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Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

once interviewed Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi before a live audience, and via closed circuit tv with the over-flow audience in the bar next door. It was exhilarating and exhausting. Bifo is such an energetic font of both good humor and sharp analysis. Then I found out it was his second event for the day. How he keeps it up, I’ll never know.

Where Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri were born in the 30s, Berardi (1948) belongs with Paolo Virno (1952) and Silvia Federici (1942) to a second wave of Italian Marxist thinkers who grew out of the workerist current that struck out on its own path, diverging from the official Gramscian postures of the Communist Party of Italy. The field of Italian Marxism has its own tangled genealogy, far beyond my competence. My interest is more in what can be made of it today.

There’s been a spate of translation of Berardi’s work into English. The most recent is Heroes (Verso, 2015), but I want to concentrate on The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotext(e), 2009), as it has a useful sketch of how workerist and later autonomist thought diverges from other Marxist currents.

Berardi’s objective is to account for the distinctive contours of what he calls semiocapitalism, which is close cousin to what Moulier Boutang calls cognitive capitalism, and which “takes mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value.” (21)

He does it though a sort of activist history of the uses of the category of alienation. In Marx, alienation is about the split between life and labor, where labor is alienated from the life of the worker. The innovation of the Italian workerists was a reversal of perspective on this. They saw the worker not as the passive object of alienation, but rather as an active subject of refusal. The worker’s estrangement from capital is the basis for affirming another life.

Berardi links this to another reversal, of the value of schizophrenia in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, where the schizophrenic is not the passive object of a disintegrating subjectivity but is actively producing other, more transversal relations. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start with that troubling figure, the intellectual. To put things very schematically, there might be two versions of the intellectual from which Marxism both draws and diverges. One is the intellectual as bearer of universal reason, guarantor of the proper functioning of public affairs, detached from any particular culture or background. The other might be the romantic intellectual, expressing the spirit of a people. This might have nationalist overtones, or occasionally more radical ones, connected not to the national folk but the people more broadly.

There is a tension between the enlightenment intellectual and romantic concept of a people. In the Marxist conception, the intellectual has to descend from the history of thought into history itself, and become an agent of a universal mission, the abolition of classes.

For Lenin, the task of the intellectual is leadership on behalf of the working class, giving voice and organizational form to a universal spirit to correct the economism and spontaneity of working class struggles. Gramsci understood the intellectual more broadly as a strata which might have connections to sedimentary layers of past social formations, or might be the organic expression of a rising class.

With Sartre, the intellectual is bound to consciousness rather than production. The Sartrean intellectual chooses to engage in universal project, but he may have been the last of that line, given that he lived long enough to see the rise of what Virno calls “mass intellectualism” (33) in the 60s.

The Italian workerists took a different tack, drawing on Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ from the Grundrisse. There machines are an unnatural phenomenon, organs of the human brain created by the human hand. (Unfortunately neither Marx nor the Italians quite see how the reverse is just as true: human hand and brain were probably always shaped by tech.) The intellectual is hence a force of production, even if Marx’s language is still saturated in older, idealist models of the intellectual, as is clearly the case with his stop-gap concept of the “general intellect.”

Still, understanding intellect as a force of production is progress over the enlightenment and romantic ideas about the intellectual that still lingered. Berardi: “At the time of the communist revolutions, in the first part of the twentieth century, the Marxist-Leninist tradition ignored the concept of the general intellect, therefore conceiving the intellectual function as exteriority and as a political direction determined within the purely spiritual domain of philosophy.” (34)

Of course very few people even knew Marx’s Grundrisse texts even existed at the time. But there was at least one powerful alternative to the party as intellectual leader guided by a dogmatic philosophy, and that was Bogdanov’s Proletkult, which sought to replace the party as central control with practices of coordination between sites of labor, be they manual or intellectual.

In any case, the Marxist-Leninist model and its dialectical-materialist philosophical dogmas were clearly in crisis by 1956. Three tendencies emerged as alternatives. One was the Italian workerist current (based on Marx’s Grundrisse) already mentioned. Berardi puts it alongside two others. A second school would then by those influenced by the young Marx, whether read in Hegelian fashion via Marcuse or more in the spirit of Kierkegaard via Sartre. A third school was the Althusserians, with their structuralist reading of Capital.

For the second current, the young Marx’s focus on alienation was a central preoccupation. Particularly common was a sort of Hegel-lite reading in which the alienation of the capitalist production shatters a prior wholeness of a generic human essence. Revolution then becomes an essentially restorative, even conservative action to restore a lost unity. For Sartre, there is no lost unity, as alienation is constitutive of the human condition. Sartre was in this outside of the Hegel-lite ideological field. But for Marcuse, alienation is an historical phenomena that can be overcome.

The Italian workerists such as Panzieri and Tronti freed themselves from both Sartre and Marcuse, although like both of them they were trying in their own way to carve out a space beyond the strictures of official party dia-mat philosophy. For them, there is neither a human essence to be restored, nor an eternal human alienation. Berardi: “.. it is precisely thanks to the radical inhumanity of the worker’s existence that a human collectivity can be founded, a community no longer dependent on capital.” (44) Labor is not a natural condition, but an historical one. An estrangement from labor is the basis for a new society. Their policy was an “active estrangement.” (46)

The first generation workerists celebrated a working class that was a “rude pagan race.” (47) Here they were like Pasolini products of the Italian situation with its rich layers of cultural sediment, including a pre-modern proletariat, even if they shared little else with him. Like Bogdanov, they hewed close to the worker point of view, but unlike him, they stressed labor’s antagonism to capitalism, rather than its capacity to re-organize the whole via labor.

The workerists’ stress on worker antagonism to capital is contrary to Marcuse’s intuition that the working class was being integrated into capital. This led Marcuse to seek other agents of liberation, and particularly in the hands of people he influenced, an exhaltation of the student-radical. For workerists such as Tronti, the worker’s demand for higher wages was not necessarily a sign of integration, however. It is all about how the wage struggle is conducted. The ‘political wage’ demand, for example, exceeded the limits of worker economism. In any case, student radicalism would hardly prove an enduring phenomena either.

Another path away from alienation-theory is Althusser, although the provenance of this is a bit more complicated. After 1956 ‘official’ Soviet-aligned Marxist thought began its own embrace of Hegel-lite theories as part of a cautious and partial repudiation of Stalinism. Althusser rather uniquely rejected this development but not in the name of old-fashioned dia-mat but via a rather novel replacement of it by a kind of ‘theoretical practice’ that owed more to Spinoza and French philosophy of science than to Engels’ and Plekhanov’s old formalizations of Marxisant philosophy. Or as Berardi says, Althusser left the “Hegel field.” (52)

For Berardi what is significant in Althusser is his understanding of knowledge as a form of production. (And while Althusser adopted something like the official Leninist anathemas against Bogdanov, this theme is strikingly Bogdanovite, and curiously enough Bogdanov was translated and published in Althusser’s book series.) Althusser reintroduces the theme of the world as produced by labor, and mental labor as productive labor. Unlike the workerists, the question of science as productive labor is one that he does not ignore, even if he is in the end not able to give it the autonomy the Bogdanovites would. Just as Lenin thought the party’s universalizing theory and practice was needed to correct the spontaneity of the workers; so to Althusser thought the theoretical practice of philosophy was needed to correct the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of the scientists.

The workerists waged everything on the refusal of work as the sole agent of history. “The motor of this constant transformation is the dynamic of subtraction of lived time from the wage-relation.” (59) Refusing work creates a time and place for activities that escape labor domination. In the era of the industrial worker, the split between labor (in the form of abstract labor) and life was very stark. Work itself offered little. Life was what was lived outside of dead time.

With the constant replacement of labor by ‘labor-saving’ technique, science is inducted fully into capital accumulation. Berardi thinks this calls for a new paradigm for labor and life. Surplus labor is no longer the condition for general wealth. Marcuse had hedged his bets on the question of science and technology. At his most pessimistic, he thought that “The totality generated by computers has replaced Hegel’s totality… The matrix is replacing the event.” (73) The real has become rational and the rational real, but in a non-dialectical form, as a means of control.

The moment of 1968 put all of these late-Marxist theories to the test. For Berardi, it was a moment of alliance between mass intellectual labor and refusal of industrial labor. Students had become a mass, a form of intellectual labor absorbed into production. (George Perec’s novel Things: A Story of the Sixties neatly captures the affective side of this.) It was the end of the intellectual as universal conscience and the beginnings of a full subsumption of intellectual labor into production, although one that might produce its own modes of refusal.

One such moment of refusal was 1977, that “last reawakening of consciousness” (114) Berardi, who was only 20 in 1968, is more a thinker shaped by the late 70s. This was when Italian autonomists, Berlin squatters and British punks all seemed to be acting on the same intuitions about the absorption of manual and intellectual labor into production, and the same desire to strike out for another life. “That 1977 moment therefore used the ideology of happiness as a powerful critical instrument against the Taylorist factory and the Fordist production cycle, but also against the social and disciplinary structure based on the factory model.” (93)

After that – often neglected – high watermark of refusal, the landscape changes. Berardi’s whole body of work can be read as an attempt to understand how and why. After 1977 we see the spread of post-Fordist models of labor and of digital technologies that will make them possible. Before 1977, desire was located outside of capital; after, desire means self-realization through work.

The working-class community outside of labor has lost many of its powers of self-organization. (A novel by the Italian writer’s collective Wu Ming called 54 gives a vivid account of that lost world.) “Communism was the form of universal consciousness produced by the working community.” (84) In Italy, at least, it had “a common project, a shared mythology” (85)

Labor today, at least certain kinds of advanced labor in the over-developed world, has a different character. Look around any metropolitan café at all the people on their laptops or tablets. The tools are the same, but the labor itself is varied and can even be imbued with the personality of the worker. Whatever its discontents, it is not the alienating factory work of another time – or place.

For Berardi, it is partly this different quality of the labor, and partly the decay of communal spaces outside of it, that leads workers to invest emotional energy and desire in their work itself: “labor has regained a certain position in the imagination” (80) Identity based on a job role can replace pleasures sought outside of it, as so eloquently summed up by the 60s Australian group the Easybeats in their 1966 hit: “Monday I’ve Got Friday On My Mind.”

Berardi is far from rapturous about this new kind of embrace of work. It may bespeak a failure of any other understanding of what ‘wealth’ could be outside of accumulation. There is a “reduction of the erotic sphere” (82) and “metropolitan life become so sad that we might as well sell it for money.” (83) The attempt to find freedom, humanity and happiness can only be through that ambiguous term, ‘enterprise.’ I wonder what leverage one might get here by juxtaposing the commonplace free enterprise against a notion of true enterprise. What might it mean to have a real project of making the good life?

The historical distinction Berardi draws here between Fordist and post-Fordist work is illuminating but might be a bit too sharp. Not many metropolitan workers enjoy such conditions, in either sense. It might not be the case that all workers found Fordist labor alienating. Lyotard notoriously thought otherwise, and there is a magnificent scene in Elio Petri’s The Working Class Go To Heaven (1971) that shows the hard, visceral engagement of worker and machine.

Still, it seems an at least partially accurate delineation of the metropolitan present: where accelerated capital blocks formation of community; where the cellphone makes possible endless recombinations of fragments of labor, making all of time potentially productive; and where it takes a whole pill cabinet of anti-depressants, stimulants, anti-anxiety medications and even cocaine just to keep working through the cycles of panic and depression.

Conceptually, Berardi wants to rethink the tradition of alienation, drawing on both the young Marx (but without the lost whole) and the workerists (but without the faith in labor as an outside). It’s a question of thinking the shift from incommunicability to over-communication in an era when the question is not so much being separated from the product of one’s labor as incessantly nagged at by the products of other people’s labor for our time and money.

Berardi: “Within the postindustrial domain, we should talk of derealization rather than reification. The concept of alienation is then understood as: 1. A specific psychopathological category; 2. A painful division of self; 3. A feeling of anguish and frustration related to the inaccessible body of the other… It is the third meaning of the term alienation that best describes our present times: an era marked by the submission of the soul, in which animated, creative, linguistic, emotional corporeality is subsumed and incorporated by the production of value.” (108)

Fordist capitalism put body to work not the soul, but then it caught up with the soul as well. Once worker’s souls were at least partly left to their own devices. Extracting the body from alienation through an affirmative alienation from labor was possible while the soul was created as a thing apart. Semiocapitalism puts the soul to work. (Berardi, like Andrey Platonov before him, makes soul a useful and curious Marxist concept).

Here Berardi performs a bit of self-criticism, in that like a lot of us influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, it seemed sometimes that the liberation of desire pointed in a direction outside of commodification, a direction not indicated by the communalist but also conformist cultures of working class solidarity. Desire might be an illusion. “Yet we need to acknowledge that this very illusion is history, the city, falling in love, existence: it is the game we have been playing knowing it was a game.” (117)

Perhaps the mistake was in seeing desire as a force rather than a field, and downplaying negative forms of desire. “Desire judges history, but who judges desire?” (118) Judging desire, or rather reformatting it, might be what ‘politics’ amounts to in the twenty-first century. Desire experiences limits, but can the limit not always be an other to push against, but a node of (com)passion? “Social recomposition is the process through which the relation to the other is linguistically, affectively, and politically elaborated, then transformed into a conscious collective, an autonomous aggregate, a group in fusion, constructive in its rebellion.” (119)

There’s ways to find this in Deleuze as well. Alexander Galloway thinks it is time to move away from the ‘expressive’ legacy of Deleuze to a more ‘prophylactic’ thought. Berardi might almost agree, but rather by seeking out different resources within Deleuze (and Guattari). He retains the rejection of the pre-constituted subject. “Subjectivity does not pre-exist the process of its own production.” (123) His interest shifts to the idea of the chaoid, a kind of modulator of communicative excess and chaotic unpredictability.

How did sadness come to prevail? For Berardi, in post-Fordist production solidarity was throttled, labor became precarious, and the soul put to work. There was a dissolution of chaos reducers, refrains, organizers of fields – chaoids – and the result is an exhausting cycle of panic and depression, where depression is a refusal of the field of communication and the stimulants to desire it offers, all of which connect to nothing but more labor and more commodities. “We are entering the civilization of emptiness.” (146) A world Lauren Berlant characterizes as one of cruel optimism.

The rhetoric of desire is thus rather exhausted itself. Here Baudrillard’s critique of it turns out to be prescient. He understood desire’s in-folding into commodified acceleration. Desire turns out not to be an outside. There was a critique in advance here of something like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, presented as if it was a boundless positive energy. Rather: the so-called black hole of the masses, who absorb all communication but refuse to respond.

Drawing on Matteo Pasquinelli, Berardi speaks rather of libidinal parasites, and a ‘thermodynamics’ of desire in which it is actually quite limited – maybe imploding, and perhaps suffering what Dominic Pettman calls peak libido. Berardi: “having abandoned a certain Spinozist triumphalism, we can admit that libidinal energy is a limited resource.” (160) Desire is an ambivalent field, not a divine force. “The schizo vision thinks that the proliferation of desire can endlessly erode all structures of control. The implosive vision sees proliferation as the diffusion of a derealizing virus.” (160)

This is an era then of Thano-politics (what I called thanaticism), where the soul becomes fully commodified, and commodities become what Rachel Law and I called weaponized adorables. It is post-political to the extent that it is no longer possible to consciously and mythically organize information around a shared project. It is a time of “soul troubles” (209) Of war against collective intelligence. Power even turns against one of its own servants – the university.

If, as Berardi suggests, Antonioni was the film maker of an earlier era of alienation, then perhaps Olivier Assayas is the film maker of de-realization. As Steven Shaviro saws of Assayas’ Boarding Gate, it is a film of relentless horizontality, of connection, none of it good. His demonlover prefigures what Berardi calls “a pathogenic separation between cognitive functions and material sociality.” (109)

It is a bleak vision, which becomes even more so in Berardi’s more recent book Heroes, which documents a lurid fascination with serial killers and other symptomatic news stories, not unlike Bernard Stiegler’s little book Acting Out. Berardi’sc call for a therapeutic (post) politics could be connected to Stiegler’s for the restoration of ‘long loops of desire’ against the short circuits and synchronizations which paradoxically prevent the formation of a primary narcissism that might ward off a more damaging lack of autonomy.

Berardi still uses some of the language of the late workerist cum autonomist writers. As I wrote (on Terranova and Moulier Boutang), I don’t find the invocation of the ‘immaterial’ or the ‘cognitive’ particularly helpful. Berardi’s own account of the declension of the intellectual into the sphere of production would seem to indicate why one should push harder towards a fully material account of information. His perspective also seems at times rather limited to the overdeveloped western world, although Heroes has a beautiful sketch of the South Korean variant of that world. Still, if anyone has found a genealogy, and an affect, for early twenty-first century life as many of us live it — it is Bifo.

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McKenzie Wark

  • Whew! Tough stuff. Criticizing Frontex and pointing to the EU’s responsibility for exacerbating the situation in no way requires you to propose alternatives, but I’m curious about your views on this. I live near the Mediterranean and am watching the rise of anti-immigration parties around me (and all over France), and there is tremendous frustration with the unending flow of migrants (as well as horror over the deaths). They blame the human traffickers and their exceedingly dangerous practices, and want to prosecute them (the latest plan calls for the destruction of their vessels) so as to discourage others. Is your view that we ought to not only allow but perhaps also facilitate as much migration as there is demand for? (Perhaps a series of free daily ferries from certain locations to different european ports?). How might you respond to the criticism such a position would draw from folks like my neighbors, who would likely disagree that it is their moral obligation to provide that level of assistance? Obviously this is beyond the scope of the points you bring out in your article, but I’m curious.

    • Cinzia Arruzza

      Concerning the arrivals through the Mediterranean: they are a tiny minority of migrants’ arrivals to Europe: around 10-15%. They are just more visible, because they are by boat and they have been spectularized by media. In spite of this, Frontex has pursued an aggressive policy of military control of the Mediterranean. My sense is that European institutions are doing this out of political reasons, which have little to do with the real existence of an emergency concerning arrivals by sea. The political reason is to give a clear political sign, both to European populations and to migrants, that the EU has a rigid policy concerning illegal immigration and that illegal migrants who arrive in Europe will be exposed to precariousness and legal consequences that arrive, in the case of Italy, for example, to detention for the “crime” of “illegal immigration”. As a matter of fact a large part of irregular migrants arrive to Europe regularly on a touristic visa and then overstay. Another part arrives through Slovenia, etc. So, my solution for the Mediterranean is quite simple: we need to open the borders and let people arrive by regular ferries if we don’t want to go on seeing dead migrants in the sea. Other organizations are asking for a humanitary corridor to let people arrive and have access to the applications for the status of asylum seekers, etc. I may write another piece on this point, as you raised a good question.

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