By Hartmut Rosa
[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique 4/13/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.monde-diplomatique.de/pm/2012/04/13.mondeText.artikel
Hartmut Rosa is a professor of sociology at the University of Jena.]
On first view, the matter seems clear. The late-modern capitalist society systematically produces winners and losers and allows the profits of winners and the losses and suffering of the losers to become greater and greater. Therefore the political left would do will to make this distribution logic into the main subject of its criticism. Concrete conditions force this criticism. Public discussion now concentrates on the indisputable scandal that the salaries of top managers in Germany amount to 400-times the simple employees or workers and are exploding while real wages for lower incomes shrivel. Is this an attack?
Wrong. The disastrous concentration of the political left on the question of distributive justice plays into the hands of the neoliberal adversary and keeps the disastrous spiral system going.
How is that? Let us focus first on the winners of the neoliberal profit game. We begin with those who skim off in Japan. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung paper recently had the headline “Nippon’s sick managers” and pointed out that the average life expectancy in Japan has risen continuously but has fallen for the economic elites since 1990, the beginning of the neoliberal age. Since 2000 the mortality risk of executives has soared 70 percent. Managers are also at the top in the suicide rate that has risen 271 percent since 1980. It doesn’t seem to be much better with their offspring. The DIE ZEIT newspaper tells of a stress-related suicide wave among students at an elite South Korean university.
That is Asia, the skeptical reader may object. What does it look like in Europe? The case of Telecom France is instructive. Under the slogan “Time to move,” the company prescribed a dynamic program that requires the transfer of leaders every three years so they become open for the new, remain flexible, innovative and creative and avoid “arrests” with personnel, routines and social spaces etc. As a result, at least 41 company employees took their lives between March 2008 and March 2010. Many others attempted this until finally the French administration of justice investigated the firm on account of “negligent homicide.” In the New York Times, the top manager Greg Smith who dropped out of Goldman Sachs made clear what it looks like with the surviving winners in the greedy center of financial market capitalism. He left a firm whose climate among the top executives is so poisoned, de4structive, cynical and contemptuous of human beings that it literally made him sick. Perhaps the term burnout is appropriate. Is this what winners look like?
Obviously a game that produces such winners is idiotic and unhealthy. Sooner or later it makes everyone losers. This should be ended as quickly as possible. This doesn’t end because the rules of the game define winners and losers (as in every game), determines behavior patters and strategies and produces the related pattern of anxiety and desire as mental drive energies. The game determines for what the actors hope, dream and fear.
In capitalism, this is summarized as not-getting-annoyed. People have fear of being thrown out of the race and falling back. One hopes to be at the top or at least move up a few places and feather one’s nest. This simple game logic can rouse incredible passions that first disappear and are relativized when one turns one’s back on the board. However the left fixates all its energy on the board…
This is not a harmless game played here but a game for life and death. There are two problems. Firstly, the rules of the game are unjust; the profit chances are distributed unequally. That is the problem of justice, an enormous problem for everyone who runs behind the field. Secondly, it is an idiotic game since there is no recognizable end. That is the problem of estrangement… being driven by the same patters of anxiety and desire.
They play even if it ruins them; they play even when it destroys their families, drives their children into suicide or burnout, undermines social bonds and destroys the ecological foundations of life. Therefore it is high time for the left to pull the motivation plug. The winners aren’t winners. They are pathetic, greedy disoriented addicts carrying out an unending comparison game: growth, wealth, acceleration and innovation-compression. This game requires tremendous and ever greater cultural drive energy. This energy is supplied by a political theme that is permanently drummed into heads: you are the victor! You are the winner! You have a good life! Defend your head start! Stay on top! The struggle is hard! And to the others: you are the cheated! You don’t get your fair share!
Whoever argues this way and wages election campaigns carries out the business of a neoliberalism setting everything in the world on the economy, growth and competition. This neoliberalism has no cultural resources to supply motivation energy for the insane, self-destructive comparison-game. Neoliberalism acts as though harsher and harsher competition were a natural fact. But it has no narrative, no value system that could define a goal for human conduct, an idea of successful life… In the sense of the comparison-game, there are hard and clear figures for the problem of justice but only vague counter-concepts of another really good life for the problem of estrangement.
The political left shrinks back from this because it had bad experiences in the 1970s. These experiences provoke conflict, hardly ever have a majority and trigger fear that someone could tell us how we have to live – as though the comparison-game did not do that anyway.
The protagonists of the majority-left obviously know that the game altogether is perverse. But they believe that the justice-gap must be first closed before the goal can be seriously discussed… The left could learn from the early Marx that the justice problem can be solved much easier and by itself if the cultural energy supplies were cut off and the players or gamblers see the nonsense of their actions with down-to-earth eyes.
Capitalism or rather private property, Marx writes in the early Paris manuscripts, is not the cause but “the product, the result, the necessary consequences of alienated labor, of the outward relation of the worker to nature and to him/herself.” Capitalism results “from the idea of the alienated person, alienated work, alienated life and the alienated person.” This means injustice results from alienation. There are good reasons for the hope that this will also disappear. When the game is at an end, it is easy for the winner to give back the captured men and women.
No person needs 400-times his neighbor. We will find new rules of distribution when anxiety and desire are removed from the board and we turn to the basic questions of life. This means when the left first makes the question of alienation and its opposite, successful life, its best theme, it breaks from the disastrous pact with neoliberalism and pulls the plug on this self-destructive comparison-game.