The Burnout Society: Survival of the fittest
The Burnout Society/Byung-Chul Han; translated by Erik Butler (2015), Stanford University Press ©
Translation of Müdigkeitsgesellschaf by Byung-Chul Han (2010) MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlag ©
Review by Adrian Petrice and Samuel Johns
“The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life”.
Byung-Chul Han shocks us with this thought. The essence of capitalism is: Survival.
Where can we go from here?
The Burnout Society, from Korean-born and Berlin-residing philosopher Byung-Chul Han, was first published in 2010 and translated into English in 2015. It tackles one of the most talked about issues of work in the 21st century. Increasingly, workers complain of “burnout” and “brownout”. “What is brownout,” you ask? The painful, long-term drowning in innumerable tasks, operations, projects, and to-do lists at work, that can lack meaning, purpose, and significance. All direction evaporates. All sense of purpose fades, and tasks become futile, work becomes pointless.
Han tackles this controversial subject in three distinct areas:
- The profound boredom of late modernity
- Brewing a society of tiredness
- Burnout, survival, and the inner logic of achievement
In this piece, we turn our attention to what he says about survival.
Burnout, survival, and the inner logic of achievement
Bringing the themes of endemic boredom and tiredness together, Byung-Chul Han suggests a perfect storm scenario of burnout, inspired by the “hyper-attention” that leads to boredom and the “hyper-activity” that leads to tiredness. At the heart of our capitalist society is an inner logic of achievement, that drives towards burnout.
Remember, Han ends his book with the shocking remark that: “The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life”. Further, he says that our economy “is sustained by the illusion that more capital produces more life, which means a greater capacity for living.”
Firstly, Han introduces his critique of the capitalist conception of labour.
He writes: “the society of labouring and achievement is not a free society. It generates new constraints. Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a labouring slave."
"In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labour camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.”
Interestingly, this reflects critiques of the current trends towards ‘workplace surveillance,’ with a huge explosion (since the Covid-19 pandemic ‘work from home’ trend) of new optimisation apps and software. These range from the more mundane project management tools (such as Monday, MeisterTask or ToDo-ist) to the more intrusive analytics of workplace performance (such as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, VeriClock, Hubstaff, Teramind, Controlio, and others). The fine line between optimising productivity and straying into surveillance is becoming even murkier, even less distinct, with the advent of this latest suite of apps.
Secondly, on top of this sort of inner forced labour, Han writes on the controversial topic of depression.
“Depression is not the imperative only to belong to oneself, but the pressure to achieve that causes exhaustive depression. It is not the excess of responsibility and initiative that makes one sick, but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labour society”.
We get sick not so much because we have responsibilities and initiative, but because, one way or another, we have an obligation to achieve results. Han’s critique lands squarely at the door of the ‘telos’ (or vision or target) of late-modern society, driven to succeed at all costs, and hit a certain benchmark of performance. Han affirms that “the society of achievement and activeness is generating excessive tiredness and exhaustion” as well as a tendency towards depression.
Han suggests that, above all, depression is a form of exhaustion of our creativity and our abilities [or Schaffens- und Könnensmüdigkeit]: “The complaint of the depressive individual, [that] ‘Nothing is possible’, can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible’.”
The destructive cycle this can launch includes self-reproach and auto-aggression. For Han this reflects the malaise of a society sick with positivity. He writes:
“depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity. It reflects a humanity waging war on itself.”
This can be taken to understand a number of elements of late-modern society.
On the one hand, there is the positive freedom of flexibility—namely, that flexibility makes us evermore free to do, be or say certain things. Han writes: “In positive terms, such a human being without character is flexible, able to assume any form, play any role, or perform any function. This shapelessness—or, alternately, flexibility—creates a high degree of economic efficiency.” Yet on the other hand, we get so free that begin to do, be or say more things than we can handle. So, over-drive as a result from such flexibility and freedom can feed the demon of depression, or even of burnout. Han continues: “Depression—which often culminates in burnout—follows from overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak. It is tired, exhausted by itself, and at war with itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, on the world, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out. It wears out in a rat race it runs against itself.”
Han cites new media and communications as a catalyst in this auto-aggressive war, caught in a rat race of running against oneself. Byung-Chul Han suggests that modern digital technology is diluting ‘being-for-otherness’ and therefore undermining alterity and resistance. Han writes: “In virtual spaces, the ego can practically move independent of the reality principle, which would provide a principle of alterity and resistance. In all the imaginary spaces of virtuality, the narcissistic ego encounters itself first and foremost. Increasingly, virtualization and digitalization are making the real disappear, which makes itself known above all through its resistance.”
So we see that on the one hand, freedom can bring a “surplus of options…[that cut off] all attachments” (undermining true and authentic bonding) and on the other hand this can be fuelled by hyper-activity as a precedent to depression and burnout.
Han warns that depression is different to melancholy. Where melancholy is “preceded by the experience of loss”, with a “strong libidinal attachment to an object”, depression on the other hand is “objectless and therefore undirected”, “cut off from all relation and attachment”, and thus “utterly lacking gravity”.
Han suggests that social media and a proliferation of contacts fuels this harmful cycle. He writes:
“the late-modern ego devotes the majority of libidinal energy to itself.
The remaining libido is distributed and scattered among continually multiplying contacts and fleeting relationships. In social networks, the function of friends is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.”
Case one: forced to be flexible
How can we start to understand these trends through practical examples?
Whilst remaining a philosopher of the highest calibre, Byung-Chul Han doesn’t shy away from providing concrete, lived examples. He is trying to bring our attention to the possible catastrophic convergence of flexibility in late-modern society (demonstrated by the gig economy, zero-hours contracts, flexicurity at work, freelance opportunities, etc.) and the flexibility of the late-modern subject (constantly seeking to reinvent themselves, to innovate their identity, to be seen as dynamic and adaptable).
Han writes: “Burnout, which often precedes depression, does not point to a sovereign individual who has come to lack the power to be the master of himself. Rather,
burnout represents the pathological consequence of voluntary self-exploitation.
The imperative of expansion, transformation, and self-reinvention—of which depression is the flipside—presumes an array of products tied to identity”.
His warning is stark: “The more often one changes one’s identity, the more production is dynamized. Industrial disciplinary society relied on unchanging identity, whereas post-industrial achievement society requires a flexible person to heighten production”.
What is the logic here?
Han is suggesting that the new-found ‘un-freedom’ of the late-modern subject is situated in her or his self-referentiality. Rather than being grounded in an Other, or in relation to an other, only the subject remains. Han writes:
“what proves problematic is not individual competition per se, but rather its self-referentiality, which escalates into absolute competition. That is, the achievement-subject competes with itself; it succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own shadow. This self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results”.
Achievement society can therefore become the society of self-exploitation. The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out. In the process, it develops auto-aggression that can easily escalate into the violence of self-destruction. The project turns out to be a projectile that the achievement-subject is aiming at itself.
Case two: the violence of positivity
Byung-Chul Han links this self-exploitative (and possibly self-destructive) tendency directly to the violence of positivity.
“the society of positivity, which thinks itself free of all foreign constraints, becomes entangled in destructive self-constraints. Psychic maladies such as burnout and depression, the exemplary maladies of the twenty-first century, all display auto-aggressive traits. Exogenous violence is replaced by self-generated violence, which is more fatal than its counterpart, inasmuch as the victim of such violence considers itself free.”
How does he end up at this conclusion?
Han suggests that our tired society starts with “I-tiredness” or solitary tiredness, the tiredness of the individual. Rather than having any reference to an external object or better yet an external Other, it is plunged into a spiral of structureless self-referentiality. Han opines that “it annihilates all reference to the Other, in favour of narcissistic self-reference”.
The late-modern achievement-subject does not pursue works of duty. Its maxims are not obedience, law, and the fulfilment of obligation, but rather freedom, pleasure, and inclination. Above all, the late-modern achievement-subject expects the profits of enjoyment from work. Han writes: “it works for pleasure and does not act at the behest of the Other”.
Unfortunately, this tiredness of the individual doesn’t stop with the individual: it spills into relationships and permeates the whole society. Referencing to Handke, Han mentions “we-tiredness”: I am not tired “of you”, but rather I am tired “with you”. How does this manifest in lived experience? Continual escalation of expectations ensures that present behaviours are never fulfilling, delegitimising any form of closure.
Our society is driven by “the violence of positivity”. That violence gets visible through the exhaustion and inclusion which characterise our society of achievement. When things are like this, a bizarre form of topsy-turvy truth (DeBord, 1967) can emerge. Han writes:
“today, violence issues more readily emerge from the conformism to consensus than from the antagonism of dissent”.
Because, once again, “the capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life”.
A very clear, standout example is the boom in the health and wellness industry of late. “The mania for health emerges when life has become as flat as a coin and stripped of all narrative content, all value. Given the atomization of society and the erosion of the social, all that remains is the body of the ego, which is to be kept healthy at any cost.” When health becomes self-referential, life is reduced to mere biology.
According to Han, “the inner logic of the achievement society dictates its evolution into a doping society. Life reduced to bare, vital functioning is life to be kept healthy, unconditionally. Health is the new goddess.”
Slowly, a healthy but bare life equals that of the undead: people who are “too alive to die, and too dead to live.”
Even the rigid, rigorous separation between life and death casts a spell of ghostly stiffness over life itself. Concerns about living the good life yield to the hysteria of surviving. The reduction of life to biological, vital processes makes life itself bare and stripped of all narrativity. It takes livingness from life, which is much more complex than simple vitality and health.
Concluding thoughts: where can we go from here?
Does Byung-Chul Han have any hope to hold out to us?
Thankfully, the answer is yes. And for Han it is encapsulated in two words: “vita contemplativa”.
Han suggests that the contemplative route (“la vita contemplativa”) – which probably has significant parallels and overlaps with mindfulness and attentiveness – is a way to restore and re-find spirituality.
Byung-Chul Han, quoting Nietzsche, suggests that this route implies a pedagogy of seeing, where one must learn “not react immediately to a stimulus, but instead to take control of the inhibiting, excluding instincts. Every characteristic absence of spirituality [or Ungeistigkeit], every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist a stimulus”(Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 190)—the inability to set a no in opposition.
“Reacting immediately, yielding to every impulse, already amounts to illness and represents a symptom of exhaustion”.
Han continues: “today we live in a world that is very poor in interruption; betweens and between-times are lacking [or what we may call interstitial spaces]. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals.”
Han draws on the famous 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche at this juncture. “Here Nietzsche is simply speaking of the need to revitalize the vita contemplativa. The vita contemplativa is not a matter of passive affirmation and being open to whatever happens. Instead, it offers resistance to crowding, intrusive stimuli. Instead of surrendering the gaze to external impulses, it steers them in sovereign fashion”.
I wonder what this may look like for the Christian.
How can we retrace our steps on the “vita contemplativa”?