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Unconscious desire and its constitutive role in global political economy

Unconscious desire and its constitutive role in global political economy

Ilan Kapoor

Professor Ilan Kapoor has a new co-authored book titled Global Libidinal Economy (SUNY Press, 2023). The book examines global political economy from a psychoanalytic perspective and claims that the libidinal—the site of unconscious desire—plays not a supplementary or trivial, but a constitutive, role in global political economy. The book will be launched at the Author Meets Critics Session at the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) Conference at Congress at York on May 30. He talks with EUC Research Assistant Igor Lutay on its claims and assumptions.

Q: What inspired you to write this book? Did any of your previous research work inspire you to write this new book?

A: My last three books were focused on the psychoanalytic point of view so this book builds on that by examining the role the psyche plays in political economy. My main interest is in analyzing the elements that are either not "seen" in politics or in plain sight but unacknowledged. This is what the psychoanalysis is focused on – understanding the role of unconscious desire, of repression, of disavowal.

Q: Your book examines global political economy from the psychoanalytic perspective. Why do you think it is important to examine global political economy from such perspective?

A: Conventional global political economy assumes the individual as an autonomous, rational, self-interested and advantage-maximizing subject. This is why neo-classical political economy is based on the idea of a self-regulated market, the “invisible hand” of supply and demand. These are what supposedly enable profit maximization. But if conventional political economy assumes a rational subject, libidinal global economy is founded on the notion of a desiring subject, who obeys the logic not of good sense, rationality and self-interest, but rather excess and irrationality. Desire as it is conceptualized in psychoanalytic theory is insatiable, and it is this that helps explain the relentlessness of capital accumulation, where there is no end to profit maximization. The irrationality and excess of desire is what leads to such phenomena as overconsumption, excessive waste and environmental destruction to the point of imperiling not only accumulation but life itself on this planet.

Q: What is the role of the unconscious desire in global political economy? Do you think such desire has grown over the years in today's global economy?

A: In late capitalist global economy, unconscious desire stands out in a lot of ways. Late capitalism counts on seducing its subjects with such things as cars, iPhones, fast food, or corporate media spectacle. This seduction helps ensure that we are fully invested in the system. We are aware that capitalism involves exploitation, inequality and environmental destruction but we still continue to be seduced by the system (this is what psychoanalysis calls “fetishistic disavowal”). So it’s important to ask “why?” We live in an information economy: we know about the sweatshop labour and environmental destruction yet we still continue to buy sweatshop goods and engage in environmentally destructive practices.  The main reason, psychoanalytically speaking, is because we fetishize global capitalism, that is, we unconsciously love it despite our outward criticisms of it.

Q: I would like to ask you a question related to the following excerpt from your book: "Rather than enabling people to freely sell their labor to the highest bidder, private capital coerces them into an exploitative system of wage labor to systematically extract surplus value." Do you think such practice is normalized in today's society and what are the negative effects it can lead to?

A: Yes, I think that, very troublingly, we live in an age that has normalized exploitation and domination. The clear indicator of this is that inequality has been increasing, rather than decreasing, in recent decades. Wealth creation under our system is based on labor, gender, racial and environmental domination and exploitation; and despite the fact that these are well known problems, we have come to accept them. So unless we come to terms with our fetishistic disavowal, to our tendency to accept or indeed to (unconsciously) love this capitalist system built on domination and exploitation, we likely won’t be able to dismantle it.

Q: The description of your book mentions the state of unending accumulation. Why do you think it is important to analyze such state and is it harmful to society from the psychoanalytic perspective?

A: The drive to accumulate is a notable feature of our capitalist age, because unconscious desire is never satisfied. This is why we, as subjects of this age, but perhaps especially the power elites under our system, end up doing all of the irrational things mentioned earlier: domination, exploitation, overconsumption, environmental waste and destruction, etc.

Q: What are you most excited for the readers of your book to learn about?

A: I am most excited for the readers to recognize the role of the unconscious desire: things that we know about in some direct or indirect way but we cannot, or do not wish to, face. The important and exciting part is to find ways of coming to terms the unconscious, not simply at the individual level, but most importantly at the structural, institutional, and collective levels.

Q: Why are themes like "gender" and "race" important when analyzing global political economy?

A: Gender and “race” are two principal ways that global capitalism is able to differentiate the world in order to dominate and exploit people for the purpose of extracting surplus value. In other words, gender domination, racial discrimination, is needed for the system to function; they are required for capitalist accumulation. So the racial and gendered division of labor in the world are not just an add-on to the system that can be addressed through more “tolerance” or “understanding,” but are integral to, constitutive of, global political economy. Which is why it will take not reform, but nothing less than reconfiguring the system to meaningfully address gender inequality and racial domination.

Q: Having completed this book how do you see your work moving forward?

A: There is so much work to be done as the psychoanalysis of political economy is a relatively new field. I am co-writing another book on applying libidinal economy to critical development studies. Also, my doctoral student, Isaac Thornley, and I are thinking of writing a book on psychoanalytic political ecologies.