Semio-capital and the problem of solidarity - Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

This text is based on a panel talk (together with Nina Power) by Bifo during the event ‘We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion’, organised by Auto Italia in collaboration with Federico Campagna, Huw Lemmey, Michael Oswell and Charlie Woolley in August 2011.

Originally published in January 2012.

I beg your pardon for the frantic way of my exposition, but the problem is that the object of my reflections is frantic. We are doing so many things without really understanding what is the framework of our actions. I do not pretend to clarify this framework or our understanding of it; I don’t even pretend to come to some conclusions in this short time. But I will try to say something about the coming problem; the coming collapse; the coming insurrection.

I Semio-capital

I propose the concept of semio-capital in order to describe a form of social production which is essentially focused on the production of signs, of ‘semio’. I don’t mean that all forms of social production are semiotic. I know that shoes and cars and houses are produced too. But everything is more and more translated into signs. Everything is more and more replaced, on the economic level, by a semiotic form of production.

So I define semio-capital as the sphere of the increasing replacement of production by a financial - and financial means de-territorialised - and fractal-recombinant form of production. I use the expression fractal in Mandelbrot’s sense [Benoit Mandelbrot was a French-American mathematician - ed.]. A fractal is a geometrical object which is fractured, broken into fragments, which are not simply fragments but recombinable fragments. So if you look at the financial game you see that the real world is simultaneously broken up into infinite fragments and continuously recombined into a new form, a new gestalt, or figure.

So I use the terms fractal and recombinant to describe the financial production of semio-capital. But what about the social forms, the social forces, the social classes - if we can use the term classes? The bourgeoisie was easy to define. The old bourgeoisie was a territorialised class, a class of the ‘bourg’, of the city, of the place. It was a class defined by an affection to a territory, to a community - the bourgeoisie needed people to buy goods, physical goods. The bourgeoisie was a class of physical property - property was made of physical things, buildings, machines, territory or persons. You could personalise the bourgeoisie, the boss, the proprietor, the enemy if you like. The enemy was there - it was a person.

II De-territorialised classes

What about the present social class of capitalism, the present dominant, proprietary, exploitative class? Well, it’s quite difficult to define. Take Warren Buffett, the most capitalist of capitalists, writing a letter saying ‘tax me a little bit more because I’m human not only a capitalist’. Well he is not the enemy. The enemy exists no more, because the enemy is ‘here’. The enemy is me, for instance.

I mean that I am part of the fractalised-recombinant form of financial capitalism, because, for example, I am waiting for my pension. I am part of a group of people who have an interest in the financial success of capitalism because my pension depends on the functioning of capital. What I want to say is that the figure - the image - of the financial class, is predatory, but it is essentially de-territorialised: its ends are internalised at the same time by all of society.

III Work

My third point: what about work? What has work become? We talk of precarious work, precarity, precarisation. But the word precarity does not perfectly define the figure or the notion of fragments of time, of life, that are available for the process of de-territorialised recombination. Your time can be called for on the phone and for one day, one week, two hours; you will be recombined inside the ever changing process of exploitation.

So, work becomes de-territorialised and just as fractal and recombinant as financial capital. But at the same time the social body is pulverised and is deprived of the very bodily existence of the body itself; a disembodied body in a sense, dissolved in the process of work.

IV Solidarity

So this is the problem of solidarity, which is always the central problem of class struggle, of self-organisation, of the process of liberation, of insurrection, revolution and change. Solidarity becomes impossible. Why? Because solidarity is based on a territorial, physical relationship between workers, between people. You cannot have solidarity between fragments of time: you need people, you need bodies, you need what has been dissolved.

Solidarity has nothing to do with altruistic self-denial. Materialist solidarity is not about you. It is about me. Like love, it is never about altruism. It is always about me: myself in your eyes. This is love, this is solidarity: the ability to enjoy myself thanks to you, thanks to your presence, thanks to your eyes.

How can I create solidarity in the conditions of precariousness? This is our main problem, I think, the main problem of the process of subjectivation.

V Intellectuals

So, the last point is about intellectuals. Intellectuals, as you know, no longer exist. Think about what’s happened in France, the country of intellectuals. Intellectuals are dead and tired, and now we have Glucksman, Bernard Levy (These are members of the French New Philosophers movement- the ed) and these kinds of cynical idiots, these kinds of former-Stalinists-turned-neoliberals, those kinds of ‘journalists’ - if I can use this noble word as an insult.

Why are intellectuals disappearing and why do we need intellectuals? We need intellectuals because the real problem nowadays is the bodily re-composition of cognitarian labour. I think that the solution for everything, the solution to our problem of impossible solidarity is in the self-organisation of the general intellect as a body.

The general intellect is looking for a body. This is the crucial thing of the coming insurrection. When you say ‘the riots are dangerous’ [the August 2011 riots - the ed.] - the riots are not riots of solidarity: solidarity is not there; instead, I see fragments fighting each other.

I think that the next insurrection, the insurrection that we will be living through in the next three months, six months, ten years - that is, the European insurrection which has already begun in the streets of London - this European insurrection will not be an insurrection of solidarity, it will be an insurrection in the search of our own body - as a social body, as an erotic body, as a body of solidarity. And this is the main problem of the cognitariat nowadays; that the general intellect is looking for its body.

"Franco Berardi Bifo is an Italian writer and activist from Bologna. In the 1970s he was involved in the Autonomia movement, founding the magazine A/traverso and working for Radio Alice, the first free pirate radio station in Italy. Later, he worked with Felix Guattari in the field of schizoanalysis and contributed to a number of radical magazines. He is the co-founder of the e-zine and his latest book has been published by AK Press as ‘After the Future’."