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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at


Transforming Capitalist Desire with Integral Marxism

Joe Corbett

With the loss of jobs from the pandemic, there is the need for a new set of social relations to organize and sustain a functioning society.

In his early writings, Karl Marx speaks of human language and tool use as distinguishing humans from animals. Thus the manipulation of symbols and objects to create their world, or creativity pure and simple, along with the desire and will to do so as a means of survival, is the species-being of humans. More precisely then, desire-will-creativity is the essence of what it means to be human, the human nature that makes our world of nurture.

Of course, all this comes from walking upright which frees the hands, and opposable thumbs for firm grasping and effective tool use, especially in the handling of weaponry in hunting and warfare where communication in groups is also essential. Therefore the desire and will to survive through the creative use of language and tools comes from the subjectivity of human-beings (UL) only insofar as the body (UR), the environment (LR), and social interactions (LL, LR) are also implicated in the kind of beings we have become.

Every phase of human evolution and development has made use of desire-will-creativity, what Marx called our species-being, as a kind of primal-mover and animator of human activity to shape our collective life. But what form that desire-will-creativity takes in each historical era and place is itself shaped by the social systems that were created by an original or founding desire-will-creativity. Such a founding desire we can call the master-desire, that desiring will that enlists the desires of others to its own desire, mostly for its own purposes.[1] After Max Weber, we might call this the routinization of desire, the conscription of consciousness to a singular will from the charismatic chief, king, master, lord, or in our case, owner of capital.

The particular form the master-desire takes today is primarily modelled after the boss, on the one hand, and the luxurious parasitic life-style of the celebrity aristocrat embodied by the absentee owner on the other hand. The capitalist social system today is animated by the master-desire of owners for profit (greed, pure and simple). But this is achieved by managerial bossing, which consists of the “skillful means” of commanding and manipulating others to achieve the goal of the master-desire. Obtaining the knowledge and skills to command others toward the master-desire at a high rate of compensation for oneself which allows for a surplus of consumption (otherwise known as meritocratic upward mobility), is the primary goal for employees under neoliberal capitalism who are compelled to work under the master-desire.

Ultimately, becoming liberated from this compulsion for meritocratic upward mobility to the point of becoming an owner, whose master-desire for profit enlists the efforts of others towards ones own ends and whose surplus consumption designates the celebrity status of parasitic aristocrat (the penultimate compliment of yacht owning “job creator”), is the end goal of individuals under neoliberal capitalism, which is little more than a kind of meritocratic feudalism, or entrepreneurial aristocracy.

Instead of linking the collective animus to a singular master-desire organized around profit and consumption and creating a capitalist feudal aristocracy, is it possible to create a more diversified and distributed desiring-will that would reflect the multifaceted nature of our human species-being? And how might we accomplish such a condition for the possibility of our full flowering as a species?

In Marx the key to social development is the pressure the forces of production (technology, populations, resources, etc.) put on the relations of production to change in order to make full use of the potential the forces of production make possible. The classic example of this is how industrial production technologies and techniques allowed for a much more abundant supply of goods for more people than the feudal agrarian mode of production, and hence put pressure on the feudal relations of production between lord and land-slave (serf) to give way the capitalist relations of production between owner and wage-slave as the principle means of organizing society.

In our current circumstances we are faced with a similar dilemma. Automation and outsourcing of jobs in the global economy has replaced the need for workers in advanced economies, and now with the loss of jobs from the pandemic, there is the need for a new set of social relations (or at least a new social contract between different classes) to organize and sustain a functioning society.

One proposal short of overthrowing the master-classes (roughly the top 10 to 20 percent of the population which includes owners and bosses) and implementing a centralized socialist state with decentralized democratic workplaces, is a universal basic income (UBI)[2] which represents a new social contract rather than an entirely new set of social relations of production. The UBI would solve the problem of people not being able to make a living due to unemployment created by automation and globalization. But its radical unintended consequence may be where its real value and promise is to be found.

By freeing the individual from the threat of suffering and death upon non-enlistment to the master-desire of owners and the skillful means of managerial bosses, desire-will-creativity is thereby free to explore other desires not linked to the master-desire of parasitic consumption through accumulation of profits and the acquisition of “skillful means” to appropriate the labor of others. Human species-being will henceforth be developed in its full richness and diversity rather than in what is now its narrowed and impoverished limits imposed by the master-class desire.

However to truly make this possibility a reality, UBI should be linked to a self-development requirement such as learning a new skill or language or taking a history course etc., and count that as a human contribution to society that is not monetary or profit based, even though it may also contribute monetarily to those who provide the learning service. And although the requirement should not be mandatory (because such things tend not to end well) or be made a condition of receiving UBI (because everyone is entitled to a secure existence), self-development upon receiving a UBI should be strongly encouraged and institutionally supported.

If no requirement is made the inertial habitus of psychological parasitism within consumer culture would simply perpetuate itself, and with no opposition to its profit-driven hegemony. People would therefore be provided minimal sustenance but they would find it lacking in fulfilment of their consumption “needs”, a mere invitation for them to acquire “more”. Providing UBI without an ethic for self-development as a means to give back to the community would therefore be a mistake because the minimum would never be “enough”, and it would instil an ethic of entitlement without reciprocation, which people have a right to insofar as their existence is concerned, but without a mission to give back to the commons it would be an empty asocial gesture, and possibly a psychologically and culturally destructive one.

As for self-development, it can be loosely defined by whatever individuals choose to enhance themselves with, whether that is learning how to play the guitar or write poetry. No one would be telling anyone what self-development means. It would be up to the individual to decide to do something of their own choice that will improve or add to their development rather than eating ice cream in front of the television all day long, assuming we can all agree that doing that doesn't count as self-development.

The idea is to instil an ethic of giving back to the commons in an effort to improve or enhance what one has to offer rather than simply to expect an entitlement without giving back to the community, or to “freely” engage in wasteful parasitic consumption as ones primary activity. After all, who would be opposed to learning how to write poetry or play the guitar rather than watching television all day long? And would we really want consideration for such couch potato people to dictate what social policy should be? We must raise the self-expectations of people if we are to overcome the ever-present crisis of civilization and succeed as a species.

Adding a self-development requirement to UBI would create a revolution from the ground up and from the inside out, giving wide range for individuals to decide what they will do to improve themselves. Self-development should not be seen as a "burden" on poor people or others who receive UBI as their only means of support. On the contrary, consumerism and a lack of lifelong learning is the true burden of being poor and addicted to wealth accumulation. The goal is to replace consumption through monetary exchange as the primary societal directive with creativity through participatory and generative exchange as the primary directive, focusing on internal development, which is the source of social wealth, rather than only on external development.

Some may argue that surrendering power to make decisions in the relations of production makes UBI a bad compromise with capital, and that we should settle for nothing less than a full reorganization of the relations of production rather than merely a new social contract. This assumes that power within the system of money is the main stake, so that UBI is seen as the compromise of surrendering the power that really matters. But what if UBI is really about creating an alternative to the hegemony of money over life, wherein the power to generate and appropriate money is of secondary importance to the power to generate and appropriate different forms of life (aesthetic, therapeutic, moral and philosophical, scientific, communicative, etc.) that are not money or profit driven.

In short, a UBI with a self-development requirement can allow us to escape from the mirror of production and consumption and its class power formations of struggle and strife that so captured the imagination of early Marxists, and deliver us instead straight into a post-capitalist utopia where the full potential of our individual and collective species-being can be realized, which Marx saw as the ultimate end-game. The system of capitalism can be defeated and its machine of exploitation and alienation ground to a halt not by fighting it, but by doing an end-game run around it. Ergo, an apt slogan for our times might be -- Unemployed and precarious self-developmentalists of the world, unite!


[1] Some terminology in this essay is adopted from, “Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire”, Frederic Lordon, Verso, 2014.

[2] The basic income would be a monthly stipend of the amount for minimal cost on food, housing and other basic necessities defined by a generous poverty standard in each country, and distributed to every adult regardless of need on principle of universal equity. For those who wanted to supplement their basic minimum they could always opt into the labor market, or start a business of their own through access to public credit unions. Countries with a sovereign currency could simply issue the basic income by fiat without having to impose taxes as a way of paying for it (see modern monetary theory or MMT for why and how this could be done). However taxes on the assets of the super-wealthy would still be a desirable thing to do, not as a way to pay for UBI but in order to decrease inequality and shore-up democracy by decreasing the power and influence of the wealthy in politics, policy, and a host of other pet peeve social projects (good and bad) towards which private wealth typically skews collective endeavers.

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