The subjects of capital: A critique of narcissism

Capitalism produces human subjectivities, as it produces commodities.  Without this capacity, its underlying social relations would be unsustainable.

Motivated by our own reflections, we share below an essay that was recently posted on the french based palim-psao website (a site dedicated to the diffusion of Krisis goup texts in various languages), that critically addresses the narcissistic subject of contemporary capitalism.

Peter Samol’s “All the lonely people” (Krisis, 4, 2016) has been getting some attention lately. For non-German speakers, an abridged translation can be found here (thanks to Marc Batko).

All the lonely people: Narcissism as a Subject Form of Capitalism

Peter Samol

This essay is an abridged translation from the German Original: All the Lonely People. Narzissmus als adäquate Subjektform des Kapitalismus (Krisis 4/2016)

Sigmund Freud was the most astute analyst of the subjective conditions of existence in civil society. Psychoanalysis influenced by him represents the most developed theory about the sacrifices demanded of individuals living in our society. Freud understood his approach as a natural science approach. Psychoanalysis atrophied to anthropology where it could have been a critical theory (Adorno). This essay aims at a critical reconstruction of psychoanalysis regarding the term narcissism. This term coined by Freud himself characterizes a middle class subject form.

Narcissism is the result of the confrontation of the individual with the failures of social reality. The term describes turning away from this reality and turning to an inner world in which the individual has absolute even if imagined power. As a result, the narcissist knows only two states : on one side, the absolute sense of powerlessness given the foreign determination of one’s own existence and on the other side, the omnipotence fantasies together with the illusion of absolute individual freedom, independence and unconditionality. The latter demands a high price because it leads to repressing immediate human relations and replacing them more and more with de-emotionalized money-mediated relations. Convinced by his own brilliance, the narcissist represses that he only has little influence on the real world and pretends to be able to do everything while in reality there is only a great nothingness. The narcissist represents the ideal subject form for capital that is only a complete nothingness in its endless and aimless commodification…


In the course of its history, capitalist society has been subjected to specific changes demanded of persons who had to live in it, contain “adjustments to social conditions” (Freud 1932). So subjectivity in the immediate postwar time had to correspond to the needs of industrial mass production. These needs necessitate an adaptation of people in the Fordist production cycles that hardly changed over many years – and then were mostly foreseeable. Today fast and highly flexible adjustment to rapid and hardly foreseeable changes in production is crucial.

The “authoritarian character” as described by Adorno and others in 1950 (see Adorno 1973) dominated up to the postwar era. The authoritarian character is distinguished by a far-reaching drive-suppression as was necessary for subordination under rigid hierarchies and the intensely standardized industrial production runs over many decades. A vocational world marked by rigid lifelong occupational rules mostly guaranteed a place to people in the world society for their lifetime if they were disciplined and flexible enough. In most callings, the work processes were monotonous (assembly line work in processing industries), often physically ruinous and generally connected with a far-reaching adjustment and subordination under relatively inflexible production conditions that hardly opened up any possibilities for creativity or personal initiative. Therefore the attitude of “acknowledging the overwhelming superiority of the status quo over the individual and his or her interests and adjusting as appendages of the machinery are vital” (Adorno 1973). This also includes an affirmation of the concrete side of work that naturalizes and is outwardly played off against the abstract side of work (Bosch 2000).

On first view, it is hard to see that the authoritarian character represents a sub-form of narcissism for a specific time. Defined on the surface by a feeling of powerlessness toward the status quo, the great self with its sense of omnipotence lurks behind this powerlessness. Middle-class subjectivity basically only knows two states: a) the sense of powerlessness regarding the foreign determination of their own existence and b) the fantasies of omnipotence, the illusion of absolute individual freedom, independence and unconditionality (see Lewed 2005). These states are in different relation to each other in the different developmental phases of civil society. The authoritarian character “overcomes” the feeling of powerlessness by externalizing the great self and awarding itself an outward authority.

Imaginary pseudo-concrete great subjects are formed that oppose the abstraction of middle class conditions as for example in “the nation,” “the people” or even the religious community of true believers together with their God (see Lewed 2010). The authoritarian character shifts the great self into great subjects and finds satisfying identification with the aggressor that goes along with subjection and submission (Bosch 2000). These great subjects represent an omnipotence authority of perfection and strength. The authoritarian-oriented subject feels bound undifferentiatingly. The narcissist reproaches the non-conforming poor, needy migrants etc (see Adorno 1973) whom it has learned to deny (for example work aversion, the supposedly unrealistic desire for a life without constant pains to fight projectively with this great subject). For himself, he emphasizes staying power, self-command and obedience toward superiors and recognition of the general competition.

Toward the end of the 1950s, a process began in which the authoritarian character gradually eroded and was replaced by a consumerist-socialization type (see Bosch 2000). The general material prosperity that is now reached – that one should submit all life long to a restrictive disciplining – seems less and less reasonable to young persons. With that, a change began from discipline to pleasure underlining values that was strengthened by the growth dynamic of capital. Given the mountain of produced goods, the nightmare of a glut of the markets (see Bockelmann 1987) threatened with sales collapses, dismissals, and plant closures etc. as consequences.

On the other hand, industry tried to increase private consumption and the sales of goods through the massive use of advertising (ibid). Traditional inhibitions in the heads of people – thrift, modesty and a general aversion to running into debt – had to be removed and exchanged for hedonist motives. In the money-mediated society, people should consume and “have fun” and not only work. In the course of time, this general re-programming was ultimately so successful that it even provokes a shame among the subjects when they own too little (Twenge and Campbell 2009). For concerned subjects, consumption and admiration from others are the most important supports of their egos (Boeckelmann).

Since consumption only satisfies temporarily, the impacted are obsessively stimulated to new consumption. Accordingly, they are caught in a constant cycle of craving and frustration and only reach a balance in hectic consumption (ibid). This is similar with admiration by others. This is also quickly stale and has to be constantly renewed. Personality can quickly reduce tension since the consumer world makes possible an immediate need satisfaction in nearly all areas. For a long-time, middle class subjectivity seemed guided in satisfying paths. This could not last in the long run… Money generally corresponds to the omnipotence-feeling of the narcissist great self. Its qualities appear like the qualities of its owner (Marx), wiping out his individuality and replacing this with the seeming omnipotence of money. The narcissist medium seems to have no concrete limitation. However gaining money becomes harder and harder in crises times under the conditions of mass unemployment, social cuts and the proliferation of poorly paid jobs. In this way, consumerism gradually decayed in its function as an “integrating feeling” (ibid).


The psychologist Ronald Inglehart (1977, 1989) said a “change of values” from materialist to post-materialist values occurred in which secondary virtues like discipline and obedience increasingly lose significance and are replaced by values like quality of life, self-realization, solidarity etc. In the course of this “change of values,” more and more flexible, mostly young individuals appear whose own decisions are oriented more in successful social relations than in material affluence. Solidarity connections and base-democratic social state institutions are subject types described by Inglehart as “post-materialists.” To them, solidarity is more important than money and economic success. This thesis turned out to be an error.

The large majority of alleged post-materialists were performance-oriented and very interested in a further enhancement of individual consumption. In fact, “post-materialists” put in question certain secondary virtues including subordination and discipline and instead attach the greatest importance to individual self-determination. This was expressed in the esteem of economic autonomy and hardly took the form of an orientation in favor of solidarity and base-democratic connections – much less toward emancipatory thinking. This was striking in the fate of many “self-determined” or “alternative” enterprises, shops, communes etc. founded at the end of the 1970s or the beginning of the 1980s. Nearly all soon disappeared or changed sooner or later into successful commercial businesses. In the latter, another style of communication and work prevailed as a rule that was less hierarchical and instead more flexible. People worked harder – and often longer and more intensively than in traditional businesses. The flexibility and the new work morality that the alleged post-materialist socialization type brought along were ultimately recognized and adopted by the established economy. At the end, many former “alternatives” found themselves as flexible and well-paid workers in traditional businesses where they mostly turned out “more productive” than their traditionally-oriented colleagues.

Instead of a “post-materialist” socialization type, a new social character gained acceptance in which the narcissist part of one’s personality pressed offensively to the fore and no longer hid behind the oedipal. In a specific way, drive energies from the narcissist part of the personality can be mobilized for the daily work. The work ethic of the authoritarian or consumer-oriented character was replaced by a more flexible and more hedonistic variant that was able to master – often voluntarily – higher work intensity than their preceding characters. Thus what actually occurred at that time was in no way the beginning of the end of subjugation under the forced social conditions of the capitalist socialization form constituted unconsciously. There was no shift of weights in this direction. Rather the monad quality of isolated private producers separated from one another was driven to the extreme and wrongly interpreted as the epitome of personal freedom. The “right to self-determination” was only not seen as pressure.

This new narcissist entrepreneur type first spread slowly but then faster and faster as business- and work structures were consistently rebuilt in the course of the third industrial revolution and globalization. General uncertainty spread simultaneously under the pressure of the secular crisis. Alongside the number of unemployed, the number of precarious working conditions also constantly rose while the welfare state was dismantled again and again. With Agenda 2010 and the Hartz reforms in Germany, it was clear that no one is secure from poverty anymore and no one has rest from the whims of the “free market.” A marked change also occurred within so-called normal working conditions. Today employees rarely spend their whole active life in the same firm. A job today can be outsourced, restructured or simply eliminated and is not secure anymore (see Twenge and Campbell 2009). Nowadays nearly anyone can become suddenly useless on account of incalculable developments like a sudden change in mass tastes or the unforeseen introduction of a new production method.

All in all, paths through life are becoming increasingly unpredictable. In this general uncertainty with its constant and unforeseeable change processes, the working world together with the consumer- and leisure industry dependent on it no longer seems as a conglomerate of secure structures where one only needs to fit in to lead a certain and calculable life. Instead, incisive changes threaten today at any time and from all sides that could make all individual achievements null and void from one moment to the next. This is an entirely unreliable world that absolutely threatens existence where individuals are completely thrown back on themselves…

The claims made on individuals constantly increase in the scope of general insecurity. Unconditional flexibility and capacity for self-praise are demanded, not only maximum output in one’s calling and in the educational system. More and more people are forced to transform themselves in a permanent production of uniqueness. The sale of one’s personality came out of the sale of one’s labor as though this were a consumer article (see Distelhorst 2014). Nowadays constant self-questioning whether one’s actions and thought correspond to the recognized criteria of economic utility is regarded as a matter of course. The version of what is desired in the world of work must be always inferred. An enormous arbitrariness is ultimately hidden behind this adaptation. One yields and abandons everything that once constituted one’s personality for the sake of personal success with the question in the back of one’s head how one’s market value can be enhanced or at least kept from ruin. This is a continuous practice of self-denial which is easier when one’s self is already empty. In the permanent late capitalist crisis, people cannot rely on a long continuance of what is demanded of them. Personal relations are also rapidly sacrificed to the all-round flexibility and mobility and degenerate either to partnerships for a time or to “networks” that help maintain as many “contacts” as possible and so increase occupational options. All in all, blinders without strong bonds (neither to other persons, their enterprise or their occupation) are mercilessly produced and promoted in this way. Such a life corresponds with intensive feelings of emptiness and missing authenticity (Lasch 1980). Who can say what a person really is and what a person is not with the constant readiness for adjustment on the job and after several changes in partners? This process leads to a narcissist personality of a new type that can be everything because a great nothingness is at the bottom of this (ibid).

Great fantasies referring to the ego are increasingly developed to keep this indefatigable machinery and the gear wheels of modern working and living conditions together with the meaninglessness contained there (Lewed 2005)….This narcissism is different from past forms of narcissism by its explicit turn to the positive. This is not a flight inward anymore but flows into a forced adjustment to the demands made from the outside where individuals fool themselves for a long time of being able to achieve everything. In critical dependence on Kohut’s concept of “optimal failure,” this narcissism can be understood as an endless succession of continuing failures that lead to corresponding adaptation achievements in increased output, greater flexibility and enhanced self-marketing. These failures have long become a permanent check (catchword “lifelong learning”) since adaptation to the “reality” that is constantly and unforeseeably changing in the society ruled by values never ends. Ultimately they amount to the pressure to participate in a lifelong hamster wheel that turns faster and faster and ever more incalculably. Individual failure here is foreseeable since the moment comes for everyone some time or other when his limitation takes its toll – and when one reaches an age when one cannot keep up any more.

The reality to which the narcissist refers is a dangerous reality that is always precarious and extremely dubious. In this way, it becomes a leading syndrome of a world characterized by individualization and isolation, social coldness, rat-race mentality and by a general erosion of social bonds (Altmeyer 2000). The feeling of a deep inner emptiness goes along with this erosion. This must be filled with constantly new activities because otherwise one would see its own completely unbearable experience. This emptiness is grounded on the feeling of being delivered up completely defenselessly and being really loved and accepted by nothing and no one. In it, everyone sees himself separated and split off from all other persons.

Therefore individuals do everything to repress or cover up that feeling that seems like a death sentence to them. Like the money that becomes capital and after its successful multiplication must immediately seek the next investment possibility, they must search at once for the next success or the next great consumer experience. This is a feedback loop without a goal. Both capital and the narcissist personality are in an endless, absolutely empty and senseless tautological movement – and therefore complement and promote each other so well. People counter that emptiness with the firm belief of being special. In this sense, they belong to the successful come-what-may and are constantly harassed by the terrible fear of being labeled a failure throwing them back on their inner emptiness (Lasch 1980). Their whole life is a never-ending struggle for advantages and respect (ibid).

The narcissist’s overrating of one’s person in omnipotence fantasies is carried offensively outward and becomes the new sign of one’s self and no longer merely the secret accompaniment of an oedipal personality… A personal craving for admiration, outward confirmation and acknowledgment accompanies that since narcissist individuals unconditionally need others who give acknowledgment, admiration and applause to maintain their ideas of omnipotence and their own stabilization (see Kohut 1973).

Neither constant success (not to mention failures) nor superficial qualities of representation and the manufactured admiration can create genuine relations. A personality capable of bonds is blocked. Completely centered on oneself and occupied only with self, the new narcissist type is entirely incapable of empathy, sympathizing with others or even developing an interest in them (Auchter and Strauss 1999). The characteristics of performance-orientation and the will to success are taken up and honored positively (Kohut 1973). This strengthens successful narcissists in their attitude. The more superficial the bonds to the present job, the actual environment and close persons, the more easily the constant new orientation to changing social demands succeeds. How flexibly one reacts has become the seal of quality of adaptability and the “sense of reality” (see Gruen 1987). No longer firmly bound and ready to reinvent himself at any time, the narcissist in the totally flexible and generally uncertain performance society of the new millennium represents the matching subject form for crisis capitalism. A self within individuals that seems independent and unassailable against outward threats opposes the threatened sociality.

Narcissism now represents an extremely precarious personality structure marked by a very unstable balance between the feelings of omnipotence and powerlessness (see Lewed 2005). This structure becomes more unstable, the more the omnipotence fantasies of individuals break down in the social reality and the “outside world” as the crisis process becomes more and more a manifest threat (see Lewed 2010).

The danger of falling constantly threatens. This is a life between the Charybdis of further narcissist involvement in the economic growth- and improvement logic with acceptance of constant work condensation and threatening collapse under increasing burdens on one side and the Scylla of sudden failure and elimination joined with capsizing in total powerlessness on the other side. The space between the two is becoming noticeably scarce. Turning to regressive collective identities threatens in case of failure. New omnipotence feelings are disinhibited and easily fall out of control and then are violently lived out and can no longer be guided in the paths of economic activity. This can be grounded ideologically (nationalism, religious fundamentalism, culturalism etc) or in group contexts (for example, in the form of mobs that define and attack human groups as “inferior”). The concerned subject experiences himself as the bearer of perfection and power while everything imperfect is ascribed to “the others” (Kohut 1973). Here everything good is “inner” and everything bad and negative is ascribed to “outsiders” (ibid). As history has taught us, this can lead to systematic persecution and destruction of the allegedly “inferior” (ibid). Such identities and resulting actions appear when “normal” ways to a satisfying execution of their great- and omnipotent fantasies is blocked to capitalistically-formatted individuals. They thrive in times of crisis – side by side with ruthless competitive behavior.


The restless dynamic of the goods-producing system depends and reinforces narcissism as the basic pattern of the modern subject form. Its typical behavior patterns are regarded as normal in all areas of life (public relations, working world, media including the Internet, in public educational institutions and in personal relations), desirable and honored by public acknowledgment, economic success, professional ascent etc.

Narcissists correspond to the reality of fetish relations unconsciously self-created and reproduced everyday by people. Their pseudo-nature has only the completely senseless self-multiplication of money as its theme. Narcissists incapable of bonds act as highly-flexible workers and willing consumers. Inwardly empty and restless for outward confirmation of achievements and striving for new consumer delights, they relate congenially to the empty, unending and senseless movement of exploitation.

Abolition of this narcissist subject form is impossible under prevailing social conditions since these conditions do not allow any open personal development. A life outside narcissist self-regulation would look fundamentally different – without work mania, without rivalry and performance-stress, without dog-fight competition and without the pressure for permanent self-promotion and self-assertion. As long as all these pressures still dominate, the basic prerequisites for developing free social individuals (Marx) beyond commodified subjectivity are lacking. The hope is that we become aware of our dependence on one another and see that we are collective beings who need diverse – and not merely one-dimensional – relations to one another.

The material prerequisites have long existed in a world marked by over-production. We can no longer leave socialization to an unconscious process facing us as a pressure that we execute and reproduce day after day (Boesch 2000). The relative values underlying this process are increasingly dysfunctional. Still no automatism follows that leads to a liberated society. Therefore suspending the unconscious destructive social process and replacing it with a conscious socialization may not be successful. Criticism of the subject form in capitalism and its inner psycho-social logic and dynamic is a necessary step in this direction.

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1 Response to The subjects of capital: A critique of narcissism

  1. Pingback: The subjects of capital: A critique of narcissism – Enough is Enough!

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