Book review about Franco Berardi's The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy
In the discussion on a blog post that Joseph Kay wrote the conversation turned briefly to 'class composition'. This is a term used by some people in the Italian New Left, particularly a current called 'operaismo'. That in turn reminded me that I wrote this book review a long time ago that I never did anything with. I figure I'll put it up at this blog.
The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, by Franco Berardi
The Soul at Work stands in a line of works by recent Italian theorists who tend to emphasize information technology and cultural workers and who count the mid-twentieth century Italian Marxist tradition of operaismo or workerism as a formative influence. Like others influenced by this current, Berardi is primarily concerned with high technology workers and cultural workers. The book’s title is a metaphor; the soul refers to the idea that our capacities to be social and our creativity are used in production today. (For more on operaismo see Steve Wright, Storming Heaven. For more on the context of these currents, see Robert Lumley, States of Emergency)
The book has two particular merits. First, Berardi foregrounds operaismo as key piece of his intellectual and political trajectory to a degree greater than others influenced by this current. Berardi’s preferred term for operaismo is “compositionism,” referencing the notion of class composition analysis. Class composition has two components, the technical and the political. The technical composition of the working class refers to factors such as machinery and workplace discipline – the ensemble which operates when the working class plays its role as variable capital and produces surplus value. The political composition of the working class refers to the subjective dispositions, behaviors, and organizational forms that the working class takes, in opposition to capitalism. To put it another way, the technical composition refers to the working class as object, as a class in itself, while the political composition refers to the class as subject, as a class for itself (and as a class for its own self-abolition). Both elements of class composition center on the working class, and indeed this is central insight of operaismo, the need to give analytical primacy to the working class in our efforts to understand and oppose capitalism.
The second important merit to this book is Berardi’s emphasis on alienation as a historical lineage. Post-operaismo as a theoretical tendency stakes out strongly anti-Hegelian loyalties, drawing on a diverse philosophical pantheon including such figures as Baruch Spinoza, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. Berardi too prefers the anti-Hegelian tradition, and he argues for an anti-Hegelian moment early in operaismo, reading one of the tradition’s leading lights, Mario Tronti, as breaking with the category of alienation in his 1960s essays. At the same time, Berardi does not spend much time polemicizing against Hegel or Hegelian currents in Marxism. Furthermore, his attention to early engagements with alienation and to the early Marx is salutary in that over emphasis on whether to be pro- or anti- Hegel(ian) often leads to misreadings or to refusals to read other Marxists and various works of Marx. While Berardi clearly prefers a non- or anti-Hegelian Marxism, he does well in placing this lineage in context and in not seeking to wall it off from other aspects of the broad Marxist tradition.
Those merits notwithstanding, this is a deeply flawed book. Structurally, The Soul at Work is divided into two halves, each half likewise divided in two; each half moves from a section of intellectual history and overview theoretical concepts to a section of highly schematic contemporary theorizing with a veneer of the sociology of work or compositionism. More specifically, the first section sketches a brief history of debates about the categories of alienation and estrangement, the second asserts with little evidence a “mentalization of working processes” (24), the third part provides an overview of French post-structuralist theory, then the book closes with a section making grand assertions about increasing precarity.
As mentioned, Berardi writes about what he calls compositionist Marxism that seeks to understand the working class. This is laudable, and I would be pleased to see more discussion of class composition as a category as well as more attempts to understand the composition of the working class today. It is worth noting, however, that discussion of class composition as a category is not the same as conducting class composition analysis. Furthermore, one need not use the term “class composition analysis” in order to conduct this type of analysis. Arguably, many labor historians have conducted analyses of past compositions of the working class without using or being aware of this term. In any case, Berardi’s book is not a work of class composition analysis. It is perhaps post-compositionist, or at best pro-compositionist, in that Berardi is in favor of class composition analysis but does not engage in it himself.
Berardi’s footnotes provide a sense of what The Soul at Work is about. Of the 97 footnotes, 67 are about philosophers, with Deleuze and Guattari making up about 1/3 of these. While the book is not reducible to its footnotes, Berardi’s choice of citations encapsulates what this book is about: theorists and close reading passages and quotes from theorists. There seems to be a disproportionately large number of theorists and few empirical researchers within the compositionist milieu. (Not everything in the book appears in the footnotes, of course. For instance, in the body of the book there is a five page discussion of Wim Wenders’ films. There’s also a reference to a US Bureau of Labor Statistics report about the extension of working hours between 1976 and 1998.)
The Soul at Work is mainly a theoretical or philosophical book of a sort that largely consists in engaging with similar books. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a legitimate sort of genre of book. What is questionable, however, is the idea that one can read current reality primarily through engagement with philosophy. Berardi makes huge claims about contemporary capitalist society and historical capitalism, with no citations on the economy or labor practices, other than a book by Bill Gates and a single unfootnoted reference to a US Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
Imagine another book, call it The Soul of Aesthetics. Let us say that this other book made big claims about contemporary literary and cinematic sensibilities – saying something like ‘we are witnessing the creation of a newly unified aesthetic subject occupying a genuinely universally temporality that (re)fuses the fractures that capital has cut across the social field.’ Imagine that The Soul of Aesthetics made comparably minimal citations of literary and cinematic works, instead primarily citing BLS statistics, policy and government reports, the financial press, and other books that engage with this sort of material. I expect that many readers would raise their eyebrows at this, and wonder what such a book would tell us about. Readers might reasonably wonder if the The Soul of Aesthetics showed a worthwhile approach for understanding contemporary literature and cinema or if it was mainly an eloquently worded statement of the author’s assumptions and opinions.
This is not to say that Berardi never discusses social reality but rather that when he does so his claims are often tendentious. For example, he writes that “the 1968 movements were the first phenomena of conscious globalization” (27). The “first phenomena” point is quite simply false. There have been counter-globalization or revolutionary transnational currents since at least Marx and Engels’ day. Interested readers might also consult the proceedings of the 1905 founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World for numerous examples of a consciously globalist sentiment many years before 1968.
As another example, Berardi writes that “At the time of the communist revolutions, the Marxist-Leninist tradition ignored the concept of the general intellect.” It is hard to know what Berardi means be “the concept of the general intellect.” The term “general intellect” makes a passing appearance in Marx’s late 1850s notebooks. Numerous Italian theorists have written commentaries on the term, seeking to find in Marx’s writings a rhetorical basis for their claims. These writings are interesting and worth engaging with, but it is not at all clear that there is a single concept of “general intellect.” At the very least, it is not clear that there is such a concept in Marx’s own writing. Even if there were, the general intellect appears in Marx’s Grundrisse, which was not published until the early 1940s. How, then, were Marxist-Leninists in the 1910s and 20s to pay attention to the category general intellect?
Berardi often makes problematic claims about the present which imply questionable philosophical and historical assumptions. For example, Berardi talks at length – and yet, with almost no evidence – about how “intellectual labor [has] completely changed its nature” (29) writing that intellectuals “are no longer a class independent from production.” (33.) Whatever changes have taken place with regard to the role of intellect in production and the role of intellectuals, Berardi’s assertion suggests that intellectuals once formed “a class independent from production.” This is a point which must be demonstrated, and the meaning of ‘class’ here should be unpacked. In addition, Berardi relies on a misleading notion of the connection between “intellectuals” and “intellectual labor.” Clearly all intellectuals perform a sort of intellectual labor ; it is equally clear, however, that performance of a sort of intellectual labor has never been sufficient to make someone “an intellectual.”
The term “intellectual” refers, among other things, to a cultural function and to a social movement function – rather like ‘writer’ and ‘organizer’ and ‘public speaker’ and so on. These can sometimes be jobs, but there’s an important difference between these terms when they are used to talk about work and when they are used to talk about social movements. Berardi’s conflates the idea of “intellectual labor” with the idea of being an intellectual in relation to social movements; this conflation allows him to make claims about how changes in work translate into changes in social movements. What goes unargued is Berardi’s insistence that the fact that some people get intellectual jobs has to change the role of intellectuals in working class movements.
When Berardi does present ostensible evidence, it is not at all clear how it supports his claims. Berardi writes that “in the past two decades disaffection and absenteeism have become a marginal phenomenon” (sic) and cites a five percent increase in the number of managers and a six percent increase in the number of workers who work 49 hours per week in the United States. (78.) Berardi provides no data about absenteeism, but assuming he is right and it has declined, it does not follow that there has been a “workers’ conversion from disaffection to acceptance” or that the worker now find work “the most interesting part of his or her life and therefore no longer opposes the prolongation of the working day but is actually ready to lengthen it out of personal choice and will.” (79.) How does one Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing a single digit percent change allow us to can derive the motivations of the proletariat? Of course, Berardi is not actually seeking to understand the motivations of the proletariat. Berardi’s interests are with a subsection of the working class, a stratum or set of strata he calls the cognitariat. The term is unfortunate, as it could be taken to imply a measure of underestimating the cognitive faculties of the rest of the proletariat at the point of production and beyond.
Berardi is not engaged in what he calls compositionism, in the sense that he is not seeking to analyze and understand the composition of the working class. Instead, Berardi seems to want to help produce a political recomposition of those working class strata which he calls the cognitariat. Berardi writes about earlier workers, “In the 1960s (…) Workers were forced to stand by the assembly line surrounded by hellish clanking noise: it was impossible for workers to exchange a word, since the only comprehended language was that of the machine.” (106.) It's not clear that that's actually true, and Berardi doesn't support the point, because his real goal is to make the cognitariat seem new and different. In the old days workers rejected their hellish jobs! The cognitariat, by contrast, identifies with work and finds it a creative outlet. Allegedly. For Berardi, the primary sites of cognitarian conflict and resistance are not struggles at the point of production, but outside work. For example, for “young people taking out loans in order to study (…) debt functions like a symbolic chain whose effects are more powerful than the real metal chains used in slavery.” (140. That claim just makes it sound like Berardi doesn't know much about slavery.) Berardi asks readers to “[i]magine a middle class teenager in the United States, willing to plan a university education, in order to acquire the professional competence that will allow him access to the job market. This poor fellow, who believed in the fairy tale of Neo-liberalism, really believes that he has the chance of achieving a guaranteed happy life thanks to serious work and study.” (141.) But to go to college you will need student loans, and those will mean that upon graduation you “will have to start working immediately after graduation, in order to pay back a never ending amount of money” and this will lead you “to accept any condition of work, any exploitation, any humiliation, in order to pay the loan.” (141.)
Berardi does not call for or discuss any examples of conflict at the point of production against exploitation but rather seeks to politicize the conditions of debt which compel people to take jobs in the first place. Given current levels of consumer debt, politicizing debt is an approach worth taking seriously, but Berardi’s example is revealing of the constituencies he has in mind: young people who attend or attended college. These strata certainly are important, but they are not the entire proletariat, and Berardi does not discuss their relationships – politically, or economically – with other strata. One wonders where people without electricity, without college education, without internet access, fit within the call for the cognitariat to act in its own interests. (See here for information on electrification rates, see also the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for demographic information on formal education in the U.S.)
When Berardi does discuss the point of production he speaks in excessively broad and vague terms. He writes that nowadays “As a general tendency, work is performed according to the same physical patterns: we all sit in front of a screen and move our fingers across a keyboard. We type. (…) the digitalization of the labor process has made any labor the same from an ergonomic and physical point of view since we all do the same thing: we sit in front of a screen and we type on a keyboard.” (75-76) Berardi does not say that literally all workers type for a living, but the portion of the working class who he is interested in as a potential subject is the portion about whom it is possible to say confidently “We type.” Berardi refers to this stratum as “[t]hose active in jobs with a high cognitive level,” as opposed to everyone else who does not sit at a desk and whose jobs are brainless. (77.) The “we” who type for a living are the angelic employees whose souls are at work. Others leave their souls at home, apparently, and when at work are merely homunculi.
Berardi briefly discusses other sorts of work, writing that “The labor of physical transformation has become so abstract that it is now useless: machines can replace it completely.” (61.) Automation is something to take seriously, but it is a tendency, a dynamic and contested process, while Berardi presents it in static terms as something simply waiting to be accomplished. Furthermore, numerous labors of physical transformation in the construction industry are not only not automated but are not currently automatable – think of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, for instance. Likewise for much labor in food production, not to mention the labors involved in transportation.
It seems to me that much of the politics of Berardi’s book is encapsulated in “We type.” Berardi’s understanding of the ‘we’ who work at computers does not involve an understanding of its place in relation to various hierarchizations/stratifications of the class. We type, and we care about ourselves and about understanding ourselves, and talk about ourselves often as if we are not simply the most important sectors but as if we are the only sectors. We do very interesting and unique things which can not be automated, unlike everyone who works in the soon-to-be-superfluous labor of physical transformation. Our work is not so earth-bound as manual labor, ours has a soul. Our work “is becoming much more differentiated and specialized with respect to the content that it develops.” (74.) Oh, and, we are the ones who really produce economic value: “Manual labor is generally executed by automatically programmed machinery, while innovative labor, the one that effectively produces value, is mental labor.” (75.)
Perhaps the class composition of Berardi’s cognitariat explains sentences like the following: “Capitalism, as a cultural and epistemic, as well as economic and social, system, semiotizes the machinic potentialities of the post-industrial system according to reductive paradigmatic lines.” (62.) The cognitarian is used to sentences like this. Some strata of the cognitariat are used to sentences that make little sense on first reading (as a result of reading the legalese and technicalese in the manuals to the iPhones that they all carry and as a result of the continental philosophy seminars that they attend). Other strata of the cognitariat are used to using impressive sounding sentences for their perlocutionary force: vocabularies that are opaque without specialist training are part of how professionals maintain their status and how they exercise power over others when they perform their specialist tasks. I suspect, however, that Berardi’s particular specialist vocabulary is too narrow to appeal to the entire cognitariat.
Over all, Berardi’s book is the ideology of a class fraction still in the process of coming to self-consciousness while simultaneously seeking its own interests. In Berardi’s representation, this fraction is the leading edge of the working class in two senses: the cognitariat supposedly does the most economically important work and the rest of the class is tendentially experiencing an intellectualization of work which will render everyone a cognitarian. Perhaps this is the ideology of a new would-be labor aristocracy, skilled laborers seeing themselves as the real workers, the best workers, and building organizational forms in their own image. I'm reminded of a phrase by Jacques Ranciere: “It is always in the heart of the worker aristocracy that a hegemonic fraction forms, presenting itself as *the* proletariat and affirming the proletarian capacity to organize another social order, starting with the skills and values formed in [this fraction’s] work and its struggle.”