Friday, February 27, 2009

Capitalism's Death Wish?

by Sylvain Lapoix
Marianne, 15 February 2008

translated from French by Leslie Thatcher, t r u t h o u t

Born of the meeting of economists Gilles Dostaler and Bernard Maris, Capitalism and Death Wish (published in French by Albin Michel) synthesizes Freud and Keynes's conclusions concerning the modern economy based on accumulation, destruction ... and the pleasure they provide! A brilliant work on the profoundly human drives behind the crisis.

Who remembers that in his famous General Theory of Employment, John Maynard Keynes recommended "euthanizing rentiers"? Published in 1936 on the inferno of the economic crisis, the British economist's book found a surprising echo several years earlier in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: capitalism is a neurosis of a society that, from accumulation through uncontrolled risks inevitably followed by crises, takes pleasure in its own destruction. Like Nero playing the lyre while Rome burned. Like bankers leaving for luxurious vacations during the financial crisis.

Anal Stage Excrement and Capitalism's Money

Historian of ideas Gilles Dostaler and economist and editorialist Bernard Maris met in the interstices of these readings of the father of psychoanalysis and the pope of the new economy. Fruit of their combined research, Capitalism and Death Wish plunges into the roots of the mechanisms that make capitalism a system that incessantly seeks its own destruction. Invoking the Freudian concept of the death wish, the authors explain this taste for risk, for the accumulation of money culminating in a consumer society that burns through everything it touches (according to the principle of "consumerism"), in which everything is sacrificed to the "pleasure principle," at the expense of the "reality principle," contradicting the Freudian principle of rationality, "Civilization is repression."

However, as Dostaler and Maris explain, the genius of civilization is its diversion of the death wish to "productive" ends. The utility of what is produced is of no great moment, as long as it is produced in exponential quantities allowing the growth of capital in the form of money. When these mountains of gold that sleep in safes melt, bankers and the whole economy panic to reconstitute them, in the name of that "morbid desire of liquidity" Keynes depicted with a psychologist's stroke and which has in the meantime become a cliché of the economic crisis.

This urge to amass is the anal stage Freud theorized, during which the baby hopes to satisfy his mother by producing the only thing he knows how to produce: excrement. For the two scientists, this motto is not too strong: money is shit!

Can We Transcend This System?

Written with curiosity and erudition, the book explores the basis of the theories as much as it does the history that saw their birth: there one discovers Keynes, the translator of Freud, and Freud, avid for economic knowledge. Numerous references echo Freud's disciples (such as Ferenczi), including Freudian Marxists (among whom Marcuse figures) and even the Christian philosopher of civilizational violence, René Girard.

Yet the authors remain skeptical: in the face of these systemic crises, of the human and ecological damage wrought by the economy, are people capable of learning the lesson and changing course? The issue is not to restructure capitalism, they conclude. "It is to know whether we can transcend a system based on infinite accumulation and unlimited destruction of nature." On this point, Keynes glimpsed a civilization of honest people living on culture, wine, and sharing. Pessimistic Freud imagined an unending cycle of repeated destruction. After half a century of economic thought, perhaps it's time to find an answer!

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