Book of the Day: After the Future, by Franco Berardi

* Book: After the Future. Franco Berardi. AK Press, 2011.

Publisher’s summary:

“After the Future explores our century-long obsession with the concept of “the future.” Beginning with F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” and the worldwide race toward a new and highly mechanized society that defined the “Century of Progress,” highly respected media activist Franco Berardi traces the genesis of future-oriented thought through the punk movement of the early ’70s and into the media revolution of the ’90s. Cyberculture, the last truly utopian vision of the future, has ended in a clash, and left behind an ever-growing system of virtual life and actual death, of virtual knowledge and actual war.

Our future, Berardi argues, has come and gone; the concept has lost its usefulness. Now it’s our responsibility to decide what comes next.

Drawing on his own involvement with the Autonomia movement in Italy and his collaboration and friendship with leading thinkers of the European political left, including Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri, Berardi presents a highly nuanced analysis of the state of the contemporary working class, and charts a course out of the modern dystopian moment.”

Excerpted from a review by Chris Carlsson:

“A smart book called “After The Future” by Franco “Bifo” Berardi provides insights into these deeper changes. He connects the increased digitization of work with the rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide in the recent past.

– “I don’t think this wave of suicides can be explained in terms of morality, family values, and the weak discourse conservative thought uses to account for the ethical drift produced by capitalism. To understand our contemporary form of ethical shipwreck, we need to reflect on the transformations of activity and labor, the subsumption of mental time under the competitive realm of productivity; we have to understand the mutation of the cognitive and psychosocial system… This … produces painful effects in the conscious organism and we read them through the categories of psychopathology: dyslexia, anxiety and apathy, panic, depression, and a sort of suicidal epidemic … Cybertime (the time of attention, memory, and imagination) cannot speed beyond a limit. If it does, it cracks. And it is actually cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyperproductivity. An epidemic of panic is spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. An epidemic of depression is following the outbreak of panic. The crisis of the new economy at the beginning of the zero zero decade has to be seen as a consequences of this nervous breakdown…. In the sphere of net-production, it is the social brain that is assaulted by the overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. This is why the social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of net-production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the virtual class. We have to become aware of it; we have to recognize ourselves as cognitarians. Flesh, body, desire, in permanent electrostimulation.”

Not everyone is embedded within the realm of digital labor. But the vast majority of the population is increasingly precarious. Full-time permanent jobs are a thing of the past and only a tiny few will ever have them. I’ve written about this in Nowtopia, and often on this blog too. Berardi does a fine job of summarizing this new social situation: Full employment is over. The world does not need so much labor and so much exploitation. A radical reduction of labor time is necessary. Basic income has to be affirmed as a right to life, independent of employment and disjoined from the lending of labor time. Competence, knowledge, and skills have to be separated from the economic context of exchange value and rethought in terms of free social activity.

– “The word “precariat” generally stands for work that no longer has fixed rules about labor relations, salary, or the length of the work day. However, if we analyze the past, we see that these rules functioned only for a short period at the heart of the twentieth century, under the political pressures of unions and workers, in conditions of (almost) full employment. Thanks to a generally strong regulatory role played by the state in the economy, some limits to the natural violence of capitalist dynamics could be legally established. The legal obligations that in certain periods have protected society from the violence of capital were always founded on political and material relations of force (workers’ violence against the violence of capital). Thanks to political force, it became possible to affirm rights, establish laws, and protect them as personal rights. With the decline in the political force of the workers’ movement, the natural precariousness and brutality of labor relations in capitalism have re-emerged. If we analyze the technical transformations introduced by the digitalization of the productive cycle, we see that the essential point is not that the labor relation has become precarious (which, after all, it has always been), but the dissolution of the person as active productive agent, as labor power. The cyberspace of global production can be described as an immense expanse of depersonalized human time… Capital no longer recruits people but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers… The mobile phone is the tool that makes possible the connection between the needs of semiocapital and the mobilization of the living labor of cyberspace. The ringtone of the mobile phone calls the workers to reconnect their abstract time to the reticular flux.

As we go about our daily lives in the U.S., we are bombarded by endless rhetoric about freedom. Politicians constantly brag about how free we are, how this is the greatest country in the world, ad nauseum. We know better. The Occupy movement has brought us into public together to repudiate the lies that dominate this society. Among the biggest lies is the notion that we are free as individuals when we are at work. On top of that illusion, we are also repeatedly admonished that we need a lot of education to be capable of holding the high-skilled jobs of the 21st century. In both cases, these claims are false. We are far from free, and most jobs can be learned in a very short time. Now that we have an insecure relationship to work, too many people bury themselves in endless rounds of skill development, trying to remain desirable for at least the occasional contract job.

Here’s Berardi again, describing the real world we find ourselves confronted with:

– [The person’s] liberty is a juridical fiction to which nothing in concrete daily life corresponds. If we consider the conditions in which the work of the majority of human, proletariat and cognitariat, is actually carried out in our time, if we examine the conditions of the average wage globally, if we consider the current cancellation of previous labor rights, we can say with no rhetorical exaggeration that we live in a regime of slavery… From the point of view of the valorization of capital, flow is continuous, but from the point of view of the existence and time of cognitive workers, productive activity has the character of recombinant fragmentation in cellular form. Pulsating cells of work are lit and extinguished in the large control room of global production. Infolabor is innately precarious, not because of the contingent viciousness of employers but for the simple reason that the allocation of work time can be disconnected from the individual and legal person of the worker, an ocean of valorizing cells convened in a cellular way and recombined by the subjectivity of capital.

The Occupy movement is a sudden sea change in how we respond to this fragmented world. Instead of accepting our individual predicament, thousands of people have rediscovered public space, and in it a public, shared life. The implications of the Oakland General Strike in this context are huge. Sure, a portion of the working population of one city of less than a half million took a day off during an unusually summer-like November week. But having stopped our participation in the planetary work machine, even for a day, beckons us to consider what we might do instead, what we might do if we stop working for the 1% not just for a day, but forever. The possibilities that emerge from a collective strike are infinite: the beautiful world we COULD make together is suddenly almost within grasp.

It’s difficult to imagine redesigning the basic activities by which we produce our shared lives. Science and technology seem to be independent forces, outside of social or democratic control. Clearly the thrust of technological development for more than a hundred years has been to remove skill and decision-making from workers and embed it in technical systems. One outcome of this is to leave us all feeling that there’s nothing we can do about the overarching stupidity of modern life—“that’s just the way it is,” we tell ourselves. Berardi describes how this shapes democracy itself: “Democracy seems unable to stop the criminal class that has seized control of the economy, because the decisions are no longer made in the sphere of political opinion, but in the inaccessible sphere of economic automatism… No room for political choice is left, as corporate principles have become embedded in the technical fabric of language and imagination.”

Berardi wrote the chapters in After The Future as separate essays over the years 2000-2009, and he did not imagine something like the Occupy movement being possible any longer. His diagnosis of an epidemic of depression can easily be directed at himself, but he amusingly reminds us that he could be wrong. In fact, he has a number of suggestions for the future of social revolt that dovetail closely with what I’ve written previously, especially the way I described the Critical Mass bike rides as an act of collective “assertive desertion.” (Interesting too to note Portland’s Elly Blue’s essay noting the presence of CM cyclists in many Occupations.) At this important juncture in the Occupy movement, maybe these ideas should be in the mix, especially as the tired polarization between theatrical vandalism and moralistic pacifism has again emerged to try everyone’s patience.

Berardi rejects the macho posturing of the young militants who, dressed in black masks engage in bursts of targeted vandalism and occasionally skirmish with police lines. “Fighting power with violence is suicidal or useless nowadays. How can we think of activists going against professional organizations of killers in the mold of Blackwater, Haliburton, secret services, mafia?” Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House” takes the argument a major step forward: The state would like us to be violent. Violence as cooptation tries to make us more like them, and if we’re like them they win twice—once because being unlike them is our goal and again because we’re then easier to imprison, brutalize, marginalize, etc. We have another kind of power, though the term nonviolence only defines what it is not; some call our power people power. It works. It’s powerful. It’s changed and it’s changing the world.

But it’s likely that this movement for deep change and deep renewal of society will take longer than a few months. Thousands and millions of people filling the streets, occupying plazas, blocking highways, and stopping their stupid jobs through General Strikes may happen, but it won’t be sudden and overnight. In the meantime, to rebuild the social solidarity that has been so damaged by the last decades’ shattering of communities, we need a strategy that begins to build the new world in the crumbling shell of this one. Reclaiming our time and technological know-how from the market, and directing our own work ourselves can start anywhere, and has already started in countless efforts across the world. Here’s how Berardi describes assertive desertion in his own terms: Only withdrawal, passivity, abandonment of the labor market, of the illusions of full employment and a fair relation between labor and capital, can open a new way. Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope. … In this context, passivity does not mean ethical resignation, but refusal of participation. Capitalism is demanding participation, collaboration, active intervention in the economy, competition and entrepreneurship, critical consumption, constructive critique. All this is fake. Activism is fake, when no horizon can be seen. Radical passivity means active withdrawal, and withdrawal means creation of spaces of autonomy where solidarity can be rebuilt, and where self-relying communities can start a process of proliferation, contagion, and eventually, a reversal of the trend.

The beauty of this is that it is already underway. It’s not what most people are doing yet, but enough are that we can see in such initiatives the seeds of a new life sprouting. In Nowtopia I talked about the Marxist concept of “general intellect” as finally becoming a terrain of open contestation. Withdrawal and repurposing of our technological know-how is a good example of that in practice.

I like this last excerpt from Berardi as a guidepost to the coming era:

– The task of the general intellect is exactly this: fleeing from paranoia, creating zones of human resistance, experimenting with autonomous forms of production using high-tech-low-energy methods—while avoiding confrontation with the criminal class and the conformist population.

The confrontations have been at the heart of the Occupy movement. No doubt they will continue to be for some time. But if they begin to wane, or even just take a winter break, it’s good to think of the many things we can do that get us ready for the next wave of refusal and reinvention.”

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