By Karen Maroda
I am a liberal, as were both my parents. In fact, my father, forced to leave high school after the Depression and work in a factory to help support his family, organized the first union in that factory. On the verge of being fired or beaten, he was happily drafted into the Army. He never overtly subscribed to any particular ideology, but made it clear that laws of common decency were not often followed when it came to business and the distribution of wealth. (He became self-employed when the war ended.)
Coming from this background, I have always been interested in critiques of our materialistic society, even though I admittedly succumb to some of the guilty pleasures of middle class suburban life. I try to limit my purchases and encourage my patients to look at what they are feeling when they experience the sudden need to buy something. Yet I cannot honestly say that anything I have read about capitalism has informed my clinical work beyond encouraging some measure of self-awareness regarding the urge to buy.
Reading Todd McGowan’s book, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, provided one of those rare moments where I not only was captivated and intellectually stimulated, but also discovered new insights and tools for helping both my patients and myself. I came away with a deeper understanding of what motivates the seemingly endless cycle of all manner of consumption, and how we are manipulated at the deepest social and psychological levels.
McGowan’s main points are as follows:
First, we all have within us a basic sense of loss. I found myself readily agreeing with this concept, though it is not truly a psychoanalytic one. Psychoanalysis focuses heavily on early loss and its lifelong impact, but does not go so as far as to say that we share a collective universal sense of loss as well as any individual losses we may have experienced. (However, the new emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of loss, e.g. Holocaust survivors and their families, support this thesis.)
McGowan says we seek relief from these painful feelings of loss by making purchases, as well as indulging in other forms of conspicuous consumption because we are naturally drawn to the temporary relief they provide. This is not news to psychoanalysts, of course. However, he adds a new twist in emphasizing not only the universality of loss, but more importantly, how we need to return to that sense of loss because it is part of our core identity. Often we are not really looking for long-lasting satisfaction when we buy something because that would work against the restoration of loss.
The role of capitalism in this scenario is that corporations not only know we have been trained in our capitalistic society to want things we don’t need, but that we are actually disappointed if they last too long. Built-in obsolescence is partly a response to the consumer’s desire to continue to make purchases endlessly. McGowan illustrates this with the iPhone, saying it epitomizes the cycle of longing for the next big thing, acquiring it, becoming inured to its benefits, then waiting for the next iPhone, which is barely distinguishable from its predecessor. Though this might seem too sophisticated for some to believe, McGowan says that businesses are well aware of what they are doing and know that the market for their goods is fueled not only by desire, but also by the inevitable disappointment and return to intrapsychic pain. An advocate for psychoanalysis, he points out that one must pursue the “public space” of psychoanalysis to gain insight on one’s sense of loss because it is necessarily unconscious and cannot be tapped through conscious attempts at awareness.
I was really excited by McGowan’s overall thesis and his many cultural examples, e.g. he quotes Don Draper from the Mad Men series, who said. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” This is great stuff, I thought. And McGowan is helping me to understand not only capitalism, but also the universal theme of the relationship between desire and loss. I thought to myself, “I should be able to use this clinically.” As you can see in the example that follows, I was particularly interested in McGowan’s hypotheses that went beyond the usual topic of making purchases and spoke more deeply to how capitalism essentially perverts the experiences of desire and loss in a myriad of ways.
Tom, a middle-aged man who has had long term relationships, but never married, came to mind immediately. He spoke of his negative experiences with dating services, but was being pressured by family and peers to try them again. Cringing at the thought of signing up for an interpersonal service that seemed “processed” and unnatural to him, he also feared being seen by others as not willing to help himself out of his loneliness. His desire for an intimate partner was palpable, yet he seemed helpless to alter his social situation. Moderately successful, highly intelligent and knowledgeable across a wide array of subjects, decent-looking and an excellent conversationalist, Tom’s inability to find a partner was a bit of a mystery to all who knew him.
I have treated him for several years with moderate success. Tom is one of those people who takes two steps forward and one step (or two) backward. Just when you think he’s on his way, he becomes profoundly depressed and regresses. During these times he comes to his sessions and spends the entire hour in helpless despair. He makes it clear to me that he does not want me to say much of anything during these sessions unless it is in the service of understanding and accepting his helplessness. Even then, he prefers that I say as little as possible. I think many of my colleagues can relate to the difficulty in treating patients like Tom, as we must join them in the abyss on a regular basis.
Lately I had been wondering if he would ever just maintain his gains and also establish a relationship (which would mean the end of his treatment). Or is he one those people who can never let himself be freed from the endless Promethean struggle with his demons? Is my witnessing truly therapeutic or merely an indulgence?
Reading McGowan’s book allowed me to understand Tom’s suffering in a whole new light. Interestingly, Tom appears to be very unmaterialistic, although upon closer examination he does spend a great deal of money, which he inherited. His primary desires, however, relate mainly to finding a person to be with and to his varied intellectual interests. I always knew Tom needed to grieve his traumatic childhood and tumultuous relationship with his alcoholic father. What I didn’t understand was how the cycle of Tom’s improvement, followed by his periods of regression, fit exactly with McGowan’s discussion of loss and desire.
Since reading his book I have been more at peace when Tom comes to his sessions in despair. I no longer feel depressed by his overwhelming angst and see it simply as a necessary part of the process for him, no matter how long it goes on. Tom can sense the change in me and bounces back from his despair more quickly these days. After more than a few sessions in a row where Tom is in despair he typically “recovers.” When this happens he apologizes to me for his fall into the abyss. The last time this occurred I had read Capitalism and Desire. Instead of simply telling him no apology was necessary, as I typically would, I added that I understood how integral his lifelong despair was to his sense of self and that he needed to revisit it in order to preserve his identity. He was blown away by this interpretation and said. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
I also was able to help him be free of guilt over not wanting to sign up for a dating service by telling him about what McGowan said about these services and encouraging him instead to go out in the world and find someone who “disrupts” him. I added that Freud referred to falling in love as “temporary psychosis” and that was what he needed rather than being set up with someone who appears as much like him as possible. I don’t know if he will ever be able to let himself find a companion, but I feel that we are on the right track.
Psychoanalysis has in recent years made great efforts to demonstrate its application to politics, culture and the world in general outside of the consulting room. McGowan’s book has done the opposite in that he has taken the essential workings of capitalism and demonstrated how they manipulate individuals in a way that speaks to longstanding psychoanalytic notions about loss and the need for grieving and self-observation.
Clearly there is much to be said about how capitalism affects us both individually and collectively. But Professor McGowan’s thesis has helped me as a clinician both to identify psychological phenomena that are formed by growing up in a capitalist society and to address them at a deeper level within the psychoanalytic dyad. It is not easy to help patients to face their own feelings of helplessness and loss, nor is it easy to feel our own.