The Burnout Society is a short (60 pages), dense, and important treatise on the eponymous social malaise. The density makes for a slogging read, of which I am unsure whether to attribute to a clunky translation (originally in German), the source material written in nuanced and precise language, or my unfamiliarity with some of the philosophers being discussed. Regardless, the central idea is important enough that we should engage with it seriously.
Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society [Leistungsgesellschaft]. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves.
In this book, Byung-Chul asserts that burnout is a uniquely modern phenomena that is the result of a shift from discipline-oriented societies that were shaped by the needs of industrialization to achievement-oriented societies which reflects technologies and economies of our time. Back then, capitalist productivity is achieved through subordination and domination (think the processes required by manufacturing, mining and other manual trades) and in such a system, compliance is enforced through punishment. The author argues that a lot of the development in psychology then, e.g., Freudian theory, were reactions to and diagnosis of people confined in those power structures.
Today, this paradigm is no longer true or useful. Modern productivity is all about knowledge work which relies on individual effort and ingenuity. Imagine fields as diverse as software development, music making or even accounting. There are no prescribed standards on productivity and success is often the product of good judgement and effort. In these cases, punishment become counterproductive and diminishes the ability of its subjects to produce work. As such, the productivity whip takes on a different form.
We are now inundated with positive can-do language that places achievement strictly in the realm of personal responsibility, ability and willpower. This is evident everywhere, and especially in what I call hustle porn, where “influencers” brag about the extraordinary amounts of work that they are able to achieve by waking up earlier, working out more, staying up later and grind just because they want to achieve. Since the language is so positive, we find it difficult to push back against it (winners are not quitters). The result is us running and running and running ourselves to the ground, and thus burnout. Let me again quote Byung-Chul in two different parts:
The complaint of the depressive individual, “Nothing is possible,” can only occur in a society that thinks, “Nothing is impossible.” No-longer-being-able-to-be-able leads to destructive self-reproach and auto-aggression. The achievement-subject finds itself fighting with itself. The depressive has been wounded by internalized war. Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity. It reflects a humanity waging war on itself.
Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited.
It is useful to note the language in the quoted passages above and how it reflects a lot of the inspirational and aspirational stories pushed out on social media. The beats are the same: the billionaire who pulled himself up with his bootstraps, the sudden celebrity entrepreneur who simultaneously launched five different business, and a young person who overcame all odds to get into all the prestigious universities. Here, the author often blames capitalist forces. The idea being that by encouraging us to overreach, we enrich the parties who benefit from this arrangement, whether through employment contract or IP ownership. While there is no doubt a lot of truth in this framing, this explanation feels too broad to be satisfactory. Capitalism is multi-faceted. Does the author mean the part where competition is encouraged or the other part where cronyism encroaches? Or perhaps me being a child of this system am simply too blinded to recognize my exploiters.
There are books that feel timely and The Burnout Society is especially apropos. It reflected the deep exhaustion within me and the difficulty I have articulating against it. Even as the book was written before the pandemic, it was prescient. In a way, the disruption of the last few years further shattered the Kafka-esque illusion of our endless hustle: I know I want it even though I do not know what it is. The alternative of course, of which I do not know what it is either, feels worse.