Addictive Personality: An Archetype for Life in Capitalist Modernity

A few years ago, I was psychologically diagnosed with an addictive personality. While I’m hesitant to accept labels like that for their paralyzing certainty, I believe my experience is less an individual cause for concern and more a reflection of the wider social phenomenon of addiction in modern capitalist society, so conflated a relationship that the distinction between them is difficult to determine.

Addictive personality can be understood as possessing a ‘predisposition to addiction’ built into the essence of one’s character in such a way that interests and passions easily turn into addictions, often simultaneously or interchangeably. Addiction becomes difficult to recognize in oneself, easy to hide from others and hard to overcome, because it’s less about the thing you’re addicted to than it is about the way you are wired as a person: your personality is the problem.

Through a lens of psychoanalysis, however, we find a much more complex experience beyond the diagnosis of my condition that has less to do with a flaw in character and much more to do with our shared subjection to modern-materialist cultural norms and our socialization within consumer society as humans in pursuit of happiness in capitalist modernity.

Addictive personalities are known for bouncing from one addiction to the next or being addicted to many things at once, such that life itself becomes a patterning of addictive activities and behaviors in attempt to achieve an ever-illusory sense of satisfaction or enjoyment. Experts and pyschologists contend that people with addictive personalities have low self-esteem, are prone to anxiety and depression, seek to avoid pain at all costs, cannot delay gratification, are uncomfortable in social situations, feel that we’re ‘not good enough’, believe that we do not fit within societal norms, and are unable to handle stress. As a result, we end up chasing experiences or indulging in behaviors that give us an escape from those issues, allowing us to experience a sense of joy or high by using our addictions to avoid feeling low. As soon as the enjoyment of one addiction wears off, or if we are for some reason deprived of it, we swiftly switch over to another addiction promising a similar sense of enjoyment.

However, our addictions do not actually soothe us in any sustainable way; rather, they perpetuate deeper addiction by providing only momentary relief from feelings of anxiety, frustration or discomfort, making us feel like we need to feed our addiction further in the hope that it will bring us a permanent sense of enjoyment and allow us to escape our problems once and for all. Inevitably, at the end of the day we are still left with our feelings and insecurities, and all of our addictions to boot.

Interestingly, these identifying factors commonly associated with addictive personalities resonate more broadly with a shared sense of discontent in modern society stemming from the sociocultural norms of consumer culture in late capitalism. This shared discontent manifests itself in: 1) seeking escape from the confines of our increasingly homogenous yet overwhelmingly stressful reality; and 2) the desire-driven fantasy of achieving lasting satisfaction through the pursuit of the things or activities that, by their very nature, bring us only fleeting moments of joy—a fantasy created and perpetuated by consumer culture’s empty promise of satisfaction by way of material accumulation, consumption and pursuing the American Dream.

Consumer culture, at the heart of capitalism, persists in tricky ways, despite a growing recognition that owning more stuff or even collecting countless exciting experiences is not what contributes to lasting happiness or overall well-being. Psycho-analytic interpretations offer a useful explanation for relentless consumption, interestingly quite similar to the behavioral processes experienced by addictive personalities. The overwhelming staying power of capitalism in general, and consumer culture in particular, rests on its ability to produce in its subjects a useful cycle of desire and fantasy based on the pursuit of jouissance, a concept proposed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and understood as a state of fleeting excitement or a momentary sense of fulfillment which ‘promises a satisfaction it can never deliver’.

As consumers, we get a glimpse of this jouissance by way of our ‘material or affective’ practices of consumption; feeling that twinge of joy by purchasing or indulging in something that makes us believe we will feel permanently satisfied once we consume enough of that which will never give us the satisfaction we believe it will, we create the illusion in our minds that we will eventually get to a point of true satisfaction—the empty promise behind the material pursuit of happiness. Sadly, as in the case of addiction, and as the psycho-emotional effects of consumerism demonstrate, we may very well exhaust all consumptive and/or addictive avenues seeking to attain a never ending jouissance, which, by its very definition, is an impossible fantasy. The ensuing low is then even more unbearable, prompting us to perhaps try a new consumptive approach or seek to escape our hopeless predicament through other avenues and experiences, perhaps through mind-altering drugs, travel abroad, or extreme sports. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes of the relationship between jouissance and consumerism:

“an opportunity for further accumulation is created as [consumers] seek to re-experience the desired emotional stimulation in search of an illusory satisfaction. As the object of this process is an ephemeral affective state that passes quickly with little residual impact on the body, the accumulation process can be virtually infinite, facilitating continual capitalization without readily discernable limit or consequence…. compelling increased consumption of the products and services through which jouissance is pursued.”

This perpetual yearning for an impossible satisfaction fits well within the capitalist framework whereby we, as an entire modern society, will continue over-consuming, out of feelings of angst and emptiness, all that is being over-produced, fulfilling our role as consumers propelling economic growth through accumulation, the core of the global capitalist system.

Are we not all on the same hamster wheel, perpetually seeking an unattainable yet promised satisfaction by way of consumption? Could the addictive personality, in fact, be the personality archetype of capitalist modernity and all her discontents?

As capitalist subjects coming to terms with the depressing nature of our fantasy-driven pursuits, we’ve been seeking ways and means to overcome consumer culture’s grasp on our lives and begin transforming our systems toward non-capitalist alternatives. But how do we surmount the contradiction in terms that is our own subjection within a society we seek to transform? Society has grown rife with anti-capitalist sentiment, yet capitalism persists; our self-subjection to capitalism keeps us trapped—trapped in ourselves through addiction and consumption, and trapped in our ensuing self-enslavement to the economic and sociocultural dynamics of the capitalist system, alternatives to which we are wont to live by as the capitalist subjects we are today.

J.K. Gibson-Graham, in their book A Postcapitalist Politics, refer to the ‘pain and possibility’ in unraveling our self-subjection to capitalism, a preliminary step wrought with perturbing existential challenges vital to envisioning other economic social realities. This is the same psycho-emotive scenario experienced  by addictive personalities coming to terms with the need to change self and transform personality in order to overcome addiction; indeed, no easy task. It is painful to try to change ourselves from a reality we’ve always known, yet if we wish to experience a post-addiction and/or post-capitalist world, waking up to our own self-subjection within capitalism’s requisite consumer culture is a difficult, yet necessary first step. For addictive personalities, this unraveling stage begins by convincing ourselves of the harsh reality that our addictions, no matter how much we feed them, are never going to provide us with the lasting satisfaction we think they will. From there, it’s a matter of overcoming deep-seated insecurities at the heart of our actions and transforming psycho-social behavior patterns we’ve relied on as coping mechanisms for as long as we can remember.

For the rest of us living in modernity, the unraveling stage is quite similar and has already begun, based on a waking-up through recognition; that is, recognizing that neither material nor affective/experiential consumption makes us happy over the long-term, because its promise of a satisfaction or jouissance it can never deliver leaves us wanting more in perpetuity; the more we consume, the greater the lack we feel. From there, beginning to reconstitute ourselves in previously unimagined ways, we explore the possibilities of our unraveling, a coming-into-being of post-capitalist subjects in a simultaneously emerging post-capitalist reality: becoming ‘other’ so that ‘other’ social and economic realities may prevail.
*This piece is inspired in large part by my PhD supervisor, Robert Fletcher, and his vanguard work on materialist, post-structuralist and psycho-analytic trends in late capitalism and modernity.