Hartmut Rosa – Alienation and Acceleration

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Hartmut Rosa (b. 1965)

Modern (Western) man has loads of political and economic freedom and in accordance with the dominant liberal agenda he is free to plan and lead his life in line with his own maxims. Then, how can it be that so many Westeners complain that they are always – and increasingly – pressed for time? This seemingly permanent ‘lack of time’ poses an important question: Is it possible to investigate the structure and nature of our lives by focusing on the temporal patterns? So believes German sociologist Hartmut Rosa who posits that modern man may be described as ’free’ and restricted only by a few boundaries, all the while, being governed, coordinated and suppressed by an illusive time regime.

What is social acceleration?

Acceleration can be divided into three categories. 

Technological acceleration of transport-, communication- and production processes alongside new types of organisation and administration. For instance, communication is said to have been sped up with a factor 10⁷. 

Acceleration of social change refers to the increasing change of attitudes and values, fashion and lifestyle, social relations and obligations etc. If the present is defined as that period of time where the horizons of experience and expectations are overlapping, the present refers to a decreasing period of time. Consider the family. During the agricultural period the family accelerated in an inter-generational tempo (ie. it was stabile over centuries) to a generational tempo in ’classic modernity’ (ca. 1850-1970) to an intra-generational tempo in late modernity where the tendency is for a family’s life cycle to be shorter than any one members. A similar development is traceable within the professional sphere. 

Acceleration of life tempo is perhaps the most pressing and astonishing aspect of social acceleration. Technological acceleration gives us more time but the higher number of actions or experiences pr. time unit means that social actors today increasingly experience time as a scarce resource. We can’t keep up is a complaint that has accompanied modernity since the 18th century but the complaint seems to have intensified in the latter decades supporting the notion that the ’digital revolution’ and the ’processes of globalisation’ represents yet another wave of social acceleration. 

What drives social acceleration?

Hartmut Rosa lists three reasons why modernity is caught up in the process of acceleration. 

a) The social motor: competition

The fundamental profit rule of capitalist economics is, undoubtedly, at play: Time is money and time spent pr. unit must go down. In modern societies the principle of competition, however, goes far beyond the economic sphere. Today the principle is the all-dominating modus of allocation in practically all spheres of society and, according to Talcott Parsons, a decisive characteristic of the modern. Our position is not predetermined from birth, but under constant, competition based renegotiation. This means that performance is a decisive competition principle we must constantly prove until we reach a point where performance is no longer a means to lead an independent life governed by self-defined targets, but an overarching goal for society, in general, and every single citizen alike. This finding is supported by numerous surveys that repeats the sentiment that one has to “dance faster and faster just to stand still.” The competition never sleeps. 

b) The cultural motor: the promise of eternity

But the acceleration is also propelled by a strong cultural promise: The (religious) promise of eternal life. Modern societies are secular in the sense that they perceive the richness of life, its’ scope and quality to be directly proportional to the sum and depth of the experiences one has through a life time. In this perspective the good life is one that is rich in experiences and actualised potential: To taste life in its full complexity from the highest high to the lowest low becomes a central aspiration for modern man. 

But the world always has more to offer. That’s why one lives ’twice as fast’ to double the sum of experiences within a lifetime: The eudaimonic promise of modern acceleration is its’ belief that accelerating our ’life tempo’ is the solution to the problems of death and finality. Of course, the promise is disappointed and according to Hartmut Rosa embodies the great tragic of modern man: We feel trapped in a perpetuating hamster wheel where our hunger for life and world is more and more frustrated the faster we pace.

c) The cycle of acceleration

Technological acceleration and acceleration of the changes of attitudes and values etc. set the acceleration in motion, but in late modernity social acceleration is a self-reinforcing system. Either you are on your way up or down and, so, you have to stay on the hamster wheel while trying to decide what options are the best – and then pursue as many of those as possible. 

Hartmut Rosa emphasises that there are areas of social deceleration but that they are limited and scattered. Still, there are signs that modern societies are about to ‘close down’ and that history is nearing its’ end in the form of a’hyper-accelerated’ stagnation or ’polar inertia’. For instance, Francis Fukuyama and Jean Baudrillard claims that modern societies have run out of new visions and (utopian) energies and that the staggering speed really is a surface phenomenon covering our epochs’ deeply rooted cultural and structural inertia.  

Feelings of inertia occur or intensifies when the changes and dynamics in ones’ own life or in the individual or collective history are no longer experienced as parts of a meaningful and well organised chain of actions that is part of a dynamic ‘progress,’ but as parts of a directionless, hectic change. Under stagnation things change but they don’t move. On the individual level this may lead to depression and on the collective plane to an experience of ‘the end of history’, that is, the end of meaningful history. In Rosa’s view, the transition from an experience of a directional change (progress) to an experience of hectic and episodical change is a decisive criteria of the transition from the ‘classic’ modernity to late modernity. 

Acceleration and transformation of our ‘being-in-the-world’

According to Hartmut Rosa we can only understand what modernity is about if we recognize the dynamics of acceleration that are at the heart of modern society. 

For one, because modern societies are not governed and coordinated according to explicit, normative rules, but in accordance with silent and normative temporality powers. Secondly, because the modern acceleration regime transform human relations to the world behind our backs, that is, to our fellow man, objects, time, space and, ultimately, to ourselves. As such, acceleration ultimately changes our ‘being-in-the-world.’ 

Moreover, the ‘classic modern’ perception of identity based on an individual ‘life plan’ and a self-definition rooted in strong valuations is being dismantled in lieu of more flexible types of ‘situational identity.’ These forms of identity agree with the more passing character of all self-definitions and identity parameters and do not attempt to follow a specific life plan. Rather, they surf: Wherever there is a new, attractive possibility one must be willing to go for it. 

Acceleration also changes our experience of the biographical and collective history. Classic modernity began when social change became so rapid that the social actors noticed that the present was different from the past and that the future would probably be different from the present. History seemed to have a direction and historical narratives revolved around progress. Late modernity, however, begins when social changes reach inter-generational speed. Individually this change comes across in narrative interviews where people narrate their life stories as a series of singular, incoherent experiences in their family and work life rather than unifying stories of growth, maturity and progress. 

Election poster for Mussolinis grandson (Italy, 2019)

Moreover, the ‘right’ historical sequence is not so ‘right’ anymore. For instance, in 1990 a majority would say that sea piracy and torture were relics of the past whereas democracy and the welfare state were elements of the present and the future. Today these convictions are far less certain. Also in this light one may speak of an ‘end of history’ where everything is potentialities that can disappear or reappear. 

In short, social acceleration triggers new experiences of time and space, new social patterns of interaction and new forms of subjectivity. Accordingly, it changes the way people are situated or placed in the world – and how they move and orientate. Since the social acceleration demands in late modernity exerts an unavoidable and all-encompassing pressure on the will and actions of all its’ subjects, and since it is virtually impossible to criticize or fight it, it fits the definition of totalitarianism. Actually, with modern citizens waking up in sweat in the middle of the night worrying they’re gonna die the next instant it is even more prolific than most dictatorships. 

And yet, the socially constructed acceleration norms are ignored and framed as normative challenges or rules that cannot be disputed, rejected or transgressed. Rather, time is conceived as some raw, natural dimension that is simply ‘there’ and most often people blame themselves for not being good enough at managing it. It is, however, entirely possible to frame a critical theory on social acceleration.

The functional criticism: The pathologies of de-synchronization 

Not all processes in modern societies are subdued to the same social acceleration. This leads to inevitable frictions when a tempo increase in one area puts another under pressure. We see some of the results in traffic jams, depleted natural resources, stress or depression. 

On a societal level it is undeniable that technological and economic spheres accelerates in varying degrees but the political decision making processes remain unchanged. Actually, in late modernity political processes demand even more time because society is more plural and less conventional. This is why policy is no longer what sets the pace for social change and evolution. In fact, it slows growth! 

Likewise, a form of dis-functional de-synchronisation takes place in the transfer of cultural norms from one generation to the next. If our life world is dynamized to such an extent that there is only limited or no inter-generational stability left, the generations will experience that they live in ‘different worlds.’ This may lead to a breakdown in the symbolic reproduction. Lastly, a society’s ability to react creatively and innovative to changing circumstances most likely demands a considerable amount of ‘free’ time enabling play, boredom and inactivity. Consequently, it may be society’s relentless striving for incessant innovation and dynamization that may undermine its’ ability for fundamental innovation and creative adaptation. 

The normative criticism: Always behind – always guilty and shameful 

There exists a perplexing paradox: Modern societies are characterised by an impressive intensification of mutual bonds of codependency. And yet modern societies appear to be liberal and individualised and displaying a minimum of ethical restrictions with its’ citizens reporting that they feel morally and ethically ‘free.’ How is this possible? How can we feel free while being thoroughly coordinated, regulated and synchronised?! 

One answer is readily available. Under the dominant liberal self-understanding lies an overwhelming and strong social appreciation that points in the opposite direction. While individuals may think of themselves as completely free they also feel completely dominated by an increasing number of strict social demands. We legitimise everything we do by reference to some outer demand – and our whole life has become an ocean of all demanding tasks. 

Modern man’s need for coordination and synchronisation, therefore, is resolved via a rigid implementation of temporal norms – that produces masses of guilty subjects! Cause, at the end of the day, we feel guilty we do not live up to the expectations. We hardly ever reach the bottom of our to do lists. Rather, the lists become longer every day!

The ethical criticism 1: Modernity’s broken promise 

The modernity project revolves around the idea and ethical promise of autonomy: How we as subjects wish to live our lives should not be predetermined by king, church or a social order on which we have no influence. Rather, it should be up to each individual how she or he wishes to live. 

Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” (1936)

In principle, modernity’s (competition based) social acceleration and the (ethical) project of autonomy and self-dependency have supported each other in this pursuit. Modernity, however, has never delivered on its’ promise and employees, employers and managers alike experience that they cannot control the rules of the game and that their ability to lead an autonomous life has been cut off. As long as history could be interpreted as a development towards a point where the (daily) struggle, survival of the fittest battle and social competition would lose its determining power over our individual and collective lifestyles, acceleration and competition could be regarded as means to obtain self-dependency. 

But this promise is no longer credible in late modernity where social acceleration no longer is experienced as a liberation but as an insurmountable pressure. Nowadays – at least in the West – acceleration no longer contributes to secure the means to pursue individual dreams, goals and life plans. It is rather the opposite: Individual dreams, goals, wishes and life plans are utilized as a driving force in the acceleration machinery. 

For the subjects the central challenge is to lead and form their lives in a way that will enable them to ‘continue the race’ and maintain their competitive edge. Even our choice of a religious practice, life partner, hobbies and health habits are considered from a competitive logic and the speed of social change and general  conditions makes it decidedly dangerous to develop and follow a ‘lifeplan.’ Modern man goes with the flow rather than aiming for a specific target. 

This doesn’t mean late modern man is simply passive. Man must be ready to ‘seize the moment’ every time a promising opportunity is available, but creativity, subjectivity and passion today is used to strengthen our competitive edge – not to serve autonomy in the old, ‘modern’ manner. 

Likewise, politics today comes across as enforced upon us: If we do not lower taxes or allow gene-technology we will lose out to the competition. Economic necessity determines the direction and since this project logically has no final goal the promise of autonomy can led to total heteronomy, that is, the absolute inversion of modernity’s promise. 

Social conditions that, on the one hand, ethically obligates its’ subjects to the idea of self-dependency and, on the other, increasingly undermine their ability to practically pursue this idea inevitably leads to an experience of alienation, that is, a state where the subjects pursue goals or enacts practices that are not directly forced upon them, but that they still do not ‘really wish for’ or support. In other words, we feel alienated when we want to go home but still work til late in the evening without anyone really having ordered us to. Or we can feel alienated when we implement reforms we don’t really support: We don’t know if they will even help and we could have acted differently but we ‘sorta’ felt we had to do what we did. If such a state is prolonged one can easily (both on an individual and on a collective plane) lose sight of what one really wanted – and, yet, be left with an eery feeling of heteronomy.

The Ethical Criticism 2: Why social acceleration leads to alienation

Alienation from space

Alienation is sign of a deep, structural distortion of the relations between the self and the world and the various ways a subject is placed or ‘localized’ in the world. To become ‘confident’ with a territorial space, to ‘feel at home’ in a spatial world presupposes a cultivation of intimacy – also to those parts one doesn’t use and doesn’t know. But relations take time to build. If we move around a lot we inevitably lose the connection to a specific geo-social space. The places between the supermarket, the school and work remains ‘silent’ and are not woven into our identity. In time, this also applies to our immediate surroundings; our objects, our kitchen, our furniture etc. 

Alienation from objects

Boy with new shoes given to him by the Red Cross (1946)

Man has always have intimate relations to, at least, some objects and to some degree the things we live and work with becomes constitutive to our identity. A car you have repaired yourself is appropriated, individualized and internalized in all its’ sensuous dimensions and will bear signs of you. Throwing these things away touches on our identity. 

But in the acceleration society most products are too expensive to repair and we have lost the ability to repair them ourselves. Instead we dispose of them before they break and they never become part of us. Not long ago we named our PC and our car and saying goodbye to them stung our heart. Today the products get smarter and smarter but the more sophisticated they become the dumber we feel towards them and the greater distance. In fact, we can feel so alienated we feel almost guilt towards them; They are so smart and I handle them like an idiot! 

Modern man tries to compensate for these experiences of alienation by acquiring exclusive and lasting objects, such as, pianos or costly telescopes. Often, however, we give them only brief time and attention and they never attain the same porosity. Consequently, the surroundings, in which, we live, move and work remains a stranger to us. 

Alienation with regards to our actions

In this light it is not strange that we begin to feel alienated with regards to our own actions. If the opposite of alienation is ‘to feel home’ (a specific place with specific people) or to be confident with certain actions one might say that, very often, we do not feel intimate with the things we do and that we don’t strut about ‘at home’ in our world. 

Overload of information is one of the reasons for our feeling of alienation. This is true for the small, near experiences, like kilometer long medicin warnings or various phone and internet disclaimers, and the case for big decisions, such as, a young person’s choice of career. No matter how much he or she substantiates their choice, there is always more that could have been learned. Inevitably, you are left with a feeling of guilt and this is true for all our choices, whether, choice of bank account, insurance, pension, energy provider etc. 

These examples may seem stretched but if alienation can be defined as a feeling of ‘not really wishing to do what one is doing’ even if one acts out of ones own free volition, it is a pattern that is recognisable everywhere. Millions if not billions of internet users experience how they are distracted away from what it is ‘they really wanna do.’ Similarly, employees and managers alike complain that they have less and less time to do the ‘core tasks’ because they spend more and more time doing ‘things they have to do.’ 

But when we look at how we spend our private time the astonishing thing is that surveys of our emotional spectrum reveals that even if we voluntarily chose to watch tv or surf the internet, the enjoyment we get is less than almost any other activity. And still we do it. It can only be described as an almost paradigmatic example of alienation: Freely doing something one really doesn’t wanna do. 

In Rosas view this curious and rather new type of alienation is a result of the self-reinforcing logic of competition and acceleration. In a world structured according to the imperatives of speed it not only makes good sense to seek imminent satisfactions rather than trying to meet long term goals. One is also urged to buy ‘potentialities’ and choices. Instead of taking the time to read Brothers Karamazov we buy The Idiot. Instead of taking the time to get to know our telescope we supplement it with a camera. In this way we keep expanding our potential possibilities, skills and ressources all the while our ‘realized’ capacities dwindles more and more.

Alienation with regards to time

Almost a hundred years ego Walter Benjamin distinguished between Erlebnissen (singular experiences) and Erfahrungen (experiences that leave a trace that is connected or related to our identity and our history and that somehow touches on or changes who we are). Benjamin believed we were entering an epoch rich in Erlebnissen but poor in Erfahrungen. We surf the internet, ‘binge’ tv-series, shop like crazy, race from the fitness center to the amusement park and to the restaurant and travel the world, but our experiences leave little to no lasting trace. That is why we need ‘souvenirs,’ that is, physical artifacts to remember the different experiences but the souvenirs leaves us cold if they don’t relay anything. The consequence is that time seems to be running out at both ends: It passes quickly because of the many sense impressions but also quickly shrinks or vanishes all together from our memory.

This might be one key explanation of our late modern experience of a lack of time. Just like our relations to our actions and objects what we are deling with is a ‘lack of appropriating time.’ The singular experiences and the time we spend on them remain alien to us with no intergral or meaningful relation to us. Basically, we can hardly remember having been to or enacted with any of these places and objects and, inevitably, this leads to various forms of self-alienation.

Alienation from oneself and others

To a certain degree, acceleration first leads to disintegration and then to eroding our engagement: We cannot integrate our singular actions and experiences (and the goods we buy) in life as a whole and therefore we become increasingly detached from the places in our life and time itself, from our actions and experiences, and the things we live and work with. We become ‘saturated’ from the amount of relations and the number of people we ‘meet’ makes it structurally unlikely that we really ‘relate’ to one another. If we are pressed for time we may still be ready to cooperate but we don’t want to hear the others’ life story. It is too time demanding to build a relation and too troublesome and hurtful to break it again. 

That there is an overwhelming danger of self-alienation in the late modern acceleration society is obvious. If we are alienated towards space and time, our actions, experiences and interaction partners, if we do not really appropriate the actions and experiences we have been through, all the possibilities we have, the people we know and the things we have acquired, if nothing seems to have any lasting value, an ‘exhaustion of the self’ in the form of burn-out and depression is very likely. If it is ‘the meaning of that which has meaning to us’ that determines our identity the loss of that sense, the loss of a lasting hierarchy of relevance and meaning will inevitably lead to a distortion in our relation to ourselves. Alienation towards the world and alienation towards oneself is not separate phenomena but two sides of the same coin.


Hartmut Rosa concludes that the ‘silencing’ of the world is the largest and most enduring threat that can be found in all critical analyses of modernity. The idea that we have to call out into the world and wait for a response that we may never get lies at the heart, not only of existential philosophy and its’ depiction of the absurd, but of all philosophy and social sciences. 

Adorno’s antidote, mimesis, can be defined as the counter idea of a ‘responsive’ and mutual meeting between self and world. In the history of the Western civilization until now there has been two great cultural forms that made the world more responsive: Religion and art (especially music and poetry). In this light the ‘return’ of religion in late modernity and the curious ‘musicalization’ of everyday life may be symptoms of a late modern resonance disaster. 

In the end, Hartmut Rosa suggests that ‘the good life’ may be a life that is rich in multi-dimensional experiences of ‘resonance’ – that is, a life that vibrates along distinct ‘axis of resonance.’  The aim, then, is to develop such axis in relation to the subject and the social world, the object world, nature, work etc. 

Not an easy task, but it begins with recognising the dictates our current time regime imposes on human existence, that we do not have to sit idly by and that politics can actually slow the acceleration.  

Closing remarks

I hope the above introduction to Hartmut Rosa has peaked your interest and urge you to go straight to his own works. He writes in a straight forward manner that will appeal to layman and professionals alike.

For another interesting perspective on some of the topics Rosa touches upon please find here a link to an article on Organisational Existentialism that revolves around a number of the same themes, for instance, workaholism and our hopes and aspirations that work will provide a meaning to our lives. Our terror of death is a powerful motivator and while we may feel overburdened by all the obligations and things-to-do it can instill, at least, our hectic schedules may also silence that ultimate terror.

Also if you want to learn about other famous writers’ take on alienation you can here find a link to Franz Kafka’s take on the modern and Martin Buber’s appeal for I-You relations that revolves around how we relate to our fellow man, nature and God.

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