Peter Rollins remarked that Todd McGowan’s book Capitalism and Desire is a very good book. Maybe it is a good book for Pete, but for us mere mortals it is a very tough read.  I group the book with those that I am sinfully proud of reading, but actually understood very little.

McGowan teaches film theory at the University of Vermont. His areas of interest include Hegel, psychoanalysis, and existentialism, and the intersection of these lines of thought with the cinema. His expertise in film explains the usually helpful, but odd, film references that are sprinkled throughout the book.

Lisa DeLay interviewed McGowan for her Spark My Muse podcast in which he summarized the book as, “Capitalism proffers or sells us dissatisfaction with the promise of ever greater satisfaction just around the corner. That’s a promise we should divest ourselves of.” I strongly suggest that you blow off reading this review and listen to Lisa’s podcast instead (which can be found here:   Eps 106: We get More Desire Instead of Fulfillment; That’s Capitalism, Guest Todd McGowan — 24 May, 2017  )

Rollins summarized the book as capitalism promises what you desire but gives you what you need. Per McGowan, it is the pursuit of the object (or as he calls it, commodity) along with accompanying sacrifice, rather than the object itself that drives us. Obtaining the commodity is not satisfying as there is always a little bit more. Thus, we are pursuing loss rather than the commodity itself obviously corresponding with Rollins’ “lack”.

Contrary to Adam Smith, McGowan postulates, “Capitalism thrives not because we are self-interested beings looking to get ahead in any way that we can but because we are looking for new ways to sacrifice ourselves.” McGowan says that we are under the influence of “the other”, the entity causing us to desire the object. Thus, we are not truly free. “Freedom is only thinkable without the presence of a divine force active in the world.” Modernity did away with having God in a definite place. The market has replaced God as the other, the social authority. Playing off Nietzsche, McGowan says capitalism killed God. “Belief remains widespread, but the capitalist universe is incompatible with the traditional figure of God.”

The one quote that stood out to me is “This is the modern version of God: a force that provides assurances that all our activities work out for the good despite our intentions.”

One of McGowan’s points that I do not completely understand is the concept of scarcity. He maintains capitalism only works in an atmosphere of scarcity and we fear actual abundance. And this fear drives our actions. Moreover, he says, “abundance isn’t as desirable as we imagine it to be, which is why visions of the afterlife always remained bizarrely vague….”

I have struggled with the concept that God is a God of abundance. I do not operate my life that way. As some may remember from past posts of mine, I have spent a lot of time in Sabbath Economics which is defined as follows:

“…a way of living in the world that starts from the assumption that it’s possible for everyone to have enough to thrive. Scarcity and poverty are not ‘the will of God.’ They are failures of human imagination, departures from the dream God has for the world. Sabbath Economics assumes that everyone can have enough. It is grounded in a conscious choice to place limits on our own work and consumption.”

(For the full text click here. The above quote is on p.18)

I have previously posted of my wrestling with the idea that maybe we have a hole shaped by God instead of a God shaped hole. This hole, Rollins’ lack (as well defined by the Facebook post of Andrew Galvin), is a source of great anxiety. Capitalism thrives by suggesting that we can fill this hole. But if this hole is ever filled, we realize there is always more and the anxiety remains. In fact, McGowan says this is the source of Muslim fundamentalists, “… not someone who fails to experience the satisfaction that capitalism offers, but someone, instead, who experiences it fully.”

We need to disassociate ourselves from the pull of the other, the desire of the object. I recently heard the following quote, “True security comes, not from what we have, but from what we can live without.” How do we make “friends” with this anxiety? As one friend said, “How do we get off the hamster wheel?”

Since I have worked through this book,

  • I have less stress at work,
  • I have less worry about the state of my retirement account,
  • I have less feeling of inferiority when I see others’ “wealth”,
  • I have even become less judgmental of others-who cares if they believe in substitutionary atonement? and
  • pigs can fly!

I am nowhere near any of those things. It will take a miracle and I believe that miracle will come in the midst of community (even though capitalism militates against community). Will you help me?