Philosophy and Ethics in Germany

The Financial Crisis as a Speeding Accident – An Interview with Hartmut Rosa

© iStockphotoAcceleration without limit? © iStockphotoConstant acceleration is increasingly a problem for man and society. The financial crisis too, according to Hartmut Rosa in this interview with, is above all a “speeding accident”.

Professor Rosa, while the majority of experts look upon the deceleration of society as an obstacle to modernization, you promote exactly the opposite view. Who should we believe?

Me, of course. You’ve seen what comes of believing the others. First of all, the question arises: Why do we need acceleration? It’s a mark of modern societies that they can be stabilized only dynamically. That means they must grow and accelerate. It was one of the major promises of the Enlightenment and early modernity that growth and acceleration would make life better, freer and more self-determined. Now we’ve suddenly realized that growth and acceleration have become a structural necessity for maintaining the status quo. The hopes for progress have darkened. If we now pass a growth acceleration law, then we do so not so that everything will get better, but rather so that it won’t get worse.

A basic problem is that capitalist economies are subject to a logic of the increasing circulation speeds of capital. You can buy and sell in a split second, but not produce and consume. This has led to the well-known and fatal decoupling of financial markets and real economy, with the result first of a massive financial crisis and then of an economic crisis.

“Time has become the scarcest good after oil”

Hartmut Rosa; Photo: privateNot too long ago everything pointed to our heading towards a leisure society with the help of new technologies, but the exact opposite has proven to be the case...

Time has become the scarcest good after oil, with all possible pathological side-effects. People suffer under time pressure as never before. Why? I believe because of the link between growth and acceleration. E-mail is a good example. For every ten messages that I send, I need only half the time I needed for ten letters. But now I write and read not ten, but fifty or more messages a day. While speed has increased only linearly, the pace of circulation has increased exponentially.

The saving of time that the new technologies have given us has been used up by the multiplication of options and processes of growth. Of course it is faster to go by car than by foot, but we now travel much longer distances and to a degree disproportional to the increase in the speed of travel. Of course the washing machine washes faster than the hand, but we now change clothes every day instead of every week.

You have diagnosed the greatest danger of the acceleration society as the de-synchronization of politics and economics. Is there a connection here to the current economic and financial crisis? Yes, absolutely! Neo-liberal economic and financial policies aimed at removing controls with the argument that a freely circulating economy would develop most rapidly. Political control is time consuming, especially if it is to be democratic. I believe that it even slows things down, because consensus is increasingly difficult to achieve.

But not only the economic speed is too fast for political control. We are dealing with a further problem of de-synchronization in the relation of financial markets to the real economy. We can now make profits without producing anything by trading financial stocks that have no real basis.

What part does the consumer play in this crisis?

My thesis is that the current economic order has succeeded in separating the act of buying from the act of consuming: people buy more and more, but they don’t consume more. We buy clothes that we never wear, books that we never read, CDs that we never listen to. The problem arises when we no longer buy goods but rather financial stocks and in this way contribute to the decoupling of financial markets from the real economy.

“The science of economic bears an enormous responsibility for the disaster”

© iStockphotoNow all sides are desperately trying to stop the break in the dyke. But how they’re trying to do this doesn’t seem to suit you…

The science of economic bears an enormous responsibility for the disaster. And now those very experts who caused the crisis are supposed to solve it. It makes you think of the proverb of trusting the cat to keep the cream. The great danger is that things continue as before. It’s doubtful whether politics will be strong enough to regain control and slow down the circulation of capital.

Could the original sin have been turning from “Rhenish capitalism” to Anglo-Saxon capitalism?

Both versions function according to the logic of dynamic stabilization. But, certainly, Anglo-Saxon capitalism allows much higher speeds of reproduction than does Rhenish capitalism. The evil was a runaway capitalism, and that is surely more easily realized under the Anglo-Saxon model.

Well, Karl Marx already prophesied the destruction of the relations of production by the productive forces in capitalism. Are you ultimately a communist in disguise?

Hmm, probably not. But I do think many parts of Marx’s analysis of capitalism are convincing. I believe there’s a lot more to it than we supposed. But all in all, his analysis isn’t sufficiently complex. He saw the economic basis much to one-sidedly as the sole driving force of modern dynamics. In my view, the logic of acceleration reaches much deeper into the structures of modern society than merely on the economic level – also into cultural values. The Enlightenment promise of freedom itself contains a dynamic element. The problem lies not in the economic relations, but in the overall formation of modern societies.

Hartmut Rosa, born 1965, studied sociology, philosophy and political science at the Universities of Berlin, Freiburg and Harvard and the London School of Economics. Since his habilitation in 2004, Rosa, a student of Herfried Münkler and Axel Honneth, has taught in the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Jena, and since 2002 has been Guest Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Reading tip:
Hartmut Rosa: Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 7th edition, 2005.

Roland Detsch
was the interviewer. He is a political scientist and works as a freelance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2010

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