and back again to the placeholder agent (in the other discourses there is no connection between product and truth). Moreover, we see in this discourse that truth is not opaque to the subject, rather the subject has direct access to it, precisely as S1 of capitalism, which reduced to a minimum, says “consume” and pushes the subject towards S2 where one finds “objects designed to be the cause of your desire … think of them as lathouses” (Sem XVII, p.162) yielding a product/surplus jouissance that pushes the subject once again towards a jouissance governed by the “market”. Thus, to the extent that this discourse grips the subject, questions of desire get reduced to experiences of fulfillment. It is important to note here that Lacan does not say the capitalist discourse displaces other discourses (it does not) but rather he wants to show how it functions – as a contemporary form of the master discourse.
That it does function is undeniable and the idea that we must invest in ourselves, become what Foucault termed “an entrepreneur-of-the-self” is today pervasive within society, even as in recent years (e.g. following the financial crash of 2008) this vision has become more tainted, the image of the “precariat” indebted subject more visible for everyone to see. This was a moment when for many it became clear that a neo-liberal world meant success/satisfaction/wealth for the few and failure/suffering/poverty for the many, the mythic nature of its narrative exposed (e.g. the so-called “trickle-down effect” which never happens)[iii]. However, despite protests like the “occupy movement” little changed, and one can surmise this had everything to do with a larger public that felt vulnerable, anxious, financially insecure, and in a time of austerity, focused on individual recovery/survival.
It leads to arguably one of the most important post-pandemic questions. Namely, will we as nations, and hopefully globally, do something different this time in relation to an economic system that cannot but, driven as it is by seeking surplus value, put so much at risk?
Of course, what cannot be denied here is that the capitalist system has brought us an abundance of desirable goods/inventions/technologies, rather it is that, in its deregulated form and left to the “law of the market”, the human and ecological price we pay is simply too high. We have seen too, with this pandemic, that economic power is less important for our well-being than public services like healthcare, science-based advice and government backed economic aid.
In fact, here it is rather clear, the key to our future lies in a re-invention of politics. Not a politics of truths presented as “PR messages” (e.g. pro-business or pro-environment – thus transforming contradiction into opposition) but a politics that holds open the contradictions we face, namely, that we need a well-functioning economy but not at the expense of our environment, that wealth generation is important but not where it results in so many having so little, that so-called “public goods”, like robust healthcare systems, are essential etc. Indeed, we must see that attempting to transcend such contradictions is ultimately a grave danger.
As psychoanalysts we know that it is the lure of fantasy and desire that binds subjects to the illusory satisfactions of turbo-like consumption, and also, that monstrosities are possible when the subject offers – him or herself – to the Other as its object of enjoyment, which they do by projecting a will therein. Our contribution may thus lie in underlining, to quote Lacan, “Fictitious does not mean illusory or deceptive … [but] that every truth has the structure of fiction” (Sem. VII, p. 12).
[i] Estimated at 2.5 billion people by 2030 – a figure that is likely to be higher post the current pandemic. See: Davis, M. (2006). Planet of Slums. New York, Verso.
[ii] Though Lacan presented this discourse only once there are in his later seminars several brief references to this discourse, for example in Seminar XVII, where he speaks of the Capitalist Discourse as a new form of the Master Discourse – one that comes about via a mutation of the latter.
[iii] Even apparently generous giving needs to be seen in this context. As in, Jeff Bezos recently gave $100 million towards feeding Americans affected by the Coronavirus crisis – this being equal to roughly two weeks of his income – while almost all economically affected Americans are suffering far more significant losses – as well as actual/lived deprivation.
Lacan, J. (1992/1959-60). The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Book VII. Trans: D. Porter. Ed. J-A Miller. Routledge
Lacan, J. (2007/1969-70). The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Book XVII. Trans: R. Grigg. Ed. J-A Miller. W.W. Norton & Company
Lacan, J. (1972). On Psychoanalytic Discourse – Discourse of Jacques Lacan at the University of Milan on May 12th, 1972. Unpublished.