In his latest depressing book about how depressing everything is, Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes that “despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time.” In Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, his previous depressing book about how depressing everything is, he had written: “The naked reality of capitalism is today on display. And it’s horrible.”
If these sentiments seem false to you, I can only gesture at the world around us and shrug. They seem self-evident to me. (If they also seem a bit vague, well, analytical rigor is not one of Berardi’s vices.)
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Berardi was a leading theorist of the school of Italian Marxist thought known as Operaismo (workerism), a member of the workerist group Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power) who went on to found the influential Autonomist journal A/traverso and Radio Alice, Italy’s first pirate radio station. At the end of the ’70s, to avoid state persecution for his political actions, he fled to Paris, where he became friends with Félix Guattari, whose ideas saturate Berardi’s books.
Workerism’s “fundamental axiom” held that “the struggles of the working class precede and prefigure the successive restructurations of capital” (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). Operaismo emphasized the working class’s lived struggles and “class composition”—“the relationship between the material structure of the working class and its behavior as a subject autonomous from the dictates of both the labor movement and capital” (Steven Wright). (For a wonderful account of the factory agitations in northern Italy, culminating in the “Hot Autumn” of 1969, that formed the backdrop of workerism, see Nanni Balestrini’s 1971 novel We Want Everything, published in English translation in the US in 2016.)
Berardi has always shared the workerist interest in “the relation between working class struggles and intellectual and technological transformations,” as he put it recently in The Soul at Work. But deindustrialization, with concomitant union-busting and wage suppression, splintered and scattered the traditional working class. If there is something like a contemporary proletariat, it includes women working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, in Bangladeshi sweatshops for a dollar a day, and low-paid service workers with neither job security nor benefits, and such surplus populations as the chronically unemployed and the incarcerated. The workers of the world are untied.
“The world must be remade,” as Raoul Vaneigem wrote half a century ago—but how? Berardi’s argument in his recent work—and it must be said that Futurability repeats arguments made in The Soul at Work and Heroes—is that ordinary people are overwhelmed by despair because of their impotence to produce the kinds of radical change in social structures that are so obviously required if we want our lives to be, well, livable in any meaningful sense. This impotence leads to the by now all-too-familiar phenomena of resurgent ethno-nationalism, mass murder, and suicide, as well as to resistance in the form of heartening but short-lived movements like Occupy. We are subject to financial domination, debt peonage, and precarity under what Berardi calls “semio-capitalism”; to state repression ranging from tacit to lethal; and to a technologically enabled “shift from the conjunctive to the connective mode of concatenation.”
Berardi is a dour and humane and ingenious Virgil for our inferno. But I can’t really make that part about the connective paradigm much clearer, because Berardi doesn’t. The basic idea is that digital technology—the internet, computers, smartphones—has caused a “mutation” from a consciousness based on signification (meaning does not precede meaning-making) to an information modality based on an automated generative code. Think of the difference between answering the question “How was the concert?” with a sentence like “I enjoyed it, but the crowd was obnoxious” and answering it with a thumbs-up emoji. (I assume Berardi would regard a stock answer like “Fine” as nevertheless different in kind from an emoji, since the former remains within a field of signification whose possibilities are not predetermined.)
Berardi’s own sentences on this subject sound like this:
The fragmentation and acceleration of the flow of info-stimulation, the multitasking effect and the competitive pressure that is tied to the ability to follow the rhythm of the Infosphere are provoking the explosion of the centered self and a sort of psychotic deterritorialization of attention.
I am not ever interested in the clichéd and anti-intellectual denunciation of “academic writing” for its obscurity and complexity. Some thoughts are obscure and complex, and every field has its jargon. But it’s unclear to what extent we are to take Berardi, in such passages, literally.
In a recent (and excellent) essay, Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon censure Theodor Adorno for using, in Minima Moralia, Marx’s concept of “organic composition” to draw an analogy between transformations in the labor process and transformations in human existence. I can’t go along with them. Adorno is well aware that Marx’s concept has nothing to do with “subjectivity itself” and “powers of expression.” He is using the concept metaphorically, to be taken mutatis mutandis, because subjectivity and expression are what he is interested in.
But when Berardi writes that human beings have become “a super-individual bio-informatic organism that can traverse sensible singularities but cannot be traversed by them,” I think of his own definition, drawing on Guattari, of the schizophrenic as “the person who has lost the ability to perceive the limits of metaphoric enunciation and tends therefore to take the metaphor as a description.” “Mutation has perfused and rearranged the human mind, and has consequently disempowered consciousness, volition and action,” he writes. Does Berardi believe that technology has wrought a literal biological “mutation” in “the generation born inside the Internet”? Is this hyperbole, metaphor? Shouldn’t I be able to tell?
On the one hand, it’s obvious that the “digital revolution” (a revealing cant phrase) has profoundly affected daily life. On the other, Berardi’s apparent technological determinism—I just knew McLuhan and Baudrillard were going to show up—obfuscates a relatively simple truth: technology is driven by social, economic, and political forces more than vice versa. “Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor,” David Graeber writes in The Utopia of Rules. When your thesis chimes with panicked journalistic accounts of how the iPhone is ruining a generation’s minds, something is off.
Berardi dates the “mutation of the molecular composition of the human and of the social organism” to 1977, when “Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs created the Apple trademark”; “Sid Vicious cried ‘No Future’ ” (it was Johnny Rotten, but whatever); and Italy witnessed “the last proletarian rebellion of the last century and the first precarious rebellion of the new century.” These seem fairly symbolic markers compared with the crashingly obvious fact of the economic crisis of the early ’70s, within whose ruins we are still living. Berardi’s framing of Thatcher’s “neoliberal project” and Nixon’s “decision” to decouple the dollar from the gold standard, thereby ending the Bretton Woods system, similarly puts the cart before the horse. What is called “neoliberalism” (a misleading term in several respects, but we seem stuck with it) was less a nefarious ideological project than a series of frantic attempts to respond to economic crisis.
Of course it was both nefarious and ideological—it should go without saying that Thatcher and Nixon and Reagan did not consider “responses” that might help ordinary people rather than financial institutions. It’s simply important to recognize that the ideology was driven by the flailings of capital; otherwise one risks the implication that we just need to replace bad ideas with better ones. The goal of capital is to valorize itself, i.e. to reproduce itself with added value; a crisis is a disruption in this process. In modern capitalist societies, the state, as agent of capital, steps in to (temporarily) resolve crises. (This is one reason it is absurd that Berardi dedicates a number of pages to his disappointment in President Obama, who turned out—mirabile dictu—to be a bank-savior, a drone-warrior, a deporter of millions.) In this respect, to say that “the neoliberal reformation was intended to inscribe competition into the very soul of social life” misses the point: to the extent that it is coherent to speak in such terms, the intent was to rescue capital from its doldrums.
I don’t mean to deny that neoliberal ideology has wrought extreme damage to economies and psyches alike. Ideas matter, and they have real-world consequences. Subjectivity matters, and it has real-world consequences. Berardi reprints a chilling article from The New York Times about a job-training center in France where people who are out of work show up for pretend jobs. They get up at 6:00 am, commute to an office, answer phones or sell perfume or enter data for eight hours, go home, get up the next morning and do it all over again. Just like a real job, except they don’t get paid. They’re not actually participating in the economy, just going through the motions—the companies they work for are fake, as are the customers and suppliers, even the bank that loans the companies money. It’s all staged; nothing is produced except the illusion of waged labor. This is terrifying enough, but what staggered me was the response of one of the jobless “employees,” who “welcomes the regular routine” and seems proud that “everyone’s working all out” to ensure the fake company “succeeds.”
I have never read a clearer account of what Berardi calls “the process of internalization of capitalism as a natural form” (although I cling to the hope that the worker was just bullshitting the reporter to make a good impression on her fake bosses).
And this is where Futurability—which I enjoyed and recommend, despite my criticisms above—shines. Berardi blasts the soul murder of late-capitalist societies with vim and brio. I was re-reading Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life while I read Futurability and was often struck by the parallels. Vaneigem: “ ‘To drag out your days in an air-conditioned greenhouse,’ they began to ask, ‘you call that living?’ ” Berardi writes, of Italy’s young southerners who migrated north to work in and ultimately disrupt and paralyze the great factories of Fiat and Michelin and Pirelli: “Their question was: is this life? No, this meaningless repetition of meaningless gestures was (and is) not life.”
But Vaneigem foretold the brief flower of May 1968; Berardi, despite his belief in “the possibility of emancipation from salaried work,” concludes that “political hope is dead. Forever.” It is harder every day to disagree.