Book Review

Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, 2016, Columbia University Press, 9780231178723

Reviewed by Sean Sheehan

The premise of this stimulating book is that both Marx, highlighting the injustice of capitalism, and Freud, probing its repressiveness, focus their criticisms in terms of what our economic system denies to people. This has allowed apologists of the free market to point to the undoubted benefits of the system. Capitalism holds out the promise of satisfying all our desires and this goes to the heart of McGowan’s radical critique that is not deflected into thinking that easing injustices or removing repression is what revolutionary change is about.

Satisfaction is always being promised but always is just out of reach because what we get is never quite what we really desire. We enjoy what is given but cling to the possibility that a more complete satisfaction is waiting there on the horizon, in the form of the newest commodity or an updated model of the one we already possess. Freud came to see after 1920 that people are motivated through their sense of there being something missing, a process he misleadingly called the ‘death drive’. Capitalism’s success is in making accumulation an imperative, and this is its psychic power.

McGowan shows how people have a tendency to repeat loss and failure because nothing is so satisfying as the pursuit of a lost object. Rather than eating an apple to satisfy hunger, we seek something that transcends its rounded, healthy attractiveness. The apple is never just a fruit, it is not coincident with itself, it self-divides to become a signifier for something else and an excess attaches itself to the apple. Maybe Steve Jobs didn’t fully realize this but the desire for the latest products of the corporation he created is no more about technical specs than eating an apple is just about staving off hunger. Capitalism and Desire argues that the lost object, Lacan’s objet a, becomes a commodity – and you can buy it at a store that is close to you and your heart’s desire. McGowan’s book is a reader-friendly and therapeutic dissection of capitalism’s success. His examples are readily comprehensible and he avoids heavy academic language.