Late capitalism and the death drive

Is capitalism a death drive? No. It is not a drive. It is a complex of social rituals, governed by the overriding imperative of accumulation. But I've long wondered if capitalism has a 'special relationship' with the death drive.

By invoking the death drive, I am not speaking of a death-wish, or death-instinct. A drive is not an instinct and it is not a wish. An instinct is a physical programme which is capable of being satisfied. For a physical impulse to play any role in psychic life, however, it has to be virtualised. It has to become a mental representation. 

One way to think about this is to imagine a child, hungry for love and nourishment from her parents. To ensure she gets it, she must make herself loveable to them. She must work out what they want from her. So, her need must be overwritten by their demand. But this demand is rarely fully vocalised. Usually, the child has to piece it together from what is said and what is unsaid. She has to create a montage, a fantasy of where she fits into their world. Thus, the drive, a mental representation: need overwritten by demand. And a mental representation has no 'aim' which can be met. It just spins on eternally, immortally, without regard to the organism's well-being or long-term survival. It can be enjoyed, but it can't be satisfied. And its enjoyment is not necessarily compatible with the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is a sort of idolatry, a way of being true to a wholesome image of oneself, where unpleasure is the stress that arises when the reality falls short of the image. The drive wants to smash the idol.

When Freud spoke of something "beyond the pleasure principle", he was coming to terms with the failure of an omnipotence. He had supposed the pleasure principle to be an "omnipotent institution". According to this principle, psychic life was governed by a constant struggle to reduce sources of unpleasure. Loneliness, lust, hunger. And the avoidance of unpleasure does describe some of human behaviour. In particular, it describes ego behaviour: rational, dedicated to survival and success, adhering to socially consensual norms, striving to 'make sense'. But there is a lot in mental life that just isn't like that. We don't always avoid painful situations, or look out for our own long-term survival. Self-destruction, idol-smashing, is a normal part of life. Lacan's way of interpreting the Freudian hypothesis is to say that there is only one drive, one libido, and it is "virtually a death drive".

Capitalist ideology is, at least ostensibly, all about the idolatry: rational self-maximisation. The hero of the story is the risk-taker, the entrepreneur, the gambler who puts his being at stake for the sake of subjective enlargement. Everything about you can potentially be put into circulation as a stream of capital. Your brains, your brawn, your looks, any money you have in the bank, your moral flexibility, and so on, can all be treated as capital. And, if the risk is well-taken, if the gamble is a good one, it can be augmented. The self can be augmented. This is what is meant by the spuriously scientific language of 'utility'. Any positive return on a gamble can be considered 'useful', an enrichment of the self. This looks superficially like a life dedicated to the pleasure principle. Homo economicus goes through life acquiring and satisfying wants. He accumulates so that, as soon as an unpleasure arises, he can invest in something that will alleviate it. Obviously, this magical thinking about money inevitably breaks down. Sometimes you don't know what is ailing you, let alone what to buy that will soothe it. But this is why the 'happiness' and 'wellness' industries exist. They prop up this spurious omniscience: even if you don't know what you need, they do. Indeed, alleviating unpleasure has become a duty as well as a pleasure. To be unhappy or unwell, to live for long without satisfaction, to tolerate unpleasure, is a failure of self-care. It is to become lethargic, unproductive, a bad citizen. There is an obvious irony here, because the more we turn happiness into a coercive social norm, the more depressed we are likely to become. 

However, this is just to talk about how capitalist ideology rationalises the system. To go back to the figure of the gambler: every gambling career, every bet, is framed by such rationalisations. There is always some supposed benefit. Bit of entertainment, make a bit of money, where's the harm? Life is boring without the ups and downs. Who wants to live in a letter-box world, with no great highs or lows? Who wants to live without risk, without adventure? And so on. Ironically, most gamblers end up inhabiting precisely that letter-box. They learn to deaden their emotional responses to the wins and losses because, if they didn't, the emotional burden of failing to live up to the ego-ideal of a 'winner' would be unbearable. So they stop getting pleasure out of it. Instead of pleasure, almost to a person, they get a perverse satisfaction out of upping the ante, risking more and more, with each loss. Even though, or because, it leaves them, their relationships, their homes, their lives, destroyed. Even though, or because, it torments them with crushing guilt. Gambling isn't addictive because it is pleasurable. It isn't addictive because it is a crutch. It isn't addictive because it fills a need, reduces unpleasure, or gives us little shots of dopamine: that isn't how dopamine works. Somehow, the addictive part of gambling is tangled up with the self-destructive part of gambling. It's as if you stage an encounter with death, with each bet. It's a way of enjoying the drive, when it is virtually a death drive. 

To return to this question of 'demand'. One of the most exhausting features of late capitalism is just how constantly it interpellates us. There may have been a time when 'demand' was something communicated unconsciously by a handful of adults in one's emotional life. Today's homes are penetrated by more and more screens and electronic devices, filaments of capitalist ideology. When I was a child, being 'hailed' meant one of my parents calling my name, usually in a way that suggested I was in trouble. Children growing up today are constantly being hailed by notifications, updates, alerts. Maybe the alerts don't suggest that one is in trouble, but they demand immediate action. Even the little red number on top corner of social media or email app is a constant jangle of the nerves, which it is almost impossible to ignore. The imperative nature of these notifications cumulatively amounts to a demand on the subject: stay connected, be reactive, be productive, be 'sociable'. And as kids grow up today, they're growing into a 24/7 work culture. The drive is arguably being digitised, subsumed more fully into the logic of computational capital than that of Oedipal patriarchy. If the drive is a sort of mental writing, a montage of symbolic elements, it is surely now composed in part of elements drawn from a written network of signifiers. 

So what do you when you just can't? When demand is too much? When the interpellations are so persistent that they won't even let you sleep? When the drive is what is keeping you constantly in a state of distracted, exhausted, pseudo-alertness? You find another way of working the drive. If your relationship to demand is problematic, you try to silence it, evade it, short-circuit it. Knock it out with alcohol or heroin. Short-circuit it by staging a reckoning right here, right now, on this gambling machine. As if you're asking, with each bet, "what is it you want from me?" As long as you're in that sequence of anticipatory moments, demand is muted. Even at the cost of ruin.

The figure of the gambler can be taken as a parable about how capitalism works the drive. The impossible binds that it puts one in and the exits that it offers. The demands, the interpellations, the unfeasible ideals seductively sold as 'aspiration'. The death-drive industries sold as self-maximisation and pleasure. It is probably not a coincidence that financialisation, gambling, and addictions have all risen concurrently in late capitalism. And we shouldn't assume that these addictive patterns are restricted to a small number of pathological individuals. Christopher Lasch once observed that addiction is the paradigmatic form of capitalist consumption. New venture-capitalist-funded fusions of gaming, entertainment, news, gambling and so on (cf The Twittering Machine) are generalising this logic of addiction very efficiently. And to that extent, perhaps, potentiating the death drive.