Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibilityby Giovanni Vimercati
For those who haven’t succumbed yet to resentment or despair, a feeling of impotence might be peeking out from behind their weary consciousnesses. While the neoliberal fairytale of eternal prosperity hardly lulls anyone to sleep, our waking hours don’t seem to offer much of an alternative. Rather, anything that is antagonistically opposed to the dominant order seems destined to be either crushed or co-opted. After having examined in his previous book the virulent connection between capitalism and the recent wave of suicides and mass murders, Franco ’Bifo‘ Berardi turns his eyes upon the least promising place we’re heading to: the future. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility is Bifo’s attempt to find in the middle of despair the signs of a possible joy, of possible ways to reverse the privatization of happiness. Though as the title suggests, the book strives to imagine a way out from the current impasse, the space for a mutinous alternative is not to be found in some faraway future, but right here and now. For as Bifo puts it, “the selection and enforcement of one possibility simultaneously is the exclusion of many others . . . the present constitution of the world contains many different (conflicting) possibilities.” It is the dominant order that monopolizes the realm of possibilities, consequently dictating what is thinkable and what is not. In this respect, it’s always useful to remember ourselves that what today is considered normal, though imperfect and quickly eroding it may be (the universal suffrage, a modicum of workers’ rights, free elections of democratic tyrants, etc.) was in the past the stuff of utopian dreams. The future, Bifo argues, is just being pre-emptively subjugated by a form of engendered determinism that imposes the current system as the only possible one. Injustice has its own rationale: “If you don’t pay rent, you’ll get evicted” is the seemingly logical formula by which neoliberalism downgraded affordable housing from a human right to an unaffordable privilege. Under these (economic) circumstances, to even imagine a society where affordable housing, public education and free healthcare are not the preserve of the wealthy becomes (almost) impossible.
What the book tries to articulate is not so much a possible future away from our present misery, but a way to disentangle our social imagination from the stranglehold under which it has been placed. Pivotal in this process—according to the author—is the general intellect, which at the moment seems unable to escape the blackmail of profit under whose shadow we all live. As Bifo notes, “future events have been reduced to probability and predictability,” which is why imagining something, anything, outside the algorithmic loop has become increasingly difficult. Far from being an exclusively theoretical problem, the inability to conceive, let alone build, a social alternative is further hampered by a “reduced ability to feel compassion and to act empathically.” Competition, one of the holy tenets of a supposedly free market, has in effect become an existential imposition whereby every social interaction abides by its predatory rules. Solidarity, once the weapon of choice of oppressed people, is now seen and denounced as a privilege only the educated middle class can afford. “The precarious generation,” Bifo ponders, “is led to internalize the perception of social life as a field of war . . . a space where solidarity and empathy are only dangerous distractions weakening the warrior that you are obliged to be.” Individualism, now reaching for new pathological heights, has made us weaker, unable to cope with the amount of pressure thrown at us. “The hyper-stimulated body is simultaneously alone and hyper-connected . . . the cooperating brains have no collective body and the private bodies have no collective brain.” Alienation is no longer the prerogative of assembly line workers, but a constitutive element of contemporary life which in fact no longer distinguishes working from leisure time.
This psychological and emotional exhaustion takes place within a political scenario that to describe as grim would be euphemistical. After (neo)liberal democracies surrendered to financial fundamentalism, a new wave of (crypto?) fascist malignancies is spreading again. In a fitting coincidence, democracy was unofficially abolished in its very cradle in Greece when in 2015 a left wing government elected on an anti-austerity mandate was bullied into submission by the Troika (which featured the former Prime Minister of Luxemburg, a tax haven, demanding Greek working people pay their “fair share”). Driven by more or less vested interests, mainstream parties across the political spectrum have worked hard over the last thirty years to make sure people understood and internalized the ultimate lesson of market democracy: there is no alternative, which left us unable to even believe in something other than the misery of a life devoid of any rights, exclusively devoted to material survival. If, as Bifo observes, “humans are expropriated of language and what is enforced on them is a chain of technical implications,” then how are we to reconnect with the language of our desires and selfless needs? The answer is deceptively simple and yet enormously difficult to bring off because it necessitates the reactivation of our affective bodies. It requires us to start looking at each other not as strategic partners of an enterprise called life, but as disinterested accomplices of a course of action called liberation. As “the body of the connective generation is stiffening in loneliness,” togetherness and solidarity become the very precondition for any revolutionary hope. The ineluctable predictability of the algorithm is to be fought with the incomputable. Virtual emoji are to be opposed with corporeal emotions. Bifo is neither a nostalgic nor a technophobe, but recognizes the centrality of care, education, affection, and environmental decontamination.
Through a compelling analysis of the work of Michel Houellebecq, Futurability traces the genesis of contemporary fascism back to the “aggressive loneliness of the male body,” whose patriarchal authority is being undermined. Conversely, he identifies “the magmatic sphere of possibility” with femininity. He also stresses the importance of invention untrammeled from the imperatives of profit, which would in turn enable the creation of what is authentically useful, needed, and beautiful. The frantic search for the lowest common denominator supposedly able to satisfy the largest possible consumer base has made the world uglier—the real tragedy being that there is literally nothing that the profit motive will stop at. “The business of violence is one of the main branches of the global economy” notes Bifo, “and financial abstraction does not discriminate against criminal money.” Hence the unstoppable proliferation of wars and armed conflicts, a “fragmentary global civil war” with no general strategic vision. From the workplace to the world stage, competition as fratricidal war seems to be the current mode of existence. At some point, the author describes our current predicament in the following, very effective, terms: “capitalism is dead, and we are living inside its corpse, frantically looking for a way out of the rotting putridity.” A few pages later, though, he also evokes the nightmare of zombie capitalism when reporting a tragically surreal New York Times story about people in France having fake jobs at fake companies. Faced with this kind of dystopia that even the likes of J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick would have found too far-fetched, one is left wondering what can eventually bring this Calvinist folly to a standstill.
Bifo remains predictably vague when it comes to concretely suggesting a possible way out, and it would be naïve and possibly even dangerous to expect otherwise. If we are to ever survive the end of capitalism, it won’t be thanks to a magic formula readily laid out in a book, and certainly not by someone who spent his life advocating the joy of collective action against the sadness of individual indifference. Bifo sees the “emancipation of knowledge from capital accumulation” as the key to the liberation of everyday life. What cognitive workers need, according to him, is “a technical platform for autonomous cooperation” in order to “dismantle and re-programme the machine.” Left out from the emancipatory equation, though, are the millions of neo-slaves, be they Chinese factory workers, Uber drivers, undocumented migrant laborers, or eastern European prostitutes. Are we sure that general intellect alone can emancipate workers, not only cognitive ones, from the increasingly medieval conditions that are being forced upon them? Unlike accelerationist enthusiasts, Bifo knows and stresses the fact that automation and the consequent reduction of manual jobs does not automatically mean liberation from wage slavery. Quite the contrary, the paradox of automation under capitalism is that “it blackmails workers to work faster in exchange for less and less money in an impossible race against robots.” As outdated and antiquated as it may sound, perhaps workers’ struggles, made almost impossible by the violent deregulation of the job market, remain the cardinal juncture through which a future without exploitation, or at least less of it, has to go. That said, Bifo’s central intuition about the centrality of bodies, radical generosity, and affection is indeed precious—though maybe preliminary. To share, disinterestedly, whatever little we have left, both materially and emotionally, is indeed the toughest challenge ahead of us.
Giovanni Vimercati is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.