A response to Byung-Chul Han’s post: Why revolution is no longer possible.
An article written by Byung-Chul Han published on OpenDemocracy.net, claims that revolution is no longer possible. This initial statement of revolution not being possible is correct. His explanation as to why is also correct. Where he is incorrect, will become apparent. His post primarily deals with his disagreement with Antonio Negri who claims that revolution is possible via a “Multitude”, “networked mass of protest and revolution that he clearly trusted to bring the Empire to a fall.” In this debate we must stand with Byung-Chul Han.
Byung-Chul Han’s premise is absolutely correct: “System-preserving power is not repressive, but seductive.” Internally, force is needed to carry out the neoliberal agenda. He notes Margaret Thatcher’s brutal and violent repression of unions as a prime example of the traditional enforcement. The face of such a system was readily apparent; workers were brutally exploited by capitalists. The line between the two sides (the class divide) was obvious. It was clear who the enemy was and how their power was structured with the ownership of the productive forces. To quote him: “There was a concrete opponent — a visible enemy —and one could offer resistance.”
His breakthrough that the vast majority of Marxists are still in denial of is the switch from repression to seduction. In doing so the enemy has become less apparent, the relations have become obfuscated. While we, the Marxists, know who the enemy is, the masses off first world people do not. Just because we understand, does not mean that they do. As capitalism has evolved over time, the class relations are not as obvious as they once were. They have changed. To quote him once again: “Now, there is no longer a concrete opponent, no enemy suppressing freedom that one might resist.”
The self-delusion of the productive relations
His explanation is as follows:
Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem.
The most obvious example is the rise in self-employment from Marx’s time. People on some level, conscious of the worker-capitalist relations seek to abdicate themselves from it. The first world offers much opportunity for self-employment given the availability of financial capital (loans) to the (lower) non-capitalist classes. With the possibility of breaking free of the exploitative end of the capitalist relations, one’s view of the system changes. What was once a life they had to get away from which was wrong, is now something that merely exists which people have a “choice” of leaving. Of course the working class cannot simply cease their employment and begin working for themselves. Such an act would collapse the entire system. However, the illusion that it is possible remains. Thus, anyone who doesn’t take on self-employment – by the logic of the system – deserves to be bound by exploitative and oppressive relations.
Theoretically it’s possible that anyone can work for themselves and become successful. So, anyone who doesn’t take it therefore is consenting to the exploitative capitalist relations. It’s an illusion that anyone can succeed, so therefore anyone who doesn’t is written off as “not wanting to do the work”, or not having some kind of entrepreneurial spirit. As a result we are left with a blaming of the individual for a lack success when the system is literally incapable of providing it. As Byung-Chul Han puts it: “People see themselves, not society, as the problem.” Just keep trying, that brass ring is possible to reach…
From the whipping stick, to the dangling of the carrot
Byung-Chul Han notes that forcing people to conform to a system is less effective than ensuring that people willingly subordinate themselves to it. The system has much less direct enforcement of it than once existed. The labour strikes of the 1800s and early 1900s are a thing of the past. The scenario of the National Guard, military, or police assaulting militant workers in quite literal street battles is no more. (Yes, oppression against racial minorities still exists, but we’re talking about class here.) Instead, the system is designed to fulfil as opposed to using the traditional oppression. People are not made to be compliant, but to be dependent.
The same goes for the collection of personal information and surveillance. Byung-Chul Han gives the example the protests against the national census in Germany during the 1980s. Now we have a much more efficient system of collecting this information, one where the people offer it up freely:
From today’s perspective, the information requested therein— profession, education levels, and distance from the workplace — seem almost laughable. At the time, people believed that they were facing the state as an instance of domination wresting data from citizens against their will. That time is long past. Today, people expose themselves willingly. Precisely this sense of freedom is what makes protest impossible. In contrast to the days of the census, hardly anyone protests against surveillance. Free self-disclosure and self-exposure follow the same logic of efficiency as free self-exploitation. What is there to protest against? Oneself? Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer has formulated the paradox of the present situation: “Protect me from what I want.”
Look at what we have today. Mindless millions who are willing to surrender every detail about their personal lives on social media. Even Marxists who are among the first to decry the police state are doing so. We’re in a period where society enables people to be so self-absorbed that they relinquish not only their data, but the personal details of their lives. The bourgeois individualistic mentality has reached such a level of self-involved promotion, that even Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand would be astounded. Freedom has been marketed in such an individualistic way that any identifying with a class has been erased. It is no wonder that first world people cannot see their common enemy. As they attempt to perpetuate this conception of freedom, they continue to support their own oppression.
At times like this, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words could not be any more appropriate: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
A very excellent point he makes is how there is, “power that posits and power that preserves.” This alluring capitalist control mechanism becomes invisible, something people cannot see. If you can’t see that it is there, then you certainly cannot organize an effort to attack it. This new neoliberal effort to control the population has been extremely effective at negating dissent. It has removed the overt oppressive aspect of it. Using physical more direct force has always resulted in retaliation. As he says, “The neoliberal regime proves stable by immunizing itself against all resistance, because it makes use of freedom instead of repressing it.” To put it in Marxist terms, we see the use of overt force as increasing the antagonism in the contradiction. If the antagonism increases to a particular degree, revolution is an inevitable result as Marx predicted. What the capitalist class has learned is how to balance these two opposing forces.
A correct interpretation of Byung-Chul Han observations
Byung-Chul Han says the following:
Neoliberalism cannot be explained in Marxist terms. The famous “alienation” of labor does not even occur. Today, we dive eagerly into work — until we burn out. The first stage of burnout syndrome, after all, is euphoria. Burnout and revolution are mutually exclusive. Accordingly, it is mistaken to believe that the Multitude will cast off the parasitic Empire to inaugurate a communist society.
This statement is incorrect, we can explain it in Marxist terms.
Byung-Chul Han positions this as making the system alluring to the people that live in it. It should rightly be called “buying off first world people.” Super exploitation in the third world has lead to greater surpluses that have allowed neoliberalism to afford such freedoms to first world people. These freedoms which the capitalist class exploit here are not available in the third world. Instead, they get the very opposite, they get the violence that was once used on us. Imperialism continues to murder and rape people in all the same horrible ways. The overt oppressive measures continue to exist, but they have been transferred onto others.
When he says it is alluring for them and they want to keep the system, we say they are preserving a privileged position within the global economy. First worlders, people who are deluded into their own “oppression” are so quick to support the wars. How many Marxist organizations have we seen that have supported imperialism? The Socialist Alternative, Bob Avakin’s RCP, etc. This is to say nothing of the pro-imperialist war stances of the Right. All the violence and exploitation is there, it has just been shifted onto someone else. The problem is that they benefit from the imperialist power structure. Byung-Chul Han presents the situation as one where first world people are the victims, when in truth they are the passive (sometimes direct) collaborators.
Illusions of breaking out of poverty into a self-employment status, propping up the individual, don’t exist in the third world. Grinding poverty is all around them, death, disease, and murder prevents such an illusion from taking hold. This is why people leave their countries and immigrate to the West, because they know no such elevating of the individual “where anyone can make it” exists. The third world masses live without illusions of how the system works; even if they are uneducated in how it functions.
The refusal of first world people to resist the system enables it to continue to grind third world people into pain and suffering. From this we can determine that first world “working class” people are not allies of the third world masses. We have a clear class divide between first world and third world peoples. They are in a class antagonism where the benefit of one is the immiseration of the other. This is a new reality which Maoist-Third Worldist theory acknowledges, that dominates our world today.
When Byung-Chul Han says that “revolution is not possible,” he should rightly say, “revolution is not possible in the first world.” What he describes about first world society is correct. All the pieces of the puzzle are there before him, but he does not see it. He remains in the dogmatic mindset of current Marxist theory. Unfortunately he limits his critique solely to the first world. He doesn’t look at it in a global context. After all, we do live in an age of global capitalism.