On the origin of snapping and the damage that performance standards do

A blogpost by Martin de Jong
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Parking sign in New Orleans with sticker saying Socialism sucks
The Streets of New Orleans

I recently walked down a random street in the downtown area of an American city traditionally considered attractive, lively and progressive. All of a sudden, I heard somebody on the other side of the broad avenue scream: “Stop, you m.th.rf.ck.r, I did not do anything”. I looked around but could not extract a good reason for disenchantment from the social context.

Seconds later, I witnessed a regular car and a police car driving away at high speed from behind a traffic light. I continued to walk, decisively puzzled. Two minutes later, I reached a crossing and waited in front of a red traffic light myself. I heard a horrible shriek from behind. My heart was pounding when I gazed into the face of a half-dressed man with bewildered eyes running away from no apparent danger. By the time a normal heartbeat had almost returned, another individual in a suit waiting for the same traffic light turned to me saying: “Man, it is really out of control”, and then added, apparently referring to the city where the turmoil of socio-economic disruption is currently at its worst, “Have you been to San Francisco lately?” He could not possibly know I had just flown in from Philadelphia, another city with the reputation of a glorious past and somewhat gloomier present. There too, the numbers of homeless, psychologically disoriented, and drug addicts, each with their own story and their own prospects of return to regular social, working and residential life, have reached their peak in the post COVID-19 years. In some cities, these people excluded from basic societal facilities and amenities are concentrated in certain streets and neighborhoods, while in others like New Orleans where ‘alternative lifestyles’ are in fact the dominant brand, they have spread all around and can be found at nearly every street corner. Whether they represent true freedom or a mental prison is hard to tell for a vanilla person like me, but it is rather obvious that they have escaped from something.

Snapping as a new epidemic

This problem is not only about mounting levels of poverty and unemployment, a worrisome shortage of available housing for lower and middle-income groups, abundance of cheap, limb-corroding narcotics, or the pressure experienced from having to work two jobs or more to earn a decent living. This is about the integrated, conflated, and conjugated combination of them all leading to a mental phenomenon called ‘snapping’: people literally see no light at the end of the tunnel of their life anymore. Life has gone out of control. It may be that they consciously decide to leave their homes to live in cars or tents hoping that after major effort and luck they will be able to return to normality. It could also be the case that they half-consciously begin using ultracheap, mind-numbing medication to enter another universe and reach a state of deep mental distraction and relaxation. A final cohort may gradually and nearly unconsciously slip into an existence of forgetfulness and eventually simply lose ‘it’ (and themselves) and yell, weep, or laugh in public for reasons outsiders find hard to understand. Either way, this form of snapping is a deep tragedy, and it may hit first and hardest in environments with limited social security, minimal community solidarity, and especially unbearable work pressure such as the United States. But we cannot avoid answering the nagging question to what extent this is a uniquely North American problem.

Running to stand still

On the face of it, if may appear as if the all too familiar poverty problems of developing countries seem to be coming back: people live in tents, huts and other simple dwellings without regular sanitation, anonymous waste pickers appear on the scene in the twilight when others have left to find left-over comestibles and usable items in litter bins and the distinction between formal and informal activity fades. But underneath the surface we may actually be observing the extreme version of the same global phenomenon with different manifestations in various ‘developed’ parts of the world: growing work pressure accompanied by lower purchasing power, declining accessibility to basic amenities such as high-quality education, affordable housing and timely healthcare, a growing gap in wealth, income and tax contribution between on the one hand large multinational corporations and rent-seeking shareholders who maneuver their capital around the world free of charge and on the other hand homebound small and medium-sized enterprises and a wage-earning working population struggling to make ends meet. Compliance with a steady rise in performance standards makes finding yet another round of efficiency gains a never-ending necessity.

The global application of economic recipes taken from the leaves of a Chicago School of Economics textbook have led accountants and consultants to produce more reports, judges and solicitors to handle more court cases per hour, foresters to plant, chop down, sell and replant more Christmas trees per year and cleaners to sanitize more square meters per day than ever before, but what is the societal added value of this increased productivity? Longer hours at the office for mom and dad to hit their targets, less time and energy for them to prevent their children from spending hours in front of numbing tablets, longer waiting lines for our children to leave their parental homes and settle in their own apartments, and more worries about grandparents ending up lonely in elderly homes and care centers at high cost but reduced service levels. Luckily many of us still have our summer holidays to escape from it all, but there we may soon fall prey to heatwaves and forest fires! How long can the illusion of rising GDP levels beef up people’s confidence that we are ‘growing’ and that their offspring will have better lives than themselves? Decades of what is now disparagingly called ‘neoliberalism’ has encouraged capitalists, top leaders and middle managers to treat all real humans operating below them as utility maximizing creatures to be controlled and squeezed into delivering ever higher levels of…… what? The enormous costs of this rushed deviant control freakery have become obvious by now, but where are the benefits?

Taylorism for doctors and cleaners

When Peter Fleming wrote his book on ‘The Death of Homo Economicus’, he did not really mean this specific human specimen had ever actually existed. Neither did he want to imply that it was really dead, or even going to die any time soon. What he intended to say was that it was a useful theoretical delusion in many regards. It helped early political philosophers such Jeremy Bentham get rid of the ‘sacred’ in human life from the 18th century on. It took care of the last uncomfortable phantoms of irrationality in human nature. It helped mathematically inclined individuals obtain the upper hand in almost all scientific and professional disciplines, before going on to value technological over human contributions to civilization. And anno 2023 it provides the required justification for well-endowed elites to live comfortable lives as homo ludens as they hop on rockets to outer space, use private jets and helicopters for one-day trips to visit friends across the ocean and make fatal excursions in an unsafe submersible called Titan to adorable Titanic love-boats at the bottom of Arctic oceans.

Meanwhile, they have subjected most of the working population to the discipline of Taylorian performance standards. No problemo to compress all consultations with general practitioners to 10 minutes at most and reduce next year’s public budget for healthcare. Efficient doctors can do much better than that to support health insurance companies in beefing up profit levels and pleasing their shareholders. Caretakers may shower elderly people once a week for five minutes, anything more is a luxury a modern economy cannot afford. And does that include time spent at the pantry for drinking coffee? Probably not. Cleaners have modern equipment for doing their work nowadays, don’t they? So, they can cover ever larger areas per day, regardless of personal age or injury. They are rational, uniform and resilient human beings who can act independently and handle private issues responsibly in their private time. We ourselves may or may not join the ranks of the precariat one day, but we may soon come to realize that Fleming’s suggestion that homo economicus is an effective psychological tool for homo ludens to extort homo laborans may not be all that farfetched.

Models of summer life

What are the odds that massive numbers of homo laborans morph into homo fractus in Gothenburg before 2050? How many samples of homo hallucinans can we expect to find in the streets of central Cologne ten years from now? Gösta Esping Andersen proposed three distinct models of the European welfare state: Anglo Saxon, Nordic and Continental. In spite of this variety, we still observe that in all of them decades of social democratic influence have made a difference in preventing decay. A British head of department at a prestigious university complained to me that one of his co-workers had spent one day at the office after many weeks of sick leave and just announced he would go on strike because he disagreed with government policies, leaving his less rebellious colleagues to replace him in his teaching duties. From the 21st of June onwards most offices in the Nordic countries close for many weeks of holidays in sunny destinations to the South or countless summer festivals on domestic soil. Terraces in central squares and plazas of Mediterranean cities are filled with happily chatting and sipping consumers enjoying their lives as if there is no tomorrow. Crisis? What crisis?

From taxpayers straight to billionaire superheroes

But as always there is the short run and the long run. When Unilever and Shell threatened to move their headquarters to London and escape miniscule Dutch dividend taxes, even the wettest tear, humblest beg and deepest bow of the Dutch PM Mark Rutte would not change their mind. When Jeff Bezos planned to ship his 127-meter long, three 70-meter high masted superyacht to Rotterdam, the municipality made serious plans to dismantle the monumental and recently restored Koningshaven bridge to make that possible and was embarrassed that some residents intended to throw eggs at the yacht should it all happen as our billionaire superhero intended. Not long after, it appeared that other methods were available to allow the vessel to set sail for Europe’s largest harbor and the scandal ended with a hiss. Former ING and UBS Director-General Ralph Hamers has occupied key positions within the former bank when the Dutch state had to bail it out with fair amounts of taxpayer money while he continued to receive a generous salary along with annual bonuses of around 2 million Euros. When he moved to Switzerland to become Director-General of the latter bank, this amount was quintupled but his performance barely went up. He was removed recently from that position because he was considered ‘too light a candidate’ to preside over an upcoming crucial merger process UBS was about to go through. It must be feared that his severance payment has not made him any poorer either. When Max Verstappen came to Zandvoort town to shine at the prestigious Dutch F1 Grand Prix, the municipality had made sure it charged a few hundred Euros on each local citizen for updating the racing tracks. The driver, considered modest by his racing colleagues, had transferred his modest fortune to Monaco to avoid paying taxes in his home country. Need I mention the financial position of any Royal Families in Europe?

It does not require much of our imagination to predict that the combination of ballooning public deficits in many European states, painful budget cuts in most of them for a variety of public services, bulging Swiss bank accounts of former and current CEOs, CFOs and CIOs of multinational corporations accompanied by flourishing mailbox companies in the Cayman Islands will boost both the numbers of billionaires and the size of the European precariat. Eurostat reported that in 2022, 21.6% of the EU population was living below the poverty line, a percentage now growing year after year.

Bike lane sign placed the wrong way

Still 50 years of false consciousness before we snap?

The German poet Heinrich Heine famously declared that he wanted to die in Holland because everything happens there 50 years after anywhere else. Let us hope he had a point. Indeed, we see few if any tent camps for communities of homeless people. There are certainly fewer drug addicts roaming around stations and shopping areas. We observe a limited, albeit quickly rising number of accidents caused by confused people blowing up their own kitchen furniture with dramatic consequences for themselves and their evacuated neighbors. And the frequent explosions in Rotterdam porches hint at a growing influence of drug-lords on gullible youngsters. Does anybody still remember that in the age of corona those we needed most in times of hardship were least protected from possible harm in our societies? Healthcare workers, primary school teachers, cashiers at supermarkets, delivery boys: we clapped our hands for them until it hurt just a few years ago, did we not? But the labor conditions for frontstage staff and participants in the platform economy are still far inferior to those the baby boomers ever had. If you were an average worker or law-abiding taxpayer, would you believe the economic theories that indicate that humanity as well as the astonishing technologies it produces are of infinite elasticity to produce further unlimited productivity, or would you assume they will eventually…… snap?

Our employees are subject to performance measurement systems that treat them as if they should be forcefully disciplined into productive submission. They still seem to be able to handle the pressure, but for how much longer? Will their children collect enough income to buy their own dwelling any time soon? Will they have time to look after their parents and grandparents now that government support for elderly care has largely evaporated? Where will they stay and how will they recover when they are in serious conflict with their parents or partner? Will they be able to resist in times of high pressure when drugs come along? We want young generations to be able to enjoy jazz festivals in New Orleans or Rotterdam as carefree as previous generations did. But what will good old Heinrich say when he is looking at Rotterdam in 50 years’ time? Well done, good old Europe, the cosmopolitan spirit of Erasmus has saved you. Praise to you, French ‘Vieille’ Orleans for avoiding the traps of New World neoliberal decay and escaping the devastating social consequences that unraveled American ‘Nouvelle’ Orleans went through. It must be that the statesmanlike shadows of your name-giver the Duke of Orleans still watch over you but never reached the Louisiana plains.

Europe is in dire need of a sincere Labour Party that takes its job seriously. Else those who rightly distrust the growth figures and soothing messages presented by authorities end up wrongly believing the divisive race and religion stories and manipulative incriminations of populist preachers. False consciousness is a real thing. If it persists for another 50 years we are very likely to deplore it.

A commentary on snapping in East Asia by Zhaowen Liu

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