No one in their right mind would associate capitalism with suffering, would they? Isn’t it about enjoyment of commodities, ostentatious consumption, celebrity life and wealth accumulation? And what is there about all this that could be connected with “suffering”? Of course, one could elaborate, as Hardt and Negri do in Multitude (2005) and elsewhere, about the suffering that intolerable debt levels impose on nations of the developing world (which go hand in hand with material suffering), but that’s not my concern here.

There’s a different sense of suffering under capitalism, however, and believe it or not, it manifests itself in what is known, in psychoanalysis, as “obsessional (compulsion) neurosis”. A first clue for understanding this is afforded by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1919, p116), where he remarks that “ … the character of compulsion neurotics shows a predominant trait of painful conscientiousness which is a symptom of reaction against the temptation which lurks in the unconscious, and which develops into the highest degrees of guilty conscience as their illness grows worse”.

Another clue is found in Freud’s observation, in the same work, that obsessional neurosis may be regarded as a “caricature” of a religion. What the two have in common is the element of a guilty conscience in relation to a temptation of sorts — to do whatever is prohibited by the religion in question, or in the case of someone who is clinically obsessive-neurotic, to avoid doing something, the thought of doing which fills them with unbearable anxiety (without knowing the origin of this prohibition).

The point here is not that everyone working under conditions of capitalism is an obsessive neurotic, “clinically” speaking. Rather, as Freud believed, and as Dutch psychoanalytic theorist, Philippe van Haute recently reminded one, by scrutinising pathological conditions such as hysteria and obsessive neurosis, and examining their constitutive features, one learns something about the human condition as such, because pathological conditions are exacerbations or exaggerations of behavioural traits that are found in the behaviour of “normal” people as well. And what is at stake here is the behavioural pattern of “normal” people under conditions of capitalist production, which displays features of obsessional neurosis.

Ian Parker, a practising Lacanian psychoanalyst, adds an important clue to the above where he points out (In Lacanian Psychoanalysis — Revolutions in Subjectivity, 2011, p42), that “Those who suffer in obsessional mode under capitalism are subjects who buy into the separation of intellectual and manual labour, the separation of thinking from being … ” If we read this together with another remark (p41), that there is a name in psychoanalysis for someone who, paradoxically, resists “the progress of the analytic work precisely because they are so compliant with the analyst, ‘obsessional neurotic’ ”, things begin to fall into place.

What do we have here? Guilt, painful conscientiousness, implicit (if not explicit) prohibition, compliance, anxiety. This seems perfectly plausible in the case of a religion that demands of its adherents conscientious acts of confession, or penance, or devotion, and of primitive, totemic people (discussed by Freud) who live with anxieties induced by taboos such as that pertaining to touching a chieftain on pain of death, but how does this apply to life under capitalism? It seems counter-intuitive, to say the least, considering that capitalism appears to promote enjoyment through commodity consumption, not anxiety.

Certainly, as far as consumers are concerned. But what about people working in a capitalist system of production? Could one plausibly speak of suffering here? And could one understand this better in the light of the nature of obsessional neurosis? Some time ago I posted something on the growing resistance to capitalist work, based on a paper presented by one of the US’s most respected psychologists, Professor Silvia Federici from New York. She alluded to widespread signs that a turning point seems to have been reached today regarding conformity to capitalist work, which resonates with what Parker says about compliance (above). From what Federici went on to say, it was clear that not only workers in the sense of labourers are involved, but people who work at every level of economic activity imaginable, from manual workers to CEOs of companies.

Especially important for the theme of suffering under capitalism is what Federici termed “the development of industrial discipline” by mainstream psychology, as well as social developments that exhibit what she described as “the deep crisis bodies and subjectivities are experiencing in our time”. There is, for example, the “massification of depression” and the “epidemic of eating disorders”, all of which she read as symptoms of an increasing alienation from the typical capitalist “discipline of work”. Correlative to this there is the formation of communes across the US, where — in contrast to the encouragement of individual competition for scarce resources, including jobs, under capitalism — interdependence of a social as well as an economic kind is practised.

Confirming Federici’s insights, Parker (2011: 87) notes that “A peculiarity of subjectivity under capitalism is that the human subject — the nature of their being in the world and their reflexively elaborated relation to others — is … that subject as an isolated individual … another peculiarity … is that the individual subject is torn between a relation to capital and a relation to the labour process”. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. As Parker further argues, in her or his relation to capital as commodity-exchange system, the labour power of the working subject him- or herself is commodified, and concomitantly relations are reified, as if they are “things”.

In contrast, Parker points out, work or labour, which offers the possibility of being experienced as the space of creativity of human beings, is negated as such through unemployment, de-skilling and control. This is where one face of suffering under capitalism appears: Parker (p88) draws attention to “Uncertainty, procrastination, powerlessness, resentment and secretive victories over a world that renders it guilty at its heart for its failure and complicity with exploitation … ” on the part of the “obsessional neurotic” subject under capitalism.

One should note the ambivalence of his formulation — the guilt derives from both a feeling of “failure” (one can never be productive enough in the eyes of the capitalist master) and “complicity with exploitation” (the realisation that one’s labour unavoidably contributes to it). The sense in which one can conceive of workers under capitalism in terms of suffering is captured well where Parker points out that (p91) “ … obsessional neurosis is one strategy for coexisting with this demand … ” of acknowledging the “symbolic apparatus” or capitalist discourse, which accords it legitimacy.

This comes at a price, of course, which confines the subject discursively in a work-prison of their own choosing. One can always take the “hysteric’s” course of action, which means, in clinical terms, that a symptom of some (for example psycho-somatic) kind would embody the subject’s conflicted condition, indicting the system in which he or she is trapped, or “ … breaking the rules in ostentatious displays of non-compliance” (Parker p92).

A more acute manifestation of suffering under capitalism is encountered in the case of psychoses, grasped as the construction of alternative discourses (which psychiatry labels as “delusional”), but which Lacanian psychoanalysis prefers to think of in linguistic terms. Parker (p92) reminds one that “this is painful and … the construction of an alternative universe may turn out to be as unbearable as the one neurotics inhabit”.

That under present historical conditions capitalism is implicated in both “neurotic” and “psychotic” suffering, however, leaves no doubt as far as he is concerned (p92): “ … the nature of ‘psychosis’ needs to be theorised in such a way as to embed it in the political-economic system against which it stands and of which it speaks”. Do you recognise any of this in people you know? I do.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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