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  • The Existential Drama of Capital. A review of Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire:The Psychic Cost of Free Markets
  • Christian Haines (bio)
McGowan, Todd. Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. Columbia UP, 2016.

In Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, Todd McGowan offers a perverse starting point for the critique of capitalism: not the injustices and inequalities produced by capital accumulation, nor the repressiveness endured by the subjects of capitalism, but rather the joy of capitalism – "why so much satisfaction accompanies capitalism and thus what constitutes its hold on those living within its structure" (18). Capitalist subjects, McGowan argues, take pleasure in capitalism, even as it deprives them of their freedom. In a certain respect, this claim recapitulates longstanding theories regarding the relationship between capitalism and pleasure, for instance, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's analysis of mass culture as an institution for generating empty pleasures, that is, pleasures that stimulate only insofar as they also rob subjects of reason and autonomy. McGowan takes this line of thought a step further, however, by insisting on the distinction between pleasure and satisfaction. "The problem," he writes,

is not that capitalism fails to satisfy but that it doesn't enable its subjects to recognize where their own satisfaction lies. The capitalist regime produces subjects who cling feverishly to the image of their own dissatisfaction and thus to the promise, constantly made explicit in capitalist society, of a way to escape this dissatisfaction through either the accumulation of capital or the acquisition of the commodity.


Satisfaction is not always pleasurable, indeed, it can be painful, because for McGowan it has less to do with immediate gratification, or the relative ease of the Freudian pleasure principle, and more to do with freedom, with a commitment to fractured foundations of the subject, to what Jacques Lacan terms jouissance. Satisfaction revolves around loss and failure, rather than contentment and success. It is the stuff of symptoms, not psychic equilibrium. For McGowan, this disjunction between pleasure and satisfaction, promise and freedom, equilibrium and fracture, constitutes the motor of critique.

The gamble of Capitalism and Desire is to found the critique of capitalism not on futurity and pleasure but on trauma and loss. Critics of capitalism more often than not stake their positions on the promise of a better future, a future in which the barriers to pleasure have been removed. One need only think of Herbert Marcuse's call for desublimation, Fredric Jameson's investment in utopianism, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's faith in the liberatory potential of the multitudes. McGowan wants to do away with this investment in futurity in favor of an acknowledgement of the inextricability between freedom and loss. The point, he makes clear, is not to pivot from pleasure to loss, as if the only solution to the problems presented by capitalism were a plunge into asceticism or an embrace of melancholy. The problem with capitalism is that it conceals the sacrifices that capitalist subjects make to it through the pleasures of consumption. The task, then, is one of interpretation, of seeing how the capitalist system structures desire in a way that necessarily overlooks the dimension of lack and loss in the reproduction of capitalism. Following in the tradition of Lacanian psychoanalysis, interpretation is more than a change of perspective. It is also a change in the coordinates of desire, a restructuring of subjectivity so that the patient (in this case, the capitalist subject) can enjoy loss differently. The title of the book's conclusion is suggestive in this respect: "Enjoy, Don't Accumulate."

The greatest accomplishment of McGowan's book is to so sharply pose the question of what enjoyment untethered from capitalism might look like and to do so without relying on the tired claim that the pleasures of capitalism are not really pleasurable. One could speak of this accomplishment in terms of immanence, noting that for McGowan, the end of capitalism is not after capitalism but in its midst. One of the ways in which he frames this immanence is as an abandonment of final causality. Theorists cannot, and should not, predict or prescribe the future after capitalism, but

they can...

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