(The makings of) A Psychoanalytical Critique of Capitalism

This essay comes from probably 2002 when I was living in Los Angeles and working at an agency — and coming to realize that I had an academic deep down inside of me.

          I had the privilege of listening to Deepak Chopra and his son, Gotham, today at separate panel discussions at the Los Angeles Festival of Books (yes, Los Angeles does have a literate culture).  They addressed the idea that all humans have certain basic needs, such as acceptance, love, achievement, content, security, creative expression, transcendence and self-esteem.  These needs must be addressed for a human being to consider him or herself happy.  There are various human institutions that exist to meet these needs, such as art, nuclear and extended family, intimacy, work, spirituality, etc.  These institutions in one form or another have existed since humankind first started organizing cultures and societies.

          Then something interesting happened.  For one reason or another, these institutions have been replaced by personal, disposable and/or durable goods.  Self-esteem is increasingly less based on who you are but on what you own; if we cannot find love, we seek out alternatives (i.e. pets, cars, computers) or escapes (i.e. movies, porn); if we do not feel accepted, we turn to this or that beauty enhancer believing it will help us fit in; and so on and so forth.  That is not to say that the ownership of goods is necessarily detrimental to the goal of happiness.  If a person is creatively frustrated in their life, they can use a variety of products to express themselves.

          The problem inherent to goods ownership and collection is that the psychological association created with them is highly susceptible to manipulation.

If you are not on the receiving end of another’s love, or if you have no one to direst your love at, and you are using as substitute a transitory good (even durable goods are temporary), then you will constantly, if not consciously, be aware that this love will not last.  True, there is no guarantee that any person-to-person love will last, but at least that love is reciprocal.  It is true that it is better to have loved and lost, than to have placed all your love and your hope for love on something that is not capable of truly responding with an equal amount of attachment and feeling.

A psychological association with a transitory good is never a secure association, and at least subconsciously, the person is aware of this volatile relationship.  This insecurity arises from the fact that the need fulfillment is from an entirely external source.  Even with the love need, there is an internal requirement, a willingness to give ourselves over fully and selfishly.  Love is about letting go, securely, of the self in acceptance of the consequences.  Because transitory goods are only external, we have a hard time fully accepting them as real.  If it is not part of the self associated as I, then I cannot guarantee its existence from moment to moment as I can my Self.  I can control the Self, but I cannot fully control the Other – I can not control it to always be there, as I can do upon my Self.

It is the difference when riding an airplane between having your carry-on and your luggage.  Your carry-one (the Self) will be in your constant control by always being in your personal bubble, whether visually or tactilely.  Even if it is in the overhead compartment, you are reassured that you could get up and retrieve it whenever you wish.  But many people become anxious, even to the point of neurotic, about their luggage (the Other), because it is no longer in their sphere of influence.  It is still their property, but it is unknown what could be happening to it.  It could be damaged, lost or destroyed, and this is something, once the person has willingly handed it to the airline, they have no control over. 

This same type of anxiety is formed when psychological associations are made with transitory goods.  And this anxiety is easy for another person, who wishes to influence you, to manipulate.  It is, in a sense, no different than when your child is kidnapped.  The kidnapper has power over you because your fear for your child, and you would prefer not to be in an anxious state.  It is not to say you should live your life in isolation as a hermit so as to never make psychological associations and thus leave yourself open to the possibility this association will eave you vulnerable to fear.  Fear, like any human emotion, is a very necessary motivator, given the proper situation and context.  Fear will help get your family out of a burning house, or keep you from playing with a cobra.

But it must be understood that anxiety is one of the easiest ways for others to manipulate you to get you to do something they want.

Governments use fear.  In wartimes, they demonize by dehumanizing the enemy so as to strike fear in it citizens and thus mobilize them to fight.  Religious groups use the fear of death as a way to educate the masses on their ideology, thus increasing their numbers and popular power.  Anti-nuke organizations use the fear of nuclear annihilation to push for non-nuclear proliferation, from weapons to energy sources.  Educators use the fear of a socially undesirable future as a motivator to get kids to study.  As long as there have been agendas, whether social or personal, fear manipulation has been a strong weapon to push them.

So what’s this got to do with capitalism?

I’m getting to that.

One of the main tenets of capitalism is the rendering of services or goods for the exchange of some detailed monetary unit, with the exchange being such that the supplier renders said item so as to capitalize on said item, not merely to be of service to the community of which it is a part.  There would be no problem in the idea of profiting if it were not for one aspect of human nature: greed.

It is a part of evolution that there is a constant struggle to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.  It is the strongest, those most able to fully take advantage of their surrounding resources, that survive.  For early humans, it was no different.  You used and possessed what you needed to survive.  But things changed once we became civilized.  When we moved away from the constant not knowing where we’d be or what’d we eat the next day (such as was the case for nomad and hunters/gathers), many cultures developed where the people  no longer felt imprisoned by our natural limitations.  They began to feel it was our imperative as the superior creatures on the planet, to be entitled to anything and everything we wanted.  Some people really took this belief to heart and saw themselves as the better of those other people around them.  Thus this self-induced elite decided they were entitled to a disproportionate amount of the resources.  But it was never enough to say you had two times the amount of bread as your neighbor.  Some saw two times, and said why not four times?  Or six?  Or ten?  Thus greed.

Before jumping on capitalism, it is of use to note from what context the idea of capitalism arose.  It was essentially formed in Europe after the Dark Ages.  Out of the Catholic societies.  One definition of “capitalize” is to gain by turning something to advantage.  The Catholic Church took advantage of the fears of the masses to gain wealth and power.  The royalty of ancient kingdoms were very powerful, but it was the Pope who ruled Catholic Europe.  Anyone who has been to one of the venerable Catholic Churches, such as Notre Dame, would easily be able to point the grandiosity from the Church’s wealth in them.  The Church decided the religion, and thus attitudes and beliefs that its parishioners would have.  Anyone not thinking as they did was branded a heretic and one away with in one way or another.

This is not to say that capitalism is worse than the feudalism that existed when the Catholic Church was the most powerful.  Feudalism worked when you owned the land and the people who worked the land.  They were dependent upon you for their basic needs of survival.  In exchange for work, you supplied them with food, shelter, security, etc.  These were minimal physical needs; other more metaphysical needs were supplied by the Church. 

Then the business class rose up underneath the royalty, and the feudalists went away, replaced by concentrated urban centers that were the centers of wealth and commerce.  In Europe, it was still the case that those who had the power bestowed on them by being part of royalty were the ones who controlled enterprise.  It wasn’t until free enterprise and the free market capitalism, initiated in the United States, that anyone had the potential to capitalize in the needs of the public. 

Now in the world we are faced with two types of capitalists: free market and family-tied.  It is family-tied that we worry are the greediest.  But free market capitalists can just as easily fall into the greed trap.

The idea that anyone can provide a service in return for a profit is based on the idea that the best incentive a person can have is based upon the external reward/punish polarity.  The problem is that it again falls into the trap of being an insecure psychological association.  Wealth and power are incredibly transitory – as 9/11 proved to us.  If a person’s self-esteem, security and content (i.e. happiness) is entirely based upon how much of either they possess and control, then they will again find the anxiety inherent in this relationship.  It is no wonder that stockbrokers who actually work at Wall St. “die young”.  The stress, once wealth and power (i.e. capital) is achieved, to maintain this standing, is immense.  Thus those who hold the capital will enable and endorse actions to ensure that they will keep this capital.  A lone wolf, feeding on a deer, will fight off those who attempt to take it from him.

Is this greed?  Not exactly.  This is the idea of survival, and the need to possess any resources which will help you survive.  In a business sense, that means controlling any resources that will help you compete for the attention (in the form of money) of the consumers.  This has two natural results. 

First, it means that businesses that feel endangered will lash out at other businesses or any other institution that threatens it.  We see this when businesses lobby governments to ensure a favorable law for them (such as the relaxing of environmental controls, or the non-application of security procedures to chemical manufacturers).  Of course, businesses may also work with the institutions to create a favorable public attitude towards their product and their corporation’s ideology.  Thus they give to an environmental fund, or they give free textbooks (from their publishing unit) to a school.  So a business will manipulate an institution that is not connected to itself to produce a result favorable for itself.

Second, a business will grow.  This is where greed can start to play a factor.  It is true in evolution that the bigger the creature, they less they have to fear from predators – unless their bulk is a hindrance, such as excess fat.  The largest sauropods, which could measure three city blocks, didn’t really have to worry about the T-Rex.  But a fat cow is a lot easier for wolves to take down, even if it is large of bulk.  Similarly, in business, a corporation that can become bigger, by acquiring through mergers or hostile takeovers other corporations that will help its bottomline, will be more successful in the marketplace than a corporation that only manufactures a product and does not own the resources or the outlets to get its product to the people.  Thus through well-managed vertical and horizontal integration, where a company takes only those other businesses which will directly or semi-directly relate to their production ideology, will be a stronger force in the marketplace.  But a company that starts gobbling up other companies because they think they need to, or they want to, will be more open to attack from wolves.  Viacom versus Disney or AOL-Time Warner is a good example of this difference.

These two ways of surviving in a free market are not inherently bad for the society the corporation serves.  In many instances they provide discounts to the consumers, and allow for a person working in any part of the corporation to move to better his or her situation.  The problem becomes when greed plays a part, and these corporations grow to the size that they have influence over a consumer base equal to the population of a small nation. 

Getting back to one of my original points, if a person is not encouraged to find the answer to their psychological associations within themselves, and are instead encouraged to make associations with external transitory goods, they are opening themselves up for easier manipulation by those that supply those goods.  I mentioned how various social institutions use this fact to their advantage, capitalizing on people’s insecurities.  In the modern Western societies, the United States in particular, this capitalization is most evident in the business world. 

After World War II, many young men returned home, psychologically altered from their battle experiences, and they had to find a way to fit in.  The government allocated a certain amount of money for the G.I.s to begin and/or finish their education.  Others had families to go home to.  But there was another reward waiting for them, a gratitude from the government for sacrificing themselves to fight the enemy. 

The suburbs.  An easier way of life, where they didn’t have to worry so much about crime or racial differences.  They could have a nice lawn, a white picket fence, and the security of mind that comes with knowing they are being taken care of.  The whites fled the cities in droves, but they still had to go back to the city to work.  So cars suddenly became integral to our daily lives, as did oil.  Being away from the theaters, they had to have a different form of entertainment for the family, so television got the big push to fill that void.  And it wasn’t just men who were rewarded, but women, who had to take over in the factories, got new products.  Things to make their lives easier.  They got these new household goodies because the influx of factory workers had to be put to good use somehow, thus they were set to make new products for their wives.  Then the businesses used the suddenly very important television, through advertising, to push these products.  Soon there were other medium to sell goods to women, who were grateful for the help.  Television was joined by magazines catering to women’s needs.  And at the same time pushing the products the businesses wanted the women to belief they need.

Of course, it is slightly unfair to say that the household products that freed women from being tied to mindless chores is an example of bad business.  It is merely an example of how, after WWII, the United States moved into being a consumerist culture.  This was done a number of ways.  First, there was the ever-present “threat” of communist dominion, the evil empire.  The government was able to use this fear to push through their various foreign policies and the construction of military industrialism.  But at the same time, the general atmosphere of unease allowed the businesses, as sculptors working on a large mass of clay, to mold this general unease into specific fears.  They made people afraid of bad breath, unkempt fingernails, non-shiny hair, being too thin, being too fat, not looking cool enough in your car, not having a boat, not drinking or eating or smoking or sniffing the right thing, etc., etc.  The masses are manipulated through advertising to buy specific products or ideas (i.e. transitory goods), and neglect other forms of need satiation (i.e. spirituality, community, love).  But there are businesses that specialize in selling love – dating services.  And the fact that dating services are becoming more and more used points to the fact that capitalists are in the business of selling people products to satiate their essential needs. 

This imprinting of consumerism needs to begin at a young age to truly have an impact.  It is by no accident that the teenage culture sprang up in the post WWII era.  Teenagers, with their unencumbered cash, provided the perfect consumer.  Thus they were marketed to extensively in movies and television, and still are.  Many studio heads will tell you that they want that teenage boy (and increasingly girl) audience first, then the rest can follow.

Now, teenagers have always existed.  Teenage years is that period between childhood and adulthood when you are trying to crystallize your sense of identity and fit in to the mature working world.  This is a period of incredible flux, where patterns of behavior decided upon can be with a person for their entire life.  Thus any business wants to get a teenager into the habit of consuming their goods, because there is an very strong likelihood that consumer will be with them forever.  Thus, if you can get a teenager to value his or her self-esteem not on what they do but what they own, they will be very likely never to see themselves in any other way.  As it was with the hot-rodders and beach boys on through the hippies and punks, today’s teens are bombarded with an endless assortment of transitory goods they can choose from. 

But of all the cultures, the teen culture is the most susceptible to change.  Because teens try to distance themselves from their parents’ and their parents’ beliefs as a way to form their own separate identity, they are always searching for the new thing to identify themselves with.  So if your parent is a yuppie, you become a hippie, and vice versa.  This makes going after the teen market a very risky business.  However, if a business is successful, they can reap a large reward.  So the business must be able to balance the risk and the cost.

As I mentioned before, they can employ two weapons.  However, it is with mergers, specifically within the media, that a corporation can most effectively balance the risk/cost. 

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