Immanent – though sadly not imminent

Franco Berardi, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility

Verso, 257pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781784787431

reviewed by Alexandre Leskanich

Organised around three interconnected themes of potency, power and possibility, Marxist media theorist Franco Berardi’s latest book offers a sharply lucid and penetrating (if not always adequately elaborated or defended) diagnosis of our present predicament, summarised as the ‘age of impotence’. Berardi presents the current political malaise as merely the latest stage of an entropic decline, the self-destructive decay of a system long irredeemable, yet which effectively obscures the means of escape from its inhabitants. Yet since the future is inscribed, not prescribed, in the present constitution of reality as a range of possibilities, Berardi is able to cling somewhat desperately to a vision of emancipation perpetually postponed.

The notion of ‘futurability’ concerns the extent to which the future can be constitutively or qualitatively different from the present. Will it be different merely in degree, or in kind? Is the future fundamentally pre-empted in the structure of the present, or is it an indeterminate space of possibility yet to be explored? Berardi believes it is the latter, but he is frank about his personal despondency.

And with good reason. In Adventures of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead remarks that the future

‘lives actively in its antecedent world . . . the future is immanent in the present by reason of the fact that the present bears in its own essence the relationships it will have to the future. It thereby includes in its essence the necessities to which the future must conform. The future is there in the present, as a general fact belonging to the nature of things.’

Clearly, unlike the pressures exerted on the present by the consequences of the past, Whitehead observes, there are no future occasions already constituted capable of exercising ‘efficient causation in the present’. Ominously, this implies that the shape of the future will necessarily ‘conform’ in most respects to the present constitution of reality. Ordinarily, after all, agents in the present actualise a range of desires which broadly replicate (through injunction, imitation and emulation) the behaviour of antecedent agents. At an economic level the system of production sets the parameters of socially sanctioned behaviour to establish prevailing patterns of work, leisure and consumption. So, in one sense, the reproduction of the dominant features of social reality relies upon the identification of the future with the present, no matter how abject it might be.

This is an unsettling thought. For there is sufficient reason today to believe that the future not only should but must be different from the present. The intolerable conditions under which subjectivity labours, symptomised by the social pathology of mental illness (with desperate recourse to pharmaceutical drugs and the enactment of psychotic phantasies to extenuate it); the tribal toxicity of the small-minded nationalism ramped-up into xenophobic frenzy, pitifully scrambling to recover the last remnants of long-lost glory; the criminal waste of human potential precariously subjugated in the service of corporate profit through the manufacture of useless goods; and the ecological devastation wrought by the extraction of resources required to maintain this infrastructure of misery, now brought to tipping point as the increasing fires, floods, droughts and heatwaves of a warming world all point to a future to be avoided at all costs. If the future is merely an extension of the present then it won’t be one much worth having.

But just as the present is distinguished from the past, so one hopes that the future will be distinguishable from the present. The present is, after all, markedly different from the past. ‘Capitalism is a dead dog’, Berardi declares, but its ‘rotting corpse’ is still animate. The question is how to dispose of the corpse. Hence he summons the energy to pen another negation, another refusal to accept and abide. As he put it in a previous book, And: Phenomenology of the End, ‘I am not hopeful, but neither am I hopeless’. He continues to endorse the possibility of the ‘liberation of human time from the constraints of labour’ through technology (as was once seriously envisioned), and the ‘displacement of social energies from the field of economies . . . to the field of care, self-care and education’. Short of real solidarity between global workers, already compromised by the atomising effects of the techno-sphere and its successful capture of cognitive attention (the consequences of which he describes so well), Berardi is somewhat vague on how this is to be accomplished given the present, nightmarish conjuncture.

‘The emancipation of human activity from capitalist exploitation’, he nevertheless thinks, is still an immanent – though sadly not imminent – possibility. Fundamentally, the composition of a different world not predicated on the accumulation of profit depends on a different semiotic organisation of its contents. The required ingredient, apart from the initial articulation of that possibility, is ‘potency’. Potency is the capacity to turn a possibility into an actuality. Power is then the form that a possibility takes once it has been actualised. Out of the plurality of possibilities the present contains, one is realised through collective action that replaces one regime of power with another. ‘Power’ is thus the temporary implementation of a ‘regime of visibility and invisibility: the exclusion of different possible concatenations from the space of visibility’. To interrupt the continuities on which hegemonic power depends requires the potency to act on a possibility, to instigate a departure from the carceral conditions of capital.

Abstractly, some reassurance can be found in the nature of time, as Aristotle observed, to make old what once was new. Decay and death signal the irrepressible lapse of time. Concurrently, one can say that it is only because of the temporal nature of reality that anything new can occur at all. Precisely because the world is temporal and not eternal, what happens in it is in some respect irreducible to lasting control: the temporal is the dimension of inexpungable contingency. We do not comprise part of a chain of determinate causation that ensures at every point a historical contiguity between present and future. Breaks, fissures, deviations, discrepancies and dissociations disrupt and occasionally eliminate the continuities on which the present structure of society depends. Berardi crucially reminds us, even beyond reason to hope, that the present contains innumerable points of bifurcation waiting to be exploited, opportunities for emancipation through which the horizon of possibility is extended – not forever fixed in the futility of an unending now.