The best books on psychoanalysis and capitalism

Who am I?

I have spent a great deal of time exploring how psychoanalytic theory might be the basis for a critique of capitalism. I had always heard the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, but what interested me was how psychoanalytic theory might offer a different line of thought about how capitalism works. The impulse that drives people to accumulate beyond what is enough for them always confused me since I was a small child. It seems to me that psychoanalytic theory gives us the tools to understand this strange phenomenon that somehow appears completely normal to us. 

I wrote...

Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

By Todd McGowan,

Book cover of Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

What is my book about?

Despite creating vast inequalities and propping up reactionary world regimes, capitalism has many passionate defenders—but not because of what it withholds from some and gives to others. Capitalism dominates, Todd McGowan argues, because it mimics the structure of our desire while hiding the trauma that the system inflicts upon it. Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.

Capitalism's parasitic relationship to our desires gives it the illusion of corresponding to our natural impulses, which is how capitalism's defenders characterize it. By understanding this psychic strategy, McGowan hopes to divest us of our addiction to capitalist enrichment and help us rediscover enjoyment as we actually experienced it.
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The books I picked & why

Living in the End Times

By Slavoj Zizek,

Book cover of Living in the End Times

Why did I love this book?

I could really choose any book by Slavoj Žižek as the starting for a psychoanalytic critique of capitalism, but this one is very accessible for someone who has never read him. It also gets into the current dilemmas that are rocking capitalist society. In this book, Žižek shows how psychoanalysis (combined with Hegel’s philosophy) can provide a corrective to the traditional Marxist critique of capitalism. We see here how the attempt to construct an ethical capitalism inevitably fails and obscures a new barbarism. 

By Slavoj Zizek,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Living in the End Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There should no longer be any doubt: global capitalism is fast approaching its terminal crisis. But if the end of capitalism seems to many like the end of the world, how is it possible for Western society to face up to the end times? In a major new analysis of our global situation, Zizek argues that our collective responses to economic Armageddon correspond to the stages of grief: ideological denial, explosions of anger and attempts at bargaining, followed by depression and withdrawal. For this edition, Zizek has written a long afterword that leaves almost no subject untouched, from WikiLeaks to…

Book cover of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space

Why did I love this book?

Kornbluh’s book is an incredible revelation. It shows that psychoanalysis provides an insistence on a formal interpretation that allows it to have a privileged critical position relative to capitalism. By showing capitalism’s formal impasses, psychoanalysis provides the perfect supplement to a Marxist critique and opens up possibilities for envisioning a non-capitalist future. The book uses realist fiction as a way to envision the formal critique of capitalism and really makes one want to read the books under discussion. I have taught this book to students, and they love it more than any other I’ve ever used. 

By Anna Kornbluh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Order of Forms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In literary studies today, debates about the purpose of literary criticism and about the place of formalism within it continue to simmer across periods and approaches. Anna Kornbluh contributes to--and substantially shifts--that conversation in The Order of Forms by offering an exciting new category, political formalism, which she articulates through the co-emergence of aesthetic and mathematical formalisms in the nineteenth century. Within this framework, criticism can be understood as more affirmative and constructive, articulating commitments to aesthetic expression and social collectivity.

Kornbluh offers a powerful argument that political formalism, by valuing forms of sociability like the city and the state…

Book cover of One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

Why did I love this book?

This is the one classic text on my list. Marcuse’s book was like a bible to protesting students in the 1960s, and its critique of the psychic levelling that occurs under capitalism remains just as germane today, if not more so. This is the most successful marriage of Freud and Marx that emerged from the famous Frankfurt School, which was a group of cultural Marxist invested in psychoanalysis. Marcuse grasps how capitalism employs technology to ensure its psychic dominance. 

By Herbert Marcuse,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked One-Dimensional Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1964, One-Dimensional Man quickly became one of the most important texts in the ensuing decade of radical political change. This second edition, newly introduced by Marcuse scholar Douglas Kellner, presents Marcuse's best-selling work to another generation of readers in the context of contemporary events.

Book cover of Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Why did I love this book?

Although Ruti’s book is not directly about capitalism, it includes perhaps the best psychoanalytic proposal of confronting the imperatives of capitalist society that I have ever read. Ruti discusses how sexism operates within capitalism primarily in the book, but her point is always about how concepts from psychoanalysis that seem retrograde—such as penis envy—can actually be the basis for a critique of capitalism and sexism. 

By Mari Ruti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mari Ruti combines theoretical reflection, cultural critique, feminist politics, and personal experience to analyze the prevalence of bad feelings in contemporary everyday life. Proceeding from a playful engagement with Freud's idea of penis envy, Ruti's autotheoretical commentary fans out to a broader consideration of neoliberal pragmatism. She focuses on the emphasis on good performance, high productivity, constant self-improvement, and relentless cheerfulness that characterizes present-day Western society. Revealing the treacherousness of our fantasies of the good life, particularly the idea that our efforts will eventually be rewarded-that things will eventually get better-Ruti demystifies the false hope that often causes us to…

Book cover of The Labour of Enjoyment: Towards a Critique of Libidinal Economy: Lacanian Explorations IV

Why did I love this book?

Tomšič basically identifies why psychoanalysis is an anti-capitalist technique and how it emerged in response to the social structure of capitalist society. Psychoanalysis counters resistance to psychic change and to social change, a resistance that manifests itself in capitalism. Tomšič very nicely sees how the neurotic suffering that psychoanalysis treats is the result of one’s integration into the capitalist system, which is why treating it requires an anticapitalist method.  

By Samo Tomsic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Labour of Enjoyment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new theory of libidinal economy―the intersection between desire and capitalism―from the author of The Capitalist Unconscious

The fourth book in Slavoj Žižek's Lacanian Explorations series, The Labour of Enjoyment sees Slovenian philosopher Samo Tomšic continue his exploration of the connections between capitalism and psychoanalysis that he began in his 2015 book The Capitalist Unconscious.

In this new text, Tomšic critiques the use of psychoanalysis to discuss political economy, focusing specifically on the concept of "libidinal economy," the intersection between desire and capitalism most famously proposed by Jean-François Lyotard.

Contrasting Marxist and Freudian thought with the philosophies of Aristotle and…

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Interested in psychoanalysis, capitalism, and modernity?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about psychoanalysis, capitalism, and modernity.

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