Miserable, greedy, disoriented addicts’: the rich, Hartmut Rosa informs us, suffer too. Japanese managers, French ceos, us bankers, all are caught on the hamster wheel of neoliberalism, their lives devoid of much meaning beyond the compulsive chasing of profit.footnote1 Workers naturally have it no better: truck drivers are terrorized by time sheets, office clerks by deadlines, while others are racked by hourly output metrics and arcane productivity graphs. The worst is reserved for the unemployed and the unemployable, whose excess time becomes a burden, the mark of exclusion from a society shaped by time scarcity. Young professionals on temporary contracts? They rat-race from place to place, renting yet another flat, never getting to know their neighbours, let alone the local baker.footnote2
In Germany, not even university professors are exempt from this torment. As research assistants, some felt they were at least pursuing a goal, with a time horizon that offered a modicum of structure to their lives. With the Lehrstuhl secured, an aimless career ensues, materially satisfying but lacking a sense of purpose, zigzagging between projects and funding applications. Should aliens ever land on earth, they may be shocked to discover so many unhappy human beings, exhausted amidst plenty, experiencing episodes of burnout, the universal malaise of the age.footnote3 Ought we not stop fretting over inequality and social justice to rediscover instead the notion of alienation and call our entire growth-driven epoch into question? Since the affluent and the impoverished are equally at risk of fatigue and similarly exposed to an inane existence, shouldn’t we be more concerned with the question of how to lead better lives?
Over the past two decades, Rosa, a leading German sociologist, has attempted to revive the centrality of these questions for any critique of contemporary capitalism and to sketch out, in a body of work of Luhmannesque ambition, the contours of the good life, said to be within reach of us all. A series of hefty volumes—in German: Beschleunigung (2005), Weltbeziehungen im Zeitalter der Beschleunigung (2012) and Resonanz (2016)—form the backbone of this project, the bricks of a theoretical arch that stretches from diagnosis to prognosis to prospective cure.footnote4 Edited volumes galore and myriad shorter publications in German and English complement the scholarly profile of an author at the peak of his intellectual energies, and testify to the command of institutional resources befitting the chair of general sociology at the University of Jena and director of the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt. Regular interviews in the country’s print media, in addition to television appearances and public lectures—tedx Talks included—have granted Rosa a public visibility few other intellectuals of the left currently enjoy.
Preacher of slowness, guru of deceleration, oracle of post-growth, therapist of lives wasted in depression—Rosa has found such epithets hard to embrace. He would prefer to be known for the concepts he has elaborated to make sense of our alienated social relationships, notably ‘resonance’, or, more recently, ‘uncontrollability’. It is thus no accident that the Institut français d’Allemagne, half a year into the pandemic, invited him to appear opposite Bruno Latour in a televised dialogue about the consequences of the coronavirus for the future of the planet. If such laurels speak to Rosa’s public recognition as one of Germany’s leading minds, what of the intellectual project that lies behind it?
Medical metaphors typically make for bad social theory. Not so for Rosa’s doctoral adviser at the Humboldt University of Berlin in the 1990s, Axel Honneth, who argued that the notion of social pathology is the linchpin of modern radical thought.footnote5 For Honneth, ever since Rousseau decried the emergence of a commercial civilization in the European eighteenth century, a whole array of thinkers—Hegel and Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, down to successive generations of the Frankfurt School and beyond—had sought to understand the constraining effects of capitalism on human self-realization. Two constitutive features set apart this line of thought from other branches of philosophy. The first was largely epistemological. Diverse as these thinkers were, their conceptions of human self-realization all derived from an analysis of the capitalist economy rather than from moral principles or metaphysical speculation. Though each appealed in one way or another to philosophies of history or philosophical anthropologies, this only sharpened their investigations, enriched later in the nineteenth century by the rise of empirical sociology. None assessed their epoch by reference to utopian visions, past or future.
The second feature was a focus on alienation, under various guises. Capitalism (or bourgeois civilization, or just ‘modernity’) was taken to produce not just deprivation but a loss of purpose, diverting or obstructing the pursuit of higher ethical ideals. For Honneth, the exemplary early twentieth-century analysis in this vein was not so much Lukács’s elaboration of reification, with its exclusive focus on the proletariat, as Helmuth Plessner’s mapping of a declining liberal public sphere and the limitations on identity formation this process entailed. The language of pathology thus served to delineate a certain approach to the present. Much like medical practice, theory required a sense of the unhindered possession of one’s bodily functions to detect—and issue prescriptions for—the glut of ailments plaguing the social order of the market.
Confidently idiosyncratic, Honneth’s intellectual genealogy made a lasting impression on Rosa. What research agenda was suggested by a commitment to this version of social philosophy? Rosa’s answer was twofold. The most recent thinker in Honneth’s pantheon was Charles Taylor, whose Sources of the Self (1989) was held to provide the opportunity to rethink some of the social pathologies of the modern age. Rosa’s first book—Identität und kulturelle Praxis (1998)—was therefore a work of exegesis covering the entirety of Taylor’s writings, from his early militancy on the British New Left to his major philosophical contributions, via interventions in Canadian politics and cultural life. In parallel, Rosa developed the rudiments of his own analysis of the fin de millénaire, reclaiming the importance of an ethical critique of capitalism and the re-politicization of questions of the good life, long relegated to the private sphere by liberalism.