CRISIS OF FREEDOM
by Byung-Chul Han
[This reading sample from Byung-Chul Han’s Psycho-Politics. Neoliberalism and the New Power techniques (2014) is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, ]
EXPLOITATION OF FREEDOM
Freedom has become an episode called a connecting link or adaptor. The feeling of freedom appears in the transition from one life form to another until this proves to be a coercive form. Thus a new subjugation follows liberation. That is the fate of the subject which means literally being subjugated.
We believe today that we are a free newly designed and newly invented project, not a subjugated subject. This transition from subject to project is accompanied by the feeling of freedom. This project now proves to be a coercive figure, even a more efficient form of subjectivization and subjugation. The self as a project that believes it is liberated from outward pressures and foreign pressures now submits to inner pressures and self-pressures in the form of performance and optimization.
We live in a special historical phase in which freedom itself gives rise to pressures. The freedom of the possible even produces more pressures than the disciplinary imperative that issues commands and prohibitions. The imperative has a limit but the possible has no limit. Therefore the pressure that starts from the possible is boundless. Consequently we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Freedom is really the counter-figure of coercion. Being free means being free from pressures. This freedom that has to be the opposite of pressure now produces pressures. Psychological sicknesses like depression or burnout are expressions of a deep crisis of freedom. They are a pathological sign that freedom today often changes suddenly into pressure.
The performance subject that imagines itself free is in reality a servant. He is an absolute servant when he voluntarily exploits himself without any master. No master faces him who coerces him to work. Mere life and working are made absolute. Mere life and labor are two sides of one coin. Health represents the ideal of mere life… Contrary to Hegel’s assertion, work does not make the worker free. The worker remains a servant of work. Hegel’s servant forces the master to work. Hegel’s dialectic of master and servant leads to the totalization of work.
The neoliberal subject as entrepreneur of himself is incapable of relations to others who could be free of instrumentalization. No non-instrumental friendship arises between businesses. Being free originally meant being with friends. Freedom and friend have the same root in the Indo-Germanic. Freedom is basically a relational word. Persons feel really free in a successful relationship, in a happy being-together with others. The total isolation to which the neoliberal regime leads does not really make us free. So the question is raised today whether or not we must redefine and reinvent freedom to escape the terrible dialectic of freedom where freedom changes suddenly into coercion.
Neoliberalism is a very efficient and intelligent system for exploiting freedom. All the practices and forms of expression of freedom like emotion, play and communication are exploited. Exploiting someone against his or her will is not efficient…
Interestingly Marx defines the freedom of successful relations to others: “First in the community (with others), every individual has the means for developing his talents in every respect. Thus personal freedom is first possible in community.”  Being free means being realized together. Freedom is a synonym for successful community.
For Marx, individual freedom represents a trick, a deceit of capital. “Free competition”  based on the idea of individual freedom is not only “the relation of capital to itself.” Capital pursues its propagation… While people compete freely with each other, capital multiplies. Individual freedom is a bondage insofar as it is monopolized by capital for its own multiplication. Thus capital exploits the freedom of the individual to reproduce. “Capital is set free in free competition, not individuals.” 
The freedom of capital is realized by means of individual freedom. Thus the free individual is degraded to the genitals of capital. Individual freedom gives capital an “automatic” subjectivity that drives to active reproduction…  The individual freedom that takes an oppressive form today is ultimately nothing but the excess of capital itself.
DICTATORSHIP OF CAPITAL
Productive forces (human labor power, functioning of equipment at a certain stage of development, according to Marx, falls into contradiction with the predominant relations of production (relations of property and rule). The contradiction arises because the productive forces always continue developing. So industrialization creates new productive forces that come into contradiction with relations similar to feudal relations of ownership and rule. This contradiction leads to social crises that press for change of the relations of production. Social crises can be removed through the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie producing a communist social system.
Contrary to Marx’ assumption, the contradiction between production forces and relations of production cannot be abolished through a communist revolution. It cannot be annulled. Because of this indwelling permanent contradiction, capitalism evades the future. Industrial capitalism mutates into neoliberalism and financial capitalism with post-industrial, immaterial production methods instead of changing suddenly into communism.
Neoliberalism as a mutation form of capitalism forms an entrepreneur out of a worker. Neoliberalism does away with the foreign-exploited working class, not the communist revolution. Everyone is a self-exploiting employee of his own business. Everyone is master and servant in one person. The class struggle also changes into an inner struggle with oneself.
The solitude of the isolated entrepreneur fighting with himself and spontaneously exploiting himself constitutes the current production method, not the cooperating “multitude” elevated by Antonio Negri to the post-Marxist successor of the proletariat. Thus it is an error to believe that the cooperating “multitude” throws off the “parasitic empire” and produces a communist social system. This Marxist schema stressed by Negri will prove to be an illusion again.
No proletariat and no working class exploited by owners of the means of production really exist in the neoliberal regime. In immaterial production, everyone possesses his or her means of production. The neoliberal system is not a class system in the literal sense any more. Classes relating antagonistically to one another do not exist. That accounts for the stability of this system.
The distinction of proletariat and bourgeoisie cannot be maintained any more today. The proletariat is literally anyone who only has his or her children as the sole possession. His self-production is limited to biological reproduction. Today the illusion is spreading that everyone as a freely designed project is capable of boundless self-production. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is structurally impossible today. Everyone is ruled by a dictatorship of capital today.
The neoliberal regime changes foreign-exploitation into self-exploitation affecting all “classes.” This classless self-exploitation is completely alien to Marx since it makes impossible the social revolution that rests on the distinction between exploiters and exploited. Because of the isolation of self-exploiting performance-subjects, no political we forms that would be capable of common action.
Whoever fails in the neoliberal performance society blames himself and is ashamed instead of putting the society or the system in question. The special intelligence of the neoliberal regime is manifest here that allows no resistance against the system to arise. On the other hand, it is possible in the regime of foreign exploitation that the exploited act in solidarity and revolt together against the exploiter. Marx’ idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was based on this logic. However it presupposes repressive rule relations. In the neoliberal regime of self-exploitation, aggression is directed against oneself. This auto-aggressivity makes the exploited into a depressive, not into a revolutionary.
Today we work for capital and no longer for our own needs. Capital produces its own need that we wrongly see as our own need. It represents a new transcendence, a new form of subjectivization. We are hurled out of the immanence plane of life where life refers to itself instead of being subjected to an external goal.
Emancipation from the transcendent system with religiously established premises characterizes modern politics. A politics with a complete politization of society is first possible in the modern age where transcendent resources of justification have no authority any more. Norms of action become freely negotiable. Transcendence gives way to socially immanent discourse. So society can re-establish itself in getting out of its immanence. But this freedom is abandoned again in the moment when capital rises to a new transcendence as a new master. Politics falls again into a bondage. Politics becomes a henchman or accomplice of capital.
Can we really be free? Did we not invent God in order not to be free? Toward God, we are all culpable. But culpability destroys freedom. Politicians today blame the high indebtedness for enormously restricting their freedom of action. When we are debt-free, that means are entirely free, we must really act. If we are permanently indebted, we cannot act and cannot be free and responsible. Are not high debts an evidence that we are not yet able to be free? Isn’t capital a new god who makes us culprits? Walter Benjamin understood capitalism as a religion. Capitalism is the “first case of a heavily indebted cult, not an atoning cult.” Since there is no possibility of atonement, the state of unfreedom is perpetuated: “An enormous debt consciousness that cannot be atoned becomes a cult to make this debt or guilt universal, not to apologize for this guilt.” 
THE NEOLIBERAL SYSTEM. WHY NO REVOLUTION IS POSSIBLE TODAY
By Byung-Chul Han
[This article published on September 2, 2014 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.sueddeutsche.de.]
Why is the neoliberal system so stable? Why is there hardly any resistance – despite an ever-greater gulf between rich and poor? For an explanation, it is important to understand how the subjugating power functions today.
Two capitalism critics clashed frontally in the debate between Antonio Negri and me a year ago on a Berlin stage. Negri raved for the possibilities of global resistance against the “empire,” the neoliberal rule system. He presented himself as a communist revolutionary and described me as a skeptical professor. He emphatically invoked the “multitude,” the interconnected protest and revolution mass that he obviously expected would bring down the empire. The position of the communist revolutionary seemed too naïve and unrealistic to me. I tried to explain to Negri why no revolution is possible any more today.
Whoever wants to install a new rule system must do away with resistance. That is also true for the neoliberal rule system. To start a new rule system, an establishing power is necessary that often uses force. However this establishing power is not identical with the power inwardly stabilizing the system. Margaret Thatcher as a champion of neoliberalism treated unions as an “internal enemy” and fought them with force. A forceful incursion to enforce the neoliberal agenda is not a system-maintaining power.
THE SYSTEM-MAINTAINING POWER IS SEDUCTIVE AND NO LONGER REPRESSIVE
The system-maintaining power of the disciplinary- and industrial society was repressive. Factory workers were brutally exploited by factory owners. The violent foreign exploitation of factory workers led to resistance and protests. A revolution that would overthrow the dominant production relations was possible then. In this repressive system, both the oppression and the oppressor are visible. There is a concrete counterpart, a visible enemy, engendering resistance.
The neoliberal system is structured very differently. Here the system-maintaining power is seductive and no longer repressive. It is no longer as visible as in the disciplinary regime. There is no concrete opposite any more, no enemy who represses freedom and against whom a resistance would be possible.
Neoliberalism forms a free entrepreneur out of the oppressed worker, an entrepreneur of himself. Everyone is a self-exploited worker of his own enterprise. Everyone is master and servant in one person. The class struggle is also changed into an inner struggle with oneself. Whoever falls today accuses himself and is ashamed. One problematicizes oneself instead of society.
THE SUBJUGATED SUBJECT IS NOT CONSCIOUS OF HIS SUBJUGATION
That disciplinary power that forcefully presses people into a corset of commands and prohibitions with great effort is inefficient. The power technology that ensures people submit to the rule context is considerably more efficient. Its special efficiency comes from pleasure and fulfillment, not from prohibitions and withdrawal. Instead of making people pliable, it tries to make them dependent. This efficiency logic of neoliberalism needs monitoring. In the 1980s, there were vehement protests against the census. Even students took to the streets.
From a modern perspective, necessary data like occupation, high school qualifications or distance to the job seem almost absurd. There was a time when people believed they confronted the state as a system of rule that snatches information from citizens against their will. That time is long past. Today we expose ou8rselves of our own free will. This freedom makes protests impossible. Unlike the time of the census, we hardly protest against the surveillance. Free self-exposing follows the same efficiency logic as free self-exploitation. Do people protest against themselves? The American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer expressed this paradoxical situation with her truism: “Protect me from what I want.”
Distinguishing between establishing and maintaining power is important. System-maintaining power assumes a smart friendly form and makes itself invisible and unassailable. The subjugated subject is not conscious of his subjugation. He imagines himself in freedom. This technology of rule neutralizes resistance in a very effective way. The rule that represses and attacks freedom is not stable. The neoliberal regime is stable and immunizes itself against all resistance because it uses freedom instead of repressing it. The repression of freedom quickly provokes resistance, not the exploitation of freedom.
After the Asian crisis, South Korea was paralyzed and shocked. Then the IMF came and gave credits to the Koreans. The government had to forcefully enforce the neoliberal agenda against protests. This repressive power is the establishing power that often relies on force. This establishing power is distinguished from the system-maintaining power that even pretends to be freedom in the neoliberal regime. For Naomi Klein, the social state of shock after catastrophes is an opportunity to forcefully subject society to a radical reprogramming like the financial crisis in South Korea or Greece. There is hardly resistance in South Korea today. A great conformism and consensus with depression and burnout prevails. South Korea has the highest suicide rate today. One uses violence against oneself instead of changing society. Aggression outwards that would lead to a revolution gives way to a self-aggression.
There is no cooperating interconnected multitude that could revolt in a global protest- and revolution mass. Rather the solitude of the self-entrepreneur isolated for himself is the current production method. In the past, businesses stood in competition with each other. However a solidarity was possible within the business. Today everyone competes with everyone else, even within a business. This absolute competition enormously increases productivity but destroys solidarity and public spirit. No revolutionary mass can form out of exhausted, depressed and isolated individuals.
Neoliberalism cannot be explained in a Marxist way. The famous “alienation” of labor does not occur in neoliberalism. Today we rush with euphoria into work up to burnout. The first stage of the burnout syndrome is euphoria. Burnout and revolution are mutually exclusive. So it is an error to believe the multitude casts out the parasitic empire and installs a communist society.
THE ECONOMY OF SHARING LEADS TO A TOTAL COMMERCIALIZATION OF LIFE
What does communism mean today? Sharing and community are invoked everywhere. The sharing-economy should replace the economy of ownership and possession. “Sharing is caring” and “sharing is healing” are maxims of the “circler” in the new novel by Dave Eggers “The Circle.” The cobble stones on the way to the headquarters of the firm Circle are filled with sayings like “Seek community” and “Be active.” Caring is killing, it should really say. The digital carpooling service “Wunder Car” that makes each of us into a taxi driver advertises with the idea of community. However it is an error to believe the sharing-economy as Jeremy Rifkin claims in his latest book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” is the end of capitalism ringing in a global community-oriented society where sharing is more important than owning. On the contrary, the sharing-economy ultimately leads to a total commercialization of life.
The change from possession to “access” celebrated by Jeremy Rifkin does not liberate us from capitalism. Whoever has no money has no access to sharing. Even in the age of access, we still live in a “Bannoptikum” where those without money are excluded. “Airbrb,” the community market place that changes every house into a hotel even economizes hospitality. The ideology of community or the collaborative commons is seductive. No non-instrumental friendliness is possible any more. Friendliness is commercialized in a society of mutual valuation. One is friendly to get better valuations. The harsh logic of capitalism prevails even in the middle of the collaborative economy. In this beautiful “sharing,” no one paradoxically gives away anything voluntarily. Capitalism is completed in the moment when communism is sold as a good. Communism as a good is the end of revolution.
Critical comment A.M.: www.nachdenkseiten.de
This is an interesting and important article. On a critical note, the author underrates the consciousness of many people. Many know they are exploited and not free entrepreneurs. But they are helpless. They withdraw from social and political life. This has much to do with the second remark.
The author does not recognize the great role of the media in stabilizing neoliberal ideology. The revolution is prevented by manipulation of public opinion. This possibility was clearly recognized. The commercialization of the media was systematically developed. The concentration of the media in a few hands was systematically allowed and pursued… “Manipulation of public opinion rules political events and important parts of the economy and society.” That was the reason for the founding of Nachdenkseiten (a critical website of German articles) in 2003.
Critical comment Orlando Pascheit: www.nachdenkseiten.de
…The non-economist Han ignores the repressive exploitation in developing cou9ntries and the increasing pressure or bypassing employee rights in the old industrial nations that suggests a return to the repressive phase… Nevertheless Han’s distinction between the establishing repressive power that often relies on force and the system-maintaining power that pretends to be freedom in the neoliberal regime is interesting. Recourse to the old mode of repressive power in modern national economies means oppression and the oppressor become visible again and thus the chance of a revolution exists.
SOCIAL CRITIC BYUNG-CHUL HAN: WE FACEBOOK CAPITALISTS
By Byorn Hayer
[This article published on 7/30/2014 is translated abridged from the German in Spiegel Online.]
“The individual becomes the genitals of capital.” In his latest book the social critic Byung-Chul Han sees little that is good in neoliberalism. His thesis is that freedom is misused to exploit all of us.
A few years ago “You are Germany” was repeated on television – as a motivation injection for the little man and the little woman to help the great whole as hardworking, conscientious, always innovative and team-friendly individuals.
While Michel Foucault’s “disciplinary society” started from clear hierarchies, every individual in the project society is an entrepreneur and employer at once. We should now think: the sum of self-organized I-companies will bring more freedom to everyone. However this has not happened.
“The neoliberal regime changes foreign exploitation into self-exploitation,” Byung-Chul Han writes. We are trained for constant self-optimization and carry out overexploitation on our own minds and bodies. For profiteers, this may be much more efficient than that class struggle capitalism invoked by Marx. The thinker born in South Korea in 1959 does not reject the Marxist concept but goes beyond it. Where boundless competition rules the market, freedom fuels monetary growth. “Thus the free individual is degraded to the genitals of capital.”
Han does not spare harsh words to warn the reader of the threatening downfall of the West. With quotations from Heidegger, Foucault and Adorno, he draws a culture-critical diagnosis of the virulent crisis of freedom in times of cyber espionage and international surveillance.
KNOWLEDGE ORDERS US IN A HERD OF BLIND REGIRGITATORS
…Han describes a society that has lost its sensor for intimacy, mystery and above all inner contemplation. Information floats in that is increasingly shallow. Knowledge is consumed in tidbits and smoothed out so it can be hunted for through the digital channels in a problem-free way. Our present gains in acceleration. The consequences are intellectual impoverishment and a general conformism of people. Knowledge does not set us apart any more but arranges us in a herd of blind regirgitators. Whoever evades this meets denunciation and exclusion.
The social climate is raw and potentially makes people sick.
DOCTORS AS OPTIMIZERS AND MANAGERS AS MOTIVATION TRAINERS
…Instead of physical strength, control of the mind is promoted as the most important resource in the production process of the 21st century… Han strikes the nerve of the times with fascinating precision… The admonishers and critical observers of the age should have a central role… Philosophical thinking can – and should – be precise, understandable and oriented in social realities… The way Han presents his ideas is a feast and eulogy for the power and urgency of applied philosophy.
His latest book “Psycho-Politics – Neoliberalism and the New Power Techniques” is no exception. The modern person, according to Han’s central thesis, is caught in the false self-image of individual freedom and in reality is subject to the internalization of outward, well-disguised mechanisms of foreign control.
The new power mechanisms are not of a primarily aggressive kind but camouflaged as “smart power with a free and friendly appearance that stimulates and seduces” and is more effective than that power that orders, threatens and decrees.” While the modern persons permanently optimizing himself is subject to the error of freedom, he submits in reality to the neoliberal rule that establishes the new power structures through consumption and the pressure to permanent communication.
This power is so successful because it is camouflaged as voluntariness. Han errs in that repressive power has not completely disappeared but still manifests in the mechanisms of fomenting fear when for example employers before wage negotiations warn of the possible loss of jobs. Repressive power does not dissolve in thin air in times of neoliberalism but remains a determining factor of the social-economic exercise of rule. Big Brother was yesterday. Big Data supplied with voluntariness bordering on madness to the permanent individual data is much more efficient and maintains power… Neoliberalism’s exercise of power is deeply embedded in the sphere of supposed individual freedom. The best pressure is unnoticed by the coerced who sees his own conduct as voluntary.
THE GREATEST PROFIT
Byung-Chul Han on Neoliberalism
[This book review published on 9/16/2014 is translated abridged from the German on www.taz.de/1145882/.]
The philosopher sees a “psycho-politics” at work in neoliberalism. His book “Fatigue Society” from 2010 was a bestseller.
Byung-Chul Han is a master of the concise form… Han’s reflections revolve around neoliberalism and the strategies of voluntary self-exploitation. Freedom itself is exploited in the service of profit maximization as Han describes in a rhetorically concise formula: “The exploitation of freedom produces the greatest gain,” “The feeling of freedom arises in the transition from one life form to another until this proves to be a coercive form.”
Han recognizes a form of “classless self-exploitation” in neoliberal capitalism that allows no resistance any more against the exploitation – one does it oneself and voluntarily.
Neoliberalism for Han is “psycho-politics.” The mind is discovered as a productive force since today’s capitalism is defined by immaterial and non-corporeal forms of production… That “we work for capital and no longer for our own needs” only seems restrictedly plausible since it is hardly true for the “working poor.”
Han is by no means the first who identified the neoliberal phenomenon of self-exploitation… To Han, the main point is taking away power from psycho-politics.