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Capitalism and the constitution of the self - 5/4/18
Matt Bruenig, on a standard defense of private property:
They take as a given the general intuition people have that it's wrong to violate other people's bodies - it's wrong to hit someone, it's wrong to molest someone - and then they try to extend your person into non-person things. So they try to say, "This land is sort of like my body..."
Leftists, of course, devote much of their critique to laying out the ramifications of this first assumption: accept the institution of private property, and you run into obvious ethical problems if one person claims too much of it, or if there are competing claims on the same property, or if you run out of property that can be claimed, etcetera. The upshot of these arguments, inevitably, is that we need to do away with private property altogether - and to my mind, these arguments are typically pretty sound and easy to understand. So why, then, do we still have private property?

The short answer is that we still have private property because most people have yet to develop the class consciousness which calls for its abolition. But this explanation, I think, doesn't answer the question so much as reframe it: why hasn't sustained and incisive left criticism of capitalism done more to raise class consciousness? There is another short answer here, too - "it's complicated" - but for now, I want to focus on what could be one small piece of the puzzle.

Lacan, in one of his more enduring insights, observed that one of the first challenges a human child faces is to distinguish its own body from the exterior world. This is not a distinction that the fetus makes in the womb, but it becomes pragmatically necessary (and intuitive) as the child builds an identity as a discrete, autonomous being - a self. Famously, Lacan explained the psychodynamics of this process through the scenario of a child looking at itself in the mirror; but a child also develops a sense of self, he argues, by the way other people interact with it. The mother gives a name to the child, for example, and uses that name to refer to some things, but not others.

From this fundamental insight about the constitution of the self, Lacan elaborated an entire theory of human psychology. Much of our mental life, he argued, revolves around the need to define a self as distinct from the rest of the world - and to defend that conception of the self. Compulsively, we rationalize it and we fight to maintain its internal consistency against disintegration into the outside world.

This account of psychology seems plausible to me, and I think it also gives us some insight into capitalism's hold on the human mind. There is little doubt on the liberal-left that power and ideology work to impose socially-constructed identities upon us from the moment we are born, and that these identities can become a deeply rooted, psychologically entrenched part of the way that we see ourselves. Should we be surprised, then, to discover that capitalism does this too - by blurring, from the very beginning, the cognitive line between our selves and our property?

Obviously, there is a simple sense in which people recognize that their possessions are not actually a part of their body.* Capitalism does not need that distinction to collapse, certainly not at the level of formal articulation and conscious thought; all it requires is for our relationship with "private property" to trigger the same compulsive rationalization and defensiveness that gets triggered when the self is threatened. To the extent that capitalists really think of their property as in some sense an "extension of their persons," they will presumably act with the same instinctive irrational violence that you would expect if they were personally in danger.

If there's anything to this, then Lacan may provide us with the germ of an explanation for the frequent failure of left argumentation to foster class consciousness. The psychological compulsion to defend and rationalize the self is not something that you can persuade people to stop doing; neither logic nor appeals to conscience are going to get people to abandon a right to property that they see as a fundamental part of who they are. The first step, in this case, would be to break the unconscious identification that people have internalized between their selves and their property. This may seem like a remedial distinction, but I wonder, immersed in capitalist ideology, how clear this distinction actually is.


* Though there is, I think, a certain cognitive dissonance here that occasionally emerges in our language. If we think that someone should buy a shirt or a car, we might say that it "is so you"; if someone is always playing with a smartphone, we might say that it "is practically a part of his hand"; if someone feels a deep emotional connection with their garden or a picture they've painted, they might say that it "is part of who I am." Our language is full of turns of phrase that expand, at least rhetorically, the boundaries of the self to encompass property - such figures of speech, Freud taught us, are rarely unmotivated.