Dissatisfying Satisfaction

I seldom say books are a 'must-read' because, let's face it, like most things in life, what we read is subject to so much personal preference and interest. With that said, the two books I am recommending today, Capitalism and Desire by Todd McGowan and Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, both achieve must-read status to my mind. In different ways the books are tackling similar issues, the challenges of capitalism and how to handle them. Since 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the supposed triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, has created an environment wherein it seems impossible to imagine a world in which capitalism is the only viable political and economic system. Both these authors tackle that assumption head-on.

McGowan takes a psychoanalytic approach, seeking to advance and offer a sort of psychoanalysis of capitalism. He begins by tracing the critiques of capitalism that we are probably most familiar with--Marx's critique of inequality at the heart of it which was the first great challenge to capitalism and then the shift that occurs when Freud's theories of repression begin to influence western thought. These two arguments form the basis of much of the critique of capitalism, but this is not enough according to McGowan, and neither critique has produced the overthrow it promised. Not content with remaining in the conundrum McGowan advances a new theory, one that builds not on the things that capitalism denies but rather on what it promises or provides. The issue he contends is not what capitalism denies us, be it equality or liberation, the issue is with the satisfaction that it promises. This promise of satisfaction at the heart of capitalism, the element which its apologists cite in their defense of it, is the very thing that McGowan uses to begin his critique. His argument is essentially that not capitalism doesn't satisfy but rather that it doesn't allow its subjects to 'recognize where their own satisfaction lies,' which results in what he terms a 'dissatisfying satisfaction.' A satisfactio interuptus if you will, a satisfaction that always lies in the future, which of course, never comes. Rather than the delayed satisfaction capitialism promises, McGowan wants to re-locate enjoyment in the present and in so doing open up space for real political, social and economic re-structuring.

It's a compelling book, thoughtful, engaging and insightful. It will change the way you think about capitalism and invite you to look long and hard at your own desire and its attachment to the future.

Mark Fisher's, Capitalist Realism, takes an entirely different path to critiquing capitalism. the subtitle, Is There No Alternative? raises the question of whether or not there is a viable alternative to capitalism. He mirrors McGowan in that he also critiques the 'moral' movements that emphasize the inequality capitalism engenders as well as the anti-globalization groups who he feels have muddied the waters of capitalist critique by replacing real political organization with protest and thereby create what he terms 'pie-in-the-sky' events like Live Aid and Make Poverty History.

What Fisher argues for is two-fold. Firstly by exploring the social roots of many contemporary ailments such as depression, anxiety, addiction and attention deficit and locating them as by-products of the capitalist imperative to enjoy through consumption. This awareness leads to a politicization and perhaps to renewed appraisal of capitalism. His second critique is with the bureaucracy at the heart of the capitalist enterprise. He contrasts older bureaucratic work models with the newer, supposedly freer and more flexible work environments of the 21st century and argues that in spite of the rhetoric, what we are experiencing is simply an expansion of bureaucratic models that bog us down in work and labour and thwart our opportunities to experience liberation.

Fisher's book is more of a short manifesto while Mc Gowan's is a more expansive and broad exploration of his ideas, but each contribute important ideas both to the on-going critique of capitalism and also to the political environment in which new models might be explored and initiated.