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Analysis & Polemic
Speech at Franco Berardi’s PhD Defence
Being a decade younger, I heard for the first time from him and his activities around 1980, when stories about Radio Alice were spreading throughout Europe. True, the Amsterdam free radio scene, operating out of the squatters movement of the time, had a multitude of (local) roots but Radio Alice was certainly one of them. The Bologna uprising of 1977, in which Bifo played a crucial role, predated our most tumultuous year, 1980, and was thus a an important source of inspiration for the revolts in Amsterdam, Zurich and Berlin. What we shared was our common desire to find out what ‘autonomy’ could look like in different parts of Western Europe which lacked any trace of its own ‘operaist’ workers movement.
Part punk and new wave, part rainbow coalition (feminism, anti-nuclear eco protests, anti-racism), part post-industrial turning techno, the sense of ‘no future’ in this late Cold War period was widely spread. The march into the institutions was over and doors were closing. Even the Situationists had closed shop. Being aware that well-meaning alternative proposals were no longer effective, we set up temporary encampments for anger & beauty. In these dark times of mass youth unemployment, the common language was one of refusal. After the lived utopia of the late 1960s with its failed experiments, my generation grew up in the shadow of armed struggles of others. Slowly but steadily we said goodbye to solidarity with the post-colonial national projects. After our own movements started to disintegrate, even our own militants went on a self-marginalising path (however, without taking other with them in their misery). By the second part of the eighties we were on our own, in a harsh neo-liberal technological world that inevitably forced the Media Question and the Globalization Question upon us. The ‘slow cancellation of the future’ (as Mark Fisher calls it in Ghosts of my Life) happened under our very eyes, leaving head space to dream how computer-aided social networking should look like.
I cannot but think strategically, in a political sense, about Berardi’s timely mapping exercise that he performed here. Every insight breathes the sense of intense debate and collective consideration, set in 1975, 1996, 2011, 2020 and beyond. Suffice to say, this PhD thesis has neither become a hermetic Hegelian Magnus Opus, nor a boring academic residue of an author’s wild years. Quoted sources are treated like equals. There are zero traces of a plagued genius or arrogant theory celebrity that suffers from melancholy. The tone remains urgent. We may or may not be depressed, but at least we’ve made the quantum jump to start studying depression. This is not become we indulge in our collective defeat, but we want to unlock the general sensibility. Let’s make our vulnerability unmanageable.
"Ebola and NATO"
In a world that is increasingly more densely interconnected, and, theoretically, more informed, one can easily observe how misinformation/disinformation is easily spread around. It is also easy to observe that those who have the most to win from any given development shall resort to anything in order to ensure their own victory. In this kind of situation, sometimes described as a “crisis”, uncomfortable questions will tend not to be asked, and when asked the dominant profiteering mindset, centuries in the making, will likely lead to silencing any uncomfortable questions that might arise, and, naturally, the even more uncomfortable answers. To examine some of the origins and ramifications of this mindset would require much more space and time than this brief essay.
In order to understand the logic and reasoning coming out of an institution like NATO, one should understand how its rise is intimately connected to the history of how the United States was settled. In both cases, the central element is the conquest and shaping of power through military means. This process has led to an understanding and practice of justice, in the US and beyond its borders, determined by violence. Beyond its borders, NATO has become the most powerful instrument in the US military arsenal to impose its view of humanity, its understanding of justice. NATO has allowed the US and its allies to impose its own understanding and practice of justice by any means necessary, including circumventing the UN. The institutionalization of violence (through NATO) to achieve complete and total control over all segments of humanity has gone so far that the deep and wide historical interconnections between the expansion of NATO and the expansion of Ebola tend to be seen as having nothing to do with each other. The logic and reasoning operating in the mindsets of those who are in charge of NATO is no different from the logic and reasoning operating in the mindsets of any rapist anywhere in the world. In the process, collectively and individually, they tell themselves “nothing will happen to me”.
The Haymarket Martyrs
[A 1926 article from The Labor Defender]
Does this rising generation know that those who inaugurated the eight-hour day were put to death at the command of capital?
Until forty years ago men, women, and children toiled ten and often twelve hours a day in factories for a mere pittance and children from eight to nine years of age had to work to help to keep up the family.
The Knights of Labor, a powerful organization, claiming 500,000 members, had never agitated for a reduction of the hours of labor. Then who were the pioneers of the eight-hour movement?
Those martyrs who were strung from the gallows in Chicago on November 11, 1887, the much lied about and abused Anarchists.
The Solitude of Latin America
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
[Nobel Prize Lecture, 8 December 1982.]
Antonio Pigafetta, the Florentine navigator who accompanied Magellan on the
first circumnavigation around the world, kept a meticulous log of his
journey through our South American continent, which, nevertheless, also
seems to be an adventure into the imagination. He related that he had seen
pigs with their umbilicus on their backs and birds without feet, the female
of the species of which would brood their eggs on the backs of the males,
as well as others like gannets without tongues, whose beak looked like a
spoon. He wrote that he had seen a monstrosity of an animal with the head
and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the hooves of a deer and the neigh
of a horse. He related they had put a mirror in front of the first native
they met in Patagonia and how that overexcited giant lost the use of his
reason out of fear of his own image.
This short and fascinating book, in which we can perceive the gems of our
contemporary novels, is not, by any means, the most surprising testimony of
our reality at that time. The Chroniclers of the Indies have left us
innumerable others. Eldorado, our illusory land which was much sought
after, appeared on numerous maps over a long period, changing in situation
and extent according to the whim of the cartographers. The mythical Alvar
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, in search of the fount of Eternal Youth, spent eight
years exploring the north of Mexico in a crazy expedition whose members ate
one another; only five of the six hundred who set out returned home. One of
the many mysteries which was never unravelled is that of the eleven
thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds weight of gold, which
left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and which never arrived
at their destination. Later on, during the colonial period, they used to
sell in Cartagena de India chickens raised on alluvial soils in whose
gizzards were found gold nuggets. This delirium for gold among our founding
fathers has been a bane upon us until very recent times. Why, only in the
last century, the German mission appointed to study the construction of a
railway line between the oceans across the Panamanian isthmus concluded
that the project was a viable one on the condition that the rails should be
not of iron, a scarce metal in the region, but of gold.
The independence from Spanish domination did not save us from this madness.
General Antonio Lopez de Santana, thrice dictator of Mexico, had the right
leg he lost in the so-called War of the Cakes buried with all funeral pomp.
General Garcia Moreno governed Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute
monarch and his dead body, dressed in full-dress uniform and his cuirass
with its medals, sat in state upon the presidential throne. General
Maximilian Hernandez Martinez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who
had thirty thousand peasants exterminated in a savage orgy of killing,
invented a pendulum to discover whether food was poisoned, and had the
street lamps covered with red paper to combat an epidemic of scarlet fever.
The monument to General Francisco Morazan, raised up in the main square of
Tegucigalpa is, in reality, a statue of Marshal Ney which was bought in
repository of second-hand statues in Paris.
Edward Snowden: A Healing Voice
Like many people, I was surprised to hear of Edward Snowden’s decision to leave his job and move toward Hong Kong in search of a place where he could reconcile his conscience with his understanding of humanity and the US Constitution. Ever since, I have been trying to understand how he had come to a decision that, one may be certain, others contemplated, but then did not pursue for reasons that are not important, at this point, to figure out.
As days, weeks, months passed, most citizens of the US had difficulties in assessing Edward Snowden’s act: was he a hero or a traitor? In the midst of these hesitations, his father embraced him tightly. [His mother may have done the same, but more discretely, so discretely in fact, that no one but herself and Edward and his father know about it]. It was a very encouraging and courageous act even if it had to be handled, as too many things have to, in these days, with the help of a lawyer.
Is this lawyerly mediation of father-son love a sign of the times we are living in?
A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis
Several strands of green thinking maintain that capitalism is incapable of a sustainable relationship with non-human nature because, as an economic system, capitalism has a growth imperative while the earth is finite. One finds versions of this argument in the literature of eco-socialism, deep ecology, eco-anarchism, and even among many mainstream greens who, though typically declining to actually name the economic system, are fixated on the dangers of "growth."
All this may be true. Capitalism, a system in which privately owned firms must continuously out-produce and out-sell their competitors, may be incapable of accommodating itself to the limits of the natural world. However, that is not the same question as whether capitalism can solve the more immediate climate crisis.
Because of its magnitude, the climate crisis can appear as the sum total of all environmental problems -- deforestation, over-fishing, freshwater depletion, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination. But halting greenhouse gas emissions is a much more specific problem, the most pressing subset of the larger apocalyptic panorama.
And the very bad news is, time has run out. As I write this, news arrives of an ice-free arctic summer by 2050. Scientists once assumed that would not happen for hundreds of years.
Dealing with climate change by first achieving radical social transformation -- be it a socialist or anarchist or deep-ecological/neo-primitive revolution, or a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to a mythical small-town capitalism -- would be a very long and drawn-out, maybe even multigenerational, struggle. It would be marked by years of mass education and organizing of a scale and intensity not seen in most core capitalist states since the 1960s or even the 1930s.
Nor is there any guarantee that the new system would not also degrade the soil, lay waste to the forests, despoil bodies of water, and find itself still addicted to coal and oil. Look at the history of "actually existing socialism" before its collapse in 1991. To put it mildly, the economy was not at peace with nature. Or consider the vexing complexities facing the left social democracies of Latin America. Bolivia, and Ecuador, states run by socialists who are beholden to very powerful, autonomous grassroots movements, are still very dependent on petroleum revenue.
A more radical approach to the crisis of climate change begins not with a long-term vision of an alternate society but with an honest engagement with the very compressed timeframe that current climate science implies. In the age of climate change, these are the real parameters of politics.
The scientific consensus, expressed in peer-reviewed and professionally vetted and published scientific literature, runs as follows: For the last 650,000 years atmospheric levels of CO2 -- the primary heat-trapping gas -- have hovered at around 280 parts per million (ppm). At no point in the preindustrial era did CO2 concentrations go above 300 ppm. By 1959, they had reached 316 ppm and are now over 400 ppm. And the rate of emissions is accelerating. Since 2000, the world has pumped almost 100 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere -- about a quarter of all CO2 emissions since 1750. At current rates, CO2 levels will double by mid-century.
Climate scientists believe that any increase in average global temperatures beyond 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels will lead to dangerous climate change, causing large-scale desertification, crop failure, inundation of coastal cities, mass migration to higher and cooler ground, widespread extinctions of flora and fauna, proliferating disease, and possible social collapse. Furthermore, scientists now understand that the earth's climate system has not evolved in a smooth linear fashion. Paleoclimatology has uncovered evidence of sudden shifts in the earth's climate regimes. Ice ages have stopped and started not in a matter of centuries, but decades. Sea levels (which are actually uneven across the globe) have risen and fallen more rapidly than was once believed.
Throughout the climate system, there exist dangerous positive-feedback loops and tipping points. A positive-feedback loop is a dynamic in which effects compound, accelerate, or amplify the original cause. Tipping points in the climate system reflect the fact that causes can build up while effects lag. Then, when the effects kick in, they do so all at once, causing the relatively sudden shift from one climate regime to another.
Thus, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says rich countries like the United States must cut emissions 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 -- only seven years away -- and thereafter make precipitous cuts to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This would require global targets of 10 percent reductions in emissions per annum, starting now. Those sorts of emissions reductions have only occurred during economic depressions. Russia's near total economic collapse in the early 1990s saw a 37 percent decrease in CO2 emissions from 1990 to 1995, under conditions that nobody wants to experience.
The political implications of all this are mind-bending. As daunting as it may sound, it means that it is this society and these institutions that must cut emissions. That means, in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of totally economic re-organization.
COINTELPRO and Divisive Hate
Bill Weinberg, World War 4 Report
The very point of the FBI's COINTELPRO strategy of the 1960s was paranoia, divisive hatred, and ultimately cannibalization of radical opposition movements in the United States. And it was grimly successful. Now that there are signs that US police agencies are reviving such tactics, it is imperative that activists learn from the mistakes of their counterparts two generations ago, and find rational, principled, humane and above all tactically astute ways to respond.
The FBI's own webpage on COINTELPRO (from a section entitled "FBI Records: The Vault") states that the agency launched "COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program—in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party. All COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971. Although limited in scope (about two-tenths of one percent of the FBI's workload over a 15-year period), COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons."
"We Are All Ibus, and Basta!"
French Interview with bolo'bolo Author P.M.
[Translated and Introduced by Patrice Riemens]
The year 1983 saw the publication, in German-speaking Switzerland, of one of the oddest books ever: bolo'bolo, writen by one 'P.M.'. The book was nothing less than an overture toward an alternative model of society - at the global scale. A concrete utopia of sorts, based a multitude of self-supporting communities called Bolos. Thirty years later, the model has lost nothing of its potency. What probably can't be said of capitalism.
"It Is Simply All Too Much"
An Interview with the Italian Philosopher Franco "Bifo" Berardi
[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.
The Reasonable “Madness” of Revolt
Fifth Estate Issue 390
In the existing world, largely governed by the logic of capital and the pathologies of accumulation, real madness is the absence of revolt. Wherever revolt is absent in the world today, we should worry about human health and sanity. A society that does not revolt against a social order that damages it with such escalating facility—psychologically, collectively, ecologically—is a society at the terminal stage. Revolt is the healthy expression of reasonable refusal.
For those who want to throw the existing world into question, the liberal political philosophy of John Rawls (1921 – 2002) is of little use. After the publication of his first major work, A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls became the most influential liberal philosopher of the second half of the 20th century, receiving accolades and awards from scholars, and from politicians like Bill Clinton. He remains a touchstone intellectual for contemporary liberalism, and as one of its greatest advocates, Rawls is relevant to considerations of the disastrous limitations and contradictions of his own worldview.
Among Rawls’ many errors, the most fatal was his contention that “justice” and “fairness” could be satisfactorily realized within the limits of capitalist society. This same premise continues to ground the most fundamental liberal conceits, including that perplexingly unshakeable faith in “capitalist democracy.” Like most liberals, Rawls never took riot, revolt, or revolution seriously, since he viewed them as superfluous to the interests of the “least advantaged members of society,” as he frequently called them. Instead, Rawls devoted his life’s work to theorizing a “practical” way toward that greatest of all contradictions in terms, a fair capitalist society. Most liberals agree with these contentions, making it fair to conclude that they scarcely understand the logic of capital, and the countless catastrophes of capitalist society.