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Obsessionality, Capitalism, Transgression

The Letter, Issue 4, Summer 1995, Pages 76 - 98


Gerry Sullivan

The argument advanced in this paper is a tentative one, based on patterns of resemblance rather than one of a confidence in the clarity of consequences derived from well grounded concepts. Nevertheless, the cultural and political importance of the issues involved stimulate me to gather together some of the ruminations on the nature of capitalism from diverse sources and to compare them with theses advanced by J.-A. Miller on the structure of obsessionality.

The first point I would like to look at is the difficulty which late nineteenth century historical sociologists found in characterising the personality traits appropriate to the human individual in the emergence and consolidation of a capitalist economy and polity. I shall take the work of Werner Sombart as indicative of the dichotomy which they attempted to reconcile. Sombart regarded the flexible opportunist qualities associated with entrepreneurship as essential to the success of the capitalist form. Yet he also noted that a contrary spirit of personal qualities, the bourgeois spirit, was also required:

The spirit of enterprise is a synthesis of the greed of gold, the desire for adventure, and the love of exploration, to mention but a few elements. The bourgeois spirit is composed of calculation, careful policy, reasonableness, and economy.[1]

He considers that the latter spirit is predicated upon the quantification of phenomena, and this in turn is intimately related to the rise of systematic book-keeping. Firstly, ... it puts order into events and shapes them into an artful system, thus one may consider it as the first cosmos based on the principle of mechanical thinking.[2]

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