‘Decommission, rewrite, and change the course of the future’ – Interview Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

The long version of an interview I did with Franco Berardi, for the art mag Metropolis M, winter 2011.

Franco Berardi, better known as “Bifo”, is an Italian autonomist philosopher and media activist. One of the founders of the notorious Radio Alice, a pirate radio station that became the voice of the autonomous youth movement of Bologna in the late 1970s, Bifo is the author of multiple works of political theory, including The Soul at Work and the recently published After the Future.

MO: How do you look at the present crisis from the perspective 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, of growth and also of hope; after the belief in the possibility of infinite expansion of a virtual capitalism based on new technologies, there was a collapse. The bursting of the Internet 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 aftermath 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, manifested themselves openly.

What am I talking about? What does it mean that semiocapitalism was defined in that moment? The idea of semiocapitalism is based on the reality of 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 a 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, 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 regards to physical energy, with regards 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 hyperexploitation of the human mind and the intense use of euphoric drugs. Now, the crisis of spring 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 relaunch 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 has started in September 2008 is not a crisis of a conjunctural type. It is not a crisis that will be overcome with a new economic recovery. 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. This crisis is the final demonstration that the idea of infinite growth can turn into a nightmare.

MO: One could say that whereas before, politics revolved around the promise to increase the size of the pie (the so-called win-win situation), presently it is limited to the evermore-bitter struggle over the redistribution of what is left of that pie (a zero-sum game). To give you an example, currently in the Netherlands, the government does have money to bail out the banks, to subsidize home-owners, to build roads, but in order to do that, takes money away 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. Where students were protesting in front of the Banca de Italia. They were chanting slogans such as more money for the schools, less money for the banks, and so on. These kinds of protests are spread all over Europe nowadays. Everybody understands that if you destroy the school system, or something simple like the sanitary system, let’s say basic infrastructure of production, it is not helping the future economy. But this is the policy of the European Central Bank, this is the policy of the financial crisis at the European level. Look at what is happening in Greece for instance. In Greece, in April 2010, the problem of the huge public debt of that country exploded. The Greek government has been obliged to start a politics that is to extract resources from the economy in order to pay the German and French banks. Now, one year and a half after that decision, the gross national product of Greece, 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 ht debt. This is impossible. I have the suspicion that they are not working on a fix to the European economy. They are perceiving the end of something and they are looking towards a sort of hold up, a robbery, a huge displacement of wealth of resources, of money from the workers, from society, from education, towards the banks and the financial class. I know that this can seem to be 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, 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 relaunch the growth in Italy? Is it the way to think of the future of Italian society? Obviously not.

MO: There seems to be a special animosity reserved for culture and education. Take the Netherlands, where in general a seven percent cut is being implemented, but the cultural budget is cut by twenty percent. This seems a  paradoxical development for an economy that is officially moving towards a creative knowledge economy. Scholars that write on education reform, such as Grahame Locke, are attributing this development to the kind of intellectual labour most people perform, which has become taylorized. One does not need developed intellectual skills to do most of these jobs. I wonder whether you would agree with that.

I have two hypotheses about that. One is more simple: since the Bologna charter of 1999, the European political class has decided that the public school system has to be progressively dismantled in favour of private schools. This is happening in many countries. For instance, in Italy the public school has been totally impoverished. As I told you eight billion in two years is a huge figure for the Italian context. But at the same time, the private school has been awarded a 1.5 billion increase with regard to the previous year. Note that in Italy when I say private school, I mean Catholic school, because most of the private schools in Italy are managed by the Vatican. There is a political and cultural undertone in this shift towards the private school. I know a little bit the American educational system, which is based on private schools much more than its European counterpart, and I know that the American education system is not successful. Everybody knows that high schools and primary school in the United States are worse than the Italian, French or German public ones. So the idea to turn towards the private school is a bad development.

I have a second hypothesis, which is a little bit nastier, but that is certainly true in the case of Italy. The right wing parties need ignorance, people are voting for post-fascist parties, like what was Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale, for mafia parties, like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for racist parties like the Lega Nord. The people that vote for these parties are people that do not have the basic intellectual resources for understanding their own interests. So I wonder if one of the reasons for the attack on the education system is not the desire of the parties on the right to have an education system that reinforces their own constituencies.

MO: You just published a new book, After the Future. Could you tell us something about the book?

I started writing the book in February 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, both in Italy and internationally. Futurism in a sense is the first avant-garde movement. 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 the extreme 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. It is not 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. So, in the Middle Ages the idea of the future was totally different. 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. We are in a very psychological way trained to think positively of the future, as progress and expansion. 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 seventy-seven. The year when Sid Vicious, and Johnny Rotten, and the Sex Pistols, went in the streets of London, crying NO FUTURE, NO FUTURE. That cry has 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, is 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, also in India, also 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 the exhaustion 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 de not understand that, then war will become the only language between humans.

MO: In your book the Soul at Work you write about the effects of the acceleration of information on the human mind. We have been talking about it. Your answer to these adverse effects would be a form of what you describe as ‘existential, informational and economic autonomy’ that is made possible by the withdrawal in small communities. At present are we not witnessing the opposite of a retreat, with the Greek protests, the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement? An incursion, an intervention, showing oneself to the world?

Actually, I do not use the word retreat. Often I use the word withdrawal, subtraction, in the sense of coming out of the cycle of more production, more consumption, more production and so on. But this is not the nostalgia of the local, of the pre-technological. I am not a nostalgic at all. I like the cultural effects of globalisation, I like the possibility of the increasing exchange and interconnectedness between human beings in different places. But the problem is that we have to be able to dissociate the concept of wealth – cultural wealth, material wealth – from the idea of acceleration and the idea of economic expansion. This is absolutely possible. If we think of the potentia of the general intellect, the potentia of the network of collective intelligence, you understand that we may be able to produce what is necessary to all the people on the planet. This is a problem of the redistribution of wealth. You have seen the tendency of the last twenty years. Those who have money, have more and more. And those that are poor become a growing army. This tendency has to be subverted. This is the main focus of the movement of Occupy Wall Street, of the movement that will go out in the streets on October 15th, in European cities. It is a problem of redistribution but it is also a problem of cultural change. We have to change our expectations of the future, but also of consumption. I am not an ascetic. I like the good life and material things. But I think that goodness in life and wellbeing are much more a problem of sensibility.

To finish, let me talk about an initiative, a call that I have written together with Geert Lovink, a Dutch intellectual. I met Geert at the Van Abbe Museum, he’s an old friend, we know each other from the years of Nettime. And together we have written a call to 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.