Blog post

After the European Union

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi16 March 2017

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In this piece originally published in Effimera, and translated from Italian by David Broder Franco Bifo Berardi grapples with how to disentangle ourselves from a global order that shapes our politics as well as our imagination.

The tangled thread of the possible

Is it possible to reduce the infinite complexity of chaotically evolving social forms to one central tendency, a universal attractor for the becoming of the world? To do so would not be legitimate from a philosophical point of view, because we have to hold firm to the principle that the becoming of the world infinitely – and thus irreducibly – exceeds what is known. 

But from the point of view of orienting ourselves amidst the becoming of society, yes, we can do this. Or indeed, we must do so. A gesture interrupts the regression ad infinitum,and ushers in the action that Paolo Virno talks about in his E cosìvia al infinito.

We have to find the crux of this intricate problem, in order to know what levers we should be working with. Assuming that we are in time to do so (which cannot be taken for granted), and assuming that we have the power to do so (which cannot be taken for granted).

It may be that Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – the central pillar of the revolutionary methodology of the last century and a half – simply needs overturning. 

There Marx wrote that ‘hitherto the philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it’ – and the philosophers of the last century tried to do so. The results were catastrophic. We can see as much if we look at the panorama of the twenty-first century, which is now deploying its horrible features – features more horrible than we could ever have expected.  

The philosophers’ task is not to change the world – as the world continually changes. Philosophers’ task is to interpret the world, that is, to capture its tendency and above all enunciate the possibilities inscribed therein.

This is philosophers’ primary task because the politician’s eye does not see the possible, instead being attracted by the probable. And the probable is no friend of the possible: the probable is the Gestalt that allows us to see what we know already, and at the same time prevents us from seeing what we do not know and yet is right there, before our very eyes.

Grasping the possible means finding within the tangle of the present the thread that will allow us to unravel the knots. If you do not grasp that thread, then the knots will tighten, and sooner or later they will strangle you.

We thought that it was more important to change the world than to interpret it. So much so that no one interpreted the tangle that built up starting in the decade of the great revolt. Some did try, minoritarian and almost alone. Some said: the essential thread of the current tangle is the one connecting knowledge, technology and labour.

The essential thread is the one that frees time from labour, thanks to the evolution of applied knowledge in the form of technology.

The only way to prevent the thread getting so tangled up that it becomes impossible to extricate it again, is to follow the method that Marx suggested in another text (a less-renowned one, but of greater present-day relevance), namely the Fragment on Machines. That method is to transform the tendency toward the reduction in necessary labour-time into an active process of reducing time at work, without loss of wealth. Living-time can be freed from the ties of wages, survival can be unbound from labour, and the central superstition of the modern era, which submits life to labour can be abandoned.

In the Fragment Marx does not emphasises change, but interpretation. He simply points to what is possible, reading in the entrails of the relationship between knowledge, technology and labour-time.

Faced with the tendency toward the reduction of necessary labour-time, which manifested itself as a tendency of primary importance from the 1980s onward, the workers’ movement thought that only thing to do was to resist.

Impotence and revenge

The workers’ movement defended the existing composition and occupation of labour, so that technology appeared as an enemy of the workers. Capital took hold of technology in order to increase exploitation and to submit the wellbeing of society to a now-useless labour.

All the world’s governments preached the need to work more, precisely when the moment was ripe to organise the break out of the regime of waged labour. Precisely when the moment was ripe to transfer human time from the sphere of rendering service to the sphere of care for the self.

The effect was an enormous stress overload, and an impoverishment of society. With workers no longer needed, labour was cheapened. It cost ever less, and became ever more precarious and wretched.

Workers tried, by way of democracy, to stop the liberal laissez-faire offensive. But they only got a measure of the impotence of democracy. For its part, the Left preached competition and privatisation; it promised work, and supplied precarity.

Ultimately the workers became enraged. The result was that the impotence took revenge, and is today overturning the liberal order. This is the revenge of those whom neo-liberalism has denied the joy of life. Of those who are compelled to work ever more and to earn ever less, deprived of the time to enjoy life and to know of the tenderness of other human beings in a non-competitive condition, deprived of access to knowledge, compelled to turn to the media agencies that propagate ignorance, and finally, convinced through ignorance that their enemy is the people who are even more impotent than they are.

Will this wave of idiocy come to an end? It will not end until it has exhausted the energy it draws from impotence and the rage that begins with impotence. The social class that brought Trump to power as a reaction to the depression will not gain much from this. Something, yes, initially. For example, instead of hiring 2,200 workers in a Mexican factory, Ford has been forced to hire 700 at a factory on US soil. Some gain, that is.

But while internationalist workers were capable of solidarity, the impotents do not even know that word exists.

At a certain point those who voted for Trump (or for the many Trumps proliferating across Europe) will realise that their wages are not increasing and that the exploitation is becoming more intense. But that does not mean that they will then rebel against their president. On the contrary, they will lay the blame on the Mexicans, or the African-Americans, or the intellectuals of the New York Times. This wave is just beginning, and whoever has delusions of being able to contain it has not understood it very well. This wave is destroying everything: democracy, peace, solidary consciousness, and ultimately survival itself.

Should we place our hopes in the Left?

Now even those who governed in centre-Left governments are realising what a disaster they have prepared. They are only realising this because the wave is sweeping them away.

All of a sudden, as if woken from a dream, the political actors of the governments that reformed the countries of Europe along neoliberal lines, and  imposed the cage of the Fiscal Compact, discover the disaster and hurry to catch up with a train that has set off already. 

What can we expect from the European Left and its development?

A fine article by Marco Revelli in the 14 February edition of il manifesto described the crisis of the Italian political situation in terms of psychopathy, or rather, an entropy of meaning.

Revelli’s argument should not be understood as a metaphor. Psychopathy is not a metaphor, but the scientific description of the Trumpian wave and (inverse to this) the decomposition of the Left.

The parts of society where Trump triumphed in the USA are the same ones where psychic misery is most devastating. The depression epidemic and the deluge of opioids, heroin consumption increasing fivefold in a decade, the spike in suicides: such is the material condition of the so-called American middle class, the workers squeezed like lemons, and the unemployed devastated by their powerlessness. Trumpian fascism emerges as a reaction of the white male unconscious to the sexual and political impotence of the Obama era.

America’s first black president appeared on the scene saying: ‘Yes we can’. But experience instead demonstrated that we can no longer do anything: not even close Guantanamo Bay, nor even prevent the unhinged from buying weapons of war from the drugstore on the corner, nor find an exit from Bush’s endless war.

The Right feeds on this impotent reaction to impotence. The Left begins to realise the consequences of neoliberalism, but too late.

Or perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps it is simply that we are not able to see that the solution to the problem lies in exactly the opposite direction to what laissez-faire liberalism has imposed, with the decisive help of the Left.

Where is the solution? It lies in the relationship between knowledge, technology and labour. This is making human labour superfluous, but it does not untie the knot that is wages. The productivity increase long made possible by technologies has driven the erosion of labour-time, and now the insertion of artificial intelligence into the mechanisms of automation will sweep aside the work of millions of people in all spheres of productive life. It is useless to oppose this unstoppable tendency with the defence of jobs. Only a cultural and political offensive to reduce working time and rescind the relation between income and labour can untie this knot.

This is not a political problem, but a cognitive and psychological one: it is, properly speaking, a double bind, or a contradictory injunction, however you want to call it. The injunction to which the Left has complied (and which it imposes on all society) is the social obligation to dependent labour, the obligation to exchange living-time for survival. Undoing this epistemic and practical bind is the premise for freely deploying cognitive energies for the benefit of everyone.

The European precipice

Against this backdrop, the European crisis remains as if suspended on the edge of a precipice. 

The austerity measures that were meant to stabilise the financial picture have so devastated the social landscape that for the greater part of the European population the EU has become the name for a snare. Democracy has proven powerless to contain the invasiveness of the financial system. This frustration has transformed into a wave of darkness, in which economic competition takes nationalist and racist forms.

Since the French-Dutch referendum of 2005, movements have been paralysed, caught in the alternative between liberal, laissez-faire globalism and sovereigntist nationalism.

We saw this well enough two summers ago with the humiliation of Greece: there was no European movement, no political solidarity with the Greek people.

The leaders of the European Left (beginning with Italy’s Matteo Renzi) have fully shown their weakness. But the silence of society has been even more frightening. The Greek humiliation (and the self-loathing that has afflicted the entire European Left since that moment) has provoked a definitive shift in perceptions. From that point onward the European process has struck fear into people, for it is perceived as a predator from which its prey have to protect themselves.  The wholly predictable consequence is the return of nationalist sovereigntism. 

The nationalism emerging in Europe should, however, be inserted into a global context of a new kind, which Sergei Lavrov has defined as a post-Western order.

The Western order (founded on the defence of democracy against Soviet socialism) seems to be dissolving, now that the ideological opposition to Russia has been replaced by a sort of white supremacist pact.

In an article published in June 2016 in The American Interest, Zbigniew Brzezinski uses an alarming schema to describe the outlook for the next few years. In this view, Da’esh could be just the first marker of a long-term upheaval, of a terrorist, nationalist, or fascist character: the beginning of a sort of global civil war.

The peoples devastated by the violence of colonialism are driving a revolt against white supremacy.

In this context Trump’s policy toward Russia reveals a white-supremacist type of strategic design. Trump is proceeding in a contradictory way with regard to Russia, but his strategic design tends in the direction of the unity of Christians, of whites, of the superior warring race. If there is a thread of reasoning in the dystopian nightmare that Trump has in mind, then white supremacism is this thread.

Europe is rotten, but we must build another Europe

This nightmare is probably about to swallow up Europe. The European Union has been in its death-throes for some time, and it will soon begin breaking up.

The antidotes seem all used-up, and austerity is not loosening its grip. 

Nationalism appears as the revenge that the peoples enraged by their impotence have unleashed against the neo-liberal Left. It is difficult to imagine that this wave can stop before it has used up its energies – energies directed in a way we can already get a glimpse of.

The most probable result in the medium term is a European civil war, in the context of the global civil war.

Is there an exit-route?

Only idiots could point to the path of returning to national sovereignty, national currencies. This recipe would lead us to repeat the Yugoslav civil war on a continental scale.

The exit-route certainly does not lie in the never-explicit, weasel-word self-criticism that comes from the mouths of the leaders of the German, French and Italian Left. Nor does it lie in an improbable commitment to citizen income in a country – France – where the Socialists have almost no choice of reaching the second round (and even if their candidate Benoît Hamon did reach the run-off, the citizen income would be the very first thing he would cross out of his programme).

The exit-route does not lie in the campaign against Brexit launched by Tony Blair, the war criminal and executor of the neoliberal devastation of British society. Many voted for Brexit precisely because of their hatred for this Left, and out of revenge against it. 

But is there, then, a way out of the European civil war?

The way out can lie only in a gigantic movement, in a conscious reawakening of the thinking part of European society. All that remains is the hope that a significant minority of the first connective generation will find the path of solidarity and sabotage. Only the occupation of a hundred European universities, only an insurrection of cognitive labour could drive a re-invention of the European project. This is improbable – but the possible is no friend of the probable.

Europe is dead, because of the austeritarian rule. But we must build another Europe. Immediately and without delay, we must build a social Europe, a Europe of equality and freedom from wage-labour.