The Emotional Logic of Capitalism by Martijn Konings

Rating: ★★★★★

The Emotional Logic of Capitalism is the best book I read in 2020.

It's a solid critique of the most common progressive critiques of capitalism. I went in totally blind to this book, and it surprised me. The first half focuses on semiotics, theology, and pre-modern understandings of “economy” – not at all what I expected. It works – well.

Here are the ideas I found most interesting:

Critiques of money are weak

Marxists and other thinkers say that cash is corrosive and that it replaces human connection with cold calculation. Others similarly say that the market has spun out of control, and the task of society is to limit consequences of unshackled capitalism.

This is a "comforting plotline" and a "good story", but it's not really helpful.

Money only seems weird if we look too closely. In normal circumstances, we immediately know what money means even if it's hard to define precisely.

It's only in the critical mindset that we lose sight of the constructive parts of money and economy and begin to see it as "merely constructed." Economization is genuinely productive: it organizes connections between agents and summarizes that network.

Money's decentralized power

Money, unlike traditional sovereignty, has little inherent authority. But its influence becomes more deeply embedded in people.

"Capitalism, far from making authority anonymous and indifferent, makes things personal: it gets into our heads, becomes part of our identity, disposition, and desires, our basic sense of self."

Denying money's power is useless

"In contemporary capitalism, money simply means social power; denying this is not so much a meaningful personal belief or a potentially effective attempt to resist the lure of a fetish, but rather the inability or reluctance to recognize a social fact."

Neoliberal anxiety

There are a few exceptional pages where Konings describes the anxiety of the neoliberal subject.

(I thought it was pretty good when I first read it, but then the next day, one of my girlfriend's friends came over and she personified this description perfectly. It was shocking.)

Modern narcissism isn't driven by selfishness but by the anxiety inherent to modern social life. There are so many possible choices, so much complexity, and this causes insecurity.

With an uncertain sense of self, the subject is unable to get validation from within, and so they try to secure external validation. They often double down on existing routines that promise relief. "Re-engaging the very norms, symbols, and institutions that are at the root of its problems, the subject dampens the intensity of its anxiety by sustaining the mechanisms that produce it." The subject operates with the logic of wounded attachment.

Money has a "distinctly secular yet highly spiritual promise is that we can have a better version of our current self, our present attachments and identity, without the anxiety." Money is always a problem and solution to a problem. When the neoliberal subject feels anxiety about money, they move to get more; they don't reconsider their relationship to money, they intensify it. But there's nothing money can't buy, so no amount is enough.

Neoliberal sadism

Progressives fail to understand that a lot of neoliberalism's appeal comes from its sadistic streak. The neoliberal subject has chronic anxiety, and misery loves company. Neoliberalism "not only instructed people to tighten their belts but also gave them permission to impose such discipline on others, so creating new outlets for the modern subject's discontent."

"This sadistic streak of neoliberal financial governmantality is richly present in the contemporary self-help ethos, and especially in programs like the 'Dr. Phil' show ... Austerity, toughness to self and others, appears as the road to redemption."