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"We Can Quit the Rat Race"

The accelerating society has shut itself down: Shops have closed, air and car traffic has been significantly reduced, companies and service providers have shut down their activities, and all within a few weeks. But after the Corona crisis, where do we go next? Sociologist Prof. Dr. Hartmut Rosa sees the world at a historical bifurcation point. Either the lockdown brings us to a systemic collapse or we can return to the growth and acceleration course of the past. But a third path is also possible: a development in which markets are embedded in political action and cultural design. Which direction will prevail is open according to Rosa.

Mr. Rosa, cross your heart: would you have thought that in an interview on your analyses of the present, we would one day have a serious conversation about a radical deceleration, rather than acceleration?  

Frankly, no. I would have almost thought that impossible. For more than two hundred years, the wheels have been turning faster and faster, and we have been setting things in motion ever quicker and quicker. Take a look at the data on the number of cars in the streets around the world, the number of cargo trucks, the number of buses on the roads, even the number of train passengers, cyclists, underground railways and ships – container ships as well as cruise ships: in fact, they all used to point in one direction only. That is: they become more every year, no matter how many climate conferences we hold or how many criticisms of growth we formulate. Even wars have not stopped this mobilisation of the world. And now, without violence and without bloodshed, we have simply brought this mad, immense machinery to a standstill – within a few days and weeks. At least for me, this has been completely unimaginable up to now.

What is the coronavirus pandemic doing to us?

To say: "It shuts us down" is already a good description. It is as if gigantic brakes have been applied to the accelerating society. But what I find crucial is that these brakes are social in nature: It's not the virus itself that would bring down planes, shut down factories and cancel soccer games. It is ourselves, acting politically. That is why I would like to say: we are currently experiencing ourselves as being very well able to act politically and control the world and our society. In the face of the climate crisis, we had found ourselves to be completely powerless: No matter who we vote for or what we think, our consumption of resources and emissions increase every year. But now we are realizing: You can very well stop this thing!

However, it would certainly be wrong to interpret the Corona crisis simply as a major slowdown. First of all, in many respects it comes with existential fear and distress, and, in some cases, it even involves manifest acceleration. Those who fear for their lives or their economic existence experience the events not as a deceleration, but as a major threat. And if you are a single, working parent and have three small children at home who cannot go to kindergarten, for example, you are not decelerated – you are accelerated. Nevertheless, for many of us, our reach to the world has been radically diminished: our geographical horizon now stops at the threshold of our apartment, or at our neighbours' fence, and we can no longer plan further than one or two weeks ahead because we don't know what is going to happen after. However, our mental attitude does not yet correspond to this 'standstill'. We are still in the activity mode of the usual rat race, in an “aggression mode” towards the world, with the difference being that right now this attitude often lacks a goal. Consequently, we flee in panic to the digital worlds where that rush and race still continues: We click to the New York Times or the China Times, or the Guardian; we forward a funny video here, follow a link there, quickly keep this WhatsApp group updated, and that one. This is how we simulate keeping up the rat race, as a kind of flight behavior.

Shops are closed, air traffic is restricted, companies and service providers have shut down their activities – and all this within a few weeks time. Is this real deceleration or rather a short "emergency stop"?

What we are experiencing now is not the kind of deceleration that I have spoken of it in my own theoretical work – although I would like to point out once again that deceleration is not a central concept for me – I have never been keen on mere slowness. My criticism of acceleration has been aimed at the fact that we have to run faster from year to year just to preserve what is already there - jobs, but also the pension system, the health system, education, science, and cultural institutions.

I call this a system of dynamic stabilisation: just as a bicycle only remains upright when it moves forward, our socio-economic system remains only stable as long as it keeps growing and accelerating. If the bicycle stops, it falls over. And this is the situation we are in right now: we are stopping a system that can only keep itself stable by accelerating. This will lead to a massive system crisis and dysfunctional consequences: a collapse of markets, company closures, unemployment and so on.

The question now is: What will we do in this situation? I see three options: 1) We do anything and, consequently, slide into the system collapse. That is the worst case scenario. 2) We try to get back on track and resume our previous course of growth and acceleration as quickly as possible. This is the option preferred by politicians and economists. The problem here is: the regime of this growth society has already become unstable and precarious – firstly, due to the ecological and climate crisis; secondly, due to the economic crisis, as all attempts by the Central Reserve Banks to stimulate growth by means of interest-free money have been mostly ineffective; and thirdly, also psychologically, as many people have felt close to burnout or even suffered it. That is why I strongly favour scenario 3) in which we would see the crisis as a historical bifurcation point: a chance for a change of direction. We are not forced to continue as we have before - we can re-integrate markets in political action and cultural design.

What does it do to us that many things are not available at the moment that we otherwise take for granted?

Well, for example, it means that we are hoarding toilet paper. In fact, hoarding means nothing more than trying to ensure that the things we hoard remain available to us in uncertain times – as long as possible. And, currently, we are experiencing again that life itself is always uncertain: neither legal claims nor money can really give us guarantees. We may have booked and paid for the flight to the south – but we still can't fly now. Nor can we go to watch a soccer game, a concert, or a movie. Even the graduation prom is cancelled.

The world becomes unavailable to us in many ways: the space available to us has been shrunk to the size of our own apartment. In fact, I believe that the Corona crisis is only the condensation and the symbolization of the availability crisis that modern society creates inevitably. In my small book on 'unavailability' there is a short chapter, the last one, which is called: "The return of unavailability as a monster". The thesis is that our attempt to make the world technically, scientifically, economically, and politically available to us, inevitably leads to the creation of absolutely unavailable, uncontrollable 'monsters'. One example of this is nuclear power: we have made the innermost parts of matter technically available to us – and have thereby created murderous monsters in the form of atomic bombs and exploding power plants, whose radiation is completely 'unavailable' to us.

Und so ist es bei Corona: Plötzlich tritt ein globales Monster auf, das wir wissenschaftlich nicht erforscht haben, das wir medizinisch nicht beherrschen, das wir politisch nicht regulieren können, das geltendes Recht außer Kraft setzt und das unübersehbare ökonomische Konsequenzen hat. Schlimmer noch: Es ist uns auch individuell unverfügbar insofern, als wir es nicht sehen, hören, riechen oder schmecken können: Ganz wie die Monster im Film kann es überall lauern, hinter jeder Ecke, es liegt gleichsam in der Luft, lauert auf der Türklinke, und es kann sein, dass der Mann dort drüben oder das Kind, das da auf uns zukommt, schon von der tödlichen Gefahr infiziert ist, die auf uns übergehen kann: Es ist ein Monster der Unverfügbarkeit, von der alle unsere Horrorfilme handeln.

To what extent can the current shutdown be of any use to us — apart from the hopefully achievable end and abatement of the pandemic?

This geographical and temporal dwindling of the world's reach, this unexpected standstill can help us, both individually and collectively, to gain very important experiences. Individually, we are currently experiencing that it is possible to exist in time and space differently than in the mode of the rat race. So far in our lives, we have almost always been in a state of desperately trying to cope with everyday life: We are working our way through to-do lists and schedules. Life was always been about getting things done, optimizing something, improving something.

Now, for the first time in a long, long time, it so happens that our appointment books are no longer filling up more and more, but are being emptied in a fantastic way: This is canceled, that's cancelled, that one isn't happening either. Suddenly, there are periods of time in which we don't have to work off anything, don't have to chase after anyone. We are given the opportunity to change into another mode: listening and responding to a situation without being result-oriented, without having a consequence in mind. For example, you can pick up a book, you can step to the window, write a letter, put on an old record (because that only works well in moments of digital abstinence), call a friend or an aunt – open-ended, purpose-free, in the mode of listening and answering. This is the resonance mode: it is only in this mode that something new and unexpected can arise.

And politically, we are currently experiencing ourselves as historically self-efficient. We are able to act politically and, who would have thought, we can even force General Motors to produce respiratory equipment. We are given the chance to understand this current situation as a historical resonance moment in experiencing the miracle of human generativity or natality in the sense of Hannah Arendt: We can create something new, redesign the world together – without working out a plan, without following a well-trodden path, without having to follow the perpetual game of action and reaction!

Which of these consequences do you think are sustainable? What do you expect for the time after Corona?

To say it again: I believe that, historically, the situation is really open-ended: Any of the three scenarios mentioned before might happen, there is no unwritten law that forces us in one direction or the other. Of course, we can assume that when a society comes out of a crisis, it wants to return to its pre-crisis state as quickly as possible. That is why it is important that we remind ourselves that the pre-crisis state was already highly precarious: it was ecologically unsustainable, it was economically highly crisis-ridden, politically unsatisfactory and psychologically precarious. Corona has only intensified the crisis. That's why we should try a change of direction. What that new path might look like: There is no scientific way to predict that.

Right now, social distancing is the need of the hour. But don't we need social cohesion in such a time of crisis, even if at a sufficient physical distance?

Here, too, I think that Corona fuels a tendency that has already been present in our societies: We become suspicious of the other, of the stranger, even of the neighbours. The man in the street – could he be infected? That child over there who just coughed – is she a mortal danger? Social distancing leads us to perceive the other person as a manifest physical danger. The instinctive feeling is: "don't come too close to me, don't touch me", not only towards people. The doorknob, the banknote, everything becomes suspicious. The virus stirs distrust of our social and physical environment. It produces a feeling of massive alienation: We mistrust not only the others, but even our own perception, since we cannot perceive the danger sensually. In the end, we even feel alienated from our own body: the scratching in the throat – is that a first symptom? Don't I feel somehow hot and feverish? What was that strange cough?

On the other hand, however, collective crises and collective threats also generate new forms of community spirit – a communitarian spark is created. As soon as our well-established routines, our fixed official channels fail to work, we have to improvise again as a group. We have to get together and think up new solutions. That is what is currently happening worldwide. This is where solidarity and community are created anew. And also in this case, the process is historically open-ended. Which way it goes is not predetermined: now that depends on all of us, on our acting together as a society!

How do you personally experience the shutdown?

I think I am experiencing the situation with all its ambivalences: As a civil servant and university employee, I am in a very privileged situation: I don't have to fear for my existence and I have the chance to even enjoy this forced deceleration. In part, I perceive it that way – just yesterday, I texted someone that, if it were up to me, the lockdown could go on for quite some time. I really enjoy not having to rush from place to place, and from appointment to appointment.

At the same time, however, I do of course feel the threat – both viral and economic – and I worry about the people and families to whom this situation is a horror. And what's more, I notice that on the one hand I am fleeing into the digital world, and there the race continues: this crisis is leading to a boom in media inquiries for me. On the other hand, for some inexplicable reason, I'm also making far less progress in the analogue world, in getting all the things done I thought I could do now, in this resonance mode. It's not so easy to find my way into this other mode of existence. Actually, I feel that Adorno’s statement ‘There's no right life amidst wrongs’ is applicable here.