The slavery of freedom

“We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.”


The American anthropologist David Graeber once remarked that the difference between wage labor existing today and slavery is rather small. In the past people were so in debt that they had to sell their lives to others in order to survive. Nowadays people are so in debt that they rent their bodies for periods of time to their employers. In a world where student loans can become so colossal that you have to work for your creditor for years, only in order to remain hopeful that paying your debts is possible at all, the distinction between labor and slavery becomes simply a dispute of legal vocabulary.

wage_slaveAs a consequence of the economic crisis, most of the European youth find themselves in the situation Graeber describes. Youth unemployment is massive, especially in the southern countries of the EU. As a result a lot of educated people migrate to more prosperous regions hoping for better job prospects. Some of them carry the weight of student loans, others of ‘a useless diploma’ in history, philosophy or social sciences. To avoid this bleak scenario a lot of high school students choose for job security in faculties such as medicine, law or engineering. Student numbers in those faculties are peaking and still rising. This phenomenon manifests a peculiar perspective on education. Learning is viewed as the acquiring of skills for a certain job and universities become factories producing skilled employees for the job market. It is in that spirit that we encounter debates such as the abolition of classical language education in high school (isn’t learning Chinese more useful than Latin?), the importance of practice in contrast to mere theory or the funding of doctoral programs by private businesses. All this can be summarized under the terms of the primacy of instrumental reason ,or goal rationality, if you are a Weberian. Rationality is manipulating your environment according to your projects. If you want a job, take the courses that will guarantee that. Whether those courses really interest you, is unimportant. You can only discuss the means, while the goals are not negotiable.

The question then becomes how this situation has come to be. Aren’t we enlightened? Haven’t we long ago emancipated ourselves from slavery exactly through using our own reason instead of holding on to superstition? True, and yet our struggle for freedom seems to have resulted into new slavery. How is this turn from bad for the worse possible?

Luckily we do not stand alone with our diagnosis. This same question was already asked and answered in 1947 by two German Jewish philosophers in a book called “The dialectic of Enlightenment”. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were struck by the upheaval of totalitarianisms all over the world and the subsequent massacres during the Second World . They claimed that a logic worked throughout history that found its supreme manifestation in the effective extermination of millions of people for no other reason than the ideological phantasms of the Führer. This logic is the logic of instrumental reason. Adorno once famously wrote that there is no real progress in history, except for the one from the catapult to the atomic bomb. We can divide their sketch of history in four phases, although in reality they are not as divided as I will sketch them here:

1) The primordial event of mankind is its clash with nature. Nature first shows itself as a brutal annihilating force eradicating everything that comes in its path. Man is not at home in the world and the latter was not created for him to dwell in. There are now two possible ways to relate to nature: myth and enlightenment. The main thesis of the book is that both reactions relate to each other dialectically. The concept of ‘dialectic’ is a philosophical concept connoting a range of different things. The meaning that interests us most here is that the actualization of both reactions necessarily reverts into the other. Myth already contains enlightenment (we will not go into this) and enlightenment reverts into myth.

2) Mythic man tries to appease nature by mimicking it. In myth nature is perceived as the cyclical repetition of events animated by divine spirits. Man pleases those spirits by imitating those repetitions compulsively. Adorno & Horkheimer call this attitude mimesis. Man obeys and sinks into nature in the same way animals do with a process called ‘mimicry’. For instance, most insects imitate the colors of their environment in order not to be perceived by predators. They subordinate their own appearance to the appearance of nature. Mythic man does exactly the same by, for example, performing a rain dance in the raining season. So it is not the rain dance that should cause a change in the weather, but vice versa. The same attitude structures social relations, which means that society is divided in strong warriors and feeble workers, enslaved by the powerful. Afterwards this class division is kept in place by traditions and the claim that these social relations are natural and therefore good.

3) The other reaction is enlightenment. By this term Adorno & Horkheimer do not mean the political-philosophical movement of the 18th and 19th century, but instrumental reason. Nature should not be imitated, but manipulated. Knowledge is power. Violent nature can be tamed exactly because it repeats itself. This repetition is recast as obedience to certain natural laws, which can be known and used by man. Survival is guaranteed not by the grace of the gods, but by the entrepreneurship of the individual. Nature should obey man. At first instrumental reason has a liberating effect (just as intended). Through technology nature is enslaved to the human will and through argumentation the traditions of the former rulers are unmasked as mystifications. Instrumental reason also produces something that has now become self-evident for us: the individual. In myth man is only an element within nature, but when nature becomes a tool in our hands, the individual can rise up above his environment. The individual also emancipates himself in the social realm through defending his individual civil rights: democracy is born when the shackles of tyranny are thrown off.

4) Adorno & Horkheimer claim that enlightenment now dialectically reverts back to myth. The structure of instrumental reason becomes a ‘second nature’ to which man again has to obey. How is that possible? Instrumental reason works with two poles: a manipulating subject (man) and a manipulated object (nature). Both are put under stress.

Nature. Instrumental reason is based in the principles of identity and commensurability. In order to know how something can be of use, we need to identify an object under certain categories, have to fit it into certain natural laws, etc. in order to make all objects into comparable data for knowledge. What is left out is the uniqueness, or non-identity in the vocabulary of Adorno, of every single object. Nature is not the machine it seems for the natural sciences. It can now only appear as either a means or an obstacle for some individual, but not as with it is in and for itself. For instance, when you look at someone’s face instrumental reason dictates you to see a bunch of muscles, hair and fluids. Yet to look at someone like a surgeon is for most of us really hard. Normally we don’t see flesh and hair, but we see a smile, crying eyes, etc. Those gestures mark the non-identical character of another person. She cannot be simply equated with commensurable laws, she is a unique person, or in the words of Martin Buber a Thou confronting an I. Does this mean that the horror of uncontrollable nature has disappeared? On the contrary! Now instrumental reason itself has become that uncontrollable enslaving force. We must only think of the nuclear arms race to know that self-interested reasoning has obliged the world’s peoples to obey their ‘second nature’. Man is the only creature that has succeeded in producing its own means of destruction out of self-interest.

Man. The individual rising above nature is not better off himself. In fact the non-identical nature within himself ,his psychic, non-civilized drives, must be continually repressed for man to stay on top of nature. All the seductiveness of life in conformity of nature must be resisted in order to stay an individual. For this we must only think of the way dating sites work. The French philosopher Alain Badiou has criticized dating sites for killing the spontaneity inherent in love. Firstly, the lover must construct a profile and an account of what he is looking for in a partner. Dating sites promise a love without the risk of being hurt. Love is produced by matched interests such that first the individuality of the lovers is put on papers almost like a contract. When someone doesn’t live up to the things he claimed about himself on his profile, there is someone to blame (almost legally). First there are two separated individuals and afterwards they are put together. In fact love works the other way around. Falling in love is a contingent event where two persons meet and their individuality (what makes them who they are) is created afterwards in their relationship. Love itself is remaining faithful to that event that brought them together, while the each lover forms the identity of his or her counterpart. The fate of the individual is best expressed by a poem of Goethe:”

Over all the hill-tops
Is Rest,
In all the tree-tops
You can feel
Scarcely a breath:
The little birds quiet in the leaves.
Wait now, soon you
Too will have peace

The individual stands restfully sovereign above nature (Over all the hill-tops) so that nature is silenced (The little birds quiet in the leaves), but instead of being killed by a violent nature he dies by loneliness (Wait now, soon you too will have peace).

Now that we have sketched the history of the dialectic of enlightenment, let us return to our problem of ‘useful education’. What can we now say about the primacy of instrumental reason, about choosing a study in function of a career instead of a passion? From our discussion it should be clear that becoming the slaves of instrumental reason is aggravating our problems instead of soling them. Our supposed self-interests dialectically turn us against ourselves. Just like it is in my self-interest to go to Brussels by car instead of by bike, it is in the self-interests of thousands of others. The result, a traffic jam, however is in the interest of nobody and yet we are all obliged to take part in the mania of our highways every day. Just so our hopes for job security seem actualized in an economic system where everyone is on the brink of unemployment or already out of a job. The mode of thinking that leads towards job security is exactly the same that has led to a system in which jobs have become insecure.

Further reading

T.W. Adorno & M. Horkheimer, The dialectic of enlightenment.

T. Christiaens, “Mythe en verlichting: Adorno & Horkheimer over Odysseus” in Kleio, jrg. 42 (2012-13), nr. 1.

D. Graeber, Debt: the first 5,000 years.

A. Badiou, In praise of love.


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