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Thinker for today: Fraco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi is one of most perceptive theorists of the present moment. He was a leader in the Italian ‘Autonomist’ variation of Marxism.

Steve Latham

Originating in the Potero Operaismo tendency, led by Antonio Negri, they initially advocated a ‘workerism’, which stressed the key role of the industrial working class, for example Fiat car workers.

Radical hopes, however, were disappointed as Italy descended into the Anni di piombo (Years of lead), with increasing street violence by Right and Left.

With the defeat of the Red Brigades, Leftists sought an alternative candidate of revolutionary subjectivity, to replace their failed hopes for the proletariat.

Consequently, Negri and Berardi identified a change in class composition, suggesting the rise of intellectual and technical labour produced another kind of political agency. This became the theoretical foundation for the idea of the cognitariat, cognitive labour, centred on the new computer age.

Where Negri concentrated on wider political shifts, however, Berardi examined the effects of the new capitalism on the psyche.

In “Soul at work. From alienation to autonomy”, he critiqued the utopian promises of information technology.

Where the rhetoric stressed the potential for independence, through self-expression and self-branding, Berardi demonstrated the affecive costs of being always on-call and available.

In “Precarious rhapsody: semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation”, he also indicated how short-term contracts made employment more ‘precarious’.

Rather than being liberating practices, these developments produced another new class, the ‘precariat’, dividing workers in competition with each other.

After 2008’s recession, Berardi confronted the loss of hope for the future in After the Future, where he revealed the exhaustion and pessimism affecting both the Left and society-at-large.

His own struggle for hope was revealed in Futurability: the age of impotence and the horizon of possibility”.

His intense inner wrestling, however, only led to a vague, ill-defined notion of ‘potentialities’, an open future.

Here, however, he fell into what Marxists criticise as ‘voluntarism’, the notion that revolutionary openings can be forced open by strong enough efforts.

This approach derives from his workerist origins, where the spontaneous autonomous activity of the proletariat was preferred to formal party organising.

Then, in “The uprising: on poetry and finance”, and “Breathing: chaos and poetry”, Berardi began proposing the poetic mindset as a way to generate new dreams for the future.

The gap between reason and faith is usually a charge levelled at religion. But it also applies to radicals when loss of revolutionary prospects produce an irrational leap of faith.

More recently, “The second coming”, exploits religious, apocalyptic, language to express expectation for the second coming – of Communism.

This Left-wing utilisation of theological vocabulary, also found in Negri, relies on the emotional overtones of certain words to evoke non-rational responses.

But it is, as Francis Schaeffer commented, a kind of ‘semantic mysticism’, whistling in the dark to keep spirits up.

Berardi’s newest book, “The third unconscious. The psychosphere in the viral age”, goes further, promoting whispy new-age thinking.

As Zizek notes, Marxism always proceeds via its responses to failure. Sadly, it is doubtful whether Berardi succeeds in reviving hopes with his misty musings.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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