Czech Republic, Network 4 Debate

Our Own Personal Labor Camps

Very little remains of the celebrated ideal of personal freedom. Enslaved by work and facing the burnout syndrome – that is the fate of our society.

Do you feel pressured at work? Do you feel the need to perform at maximum and prove something to yourself all the time? Or do you not ask such questions at all? No matter. We are all in the same sinking boat, living in the age of general exhaustion caused by the constant pressure for growth and work efficiency. The famous Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes of this in his excellent book The Burnout Society, giving a positively acerbic diagnosis of our own modern enslavement

Being one’s own slave driver

“These people look awfully tired and stressed, they must be under enormous pressure” noted two Frenchmen while looking at their co-passengers in a tram in Prague. There is something about that statement: the Czechs are traditionally focused on work and spend more time at work than required despite the utterly laughable income. While we love to bask in dreams of limitless possibilities, in reality we have become just the tools of an endless chase for profit and economic growth. Is this what the freedom we so desired is supposed to look like? Hardly.

So why do we stay on this beaten track? Why do not we revolt against the enslaving cult of work? The philosopher Byung-Chul Han offers a remarkable answer: we find the power that keeps the system going just a bit too tempting. We bask in illusions so strong we simply cannot resist them: the belief that we can “make a difference”, “have a career and become someone”, or even just “get rich”. But why?

Today’s society is more complicated than during the era of industrial capitalism; modern capitalism disposed of the clear border between exploited and exploiter.

These illusions stem from the fact our society is so obsessed with individual performance. We are in a different situation from the factory workers during the era of industrial capitalism, who were collectively exploited by the factory owners – then, it was obvious who the common enemy is, which led to resistance, strikes and riots. But today’s situation is more complicated; modern capitalism disposed of the clear border between exploited and exploiters. Often the centers of power and the enemies we should be fighting are not obvious – some even see them in “Brussels” or “refugees”.

Han claims the heart of the issue is elsewhere: the worst enemy each one of us possesses is in fact ourselves. Our society is heavily individualized – everyone is competing against everyone else for resources while trying for maximum performance. People have become enterpreneurs in the business of themselves – and do not even stick to exploiting themselves. We have become slaves of the digital age, slaves that do not even need the whip of their superiors: the slogans about individual effort, growth and motivation proved to be more than sufficient to keep us driving ourselves to burnout.

The illusory feeling of freedom

Han writes that the performance-based society means we inflict violence on ourselves on a daily basis. We have become exploiters and slaves at the same time – victims and perpetrators at once. Often we simply cannot handle the amount of activity lie forces on us and end up at war against ourselves, chasing the impossible ideal: we want to be good at work, achieve something, be great parents and partners, be happy… All at once. And the more we try, the more pressure we exert on ourselves. Instead of the ideal, we get fear and hysteria.

An individualized human being is a hamster in his wheel, believing he will get “somewhere”, moving from project to project until inevitable collapse.

Instead of taking life slow and in ponderous idleness, we keep accelerating. And there is always the exploiter within us, the inner voice always telling us: of course you can do this, and then that, and then that… The pressure exerted by us on ourselves is much more efficient than one coming from someone else. After all, we do not resist ourselves and we still get to keep that treasured – illusory – feeling of freedom. An individualized human being is a hamster in his wheel: in the belief he will get “somewhere”, he just keeps moving from project to project until the inevitable collapse.

Freedom has turned into coercion, every single one of us is both prisoner and warden in the omnipresent personal labor camp. So what if our wages are absurdly low? No matter: everything is our own fault anyway so there is only one thing to do, lower our costs of living. So what if we never got anywhere in our lives? Stop whining – it is all your fault. Capitalism, unlike religion, offers no absolution. Just debt.

The lost trust

We often hear the phrase “those who want, can”. It makes us lose our inhibitions, it teaches us to be as promiscuous as possible and it makes us wish “a nice day” to people we wouldn’t normally spit on if they were on fire just because we could turn it into an advantage at work. And the culture of Internet and social networks emphasizes this further by making us risk it all: everyone is judging everyone else all the time, there are no more secrets or sacred hideouts. What remains is obscenity – our faces have become a commodity exhibited on Facebook, everything necessitates an immediate reaction and everyone wants to keep tabs on everyone else.

A society of transparency is a society of distrust and suspicion that substitutes trust with control.

“Transparency” has become a notoriously overused word. Everyone requires it but it is just a thin layer of gilt covering another massive problem: requiring total transparency marks the disappearance of trust from society. We refuse to trust anything and anyone and that is why we have to keep ourselves in the loop all the time – everything needs to be predictable and under close watch. “A society of transparency is a society of distrust and suspicion that substitutes trust with control. The loud calling for transparency shows that the moral fundaments of society are collapsing, that the ethical values of honor and sincerity are losing their meaning,” Han writes.

What (not) to do?

Byung-Chul Han has caught the modern society with its trousers down. And his diagnosis leads him to a radical conclusion: the project of individual freedom, which the Western society was based on, has simply failed. While we may think that we are free, we are really just exploiting and destroying ourselves. If anyone is still wondering about the reason for the successes of Donald Trump and the other ultra-right wingers, they are missing the point: these politicians are just – in their own ways –  laying bare the real basis of our system, in all its cruelty and violence.

The obvious question is how to get out. Individual personality coaches will tell you to better divide your workload and light an incense stick for relaxation. But that will not be enough. Maybe a good start would be simply doing less. It is quite likely that the growing automatization of work will only serve to increase the pressure for efficiency so there is no point in trying to match the working speed of computers and robots. We could use the time gained in a much better way – for relaxation, soul-searching, things that we enjoy. And maybe for creating a wholly different society, free of slavery and burnout.

Translation by Michal Chmela.

This text was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Jaroslav Fiala
Political scientist and editor-in-chief of the Czech progressive daily website A2larm ( He publishes essays and articles on Czech and world politics and lectures in history and political science at Charles University, Prague. He is a Fulbright alumnus and deals with the modern history of Latin America, United States and Europe.