My review essay on 'Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)' is in the Winter issue of American Affairs, which is available online now:
To understand the bleeding edge of the corporate workspace, we need to turn to a thinker like Byung‑Chul Han. Han begins his book The Burnout Society with the enigmatic line, “Every age has its signature afflictions.” Our age, he argues, is marked by afflictions arising from an excess of positivity and action: ADHD, depression, borderline personality disorder, and burnout. These are neurological conditions which arise, not from base exploitation (something Han might instead have associated with the immunological afflictions of the Cold War era), but from people willingly participating in their own exploitation.
If we can locate the disciplinary society within previously mentioned Victorian institutions—schools, prisons, factories—then we can associate the current landscape of self-exploitation with the liberation from physical space itself. The factory, in other words, has been replaced by the internet as the symbol most resonant with current social consciousness concerning the nature of labor.
Han argues that this self-exploitation is an essential part of a culture which engages in an excess of positivity—an economy which finds it more efficient to emphasize affirmation (“Yes we can!”) over the negativity of prohibition. “To heighten productivity,” Han writes,
the paradigm of disciplination is replaced by the paradigm of achievement, or, in other words, by the positive scheme of Can; 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.
Echoing again Lasch’s notion of the citizen transformed into the consumer, one of the results of auto-exploitation is the cultivation of compulsion. If your desires can be harnessed for economic exploitation, it’s more efficient for those desires to be rationalized into quantifiable units of compulsive acts. Hence we obsess over views on social media, viral videos, and the like. The figure most representative of our new working conditions might not be the American warehouse worker forced to wear a diaper, but gaming junkies who choose to wear diapers so as to maximize their screen time.
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