The neoliberal global system shows remarkable staying power. A German critic of the system explains how the so-called 'sharing economy' is the ultimate trick and triumph of capitalism.
BERLIN — When a debate took place in Berlin last year between two opponents of capitalism, Antonio Negri and myself, Negri took the position that global resistance to “Empire” was a possibility. He presented himself as a communist revolutionary and called me a skeptical professor.
Negri apparently believes a "multitude" — the interconnected protest and revolutionary mass — can bring down the neoliberal leadership system. I felt that the position of communist revolutionary was naive and removed from reality, and I tried to explain why, today, revolution is no longer possible.
Why is our neoliberal system of global leadership so stable? Why is there so little resistance to it? Why is everyone led so easily into the void? Why is revolution no longer possible today despite an ever-growing chasm between rich and poor? To explain, we need greater understanding about how power and leadership function today.
Anyone trying to install a new leadership system has to eliminate resistance. And that includes the neoliberal governance system. To bring about a new system of leadership, you need established power often achieved through violence. But this established power is not the same as the stabilizing power inside a system.
It is well known that Margaret Thatcher, a precursor of neoliberalism, considered unions as "inner enemies" and fought them forcefully. Installing a neoliberal agenda via aggressive intervention will not, however, yield the necessary kind of stabilizing power needed to keep a system in place.
That power in the disciplinary and industrial society was repressive. Factory workers were brutally exploited by factory owners, and the violent exploitation of workers led to protest and resistance. A revolution that would bring down the existing production system was possible then. In this repressive system, both the repression and the repressors were identifiable. There was a concrete enemy to address resistance to.
Better than repression
The neoliberal leadership system is structured entirely differently. Here the power needed to keep the system going is not repressive — it is seductive, alluring. It is no longer as clear-cut as it is under a disciplinary regime. There is no concrete “them,” no enemy, repressing freedom and against whom rebellion would be possible.
Never has our society been as rich as it is today. And some people in it are richer than others. French economist Thomas Piketty warns that the disparities could become as drastic as they were in feudal times.
Neoliberalism turns the exploited worker into a free entrepreneur — the entrepreneur of himself. Everyone is now a self-exploiting worker in his own business. Everyone is master and servant in one. Class warfare has changed into a running inner battle with the self. Failing today means blaming oneself and feeling ashamed. People see themselves as the problem, not society.
Any disciplinary system that expends a great deal of force to repress people is inefficient. Considerably more efficient is a system of power that ensures that people voluntarily align with the system. The particular efficiency here is that it doesn’t work based on forbidding and withholding, but through pleasing and fulfilling. Instead of making people obedient it aims to make them dependent.
Neoliberalism’s logic of efficiency also applies to policing. In the 1980s, there were many protests against population censuses; even school kids protested against it. From today’s standpoint, the easy availability of information about our educational and career backgrounds is a given, but there was a time now long gone when people believed that the state was trying to wrest information from citizens. Today we give up information of our own accord, perceiving this as freedom. And it is precisely that perception that makes protest impossible. Unlike the days when we protested population censuses, we do not protest this monitoring. What does one protest against? Oneself? American concept artist Jenny Holzer expresses this paradoxical situation with a "truism:" "Protect me from what I want."
It is crucial to distinguish between the kind of power that activates and the kind of power that maintains. The latter today takes on a smart, friendly form that makes it opaque and unassailable. The exploited subject is unaware of his own oppression. He imagines he is free. This leadership technique neutralizes resistance most effectively. Leadership that oppresses freedom and attacks it is not stable.
The neoliberal regime is as stable as it is, immunized against resistance, because it makes use of freedom instead of suppressing it. Suppressing freedom leads quickly to resistance, whereas exploiting freedom does not.
A Korean case
The Asian financial crisis of 1997 left South Korea shocked and paralyzed. Then along came the International Monetary Fund to give the Koreans credit. Initially, the government had to battle against protests to press through a neoliberal agenda. This repressive power is the kind of power that mostly relies on violence and it is not the kind of power that can maintain a neoliberal regime passing itself off as freedom. To Naomi Klein, the state of shock societies find themselves in after financial crises such as those in South Korea or Greece is an opportunity for a radical reprogramming of society. Today there is hardly any resistance in South Korea. Instead, conformity and consensus are paired with depression and burn-out. The country now has the highest suicide rate in the world. One turns violence against one's self instead of trying to change society. Aggression aimed outward, which would result in revolution, becomes self-aggression.
There is no cooperative, interconnected multitude to rise up in global protest and revolution. Rather, the solitude of the isolated, individual self-entrepreneur is what marks present-day production.
In the past, businesses were in competition with each other, but within individual companies solidarity was possible. Today, everyone is in competition with everyone else, even within companies. This absolute competition increases productivity enormously, but it destroys solidarity and the sense of public spirit. Revolution is not possible among exhausted, depressive, and isolated individuals.
One cannot explain neoliberalism in Marxist terms. It doesn’t even have the connotation of “alienation” from work. People today throw themselves into work euphorically until they burn out. Burn-out and revolution cancel each other out. So it is a mistake to believe that the multitude is throwing over a parasitic Empire in favor of a communist society.
Where do things stand with communism? Buzzwords everywhere include “sharing” and “community.” The sharing economy is supposed to replace an economy of ownership and property. "Sharing is Caring" runs the maxim of “circlers" in Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle but that should really read “Caring is Killing.” Even ridesharing service Uber, which turns us all into prospective taxi drivers, espouses the idea of community.
But it is a mistake to believe, as Jeremy Rifkin suggests in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society that the sharing economy means the end of capitalism and rings in a global, community-oriented society in which sharing is more valued than owning. On the contrary. Bottom line, the sharing economy leads to a complete commercialization of life.
The change from ownership to “access” celebrated by Jeremy Rifkin doesn’t free us from capitalism. Anyone without money doesn’t have access to sharing. Even in the age of access, people without money remain shut out. Airbnb, the community marketplace that turns homes into hotels, even saves on hospitality. The ideology of community or collaborative commons leads to total capitalization of the community. Aimless friendship is no longer possible. In a society of reciprocal evaluation, friendliness is also commercialized. One is friendly to get a better ranking online.
The harsh logic of capitalism prevails in the so-called sharing economy, where, paradoxically, nobody is actually giving anything away voluntarily. Capitalism comes full circle when it sells communism as the next piece of merchandise. Yes, communism as merchandise spells the end of revolution.
*Byung-Chul Han is a Seoul-born German author, cultural theorist, and professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin.