There is something profoundly strange about Peter Sloterdijk's attempt to assert - as the solution to what one is tempted to call the "antinomies of the Welfare State" - an "ethics of gift" over against mere egotistic market exchange. His proposal brings us unexpectedly close to what can only be called the Communist vision.- Slavoj Zizek, "We Don't Want the Charity of Rich Capitalists"
Sloterdijk is guided by the elementary lesson of dialectics: sometimes, the opposition between maintaining the old and changing things does not cover the entire field - in other words, sometimes the only way to retaining the old is by change things radically. So, if today one wants to save the core of the Welfare State, one should abandon any nostalgia for twentieth-century Social Democracy.
What Sloterdijk proposes is a kind of new cultural revolution, a radical psycho-social shift based on the insight that, today, the exploited productive strata is no longer the working class, but the (upper-)middle class: they are the true "givers" whose heavy taxation finances the education, health and general well-being of the majority. In order to achieve this change, one should leave behind statism, this absolutist remainder which has strangely survived in our democratic era: the idea, surprisingly strong even among the traditional left, that the State has the unquestionable right to tax its citizens, to determine and seize through legal coercion, if necessary, part of their product.
It is not that citizens give part of their income to the State - they are treated as if they are a priori indebted to the State. This attitude is sustained by a misanthropic premise strongest among the very left which otherwise preaches solidarity: that people are basically egotists, they have to be forced to contribute something to the common good, and it is only the State which, by means of its coercive legal apparatus, can do the job of ensuring the necessary solidarity and redistribution.
According to Sloterdijk, the ultimate cause of this strange social perversion is the disturbed balance between eros and thymos, between the erotic-possessive drive to amass things and the drive (predominant in premodern societies) to pride and generosity, to that mode of gift-giving which brings honour and respect. The way to reestablish this balance is to give full recognition to thymos: to treat those that produce wealth, not as a group which is a priori under suspicion for refusing to pay its debt to society, but as the true givers whose contribution should be fully recognized, so that they can be proud of their generosity.
According to Sloterdijk, the first step is the shift from the proletariat to the voluntariat: instead of taxing the rich excessively, one should give them the (legal) right to decide voluntarily what part of their wealth they will donate to common welfare. To begin with, one should, of course, not radically lower taxes, but open up at least a small domain in which the freedom is given to givers to decide how much and for what they will donate - such a beginning, modest as it is, would gradually change the entire ethics on which social cohesion is based.
But do we not here get caught in the old paradox of freely choosing what we are already obliged to do? That is to say, is it not that the freedom of choice accorded to the "voluntariat" of "achievers" is a false freedom that relies on a forced choice? If society is to function normally, the "achievers" are free to choose (to give money to society or not) only if they make the right choice (to give)?
This is just the first in a series of problems with Sloterdijk's proposal - problems that are not those identified by the (expected) leftist outcry:Who, in our societies, really are the givers (achievers)? Let us not forget that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by the rich givers/achievers, and the "ordinary people" financed the state to bail them out. (The exemplary instance here is Bernard Madoff, who first stole billions and then played the giver donating millions to charities.)Getting rich does not happen in a space outside the state and community, but is - as a rule - a violent process of appropriation which casts doubt on the right of the rich giver to own what he then generously gives.Sloterdijk's opposition of possessive eros and generous thymos is all too simplistic: is authentic erotic love not giving at its purest? Just recall Juliet's famous lines: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite." And is thymos also not destructive? One should always bear in mind that envy (resentment) is a category of thymos, intervening in the domain of eros, thereby distorting "normal" egotism - that is, making what the other has (and I don't have) more important than what I have.More generally, the basic reproach to Sloterdijk should be: why does he assert generosity only within the constraints of capitalism, which is the order of possessive eros and competition par excellence? Within these constraints, every generosity is a priori reduced to the obverse of brutal possessiveness - a benevolent Dr Jekyll to the capitalist Mr Hyde. Recall the first model of generosity mentioned by Sloterdijk: Carnegie, the man of steel with a heart of gold, as they say. He first used Pinkerton detective agents and a private army to crush workers' resistance, and then displayed generosity by way of (partially) giving back what had been seized. Even in the instance of Bill Gates, how can one forget his brutal tactics to crush competitors and gain monopoly? The key question is thus: is there no place for generosity outside the capitalist frame? Is each and every such project a case of sentimental moralist ideology?We often hear that the Communist vision relies on dangerous idealization of human beings, attributing to them a kind of "natural goodness" which is simply alien to our egotistical nature. However, in his bestselling Drive, Daniel Pink refers to a body of research in the behavioural sciences which suggests that sometimes, at least, external incentives (money reward) can be counterproductive: optimal performance comes when people find intrinsic meaning in their work. Incentives might be useful in getting people to accomplish boring routine work; but with more intellectually demanding tasks, the success of individuals and organizations increasingly depends on being nimble and innovative, so there is more and more need for people to find intrinsic value in their work.
Pink identifies three elements underlying such intrinsic motivation: autonomy, the ability to choose what and how tasks are completed; mastery, the process of becoming adept at an activity; and purpose, the desire to improve the world. Here is the report on a study carried out by MIT:"They took a whole group of students and they gave them a set of challenges. Things like memorizing strings of digits solving word puzzles, other kinds of spatial puzzles even physical tasks like throwing a ball through a hoop. To incentivize their performance they gave them 3 levels of rewards: if you did pretty well, you got a small monetary reward; if you did medium well, you got a medium monetary reward; if you did really well, if you were one of the top performers you got a large cash prize. Here's what they found out. As long as the task involved only mechanical skill bonuses worked as they would be expected the higher the pay, the better their performance. But once the task calls for even rudimentary cognitive skill a larger reward led to poorer performance. How can that possibly be? This conclusion seems contrary to what a lot of us learned in economics which is that the higher the reward, the better the performance. And they're saying that once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill it's the other way around which seems like the idea that these rewards don't work that way seems vaguely Left-Wing and Socialist, doesn't it? It's this kind of weird Socialist conspiracy. For those of you who have these conspiracy theories I want to point out the notoriously left-wing socialist group that financed the research: The Federal Reserve Bank. Maybe that 50 dollars or 60 dollars prize isn't sufficiently motivating for an MIT student - so they went to Madurai in rural India, where 50 or 60 dollars is a significant sum of money. They replicated the experiment in India and what happened was that the people offered the medium reward did no better than the people offered the small reward but this time around, the people offered the top reward they did worst of all: higher incentives led to worse performance. This experiment has been replicated over and over and over again by psychologists, by sociologists and by economists: for simple, straight-forward tasks, those kinds of incentives work, but when the task requires some conceptual, creative thinking those kind of motivators demonstrably don't work. The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough, so they are not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work. You get a bunch of people who are doing highly skilled work but they're willing to do it for free and volunteer their time 20, sometimes 30 hours a week; and what they create, they give it away, rather than sell it. Why are these people, many of whom are technically sophisticated highly skilled people who have jobs, doing equally, if not more, technically sophisticated work not for their employer, but for someone else for free! That's a strange economic behavior."This "strange behaviour" is, in fact, that of a Communist who follows Marx's well-known motto: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" - this is the only "ethics of gift" that has any authentic utopian dimension.
So-called "postmodern" capitalism is, of course, notoriously adept at exploiting these elements for its own profitability - not to mention the fact that, behind every "postmodern" company granting its employees the space for "creative" achievement, there is the anonymous spectre of old-fashioned working-class exploitation. The icon of today's creative capitalism is Apple - but what would Apple be without Foxconn, the Taiwanese company owning large factories in China where hundreds of thousands labour in atrocious conditions to assemble iPads and iPods?
We should never forget that the shadowy obverse of the postmodern "creative" centre in the Sillicon Valley (where a few thousand researchers test new ideas) is the militarized barracks in China, plagued by a string of suicides by its workers as the result of their unbearable work conditions (long hours, low pay, high pressure). After the eleventh worker jumped to his death, the company introduced a series of measures: compelling workers to sign contracts promising not to kill themselves, to report fellow workers who look depressed, to go to psychiatric institutions if their mental health deteriorates, and so on. To add insult to injury, Foxconn started to put up safety nets around the buildings of its vast factory.
No wonder that Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai (the parent company of Foxconn), referred to his employees as animals at an end-of-the-year party, adding that "to manage one million animals gives me a headache." Gou added that he wants to learn from Chin Shih-chien, the director of Taipei Zoo, exactly how animals should be "managed." He even invited the zoo director to speak at Hon Hai's annual review meeting, asking all of his general managers to listen carefully to the lecture so that they could learn how to manage "the animals that work for them."
But whatever the problems with such experiments, they definitely demonstrate that there is nothing "natural" about capitalist competition and profit-maximization: above a certain level of satisfying the basic survival needs, people tend to behave in what one cannot but call a Communist way, giving to society according to their abilities, not according to the financial remuneration they receive.
And this brings us back to Sloterdijk, who celebrates donations of rich capitalists as a display of "neo-aristocratic pride." Should we not counter Sloterdijk's proposal with what Alain Badiou once referred to as "proletarian aristocratism"? It is no wonder that, in literature, one of the recurring themes is that of anti-bourgeois aristocrats who finally understand that the only way for them to keep alive the core of their pride is to join the other side - the true counterpoint to the bourgeois conceit.