Selbstentfaltung (English)

[English version of the original german article, translated by Pauline Schwarze — thanks a lot!]

“Have a lot of fun” is the legendary hacker greeting. Having fun? Isn’t that the epitome of our meaningless and dump “fun culture” of comedy & Co? Not at all. The greeting refers to the motivation of committing oneself to a complex and self-imposed task – such as software development or other nice and useful things. Voluntariness in these things is of the essence. Wanting to commit to a self-imposed goal is the purpose as well as an end in itself.

In the emancipatory context, this kind of motivation is referred to as Selbstentfaltung. The literal translation of this German word is “unfolding oneself” and denotes the ”ability to develop oneself in any way one desires”. In terms of terminology this might be a bit ambiguous since quite a few esoteric teachings use the same term with a different meaning behind it. Selbstentfaltung simply does not refer to an identity with supernatural powers, a existence in nirvana, a submission to others or some such. Instead, it refers to self-determination and the autonomy of cooperating with others.

It also does not refer to the bourgeois concept of “self-realization” which conveys the existence of a pre-determined identity of “self” that now simply needs to be “realized”. As if purchasing the proper accessories will help finding one’s own identity. Realizing oneself as a commodity monad. I buy, therefore I am – myself?

Marx and Engels defined Selbstentfaltung as “free development of each” which is the “condition of the free development of all”. At least figuratively, since they did not know the word we use today. But they did grasp its core meaning: Selbstentfaltung is the self-development that requires the development of every other person. From this point of view other people are to be included, not due to ethical or other external considerations, but rather because their inclusion is structural and unconditional.

There are two main prerequisites for Selbstentfaltung: Commons and Peering. Commons is the alternative to the commodity form. It is a social form in which vital things are not produced in a separate private production with a subsequent distribution via exchange, but living conditions are rather produced based on needs and in a way that assures mediation in advance.

Peering describes the above mentioned mediation in advance. Peering is characterized as communication and negotiations in which the participants are peers. It is an aspect of inclusion logic. Peering does not construct “the other” which needs to be excluded, but rather identifies others as peers that are included. This is an essential prerequisite (but no guarantee) for overcoming sexism, racism and other -isms.

Selbstentfaltung is to experience oneself as what we all are: societal humans in a human society. It’s nothing special because that’s what we always are. We just don’t get to experience it because we live separate form one another. I do my own thing, the others do theirs. To image one’s own development as separate from others seems rather absurd but still, we experience it this way.

Selbstentfaltung creates real and living motivation, a kind of motivation that is unattainable under the dictate of ubiquitous exploitation. But if motivation and exploitation can be cunningly combined, how about Selbstentfaltung? Can’t it be bought? Thus postmodern capital encourages us: “Do what you want as long as it turns a profit”.

The answer to that question is known as the “crowding-out” effect. Numerous studies examined what happens if people are financially rewarded for doing things they like to do anyway. Be it children or adults, poor or rich people who participated in the studies, the results were the same: Effort and results took a nosedive. It is frustrating, almost insulting, to be rewarded for fulfilling a fun task. Appreciation, yes please. Bribery? No thanks.

According to a second result of the studies, the effect of reduced pleasure in doing a formerly fun task only showed up under the condition of a reasonably secure living situation. As soon as people experience a significant existential pressure, effort and results remain high or even increase if money is given as a reward. But this does not constitute real motivated activity, but rather a internalized compulsion under the pressure of precarious circumstances.

We all know these thoughts: “I have to motivate myself to get this done”. Or more specifically: “Without a deadline I’m not getting anything done”. Still, we all suspect or know: If I have to “motivate myself” it’s not real motivation, but coercion and compulsion. Self-imposed internal compulsion that masquerades as motivation. Myriads of motivation seminars try to teach techniques to that very purpose. The message: “It’s up to you”.

Selbstentfaltung and real motivation are a different pair of shoes. In my motivated individual development (original: Entfaltung – unfolding) I realize my potential as a societal being in a reciprocal-inclusive way. Under capitalist circumstances this Entfaltung is only possible in niches we have to create for ourselves, even if only on a small scale. But this is the force that drives the commons-based peer-production.

Selbstentfaltung is the core of all things communist, and communist features can be found in all of human history. There have always been people who tried to overcome the obstacles to their own individual Entfaltung, but the circumstances did not allow such a thing. A generalized reciprocal inclusion was not attainable, because it ended up being at the expense of subordinates.

This has changed today. Capitalism, the epitome of structural-generalized reciprocal exclusion, has created the very material conditions we need to not only make Selbstentfaltung attainable but also generalizable. To this end it is necessary to become aware of the prerequisites needed for Selbstentfaltung.

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