Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrew Cole reviews The Capitalist Unconscious

Samo Tomšič. The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. New York: Verso, 2015. 256 pp.

Review by Andrew Cole

Thought you’d never hear anything new about Jacques Lacan or for that matter Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud? Then give Samo Tomšič’s The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan a listen. Daringly original, Tomšič does a masterful job of orchestrating the works of Marx, Freud, and Lacan, playing their ideas off of one another in varying arrangements to produce a composition that is wholly new and exhilarating. This book is many things. It’s an education. It’s a Sunday drive with the greatest abstractions Marx, Freud, and Lacan could muster. It’s the discovery that these three are family when it comes to the critique of political economy. It’s an essay on structure. And it’s a demonstration of powerful critical form—the method of parallax-thinking your way through the paradoxes of commodity fetishism, finance capitalism, neoliberalism, and much else.

We’re shown here that Marx, Freud, and Lacan offer ideas that are so compatible as to be homologous. The emphasis on homology is intentional in Tomšič’s book, because compatible and analogous won’t cut it anymore if the idea is to present a genuine synthesis of these thinkers. In other words, it’s no longer interesting to be a Freudian Marxist, Lacanian Freudian, or whatever because these positions are now perhaps the weakest kind within the strongest critical traditions. Herbert Marcuse is an encyclopedic genius whose day is yet to come because his insight isn’t limited to Freudo-Marxism, but it’s true that these forms of critique aren’t totally sufficient for this moment in late capitalism. Tomšič suggests that they are no longer relevant to the present because each presupposes a “positive” theory of the subject that’s long since vamoosed—that is, the subject of socio-sexual repression that needs to get off to be free, the subject of cognition who has to know it all, or the humane subject who feels better after shouting in a bag about ethics.

Avoiding these constructions, we must look to the late Marx, Freud, and Lacan, each of whom developed an alternate theory of the subject, a “negative” theory. This negative theory of the subject is the better one for critique today on account of its uncanny accuracy. To begin with, this theory is more epistemology than ontology, more about structure than essence, and that’s because the order of thinking these days (you can call it “ideology”) seeks to collapse thought into being and reduce critique to an “ism” or “position,” which includes “world view” or Weltanschauung Marxism with its suppositions about the alienated subject that now look like versions of the neoliberal subject whose productive capacities are purportedly freed through deregulation and new forms of immaterial labor at a real, and therefore phantasmatic, remove from the iSlaves of capitalist modernity (Jack Linchuan Qiu’s term). In the dialectical idiom, you could say that in capitalism ontology is the deformed false opposite of epistemology, but that won’t stop it from flavoring everything from commodity fetishism to the pseudo-critiques nobody ever needed, like the garden-variety vitalisms prevalent today. This false opposite just has to be, however. And it has to be according to a social logic organized around positivities—commodities, in the concrete sense; finance capital, in the abstract—that are produced, consumed, and enjoyed again and again, so endlessly as to qualify late capitalism as a truly bad infinity.

So the task at hand is to figure out this social logic and describe how it structures thought. It is to understand how negativity is, fundamentally, repetition. It is to understand that there’s such thing as repetition qua repetition, which we mustn’t mistake for the more predictable repetition with a difference. It is to discern what kind of subject pure repetition as a structuring principle produces and how, likewise, capitalism distracts us from the thought of pure repetition, instead luring us with the false opposites of unattainable or lost objects around which we shape (read: structure) our lives. Figure out these social logics and you’re onto both genuine critique and real critical synthesis. Such critique is what Marx, Freud, and Lacan are after, each in their own way, through—respectively—the theory of commodity fetishism, the labor theory of the unconscious, and a revised version jouissance premised on the former two theories. From the vantage point of the present, as well as that of Lacan reading Freud reading Marx—these three enter into a conceptual space opened up by homology, which reveals the structures of their own critiques to be parallel.

From cover to cover Tomšič’s narrative isn’t chronological in the way one first looks at Marx, then Freud, then Lacan in an intellectual history. All the chapters are nominally about Marx, with each chapter serving as a signal booster for the previous, amplifying new transmissions in each iteration. Perhaps it’s fair to say, though, that the story really hinges on Freud, even if he’s left out of the subtitle. He’s certainly the hinge of chapter two, the mechanism that both closes the distance between Marx and Lacan with a satisfying click, and then again unfolds to display the broadest aspects of critical thinking.

Freud cleans up surprisingly well, in other words. Take the Interpretation of Dreams (see pp. 43, and more fully, 99–117)—that great compendium of awkward dreams brimming with even more awkward latent content. Turns out that here Freud developed some useful critical tools in his discussion of political economy. Tomšič cites and explores other Freudian works, to be sure, but I was captivated by his discussion of this text. Remember, the Interpretation of Dreams ran in as many editions as Hydra had heads, and its importance, influence—to say nothing of its significance—cannot be underestimated. For example, Freud thinks about dream work (and day dreaming) in capitalist terms:

A daytime thought may very well play the part of the entrepreneur for a dream: but the entrepreneur…has the idea and the initiative to carry it out, can do nothing without capital; he needs a capitalist who can afford the outlay, and the capitalist who provides the psychical outlay for the dream is invariably and indisputably, whatever may be the thoughts of the previous day, a wish from the unconscious. [P. 43]

Readers of Freud are familiar with this passage, which is problematic partly on account of its silence about Marx; in another well-known passage, Freud discusses Marxism rather dismissively (see his “Question of a Weltanschauung”; discussed on p. 88). So what good is Freud to the Marxist or to the critique of political economy?

As Tomšič shows, this aforementioned passage is consistent with the larger ideas within the Interpretation of Dreams and, in turn, those larger ideas are homologous to the structure of Marx’s thinking. Here and elsewhere in this work, Freud offers an extended labor theory of the unconscious in the emphasis on “Traumarbeit” or “dream work.” These are the background processes like condensation and displacement that produce dreams (see pp. 100–102) and which function according to a logic of value that’s ours to render into a social science and the analysand’s to render into a private meaning (that’s why I dreamed of a gorilla-cat!). These unconscious wishes, as Tomšič goes on to show, are “intentions without a subject”—or, to turn this around, a subject who desires but never “thinks, calculates, nor judges.” This subject is “pure intention” (p. 43) and operates or, better, unconsciously labors, at the conjunction of linguistic and economic valuation.

This negative theory of the subject involves more than just a play of differences in a hypothetical Structuralism for Dummies. After all, as Tomšič shows, Saussure had misunderstood the relation between linguistic and economic values, because he elided the problems of language production (see pp. 27, 37)—by the bye, Tomšič’s name for this failure to link these orders of reality, these two logics, is “fetishism” (see p. 173). Yet Freud understood this idea and this linkage perfectly well, it seems, which is why his paragraph about political economy reads better as the critique of political economy, à la Marx, who discussed the production of values and their socio-subjective logic in the fetishized exchange of commodities (see pp. 43–44, 99); likewise, Marx’s theory of labor power assumed a subject not oriented around the usual categories of need or faculty psychology (see p. 29). Both Marx and Freud understood that unconscious production yields the subject who values.

It’s from this core point about Marx’s and Freud’s homologous theory of the negative subject that readers can fully understand this book’s title, which is a clear homage to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (see p. 20n11) but also more than that:

Freud does not say what the Freudo-Marxists will claim later, that the unconscious explains capitalism; he states precisely the opposite: it is capitalism that elucidates the unconscious. The unconscious discovered in the Interpretation of Dreams is nothing other than the capitalist unconscious, the intertwining of unconscious satisfaction with the structure and the logic of the capitalist mode of production.” [Pp. 108–109; see pp. 79, 131]

Tomšič later writes that “Capitalism stretches its consequences in the unconscious, but this does not imply that capitalism is the unconscious” (p. 130). 

In addition to these homologies between Marx and Freud, Tomšič reaffirms an undeniable historical insight in the comparison that I think we can never forget: “the critique of political economy precedes and conditions psychoanalysis not merely historically but above all logically, epistemologically and politically” (p. 51). Likewise, Tomšič shows that some of the best methodological insights of Marx are only disclosed in the rigorous psychoanalytic frame of Freud and Lacan. To be vulgarly Hegelian about the matter, it’s as if capitalism has to pass through the historical stages both Freud and Lacan experienced to re-realize the poignancy of Marx’s critique. And let’s be clear. The point is not that between Freud and Lacan we see progress in psychoanalysis to keep up with the advance of repression—which is exactly how Freud views the passage of time from Sophocles to William Shakespeare—but that both realize anew Marx’s own ideas when the time was ripe for their further elaboration. We see, in short, the advance of Marxism. We also sense its spirit in Tomšič’s asides on the contemporary global order, especially finance capitalism: “Marx’s labour theory has never been more theoretically urgent and more practically relevant than in today’s financial capitalism” (p. 104).

In Lacan, this historical realization looks like puredee “conjuncture,” after the Althusserian acceptation. With Tomšič’s careful help, we discover that Lacan’s late obsession with jouissance (and its complement, le plus-de-jouir) is very much a phenomenon of the May 1968 protests and perforce distills the psychoanalyst’s thinking about politics and, more generally, capitalism (see pp. 16, 21, 47, 59, 211–12). In his second reckoning with Freud, in other words, Lacan moves from Saussurean structuralism—from the familiar account of the signifier, desire, the unconscious, and the Other (see p. 112)—to Marx and the critique of political economy in such works as Seminar XVI (d’un Autre à l’autre, from the years 1968–69), Television, and The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. This means, plain and simple, that when we talk about jouissance, we are already engaged in the critique of political economy and part of Tomšič’s achievement in this book is to show us how. Lacan, in short, knew that the combination of Marx and Freud is greater than the two individual parts and improves both by moving us on from talk of primordial or primal fathers, civilized libidos, and false consciousness rendered true. It is only in Lacan that we first get that kind of clarity on these matters of analysis and critique—followed by Louis Althusser and Slavoj Žižek, each a turn of this already deeply sunk Lacanian screw.

For his part, Lacan returned to Freud to contend with his labor theory of the unconscious, thus enabling him to embroider his ideas about jouissance with Marx’s labor theory of value: “the unconscious production of jouissance and the social production of value follow the same logic and display the same structural contradictions, tensions and deadlocks”—chief among them, the “insatiable demand for production, ‘production for the sake of production’” (p. 49); the inevitable production of surplus for the sake of surplus; and the ever present “lack” that tells us that “no produced surplus is surplus enough” (p. 67). Indeed, the production of surplus is the production of lack (see p. 66). It’s here that certain figures of negativity find their homologies, as when “surplus value” parallels the famous objet petit a (the cause of desire), as well as surplus-jouissance (p. 203), while “labor-power” as a circulating abstraction, a value in other words, becomes homologous to the Signifier. Tomšič helps us recognize that the major Lacanian idioms are either developed in the close reading of Marx (as in jouissance) or integrated within the Marxist critique of political economy (as in objet petit a and le manque).

Even new terms enter the picture, as when Lacan transforms Marx’s classic Mehwert (surplus-value) into Mehrlust (surplus-jouissance), and (again) doing so at the prompting of Freud, who spoke of Lustgewinn—“pleasure gain” (p. 49) or, maybe more pithily, “pleasure profit.” These terms explain how someone’s pursuit of such “pleasure gains” is never satisfactory or successful, but the person forges on, pursuing gain, again and again, such that repetition for its own sake defines desire and thus stands as the formal principle of subjectivity in capitalism. There’s a little funny, not mentioned by Tomšič, that follows Lacan’s formulation of Mehrlust: “La Mehrwert, c’est la Marxlust, le plus-de-jouir de Marx.”[1] To be sure, Marx’s endless project of writing, seeking to capture the object that is capitalism across drafts and editions, prefaces and postfaces, smacks of surplus-jouissance itself—as does, I might add, Freud’s countless additions to the Interpretation of Dreams. Herein, then, is just a sample of the lexicon of a “psychoanalytic materialism” Lacan sought to develop in his reading of Marx and Freud that has deep somatic, as much as discursive, consequences. 

Tomšič’s title will invite contrasts with recent work on the topic of Marx and Lacan, like David Pavón-Cuéllar’s Marxisme Lacanien (2009) or Pierre Bruno’s Lacan Passeur de Marx (2010), or some of the simpatico books by Todd McGowan. More broadly amidst the current booms of Immanuel Kant and Althusser, The Capitalist Unconscious should get people comfortable talking about structure again in relation to the subject after that connection was thoroughly pooh-poohed for so many years.

On the Kantian side, there is Kojin Karatani’s insistence in Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003) that we inevitably toggle back and forth between structure and subject, bracketing one when looking at the other—whereas “the lesson of the Kantian transcendental critique is to keep both stances at the same time. One has to know how to bracket and unbracket at the same time” (p. 121). This mode is, according to Karatani, based on Kant’s own experiment with “pronounced parallax” (pp. 47–50) and said to operate in Marx like none other; it thus seems amenable to the method of parallax analysis developed by Žižek in his Parallax View (2006) and on offer in Tomšič as a description of structure and subject: “The structure comes down to a parallax: from the position of the surplus object it appears that values and signifiers interact without any reference to the subject…. From the position of the subject, however, signifiers seem to be evacuated of jouissance, and the subject appears to be deprived of the surplus-product” (p. 204; and see p. 101). 

On the Althusserian side of thinking about structure and the subject, we can bring back to mind Étienne Balibar’s brief thoughts on the well-known term in Marx, “Träger”: “Marx does not…say ‘man’ or ‘subject,’ but ‘zweckmässige Tätigkeit,’ . . . representatives of capital. To designate these individuals, he systematically used the term Träger. Men do not appear in the theory except in the form of bearers for the connections implied by the structure, and the forms of their individuality as determinate effects of the structure.”[2] In this giant multi-authored volume concerned with structure and its analoga, there’s surprisingly scant attention paid to “Träger,” so I’d be curious to hear Tomšič’s ideas about this curious word in Marx. Perhaps we may come to see that the distance between “support” and “structure” could be closed.

There is also the matter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari I enjoyed pondering as I read Tomšič’s pages. On the one hand, the Capitalist Unconscious is a thorough riposte to their point that “Psychoanalysis constitutes for its part a gigantic enterprise of absorption of surplus value.”[3] After reading Tomšič’s ideas about surplus value, you’d think that neither author but especially Guattari had read Lacan or Freud or for that matter Marx, which of course isn’t true—we all know Guattari’s history with psychoanalysis!—but it sure looks that way. On the other hand, like Tomšič, both realize that they (in Guattari’s words) “couldn’t just hook a Freudian engine up to the Marxist-Leninist train,”[4] and all three know that “there is but one economy and that the problem of a real anti-psychoanalytical analysis”—or Tomšič’s real psychoanalysis—“is to show how unconscious desire invests the forms of this economy.”[5]

What we are seeing here, in short, are more homologies, more reasons why we can take seriously Deleuze and Guattari’s asterisked claim that Lacan offers an “admirable theory of desire” involving the “‘object small a’ as a desiring-machine, which defines desire in terms of a real production, thus going beyond both any idea of need and any idea of fantasy; and . . . the ‘great Other’ as a signifier, which reintroduces a certain notion of lack” (Anti-Oedipus, 27n).[6] By this light a good deal of Deleuzian vocabulary looks homologous to Lacan’s own late formulations (in the same way it looks similar to both Hegel’s and Sartre’s, but that’s for another essay…). Take their notion of the unconscious as a “desiring machine”: “The question posed by desire is not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘How does it work?’ How do these machines, these desiring-machines, work—yours and mine? . . . [The unconscious] represents nothing, but it produces. It means nothing, but it works.” What we discover by such pronouncements, as we reckon with Tomšič, is that where Deleuze and Guattari are most Lacanian they are most Freudian contra their own caricatures of the Freudian “Holy Family.” And where they are most Freudian, they are most Marxist. What’s likely to happen after theorists read Tomšič is a useful rapprochement between Lacan and Deleuze, more than what we’ve seen so far. I imagine that their notion of anti-production will factor in along the way.

It’s hard to do justice to everything in The Capitalist Unconscious. It’s that detailed and rich, with references ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Nikolay Marr. It will reward rereading and deserves it. There’s also a lovely texture to Tomšič’s writing, full of quotables with a maxmic quality expressing the major theses of this work: “History is structured as a language, and just like language it does not exist but nevertheless has material consequences for the subject” (p. 25); “Language and the market are two fields that know no Outside” (p. 33); “Language is not a state but a movement: it cannot be revolutionised, but there is nevertheless a permanent revolution” (p. 52); “alienation is structure” (p. 66); “the impersonal is the political” (p. 80); “The past is not a state but a movement” (p. 84); “the penis is already a prosthetic phallus” (p. 177); “anatomy is fantasy” (p. 179); “political economy is a pseudoscience, standing closer to alchemy and astrology rather than chemistry and astronomy” (p. 199–200); “From the Marxian and Freudian perspectives, to say false consciousness is to pronounce a pleonasm, since there is no other consciousness than false consciousness” (p. 236). I imagine these sentences will get around, as I suspect The Capitalist Unconscious will—to very great effect. All told, this is an extremely important and unflinchingly critical book.


[1] Jacques Lacan, Autres Écrits (Paris, 2001), p. 534.

[2] Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach (N.Y., 2016), p. 418. This passage is translated slightly differently in the older New Left Books edition

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, vol. 1 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Hurley et al. (Minneapolis, 1983), p. 239.

[4] Deleuze and Guattari, “Deleuze and Guattari Fight Back,” trans. Christopher Bush et al., in Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953–1974 (N.Y., 2004), pp. 217. 276.

[5] Deleuze and Guattari, “Five Propositions on Psychoanalysis,” Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953–1974, p. 276.

[6] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 109.