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Franco "Bifo" Berardi, "It Is Simply All Too Much"

"It Is Simply All Too Much"
An Interview with the Italian Philosopher Franco "Bifo" Berardi
Tim Stüttgen

[Franco "Bifo" Berardi is an author, philosopher and media activist. Alongside Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato, he is one of the most influential proponents of so-called post-operaism. He was in charge of the magazine »A/traverso« (1975–1981) and associated with the left-wing radical radio station Alice (1976-1978). Like many other members of the Autonomia movement, he fled to Paris in the 1970s, where he made the acquaintance of Félix Guattari. With Guattari, he studied schizoanalysis, which led to experimental collaborations with many artists and activists. His most recent publications include "The Soul at Work" (2009), "Precarious Rhapsody" (2009) and "After the Future" (2011).]

Tim Stüttgen: Let us begin straight away with the theses put forward in your book "The Soul at Work".... In the book, you describe how all the characteristics of a person – language, creativity, affectivity – have been integrated into the working process of neo-liberalism, leading to new forms of alienation.

Franco Berardi: The most significant productive powers in our era are cognitive and affective forms of work. You can also call it semiotic work, as it mainly has to do with semiotic material. So the old concept of alienation moves away from its former Hegelian context and becomes relevant to a materialistic analysis of class make-up. Contemporary alienation is an effect produced by a combination of several factors: the technological acceleration of information combined with the neurotic compulsion to engage in economic competition, and the virtualisation of communication and the consequent isolation of bodies. In this context, alienation no longer means the loss of an allegedly human authenticity, as it did in the old humanist or idealist sense. Here, alienation means a psychopathological state, a psychological form of suffering, that has its roots in a new escalation of psychological exploitation.

Stüttgen: Your new book, "After the Future," goes even more deeply into this discussion of new forms of work and exploitation. For you, the potency of people both as working and consuming individuals has reached a crossroads in that society has entered a psychopathological stage of illness and suicide.

Berardi: Ever since the process of work has increasingly focused on the exploitation of cognitive energy and affectivity, psychological suffering has become greater and more universal. Many psychiatrists claim that depression has become the most widespread illness of our time. At the same time, the suicide rate, especially among young people between 15 and 35, is going up – suicide is becoming the biggest cause of death in this age group. Suicides increase as a consequence of depression, of loneliness, but also as an explosion of political rage. I would say that suicide is one of the main forms of political protest in the first decade of this century. 9/11 was for me more an act of suicide than an act of terrorism. The 19 young men that murdered 3,000 innocent people first and foremost killed themselves.
The wave of suicides carried out over the past decade has yet to be assessed and analysed. The newspaper "The Hindu" reports that between 1995 and 2010, more than a quarter of a million farmers killed themselves in India, while the national Indian crime authority lists more than 15,000 deaths in the category "Accidents and Suicides." These are the most sombre suicide statistics in history, whereas India is meant to represent a paradise of the new capitalism. In France, this trend could be observed in the hundreds of suicides by workers at Telecom and Peugeot who killed themselves because of the lack of job security and mobbing in the workplace. And thousands of shaheeds, so-called martyrs, have turned their bodies into bombs not just because they hate Westerners and infidels, but also because they hate their own lives. Living hate-filled lives is the price we pay for the dominance of capitalism. It is simply all too much.

Stüttgen: You also rigorously reject every form of economic determinism. You say the general relationship that once existed between work and a dimension that can be economically analysed has been broken and that the economy has become pure speculation. As long as the capitalist ideologists still behave as though economic catastrophes can be averted and there are simple rules to bring about growth, for example, they seem to understand nothing about the paradigm of exhaustion of which you speak.

Berardi: Actually, the concept of economy is relatively obscure. In the mainstream discourse, economy is synonymous with capitalism. So "Save the economy!" really means: Save capitalism!

And even the idea of economic science is an extremely dubious one. It is hard to imagine that a science like this is really of interest. What is a science anyway? Without detouring into epistemological discussions, I would say simply that science is a form of knowledge production without dogma, and one which is capable of distilling universal laws from the observation of empirical phenomena and can thus predict approximately what is going to happen next. So it should really understand the changes that Thomas Kuhn has called paradigmatic changes.

In my opinion, the discourse that calls itself economy does not fit this definition of science. First, economists are completely fixated on dogmatic tenets such as growth, competition and gross social product, and declare social reality to be out of control when it does not function according to these criteria. Secondly, they are completely unable to discover laws by observing reality. Instead, they want reality to function according to their laws. The experience of the past three to four years has shown that they are completely unable to predict anything at all. Ultimately, they cannot see when a paradigmatic change takes place in the social field. They refuse to redefine their out-of-date criteria.

In business schools and in faculties that focus on economy, nothing that is taught opens up a certain field of knowledge that is in contact with the present-day reality, as is the case in physics, chemistry or astronomy, for example. Instead they teach a technology, a set of tools, procedures and pragmatic protocols that are designed to force the social reality to pursue certain practical goals: profit, accumulation, power. Economic reality per se does not exist; it is solely the result of technical modelling, subjugation and exploitation.

In the classical sense, the theoretical discourse underpinning the economic technology can be described as ideology, as Marx did, who, after all, was not an economist, but a critic of political economy. In the end, ideology is a theoretical technology that is intended to further a certain set of political and social objectives. However, the economic ideology is not able to reflect on itself and develop a theoretical understanding of itself. For this reason, it is also unable to reposition itself in response to a paradigmatic change such as the one happening now.

Stüttgen: On the surface, your position also changes the post-operaist discourse. A new kind of negativity appears to have entered your work, and little seems left of such constructions as that of the multitude, which was said to be endlessly productive from its own resources and constantly imbued with positivity.

Berardi: Well, I do not use the term negativity, because it reminds me of a certain kind of Hegelian language that I am trying to get away from. Let us rather speak of the dark side of the multitude. Hardt and Negri's concept of the multitude, as it was used in the parlance of Autonomia, refers to the irreducibility of daily social life in the face of the balance of power. I find this concept plausible, as the complexity of human life always surpasses the organised forms of repression. But I do not find the steps that are meant to lead from this irreducibility to autonomy in the multitude convincing.

Negri and Hardt assume that the directness of social life resists capitalist exploitation and is also capable of producing the conditions necessary for autonomy. I don't believe this. I see how the power of the media and the ubiquity of advertising on a daily basis conquers the minds and hearts of people in order to devastate them with internalisations of fanatical competition and self-hate. People's everyday lives can certainly not be limited to the order imposed by power, but they still produce and reproduce violence, aggression and psychological exploitation on several levels. In addition, most people’s behaviour is caught up in a net of technolinguistic automatisms, which makes autonomy almost impossible.

Stüttgen: This diagnosis implies radical consequences, as you set out in "After the Future." You interrogate concepts of futurity and utopia, claiming that their temporal logic with its positive view of the future had lost their relevance in view of the present state of affairs. In view of the paradigm of exhaustion, the theoretical conceptions such as that of an untameable desire, which you developed with the help of Deleuze, Guattari and Negri and which was conceived as being ever-capable of generating something new, also seem to reach their limits.

Berardi: The concept of the future itself must be questioned. Within the context of modernity, this concept was always associated with ideas of expansion, energy and growth. These days, energy sources are for the most part exhausted, humanity is old (with the notable exception of the Islamic world) and the future is perceived as a threat, not as a promise. Desire was conceived (by both Guattari and Negri) as a force for endless expansion and endless expressiveness. But the illusion of endlessness is a trap. Nothing in the sphere of human possibilities is endless. Even desire is limited when it is confronted with the limits of the flesh, the body, time, age and death. I think that, 40 years after "Anti-Oedipus," it is time for us to rethink the relationship between desire and exhaustion.

The ideas about desire being an endless force and the future being endless expansion were the last throes of a futuristic perception of the human adventure, from which we should take our leave. Now we are experiencing how our energy sources are used up and how exhaustion represents the new horizon of production, culture and desire.

How can we remodel the concept of desire in the context of exhaustion? What is desire and how does it arise amid or from exhaustion? What does love mean for old people? And why do we desire our extinction?

Stüttgen: Especially for artists, your theories seem depressing. You take the example of Italian Futurism and show how the avant-gardist logic generates a connection between future, technology, energy and speed whose failure under the present circumstances , according to you, is inevitable. Is art thus losing the potential to try out new forms of life?

Berardi: Yes, I think the whole cycle of avant-garde is finally a thing of the past. The avant-garde saw the historical process as progress and creativity as an endless process of innovation. We should abandon this idea and instead start out from the point of exhaustion (of both psychological and physical energy). At this interface, art could be used as a therapeutic technique to help us cope with exhaustion.

Buddhist wisdom, its knowledge about the inconstancy of the Self and its great empathic sensitivity, is one of the few points of reference that can help us in the search for a new form of art, a new therapy and thus for an emergent new kind of politics.

Stüttgen: Your proposals for a new form of politics of the present day that recognises the end of the future are more like reminders of a new form of radical passivity and slowness than calls for a new kind of voluntarism.

Berardi: We must build up a new relationship between human needs and the earth, decide to adopt frugality as a new way to happiness and reject the blackmail of growth. This is by no means an ascetic or self-effacing discourse. I think that joy, pleasure and self-love are the only foundation for an ethical attitude and that they thus represent an autonomistic form of politics. But what is pleasure? What does self-love mean?

We are used to pleasure meaning an increase in things and are forced to sell all our time to possess more things. That is the cultural basis of modern late capitalism, and this style of life has taken the planet to the limits of final collapse.

I don't know if we can still rescue the planet and the human species; the growing number of wars and global pollution have already gone beyond the point of no return. But if we do look for a way out, we must become aware that a joyful life must consist in having less and living more. Wealth is the frugality of those independent from a consumerist illusion, and happiness is the independence of those that are frugal.

Stüttgen: If one looks at your biography, from Radio Alice to the project "Topia," where you, together with artists, therapists and activists, looked for new forms of subjectivity, you have always propagated a politics of experiment. Now, these new forms of subjectivity themselves have become important qualifications on the semio- or "creativo-capitalistic" market. Where do you position these experiments now that the border between what were once creative lifestyles and old forms of work, for example, factory work, have disappeared?

Berardi: In the era of the "Soul at Work," that is the inherent contradiction in every form of intellectual engagement. Our enthusiasm, our passion and our pleasure consist in understanding and producing ideas and symbols – and that is exactly the material that feeds the semiocapitalistic machine. Autonomy is a difficult and cynical game, because you are never in a safe location. Your work can be appropriated, and you must accept this in order to turn it into a basis again for new forms of autonomy. Moralism is the greatest enemy of autonomy, and irony is the only language that can express the autonomous frame of mind. Where there is danger, there is redemption, someone who knew about this once said.

Stüttgen: Despite all contradictions and the end of utopian ideals that you have proclaimed, art, poetry and experiment still play a role in your work. You still take your cue from Felix Guattari, who tried to develop new therapeutic forms.

Berardi: In his lifetime, Guattari succeeded in positing a new connection between politics, therapy and art. He used the term schizoanalysis for this concatenation. If you look at contemporary art production, you will see that many works are concerned with precarity and psychological suffering. Look at Miranda July, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Gus Van Sant's films or Jonathan Franzen's books.

In the coming decade, I hope that artists will intervene with therapeutic action in the sphere of politics and in the coordinates of social suffering and conflict. Irony and frugality will be the prevailing atmospheres. This is what I expect and I am working to promote a type of poetry that creates spaces for autonomy and imagination.

Stüttgen: The texts in your book were already more than a year old when they were translated into English. In the last chapter, you write that it is difficult to say how creative interventions into the present-day catastrophe are possible. At the same time, you remark that it can be precisely the moment of apocalypse that brings about the opening of a new world. Now, unforeseeable events such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests have changed the political map yet again. Do you see aspects of another era in them?

Berardi: Most certainly. As you know, prophecies and imminent apocalypses go hand in hand. At present, the prophecy in the finance apocalypse is being brought up to date and opening up new possibilities to us. People are being forced to imagine a new way of living. Not only so they can bear this new life form of misery, but also so they transform it into a new concept of wealth.

Franco »Bifo« Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents 2009.
Franco »Bifo« Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation. New York & London: Autonomedia & Minor Compositions 2009.
Franco »Bifo« Berardi, After the Future. Oakland, CA: AK Press 2011.

Translation: Timothy Jones