Franco „Bifo” BerardiThe factory of unhappiness
Franco „Bifo” Berardi, „The Soul at Work. From Alienation to Autonomy”, translated by Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia, Semiotext(e), Cambridge 2009, p. 90-98.
Happiness is not a matter of science, but of ideology. This is how it should be addressed.
Even if in the public discourse it is not possible to pursue a scientifically based and coherent discourse on happiness, we see entire flows of communication built on the idea of happiness. We witness the circulation of fragmentary and imaginary solicitations which are rarely justified or coherent, yet remain extremely effective. In the 1990s, while the productive process was becoming immaterial, the dominant rhetoric was all focused on happiness: to be happy is not only possible, but almost mandatory. In order to reach this goal, we have to follow certain rules and models of behavior.
Both the totalitarian and the democratic political discourse have placed happiness on the horizon of collective action. Totalitarianism imposed mandatory behavior procedures and asked of its citizens to accept them enthusiastically, lest they be marginalized and persecuted: s/he who’s unhappy is a bad patriot and a bad communist, s/he is a saboteur, and so on and so forth.
Democracy does not expect an enthusiastic consent. On the contrary, in a mature vision we conceive democracy as an endless pursuit of a possible modus vivendi allowing individuals to identify with personal and public behaviors capable of capturing some relative happiness.
Capitalism is often (and with no reason) presented as the inseparable companion of democracy (while we know that instead it often prospers in the shadow of far from democratic regimes), but in fact it is not tolerant at all, since it expects enthusiastic participation in a universal competition where it is impossible to win without fully and convincingly deploying all of our energies.
Totalitarian regimes, like Nazism, Fascism and the authoritarian Socialist states, denied freedom to their people in the name of a collective and homologated happiness, thereby producing an infinite sadness.
But even the liberal economy, with the cult of profit and success represented in a caricatured but persuasive manner in advertising discourse, ended up producing an unhappiness caused by constant competition, defeat and guilt.
In the 1990s the New Economy’s ideology asserted that free market play creates a maximum of happiness for humanity in general. In fact, one of New Economy’s effects was the assimilation of ideological and advertising messages, and the transformation of advertising into a sort of paradigm of economic theory and political action.
It is well known that the discourse of advertising is based on the creation of imaginary models of happiness that consumers are invited to replicate. Advertising is a systematic production of illusions, and therefore of disillusions, as well as of competition and defeat, euphoria and depression. The communicative mechanism of advertising is based on the production of a sense of inadequacy coupled with the solicitation to become a consumer, in order to feel adequate and to finally realize the happiness that has been eluding us.
Self-realization and the refusal of work
As we have already seen, in the 1960s and 1970s, at the very peak of the industrial system’s mature phase, when the Fordist mechanical and repetition based model realized its perfection, the workers’ feeling of estrangement from instill labor and their refusal to work, found support in a cultural wave that places the issue of alienation at the core of its critical system. In its philosophical meaning, alienation meant a loss of human authenticity, the exchange of what in men and women is more essentially human for something materially valuable, such as a salary, money, or consumption goods. Philosophies of idealist stripe, influenced by Existentialism, were widely circulated in the political movements of those years. They considered capitalism the reason for an alienation that takes away people’s humanity in exchange for a subaltern and conformist participation in the circuit of goods. As a consequence, these philosophies indicated as their major political objective the achievement of a social condition where productive labor and self-realization would come together.
Then in the 1970s feminist and gay movements identified with the idea that “the personal is political.” They meant that it was not only political power and the government of the republic that was at stake in the social struggle. What was at stake was first of all the quality of life, pleasure and pain, self-realization and respect for diversity: desire as the engine of collective action.
A/traverso (In-between), a journal which held a certain influence on the youth movements of the 1970s, came out once with the title “The practice of happiness is subversive when it becomes collective.” The 1977 movement – in its colorful and creative Italian version and in its British one as well, which was punk, gothic and disturbing – was founded on one intuition: desire is the determining field for every social mutational process, every transformation of the imagination, every shift of collective energy. It is only as a manifestation of desire that we can understand the workers’ refusal of the wage relation, of conforming their lives to the timing of the assembly line realized through absenteeism and sabotage.
Rich, aware, productively and culturally autonomous, liberated individualities deviated with rage from the ideology of sacrifice and the work ethic: work was denounced as a pure hierarchical repetition, deprived of any intelligence or creativity. That 1977 movement therefore used the ideology of happiness as a powerful critical instrument against the Taylorist factory and the Fordist productive cycle, but also against the social and disciplinary structure based on the factory model.
In the following years dome decisive events completely upset the productive, social and cultural landscape.
First of all, digital technology spread very quickly, transforming in many ways the modalities of productive labor and its concatenations.
Secondly, the hierarchical structure of the factory model collapsed.
The aspiration to self-realization became fundamental in the reconstruction of a functioning social model perfectly fitting digital productive modalities. Social history can be seen as the uninterrupted story of the refusal of work and the reconstructions of the productive system, where reciprocal resistance and reaction coexist. In industrial societies capital and the working class had contradictory interests, but they also had a common interest. Contradiction came from the fact that capital aimed to take from living labor the greatest horrible amount of labor time and value, while the workers’ interest was instead that of avoiding exploitation, saving their physical and intellectual energies for themselves. At the same time though, workers and capital both had an interest in reducing necessary labor time, introducing productive automatisms, machines and technologies. This is what actually happened. The workers’ struggle for power pushed capital to use machines instead of workers, exactly as Karl Marx had anticipated in this Grundrisse. The introduction of microelectronic technologies, the digitalization of machinery and the computerization of productive processes led rapidly to a transformation of the characteristics of labor and to its general intellectualization.
During the twentieth-century the issue of the relation between intellectual and manual labor was constantly raised. Max Weber thematizes this relation, Lenin uses it as a basis for the theory of the party and Gramsci rethinks it under a new light. But when intellectual labor is mentioned in the theoretical tradition of the working movement, it refers to a function that is separated from the productive process of commodities, as a function of control that governs and ideologically organizes consent and therefore an executive and political function.
The properly productive function was essentially delegated to manual labor, that is to say to direct transformation of physical materials. Intellectual labor gained material power, becoming the instrument of the political and technical empowering of industrial labor and of the working class. Automation had already started spreading during the mature industrial period: it implied that machinery could assume transformational functions, so that manual labor was greatly strengthened. In the 1970s, more and more operative functions were transferred to machines, with the introduction of numerically controlled instruments and flexible automation systems. But the decisive transformation of the 1980s was the systematic computerization of working processes. Thanks to digitalization every concrete event not only can be symbolized, but also simulated, replaced by information. Consequently it becomes possible to progressively reduce the entire production process to the elaboration and exchange of information.
And in fact, what is information? It is not simply a transfer of signs, referring to an object or and event. Information is a creation of form, which is inoculated into the object or the event. It is the creation of value, the production of goods. Every object, event, and commodity can by replaced by algorithmic information capable of transforming that object or that event into exchangeable existence.
Info-production reached all cycled of goods production, services, material and semiotic objects, since digitalization created a simulacrum of the world operationally integrated to the physical world.
The formation of the info-productive model was accompanied by a cultural and psychic evolution in the labor force, substantially changing the very perception of activity. In classic industrial society, workers felt expropriated of their intellectuality, individuality and creativity. In high tech production cognitive faculties are in fact put to work, and personal peculiarities seem to be valorized.
The intellectualization of labor, a major effect of the technologic and organizational transformation of the productive process in the last two decades of the twentieth-century, opens completely new energies to the valorization of capital. The workers’ disaffection for industrial labor, based on a critique of hierarchy and repetition, took energies away from capital, attracting forces that were distancing themselves from its domination. The exact opposite happened in the new info-productive reality of the new economy: desire called new energies towards the enterprise and self-realization through work. No desire, no vitality seems to exist anymore outside the economic enterprise, outside productive labor and business. Capital was able to renew its psychic, ideological and economic energy, specifically thanks to the absorption of creativity, desire, and individualistic, libertarian drives for self-realization.
In the 19990s, the decade of the alliance between cognitive labor and a reconstituting capital, financial flows generated by net trading, the advertising cycle, venture capital and retirement funds moved to the cycle of virtual production. Cognitive labor could therefore become enterprise, entering the formation circuits of the Techno-Sphere and media-scape. Armies of creative engineers, of libertarian programmers and artists became the proletarians of intelligence, people who owned nothing but their cognitive labor force and who could start an enterprise on an economic an creative basis. In those years a veritable battle took place, between a diffuse, libertarian, equalitarian and collective intelligence and the new economy’s oligopolies.
The diffusion of the dot.com enterprise also represented a redistribution of social revenue, conquering revenue for research and experimenting. The model of the network, the principle of productive collaboration and open source took roots in society thanks to the alliance between recombining capital and cognitive labor.
The alliance of the 1990s happened under the sign of a neo-liberalist ideology that glorified the market, describing it as a space capable of perfect self-regulation. Perfect self-regulation, of course, is a naive fairytale since real economic play involves power relations, violence, the mafia, theft and lies. Thus monopolies came to dominate information technologies, the media system and all those other sectors where cognitive workers had invested their energies in the illusion of being able to constitute independent enterprises. The alliance between cognitive labor and recombinatory capital ended with the submission of the market to oligopolistic domination, and cognitive labor was subjected to the decisions of the big financial groups dominating the world economy. In the year 2000, the stock exchange collapse determined a loss of energy in the innovative sectors, and restored the domination of the old oil-based economy, redirecting the world towards the meaningless horror of war.
Competition has been the universal belief of the last neo-liberalist decades. In order to stimulate competition, a powerful injection of aggressive energy became necessary, a sort of permanent electrocution producing a constant mobilization of physic energies. The 1990s were the decade of psycho-pharmacology: a Prozac-economy.
Frenetic rhythms dominated mid-1990s finance, consumption and lifestyles, producing the effect of the systematic use of euphoria – including drugs, including neuro-programming substances. A growing part of Western societies, subjected to an uninterrupted mental hyper-excitation to the point of collapse, evoked as in an exorcism the urban legend of the millennium bug. Once that phantasmatic threat dissolved, the real collapse came. But the new economy’s collective psyche had already reached its point of no return. When in 1999 Alan Greenspan spoke of the “irrational exuberance of the market,” his words were more of a clinical than a financial diagnosis. Exuberance was an effect off the drugs and of the over-exploitation of available mental energy, of a saturation of attention leading people to the limits of panic.
Panic is the anticipations of a depressive breakdown, of mental confusion and disactivation.
And finally the moment of the Prozac crash came.
The beginning of the new millennium had glorified megafusions: AOL and Time Warner united their tentacles in order to diffusely infiltrate the global mind. Immediately after, the European telecommunication enterprises invested huge amounts of money into UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System). These were the last actions before the crash involving Worldcom, Enron, and entire sectors of the net-economy. This crisis, which was only a faint anticipation of the 2008 final catastrophe, was the first manifestation of the breakdown suffered by swarms of cognitive workers more and more affected by psychopathological syndromes and stress.