COGNITARIAT AND SEMIOKAPITAL
Franco Berardi "Bifo" interviewed by Matt Fuller & firstname.lastname@example.org
Fuller: In your new book, 'The Factory of Unhappiness' you describe a class formation, the 'cognitariat' - a conflation of cognitive worker and proletarian, working in 'so-called jobs'. You've also previously used the idea of the 'Virtual Class'. What are the qualities of the cognitariat and how might they be distinguished from this slightly higher strata depicted by Kroker and Weinstein in 'Data Trash'?
Bifo: I like to refer to the concept of virtual class, which is a class that does not actually exist. It is only the abstraction of the fractal ocean of productive micro-actions of the cognitive workers. It is a useful concept, but it does not comprehend the social and bodily existence of those people who perform virtual tasks. The social existence of virtual workers is not virtual, the sensual body of the virtual worker is not virtual. So I prefer to speak about cognitive proletariat (cognitariat) in order to emphasize the material (I mean physical, psychological, neurological) disease of the workers involved in the net-economy.
Fuller: The political/economic theorization of post-fordism which has much of its roots in Italian activism and thought of the sixties, seventies and onwards is now an established term in describing post-industrial, work conditions. You present a variant of this which suggests that the full political dynamics of this change have yet to be appreciated. How can we describe the transition from 'The Social Factory' to 'The Factory of Unhappiness'?
Bifo: Semiokapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, and submits them to machinic speed. It compels our cognition, our emotional hardware to follow the rhythm of the net-productivity. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because cyberspace is an unbounded sphere, whose speed can accelerate without limits. But cybertime (the time of attention, of memory, of imagination) cannot be speeded up beyond a limit. Otherwise it cracks. And it is actually cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic is spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. An epidemic of depression is following the outbreak of panic. The current crisis of the new economy has to be seen as consequence of this nervous breakdown. Once upon a time Marx spoke about overproduction, meaning the excess of available goods that could not be absorbed by the social market. Nowadays it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. This is why the social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of net-production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the virtual class. We are now beginning to become aware of it, so we are able to recognize ourselves as cognitarians. Flesh, body, desire, in permanent electrocution.
Snafu: This consideration opens up, in your book, an interesting reflection about the mutated relationship between free and productive time. In the Fordist factory, working time is repetitive and alienating. Workers start to live elsewhere, as soon as they leave the workplace. The factory conflicts with the "natural desires" of the worker. On the contrary, in the post-fordist model, productivity absorbs the social and psychological capacities of the worker. In this way, free time progressively loses its interest, in favor of what you call the contemporary "reaffectivization" of labor. On the other side, you depict the net-economy as a giant "brainivore". My question regards the apparent contradiction embedded in this double movement. How is it possible that people are at the same time so attached to their job and so exhausted by it? What are the psychological reasons that push people to build their own cages?
Bifo: Every person involved in the net-economy knows this paradox very well. It is the paradox of social identity. We feel motivated only by our social role, because the sensuous life is more and more anorexic, more and more virtualized. Simultaneously we experience a desensualization of our life because we are so obsessed by social performance. It is the effect of the economic backmail, the increasing cost of daily life: we need to work more and more in order to gain enough money to pay the expensive way of life we are accustomed to. But it is also the effect of a growing investment of desire in the field of social performance, of competition, of productivity.
Fuller: In what ways are people developing forms of resistance, organization, solidarity that shift the algorithms of control in their favor in 'the movement of the cognitariat'. Or in other words, what forms - and given the difference between the 'felicita' of the original title and 'happiness' in English - might the production of happiness take?
Bifo: Some people still create social networks, like the centri sociali in Italy: places where production and exchange and daily life are protected from the final commodification. But this is a residue of the past age of proletarian community. This legacy has to be saved, but I do not see the future coming out from such resistance - it will come from a process of recombination. The movement spreading all over the world, since the days of the Seattle riots, is the global movement of self-organization of cognitive work. It's not resistance against "globalization," but a global movement against corporate capitalism. Where is it receiving its potency from? I don't think that this is the movement of the marginalized, of the unemployed, of the farmers, of the industrial workers fighting against the delocalization of the factories. Those people are part of the movement in the streets - but the core of this movement resides in the process of conscious self-organization of cognitive work all over the world, thanks to the Net. This movement represents the beginning of a conscious reshaping of the techno-social interfaces of the net, operated by the cognitarians. Scientists, researchers, programmers, mediaworkers, every segment of the networked general intellect are going to repolarize and reshape its episteme, its creative action.
Fuller: You were involved in manifestations against the OECD meeting in Bologna. What are the tactics developing in that movement and elsewhere that you see as being most useful? What are those tactics that connect the cognitariat to other social and political currents?
Bifo: I do not think that the street is the place where this movement will grow. It was born, symbolically, in the streets; the street riot has been the symbolic detonator, but the net-riot is the real process of trasformation. When eighty thousand people were acting in the streets of Seattle, three, four million people (those who were in virtual contact with the demonstration thanks to the Internet) were taking part in a big virtual meeting all around the globe, chatting, discussing, reading. All those people are the cognitariat. So I think that the global movement against corporate capitalism is absolutely right when it goes to the streets, organizing blockades like in Seattle, Prague, Bologna, and Quebec City, and Genoa. But this is the symbolic action that fuels the real movement of sabotage and of reshaping, which has to be organized in every lab, in all the places where cognitarians are producing and creating the technical interfaces of the social fabric. The industrial working class needed a political party in order to organize autonomy, struggle, self-organization, social change. The networked class of the cognitariat finds the tool of self-organization in the same network that is also the tool of their exploitation. As far as the forms of the struggle in the streets are concerned, I think we should be careful. This movement does not need violence, it needs a theatricalization of the hidden conflict that is growing in the process of mental work. Mental work, once organized and consciously managed can be very disruptive for capitalist rule. And it can be very useful in reshaping the relationship between technology and the social use of it.
Snafu: I'd like to know what the 'keywords of resistance within every lab' that you mentioned are, and to ask what the technical interfaces of the social fabric are? In particular I'd like to understand if by "techno-social interfaces" you mean non-proprietary systems such as Linux, or if you have a broader view. Do the shared production of freeware and open source software represents a shift away from capitalism or are we only facing the latest, most suitable form of capitalism given in this historical phase? As far as I know, military agencies and corporations use and develop free software as well as hacker circuits...
Bifo: I do not see things in this antagonistic (dialectical) way. I do not think that freeware and open source are outside the sphere of capitalism. Similarly I do not think that the worker's collective strike and self-organization in the old Fordist factory was outside the sphere of capitalism. Nothing is outside the sphere of capitalism, because capitalism is not a dialectic totality suited to be overwhelmed (Aufheben) by a new totality (like communism, or something like that). Capital is a cognitive framework of social activity, a semiotic frame embedded in the social psyche and in the human Techne. Struggle against capitalism, refusal of work, temporary autonomous zones, open source and freeware - all this is not the new totality, it is the dynamic recombination allowing people to find their space of autonomy, and push capitalism towards progressive innovation.
Snafu: What about the network? It can be used as a tool of self-organization, but it is also a powerful means of control. Do you think that there are new forms of life emerging within the network? Can the network guarantee the rise of a new form of political consciousness comparable to the one emerging with mass parties? At the moment, global networks such as nettime, syndicate, rhizome and indymedia remain platforms for exchanging information more than real infrastructures providing support, coordination and cooperation (with few exceptions, such as Toywar). Do you see the development of the network of the cognitarians from a means of info-distribution to a stable infrastructure? How will different communities - such as hackers, activists, net.artists, programmers, web designers - define a common agenda? At the moment each of them seem to me pretty stuck on their own issues, even when they are part of the same mailing list.
Bifo: The net is a newborn sphere, and it not only going effect conscious and political behavior, but it is also going to re-frame anthropology and cognition. The Internet is not a means (an instrument) of political organization, and it is not a means (an instrument) of information. It is a public sphere, an anthropological and cognitional environment. The Internet is simultaneously the place of social production, and the place of self-organization … There are two different (and interrelated) stages of the global revolt: one is the symbolic action that takes place in the street, the other is the process of self-organization of cognitive work, of scientists, researchers, giving public access to the results of the cognitive production, unlocking it from the hold of corporations. The physical action of facing police in the streets, of howling below the windows of IMF, WTO and G8 - this is just the symbolic trigger of the real change, which takes place in the mental environment, in the ethereal cyberspace.
May 2001. This is an excerpted version, edited for subsol. Original version on Nettime and www.axia.demon.co.uk.
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