Capitalism and its Contentments: A Nietzschean Critique of Ideology Critique

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Nietzsche’s psychological theory of the drives calls into question two common assumptions of ideology critique: 1) that ideology is fetishistic, substituting false satisfactions for true ones, and 2) that ideology is falsification; it conceals exploitation. In contrast, a Nietzschean approach begins from the truth of ideology: that capitalism produces an authentic contentment that makes the concealment of exploitation unnecessary. And it critiques ideology from the same standpoint: capitalism produces pleasures too efficiently, an overproduction of desire that is impossible to sustain indefinitely. Nietzsche’s concept of the drives (Trieben) is grounded in his theory of the will to power. In contrast to Freud’s view that drives aim at satiation, pleasure through stimulus reduction, in Nietzsche’s view, they aim primarily at the “feeling of power” and the “happiness of high tension.” Nietzsche sees the desire for satiation as a symptom of weakness, a secondary, contingent aim that is incompatible with the fundamental drive to sustain and heighten the feeling of tension that accompanies strong desire. While the Freudian subject desires satisfaction, the Nietzschean subject is paradoxically frustrated by satisfaction, finding happiness in desire sustained by resistance and tension. If individuals desire desire as such, then exploitation and immiseration are not necessarily incompatible with their happiness. Consequently, we must reject the view that ideology is fetishistic: capitalism does not depend on an ersatz satisfaction in the commodity, a transferal of value from quality to quantity, use value to exchange value. Capitalism authentically satisfies desire precisely through its exploitative economic structure. The independence and unpredictability of the value of commodities and the immiseration of laborers produces discontents that enhance rather than frustrate desire. By continually introducing new, initially inaccessible commodities, then overcoming their inaccessibility through overproduction, capitalism sustains and intensifies desires. It promotes happiness not by satisfying wants but generating them, feeding the desire for desire, for the intensity of feeling that the brief pleasures of satiation would destroy. The commodity is not, then, a fetish, not a false satisfaction or aim, but a means, a prop that supports and sustains satisfaction as continued desire. Consequently, we must also reject the view that ideology is falsification: capitalism’s efficient production of happiness obviates the need to conceal its nature. Individuals tolerate capitalism not out of ignorance of exploitation but indifference to it; they prefer real happiness to a merely possible justice that might come at its expense. The critique of ideology must begin by acknowledging its truth. Rather than deny the real satisfactions of capitalism, it must demonstrate that they are unsustainable.
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