On Hartmut Rosa and the acceleration of social change in modernity

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by contributing writer Bart Zantvoort

What is the cause of social alienation, the increasing number of burnouts and depressions, and the failure of political institutions in our late-modern times? According to the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, all of these problems can be traced back to a single phenomenon: the continuous acceleration of social change, which puts us under increasing pressure to keep up with technological, economic and social developments. Rosa puts a distinct spin on the notion of acceleration in the history of ideas. His notion of acceleration is new but he also develops it in relation to the history of the notion, as developed by Reinhart Koselleck and others.

 

The notion that the world is changing fast, and perhaps even ever faster, seems intuitive at first glance. For who has never heard or uttered the complaint that modern gadgets and devices break or become obsolete so quickly that we are continuously forced to purchase newer versions? Or that there is an increasing lack of time and increased competition in the workplace, in education or in healthcare? Nor is it a new idea: Marx and Engels already wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the essence of modernity is that ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify’, and ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But is acceleration indeed the most fundamental characteristic of modernity, as Rosa maintains? And is it possible to use this insight as the starting point for a new theory of social criticism, as he intends to do?

 

Though quite a lot of his work is available in English, Rosa is still much less well known in the English-speaking world than he is in Germany. In his first major work, Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity (2013, German edition 2005), he convincingly sets out his wide-ranging theory of social acceleration and the social problems it causes. The solutions to these problems are addressed in his more recent Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016), which is due to appear in English with Polity Press in June this year. A perfect moment, then, to introduce his ideas and some of their theoretical background.

 

When thinking about acceleration, the first thing that always comes to mind is technological acceleration. It is clear that technological innovation has brought about successive increases in speed in transportation, trade and communication: from horse-drawn carriages to steam trains to the space shuttle; from snail mail to telegrams to email; and from trade by camel to modern ‘flash trading’. This form of acceleration, with its clear link to economic and military competition, has taken centre stage in most discussions on the matter, from Marx to Paul Virilio’s notion of ‘dromology’ to recent debates on ‘accelerationism’. It is one of the strengths of Rosa’s theory, however, that he takes a broader view. He distinguishes three forms of acceleration: besides technological acceleration, these are the acceleration of the pace of life and the acceleration of social change.

 

The acceleration of the pace of life can be explained in terms of the following paradox: how is it possible that our lives seem to get (or at least ‘feel’) busier and busier, despite the fact that technological change, which allows us to do more in less time, should leave us with more free time on our hands? The point of inventions like the washing machine, the car and email seems to be that they should save us time. But the availability of cars has led us to live further away from work, and although writing and sending emails is faster than writing and sending letters, the volume of emails sent and received has increased to such an extent that we spend more, rather than less time on them.

 

The form of acceleration that is most important for Rosa’s project of social critique, however, is the acceleration of social change. It is not just technology that changes faster and faster, Rosa argues; so do fashions, languages, customs, work relations and family ties. In early modernity – roughly until 1800 – social change was ‘intergenerational’: social structures did change, but only over the course of multiple generations, making it nearly imperceptible in the lifespan of an individual. In terms of work, for example, a son would inherit the profession of his father and in turn pass it on to his son. In ‘classical modernity’, by contrast – roughly the period from 1800 to 1970 – social change was ‘generational’: each man could choose his own profession, but generally kept this profession for the rest of his life. Today, in ‘late modernity’, change has become ‘intragenerational’: we no longer hold a single profession or work for a single employer for our entire lives, but regularly change jobs or even professions.

 

But what does all of this have to do with social criticism and alienation, one of the other core themes in Rosa’s work? Alienation is an important concept in Marx and in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, in the tradition of which Rosa can also be placed. The concept has recently regained currency as a way of explaining the dissatisfaction with and problems of late-modern, post-capitalist society, and Rosa uses it to capture what is wrong with acceleration. The notion of alienation, he maintains, primarily seeks to describe a situation in which we feel we are not living as we wish to be living, even if we are ‘free’ to choose how to live for ourselves and are not obviously forced in our choices by external forces. We feel we are forced to keep up with the heady pace of modern life, even if we ourselves choose to live this way.

 

Both on an individual and on a political level, Rosa argues, we have ended up in a paradoxical state of ‘frenetic standstill’ – a term indirectly derived from Virilio’s ‘polar inertia’ – where everything is constantly moving and yet nothing ‘really’ ever changes. According to Rosa, this is because the rate of technological, economic and social change is now so fast that we are unable to control and manage these spheres through the slow processes of deliberative democracy, and are unable to manage or plan our own lives in any meaningful way. While the relatively modest pace of change during classical modernity gave us the sense that our lives had a meaningful direction, which we could influence through our plans and by investing in education, we are now caught in chaotic, directionless processes and are forced to ‘surf’ the waves of change. Similarly, while classical modernity gave rise to the notion of social progress guided by meaningful collective action and long-term social planning, today democratic politics is unable to keep up with the frenetic pace of change in technology and the economy and has therefore become reactive, inert, weakened and ineffective.

 

So what is the solution to all these problems? In Social Acceleration, Rosa announces his theory as a project of social critique, but does not offer much of a way out of this crisis: either we find a way to escape acceleration, he concludes, or we will be forcibly slowed down by ecological or political catastrophe. In his contributions to an interesting collaborative volume, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique, he provides a more developed concept of philosophical-sociological critique in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. Following Axel Honneth’s project in his recent work Freedom’s Right, Rosa argues we can ‘normatively reconstruct’ the values which are central to (Western) modernity’s self-understanding – the main value being autonomy. If our society is to be successful by its own lights, therefore, it must successfully institutionalize autonomy over against, for example, alienation; and this is what acceleration is making it impossible to do.

 

The alternative to alienation-through-acceleration is to be found in what Rosa calls ‘resonance’, a notion worked out at great length in his most recent work. Acceleration is here reconceived more broadly as the ‘imperative to increase’ (Steigerungsimperative), while resonance is conceived as the opposite of alienation: a relation between a person and the world, between subject an object in which both sides form a mutually ‘responsive’ relation, and neither side is reduced to the terms of the other. Resonance can be found in religion, art and in nature, but also in our relation to other human beings or to objects. Yet Rosa’s analysis is still distinctly pessimistic. We are stuck in a world with little ‘resonance’, where we seem ‘completely unable to offer a political remedy to the “iron cage” of the imperative to increase. The world (in the sense of the institutionally embedded capitalist reality) mercilessly enforces the everyday disposition of reification, and proves to be almost completely immune to any form of protest, in the street or in the voting booth’ (Resonanz, 706, my translation).

 

The possible practical solutions to bring about a world of greater resonance that Rosa suggests are hardly new, though they may resonate with current sentiments in left-wing discourse in Britain and elsewhere: socialization of the economy, and introducing a basic income. Yet how these changes are to be brought about in the face of an alienated, reified world and a paralyzed political system remains to be seen.

 

Bart Zantvoort wrote his PhD on Hegel at University College Dublin. He is a lecturer at the University of Leiden and editor and researcher at the Nexus Institute. His research focuses on the relation between social change and resistance to change in individuals, institutions and social structures more generally. He is the editor of Hegel and Resistance (Bloomsbury, 2017) and has published articles on Hegel, political inertia, Critical Theory and on Quentin Meillassoux.

 

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