Malcolm Harris contests the viability of Berardi's conception of "slowing down" to defeat capitalism.
Of the anti-capitalist scholars and intellectuals who prescribe a political program, Franco Berardi might have the most counter-intuitive ideas. In his many articles, books, and lectures, Berardi pushes a curious line against a mind-warping market culture. During the current period of youth-led urban unrest, Berardi has consistently preached a resistance strategy that emulates the process of aging. While capital says go faster, make more, consume more, his call for “senilization” says slow down, work less, consume less. Berardi wants a detox from capitalism’s psyche-damaging relations, and it’s not just a metaphor. Put down the Adderall, roll a joint. Relax.
In a new formulation he calls “post-futurism,” Berardi poses the Futurist fetishization of muscular youth against “the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom.”1 We have enough things, he writes; what we really want is more time in which to flourish. In his heterodoxy, Berardi has broken one of the cardinal rules of Marxism: revolution as the necessary mode of social transformation. “Radicalism,” he writes, “should abandon the mode of activism, and adopt a passive mode.” Fewer marches, more mahjong.
This program of exhaustion is posed opposite the pulls of what neologism-happy Berardi labels “semiocapital.” Semiocapital is what he calls the capitalist subsumption of the general intellect, the putting-to-work of collective intelligence, and the financialization of our sociality. Facebook et al. As capital has colonized more and more of our mental space, it has filled our heads with flashing advertisements and short videos of cats, more or less driving everyone insane. Berardi traces contemporary pathologies from, schizophrenia to Attention Deficit Disorder to depression to Erectile Disfunction, back to a “vicious subjugation of life, wealth, and pleasure to the financial abstraction of semiocapital.”2
As a diagnostician, Berardi is among the sharpest, taking seriously the way cognitive capitalism changes modes of thought: “The digitalization of communicative processes produces a sort of desensitization to the curve, to continuous processes of slow becoming, and a corresponding sensitization to code, sudden changes of state and the succession of discrete signs.”3 He’s right to be concerned with the production of subjects, the adaptive mutations capital requires of workers, and the cost in corresponding affect. But when it comes time to write out the prescription, Berardi forgets what kind of patient he’s dealing with.
He writes that “energy is fading in the postmodern world for many reasons that are easy to detect. Demographic trends reveal that, as life expectancy increases and birth rate decreases, mankind as a whole is growing old.”4 Berardi ignores both the effects of this aging on the life cycle (so called “extended adolescence”) as well as the combined and uneven development that leaves some countries importing workers and others with mobs of unemployed youths. It’s certainly true that what Donald Rumsfeld called “old Europe” is getting there, but today’s revolutionary scenes come from where the population is young. Cairo not Rome; Lagos not Paris. Despite a pro forma nod to its history of colonialism, Berardi refuses to consider Europeans’ relationship to the rest of the world in any substantial way. He’s far more interested in the continent’s idea of itself.
Given Berardi’s focus, his plan is at very most a European solution, complete with nostalgia for “the tradition of humanism, enlightenment, and socialism.”5 Why do we keep working so hard when we have more than we need?
It’s a withdrawal into a hammock of already accumulated wealth, like a trust fund kid driven so mad from the pressure that he enters a cushy rehab facility. Or those city-dwellers who think that the lack of a television, coupled with reusable grocery bags and a window garden, will save them and the world. Removed from semiocapital’s psychopathogenic influences, perhaps we can become ourselves and recover a bit of pleasure. But even if we evaluate this as a European program, ignoring the true colonial sources of the continent’s comparative wealth, it posits an essentially healthy psyche to which we can recover. If our very selves (for the young, since birth) are products of cognitive capitalism, what makes Berardi think we’ll get better?
In sex, Berardi sees both the symptoms of semiocapitalism and the potential for other ways of being. He deplores “that mix of hypersexuality and asexuality that characterizes post-urban life”6 while holding out hope for “men and the women who caress one another to know one another and the world better.”7 Late capitalist sex is severely pathological in Beradi’s figuring, and it’s hard to argue. As it’s more fully integrated into the circuits of value production, sexuality bends and mutates into a bundle of perverse symptoms.
Too tired from work to have sex. Do cocaine. Pop some Viagra. Have sex. Go back to work to afford the drugs.
But sex is also the pleasure in life that’s worth pulling away from capital for, a mode of exploring the world and one’s self. “Unless one is seized by avarice or psychotic obsession, all a human being wants is a pleasant, possibly long life, to consume what is necessary to keep fit and make love.”8 In the Franco Berardi book of human nature, our better angels fuck like bunnies.
Here is the core of the problem with Berardi’s conception of human nature and his (a)political program: Humans don’t fuck like bunnies.
As Berardi’s contemporary Paolo Virno puts it, humans are the “animal open to the world”9 and must always be able to learn new behaviors and practices. There’s no Eden of natural and instinctual sexuality to which we can withdraw. Rather, human sexuality is by nature innovative, always interacting with an ever-shifting environment, with objects and spaces and technologies and representations. To forsake the future is also to forsake the future of sex, to limit ourselves to what already is or, if we’re lucky, what was.
The dominant sexual scripts, even the ones that pre-date semiocapital, are a weak foundation for an anti-capitalist program. Berardi’s clumsy attempt at gender analysis belies the fundamental problem; against a masculine bellicose youth, he poses a weak, disarming femininity. But by taking the position of futurism’s simple opposition, Berardi reasserts the fascist dichotomies, including its sexism. The professor comes off sounding like a college freshman trying to pick up a women’s studies major. I really think the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge, men are so violent. In conceding a passive feminine, he neglects the counter-archetypes: those covens of witches, the petroleuse stinking of ash, the thrashing hysteric, the femme dyke, the mother lion, the young schizophrenic general Joan, the one who refused to take off her armor.
There is not a layer of pathological sexuality that we can flush out of our systems; the circuits of commerce don’t just alter our attachments, they create them in the first place. But those relations and the desires they engender are rife with internal contradictions, including the siren song of running away from it all. Berardi’s anti-capitalist program itself is incorporated in the Southwest Airlines tagline, ‘Wanna get away?’ Experimental sexuality—the kind that helps us “to know the world better”—incorporates and twists those anxious parts of society for its own ends. Police uniforms work as sex props. Blackberrys pulse with eroticism.
The future-as-fascism doesn’t always know quite what’s best for itself, especially when it comes to sex. In Jeanette Winterson’s speculative novel The Stone Gods, technician Billie has escaped a lab with the functioning head of a robosapien—an artificially intelligent being—named Spike, only to lose her in a bar. When Billie catches up with Spike, it’s in a Lesbian Vegan commune, between a woman’s legs:
“’I am programmed to except new experiences. Therefore, when Nebraska suggested that I might try this, I was able to agree without consulting my Mainframe.‘
‘In what way do you think this experience will further your knowledge of the human race?‘
(Spike has forms to fill in like everyone else, and this question is on her data-sheet.)
‘As I have no body, it is difficult for me to imagine its uses beyond the purely functional. What I am doing has no reproductive function.‘
‘Human beings are irrational,‘ I said. ‘We do things for all kind of non-reasons and try to come up with a good explanation later. I hope you’ll be able to explain this to your Mainframe.‘
‘I have disabled my Mainframe connection,‘ said Spike. ‘I have chosen to live as an outlaw.‘”10
Spike is unpredictable insofar as she’s human, even though she’s literally built and programmed by the capitalist state. It needs to cultivate subjects who will explore new worlds for value, but this process always has the potential to spin out of control. The tools the market fashions to keep money moving and help us scrape through the week contain its contradictions. Just look at the phenomena of autocorrecting iPhones and the Siri personal assistant that sometimes say things they’re not supposed to. Sometimes they tell secrets.
As much as capital would like to turn the general intellect into a well-oiled value machine, the social brain is chaotic. These chaotic flows are embedded in everything the market produces, including and especially our desires. The contradictions in the labor relation, the gender division, the public/private split, race relations, and the spaces of production all create erotic attachments; just look at the porn.
When we withdraw from capital, can we bring our vibrators? Our handcuffs, and rope, and ball gags, and nipple clamps? Our movies, our cameras, our sexting? Our recreational Viagra, our birth control pills, our condoms? Our kinks, our fetishes? If we’re frolicking nude in the Italian countryside, can we still have sex atop a quaking dryer or hear the echoing jangle of a belt undone in an empty alley? Can we bring the chaotic bundles of symptoms and cyborg parts we call our selves, haunted and half-broken as they are?
If the answer is no, then young people at least aren’t going to the retirement home without a fight. Even if it’s very nice there, and quiet, and will give us time to relax and think things over. This is the problem Berardi can’t escape: if capitalism has subsumed our desires so completely that we must escape it at all costs, or live forever swamped in misery and psychic pain, then how could we want to leave? If we as capital’s subjects would simply choose to resubjectify ourselves when he suggests it, then that would be a clear sign we’re not so damaged after all, that semiocapital’s grip over our desires was not so strong we couldn’t just walk away. Unfortunately, Berardi’s analysis of the situation is too convincing to make his solution believable.
Berardi’s old friend Félix Guattari, from whom he draws a lot of inspiration, tells the story of a test with an octopus. An experimenter took the healthy creature from its polluted home and placed it in a clean tank. The octopus promptly died. Guattari wrote of the struggle for new forms of social organization in light of this story: “It would of course be absurd to formulate this in terms of a desire to retrieve past forms of human existence. In the wake of the data-processing and robotics revolutions, the rise of genetic engineering, and the globalization of markets, neither human work nor the natural habitat can return, even to their state of being of a few decades ago.”11 Presenting it in the non-space of the post-future doesn’t disguise that Berardi is looking to an imagined past.
None of this is to say that we’re stuck with who we are, or that semiocapital is okay because sometimes it gets us off. Nor is it to embrace a shining muscular youth. But strategies based on our internal ability to unearth better selves are for cult leaders and new age hucksters, not communists. Rather we can posit a different kind of future, one that’s here now. In America we’re seeing not the expectation of future growth, but the pessimism of imminent collapse. For the first time since they started asking the question in polls, most Americans don’t think the next generation will be better off. And there’s good reason to believe so: for the first time in American history the average life expectancy has dropped. The future has had over a trillion dollars in value sucked out of it in the form of student debt, that time machine that brings decades of yet unperformed labor to the market now. The future may be young, but it’s a whipped dog.
This odd future we face as present is contradictory as well. The same networks that enable capital’s domination of our mental space form collectivities that bite back, in text-mob robberies, in hacktivist strikes, in coordinated demonstrations. In the future as used by storytellers for ages, another world isn’t just possible, it’s already there. It’s a place when the embedded antagonisms that flow through everyday life become visible, when lines can be drawn. The robots rise up, the government wears jackboots; there are often rebels who call themselves ‘the rebels.’ What Guattari called “dissident vectors of subjectification” metastasize, and other ways of being emerge on the front lines of the war between what is and what could be.
Yes, we want war. What else could you expect from the children of warmongers? Capital births its own gravediggers, and like their father they won’t be sane or peaceful. Too bellicose to withdraw, too mad to relax, and too anxious to sleep, the future isn’t past. It’s here now.
Originally posted: March 2012 at The State
- 1. Franco Berardi, “Exhaustion and the Senile Utopia of the Coming Insurrection,” @ e-flux (Online: January, 2011).
- 2. Franco Berardi, “The Future After the End of the Economy,” @ e-flux, (Online: August 2011).
- 3. ibid.
- 4. ibid.
- 5. Franco Berardi, “Exhaustion and the Senile Utopia of the Coming Insurrection,” @ e-flux (Online: January, 2011).
- 6. Franco Berardi, “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation,” in Culture Machine, 7 (2005).
- 7. Franco Berardi, “Post-Futurim Manifesto,” (Online: European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, February 2009).
- 8. Franco Berardi, “Exhaustion and the Senile Utopia of the Coming Insurrection,” @ e-flux (Online: January, 2011).
- 9. Paolo Virno, “Anthropology and Theory of Institutions,” (Online: European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, August 2011).
- 10. Jeanette Winterston, The Stone Gods, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008).
- 11. Félix Guattari “The Three Ecologies,” New Formations 8 (1989).