Process of modernisation Hartmut Rosa’s “Global Relationships in the Age of Acceleration”

In the Maelstrom of Time; ©
In the Maelstrom of Time | Photo (detail): ©

Following his highly acclaimed study “Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne” (“Social Acceleration – The Change in Temporal Structures in Modernity”), Hartmut Rosa analyses in “Weltbeziehungen im Zeitalter der Beschleunigung” (i.e., Global Relationships in the Age of Acceleration – Outlines for a New Social Critique ) how the ongoing process of modernisation has not only changed our relationship to the world and to ourselves, but also threatens to derail the democratic decision-making process.

The modernisation process, according to Hartmut Rosa, should be seen from its outset as a ‘three-dimensional social acceleration’. In all its phases, he argues, ‘and everywhere that it has appeared’, modernisation was and is ‘the experience of a dynamisation of history, of society, of culture, of life and of time itself’.

The three dimensions of acceleration are technological development, social change and the general pace of life. Its driving forces are the economy (‘Time is money’), the functional differentiation of society and the ‘promise of acceleration’, which is the ‘cultural engine’ that propels the ‘acceleration of the pace of life’. This, in turn, further fires technological acceleration and as a consequence social change, and so on. The change comes in ever shorter stages and noticeably extends to ever larger circles.

What am I – and if so, for how long?

More and more people then also experience their own lives as a true frenzy of speed. How should anyone still find himself in such a vortex? And what really remains in the long run of this self that must constantly re-invent itself in a constantly changing environment? Self-descriptions become mere snapshots, a circumstance that comes to expression in language. You ‘are’ no longer a baker; you ‘work as a baker’. At least at present. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Yet even if tomorrow I no longer work as a baker, shopkeeper or stockbroker, one thing that I will also be tomorrow and the day after that is certain: a competitor amidst competitors. And just for that reason I cannot rest. I must be flexible in every possible respect, spatially, temporally, altogether, in order to be in a position (perhaps) to master the future. A future that is uncertain and therefore rewards those that are sufficiently flexible so as to adapt to the new requirements as swiftly as necessary – that is to say, as swiftly as possible, or at any rate more swiftly than others. Only a few succeed in escaping this madness with aplomb, like the milkmaid in Florian Opitz’s documentary Speed.
Trailer of the film “Speed – In Search of Lost Time” by Florian Opitz

Overwhelmed democracy

Politics in general and democracy in particular face problems quite similar to those of individual people. To some degree social acceleration is not only politically manageable but also, in the progressive interpretation of modernity, even a central responsibility of politics, whose charge it is to see that an increasingly prosperous society grows more democratic and more just. At some point, however, the process of modernisation and its political governance necessarily fall out of step because the process of democratic decision-making cannot be accelerated in pace with inevitably increasing complexity and, on the contrary, must perforce slow down ‘if certain standards of rationality are not to be undermined’.

At the same time, the additional time required for processes of opinion formation is confronted unabated by further accelerated processes of technological, economic and social systems, which demand new decisions from the political system in ever shorter intervals. That this has problematic consequences not only for the quality of politics and legislation, but can also become a quite fundamental danger for democracy itself, Rosa shows in the example of the decisions that were taken after 2008 to rescue banks and to stabilize markets and currencies. Although here ‘fundamental political principles’ were affected, the decisions ‘were taken by almost completely bypassing parliaments [...] because there remained no time for the actual democratic process’. This makes plain, according to Rosa, ‘that politics is quite capable of being accelerated – if it relinquishes democracy’.

All in all, then, perhaps not edifying reading for tender minds, but a very enlightening book. At any rate, we are already await with excitement and impatience the ‘systematic sociology of global relationship’ announced at the end of this volume.

Hartmut Rosa:
Weltbeziehungen im Zeitalter der Beschleunigung. Umrisse einer neuen Gesellschaftskritik (i.e., Global Relationships in the Age of Acceleration – Outlines for a New Social Critique)
(Suhrkamp, 2012, ISBN: 978-3-518-29577-9