Franco Berardi suggests to us a new activism – not through revolutionary changes, but through a systematic effort to develop a humane and free society.
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor.
Published date: March 5, 2018

Futurability. The age of impotence and the horizon of possibility

Franco Berardi

Verso Books

USA, 2017

Since Franco Berardi was a part of the anarchist society in Bologna’s Radio Alice in the 1960’s, he has worked tirelessly to understand the relationship between working life, culture and capitalism – searching for new outlets for those liberating impulses that were expressed in the cultural revolutions of Italiy. When the anarchist movement was thrown down with brute force, it only reinforced the impression that the enemy was indeed real, and that the anarchists were part of a battle against a society that was truly oppressive.

A state of powerlessness

Berardi has followed various activist movements up until the resigned demise of the Occupy movement, he ends up in a time that he describes as impotent. The reference to the male, bodily and sexual is more than a metaphor: At the centre of the frustrated situation of the West, stands the white, male worker – it is exactly this segment of the society that is entrenched into new reactionary movements. The root of impotence – or a depressive state of powerlessness – is oppression, not exercised through violence, but rather through the almost invisible forms of fraud, extortion and theft of late capitalism. The fact that we do not notice how society empowers us is, according to Berardi, both the condition and the effect of the modus operandi of capitalism. Precisely because we let ourselves be convinced that there is no alternative to the forms of life we ​​are being offered, the individual’s horizon of possibilities narrows until life resembles a train where each necessity is coupled with another necessity and where the rails determine the direction.

For an Asian employee, working for a technology company for petty wages while living in the factory dormitory, the situation resembles that of slavery. The lack of «an exit» is obvious When it comes to unemployed young adults in the West, who through endless hours in front of their laptops, attempt to realise themselves through underpaid, creative professions, the sense of hopelessness is far more diffuse. Berardi addresses the ever-growing precariat in his book – those who live from one short-term contract to the other – and what he calls the «cognitariat» – those who put their intelligence and creative abilities up for sale. Just like the classic proletariat, they will too be systematically prevented from substantially changing their living conditions.

«When other world citizens are considered invasive threats, the final solution becomes an «Auschwitz on the beach». »

Winners and losers

Berardi continues the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari in a poetic examination of the possible: a chaotic magma of bodily impulses, fantasies and ideas that surge up in the individual when facing the circumstances. This flow is gradually channelled through society by constraints intended to be  disciplinary and directional, but which can also end up suffocating the individual’s life-expression.

«Life becomes a train where the railway determines the direction.»

Power, as employment of force, consists in reducing possibilities, says Berardi, providing a striking definition. But isn’t something missing here? Is not power itself a way to possess opportunities? Is not wealth just freedom to choose, funds to realise yourself? Sure, but such a field of possibility engendered by wealth presupposes that the possibilities diminish for others, since capitalism creates winners and losers. Often the individual ends up as  simultaneously a winner and a loser – as many of life’s possibilities are exchanged for those that can be accessed by money. The actual winner is in fact the economic world order – an all-encompassing competition that constantly increases its deadly grip, not just on the individual human, but on the planet and civilization as such Necro-economy.

Auschwitz on the beach

According to Berardi, in a state of global civil war, the world population’s  tendency to perceive «the others» as competitors has been strengthened through decades of neoliberalism. Solidarity and the community have gradually been dismantled– virtually in all areas of life.

«Power, in Berardi’s terms, is the exercise of power that consists of reducing possibilities.»»

When migrants starve at the borders of the rich world, we see what it truly means to defend your own space of possibility: The others are pushed into a zone where life is characterized by distress and a continuous battle for the most basic necessities –  where life simply becomes impossible. When the space of opportunity is understood as a privileged living space of protected wealth, and where other world citizens are considered invasive threats, the final solution becomes an «Auschwitz on the beach» – a death camp at the beaches and borders of the Western world.

Homo economicus

When «futurability» – the future as a panorama of possibility –  is narrowed, it is because we are increasingly led to see the world and ourselves in the perspective of economy, which art the same time acts as a script.  There is much more at stake than the familiar complaint that everything is measured by money, that all our identity is based on work or that we become goal-oriented model citizens – homo economicus. What emerges is an automated form of control that renders language and conversation powerless. The problem is seen in its purest form when we call a service phone and are introduced to a menu with pre-programmed options.

It becomes impossible to negotiate the situation, and our questions are not even among the listed options . And if we eventually are introduced to a person – who would «gladly help» – but unfortunately «cannot do anything at the moment», because the system does not allow it to do so. Both the customer and the employee are in turn powerless – neither language nor goodwill can come to rescue. This is also being repeated on much higher levels, for example when democratically elected politicians fail to keep their promises because management is embodied in procedures that have their own compelling logic. Humans become instruments while the automated processes become the actual and anonymous performers.

A community of knowledge

The knowledge that we need as a basis for criticism and to direct society in a good direction, can still be developed. Unfortunately, the institutions leave little room for such knowledge and it is even less welcome in the free market, from which it seems increasingly difficult to free oneself.

«Humans become instruments while the automated processes become the actual and anonymous performers.»

According to Berardi, the development of an independent and liberating knowledge must take place. Where the expoitation of the creative powers of the cognitariat is greatest: in Silicon Valley, which becoming a global state, rather than just a place on the American West Coast. The latter is becoming a global state more than any other place on the American West Coast. Here, young people work tirelessly to invent the the next breakthrough technology technology, the next social network. Here the suppression really creates a counter-pressure from below, that is potentially potent. The hope is that the energy can be invested in a real social platform – a community of knowledge that in turn will develop free and liberating forms of knowledge.

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