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The Curious Case Of Self-Exploitation

tinmanjk profile image Ivan Petrov ・3 min read

Just finished "The Burnout Society" by Byung-Chul Han.
It's a very short, but dense philosophical book about some obvious, but overlooked trends in recent times. I decided to share some of them here because I think we developers have an especially large blind spot when it comes to them. (If the essence of writing is re-writing, then the essence of reading philosophy texts is re-reading philosophy texts, so here comes the first quote:)

"Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves".

"... after a certain level of productivity obtains, the negativity of prohibition impedes further expansion. The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can. The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than the obedience-subject."

Sounds familiar? What side-projects are you working on? What new tech stacks are you exploring in your free time? What books to read, which courses to take, what open-source project to contribute to...
And the best part - you CHOOSE to do that. Nobody is forcing you. You are developing into the best possible version of yourself. In short, you win. And society wins because of your increased productivity and commitment to your passions which translates into more and better products and services a.k.a. growth and development.

So everybody wins?
Well, not quite according to Byung-Chul Han:

"The achievement-subject stands free from external instances of domination forcing it to work and exploiting it. It is subject to no one if not to itself. However, the absence of external domination does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance. In this way, it exploits itself. Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation [other's exploiting you] because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient."

The compulsion (the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something) is still here, it's just self-inflicted. We push ourselves with our guard down. As a result we allow levels of exploitation that we will never ever put up with had they come from outside.

Byung-Chul Han mentions some factors that exacerbate this dynamic even further:

  • the gratification crisis

"A definitive work, as the result of completed labor is no longer possible today. Contemporary relations of production stand in the way of conclusion. Instead, one works into the open."

This is especially relevant for developers. Our work is perpetual work-in-progress almost by definition. There is always more to do. (1)

  • less reflection and more ...

" [...] hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different
tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this
scattered mode of awareness."

I am pretty sure all of us have felt the tremendous pull towards hyperattention and the almost Sisyphean effort it is to battle it. We forget to pause. (2)

  • (1) + (2) = hyperactivity

"If one had only the power to do (something) and no power
not to do, it would lead to fatal hyperactivity."

For me the costs of this sneaky dynamic for a number of instances over the years were diminished health, failed relationships and friendships.

What I have learned and forgotten and re-learned is that the power NOT to do (negative potency) seems to be the only weapon. Most importantly, it has to be exercised consciously and continuously or it will lose its vital strength. The best catchy one-liner (mantra) I have heard is that "We have to have the discipline not to have discipline".

Have you felt the self-exploitation? It is really that bad?

What do you do when you should do nothing :) ?

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Discussion

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I haven't read Han's book but Franco Berardi's 2009 The Soul At Work explores very similar territory:

The content of labor becomes mental, while at the same time the limits of productive labor become uncertain. The notion of productivity itself becomes undefined: the relation between time and quantity of produced value is difficult to determine, since for a cognitive worker every hour is not the same from the standpoint of produced value.

He contrasts the previous industrial work-regime of selling one's body and time in measured increments and operating machines which amplify labor-power with the post-industrial regime:

The mobility of the product was made possible by the assembly line while workers had to remain motionless in space and time. Info-workers, instead, constantly move all along the length, breadth and depth of cyberspace. They move to find signs, to elaborate experience, or simply to follow the paths of their existence. But at every moment and place they are reachable and can be called back to perform a productive function that will be reinserted into the global cycle of production. In a certain sense, cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular. Info-producers can be seen as neuro-workers. They prepare their nervous system as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible. The entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.
But what emotional, psychological, and existential price does the constant stress of our permanent cognitive electrocution imply?

According to Berardi, the quintessential psychological syndrome of the industrial era was repression-induced neurosis: am I in the proper place, am I acting correctly, am I deriving the correct meaning for what I am told? Whereas the post-industrial milieu is a nonstop barrage of signs and meanings, overlapping and overcoding each other -- as he puts it, "conditions that describe schizophrenic communication". In a hyper-stimulating context we eventually panic, trying to keep up with an infinity of moving targets, and when we inevitably fail, we swing toward depression or burnout.

Overall it is not an especially hopeful book, although there are some bright spots: opposing the idea of wealth "as time -- time to enjoy, travel, learn, and make love" to the economic model of wealth as pure accumulation, or looking toward the formation of liberatory economic networks and collectivities which turn away from the juggernaut-Economy and might, in sufficient volume, force a reckoning. But a decade after it was written, it's hard to look at the precarity faced by "gig economy" workers or the infectious compulsion to build and maintain personal brands and think we're on the right track.

 

Thanks for the suggestion. It is definitely a book I want to check out. The fact that is has 1 customer review on Amazon and no Kindle edition is quite telling....

I don't think we are on the right track, because nobody is raising the issue. Even when I submitted this blog post, I had the feeling of "it's gonna be perceived as negative, loser-ish etc". Positivity always seems to be winning. People have become almost allergic to any form of negativity. Naturally, there is a strong selection bias going for what we decide to read or write, not to mention think.

 

The trouble with negativity is when we point it at people instead of things. Because people are great but some things suck. Or when people point negativity at things near us or things we like and we mistakenly think it's pointed at us.

Even if we were to point negativity to a person, they will stand their ground in one way or the other - they can be offended, they can learn something, they have the opportunity to test their beliefs, their character, or just simply decide not to care. In a way, that's testing their psychic immune system.

In contrast, if you are surrounded only by positivity, i.e. no external conflict or pressure, you lose that and begin developing some "auto-immune" psychic diseases.

That's the idea I got from the book anyway.

 

I look at my job as inverse outsourcing. I hire a company to supply me with work and handle payroll. I hadn't thought of it this way, I but I guess I also outsource exploitation of myself to my employer as well, because they're nicer and more reasonable about it then I would be.

 

:D Interesting way of looking at things. It gave me some food for thought.