02. December 2015

Why is the neoliberal system of rule so stable? Why is there hardly any opposition to it? Despite the ever greater divide between rich and poor?

By Byung-Chul Han

When, back in October 2013, Antonio Negri and I were the two sides in a debate at Berliner Schaubühne, it amounted to a frontal collision between two different critiques of capitalism. Negri was enthusiastic about the potential for global opposition to the “Empire”, the neoliberal system of rule. He took the stage terming himself a communist revolutionary and me a skeptic professor. He emphatically evoked the “multitude”, the networked protest and revolutionary mass, which he evidently felt could bring the Empire to its knees. I felt the position of the communist revolutionary was too naïve and remote from reality. So I tried to explain to Negri why today revolution is no longer possible.

Why is the neoliberal system of rule so stable? Why is there so little opposition to it? Why does all opposition so swiftly go nowhere? Why is revolution no longer possible despite the ever greater gap between the rich and the poor? An explanation requires first that we understand exactly how power and rule function today.

Anyone wishing to install a new system of rule needs to overcome opposition. This likewise applies to the neoliberal system of rule. An establishing power is needed in order to set up a new system of rule and this often entails violence. That establishing power is not, however, identical with the power that stabilizes the system on the inside. It is a well-known fact that Margaret Thatcher as the trailblazer of neoliberalism treated the trade unions as the “enemy within” and used violence to fight them. However, violent interventions to assert the neoliberal agenda must not be confused with the power that maintains the system.

The power maintaining the system in disciplinary and industrial society relied on repression. Factory workers were brutally exploited by factory owners. The violent exploitation of factory workers by others sparked protests and opposition. All that was possible here was a revolution that would overthrow the dominant relations of production. In such a repressive system both the oppression and the oppressors are visible. There is a person on the other side of the line, a visible enemy whom one tries to resist.

The neoliberal system of rule has a very different structure. Here, the power maintaining the system is no longer repressive, and instead seductive, meaning tempting. It is no longer as visible as in disciplinarian regimes. There is no person opposite, no enemy who represses liberties and whom one could possibly resist.

Neoliberalism molds each oppressed worker into a free entrepreneur, an entrepreneur selling himself. Today, we are all self-exploiting workers in our own enterprises. Each of us a master and slave rolled into one. And class struggle becomes an internal struggle with oneself. Anyone failing today gives themselves the blame and feels ashamed. The problem is sought within rather than in society.

A disciplining power that devotes a massive amount of energy to violently coercing people into a corset of commands and prohibitions is inefficient. A far more efficient power technique ensures that people bow down to the system of rule of their own volition. Its special efficiency stems from the fact that it functions not by prohibition and denial, but by pleasure and fulfilment. Instead of making people pliable and malleable, it tries to make them dependent. This efficiency logic of neoliberalism also applies to surveillance. In the 1980s people protested vigorously against a national census in Germany; even school students took to the streets.

From today’s viewpoint, required information such as data on profession, schooling or distance to the workplace seems almost derisible. It was a time when people believed that they were confronted by the state as an agency of rule that extracted information from citizens against their free will. Those days are long gone. Today, we freely expose our innermost selves. It is precisely this felt freedom that renders protests impossible. Unlike back in the days of the proposed census, we hardly protest against surveillance. To shed light on every aspect of oneself, to bare oneself, freely at that – this obeys the same logic of efficiency as does free self-exploitation. What to protest against? Against oneself? This paradoxical situation is well expressed by US concept artist Jenny Holzer with her “truism”: “Protect me from what I want.”

It is important to distinguish between the establishing and the maintaining power. The power that maintains the system now dons a smart and friendly guise, and in that way renders itself invisible and untouchable. Here, the subjugated individual is not even aware of being subjugated. People think they are free. This technique of rulership neutralizes opposition in a highly effective way. The rule that suppresses and attacks freedom is not, however, stable. The neoliberal regime is so stable, immunizes itself so successfully against all opposition precisely because it makes use of freedom instead of suppressing it. The suppression of freedom swiftly provokes opposition, whereas the exploitation of freedom does not.

In the wake of the Asian crisis, South Korea was paralyzed and shocked. Then along came the IMF and granted the Koreans loans. To this end, in the face of protests the government had to use violent means to assert the neoliberal agenda. This repressive power is the establishing power, and it frequently resorts to violence. However, this establishing power is to be distinguished from the power that maintains the system, which in the neoliberal regime even purports to be freedom. For Naomi Klein, the state of social shock following catastrophes such as the financial crisis in South Korea or in Greece offers an opportunity to violently subject society to a radical reprogramming. Today, there is hardly any protest in South Korea. Instead, conformism and consensus greatly prevail, along with depression and burn-out. Today, South Korea has the world’s highest suicide rate. People act violently towards themselves instead of wanting to change society. An outward aggression such as would result in a revolution has given way to auto-aggression.

Today, there is no cooperating, networked multitude that could rise up as the global protesting or revolutionary masses. Instead, the current mode of production is the solitude of the isolated, lonely self-entrepreneur. In the past, companies competed, but solidarity was possible within the company. Today, everyone competes with everyone else, even within a company. This absolute competition immensely increases productivity, but it destroys solidarity and the public spirit. Exhausted, depressed, solitary individuals cannot be molded into a revolutionary mass.

Neoliberalism cannot be explained in Marxist terms. In it there is not even the famous “alienation” of labor. Today, we submerge ourselves euphorically in work until we burn out. The first stage of the burn-out syndrome is precisely euphoria. Burn-out and revolution are mutually exclusive. Meaning that it is an error to believe that the multitude will shed itself of the parasitic Empire and install a communist society in its place.

So what is the state of communism today? Wherever you look, someone is praising sharing and community. The sharing economy is supposed to replace the economy of ownership and property. “Sharing is Caring”, or so one of the maxims of the “Circlers” in the new novel by Dave Eggers, “The Circle”. The paving stones that form the pedestrian path to the Circle’s HQ display slogans such as “Seek community” or “Contribute”. What they should say is: Caring is Killing. And the digital car-share service, the “Wunder Car” that transforms us all into cab drivers, relies on the idea of community in its ads. However, it is erroneous to believe that the sharing economy, as Jeremy Rifkin claims in his latest book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society”, marks the end of capitalism, heralds a global, community-oriented society and that sharing has more value than owning. On the contrary, the sharing economy in the final instance leads to the total commercialization of life.

What Jeremy Rifkin celebrates as the change from ownership to “access” does not free us from capitalism. Anyone who possesses no money also has no access to sharing. And in the age of access we continue to live in the “banopticon”, in which those who have no money remain excluded. “Airbnb”, the community marketplace that turns every home into a hotel, even monetizes hospitality. The ideology of the community or of collaborative commons leads to the total capitalization of community. Non-purposive friendliness is no longer possible. In a society of reciprocal ratings, friendliness likewise gets commercialized. You are friendly in order to get a better rating. And in the middle of the collaborative economy it is the hard logic of capitalism that rules. In this great “sharing” paradoxically no one voluntarily relinquishes anything. Capitalism achieves perfection the moment in which it sells communism as a commodity. Communism as a commodity, that is the end of the revolution.