More Internet

Franco Berardi, The Second Coming

Polity, 147pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781509534845

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Nobody could accuse Franco Berardi of underestimating the scale of the problem facing an oppositional politics today. In Thomas Hobbes's mid-17th century, there was a civil polity to which all might be assumed to have sworn allegiance, conceding its right to intervene in the lives of its clients in return for protecting them from a delimited range of private enormities, while expecting them to pre-authorise its own enormous intrusions into intellectual and social liberty, as the guaranteed meaning of consensus. It was that apparatus of government at which you took aim if you were any sort of radical dissenter worthy of the name. Nowadays, you hardly know where to start.

As Berardi perspicuously acknowledges in this small but forcefully suggestive volume, Hobbes's Leviathan, while it nominally still exists in the representative democracies of the global North, has been almost entirely eclipsed by what he calls the Automaton, the informational network of connectivity and communication to which virtually everybody is now umbilically joined. The new empire, acronymed as FAGMA after its principal quintet of world-encircling software, retail and data companies (no prizes), constitutes a technical structure of governance that operates at the level of subliminal desire as much as ravening need, unavowed inclinations as much as raucous vitriol, inchoate longing as much as emotional incontinence, so that the various states over which it strides in seven-league digital boots scarcely need to shape political will directly any longer.

Two-byte jeremiads about the internet age have become a little dime-a-dozen in these latter times, but Berardi sees things here with his customary illuminative perception. While everybody fulminates about fake news, including those responsible for its most exorbitant dissemination, he suggests that the more pressing problem is not lies as such, nor the lying liars who tell them, but 'the decomposition of the critical mind'. The scientistic mindset tends to offer what it calls 'facts' as the antidote to wild surmise, which is all very well until facts start congealing into reified blocks of non-negotiable thought which, even at their most liberally well-meaning, are hostile to the fluidity of thinking as a process. As early as 1964, Marshall McLuhan prophesied the passage from sequentially ordered consciousness to models of dynamic simultaneity with the emergence of electronic media.

As Berardi argues, the internet was once, for a good five minutes after its inception at least, promoted as a truly democratic space, in which everybody could participate, airing their views outside the rigid institutional structures of the three-dimensional world. Anybody who could see for themselves the tidal wash of advertising that colonised it from the off could have foreseen its present transmutation into the host space of commercial regimes whose tentacular global grip is unprecedented in human history, within the minute interstices of which private subscribers shout the odds at each other, and come within exciting virtual earshot of the celebrities, for the purposes of either fawning sycophancy or the issuing of abominable threats.

For reasons that remain a touch more complex than Berardi seems prepared to allow, the overwhelming political turn the internet age has brought about is towards reactionary virulence, forms of half-dissembled or else openly rancorous discrimination on all possible fronts, and at the hysterical end of the creaking branch, outright fascism. This is not a political event as such, he suggests, more an 'anthropological mutation', and therefore not subject to forms of executive action such as organised protests or being voted down. The sleep of reason is still producing monsters, as was diagnosed by both Lukács and Foucault in very different ideological circumstances. It was the marginalisation of unreason that furnished the political organisation of social life with its modus operandi in the modern bourgeois era, the availability of texts to a newly literate common polity undergirding constitutional arrangements that commanded broad consent. The disposal of critical reason by the infosphere, even while it appears to be potentiating that very faculty, has led to the present pandemonium.

The Second Coming begins promisingly with the characterisation of present conditions as chaos. A minatory warning sets the tone: 'Those who wage war against chaos will be defeated because chaos feeds upon war.' Chaos is about acceleration and disordered simultaneity, 'an effect of intensification'. This point is neatly elaborated through a brief opening chapter entitled 'How To', in which Berardi offers the outline of a fertile argument for the potential productivity of a state of disarray, in terms that have dialectical force, even if they suffer a little from the author's fondness for quasi-mystical locutions:

‘When chaos invades the mind and swallows up social behaviour, we should not be afraid of it, and we should not try to subjugate chaos to any order whatsoever. It does not work, as chaos is stronger than order. So the best thing to do is to make friends with chaos. Only inside the whirlwind will the clue to the new rhythm be found.’

The widespread derogation of the chaos into which global capitalism has plunged the world misses the point that chaotic conditions are exactly those that are ripest for new initiatives, when the fluxion of events can take the shuttered shit in the silicon chateau as easily by surprise as it can the hopeless hordes at the food banks. (I develop this argument further in a forthcoming work.)

By the time chaos returns to Berardi's narrative at the book's end, however, it has taken on a kind of seven-ages-of-man quality, and turned a little rueful. 'Growing old essentially means being invaded by chaos,' the seventy-year-old author sighs, turning the pages of Deleuze and Guattari's last work, but this is hardly the worst of it, not when '[n]eoliberal hyper-capitalism has finally resulted in the resurrection of Nazism'. The apocalypse, whatever that might be, reveals that chaos was the hidden rationale of the cosmos all along, but it also contains the 'hidden possibility' that points the way to a renewed society beyond it.

At which point arises the spectre of Lenin, to ask yet again: what is to be done? Berardi has been at the crest of the autonomist tradition within Italian Marxism, which, among other strategies, has sought to find ways of resisting the power of capitalist actuality outside the reified institutions of organised dissent – the vanguard party, the trade union, even the single-interest pressure group. This is a current that embodies a curious amalgam of Frankfurtish anti-structuralism with a classical anarchist distrust of all authority, whether rapacious or benignly progressive in its effects. It has enabled a body of complex and imaginative thinking, but it hasn't quite solved the conundrum of how to topple corrupt and rotten structures through diffuse private attitudes, as opposed to organised mass action. Not all organisation is alienating; much of it, in the form of true solidarity, can be as exhilarating as coming up for air.

What is to be done, Berardi proposes, is to 'shift the focus of our theoretical attention from the sphere of politics to the sphere of neuroplasticity'. While you ponder that, you might want to bear in mind that political action, that notorious old bugaboo, should surrender to a 'neurological reshuffling of the general intellect'. And how might that be achieved? Through 'the activation of a technical platform for self-organisation of cognitarians, and the reorientation of semio-production according to social needs'. The former half of the proposition sounds distinctly like more internet, while the latter, with its deliberate faint echo of Marx's 1875 critique of the Gotha Programme, seems to conjure the notion of solving such matters as fuel poverty by using online communications differently. More internet.

Whether these tactics will fill the office of a propaedeutic for the Second Coming – of communism, what else? – or whether they will remain in a zone of ethereal wishfulness, for want of more empirical flesh on their theoretical bones, is a matter for debate. Berardi's work, as befits the theorising of a veteran of the '68 generation, has touched off many such debates in recent years. It is just that the one kind of solution to which he has declared himself wholly averse, namely the economic redress for which a globally capitalised world screams out, is for many the first principle of any general righting of wrongs, and the expansion of liberated consciousness that would result from its implementation.