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Why Revolution Is Impossible: On The Seductive Power Of Neoliberalism

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.

Hit the road
Hit the road
Byung-Chul Han*

-Essay-

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.

Capitalist circle

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.

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Geopolitics

Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.


The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.

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David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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