Pleasure and pain: at the crossroads of psychoanalysis and the political economy (New Formations 72, Winter 2010)

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Publication date: July 1, 2011

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Jean-Joseph Goux

At the very moment when Freud, still a student, initiated his first works, three economists from different countries Рthe Englishman Stanley Jevons, the Frenchman Leon Walras and the Austrian Carl Menger Рrevolutionised economic thought, breaking with the ‘objectivism’ of the classical economists (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) and introducing ‘a psychological, individual and subjective explanation’ of value and exchange in which the notions of ‘desirability’ and satisfaction are central. The Freudian discovery is linked to neoclassical economic theory through the epistemological basis they share: utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that runs from Epicurus to Bentham through Helvétius and considers the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the basis of human behaviour. This epistemological basis is visible in Freud, not least in the decisive importance he attributed to sexuality, understood as the human experience that intensifies pleasure to its maximum. This essay considers whether it is this link that gives psychoanalysis its double and conflicting vocation: on one hand, its easy fit with the motives and ends of a society ruled by economic liberalism, marked by expenditure, hedonism, consumption, monetary profits and speculations; and, on the other hand, its capacity to play the role of a critical consciousness, having recognised the limits and difficulties of the principle of pleasure (moving ‘beyond’ this principle) and having identified the illusions and disappointments that threaten aspirations to happiness.

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