“If we want to insist on the neoliberal way, we might as well declare Europe dead.”
What does it mean to be a worker in contemporary Europe? Our contributor Creston Davis sat down with Franco “Bifo” Berardi to find out. Here’s what he had to say about work in the age of the internet and the ideological cleavage emerging in Europe.
Creston Davis: Your book The Soul at Work was recently translated into English. This book is a profound consideration of the conditions not just of work, but also how work structures our lives. What was behind it?
Franco Berardi: The Soul at Work is an attempt to reframe the relation between philosophy and the history of workers movements, particularly from the point of view of the Italian autonomism movement and the specifics of Italian theory. Italian autonomism is, in my opinion, a sort of redefinition of alienation. Alienation is not only a bad condition, but can also be seen as a condition of being outside the capitalist system. In Italian, we have the word “estranita”, which means the ability to build a community, to create forms of life outside the space of capitalist domination.
Davis: So your perspective differs from the Hegelian idea of alienation? You mentioned the Italian context specifically, but your work has gotten a lot of attention worldwide. How does the idea transfer from the specific Italian case to a worker sitting behind a computer in New York City?
Berardi: Yes. In the Hegelian framework, the relation between workers and the factory, and the capitalist world, is only a relationship of conflict, of suffering and refusal. If you change the perception to your condition, if you understand that solidarity is possible, you start to come out from the solely antagonist viewpoint and you start creating an external world. Obviously this doesn’t erase the realities of exploitation and struggle, but it redirects the struggle towards the creation of something new and autonomous, outside of the space of capitalist alienation.
“The difficulty of the present condition”
Davis: Is there way of transgressing capitalism in the age of the “congnitarian”, to use a word you coined?
Berardi: In the old industrial age, the process of antagonism, liberation, and the creation of autonomy was essentially a matter of exiting the space of production, of leaving the factory and creating a community around the refusal to work. In the times we are living in now, the topography of social composition has changed. In the digital age, the community of workers do not need to — and really can’t — come out of society’s “factory”. We have to change the network while remaining inside it. This is the difficulty of the present condition. For the industrial worker, refusal was easy in a sense.
Davis: You mean striking or walking out? And today’s worker can’t strike against the internet.
Berardi: Leaving the internet would mean nothing. It would be a personal choice that has no broader social effects. Producing social results in our age requires the ability to rewrite the algorithm in a sense.
Davis: And today this is all happening within the context of the European Union. Let’s take a look at what’s developing there. How do you understand the EU as a political and economic structure from a philosophical point of view?
Berardi: That’s an important question, because we generally forget that the European Union is first of all a philosophical project, a project of overcoming the opposition between a political conceptualization based in the French Enlightenment that of the German Romantic way of thinking. After the Second World War, this opposition needed to be rethought and overcome. This is the first part of the philosophical project of the EU, and from this point of view, we can say that the EU has been a successful experiment.
“We live in the Baroque age.”
Davis: And from a different point of view?
Berardi: There is another axis of opposition in the history of Europe which has been totally hidden, forgotten, removed, denied. It is the opposition between the Baroque counterreformation of the Southern Mediterranean countries and the Protestant, Calvinist vision of history. This ideational conflict is even more deep and more culturally important to the history of modern Europe. We tend to identify modernity with the Protestant ideology and culture — everybody knows that the Weberian identification of industrial capitalism with Protestantism is the base of modernity. But now in the postmodern age of capitalism, the Baroque reality comes to the fore and is more and more important. What is Baroque? It’s the proliferation of points of enunciation. We live in the Baroque age, for better or worse, but the Protestant viewpoint has not gone away. Europe has totally avoided this and forgotten to resolve it. The result is the conflict we now see between the Germans and the Greeks. You might say that Greeks are not Catholic, are not Baroque, do not count. But they are part of the Mediterranean culture, which is the culture of people who do not identify with the Protestant side of Europe. The question now is whether we will accept cultural reality. If we want a unified “Europe”, we have to resolve this opposition.
Davis: So because the Greeks aren’t Protestant…
Berardi: It’s not a religious problem, of course. Religion doesn’t matter. What is important for me is the cultural relation to time, the cultural relation to activity and work. The Northern European industrial capitalist identification of Europe has created a bourgeois idea of productivity. There is an alternative perspective on the history of Europe, which is a post-bourgeois identification. A large part of the history of the past century is that of the slow, dramatic, dangerous resurfacing of the Baroque period. Fascism was essentially the revival of the Baroque sense of the spectacle of aggressiveness and irrationality, if you will. Baroque is a contradictory cultural reality. It is simultaneously the ability to feel the warmth of community and also is the protection the irrational roots of the community. We have to deal with this. If we don’t address this crazy side to Baroque, the result will be hyper-reach. The next step in the history of Europe will be the return of fascism.
“A legacy of the old bourgeois idea.”
Davis: And would you agree that neoliberalism as a political project is in fact a regime installed in order to force the Baroque voice to conform to the industrial relation of work and time?
Berardi: This is paradoxical, because on one side, you are right. The neoliberal emphasis on productivity is essentially a legacy of the old bourgeois idea of working more, working more, working more. But the reality of our era, the reality of the networked digital economy, is the reduction of necessary work time through technology. This reality has made the obsession with productivity obsolete. We do not need to work more. This is what the Germans cannot understand! I read an interview with Larry Page in Computer World some years ago, and he said that Google is massively investing in robotics, artificial intelligence, and so on. He added that he didn’t think that people can work 40 hours a week anymore, because we don’t need that much work. And that is the point, really. That the European obsession with work and austerity and sacrifices is totally obsolete. We don’t need it. What we do need is a redistribution of time spent working in Europe. We need a redistribution of wealth in Europe. The German obsession, the Protestant obsession is old-fashioned. It is outside of our present reality and is destroying the philosophical project, the political project, of the European Union.
“The austerity-driven suicide of Europe”
Davis: How then do you understand the rise of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and similar parties in Italy, Ireland and Portugal? Are they fighting for the Baroque voice, or is their push for national autonomy and sovereignty a different phenomenon?
Berardi: First of all, Syriza and Podemos are not so easily transferable to the Italian situation. I don’t expect anything like them to surface in Italy. That may be unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Secondly, I strongly hope that Syriza succeeds in their attempt to change the political reality in Europe. Third, I don’t think that Syriza and Podemos are the future. I do think they are very important and make positive contributions, primarily because they are a break in the history of the austerity-driven suicide of Europe. They are trying to break the hold the Protestant, German obsession has over Europe. But if Syriza and Podemos succeed in breaking the rule of austerity — and I strongly hope they do — we will have to invent new forms of self-organization that cannot be only the expression of North vs. South. The core of the problem is not an Italian or Southern one; it’s how to create a new political culture in Germany. How can the movement call for a stop to this obsession within Germany? So answering your question, I wish all the good for Syriza and Podemos, but I think that they are only important as a break, and that they pave the way for a new process.
Davis: So even if they’re successful, these parties are just the beginning of a change? There’s still a lot of transformation that needs to take place?
Berardi: Absolutely, Europe has to be re-thought from scratch. The opposition between Germans and Greeks — just to frame it simply — has created a very dangerous sentiment in parts of Europe, namely anti-German hatred. This hatred is a poison for the European project. We have to start from a new point. We have to cancel out the neoliberal hold over Europe if we want the European Union to continue to exist. If we want to insist on the neoliberal way, we might as well declare Europe dead.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Tomáš Sedláček: “The perfect society is an illusion”