Enjoyment in an age of austerity

There is a lot being written about the politics and economics of austerity at the moment, especially as the economic downtown appears to show no signs of abating. Also, the real effects of a sluggish economy and government cutbacks are taking time to manifest themselves.

However, there appears to have been a lot less written or spoken about the subjective dimension of austerity; the effects that austerity is having on the way people view themselves and others. I use the term ‘subjective’ deliberately for two reasons: firstly to convey the focus on the human subject, as opposed to ‘the economy’ or ‘the Government’, and so on.

Secondly, I want to avoid the term ‘psychological’ if at all possible, because psychoanalysis is not psychology, and in this context the language of psychology all too easily leads to a focus on the mental (ill) health of people who are being affected by redundancy, poverty, increased work stress, and other effects of living in an age of austerity.

This is not deny that all of these things are happening to people; however, I think it is more difficult to directly correlate problems such as depression, stress and so on with specific economic conditions. And furthermore, and this is the main thrust of my argument, the real danger of austerity is not depression or some other mental health problem: rather, it is what I have already referred to in two previous postings as the seduction of austerity.1

One of the key points about capitalism, and especially capitalism as it manifests itself in a consumerist society, is that it creates a lack for the subject, and therefore a desire. Or, to be more precise, it names the lack in the subject and therefore the subject’s desire. In other words, it tells subjects that they lack something in particular, for example a particular car or piece of furniture, or even a particular lifestyle or identity. This glosses over the fact that the subject always already lacks, and therefore always already desires.

At the same time, whilst naming the subject’s lack capitalism also promises to fulfil that lack; to provide that ‘something’ the subject does not have. But, of course, capitalism is perpetually reneging upon this promise, because however much it may be able to produce the things that people lack, it can never satisfy their insatiable desire for something else, something more.

Just as, economically, capitalism is based upon the production of surplus value, psychically it depends on the production of surplus jouissance. This is what Lacan called the objet a, the fantasised lost object which structures the subject’s desire. One of the peculiar characteristics of the objet a is that the subject is only aware of its existence at the precise moment it disappears; in other words its existence is retrospective.

Capitalism essentially names, and therefore brings into being, the objet a; and then promises to deliver it to the subject. Of course, this is all based on an illusion; by its very nature the objet a is always somewhere else. However, this illusion works very well both for capitalism and for its subjects, i.e. consumers. Capitalism structures the subject’s desire and therefore structures jouissance (enjoyment). People work hard, and thus keep capitalism going on the promise they can have and maintain a particular lifestyle, i.e. a particular form of enjoyment.

Of course, the irony is that this lifestyle is based on the fact that capitalism is forever reneging on its side of the bargain; not because it fails to produce the goods (both literally and metaphorically), but because these goods are never quite what people want. Therefore they have to keeping working and consuming in the hope one day they will find what they are looking for..

One of the consequences of this arrangement is that the type of enjoyment that is actually experienced is of a rather limited, bounded nature; this is what Lacan called phallic jouissance. This is a type of enjoyment that can be quite pleasurable, but which always promises more; in other words it is enjoyment based on a lack. It is an enjoyment that points towards another kind of enjoyment; a surplus jouissance; an Other jouissance.

So we could argue that one of the functions of capitalism is to mediate jouissance, to regulate jouissance, through its ‘promise’ (which it perpetually reneges on) to deliver the objet a to the subject. What it actually delivers is phallic jouissance, which is a limited and rather watered-down version of the real thing.

Which brings us back to the question of austerity. Although there is no sign (at least not yet) of the imminent demise of capitalism, there is no doubt that a lot of people are beginning to wonder if the good times might be coming to an end.2 Certainly there must be doubts in the minds of some (if not many) people as to whether capitalism can deliver the goods.

What happens to the mediation of jouissance when capitalism can no longer function effectively? In many ways austerity could be seen as a time when capitalism is no longer delivering; no longer keeping its (fictitious) promise to fulfil desire. It might be thought that in these circumstances people who are experiencing austerity might either try and find ways to revitalise the economy so it can carry on delivering what they want – both materially and psychically; or, failing this, to become very despondent and depressed.

However, I would argue that there is another possibility: which is that as capitalism stumbles, as the economy fails to live up to expectations, something else appears in the cracks; and this something else is the very thing that capitalism both promises to deliver and then reneges upon. This is the Other (kind) of jouissance.

What I’m proposing here is that far from ushering in an age of depression and despondency, an age of austerity may herald a different kind of enjoyment. This is precisely the surplus enjoyment, the surplus jouissance, that capitalism, to all intents and purposes, denies us – and yet at the same time, protects us from. Because, make no mistake about it, this Other jouissance is a highly toxic type of jouissance, one rooted in the death drive, in the Real itself.

Politically there are already the first signs that this may be happening, particularly in those countries where the economy really is starting to falter badly. As the politics of liberal democracy, of the centre, start to fail, there is something else lurking in the wings – and especially on the right. This is the politics of that Other jouissance, one that resonates with something within us, that touches our deepest desires and our deepest fears.


  1. http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/touching-the-real/the-seduction-of-austerity)), ((http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/touching-the-real/depression-and-austerity/ []
  2. And, at the time of writing, the citizens of Cyprus might well be thinking that the end has already arrived. []