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What Lacan can teach us about capitalism

Jacques Lacan’s theory of discourse is every bit as heuristically powerful as Michel Foucault’s, and in some respects more sophisticated and subtle, although the two theories are compatible. Broadly speaking, Foucault thinks of discourse as language in so far as it bears the imprint of (conflicting) interests – which means that discourse is inseparable from power and power relations.

Lacan’s conception of discourse is more difficult to grasp, but articulates the same fundamental insight in somewhat different terms. To begin with, Lacan gives us a typology of discourses, with the implication that the variety of discourses that exist – that of management, of patriarchy, feminist discourses, ecological discourses and so on – would all resort under one of these “types” or varieties of discourse.

He distinguishes among the discourses of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst, and indicates that each of these articulates power relations differently. The discourse of the master (for instance patriarchy) is unapologetically hierarchical, subjugating all other subject positions mercilessly to the rule of the “master” (whether this is the king, or the father), while the discourse of the university (or of knowledge), far from being autonomous (as one might expect), serves that of the master – as universities have historically done, and as the case is at present regarding the dominant economic order.

The discourse of the hysteric, by contrast, questions the power of the master, which means that – whether this takes the shape of the subversive statements of the revolutionary, or the symptoms on the bodies of “hysterics” – in each instance the hysteric’s discourse is a symptom of the fact that the master’s discourse (the dominant order) is not “total” or encompassing, but encounters many centres of resistance. Because of its questioning stance, Lacan associates the hysteric’s discourse, and not that of the university, with genuine science.

The analyst’s discourse is that type of discourse which mediates between the hysteric’s discourse, on the one hand, and that of the master (as well as its servant-discourse, that of the university) on the other. In the course of such mediation, the hysteric discovers that questioning or criticism of the master yields, surprisingly, a “relativized” master’s position of its own, which is not allowed to become totalising as an encompassing master’s discourse, but succumbs, again, to “hysterical” questioning which produces another (temporarily empowering) “master signifier”. This is the backdrop against which Lacan’s remarks about the discourse of the capitalist have to be understood.

All of this, which I have here summarised in fairly easily accessible language, can be formulated more densely in the language of Lacanian theory. In the so-called Milan lecture Lacan makes the following remark about discourse (Lacan, J 1978. On Psychoanalytic Discourse. pp. 1-15. Trans. Stone, JW Available online, p 12):

“What is a discourse? It is what … in the ordering of what can be produced by the existence of language, makes some social link function … 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.”

From this it follows that discourse determines how the social field will be structured, given its definition as the productive ordering of this field through the relations between (at least two) signifiers. (This always assumes the form of a sentence in language, for example “The president has expressed the wish that universities do everything in their power to make the nation internationally competitive” – another example of the “master’s discourse”.)

Lacan distinguishes four signifiers (words that mean or signify something specific), the mutable relations among which yield four different discourses (of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst). The four signifiers are the master signifier (S1), the signifier for knowledge (S2), the divided subject ($) and surplus pleasure (a). In the case of the master’s discourse, the master signifier addresses or “commands” (that is, organises the social field by establishing a relation of dominance with) the signifier for knowledge, and hides the “truth”, that the master is also just another “divided subject” (divided between reason and the unconscious, which subverts rational integrity and control), while producing “surplus pleasure”.

The knowledge signifier (in the university discourse), in turn, addresses the signifier of surplus pleasure (called the object a) – for example the “partial object” — field of psychology (humans as psychically functioning beings), or of physics (reality as the field constituted by impersonal physical forces such as electromagnetism) – and produces the “divided (or split) subject” in the process, while hiding the truth, that it is orchestrated, behind the scenes, by the master signifier.

As already intimated, in the analyst’s discourse the signifier for surplus pleasure (the partial object, object a) addresses that of the split subject, producing a master signifier in the process, while in the hysteric’s discourse the signifier for the split subject addresses the master signifier, simultaneously generating a knowledge-signifier. All of this very “technical” stuff really only amounts to a very precise articulation of the shift in power relations from one discourse to the next.

Regarding the discourse of the capitalist, Lacan seems to conflate it in the 17th seminar of 1969-1970 (The Other Side of Psychoanalysis; 2007, p 31-32) with the university discourse, except that he appears, at the same time, to position the capitalist discourse in conjunction with that of the master (which seems plausible, insofar as what Foucault calls “power-knowledge” is essential for the capitalist discourse).

However, in the Milan lecture – referred to earlier – Lacan comes up with a different, and for the present era of unbridled neoliberal capitalism (I believe) more appropriate discursive formula. Instead of identifying it here with a kind of amalgam of the university and the master’s discourses (as before), he calls it the “cleverest discourse” ever devised by humans (“wildly clever, but headed for a blowout … it runs too fast, it consumes, it consumes so well that it consumes itself … ”; p 11).

When one looks at his formalisation of this discourse it becomes apparent what he means – it has a structure closely resembling that of the hysteric’s discourse (which is a questioning of, or rebelling against the master), but on closer inspection one notices that this resemblance is spurious: instead of the split-subject signifier addressing (questioning) the master signifier (as in the hysteric’s discourse), in the capitalist’s discourse it questions the knowledge-signifier, generating surplus pleasure and hiding the truth, that it is orchestrated or “ruled” by the master signifier. Which makes of the capitalist discourse a pseudo-hysteric’s discourse, but one by which most people are taken in.

One example will have to suffice. In The Corporation (2004, p 32; also made into an award-winning film) Joel Bakan draws attention to a Shell oil company 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 disapprovingly 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 “she’s 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. This is an exemplary instance of the discourse of the capitalist as “hysterical master” (to put it oxymoronically): it has the pretence of questioning and criticising the dominant order, but in truth it is firmly in cahoots with it, because its only (non-negotiable) goal is maximum profit, at whatever cost.

This theme is treated at greater length in a chapter of my book, Intersecting Philosophical Planes, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2012. It first appeared in the journal Phronimon in 2009.


  • 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.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 September 2012

    I listened to the UK Home Secretary re-assuring people that Cameron would “make Britain competitive”. Sounds just like Romney making America “competitive”.This seems to be the new “clever”. Don’t they all realise they will be competing against each other?

  2. johnbpatson johnbpatson 5 September 2012

    And where do the comments sections of web-sites come in?
    Hysterics of the world unite!

  3. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 September 2012

    Both the British AND the American Empires got rich on Protectionism of their own Industries, and cheap labour from foreign countries.

    The rest is Historical Myth!

  4. Brent Brent 5 September 2012

    Dear Bert and we suppose you think that politicians never ‘spin’. How about re wriitng the article and in place of capitalism insert ‘politicians/political parties’ and see how much material you get, if you can cope.


  5. Enough Said Enough Said 5 September 2012


    I read this carefully and did not understand every word/concept, but what I understood was mind-blowing. Thanks.

  6. Maria Maria 5 September 2012

    @ Brent: that’s an interesting remark, Brent. Usually politicians would be spokesmen/women for the discourse of the master (and in the heyday of nationalism and the nation state they certainly were), but today you may have a point, that they are carbon copies of the pseudo-hysterical capitalist. If this is so, however, it is probably because the capitalist is the new master (pretending to be a hysteric railing against the master), and politicians have adopted the discursive stance of the capitalist. They are usually beholden to capitalists anyway.

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 September 2012

    Our SA Capitalists bribed the new ANC Tribal Leaders under the hypocritical policy of BEE being “for the people”

    How did Patrice, Tokyo and Cyril becoming multi-billionaires overnight benefit “the people”?

    And it would not surprise me if the distribution of Sasol shares to “the people” was on the same lines as the distribution of the Board of Executors shares to “the staff” when they listed- which was 25 percent of which 20 percent went to the top brass and 5 percent to the rest.

    I still have a copy of a newspaer clipping somewhere of one of the ANC “Liberation Heros” boasting to the Cape Times how the bank had lent him R500,000 to buy Sasol shares!

  8. Bert Bert 6 September 2012

    Enough Said – I am sorry if it did not come across as ‘fully transparent’; this is partly because of length-constraints and partly because Lacan is difficult. But his insights are also, as you rightly point out, mind-blowing. In fact, his theory of discourse enables one to analyse and ‘decode’ every utterance on the part of individuals in terms of the ‘claims to power’ embedded in these utterances. If you sent me an e-mail, I could send you the longer paper in electronic format: [email protected]

    Maria, thanks for stepping into the breach for me there – I agree fully with what you said to Brent, including your acknowledgement of the fact that his observation points to something interesting, and valid regarding today’s (but not necessarily yesteryear’s) politicians.

  9. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 9 September 2012

    Lacan merely highlights the demarcation problem. One could substitute any ism in place of capitalism (depending on your particular prejudice), and the piece would read much the same. Like they say, what the thinker thinks the prover proves. Cast your net wide enough and you can catch the Loch Ness Monster.

    The irony is that Lacan posted this analysis of a socio-economic system that wasn’t even in place yet, given that Neoliberalism only took root in the late 70s. If he were criticising capitalism, it would have had to be Keynesianism as this was the dominant brand until the inevitable stagflation in the seventies. The irony here is most people agree with Lacan and are harping back at Keynesianism currently. Get ready for the next bubble, with the next hairbrain analysis that seems perfectly plausible, while failing to comprehend even the most basic economic concepts.

    If anyone is actually interested in capitalism and other socio-economics concepts instead of just swiftboating, this video is entertaining enough:

  10. Brent Brent 10 September 2012

    Maria and Bert, perhaps I should have said ‘another ism’ instead of politicians. Bert has a narrow drum he beats every article and that is the evils of capitalism. This article he writes a long complicated (must confess leaves me most of the time) piece on Lacan’s thinking/philosophy and then adds in his mandatory crit of capitalism at the end. That end bit could have been a crit of any system/philosophy devised by man and it would still have flowed from the rest of his article. Time for Bert to set out in detail, or as the Yanks say specifics, on his favoured political system/philosophy so we can crit him. Perhaps I should get Garg U to write my replies to Bert’s articles as he does it so well.


  11. Bert Bert 10 September 2012

    Garg, it is reductionism to claim that Lacan is only talking about demarcation here – his discourse theory articulates, in great detail, all the permutations at the level of language use, of different kinds of power relations. And from that point of view, capitalism is capitalism, whether Keynesian or neoliberal (the difference between these two only concerns questions of regulation, not the basic principles of profit, growth, worker exploitation and technological innovation). So, when you criticize Lacan, talk about his own theory, don’t throw out red herrings.

  12. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 10 September 2012

    Worker exploitation? That’s not a capitalist concept at all, but a Marxist reductionist interpretation of capitalism.

    Also, Neoliberal economics is not against regulation, and regulation is not the main difference between Keynesianism and Neoliberalism.

    Although I do agree 100%: When Lacan is criticised, I should talk about his own theory. Just like when capitalism is criticised…

  13. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 10 September 2012

    Thanks, I just plagiarised your point,though and rephrased it, as this could hardly be a critique of capitalism if any shoe fits. I was not criticising Lacan, I merely pointed out that it’s disingenuous to invoke Lacan here, as this is changes the topic in a highbrow way while revealing a lowbrow lack of competence in the subject at hand – if the topic is ‘unbridled neoliberal capitalism’ and not Lacan’s notion of power struggles in language. Never the 2 shall meet, at this rate.

    Knowledge of mommy and daddy issues is not going to constitute a critique of our isms, I’m afraid. There is no doubt a garden of earthly delights in Lacan’s work, which would reveal more about ourselves than the isms themselves.

    Lacan is inconsistent when he claims language is a discourse as it relates to conflicts of interest, yet appeals to a language that can “describe reality as the field constituted by impersonal physical forces such as electromagnetism”, which he denies is possible as no language can describe The Real (ineffable, it is, even in a characteristica universalis).

    This kind of strange loop is better discussed in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which ventures too close to not so common sense to be of interest to red herring fishermen.

  14. Bert Bert 11 September 2012

    Garg – you have obviously never tried to read the poststructuralists; if you had, you would know that poststructuralist logic is isomorphic to the logic employed by Hofstadter in ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’.

  15. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 September 2012

    I never claimed to be familiar with poststructuralism and openly admit my ignorance, while the post above gives me no desire to step foot in that murky puddle. Regardless, if it’s isomorphic to the logic in Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB), then surely I’m familiar with poststructuralism by proxy? Are you sure you didn’t ‘deconstruct’ GEB?

    However, I did study economics. My impression is that you are not familiar with the topic to the extent that you could provide a critique of ‘unbridled neoliberal capitalism’, and subsequently cannot recognise such a critique when you see it, for that matter. If you could enlighten us as to the nuances of Foucault’s power relations in language or Lacan’s dis-course, that would be great, but it’s not related to the dismal science. If you claim this, you or Lacan and Foucault are just air guitaring here.

    I’m eagerly awaiting an informed critique of capitalism, while unfortunately expecting more unsubstantiated continental condescension.

    My point was merely that this post is not related to Topic 1, capitalism. This leaves Topic 2 (Lacan, et al): I just wondered how power struggles in language and Lacanian theory relate to formal systems (the topic of GEB), or language in logical form?

  16. stumpf stumpf 28 October 2012

    Is this the beginning of the end of the dark ages in the humanities?

    by Raymond Tallis

    [Published in the PN Review, no. 128, June 1999.]

    Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.
    Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science.
    London: Profile Books, 1998.

    When I was a boy, I was friendly with a lad who lived a few doors away. We used to take bicycle rides together and have gunfights on the waste land and light fires and play scratch cricket. Our ways parted as our interests evolved in different directions. There were no hard feelings and, indeed, much residual good will. Roger (this is not his true name, which I shall withhold for the sake of his family) did not share any of my own developing intellectual interests and I felt none of his love for sailing. I was surprised, therefore, when one evening my mother came across an interview with Roger in the Liverpool Echo in which he declared that his real passion was `cybernetics’. I felt that I had misjudged him and wondered whether, after all, we did have more in common than I had thought. The next time I ran into Roger, I asked him about his interest in cybernetics; more particularly, I asked him what `cybernetics’ was. My ignorance was genuine, rather than assumed. To our embarrassment, we both discovered that Roger, too, was ignorant about the nature of cybernetics. For him, it was just a word. It had something to do with science and technology and the future and seemed rather glamorous and was…

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