‘The Desire Called Libidinal Economy’

Amin Samman

Wednesday 7th February 2024, 5-6.30pm at Goldsmiths

Richard Hoggart Bulding 144


This talk is part of the PERC Speaker Series 2023/24.

Libidinal economy immediately brings to mind strong associations: sex-obsessed psychoanalysis for some, decadent high-theory for others. Both connotations are completely valid. The phrase has its origins in Freud’s theory of psychical energy, or ‘libido’, and it underwent a decisive transformation during the mid-twentieth century as French intellectuals sought to stage an encounter between the ideas of Freud and Marx. ‘Libidinal economy’ might therefore be understood as a wager that capitalism can be fruitfully engaged through the lens of desire. But the story of libidinal economy stretches further back than Freud, entailing a circulation of metaphors between a much wider range of discourses, and it is implicated in the development of capitalism in complex ways.

In this talk, I develop a preliminary account of the relations between libidinal economy and capitalism in three parts. First, I position libidinal economy at the intersection of economic and psychological thought. Second, I relate the development of libidinal-economic thought to the historical development of capitalism. Third, I emphasise the role of libidinal dynamics in the social reproduction of contemporary capitalism. I conclude by arguing that libidinal economy is a necessarily elusive proposition, more an idea than a concept or theory. It simultaneously suggests different conceptions of the social and the psychic, not to mention different theories of economy and of capital. And yet there is something about the idea that continues to speak to the cutting edge of economic life, from online paranoia and job market nihilism to the morbid accumulation of symbolic power and the ecstatic mania of the crypto boom. Mapping the libidinal economies of contemporary capitalism is no easy task, but it remains an important and exciting one.

Amin Samman is Reader in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London, UK, and editor of the recently published volume Clickbait Capitalism: Economies of Desire in the Twenty-First Century (Manchester University Press, 2023). He is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Finance and Society, as well as Director of the Finance and Society Network.