Works like a Charm

Incentive Rhetoric and the Economization of Everyday Life

By Robert O. McDonald

Subjects: Communication, Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, Economic History
Series: SUNY series, Insinuations: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Literature
Hardcover : 9781438494098, 308 pages, August 2023
Paperback : 9781438494081, 308 pages, February 2024

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Table of contents

Introduction: The Metastatic Logic of the Incentive

1. Incentives, Retroactive Causality, and the Rhetorical Unconscious

2. This Is Not a Pipe, or Incentives from Antiquity to Modernity

3. Gary Becker, the Godfather of Incentives

4. “What Does Woman Want?” Equal Pay and “Women’s Incentives”

5. Nudge Theory and the Politics of Neurosis

6. Nudging Ourselves to Death

Conclusion: Breaking the Spell
Works Cited

Breaks the spell of economic thought by interrogating the widespread language and logic of “incentives” in public life from a Lacanian perspective.


Works like a Charm addresses a simple question: Why are “incentives” everywhere now? From inducements to work harder at our jobs to tax rebates for corporations, “incentive” names a general theory of motivation—according to economists, we are incentive-driven creatures. Yet far from being a neutral generalization, this understanding of human behavior smuggles in a quintessentially economic way of seeing the world. Works like a Charm applies Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic concept of retroactive causality to explain the metastasis of the language and logic of incentives: To discover an incentive is to place in the untouchable past an economic cause for a contextual, historical force. Tracing “incentive” from its roots in antiquity to its uptake by neoclassical and then Chicago-school economists, Robert O. McDonald diagnoses the spread of incentives across the social, cultural, and political field and warns readers of the dangers of handing over causality to the economists.

Robert O. McDonald is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas.


"Well-researched and clearly argued, Works like a Charm is the first book-length humanistic study of economics from a rhetorical and Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. McDonald deftly negotiates complex vocabularies to present sophisticated concepts in these fields without becoming mired in their various shibboleths. His significant contributions include his focus on the key figure of 'incentives,' a powerful political watchword long overdue for an incisive rhetorical critique." — Calum Lister Matheson, author of Desiring the Bomb: Communication, Psychoanalysis, and the Atomic Age