The egonomy

Having just finished reading the new book Egocracy by Howard Rouse and Sonia Arribas (not well known in the Anglophone world, it seems), I thought it would be a good idea, for future reference, to jot down some thoughts (a good practice to get into).

There is much to be very excited about in this work, not least of all because the scholars are both quite young in the scheme of academia and will with any luck push the reading outlined in this book even further in years to come. The primary benefit of the book is that it quite explicitly provides those who still remain partisans of Marxism with a way of relating to Lacan that is productive, non-dogmatic, but resolutely Marxist. Concretely it provides one with an immensely coherent way of thinking about the base and superstructure problematic and the problematic of alienation in Marx (and offers interesting responses to Althusser and Lukacs).

The central claim of the book is that Marx in his late works overcomes the naive dualisms of his early period(s) and arrives at the argument that capitalism (specifically the money capital form) is the social or symbolic order which knots together the imaginary commodity of labour-power and the (unpresentable, at least from the point of view of capitalism itself) Real of labour. Rather than being equated with the Real as such on the one hand, or as a purely alienated imaginary ego on the other, the (proletarian) subject of Capital, therefore, is itself located in the very split between this imaginary labour-power and this Real labour. The ego under capitalism (Rouse and Arribas argue that the ego only exists under capitalism) is then a matter of a misrecognition:

The ego emerges – to put it in very abstract, although nonetheless enlightening terms – out of a more or less ineluctable tendency to “entropically” confuse and identify the commodity of labor-power (LP) with the labor (L) that underlies it … The ego comes into existence, we can say, as always already exceeded by its own subjectivity. (p. 262)

The proletarian subject, unlike the peasant subject of pre-capitalist economies, is deprived of his knowledge of his own split between necessary and surplus labour, since all labour is folded into the logic of labour-power qua commodity. This represents the ego insofar as it represents an “alienation from alienation” (in the words of Ernest Mandel), a false belief in the non-alienated nature of one’s labour.

The late Marx that they put forward to my limited knowledge is not a radically new reading, although it is a good one. The bold step is most certainly the transplanting (or reinscription) of Lacan’s RSI into the materiality of the economy itself. The way that they treat Lacan is wonderful, with care and precision but without reverence or deference (they consistently criticise Lacan for major inconsistencies, as they do with both Freud and Marx).

The essential point is that the economy itself “can in no way be understood as a simple ‘economy'” (p. 70), a claim which is supposed to explode the whole base and superstructure “metaphor”, since the base is in itself split, or rather that the real and the imaginary “are categories that are immanent to the sphere of the economy per se” (p. 30). The “symptom” of this split, is in fact surplus value itself, since it is the effect of the real within the imaginary-symbolic. I couldn’t agree more, of course – the base is a politico-ideological economy. My question would be whether this undoes the base and superstructure model entirely, or whether it just forms the basis of a less vulgar articulation of it. The point would be that, if the economic base indeed contains the imaginary within it, this does not explain the various manifestations of what would traditionally fall under the ‘superstructure’ category (the state, specific ideologies, art and culture, perhaps even individual consciousness itself), but instead locates their origin there. So, to put it simply, it is because alienation is inherent in the economic base itself that all sorts of higher level alienations, reifications and misrecognitions can and will occur. These may not be immediately reducible to this split in the base, but, presumably, in the last analysis are determined (or at least ‘conditioned’) by it. I think further theorisation of this relationship could be done.

Some other questions for Rouse and Arribas remain:

  1. Despite the deftness with which they show the aporia in Lacan’s failed attempts to relate the imaginary and the symbolic, and his tendency towards historicising the symbolic without having the means to do so convincingly or consistently, and despite the skill with which they then re-inscribe this originally linguistic problematic into the economic realm, there still remains the question (or at least the concern) of the alienation of language itself. If language, under Rouse and Arribas’ conceptualisation, must be thought not as a ground but itself put on new (economic) footings, what role does it play? Especially if they claim (along with Stalin/Lacan) that “language is not a superstructure”. How then is language qua language (not qua social) related to this now immanently riven base?
  2. Perhaps simply another way of putting this, although with a different set of ramifications: what about sexual difference? Both Freud and Lacan can be seen to transcendentalise their conceptions of the subject and of society since they more or less see sexual difference, not an economy of goods, as the basis on which subjectivity is founded. So, the question to Arribas and Rouse is: is sexuality, in the last instance, reducible to economics, or does it maintain an autonomy? If it maintains an autonomy, what is its relation to the economic sphere, especially now that this has taken on an explicitly ‘libidinal’ dimension? If it does not, how is it reducible to the economic (however broadly construed)?
  3. The book entirely lacks a theory of the proletarian revolution based on this new conception of the proletarian subject (not necessarily a criticism, since it is perhaps beyond the scope of the book). If the proletarian subject in its revolutionary capacity can not be purely and simply equated with the (rather determinist) Real motor of history, if this is too vulgar, then how is its revolutionary capacity to be conceived? How should militants take this into account in their daily work?
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One thought on “The egonomy

  1. Pingback: Send them all to hell… « usage and continuation

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