Global Burnout. Pascal Chabot (trans. by Aliza Krefetz). Bloomsbury. 2018.

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When he tried to get up, his body refused to obey him […] This man, who used to check his email every ten minutes, begins to tremble uncontrollably when his company’s name is mentioned (2)

Though it would be hyperbolic to suggest that the disturbing scenario described above is a familiar one, it is at the same time not entirely alien either. The experience of both mental and physical apathy and exhaustion, common to many in a diluted form at the very least, is the subject under investigation in the pithily titled Global Burnout, written by Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot in 2013 and now translated into English for the first time last year by Aliza Krefetz.

It is this ‘burnout’ which ‘replaces the richness of a healthy relationship between individuals and their work with an immense void of meaninglessness’ (12). As the author notes ominously, it is an affliction especially reserved for ‘the most faithful followers of twenty first century values’ (2). In this superb work of philosophical narrative, Chabot conceptualises burnout, locating its appearance as directly resulting from the spirit of our age. The result is a book rich in truth, eminently readable and full of references garnered from the author’s wide-ranging cultural grounding (he moves seamlessly from St John Cassian to Graham Greene). Underpinning all of this is a damning critique of our times.

This critique is driven primarily by Chabot’s sensitivity to the shifting sands of history, morality and philosophy. Just like Friedrich Nietzsche, who is clearly an important influence, his concern is with the threat of regression into what is effectively intellectual and moral nihilism. The book is directed towards that uncommon preoccupation in twenty-first-century consciousness: the moral ends of human progress. Chabot, at bottom, is asking whether humanity’s direction of travel is really desirable.

His answer, on examination of the present evidence, is an emphatic no. Most obviously, Chabot refuses to accept the necessity of the situation in which people are driven to work to the point of exhaustion – the basic source of burnout. For Chabot, the only reason why individuals would allow themselves to spiral to these extremes must be because of reverence of the fateful ‘twenty first century values’ which the victims of burnout ritually perform. These include, amongst other things, the push for efficiency at all costs, the never-ending pursuit of target quotas set by faceless superiors and concern with means rather than ends. Chabot sees all of these values as borne out of a world forged by the indifferent, mediocre logic of corporate management, part of a wider push in economically affluent and developing parts of the world towards ‘useful progress’, which is ‘driven by the accumulation of capital’ and in finality aims to make existence itself profitable (42). Where these values are sovereign, individual and (ultimately) collective burnout follow.

Accompanying this domination of ‘useful progress’, a central theme of the book is the collapse of genuine recognition between subjects (in philosophical jargon, intersubjectivity). This, if it ever ‘authentically’ existed, Chabot sees as having been discarded in favour of transactional relationships in which value is grounded in the other’s instrumental use and output. To disregard the need for recognition is to become ignorant of the unique and brilliant human spirit within each person. Furthermore, it is to become uncoupled from the basis of the human condition: our utter vulnerability alone and our dependence on meaningful relationships and interactions with our family, friends and colleagues. Where this is lacking, we should not be surprised that burnout or related symptoms occur.

Despite this lengthy diagnosis of the sickness of a society, there remains more than a kernel of hope for Chabot. Reminiscent of the work of the German critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, hope paradoxically appears in the face of despair. Chabot perceives in the individual’s experience of burnout the birth of a potential resistance, a metamorphosis. Just as for Adorno, this latent hope arises in our rawest materiality. Our bodies ‘often know more than our blinkered psyches’ (5). It is the body which, at the point of its collapse, tells us that things are not right and that things should be different. It is the body which alerts us, against all utilitarian attempts to veil the truth, that unflinching adherence to the logic of economics and technology is reason having become unreasonable.

Armed with the experience of burnout, the individual ‘enters into a battle against the […] dominant values to which she can no longer claim allegiance and ultimately sloughs them off’  (24). How this individual resistance might morph into a civilisational one, Chabot does not say. On the subject of practicability, he notes in the postface to this translation that, as a philosophical work, the book ‘does not exist to resolve problems. It seeks first to understand them, to locate them within a broader context, to untangle their threads’ (115). The book certainly does untangle; but there is a case for saying that Chabot’s conclusions (even, dare I say, implicit, tentative attempts to resolve the problem of burnout) could be braver still. For all the truth in the assessment, one is often left asking what is exactly new in what Chabot proposes and, given that nothing has broken the monopoly so far, how will it prove compelling in our societal malaise?

In the end, Chabot suggests something approaching a rehabilitation and renewal of renaissance humanism for the age of technological dominance. Accordingly, the excess of ‘useful progress’ must be redressed with an equal (if not greater) identification with what he calls ‘subtle progress’. This progress ‘centers around individuals, their education, their way of living and caring for themselves […] the prioritization of their happiness’. In other words, it is all that is unquantifiable, useless and meaningful about our human spirit, transcending ‘the notion that the material world alone could be the source of our advancement’ (43).  What Chabot is searching for, then, is a way to re-enchant what Max Weber described as our disenchanted society. That is, to establish a more to life beyond capital, productivity and the raw unmediated power that has filled the vacuum created by the death of God.

At the beginning of the book, Chabot describes the state of acedia, spiritual burnout, an ancient variant of contemporary burnout, an affliction of monks who sought to commit their every being to God’s glory to the point of exhaustion. Global Burnout’s resistance, at its core, contains all that is good in that same contemplative tradition. That is to say, it calls us to resist the rhythm of mechanical predictability, the pursuit of means, not ends; the notion that there is nothing new under the sun. Instead, we must rediscover in humanity our inherent communality, dignity and particularity. For the monks, this was achieved through finding unfamiliarity in the familiar. Our nihilistic rituals will afford us no such grace. The central question for humanity, then: who or what will break the monotony?

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Notes:

  • This blog post appeared originally in LSE Review of Books..
  • The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image: Marco Verch, under a CC BY 2.0 licence 
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Roderick Howlett is a school and university tutor in philosophy and religion. His BA was in theology at the University of Nottingham, before changing to philosophy for an MA at University College Dublin. In 2019, he plans to begin work on a philosophy PhD exploring the influence of Søren Kierkegaard upon Theodor W. Adorno.