On November 9th the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated at the once divided city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate in remembrance of a truly momentous occasion, one that, at the time, was watched on TV with amazement around the world. The collapse of the wall led to the unification of Germany and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel on the occasion of this anniversary spoke in rather sobering tone of how “The values that Europe is based on, such as freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and safeguarding human rights, are anything but self-evident”, adding, “They have to be lived and defended again and again. This is more important today … than ever before”. Given the rise of populism and the growing disenchantment with politics across many so-called developed nations perhaps few would disagree.
And yet, at the same time there is a dimension, beyond the appeal to “democratic values” that is not mentioned. For example, and in retrospect, one can say that the “fall of the wall” actually symbolised a much wider change – both in Europe and beyond – in that it marked the end of an east/west divide, the demise of state communism, the moment when the whole world embraced capitalism (e.g. today China has 4.5 million millionaires).
As an economic system capitalism, allied with science, has brought us a world abundant with objects, many so useful as is my mobile phone, as well as levels of comfort-in-living unimaginable to even our grandparents. However, if we enjoy such benefits, it can also be said that we are enjoyed by capitalism, our sense of identity, value and self-esteem being deeply tied to what as individuals we can consume, buy or rent – something that in turn is dependent on our labour, reduced to a commodity, a skill-set, something that capital or the market can make use of, meaning make a profit from. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2004) has pointed out the production-consumption cycle of our contemporary world produces a lot of material waste, a growing global and ecological problem, but even more dramatically, he argues, it also produces “human waste”. Waste humans are the superfluous, redundant, unemployed or immigrant others, the ones that no longer fit in society, the functionless, placeless others who must be confined, kept at a distance, especially as they arouse our anxiety, the fear that we too could become socially redundant. Thus we like to think of them as responsible for their own misery rather than as a structural effect of contemporary capitalism, a system that weakens the social bond with others, even as we sit at the edge of a new wave of automation that is going to make a lot more of human labour redundant and un-saleable. If things are bad and likely to get worse, it seems important to ask what so effectively hooks us to capitalism beyond its machine-like profit-seeking described so-well by Marx.
Here Lacan, who famously said that, the superego today does not prohibit, but rather – insistently – says “Enjoy!”, has something to say. To understand how, metaphorically speaking, drinking a glass of water can make us thirstier, is to engage with the human being as an “enjoying substance”, that, in enjoying, goes beyond the satisfaction of need, giving indeed to every need a signifying value. In other words, all human need is taken up and into, subjected to, the autonomy of signifying effects. Here we must, with Lacan, recognise that the human or “speaking-being” is, at his or her very core defined by a lack, a want-of-being whereby our objects of satisfaction, including most poignantly our sexual object is open to variation, contingently chosen, and not “natural”, as in biologically programmed. What capitalism targets so effectively is this lack, proposing to us the fantasy that by means of consumption we can do away with it, a fantasy that at the extreme would have us enjoy alone. For example, in front of our screens, isolated and without the need for others, bypassing as Lacan states all questions of love, which implies that today the sexual relation, and with it the couple, is becoming more difficult to sustain. To put it rather starkly, we can say that capitalism demands that we enjoy our exploitation, our more or less addictive attachment to industrial objects and gadgets that embody an always at hand jouissance, on condition that we ignore something vital to our subjectivity. Namely, that what is specific to human desire is that it is founded on non-saturated lack.