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Phronimon, Vol 10 (1) 2009

Lacan on the discourse of
capitalism; Critical prospects
Bert Olivier Bert Olivier Bert Olivier Bert Olivier
Philosophy, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

In his seminar on the four discourses, Lacan seemed to group
capitalism under the heading of the discourse of the university,
but a few years later, in the Milan lecture, he changed his mind
and characterized it as discursively hysterical, in this way
providing a powerful methodological conceptual configuration
for the analysis, and ultimately, intellectual strategies for the
subversion of capitalist practices (although some have raised
doubts about this). Several other texts, including Naomi Kleins
recent book, The Shock Doctrine, which outlines her assessment
of the phase (in the history of capitalism) known as disaster
capitalism, on the other hand, provides just the kind of
information and insight to help one put Lacans theory to work.
This paper is an attempt to understand how this could happen
(and is perhaps already happening).

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of
those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have
too little. - Theodore Roosevelt.
The present essay should be read in the spirit of a conception of the humanities
which is predicated on the capacity of these disciplines to advance the cause of
human freedom at every level, including the economic, in so far as it is
inescapably implicated in the domain of political freedom.
It is almost inconceivable that human beings could take an abstract
economic theory sufficiently seriously to use events such as natural, military
or economic disasters including hurricanes, tsunamis, wars and
hyperinflation or severe recession to destroy and/or replace previously
existing public institutions or social structures for the sake of establishing
private structures and organizations for the sole purpose of profit. It may be
argued that putting the matter in this way is to provide the obvious reason
for such inconceivable value attached to the theory: the profit motive. And
this is probably the case as far as the developers of private, profit-oriented
organizations are concerned, but Im not so sure that it accounts for the

theorists axiological attachment to the theory in question; by all accounts,
this seems to be closer to an ideological belief. I believe that Thompsons
(1990, p. 7) characterization of ideology, that it is meaning in the service of
power, comes closer to explaining the sheer fervour with which proponents
of the theory in question have promoted it, and yet it is still baffling that
anyone could promote the implementation of such a theory in light of its
consequences, namely to enrich (and empower, politically as well as
economically) the few at the grave cost of the many.
The theory at stake here is that variously formulated by members of the
Chicago School of Economics, foremost among whom is the recently deceased
economic theorist, Milton Friedman. It is that economic theory which elevates
the market to the position of governing principle, not merely for economics
as if one could ever separate economics from the material conditions, the
political, social and cultural relations pertaining to human lives! but for the
entirety of human society. In short, the hallowed market becomes the final,
fundamental mechanism for establishing, reinforcing and extending social
relations, that is, society in all its complexity. Any interference in the operation
of the market, whether by individuals, non-governmental organizations, or by
government agencies is regarded as a form of socialist heresy (Klein, 2007,
pp. 49-57) by free market fundamentalists for make no mistake: this is a
kind of fundamentalism; probably the most far-reaching ever devised and put
into practice as far as its effect on human lives, as well as on the rest of the
planet, is concerned, and which, absurdly, seems to go unnoticed by the vast
majority of people (see Kovel, 2007, pp. xi-xv).
To those familiar with Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, at first sight it
may seem plausible that another way of putting what has been said so far,
is to say that the Chicago School (capitalist) economic theory formulated by
Friedman and others, or neoliberal economics, is the masters discourse of
the present era. And they would be right, exceptas I shall argue here (with
the help of others), it is no longer the traditional master who speaks, but a
protean, mutated master. As I shall point out towards the end of the paper
(on the basis of Naomi Kleins work), however, it is perhaps the case that the
protean disguise of the traditional master is disintegrating for various
reasons, revealing once again the old, familiar features of inexorable,
nonsensical subjugation of the other. Nevertheless, the fact that some
Lacanians talk as if capitalism simply represents the current version of the
masters discourse (see for example Fink, 1997, p. 131), may hide the
implications of Lacans own evolving thought on the matter.

Lacan on discourse

Concerning the question of discourse Lacan himself is most informative
(Lacan, 1978, 12):
What is a discourse? It is what, in the order in the ordering of what can
be produced by the existence of language, makes some social link
There must be at least two signifiers.
This means, the signifier insofar as it functions as an element: the
signifier insofar as it is the mode by which the world is structured, the world
of the speaking being, which is to say, all knowledge.
Thus there is S1 and S2 which is where we must start for the definition []
the signifier is what represents a subject for another signifier.
The way in which a specific signifier represents a subject for another signifier,
thus determines how the social field will be structured. For Lacan, the masters
discourse (S1 = master signifier) is one of four different discourses or types
of discourse the other three of which are the discourse of the university (or
of knowledge; S2 = knowledge), the discourse of the hysteric ($ = split
subject) and that of the analyst (a = surplus pleasure, object a), and what
distinguishes them is articulated in terms of relations of repression and
address (the master signifier repressing that of the split subject, while
addressing or commanding that of the university, for instance), in other
words, of mutating power relations. Schematically Lacan represents this state
of affairs as follows:

Terms: S1 Master signifier; S2 Knowledge (Knowing that); $ - The
divided subject; a objet a and surplus pleasure.

Masters discourse: University discourse: Analysts discourse: Hysterics
S1 > S2 S2 > a a > $ $ > S1
$ a S1 $ S2 S1 a S2

Capitalists discourse: Positions:
$ > S2 Agent address/command Other
S1 a Truth product

What this shows, is that discourses enable social (and political) relations to
function because of the ordering enacted by the representational relations
between signifiers, and these are invariably asymmetrical. Why? Because
signifiers are diacritically related in the linguistic system, that is, in terms of
difference, and the representation of the subject to one signifier by another
the emergence of the subject (of discourse) in the interval or gap between
signifiers therefore ineluctably involves relations of difference in the social
field of intersubjectivity. The social link that is, relation between or

among speaking subjects is therefore differentially structured or ordered by
virtue of the signifiers representation of the subject to another signifier, as
Lacan states. And because this mode of representation of the subject is
different from one signifier to the next the master signifier has vastly
different implications in this regard as compared to that of the divided
subject or of surplus pleasure discursively ordered social relations are
bound to be cratologically asymmetrical. In other words, given the ordering
function of discourse, social relations are simultaneously power relations.
Every ideology is discursively articulated. Patriarchy (or managements
position) is a discourse in this sense, and feminism (or labours position)
marks the site of its counter-discourse: wherever a discourse functions, it
engenders its own counter-discourse. Another way to explain discourse, is to
say, in Althusserian terms, that it is a mode of interpellation of the subject
where it is no accident that interpellation is a legal term that means the
procedurally admissible interruption of a persons speech in a legal
chamber (by way of objection, for instance). In other words, discourse is
language in so far as it is marked by the speaking subjects interpellation
or subjection to the law (for example of patriarchy: the Name of the
Father) governing a certain set of norms oriented around it and implying
behaviour and action in accordance with its tenets.
The masters discourse is that kind of discourse which functions to
organize the social field according to its (ideological) master signifier (S1)
whether that be empire, masculinity, kingship, whiteness, blackness,
the market, development, or globalization. It follows, therefore, that
once the masters discourse has established its dominance, other discourses
play second fiddle to it. Importantly, the masters discourse can only operate
by way of asserting itself ruthlessly in the social field to the extent that the
master signifier represses all knowledge or acknowledgement of its own
finitude ($); that is, of the inadequacy of the master, and to the extent that
it commands or addresses the signifier of knowledge (S2), which here
occupies contrary to what one may think in the first place the position of
the (Hegelian) slave (although, if I understand him correctly, it later changes,
according to Lacan, in the age of the dictatorship of knowledge, where it
appears that he regards S2 as assuming the position of the classical,
[premodern?] master signifier). As Lacan (Fink, 1997, p. 132; Lacan, 2007,
pp. 20-22) points out, universities have always functioned largely to support
the cratological status quo, that is, the existing order or extant masters
discourse. The master is not primarily interested in knowledge (he has
better things to do; Lacan, 2007, p. 24); he does not doubt himself, but
merely uses knowledge to organize things in such a way that his position is
secured and perpetually strengthened.
The discourse of the hysteric represents the split subject ($) in the
position of address, in so far as the latter is always already constituted by the
division between consciousness and the unconscious, self-confidence and
self-doubt; it represents the finitude of the subject in relation to master
signifiers that which is not explicitly recognized by the master; in fact, he
represses any such knowledge. In its turn, the discourse of the analyst stands
for the primacy of surplus pleasure or jouissance (a) as the cause of desire
(which operates via what Lacan calls the objet petit a little other object
as proximate cause of desire, for example a colour
, a melody or a certain
aroma that triggers in the subject an inexplicable longing, or anxiety, or
both) in other words, that which can never be accounted for in systems of
knowledge, and can therefore never be colonized by the imperatives of the
master. This explains, as Joan Copjec points out (more pertinently regarding
the present paper), why capitalism cannot abide the kind of pleasure
signalled by a, the primary signifier configuring the discourse of the analyst
(1994, p. viii):
the pleasure that the unconscious sets to work accumulating is a surplus
pleasure which has no use for material reward or even well-being; it
contributes nothing to the subjects inclination towards survival. This less-
than-useless surplus pleasure cannot, therefore, enter the calculus of
capitalism except to undermine it.
The discourse of the capitalist

It is precisely capitalism as a social and economic practice that interests me
here, in so far as it may be rendered intelligible by psychoanalytic theory.
What motivated this paper, is a curious discrepancy in Lacans work. In the
Seminar of 1969-1970 (The other side of psychoanalysis; 2007, p. 31-
32), he says the following:
we began with the fact that in the initial status of the masters discourse
knowledge is on the side of the slave. And I thought I could indicatethat
what happens between the classical masters discourse and that of the
modern master, whom we call capitalist, is a modification in the place of
The fact that all-knowing has moved into the place of the master is
something that does not throw light on it, but rather makes a little bit more
obscure what is at issue, namely, truth. How does it come about that there
is a masters signifier in this place? For this is well and truly the S2 of the
master, revealing as it does the bare bones of how things stand under the
new tyranny of knowledge
Now the sign of truth is somewhere else. It is to be produced by what has
come to be substituted for the ancient slave, that is, by those who are
themselves products, as we say, consumables every bit as much as the
others. Consumer society, we say. Human material, as it was called at

one stage to the applause of some who thought there was something
tender in this.
This passage, although not straightforwardly interpretable, suggests an
identity between the universitys discourse (S2) and that of the capitalist as
master. Further on in the same text (2007, p. 168) he speaks of this
capital mutation, also, which gives the masters discourse its capitalist
style, and raises the question, how this society called capitalist society
can afford to allow itself a relaxation of the university discourse a
somewhat baffling formulation, except if one sees it as a subtle allusion to
the sometimes flamboyant, always innovatively self-promoting appearance
of capitalist production and development, which have not left the previously
austere, rather staid faade of universities untouched either. But although he
first, in Seminar 17, intimates that the discourse of the capitalist belongs with
the discourse of the university or knowledge (S2), two years later, in his
Milan lecture (1978), he shifts his position on capitalism by identifying it
with the discourse of the hysteric ($). Why this curious shift? For one thing, if
one considers that the discourse of the hysteric elicits the following
characterization from Mark Bracher, then capitalism might seem the least
likely candidate for inclusion in this category (1994, p. 122):
The hysterical structure of discourse also characterizes other instances of
resistance, protest, and complaint from the plaintive anthems of slaves to
the yearning lyrics of lovesick poets to the iconoclastic rhetoric of
revolutionaries. The hysterical structure is in force whenever a discourse is
dominated by the speakers symptom that is, his or her unique mode of
experiencing jouissance, a uniqueness that is manifested (in experiences
such as shame, meaninglessness, anxiety, and desire) as a failure of the
subject, $, to coincide with or be satisfied by the master signifiers offered by
society and embraced as the subjects ideals.
How could capitalism possibly be construed, then, as being at one with
experiential phenomena symptomatic of the failure of the masters
discourse? After all, it may seem to make perfect sense that capitalism
would be in a similar position to the university as servant of the dominant
order of the master (through the expansion of a certain kind of knowledge).
It is important to remember, however, that in Seminar 17 (2007, p. 31-32)
Lacan suggests that knowledge, or the discourse of the university, has
moved into the place of the master, and that capitalism is subsumed under
this discourse. On the other hand, as observed earlier, many would argue
that today, capitalism is identical to the discourse of the master, although
not necessarily conceiving of the latter in the same sense as it was
traditionally the case. And if this is so, what does that make of capitalism?
Why did Lacan effect the small inversion (Lacan; see below) between the
masters discourse and that of the hysteric, by putting the master signifier
(S1) below that of the hysteric ($), indicating its repression by the latter
(instead of the other way around, as before)? It is telling, in this regard, that
while he earlier claimed that the university discourse and that of the
capitalist master is the same thing, here Lacan (1978: 10 11) describes
capitalist discourse as the substitute of the master discourse, and claims
that the crisis of the former is overt. He continues by saying the following in
Stones translation (1978, 11):
I am not at all saying to you that capitalist discourse is rotten (moche), on
the contrary, it is something wildly clever, eh?
Wildly clever, but headed for a blowout (crevaison).
After all, it is the cleverest discourse that we have made. It is no less headed
for a blowout. This is because it is untenable. It is untenable in a thing
that I could explain to youbecause capitalist discourse is here, you seea
little inversion simply between the S1 [and] the S2 [sic]which is the
subjectit suffices to the extent that it runsas if on a roulette wheel, but it
runs too fast, it consumes, it consumes so well that it consumes itself...

For this quotation to make sense, however, one must assume that Jack
Stone, the translator, suffered a slip of the finger when he wrote S1 [and] the
S2, given that, earlier in the lecture (1978, p. 6), Lacan indicates, in
schematic form, that the inversion is in fact between S1 (the master signifier)
and $ (signifier of the split, finite subject). In corroboration of this, Matthias
Pauwels (2008, p. 1) translates the relevant passage from Lacans Milan
Lecture as follows: the discourse of the capitalist is there (in the formula
of the master)a very tiny inversion simply between S1 and $. Here one has
to remember that the discourse of the hysteric relentlessly questions that of
the master, and by implication also that of the university, regardless of
whether the latter is conceived as a slave-discourse, or in the novel guise of
the master of the knowledge society, as claimed by Lacan in Seminar 17.
And while one might expect the university discourse to embody genuine
science, Lacan identifies the hysterics discourse with it instead. The reason is
not hard to find: the problematization or questioning of the masters
discourse by the hysterics corresponds with the structural indeterminacy at
the heart of science, as exemplified by Heisenbergs uncertainty
(indeterminacy) principle (Fink, 1997, pp. 133-134). One has to admit that
such a stance on the part of the scientist-cum-hysteric is rather disarming,
exhibiting as it does a logic which limits and simultaneously subverts all
those claims to unconditional power, and to the supposed systematic
wholeness of knowledge, usually associated with science, from within. Who
could accuse such a scientist of epistemic complacency or dogmatism, or
such a master of tyranny? This is precisely the reason for Lacans claim, that

capitalist discourse is the cleverest discourse that we have made. It is also
the most unassailable, as Matthias Pauwels (2008) has brilliantly argued.
In his paper Lacan and the subversion of the discourse of the capitalist
(2008, pp. 1-11) Pauwels not only offers a clear explanation of the
meaning of Lacans tiny inversion between S1 and $, which renders the
formula of the discourse of the (paradoxical) hysterical master, he also fills
in the gap left by Lacan himself in so far as the latter failed to elaborate on
what this would mean in practice. In brief, what the inversion means is that,
in contrast to the masters discourse, where the master signifier, S1, hides the
truth about the self-assured masters own finitude (symbolized by the
signifier $), by inverting these two signifiers it is suggested that the new
masters position is one where he is only too aware of his own shortcomings,
is plagued by self-doubt, indulges in regular self-criticism, and so on.
However, what is hidden in this case is the truth which the capitalist
hysterical master would rather keep out of sight that, no matter how
convincingly the capitalist may show solidarity with workers, ecologists,
social activists and so on, claiming that he is equally committed to finding
solutions to ostensibly intractable problems, deep down there is no doubt in
his own mind about his project: it is still the masters. Hence, as Pauwels
(2008, p. 3) rightly points out, the hysterical capitalist master is at most a
pseudo-hysteric, because, although his style of rule has changed
fundamentally, it is really only part and parcel of capitalisms fiendish
(wildly clever) capacity to re-invent itself whenever it faces a crisis of
legitimacy. By displaying such flair in adapting to what might otherwise be
adverse conditions, the capitalist takes the wind out of his worst critics sails,
and even succeeds in making allies of them (Pauwels, 2008, pp. 4-5).

Evidence of hysterical capitalist discourse

One of the most revealing instances that Pauwels (2008, pp. 4-6) adduces, in
his effort to compensate for Lacans lack of specific, concrete examples of
hysterical capitalist discursive behaviour, concerns an episode from the film
documentary, The Corporation, based on Joel Bakans book by the same
title. The scene-sequence in question shows an encounter between the
Chairman of Shell and a group of activists that visits his rural home with the
purpose of denouncing the activities of the Shell Corporation in Third World
countries like Africa, where it stands accused of grossly exploiting human and
natural resources. To the utter surprise and consternation of the activists, the
Chairman and his wife not only readily talk to them in an ostensibly open and
receptive manner about their grievances, but also treat them hospitably by
giving them lunch on their lawn. Most importantly and here the sheer
genius of the capitalist masters discourse surfaces unmistakably the
Chairman displays an eagerness to resolve the problems listed by the
activists, to the point of inviting them to join Shell in finding such solutions.
The implication extremely effective in its discursive power is that, while the
activists are in the position of merely agitating for solutions in a fairly
impotent manner, the Shell Corporation has the power and resources to do
something about it. Small wonder that such rhetorical mastery leaves those
with legitimate grounds for objection without ammunition! And yet, no one
should be fooled by it: the bottom line remains the same, namely for
corporations like Shell to maximise profits even as their hysterical discursive
style of mastery succeeds in covering up their real intentions. Small wonder,
too, that (as Pauwels remarks) this discursive style has contributed
substantially in defusing criticism of capitalism from the left the capitalists
consistently appear in the guise of being more radical than their critics!
So apart from that provided by Pauwels, what evidence is there that
the capitalist is indeed in the position of the hysteric or what I would prefer
to call (as Pauwels does) the position of a pseudo-hysteric, given Lacans
characterization of it as wildly clever? As the earlier discussion of Pauwelss
highly suggestive paper has indicated, there are many sources (including
other critical ones) which confirm this unlikely diagnosis. In a recent TIME
magazine (Woo Liu, 2008, pp. 46-47), for example, an article on an
international brand, Coca-Cola, announces the companys intention to
become water neutral: its CEO offered the assurance that:
every drop of water it uses to produce beverages would be returned to
the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling
programs. Water is the main ingredient in nearly every beverage that we
make, Isdell said. Without access to safe water supply, our business
simply cannot exist.That big thirst is why its essential that Coca-Cola
addresses water issues as part of its corporate social responsibility
program, says Jeff Seabright, the companys vice president of environment
and water resources. Population growth and climate change mean that
water is no longer available in seemingly limitless quantities and Coke
needs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
If one considers that climate change has itself been persuasively linked to
industrial activity of mainly a capitalist kind (Kovel 2007; Bakan 2004), and
that the masters discourse in the political register has always drawn on the
economic power imparted to it by such activity, it may seem as if Coca-Cola
as capitalist company par excellence is distancing itself from the master,
refusing it in a paradigmatically hysterical manner. This impression would
be erroneous, however. Does the company not admit that, without access to
clean water, its businesscannot exist? Which, the impression of being on
the side of the clean water-activists notwithstanding, is a confession that the
bottom line remains power through profit.

This pretence on the part of the capitalist, that (usually) he is in the
position of the hysteric, who incessantly questions recalcitrant authority in the
name of the improvement of the social, economic and (more recently)
ecological aspects of the human condition, is constantly exposed as being
precisely that: a mere pretence. Pauwels discussion of the encounter
between the Chairman of Shell, as well as my reference to Coca Colas
show of ecological concern already demonstrates how easily this may be
done, but to drive the point home, consider the following.
As I was writing this sentence, my eye was caught by a report on the
front page of the (Eastern Province) Weekend Post (Hayward 2008: 1) on the
table next to me, with the heading: Supermarkets destroying East Cape
farming. It concerns the worry, on the part of farmers in this region, that their
situation is increasingly becoming economically untenable, due to the fact
that powerful supermarket chains which sell their produce, such as meat and
milk, are paying them far below the supermarket selling prices for these
products (the article refers to huge profits made by supermarket chains) in
some cases the mark-ups on products are in the region of between 200% and
300% (for example, farmers receive R22/kg for prime beef, while it sells for
more than R72/kg in stores). If one considers that this is happening in the
context of supermarkets constantly assuring consumers that they are paying
low, low prices (an assurance I saw about a week ago at Shoprite Checkers,
where the CEO is paid an annual salary of just below R60 million according
to the local press), or that We are on your side, keeping prices down, it is
not difficult to discern the discrepancy between the supermarkets positioning
themselves as hysterics that constantly question and challenge the economic
status quo for the benefit of consumers, while secretly acting according to the
hidden (repressed) law of the master: Reinforce and extend my power at by
all available means in this case through the accumulation of capital
(indispensable for wielding economic, political, social, cultural and military
power) at the apparent cost (according to the report in question) of the very
agricultural producers who, ironically, the supermarkets depend on!
No doubt, should the supermarkets be approached on this matter by
the press, their public relations representatives would show (that is, feign) the
greatest concern for the plight of farmers who fear going out of business,
and declare themselves willing to meet with farmers to find innovative ways
of addressing the problem. But no one should be fooled by such a gesture:
As Joel Kovel, following Marx, observes, capital always tends to degrade
the conditions of its own production for the maximization of profit (Kovel,
2007, p. 38). Such degradation of production-conditions includes paying
suppliers in this case the farmers as little as they (the retailers) can get
away with, as well as the lowest possible wages to their workers (for the
minimization of which management is rewarded royally), and conducting
the least amount of maintenance necessary of production-facilities (which
are continually deteriorating, until such time when they have to be replaced
by technologically superior ones).
There are many other instances that could be cited here as evidence of
the hysterical persona adopted by the capitalist (see for example Kovel,
2007, p. ix), all of them extremely effective in assuaging potential public
concern about the extent to which capitalism is complicit in the widening gap
between rich and poor in the world, as well as being the main culprit as far
as the worsening ecological crisis goes (Kovel, 2007, pp. 1-25; Olivier
2005b, 2007a), but I believe the point has been made adequately within the
limits of a paper such as the present one.

Critical prospects?

Hence, what is to be done? And done without wasting any time, given the
rapid rate at which unbridled capitalist activity is depleting natural resources
and continuing its breaking up of communities?
What critical methods
available to one in ones effort to convince onlookers that the emperor is
sans clothes? One such approach is suggested rather cryptically by Pauwels
(2008, p. 9), following Agambens interpretation of a Kafka short story,
according to which the open door of the law is more forbidding as far as
challenging the law goes, than a closed door, which seems to indicate that
ones strategy should be a patient one of waiting for the door to be closed,
and perhaps employing tactics and stratagems to bring about the closing of
the door. The open door of the law here corresponds to the new, protean
style of the hysterical capitalist master who, instead of closing the door to
criticism, maintains an open door policy, inviting criticism instead of
repelling it, in this way defusing its potential impact and validity in advance.
An avenue of critical action, which appears to me to be consonant
with what Pauwels is suggesting, is encountered in the work of social theorist
Ulrich Beck, where he argues for a switch to a complex cosmopolitan vision
that would subvert an outmoded commitment to binarist thinking at all
levels. Focusing on the privileged position of capital in the present world
order, Beck stresses something that most appropriately so-called
consumers easily forget vis--vis capitalism, namely, that (2007: 9-10):
the counter-power [to capital] of global civil society rests on the figure of
the political consumer. Not unlike the power of capital, this counterpower is
a consequence of the power to say always and everywhere no, to
refuse to make a purchase. This weapon of non weapon of non weapon of non weapon of non- -- -purchasing purchasing purchasing purchasing cannot be
delimited, whether spatially, temporally, or in terms of an object. It is,
however, contingent upon the consumers access to money, and upon the
existence of an [sic] superfluity of available commodities and services
among which consumers may choose.

This insight seems to me to propose a strategy which corresponds to the
psychologically paralyzing open door policy on the part of the hysterical
capitalist master as its critical counterpart: just as the latter short-circuits
criticism from the left in advance, so consumers on condition that they wake
up to their own potential power of putting their consumer behaviour on hold
regarding specific commodities can paralyze capital selectively, stunting its
indispensable growth in the process, thus negotiating for themselves (and
perhaps for the planet) a better material and ecological dispensation.
5 55 5
therefore reminds consumers forcefully that they could organize themselves
transnationally into a lethal weapon against capital after all, they cannot
be fired (Beck, 2007, p. 10)! This growing counter-power of the consumer
points to a valuable lesson by saying no to the exhortation to buy, one
could join the increasing numbers of people who are becoming aware of
their power to combat the excesses of capital (the mainstay of the hegemonic
nations, and the main threat to psychological and ecological health today)
where necessary. After all, consumers must realize, sooner or later, that their
actions are predicated on the fact that the state no longer constitutes the
counter-power to capital. Once this course of action is adopted on a large
enough scale, it would seriously limit gross exploitation of resources it is
nonsensical for the state to intervene in free economic activity by forcing it to
be un-free in the context of the free market.
I would further argue that Naomi Kleins (2007) unmasking of the
latest phase of capitalisms development as disaster capitalism is another
instance of what Pauwels hints at as a possible strategy against the
disarming self-criticism of the hysterical capitalist master, to wit, finding the
means for obliging the capitalist to close the door that he has so
beguilingly left open. This is what I initially described as the possible
disintegration, in certain areas of capitalist activity today, of the hysterical
capitalist masters (hysterical) disguise, which if it is indeed the case
would amount to closing the door, thus enabling criticism instead of
defusing it.
Through intelligent, relentless and thorough research Klein has
uncovered the links between the shock therapy used initially in psychiatric
hospitals, supposedly to give psychiatrists a clean slate (of patients psyche)
to work on, and later by the US military to disorientate prisoners with a view
to breaking down their resistance, on the one hand, and the Chicago School
economic theory referred to at the outset in this paper, on the other. The
connection consists in this: just as the concept of shock operated in
psychiatry (before it was discredited) and still does in the military,
Friedmans purist neoliberal-capitalist economic theory, which insists on the
primacy of the market, is further predicated on the very same principle of
disorientation through shock for laying the foundation of market-driven
privatization of every sphere of social life (in anticipation of huge profits).
Klein quotes Friedman to this effect (2007, p. 6):
only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change. When that
crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying
around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to
existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically
impossible becomes politically inevitable.
Given the shape assumed by the implementation of this brand of capitalist
economics, Klein (2007, pp. 3-21; 49-71) dubs it disaster capitalism, and
proceeds to enumerate some of the recent instances of forcible imposition of
Friedmanite principles in the wake of the crises that he saw as golden
opportunities. These include the virtual eradication of public schools in New
Orleans during the period following Hurricane Katrina, and their
replacement by publicly funded, but privately run, for-profit charter schools
(a process that saw job-losses of many erstwhile teachers in the public
school system, and is widely perceived as having reversed the gains of the
civil rights movement regarding the same standard of education for all
children). Similarly, in the wake of the devastating tsunami in the vicinity of
Sri Lanka, the people who had previously lived in fishing villages on the
coast found themselves dispossessed of their livelihood (fishing in the ocean
where they lived) when pristine coastal areas were made available to
developers for the establishment of world class resorts (the playgrounds of
the rich) by the government at a time when they were still reeling with shock.
Again, the American invasion of Iraq left the local population severely
traumatized, creating the desired opportunity for private companies to gain
a foothold in the country. The cynicism behind the pretence, to be bringing
democracy, with all its hysterical discursive associations of freedom
(accompanied by the real thing, free trade) to Iraq, is captured to
perfection by Mike Battless remark (quoted in Klein, 2007, p. 9), that For
us [his private security company], the fear and disorder offered real
promise. This is hardly an instance of the hysteric speaking; I would argue
that the voice of the master can be detected there. As Klein wryly observes,
His words could serve just as well as the slogan for contemporary capitalism
fear and disorder are the catalysts for each new leap forward. Her
fearless excavation of the dirt underneath capitalisms perhaps largely
(globally) persuasive hysterical persona (in the etymological sense of mask)
gives the lie to its performance on the world stage.
Kleins, merciless exposure of the excesses of capitalism (and one
could add Bakans and Kovels as well) must surely rank as a means of
painstakingly forcing capitalism into a corner by means of scrupulous
argumentation, backed up with incontrovertible evidence. Such a patient,
critical intellectual strategy gives new impetus to the critical resources of

those concerned with capitalisms sinister, but wildly clever ruse of
adopting the manner of its severest critics, with debilitating results for the
latter. Being forced into a corner by such relentless scholarship, it is difficult
even for the capitalist discourse to extricate itself from the well-founded
charges of promoting its own narrow economic interests at the cost of those
of the people directly and detrimentally affected by its cynical exploitation of
natural as well as humanly caused disasters. To be sure, signs of its adopted
hysterical persona abound, and this is emblematically evident in Milton
Friedman, arguably (together with Friedrich Hayek) the chief architect of the
hegemonic neoliberal variety of capitalism, being proclaimed a champion of
freedom when he died (Klein, 2007, p. 18). (Ironically, Californian
governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger known for his many film
appearances in the roles of a variety of freedom fighters, that is, hysterics
vis--vis a dictatorial order of some kind even publicly dedicated a day in
Friedmans honour following his death!)
That the hysterical capitalist master is secretly governed by the
masters discourse, is strikingly confirmed by none other than Milton
Friedman, in conversation with Joel Bakan (writer of The corporation), in
response to the latters question, how far Sir John Browne, chief of the BP oil
company, could push his newly professed green convictions, that BP is
beyond petroleum, and that the oil companies should no longer choose
between profits and a clean environment (which makes it very clear that they
are not about to give up profits). According to Bakan (2004, pp. 41-42)
Friedman said:
He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental
interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its
stockholders, then I think he is being immoral. Hes an employee of the
stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he
has a very strong moral responsibility to them.
Theres the rub no matter how persuasively capitalist companies employ
the adopted discourse of the hysteric to convince the public of their concern
for the environment and for society at large, their overriding concern,
professionally and legally if not morally is to guarantee profits for
stockholders; in fact, this is their only legal obligation (see Bakan, 2004, pp.
35-37). Friedmans claim that Browne has a moral responsibility to put
stockholders interests first should be placed in relation to the question,
whether unbridled capitalist growth is not perhaps the most egregiously
immoral, unethical process imaginable, when the well-being of the entire
planet and its inhabitants is at stake.

One cannot easily overestimate the pervasiveness of the hysterical
discourse on the part of the new capitalist masters, even if the mask
sometimes slips, revealing the cynical features of the beast (as in the case of
the private security executive quoted by Klein, above). An exemplary instance
of capitalisms hysterical persona, in addition to that of Sir John Browne,
Bakan (2004, p. 32) concerns a Shell television advertisement, showing a
romantic woman environmentalist (who also happens to be a Shell-
employed geologist) flying by helicopter in an area with beautiful mountains
and lakes, talking to indigenous people in their huts, and looking
skeptically at heavy trucks trundling across an unspoilt landscape. As
Bakan observes, the point of the advertisement is to let the audience suspect
that the woman is an ecological activist, only to be informed, in a charming
Scottish-accented voice-over, that shes not at war with the oil company;
she is the oil company. Viewers should therefore (supposedly) be reassured
that Shell is leading the field in its concern for the environment. But, as I
hope to have shown, there are limits to the persuasiveness of this hysterical
behaviour on the capitalists part.


Hence, to conclude, if the hysterical strategy of the capitalist has been largely
effective in defusing even the most valid, well-grounded criticism aimed at
uncovering the obscenely destructive side-effects of capitalist production and
development socially as well as ecologically then one has to create (or
report) circumstances that leave the hysterical capitalist master no option than
to the drop the mask and reveal him- or herself as being really a pseudo-
hysteric, secretly committed to an unassailable or rather, unquestioned
project, propelled by the relentless privatisation or colonization of the natural
and social world in pursuit of more profit. This is a prerequisite for socially
and politically effective critique. It may be argued that stripping the hysterical
capitalist of his or her mask cannot itself happen by means of critique of any
kind whether the latter assumes a philosophical, psychoanalytical, social-
scientific or journalistic character and that it can only happen, as hinted at
by Lacan (above), in capitalist discourse itself being headed for a blowout,
because it consumes so well that it consumes itself... (an extremely
suggestive remark, not elaborated on further by Lacan). And yet, I believe that
Lacans own work, in conjunction with that of Lacanian intellectuals like
Pauwels, Copjec and Zizek, as well as persistently investigative (journalistic
or philosophical) writers like Naomi Klein, Joel Bakan and Joel Kovel, has
been in the process of advancing the kind of critique which has, slowly but
surely, been eroding the mask of pseudo-enlightenment and quasi-self-
criticism, donned by the hysterical capitalist master, thus forcing him (or her)
to close the door and show his (or her) true colours. Even if it turns out not to
be sufficient in exposing the capitalist emperor as being without clothes, if the
blowout which Lacan believes the capitalist discourse is destined for does

eventually occur possibly in an indirect manner, in the shape of an
unprecedented ecological catastrophe, which cannot be ruled out (see Kovel,
2007, pp. 21-25) all these instances of critique (including the present one)
will have been vindicated.


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online at http://web.missouri.edu/~stonej/Milan_Discourse2.pdf ; Accessed 9 May
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1. A telling example of such an objet a is found in a short story by Antonia Byatt
(1998), namely Jal, in the volume, Elementals, where the colour red triggers in the
narrator the unsettling memory, in the first place, of the colour with which she illustrated
the biblical story where the eponymous heroine kills the enemy general sleeping in her
home, causing the red blood to flow from his head. But secondly, it simultaneously
triggers her confused memory of her (probable) involvement in sabotaging the attempt,
on the part of her schools best athlete and leader of the in-group at their school, to
repeat her usual victory in a cross-country race, inadvertently causing her severe injury
when she fell and hit her head against a hard object. Byatt subtly intimates that there are
associative similarities between the biblical story of Jal and the deed (gone seriously
wrong) committed by the narrator, born of envy and resentment at not being allowed into
the other girls group. The colour red is therefore her object a, and represents or causes
her desire for a life, not merely free from the pangs of conscience resurrected repeatedly
whenever she sees a certain hue of red, but most fundamentally her desire for being part
of a community represented by the girl whom she inadvertently injured. To belong to


such a community represents her unattainable jouissance. Slavoj iek (1993, pp. 206-
207) draws attention to another illuminating instance of objet petit a documented in
Freuds work.
2. I dont think it is an accident that, further on in the text, Lacan (1978, 11) hints at
the prospect of psychoanalysis becoming an accomplice of capitalism in America: A
discourse that would finally be truly pestilent, wholly devoted, finally, to the service of
capitalist discourse. This seems to me to suggest that, just as mainstream psychology
easily (and usually) functions to prop up the discourse of the master or the dominant
order, so, too, psychoanalytic practice could easily, in a country marked by unbridled
capitalism, become the slave discourse, endlessly reproducing servants of this order.
3. See in this regard Kovel, 2007, pp. 57-60, for an account of such a disintegrative
effect of capitalism on communities in Mexico, by luring young people to the free trade
border city of Juarez with the promise of earning a few measly dollars. In the process
especially the young women risk losing far more than just their family life, as they are
easily drawn into the night club, sex and drug business, again with the carrot of
supposed high dollar earnings. Kovel (2007, pp. 54-55) also describes a similar effect of
capital on equatorial rain forest villagers, some of whom blindly exchanged a simple, but
fulfilling community life for the real thing, Coca-Cola, where the latter functions as
emblem for the quick fix wages promised by the mining companies to susceptible young
people from these villages. The price they pay is ultimately the socially integrated village
life they once had, where, to be sure, wealth in western terms did not exist, but in its
place there was a life of plenty of food, as well as family and community cohesion,
interwoven with a worldview which was not shot through with the nihilism which is
typically produced by capitalisms tendency to exploit everything nature as well as
people for profit.
4. On several earlier occasions (including Olivier 2007 and 2007a) I have put forward
other avenues of criticism aimed at dislodging capitalisms stranglehold on societal
organization, for instance via a discourse-analytical unmasking of the corporatization of
universities, and an enlargement of the practice of critical psychology so as to include the
relation of human beings with nature in an encompassing sense.
5. Incessant growth is one of the indispensable conditions for capital to operate, and
capitalism as a way of life to exist. The other two are, firstly, exploitation of labour in
the sense that a gap necessarily has to obtain between workers wages (and other
production costs) on the one hand, and capital income through sales, on the other, and
secondly, the need for continued technological development and innovation, without
which the required diversity in commodity production cannot be regularly introduced (see
Harvey 1990: 180).
6. See in this regard Olivier 2005b and 2007a.
7. Personally, I believe that the gravity of the matter is such that one should utilize
every possible avenue to conscientize colleagues, students and the public at large. This
would include lectures, conference papers, radio and television as well as other public
talks and discussions, and also publications ranging from academic articles and books to
popular ones in newspapers or on the internet (see for example Olivier 2008a, 2008b,
2008c, 2007b, 2007c and 2007d).