"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Capitalism and its Deceitful Pseudo-Eschatology

I previously discussed in detail an earlier book by Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don't Have, which is an extremely insightful and helpful book and has much of the same apophatic-ascetic wisdom of Adam Phillips, as I have been suggesting for some time. Both Phillips and McGowan have a great deal to offer Eastern and other Christians.

Now I have finally had a chance to read his more recent book, Capitalism and Desire: the Psychic Costs of Free Markets (Columbia University Press, 2016), 304pp.

I have been investing (!) this time in figures such as Phillips, Fong, and McGowan because of an inchoate but increasing sense that too much of Christianity, especially in North America, has been infiltrated and corrupted by market ideas and practices in ways most Christians are not consciously aware of. In some cases, of course, this is obvious--indeed, it is the most obvious feature of such blatant shysters as, say, Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar.

But the real danger lies elsewhere. The real danger comes when capitalist influences on Christian belief and practice are unrecognized; worse still, when their recognition is resisted because it would upset too many apple carts, that is, profit margins and comfortable, quiet middle-class lives. The real danger is assuming that Christian desires are uninfluenced by capitalism, a point I learned from Alasdair MacIntyre, as I showed here.

Like MacIntyre, I do not have answers as to what we do with all this. If a man of his vast erudition and learning, with his reading in Marx and a thousand other sources ancient and modern, says we still have to figure out ways beyond advanced capitalism, then I can but nod my head in agreement and hope that he and others smarter than I will continue to push forward in search of a new pathway--which includes, just to be clear, in no way attempting to re-create the genocidal atrocities and daily brutalities of "Kruschev Enterprises Inc."

But in the meantime, my little piece of the puzzle came several years ago in teaching my class on Catholic social teaching and realizing that there was an increasing tendency to elide any differences between CST and advanced capitalism in this country, making it appear that the former could become a useful form of the latter. In this approach, something like, say, recycling or paying your employees a just wage was simply "good business sense." Do the right thing and rake in handsome profits! What's not to love about that?

And, indeed, if Christian virtue operated thus, we'd all be billionaires. But Christian and especially Catholic social teaching is much more radical than this, and many of its most outstanding models are incomprehensible in the categories of capitalism. There's no money to be made in tending dying lepers on obscure islands; no amount of "branding" can "monetize" ministry with gay male prostitutes on the streets of Chicago; nobody can read Dorothy Day (or her Canadian counterpart and contemporary Catherine Doherty) and think she was in favor of the militarism and capitalism of her day and ours--and what a pity that her Catholic Worker houses didn't enter into a partnership with Starbucks to help each other out since bad coffee was so often a lament in her diaries.

In this regard, we are witnessing the transformation of CST into Costco. Sure they have a reputation for good hours and wages, and lots of "hipsters" appear to work there, but they are still a capitalist corporation catering to an elite. There is more than a whiff of upper-class elitism among those Catholics who think there can be some kind of "seamless garment" between CST and American capitalism. It is precisely their failure (or unwillingness, whether conscious or not) to see the corruption of desires already within the Christian mind that alarms me. Hence I find McGowan--who is otherwise both uninformed about and unduly critical of much of what he takes to be Christianity--actually very helpful, not least when he delivers himself of reflections such as this: "under capitalism Christianity becomes a romance comedy that ends with the discovery of one's soul mate in Christ," the right spouse being, of course, just one more commodity to find and acquire via that legal contract we call marriage.

That line comes near the very end of McGowan's newest book. McGowan, who teaches at the University of Vermont, starts out by facing a question I have long considered: can a method pioneered in an individual-clinical setting be applied to a social-economic one? In Civilizations and its Discontents and other works of his last period (1921-39) Freud recognized the dangers of this, if not its impossibility. But still he pressed on and with good reason. And McGowan says that if we cannot psychoanalyze the underlying dynamics of capitalism, then we allow it to continue unchecked in its dubious claim that capitalism is merely an outgrowth of "human nature" and we thus have no space from and in which to analyze it.

He also commendably begins by facing the criticism, not unjustified, that in some hands psychoanalysis has functioned as a handmaid of capitalism--a point David Pavon-Cuellar also makes in his new book, which I began discussing here (and will soon return to), Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology.

That, certainly, was one of the fears Freud had about psychoanalysis moving across the Atlantic to take up post-war primacy in America. And there is evidence that it did function this way once the American medical establishment took it up in a Cold War context in which it required everyone to be trained in medicine first--something Freud also strongly resisted in his last period with the curiously overlooked essay The Question of Lay Analysis.

So we must admit, as McGowan does, that the record of analytic thought cooperating with (and being co-opted by) capitalism is bound up with a record of it being a critic of capitalism also--a mixed legacy in other words. That is both true, and a quintessentially Freudian recognition for who among us can cast the stones of pure and unmixed motives?

Instead of focusing only on the social effects of capitalism, or its economic structures, we need to understand how it operates dynamically on the human mind. Though he appears not to have read MacIntyre, this is exactly the latter's point, as I showed last year, when he claims that capitalism “is not only a set of economic relationships. It is also a mode of presentation of those relationships that disguises and deceives.” McGowan quite agrees, as do I. It is especially the disguises that Catholic social teaching has not sufficiently recognized or begun to remove.

McGowan further agrees with MacIntyre that the question of surplus value is the key question we must face. And in facing it, he draws on Adorno, Foucault, and others, including early analytic "radicals" such as Wilhelm Reich and Otto Gross.

Picking up on themes from his earlier book, McGowan notes that capitalism "has the effect of sustaining subjects in a constant state of desire. As subjects of capitalism, we are constantly on the edge of having our desire realized, but never reach the point of realization. This has the effect of producing a satisfaction that we don't recognize as such" (11). It is this lack of recognition of how capitalism operates on us that must be brought to light.

It operates, in part, on faith, on trust, and on promises: I invest on faith and while trusting that the promise of this stock increasing in value will in fact come true. And the biggest promise capitalism advances is what I would call (and McGowan does not) eschatological: of a better, more "prosperous" future where all shall be well: "to take solace in the promise of tomorrow is to accept the sense of dissatisfaction that capitalism sells more vehemently than it sells any commodity" (13).

McGowan says his book cannot entirely escape the idea of a better future--else why bother analyzing, let alone criticizing, capitalism? But the future as he sees it is not one so radically better than the present as to constitute some kind of break from it or some kind of entry into an entirely new world. Rather, the future is but a continuation of the present but without the false promise of finally fulfilling hitherto thwarted desire.

McGowan notes once again the crucial role of Freud's death drive in all this. For capitalism presupposes that individuals operate much as Freud theorized in what was and remains perhaps his most controversial book that revised so much of the analytic edifice up to that point. (Most analysts ignored or scorned it. Even the authorized biographer Ernest Jones--who can scarcely let Freud sneeze without spending twenty intimate pages on all the implications, meanings, and reactions to it--is clearly holding his nose when discussing Beyond the Pleasure Principle.) McGowan goes on to claim without hesitation that this book of Freud's, especially in its claim that "the pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instinct"--offers "the most thoroughgoing critique of capitalism that anyone has ever written" (50).

And that is perhaps why so many have been so opposed to this book, starting with that second generation of analysts in America who so desperately wanted acceptance and recognition by the medical and other establishments. The price of such things was to ignore and disdain Freud's death drive as being very bad for business.

And yet it must be said that the idea that some unconscious force motivates people to undermine themselves, destroying themselves and their loved one--whether via opioids, adultery, or a thousand other actions--seems patently obvious in nearly every human life. To alter Chesterton's famous aphorism, the presence of the death drive is the one demonstrably verifiable Freudian dogma. The death drive is an attempt to answer the same question as that answered by the Christian doctrine of original sin: why do we not only harm others, but most often ourselves? Why do we repeat self-destructive patterns that "kill" so much of what we love?

Far from writing off such behavior as absurd, the analytic tradition says, as McGowan certainly did in his earlier book, that the repetition of seemingly self-destructive behaviors exists, has meaning, contains an internal logic: the death drive both has aim, and aims at something rather than nothing; its nihilism is merely one more disguise we have to ignore, one more trap laid for the analyst to get lost in a useless detour of apparent meaninglessness. The repetitions of the death drive very much have meaning, and our refusal to see what they are condemns us to never be free of them. As Freud, in discussing why patients actively undermine a therapeutic analysis and refuse to get better, noted, a "negative therapeutic reaction" exists for a reason, or several reasons, not the least of which is that patients find satisfaction in their suffering. (For those inclined to dismiss this as crazy-talk from a now long-dead and discredited "Godless Jew," I ask them to explain, inter alia, the half-billion dollar Fifty Shades of Grey industry.)

Capitalism is no different. It operates by undermining desires and their satisfaction, promising, perpetually promising, that soon and very soon they will be satisfied. This repetition of promised satisfaction which is never totally fulfilled is a very big part, perhaps the biggest part, of its success. As McGowan puts it at the end of his introduction, "capitalist subjects cling tightly to their dissatisfaction, and this dissatisfaction is the main thing holding them to capitalism" (18).

What is to be done? McGowan telegraphs that the book will proceed along similar lines to his earlier work, arguing that we need to learn (as Phillips argues, and the Christian tradition going back to at least Evagrius before them did and does) how to bear our dissatisfactions without seeking their resolution, and to learn to experience the sublime here, now, today, without promise of a better but illusory future. Thus the task remains--as he puts it later in the book--to turn the French slogan of 1968 on its head: rather than jouir sans entraves (enjoyment without obstacles or hindrances) it should be jouir les entraves (enjoy the hindrances). Only in this way do we break the power of the endless repetition of promised but unfulfilled desire.

In his first chapter, McGowan notes that one must distinguish between culture and capitalism, the latter promising but never giving the same sense of identity and belonging that the former sometimes proffers and secures. Indeed, capitalism exists in part to undermine any sense of belonging--until and unless one has attained some commodity which will then induct one into a club of, e.g., car-owners, sports fans, married people, etc. One is promised belonging but the price is accumulation, which never ends. Thus one never fully or finally attains the promised belonging. Here again I would argue--though McGowan does not--just how much capitalism is first and foremost a disguised eschatology, a point (to my surprise) that seems to have been little developed in modern theology. Perhaps I shall have to write something along these lines. (Matthew Shaidle's new book, which I have just learned of, seems to discuss these themes a little bit.)

In capitalist systems, much of their power comes from this satisfaction-dissatisfaction dynamic propelling one forward. The commodity never satisfies, but I rarely realize that. Rarer still do I get to see that the object or commodity is not what I want anyway at an unconscious level. I want unconsciously--the level on which capitalism is most insidious and most effective--the sense of dissatisfaction, of the quest, of the ongoing search. That is what gives me satisfaction of a sort; that is what propels me forward; that is what capitalism cultivates for its own survival.

By contrast, bad consumers are those who resist this search for that new thing, or that upgraded model, that will promise me satisfaction. Quiet subverters of capitalism, McGowan says, are those who are happy with the outdated VCR, or the flip phone that does not text, or the car with the big dent in the hood. Resisting the allures of new commodities and perpetual accumulation are not just acts of Christian asceticism, but blows against the system.

Chapter II looks at the creation of privacy as capitalism advances, arguing that the latter depends on the former. The effects of this are twofold: as we move away from the public commons into our private spheres, we must of course each have our own lawnmower, car, tractor, etc. But we also thereby retreat from politics as well. As he puts it, capitalism has an "allergy to the public world [which] inspires a thoroughgoing retreat from this world" (57). Here McGowan draws on Rousseau's distinction between un homme (private) and un citoyen (public). Rousseau saw this as a problem, but McGowan says he could not see how much it would be a problem in the late 20th century--the person to see that more clearly would be Hannah Arendt in her The Human Condition.

Such retreats from the commonwealth are manifested in the rise of private prisons and gated communities, and the calls for "austerity" in public finances. In this discussion McGowan also draws on Habermas, especially his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

Such retreats are not, contrary to some images, what psychoanalysis aids and abets. McGowan notes that psychoanalysis requires that one enter into the "public" in order to have a conversation with one's analyst, thereby "publicizing" what one would usually prefer to keep private. Though he claims to have attempted it with himself, Freud does not recommend self-analysis (Lacan would later call that Freud's "original sin") and thus psychoanalysis cannot be seen as purely private.

The chief result of psychoanalysis that it offers patients in a capitalist society is that "the satisfaction of desiring derives from the obstacle rather than overcoming it" (63). In other words, each time we obtain what we think is the desired object, we quickly find it dissatisfying; it has not lived up to not just its hype, but also our own unconscious sense of desire. Capitalism depends on this to be so. As he nicely puts it later in the book, "though capitalism demands that subjects act out of their self-interest, it sustains itself through their self-sabotage" (73).

The problem here is thus with our own inability to realize that we do not desire what we think we desire, and do not find satisfaction because we have not realized that the ostensible obstacles to our desire are the very thing that would satisfy us if we could but recognize this. What I take McGowan to be saying here is that psychoanalysis breaks the cycle of repetition of false promises of satisfaction, which satisfaction is always said to be enjoyed in private. Rather, McGowan argues, we need to learn that satisfaction takes place in public and together right now, rather than in some ever-receding future promise. As Alexander Schmemann might have put it, private joy is impossible. And as Schmemann might also have said--and the Christian ascetical tradition before him certainly has said--the refusal to lust after objects is a refusal ultimately of illusion and idolatry.

McGowan's third chapter has yet more strong echos of MacIntyre in arguing that capitalism succeeds in part by its disguises, by its charade of seeming to come from nowhere and to have no history but simply to constitute the only available-believable of our world without every drawing attention to itself in those terms. Capitalism thus disguises from us that its purported offer to us of "choices" (where and how to work, what to eat, how big a house to buy) are not naturally occurring. Rather all such choices take place within a very narrowly defined set of possibilities. To put it in a MacIntyrean vein, there are three such choices on offer in today's politics: conservative capitalists, liberal capitalists, and radical capitalists. There is no possibility of putting capitalism itself to the question in any serious way.

Sacrifice and its persistence are the themes of the fourth chapter, which puts me in mind of Terry Eagleton's recent book on that theme, discussed here. McGowan notes that in some ways capitalism lives without ritual sacrifices, at least of, say, vestal virgins. But it does demand periodic sacrifices, as seen, e.g., under the guise of "creative destruction." Or consider the titans of industry subject to regular fawning profiles in which they are portrayed as sacrificing their time (and families) to work 90+ hours a week while inventing some new widget or putting their company in the top ten most profitable corporations in the world.

McGowan rightly says that capitalism secularizes sacrifice--no longer is it a turtledove or a fatted calf--and privatizes it, denying to it ritual's socially cohesive power. Now it is the individual CEO, or worse, the worker who gets up at 3am, hidden in the dark, to start his shift at the factory, sacrificing sleep, breakfast with his family, and much else. In this light, sacrifice is actually demanded by capitalism's logic because no satisfaction is possible without loss--the loss that motivates us unconsciously to search perpetually for some new object to supposedly satisfy us. Loss is thus a phantom that haunts our unconscious minds, and capitalism pretends to offer rest and relief to this perpetually restless and searching spook.

McGowan uses an arresting example when he notes that most capitalists would prefer to sell, and most consumers to purchase, Cheetos over bananas for the former involves much more sacrifice--worthless sacrifice--and complicated processes (which involve more people making profits) than the latter. Growing bananas would be rather simple and straightforward, but this, we think, is unsatisfactory. Better to spend millions researching how to keep taste buds in perpetual unslaked longing for the salt and fat of a Cheeto (which, admittedly, I love but refuse to buy because I will eat an entire bag in one sitting).

Chapter V is McGowan at his most theological: "A God We Can Believe In." While stipulating at the outset the tiresome old canard that the rejection of God has created a world of freedom, McGowan does not proceed to do what most others who claim this do: celebrate the absence of God. For he knows that the human psyche cannot abide a void like that--as Freud did too, which is why he has no false hopes that if everyone followed his counsel in Future of an Illusion and rejected God as neurotic paternal projection and illusion then the world would be free. On the contrary: such a rejection creates an opening which others rush in to fill. And here McGowan is right: "capitalism...erects a new form of divinity, one even more tyrannical than the old form" (114).

But the old God was superior insofar as one never had to guess where one stood: he declared he was a jealous God. The market makes no such open declarations, leaving one perpetually uncertain of where one stands. And in fact, of course, the market is jealous--and capricious, and mendacious: its promise of being a free market is always insistently stated thus because it is as Freud might say, an obvious overcompensation (to put it mildly) to hide and distort the truth. This new god of the market turns out to be intolerable and intolerant, leaving McGowan to end his chapter with this rather bald-faced claim: "the fundamental catastrophe of modernity is the disappearance of God as a substantial Other" (135).

This is a catastrophe because--as he will go on to show in chapters six through nine--the disappearance of God opens up an endlessly infinite and pseudo-transcendent space ("the sublime") for capitalism perpetually to expand and try to fill with stuff, giving us what--quoting Agamben--McGowan refers to as means without end, "end" understood here not just as "endless" but also in the sense of purpose or goal; or what MacIntyre recognized as the abandonment of teleology (first principles) in modern philosophy.

Quo vadis? What next? Like any good psychoanalyst, McGowan's conclusion is its shortest and does not get into highly detailed prescriptions. Instead he begins from the striking premise that "the critique of capitalism must begin out of our satisfaction with capitalism and not our dissatisfaction with it" (239). This is precisely an anti-capitalist move for, as we saw earlier, capitalism does not want, and cannot long survive, our being satisfied with anything. Constant modes of production, and product improvement, must fuel constant economic "growth," all of it driven, of course, by a never-ending sense of dissatisfaction. For one can never have enough.

But this endless quest for more than enough hides not only the accumulative impulse of capitalism, but also its unwillingness to acknowledge what McGowan calls "traumatic loss" and to mourn it. That which is lost to us, what is the lost object of our unanalyzed desires, motivates us to accumulate more, all the while ignoring the fact that the lost object will never satisfy.  Thus we must realize that "only the turn from the logic of accumulation to the logic of satisfaction--with an acceptance of the lost status of the object--can move us beyond the crisis of capitalism" (242). To go beyond capitalism, McGowan recognizes, is of course a political act; but before we can act politically towards such change, we must first think differently, and here, once more, is where Freud is invaluable, showing us that "until we accept that the satisfaction of loss is our driving motive, we will remain the hostages of an economy of enrichment" (244).

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