Capitalism & The Death Drive

Capitalism & The Death Drive

Capitalism & Psychoanalysis:

I find that it is difficult to have a serious conversation about the death drive with non-psychoanalytic people. Be that as it may, I recently had an interesting person with a non-psychoanalytic clinician about the death drive, and the conversation was good!  

During the conversation I said: “I think that capitalism might be one of the best examples we (e.g., psychoanalytic people) could use when we talk about the death drive.” After that we both talked a bunch.

I want to summarize two ideas (and a few sub-ideas) that came out of this conversation.

(1) Capitalism, jouissance, & death drive:

Capitalism is one of the ways that people are in the throws of an idiotic jouissance, continually chasing things and experiences that exceed their needs, and deriving the fix of a short-lived satisfaction-high that wears off and leads to needing to the subject wanting to take another hit. As Žižek has pointed out, its sort of like drinking a Coke when you’re still thirsty. At first, the Coke tastes great, but then that initial fizzy satisfaction wears off, and you’re mouth feels sticky, and you’re more thirsty.

So you know what you do? (Usually) You take another swig of the Coke.

I think this is also the way the death drive works.

(1.1) Drive v. Instinct:

One of the things that many people seem to get wrong about the drive is mistaking it fro instinct. The main reason for this seems to be that the English translation of Freud’s work into the Standard Edition translated both Trieb (drive) and Instinkt (instinct) as instinct. However, these two words mean different things.

  1. Instinct is anything that the body does to keep itself alive. Instinct is attached to what is biologically necessary.
  2. Drive, on the other hand, exceeds what we need.

This episode of the podcast Why Theory does a great job explaining this.

(1.2) Drive as gravity:

I’ve been thinking about what the drive is an always present fundamental force of human life that can be likened to gravity, always pulling the subject towards something that has a lot of density.

There is an important distinction to be made here:

  • The drive is the force of gravity.
  • But the drive is not the dense thing that has a gravitational pull.

One of the things I’m still trying to work out now is what the something that exerts the gravitational pull (the drive) on the subject. Currently, the leading contenders I’m exploring as possibilities are:

  • Das Ding / The Thing
  • The Real
  • Jouissance

(For whatever it might be worth the Real is my number one contender at the moment.)

(2) Capitalism, repetition & orbits:

One of the ways I imagine people “deal with” the drive is by falling into an orbit. I say this because orbits are predictable patterns where gravity and speed work together to make an object repeatedly rotate around a more substantial thing (i.e. das Ding, the Real, Jouissance?) that is pulling on it.

There are several ways we could think of what these repetitions/orbits create, but I tend to think of it as

  • Repetition compulsions, which are
  • Symptoms

(2.1) Symptoms are not problems:

One of the things that is often forgotten is that symptoms are not problems; instead symptoms are solutions to problems. In this metaphor, I’m making use of here symptoms are the creative way we use gravity (the drive) to whip us into something that keeps on spinning around a massive dense thing (the Real) that would destroy us if we were pulled into it.

As long as our symptom is stable, as long as the orbit is allowed to keep spinning away, in a predictable repetition, we will not be pulled into and crushed by whatever is at the center of it all.

(2.3) Identities are elaborate symptoms:

Based mainly on my reading of the late Lacan, I’ve started to think of identities as the most elaborate symptoms that people construct [EN3].

I say this because it seems to me that people will reliably follow consistent habitual (repetitive) ways of expressing themselves and their desires. I also see people of all sorts of (libidinal) investing in these habitual ways of expressing themselves.


  • A person habitually attends a church; this attendance signifies their belonging to a particular faith tradition, which is an essential component of their identity. Being a part of this faith tradition is a symptom that comers over anxiety.
  • A person habitually volunteers their time and energy to a political party or candidate. This activity is due to the person being a member of the political party, supporting that party and its agenda, and (libidinally) investing in their membership to that party as a part of their identity. Being a member of this party is a symptom that covers over anxiety.

In the above two examples, when I say “covers over anxiety” I also mean that this symptom provides the person with a way of orbiting the (castration) anxiety that would result in their becoming fully conscious of their significant limitations (regardless of their spiritual or political actions) in relation to the Real.

Does that make sense?

I hope it makes sense.

To try to explain it a different way, take a look at this clip from the film The End of the Tour about what happens when a person’s symptom/orbit breaks down, and the Real starts to pull the person into it.


Subscribe to [S][J][P]

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.