Monday, January 30, 2012
Franco Berardi in a demonstration in in the seventies
Franco Berardi is one of the controversial Italian thinkers who are seeking a solution for the gradually collapsing capitalistic system. For him, the best method of fighting today’s abuses comes from an unexpected corner, through love. Only in this manner can the tormented social body recover after years of being driven into the ground.
How do you look at the present crisis from the perspective on capitalism that you have developed in your work, which revolves around the interconnectedness of economy, language and psychology?
‘Do you remember what happened at the end of the nineties and especially in the spring of the year 2000? After a decade of development, after the belief in the possibility of the infinite expansion of a virtual capitalism based on new technologies, there was a collapse. The bursting of the dot-com bubble. It was a very important moment. And in a sense, what happened in September 2008 in the United States and what is happening now in Europe can be considered as the long after-effects of the crisis of 2000. Because in that crisis, all the elements of novelty, of the new forms of capitalism which I like to call semiocapitalism, became apparent.
The idea of semiocapitalism is based on the interconnection of information technology and the production of economic value. But in this kind of relationship, the human brain and human sensibility is deeply involved as part of the production process, and it also has a fundamental role to play in consumption. The boom of the nineties was based on the exploitation of the human brain, if we look at it from the point of view of immaterial labour and from the attention economy, or rather, the invasion and occupation of our attention by new technologies. Writers like Kevin Kelly, Peter Schwartz, Nicholas Negroponte: all those people were theorizing the possibility of what they called a long boom, an infinite boom. Their theories were deeply flawed, because they were unable to understand that the capacities of the human brain are not infinite. The human brain is limited with regard to physical energy, with regard to affection, with regard to desire, suffering and depression. The days of the long boom, the decade of the nineties, were also the years of Prozac. These were also the years of excitement, produced by the hyper-exploitation of the human mind and the intense use of euphoric drugs.
Now, the crisis of 2000 has been forgotten, because immediately after came the shock of September 11, the beginning of the infinite war launched by the Bush administration. This has been an insane escape from the effects of the crisis. It was an attempt to renew military production, but the war has not been a good pharmaceutic. You can compare it with a person who is in a deep depression, taking amphetamines. It is not the right therapy for depression.
Year after year, the global schizo-economy – a concept I use to bring together economic production and the exploitation of the mind – has been building up to a new, and I think final, collapse. What we see is the coming true of an old prediction, that of the Club of Rome, who in the year of 1972 published a report titled The Limits to Growth. Economic growth cannot be infinite, for a very simple reason. Namely that physical resources are limited, as well as the psychic and mental resources of human kind. The network form has hugely enlarged the possibilities of production, but we are limited as human beings.’
One could say that whereas before, politics revolved around the promise to increase the size of the pie, characterized by ‘win-win’, presently it is limited to the evermore-bitter struggle over the distribution of what is left of it, a ‘zero-sum-game’. To give you an example, currently in the Netherlands the government has money to bail out the banks, to subsidize home-owners, to build roads, but in order to do that it extracts money from education, from culture, from handicapped people, from healthcare, from social housing and so on. Similar things are happening in Italy now, with the austerity package being implemented by Berlusconi. What is your take on that?
‘I just came back from a demonstration that happened this morning in the city of Bologna. Students were protesting in front of the Banca de Italia, chanting slogans such as ‘more money for the schools, less money for the banks’ and so on. These kinds of protests are spreading all over Europe nowadays. Everybody understands that if you destroy the school system or something simple like the sewage system, let’s say the basic infrastructure of production, it will not help the future economy. But this is the current policy of the European Central Bank, this is the policy for dealing with the financial crisis at the European level. Look at what is happening in Greece, for instance. In Greece, in April 2010, the problem of that country’s huge public debt exploded. The Greek government was obliged to start a policy aimed at extracting resources from the economy in order to pay the German and French banks. Now, one and a half years after that decision, the Greece’s gross national product has fallen by seven percent. The result is that production is going down, and the debt, unavoidably, is skyrocketing up. It makes you wonder: Are those people leading the central bank crazy? Do they understand that what they are doing is totally crippling the basis of what is a healthy economy? Because you cannot withdraw resources from production, from effective demand, from society, and ask for the payment of the debt. That is impossible. I have the suspicion that they are not working on fixing the European economy. They perceive the end of something and they are looking towards a sort of hold-up, a robbery, a huge displacement of wealth from workers, from society, from education, towards the banks and the financial class.
I know that this can seem paranoid, and I do not like to be paranoid. But this is not the effect of a human conspiracy; I do not think it is Angela Merkel, Jean Claude Trichet or Nicolas Sarkozy who are masterminding this dark future. I think it is something that is deeply inscribed in the software of the financial architecture. We have been producing a machine that is only able to think in terms of fighting inflation, enhancing profits, and enforcing competition. The automated system, I mean the software, has been conceived in a form that has now turned destructive in relation to social wealth.
Just to say a word or two on Italy: during the last two years, eight billion Euros have been withdrawn from education. And a hundred thirty thousand teachers have been fired in the Italian schools. What do you think, is this the way to renew growth in Italy? Is it the way to think of the future of Italian society? Obviously not.’
You just published a new book, After the Future. Could you tell us something about the book?
‘I started writing the book in February of 2009. It was the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Futurist Manifesto. Futurism is a literary and artistic movement that has been hugely important, both culturally and politically. It can be seen as the first avant-garde movement, which was actively out to overturn society. What defines the Futurist Manifesto, and the Futurist culture in general? It is the exaltation of the virtues of the future. In a sense the futurist movement is an extreme version of the modern veneration of the future as progress, as expansion, and finally, as growth. There is no reason to assume that our idea of the future is something natural. Just think of the theological man of the middle ages: for him, perfection was not in the future. For him perfection was in the past, the time of paradise lost, when God created the world. Then there’s the Renaissance, when the idea comes up of a future produced by man, in a conscious and voluntarist way, politically and economically. In the nineteenth century, the idea of the future as progress becomes part of the human psyche. At the end of the twentieth century, this mythology comes to an end. First of all because of the crisis in the field of energy resources, especially fossil fuels, because of the awareness that growth cannot be infinite.
The beginning of that awareness was already present in the seventies, especially in the year 1977. The year when Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols went in the streets of London, crying ‘NO FUTURE’. That cry produced deep ripples in the youth culture of the following decades. After the Future is an attempt to rethink the present moment. We live in a time when the expectation of a progressive, expansive future proves illusionary. And it is a dangerous illusion, also because the world is getting old. The human population, not only in Europe but also in China, in India, in Latin America, with the exception of the Arabic world, is ageing. People are living longer and birth rates are going down. The physical energies of the planet are running out. So we have to live with the exhaustion, which can be a very interesting experience if we are able to face it in a non-aggressive and non-competitive way. We don’t need more things. We have too many things in our houses. We need more time, more affection, more solidarity. If we do not understand that, then war will become the only language between humans.
To finish, let me talk about an initiative, a call that I have written together with Geert Lovink. It is directed at the large army of lovers and the small army of software programmers. This is a call to resist, and our main point is that the movement that is coming to the streets in New York and Europe will not win this fight, because this fight cannot be won in the streets. Going to the streets is important, absolutely necessary. It is the way to start the real fight that will come afterwards. And what is the real fight? It is the fight of love. The ability to reactivate the bodies, the social and erotic body, that has been paralyzed by twenty years of precarization, by twenty years of impoverishment. Secondly, the real fight is the fight of software developers, of the people who have been writing the software of the financial system. We call on them in order for them to do what Wikileaks has done in the field of information: decommission, rewrite, and change the course of the future.