The coronavirus epidemic confronts us with two opposed figures that prevail in our daily lives: those who are overworked to exhaustion (medical stuff, caretakers…) and those who have nothing to do since they are forcibly or voluntarily confined to their homes. Belonging to the second category, I feel obliged to use this predicament to propose a short reflection on different ways in which we can be tired. I will ignore here the obvious paradox of the enforced inactivity itself making us tired, so let me begin with Byung-Chul Han who provided a systematic account of how and why we live in a “burnout society.”[i] Here is a short resume of Byung-Chul Han’s masterpiece shamelessly taken from Wikipedia:
“Driven by the demand to persevere and not to fail, as well as by the ambition of efficiency, we become committers and sacrificers at the same time and enter a swirl of demarcation, self-exploitation and collapse. ‘When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production him- or herself. The neoliberal system is no longer a class system in the proper sense. It does not consist of classes that display mutual antagonism. This is what accounts for the system’s stability.’ Han argues that subjects become self-exploiters: ‘Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.’ Individuals has become what Han calls ‘the achievement-subjects’; they do not believe they are subjugated ‘subjects’ but rather ‘projects: Always refashioning and reinventing ourselves’ which ‘amounts to a form of compulsion and constraint – indeed, to a more efficient kind of subjectivation and subjugation. As a project deeming itself free of external and alien limitations, the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.’”
While Han offers perspicuous observations on the new mode of subjectivation from which we can learn a lot – what he discerns is today’s figure of the superego -, one should note that the new form of subjectivity described by Han is conditioned by the new phase of global capitalism, which remains a class system with growing inequalities. Struggle and antagonisms are in no way reducible to the intra-personal “struggle against oneself.” There are still millions of manual workers in Third World countries, just as there are big differences between different kinds of immaterial workers (suffice it to mention the growing domain of “human services” like the caretakers of old people). A gap separates the top manager who owns or runs a company from a precarious worker spending days at home alone with his/her PC: they are definitely not both a master and a slave in the same sense.
A lot is being written on how the old Fordist assembly line mode of work is replaced by a new mode of creative cooperative work that leaves much more space for individual creativity. Nonetheless, what is effectively going on is not so much a replacement but an outsourcing: work at Microsoft and Apple may be organized in a more cooperative way, but final products are then put together in China or Indonesia in a very Fordist way. Assembly line work is simply outsourced. So, we get a new division of work: self-employed and self-exploited workers (described by Han) in the developed West, assembly line debilitating work in the Third World, plus the growing domain of human care workers in all its forms (caretakers, waiters…) where exploitation also abounds. Only the first group (self-employed, often precarious workers) fits Han’s description.
Each of the three groups implies a specific mode of being tired and overworked. Assembly line work is simply debilitating in its repetitiveness. You get desperately tired of assembling again and again the same iPhone behind a table at a Foxconn factory in a suburb of Shanghai. In contrast to this tiredness, what makes human care work so tiresome is the very fact that you are (also) paid to pretend to do your work with true affection, that you really care about your “objects” of work. A kindergarten worker is paid also to show sincere affection for children, and the same goes for those who take care for old retired persons. Can one imagine the strain of “being nice” on and on? In contrast to the first two spheres where at least we can maintain some kind of inner distance towards what we are doing (even when we are expected to treat a child nicely, we can just pretend to do it), the third sphere demands of us something which is much more tiresome. Imagine I am hired to elaborate how to publicize or package a product in order to seduce people to buy it. Even if I personally don’t care about this or even hate the idea, I have to engage quite intensely with what one cannot but awaken my creativity, trying to figure out original solutions. And such an effort can exhaust me much more than boring repetitive assembly line work: this is the specific tiredness Han is talking about.
And, last but not least, we should avoid the temptation to condemn strict self-discipline and dedication to work and propagate the stance of “Just take it easy!” Arbeit macht frei! is still the right motto, although it was brutally misused by the Nazis. So, to conclude with the ongoing pandemic: yes, there is hard exhaustive work for many who deal with its effects, but it is a meaningful work for the benefit of the community, which brings its own satisfaction, not the stupid effort to succeed on the market. When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caretaker is exhausted, they are tired in a way that is totally different from the exhaustion of being obsessed with career moves.
Here is how my friend Andreas Rosenfelder, a German journalist from Die Welt, described the new stance towards daily life that is emerging: “I really can feel something heroic about this new ethics, also in journalism – everybody works day and night from home office, making video conferences and taking care of children or schooling them at the same time, but nobody asks why he or she is doing it, because it’s not any more ‘I get money and can go to vacation etc.’, since nobody knows if there will be vacations again and if there will be money. It’s the idea of a world where you have a flat, basics like food etc., the love of others and a task that really matters, now more than ever. The idea that one needs ‘more’ seems unreal now.” I cannot imagine a better description of what one should call a non-alienated decent life.
[i] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, Redwood City: Stanford UP 2015.