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Byung-Chul Han and capitalism’s ‘death drive’

New book examines the cold reality of contemporary neoliberalism


Capitalism and the Death Drive is a set of 19 essays and interviews published between 2012 and 2020 by South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han. All the essays and interviews are short and accessible, and at 150 pages, the book is not by any means a slow read.

The stress in these pieces is on such ideas as the “digital panopticon” of the internet, the surveillance state and our voluntary cooperation with it, the idea of the foreign, capitalism as death drive, and so on. Each is pervaded by a general hopelessness. Han, who teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts, sees no “we” in the world and, it seems, very little possibility of one.

Han’s most often repeated idea in this collection is his assertion that under present day capitalism, we are all engaged in a process of self-exploitation. This is an idea he discusses frequently in his earlier book, The Burnout Society, first published in German in 2010.

Insightfully, Han speaks of the “entrepreneur of the self” and the “performance-oriented subject” who “is compelled to achieve ever more. It thus never reaches a satisfying point of completion. The subject lives with a permanent lack, and with feelings of guilt. Because it is competing not only against others but—primarily—against itself, it tries to get ahead of itself.”

For Han, it is not necessarily excessive work that burns out the soul, but the neoliberal pressure to perform. It is in important observations of this sort that Han seems to be the intellectual descendent of Max Weber (Han is an ardent Germanophile).

Han’s work might be seen as a late, post-modern version of the Christian anxiety to justify oneself. One thinks of Martin Luther, especially in his earlier years, struggling with “Anfechtungen” (spiritual crises) and seeking justification with God; now the Big Other is internalized (though I don’t think Han puts it quite that way) and we seek to justify ourselves to ourselves like a dog chasing its tail.

Han astutely has his finger on the pulse of the madness and nihilistic inanity of capital. “Today,” he states, “all time is labour time,” meaning again not simply that we work too long or too hard, but that all time is seen in relation to work. The sacred space of what he calls “the time of the festival” has been entirely usurped by “labour time,” which “is carried with us when we go on holiday; we even take it with us in our sleep. This is why our sleep is so restless today. Insofar as it serves the purpose of regenerating one’s labour power, relaxation is just another mode of work.”

As British soldiers were alleged to have sung during the darker times of the First World War, and to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, “we’re here because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…”

In an interview chapter entitled “It is Eros That Defeats Depression,” Han says:

Self-exploitation is limitless! We voluntarily exploit ourselves until we break down. If I fail, I take responsibility for this failure. If I suffer, if I go bust, I have only myself to blame. Because it is wholly voluntary, self-exploitation is exploitation without domination. And because it takes place under the guise of freedom, it is highly efficient. There is no emerging collective, no ‘we’, that could rise up against the system.

But there is ambiguity in the book about whether this “wholly voluntary” self-exploitation is wholly voluntary or not.

In another essay Han says the “subordinated subject… believes itself to be free” implying that it is not free. In “Only What Is Dead Is Transparent” we find “[s]elf-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others because it is accompanied by a feeling of freedom. The performance-oriented subject is compelled from within, voluntarily” (emphasis added).

Is Han aware that with such a paradoxical conception of the situation (unless, perhaps, his analysis simply lacks rigour here) he has stumbled upon what some religious traditions might call sin, in all its confusion and perplexity, as in St. Paul’s “[f]or the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7.19)? Han does not draw the connection, and I do not know what he would make of it, but it seems the “wholly voluntary” is problematic in ways that potentially have religious overtones. Given that Han’s work is reminiscent of Max Weber’s analysis of the influence of Protestantism on capitalism this should not be surprising.

From a historical point of view the current era of neoliberalism, where “each of us is an entrepreneur of his own self,” is different from Marx’s time, when, according to Han, no factory worker was such an entity. “What we had was exploitation by others. Today, we have self-exploitation—I exploit myself in the illusion that I actually find personal fulfilment.”

Han implies that all this is impossible to fight. But so serious and apparently fatal a situation needs, I think, more analysis than Han gives it before one can justify giving up entirely.

In the first place, capitalists still have the power to hire and fire. This is not an internalized form of oppression. But if it is true that to a significant extent capitalism’s locus of oppression has shifted away from outside the individual to inside him or her, is there not an upside to this? One may have more power to overthrow internalized oppression once one has come to understand it.

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Photo by Massimiliano Monocri.

Further bleak assertions about future prospects are made in “Why Revolution Is Impossible Today,” where Han chides Antonio Negri and his faith in “the multitude” for being “naïve and divorced from reality,” which, sadly, is the same thing that patronizing conservatives like to say. One wishes to ask Han, in what do you have trust or faith? Is there anything?

Where I criticize Han is less on his timely and insightful ideas than in his attitudes. Han’s book partakes of the failure of much of liberal and leftist thought, which is that it limits itself to pointing out what is going wrong, but has few ideas of how to change it.

I make this point not the way conservatives do: to legitimize the status quo automatically whenever guaranteed successful alternatives are not instantly presented. Certainly, one need not necessarily have answers in posing critiques. But one cannot help but wonder if Han is infected by the death drive himself in many parts of this book, such as in the following exchange:

NB/AL [Niels Boeing and Andreas Lebert]: Are you a happy person?
BCH [Byung-Chul Han]: That is not a question I ask.
NB/AL: Do you mean that is not a question one should ask?
BCH: It is really a meaningless question. Also, happiness is not a condition I want to achieve [good grief]. You need to define the concept. What do you mean by ‘happiness’?… How can you like to exist in this false world? That is impossible. That is also why I am not happy. I rarely understand the world. It appears quite absurd to me. You cannot be happy living in absurdity. To be happy takes a lot of illusions, I think.
NB/AL: You enjoy…?
BCH: Enjoy what?
NB/AL: Anything!
BCH: The world I cannot enjoy.
NB/AL: A nice piece of cake?
BCH: I don’t eat cake.

This almost unwittingly comical exchange shows that Han is not a man who would have been fazed by the cynicism of Marie Antoinette, at any rate. The problems of the left, as usual, are less intellectual than spiritual or psychological.

Emblematic also of Han’s attitude is what we find here:

NB/AL: Your analysis doesn’t sound very encouraging. We exploit ourselves. We do not take any risks, either in love or in politics. We do not want to get hurt and do not want to hurt others.
BCH: I am sorry, but these are the facts.

Indeed. Perhaps they are. But is it enough to sit on the “facts” and contemplate our doom? Along similar lines is a pessimistic comment or two about Occupy, showing that Han can see only what it failed to do, and overlooks the miraculous fact of what it was and that it even existed at all.

More hopeful, from my point of view at least, are some of the comments Han makes on aesthetics, such as “I cannot conceive of the beautiful apart from the foreign. All genuine beauty is foreign.” The context of this statement is a discussion of the nature of Europe, Germany, and of Han’s love of being a foreigner in Germany.

But how foreign is foreign? Might we extend this idea further, even metaphysically? Of course, placing all beauty in the foreign stands the risk of a “life is elsewhere” mentality, but let me risk over-reaching and suggest that Han at least might be glimpsing at the metaphysical here, and that is something.

“Today, we seek to eliminate foreignness because it prevents the global exchange of capital and information,” he writes. And indeed, we also seek to eliminate anything like a metaphysical inquiry into the nature of capitalism, which would quickly prove its nihilistic vacuity, as Han seems to know.

What I am saying is this foreignness capital seeks to kill is not simply the nature of this or that nationality or ethnicity, but the metaphysical itself, where, one might say, beauty comes from. I would like to see if Han explores this line of enquiry at some point.

And if capital wants to destroy beauty, perhaps beauty is part of the answer? I do not mean this in some simplistic sense, as in everyone listening to more music or reading better novels. But perhaps this whole realm of the foreign is where we need to seek our answers: “Without the foreign, we are blind to what is ours.”

And what is ours may include our answers to the problems Han and so many of us find so daunting.

J.W. Horton is a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media. He is also an essayist and fiction writer. Visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.


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