The drift of Humpty Dumpty
“When I use a word it means that which I want it to mean, not more or less. The question is one of knowing who the master is: that's it.” Says the Humpty Dumpty of Lewis, recognising straightaway like a good master, that when you ask words to do overtime, you have to pay them more.
And Deleuze, who refers to Humpty Dumpty in the third series of Logic of Sense, titled On the Proposition, comments: “The last resort seems to be that which identifies meaning with signification.”
Not sense, but the activity of producing meaning towards the innumerable postponements that this process involves. This is also said by Greimas in his book, On Sense .
We start from a semiotic of transgression and of sliding, to speak of the Italian derive of the last 15 years.
Derive. An expression that the priggish fear, because they don't know where it will take them. But life is like this, you never know where it can take you. Life is a derive, history is a derive. Those that believe we can take refuge from the contingencies of the drift cannot act successfully politically because they believe that the word is linked to its semantic referents and are under the delusion that the law and order are a safeguard against the unpredictable.
If we want to think about a good political practice we must think that the autonomy of society must defend itself against the predatory instincts of capitalism, and to do this it is not necessary to believe in law, but only in its own force. In the course of the 20th century social autonomy often had to bow to the hegemony of left politics (Leninist social democracy or reformism). But in all of its forms, the Left had been an extremely bad ally: it used violence against society, as always when seizing power. Or, in its reformist version, it forced social autonomy to suffer its legalism and its subalternity to the laws of capital. Finally, the French, Italian and British elections of 2007-2008 deleted the Left from the geo-political map. Social autonomy finds itself finally alone, and finally it can find its own way without having fear of it being a drift.
La Derive is the title of a book by two Italian journalists who would like to put underwear on an indecent world. It is a book in which they lament the tendency of the country to slide into decline, recession, disunity. But who said that decline is a bad thing, and recession a disgrace, and the end of national unity a danger to be conjured away?
The world ‘derive' scares those who believe politics must respect some rules and that law must be at the centre of social life, like those who believe words have one meaning and only that, and that to understand one another in life it is necessary to use words according to their established meaning. All wrong. When we speak we do not respect the meaning of words but invent it, and understanding does not mean to exchange signs supplied with a univocal referent. Understanding is to follow the slides in the relation between signs and referent, reinventing signs as functions of new referents and creating new referents as a result of the circulation of new signs. Similarly politics does not have to respect any one law because it invents the law when it creates new relations.
Following order is a good thing but you can not reduce politics to this, because there is no rule that says: the rules must be respected. This Berlusconi understood, and he won all that he could possibly win. The left did not understand and finally vanished, to leave space, let's hope, for a new social autonomy capable of inventing new words, new referents and above all, new forms of relations.
1. The egg and the serpent
In a film of 1977 titled The Egg and the Serpent , Ingmar Bergman recounts the development of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s as a psychic poisoning of social space, as an infiltration of a venomous substance in the environment of the relations and daily life. Bergman, who has often dealt with the theme of alienation as psychic suffering, the silent pain of the soul and as incommunicability, proposes a materialist vision that we can almost say describes a monstrous chemical mutation that Nazism provokes in the pyshical and social sphere.
The Egg and the Serpent , is not one of the best films by the Swedish director, but it is interesting from the point of view of the coming culture of late-modernity, because it recounts the development of totalitarianism from the point of view of a psycho-pyshcial pollution. Social malaise is in the first place a disturbance of communication.
With The Egg and the Serpent Bergman rethinks the question of incomunicability, dear to existentialist though: between Ullmann and Carradine communication is progressively poisoned because a toxic substance entres into their nostrils and lungs and therefore into their brains. Thus (in a crowd scene of slow hypnotic movements) the social mass becomes transformed by Nazism in an amorphous mass, deprived of their own will, ready to be led. The metaphor of a psychic submission, beyond the example of German Nazism, is a valid one to characterise the process of the pollution of the collective mind, like comunism, television advertising, the production of aggression, religious integralism, and competitive conformism.
In this film, made in 1977, Bergman spoke of the future which is today, in the new millenium, the present. The poisoning was carried out daily in our houses by a nerve gas that acts on the psyche, on sensibility, on language and produces an effect of interminable info-productive stimulation, of competitive mobilisation of energy but also produces effects of panic and depressive crises. Liberal economism has produced effects of the mutation of the organism that are more profound than those of Nazism, because they do not act on the superficial forms of behaviour but on the biological, cognitive dowry, on the chemical composition of the psycho-sphere.
On 25 December 1977 Charlie Chaplin died, the man with the bowler hat that recounted the dehumanisation of modern industrialism from the point of view of a humanity that still knew how to be human. There is no longer any place for kindness. Saturday Night Fever came out at the cinema in those months of autumn presenting a new race of workers, happy to be exploited for the whole week as long as they can gel their hair on a Saturday night and win on the dance floor.
In Japan in 1977 it was the year of youth suicides: they numbered 784, and the quick succession of a chain of infantile suicides, 13 in the month of October alone, amongst primary children, provoked great consternation.
1977 was a turning point in the history of modernity, the year in which the perspective of the post-human took shape. The generation which came to the world in the 1980s was destined to be the first video-electronic generation, the first formed in an environment where mediatisation prevailed over contact between human bodies. In the cultural styles and aesthetics of the following decades we witnessed a process of purification, of de-carnalisation; the beginning of a long process of cultural sterilisation in which the first video-electronic generation was formed as both object and subject. Cleanliness substituted dust; the hairless took the place of the hirsute.
During the following decade the dangerous epidemic of AIDS semiotised the entire field of corporeality. Carnal contact carried danger and electricity, stigmatising, petrifying or overheating in a pathological manner. This is how, in the last two decades of the 20th century, a cognitive mutation was performed. The organism became sensitised to the code and thus prepared to connection, the permanent interfacing with the digital universe.
Sensibility – not reason – perceived this mutation, and reacted with an exercise of self-destructive craziness of which heroin was the clearest signal. The existential and artistic experience of the American no wave, of London punk and the German and Italian autonomist movements signaled a final awakening of consciousness in the face of the mutation in the sensible sphere and in the collective psyche, in face of this pollution of the soul, and the following de-animation of the body.
In Italy the year 1977 is remembered for the explosion of a creative movement that created for the first time in communication its own main field of expression. The year of Radio Alice, the first free Italian station, that broke the state domination over systems of communication. But 1977 is also the year in which, thanks to the smashing of the state monopoly, a private group called Fininvest, led by the man who got rich with financial aids whose origins could never be established, embarked on the enterprise of commercial television. To the collective liberation of communication, of which the movement of students and Radio Alice had been the bearers, replied the privatisation and commercialisation of communication systems. It was the beginning of a transformation that today, 30 years later, we can measure the full significance of.
2. In the realm of chance
One night in October 1977 whilst the fires of the student riots were dying out Silvio Berlusconi met Mike Buongiorno, the man who had featured on the screen since the beginning of Italian television. They dined together in a Milan restaurant and out of their simple intellects was born an extraordinary linguistic machine, capable of a mutageneous bio-political penetration of the Italian brain. Since then Berlusconi's capital has operated in a perfectly recombinatory manner: having built its financial basis on estates, it invested in advertising, insurance, football and television. To put this enormous conglomerate into motion, Silvio Berlusconi, who was a member of the secret society P2 and friends with characters who reeked of the Mafia such as Marcello Dell'Utri, violated many of the laws of the Italian Republic : fiddling the books, corruption of judges, conflicts of interests. For 20 years he manoeuvred magistrates, journalists and institutions that accused him of breaking the law. But what is the law? A linguistic effect that dissolves as common sense changes. And in three decades common sense has changed because Berlusconi's mediatic machine has inoculated linguistic substances in perfect doses to produce white noise.
Far from being a backward phenomena or a transitory anomaly, since the 80s and 90s the Berlusconi's phenomenon is a sign for a time to come, well actually, a time that has now come. In this time an infrastructure of the engineering of the psycho-sphere was constituted that was capable of modulating the public mood and of producing opinion, but above all, capable of destroying psychic sensibility and the empathetic sociability of the new generations, who are induced to mistake the uninterrupted flow of television for ‘the world'.
Contemporary capitalism can be defined as semio-capitalism, because the general shape of commodities has a semiotic character and the process of production is increasingly the elaboration of sign-information. In the sphere of semio-capital, economic production is always more tightly woven with processes of linguistic exchange, as is explained clearly in the books of Christian Marazzi and Paolo Virno.
Thanks to language we can create shared worlds, formulate ambiguous enunciations, elaborate metaphors, simulate events or simply lie. Semio-economics is the creation of worlds, castles of metaphors, imagination, predictions, simulations and fabrications. What better country than one that has been the land of commedia dell'arte could insert itself in a productive system based on chatter, spectacle and exhibition?
The Fordist industrial economy was founded on the production of objectively measurable value quantifiable by socially necessary labour time. The post-industrial economy is based on linguistic exchange, on the value of simulation. This simulation becomes the decisive element in the determination of value. And when simulation becomes central to the productive process, the lie, the deceit, the fraud, enter to play a part in economic life not as exceptional transgressions of the norm but as laws of production and exchange.
In the sphere of semio-capital the laws in force do not resemble the laws of the glorious epoch of industry, the relations do not resemble those of productive discipline, the ethics of work or enterprise, that dominated the world of classical industrial capitalism, the Protestant capitalism that Michel Albert dubs ‘of the Rhine'. A deep transformation took place in the last few decades, starting from the separation of the financial circuit from the real economy.
The founding act of this process of separation was Nixon's arbitrary decision to abandon the system established by Bretton Woods. In 1971, the American President decided to rescind the rules on the convertibility of the dollar into gold and to thus affirm the self-referentiality of the American uniform. Despite the implications of Vietnam , at this time American power still had credibility and the power to impose its decisions as if they were objective and incontrovertible. Today that power and credibility have dissolved, the value of the dollar has fallen, and the economy of simulation has thus entered into a phase of instability.
From the moment when Nixon told the world of the decision to unhook the dollar from every gage of objectivity, money fully became what it already was in essence: a pure act of language. No longer a referential sign that relates to a mass of commodities, to a quantity of gold, or to some other objective data, but to a factor of simulation, an agent capable of putting into motion arbitrary processes independent of the real economy. Therefore semio-capital is a system of complete indeterminacy: financialisation and immaterialisation have brought to the relations between social actors unpredictability and chance elements as never seen before in the history of the industrial economy.
In Fordist industrial production, the determination of the value of a commodity was founded on a certain factor: the socially necessary labour time to produce that commodity. But in semio-capitalism this is no longer true. When the main feature of commodity production is cognitive labour, the labour of attention, memory, language and imagination, the criteria of value is no longer objective and can not be quantified on the basis of a fixed referent. Labour time has ceased to count as the absolute touchstone.
In aleatory conditions of referents, arbitrariness becomes the law: the lies, the violence, the corruption are no longer marginal offshoots of economic life, but tend to become the alpha and omega of the daily management of affairs. Bands of criminals decisively take over the place of command. Economic power belongs to those who possess more powerful language machines. The government of the mediascape, predomination in the production of software, and control over financial information: these are the foundations of economic power. And the domination of these sources of power can not be established by means of the dear old competition where the best possible management of available resources wins, but through lies, deceit, and war. There is no longer any economic power that is not criminal, that does not violate fundamental human rights; first and foremost the right to education, self-knowledge, and the right to a non-polluted info-sphere.
3. The soul at work
In the sphere of semio-capital, the soul is put to work. I use the word ‘soul' not at all in a spiritualist sense, but to mean a condition of possibility for the happiness and unhappiness of the body as well as the condition of possibility for productive action, social action. What the body is capable of is its soul.
Foucault recounts the history of modernity as the discipline of the body, as the construction of institutions and devices capable of subduing the body into the machine of social production. In this manner he describes the process of subjectivation that accompanies the development of industrial society. Exploitation in industrial society concerns the body, the muscles, and the arms. But these bodies would be worthless if they were not mobile, intelligent, reactive – animated. In the current epoch exploitation is exercised essentially on the semiotic flow that the time of human labour is capable of emanating. No longer the animated bodies, the soul itself becomes the object of economic exploitation.
To continue the genealogical work of Michel Foucault today means directing our theoretical attention to the strategies and methods of the programming of language, towards the automatisation of mental responses, because through them the mental labour of the web is disciplined.
Digital production is essentially semiotic ‘emanation'.
The essential bio-social innovation of the last decades is the bio-informatic network made possible by digitalisation. But the insertion of this network into inter-human linguistic circulation produces effects of in subjectivity that involve of the soul, the mind that feels itself.
The acceleration of the info-sphere involves a change of velocity of linguistic elaboration and existential rhythm: it concerns a real and proper process of reformatting the human brain with psychopathological effects. The explosion of the psychopharmacological sector and the explosion of the market for drugs are naturally two essential functions of this process of mutation.
The frenzy let loose in the 90s in finance, consumerism and life styles, was also due to the systematic use of euphoric drugs, and substances for neuro-programming. The stimulation of the soul was an integral part of the economic expansion founded on the virtual economy. A major section of the population of every country in the world began to be put through an uninterrupted nervous hyper-excitation, up to the point of the collapse evoked in the metropolitan legend of the millennium bug, conjured up as an exorcism and symbol of the expectation – as we waited for midnight on the last day in 1999 – of an apocalypse that never came.
Once the fathom danger of the millennium bug faded away, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, the real collapse arrived, the crisis in the financial sector of dot.com shares in April 2000. The collective psyche of the ‘new economy' had already sensed that crisis was approaching. In 1999 Alan Greenspan had spoken of the ‘irrational exuberance of the markets', his words having the sense of a clinical rather than a financial diagnosis. The exuberance was an effect of drugs, of the nervous breakdown of a generation of cognitive workers, of the saturation of attention that led it to the limits of panic.
The year 2000 saw the start of the Prozac crash. The beginning of the new millennium saw a glorified mega-fusion: AOL and Time Warner united their tentacles to meticulously innervate the planetary mind. In the following months the Telecom of Europe invested massive sums in UMTS. These were the last blows before the crisis that engulfed Worldcom, Enron and entire sectors of the net economy. The financial crash was the manifestation of a psychic collapse that involved an army of cognitive workers increasingly strongly affected by stress related psychoses.
The apocalypse that was missed on New Year's Eve 1999 arrived one morning in September 21 months later. Like all apocalypses, that day revealed a new world. All of a sudden we realised that the world was ridden with war machines at every corner, and that the whole ethical and political universe that was known as modern humanist universalism was dissolved, annihilated and destroyed.
4. The Italian anomaly
Providing a definition of the regime that was established in Italy in 1994 - the year of the first victory of Forza Italia (the TV-football Party) - is more than a question of naming. Like other periods in the history of Italy in the 20 th century, the years of Berlusconi are indicative of an Italian anomaly and functioning as a laboratory and experimentation with social trends. Other moments in history when Italy was the laboratory of new tendencies were 1922, when techniques of populist and totalitarian management were experimented under the appellative of fascism, and the 1970s.
In the 1970s an anomalous though exemplary situation arose: the students' movement of 1968 gave rise to a long period of social insubordination and autonomy from work that changed the whole of society. Power responded to this social autonomy by developing an authoritarian and closed system founded on an alliance between the main churches in the country: Catholicism and Stalinism. This was the period of the historic compromise and of the judiciary repression of dissent. The political closure of this regime and the repression of grassroots movements resulted in a strengthening of armed factions and fed into a wave of terrorism that culminated in the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro.
But what is the Italian anomaly today, and in what sense is Italy a laboratory of new forms of power? Are we confronted with a reinstatement of Mussolini's regime, as many events in Italian politics seem to suggest?
The answer is no: this is not a fascist regime. This regime is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent and critique banal and ridiculous. Even though there have been and will continue to be instances of censorship and direct repression of critical and free thought, these phenomena are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, paralleled by an occupation of the sources of information operated by the Head of the company.
The present social composition cannot be assimilated to that of the Italy of the 1920s, which was prevalently peasant and country folk. In the first decades of the 20 th century, the futurist modernism of fascists introduced an element of innovation and social progress, whereas today the regime of Forza Italia carries no germ of progress and its political economy is based on the dilapidation of the patrimony accumulated in the past. Whilst fascism initiated a process of modernisation of production in the country, the regime of Forza Italia wasted the resources accumulated in the years of industrial development, similarly to Carlos Menem in Argentina during the decade that preceded the collapse of the economy and society. This drive to dissipation and waste is in perfect harmony with the main tendency of the planet in the period of neo-liberal aleatoriness.
If we seek to understand the specific character of the Italian situation of the past fourteen years, we need to look for what differentiated it from the rest of Europe throughout modernity, whilst also considering the post-modern peculiarity of the Italian transformation in the wider context of a change investing the system of production and the global info-sphere. To grasp this specificity we would begin with the Counter Reformation, which sanctioned the differential speeds of the advancement of the Christian world towards the colonisation of the earth and the construction of modern bourgeois capitalism. The temporality of the countries invested by the Counter Reformation ( Italy , Spain , Austria , and Poland ) is different from that of Protestant countries.
5. The Counter-Reformation and the Italian specificity
According to Max Weber, classical industrial development is sustained by the protestant mentality. After the Protestant Reformation, the European bourgeoisie was able to build the foundations of its power by subjecting itself to a rigid ethical and existential discipline. The bourgeoisie assumes responsibilities for her actions and is accountable for them before men and God, but most of all before the bank manager. Economic fortune is a worldly confirmation of divine benevolence.
To the contrary, since the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Counter-Reformation reinstated the primacy of the religious over the secular realm, and defended the conviction that respecting the ecclesiastic hierarchy is much more important than productive discipline. The deep substratum of Catholic culture resists productivity and bourgeois efficiency. Whilst Calvinism was based on the observance of the law, the spirit of the Counter-Reformation reinforced the primacy of mercy and the absolute value of repentance. The Counter-Reformation remained deeply engrained in the Italian social imaginary throughout modernity and manifested itself in all its reactionary force at decisive moments in the life of the country. During the Neapolitan revolution of 1799, the enlightened bourgeoisie was isolated and defeated thanks to the complicity of the people with the power of the Bourbon House, the Church's ally. From the 1800s onwards, the alliance of the Church with the rural classes acted as an antibourgeois conservative force in the defence of the cultural hegemony of the Church against all attempts at laicisation of national life. In the years that followed the Second World War, the Christian Democracy was the dominant political force, representing the mediation in a permanent equilibrium between capitalist modernisation and populist and reactionary resistance. However, it would be wrong to see the ‘laxness' that derives from the spirit of the Counter-Reformation as a purely regressive and conservative energy.
In the 1970s, the ‘Italian anomaly' was the expression used to underline the peculiarity of a country where the social movements that had been exhausted in 1968 continued to dominate the political scene for over a decade. In the 1970s, the workers' resistance produced structures of mass organisation and fuelled revolts against capitalist modernisation. At the time, the Italian anomaly consisted in the persistence of workers' autonomy and social conflict. Italy underwent a long season of proletarian struggles that embraced anti-modernism in a dynamic and paradoxically progressive way.
This process began in July 1960, when workers in many cities rose up against the attempt to form a centre-right government that included men linked to the old fascist regime, and culminated in the anti-authoritarian and libertarian insurrection of 1977. During the autonomous workers' struggles against the patronage of the government in cities and factories, we find a constant and recurring element: the refusal of the subordination of life to work. This refusal was manifest in a manifold of different ways: first of all as Mediterranean idleness, the privileging of sensuality and solar life over productivity and the economy. Then it was expressed in the workers' youth revolts against the rhythms of the factory, and in the endemic absenteeism and the workers' disaffection with their labour. The movement of workers' autonomy that flourished from 1967 to 1977 sums up this attitude of insubordination and resistance in the formula ‘refusal of labour'.
The notion of refusal of labour, as it was adopted in Italy during the 1970s, is inserted in the framework of a progressive political strategy. Workers refused the effort and repetitiveness of mechanical labour, thus forcing companies to keep restructuring. Workers' resistance was an element of human progress and freedom, as well as an accelerator of technological and organisational development.
At the origin of the mass refusal of productive discipline lies an anti-Calvinist culture. Contrary to the Protestant idea of progress as founded on work discipline, the autonomous anti-work spirit claims that progress – be it technological, cultural or social – is based on the refusal of discipline. Progress consists of the application of intelligence to the reduction of effort and dependency, and the expansion of a sphere of idleness and individual freedom.
The technological, social and cultural progress of the country was stimulated by this refusal of labour, and between the 60s and 70s Italian civil society experienced the only authentically democratic period of an extraordinary flourishing of culture, concomitant to when the refusal of labour was most intense and heightened by the level of absenteeism in the factories.
Obviously, the refusal of capitalist exploitation, the opposition to increases in productivity and to workers' subordination were not peculiar to Italy . All around the world workers demanded more free time for their lives, wage increases, and opposed the masters' will to subordinate life to work and work to profit. However, in Italy this insubordination joined the shirkers' spirit of the southern plebs to become an explicit, declared and politically relevant issue: that is, the refusal of labour and social autonomy, the autonomy of everyday life from work discipline.
Towards the end of the 70s, tens of thousands of young southerners arrived at the Fiat factory Mirafiori: with their forms of struggle and anti-work attitude, they carried an extremism that was a danger to both the progressive bourgeoisie and the Italian Communist Party. This new draft of workers completely ignored, if not derided, the work ethics and the pride in productivity.
Did these young workers from Naples and Calabria embody the same rascal spirit, the individualist and anti-modernist populism, that characterised 1799 and led the Neapolitan people to oppose the revolutionary enlightened bourgeoisie? Yes, in part. But this shirkers' spirit also expressed the new realisation that the society of industrial labour was nearing its end. This idea spread through youth culture and invaded the whole of society: industrial labour was a remnant of the past, the development of technologies and social knowledge opened up the possibility for the liberation of society from labour. The most radical parts of the workers' movement expressed the belief that industrial labour was exhausted, and that the alienating and repetitive form of work was therefore no longer historically justified. This idea was the most radical innovation of the Italian workers' movement of the 60s and 70s, thus differentiating it from the communist tradition of the 1900s.
7. The double soul of the Italian workers' movement
Throughout the modernisation of the 20th century, the Italian left was pushed in two opposite directions. On the one had, a Protestant, industrialist and modernist soul motivated its protests against social backwardness and demands for more productivity and efficiency in the system of production, at the cost of increasing workers' exploitation and subscribing to liberalist policies. On the other hand, an anti-productivist, egalitarian and communitarian soul drove the left to demonise capitalism and take refuge in forms of welfare state that helped creating parasitical political clienteles. The workers' autonomy of the 60s and 70s wedged in between these two souls of the traditional left: it embodied an anti-productive culture inscribed in the Italian culture in its shirkers' form, but was able to creatively turn it into an anticipation of the creative potential that was to take centre stage in post-modern and post-industrial production.
After the 70s, workers' autonomy was defeated by police repression and the capitalist offensive of the early 80s hit the factory working class with waves of redundancies, paving the way for the adoption of a neo-liberal ideology. But liberalism Italian style cannot be assimilated to the liberal bourgeois tradition of protestant derivation that flourished in Europe during modernity.
Liberal culture never affirmed itself in Italy as a majoritarian culture of government. During the 19 th century, the Liberal Party led the Risorgimento, but never actually became the majoritarian culture of the Italian bourgeoisie. The compromise of State and Church, and the alliance between the industrial bourgeoisie and reactionary landowners dominated Italian politics in the 19 th and 20 th century. Liberal culture always demanded a secular state and represented a cultural component of political Protestantism, yet it always remained a minority. In the early 1900s Piero Gobetti, a liberal, had to recognise that the only way to free the Italian state from the reactionary influence of Catholicism was through an alliance between liberals and the workers' movement. That alliance could unfortunately never be realised and fascism assailed and destroyed both the communist workers' movement led by Antonio Gramsci and the liberal movement represented by Piero Gobetti. Neo-liberalism, as a hegemonic political force, affirmed itself in the 80s and has nothing to do with the liberal legacy; in fact, it proposes an alliance between all socially and culturally reactionary forces under the banner of the ultra capitalist principle of economic liberalism of Anglo-American derivation.
In the 80s, in the midst of a capitalist counter-offensive and the affirmation of neo-liberalism at the international level, Italy gave life to a curious experiment in political economy. After defeating the workers' autonomy, social radicalism, egalitarian and libertarian movements, the anti-protestant ethics invested the political class of the government with the toleration of economic illegalities, embezzlements, corruption, and mafia. These were the years of Bettino Craxi. Despite his socialist and laic credentials, Craxi was the representative of a convergence of the Counter-Reformation spirit of tolerance and shirkers, and the cultural openness towards neo-liberal modernisation. Modernisation and corruption, in Craxi's theory and praxis, were not in contradiction; these trends were absolutely complementary, integrated and functional.
In the 70s, the historic left (the Communist Party and the Catholic left) had responded to the refusal of labour of the youth and workers' anti-Protestantism with violence. They had accused the anti-work rebels of the factories and the metropolitan Indians of the social centres of hooliganism. In the 80s, Catholics and late-communists rebelled against Craxi, not because he was pursuing a neo-liberal policy of patronage, but because he tolerated corruption.
Bettino Craxi had sensed what was to come with the affirmation of the neo-liberal doctrine. In the 80s and 90s, as neo-liberalism wrote off all the old regulations of the welfare state, the defences society had built against the aggressiveness of capitalists collapsed. Craxi understood, with laic cynicism, that neo-liberalism inaugurated a period when the laws of violence, mafia, fraud, corruption and simulation would be the only rules of the game. Catho-communism, in its agony, desperately clang onto the ethical question. Instead of opposing neo-liberalism - which destroys society's defences, reduces workers' wages, imposes a culture of competitiveness and bargaining - the left opposed corruption, immorality, and illegality. Paradoxically the left defended the protestant ethics that was being dissolved in the culture of large capital, as the traditional bourgeoisie was disappearing to give room to a class of lunpen predators.
8. Aleatority of value in neo-baroque society
‘The principle of reality has coincided with a determinate stage of the law of value. Today the whole system precipitates into indeterminacy; the whole of reality is absorbed by the hyper-reality of the code and of simulation. […] Capital is no longer in the order of political economy, it uses political economy as a model of simulation' Jean Baudrillard: Symbolic exchange and death 1976
For a long time, the crisis of the law of value has been corroding the foundation of bourgeois society: the bourgeoisie lost its coherence due to the development of post-mechanical technologies, and the growing autonomy of workers from wage labour. In post-industrial economy, socially necessary labour time is no longer the source of the determination of value, no longer its only source. The value of a commodity is essentially determined by means of language, and the regime of value determination of commodities is one of simulation. The explosion of the new economy in the 90s was the perfect example of the economic power of simulation. Imaginary flows of capital were invested in the processes of the production of the imaginary. This does not mean, however, that it was all an illusion or blunder.
Connective intelligence multiplied the power of social production, the world of commodities became much larger, social desire was produced and mobilised as an economic factor.
We have entered the regime of chance of fluctuating values. The mathematical regularity of bookkeeping has given place to the chance of financial games and advertising communication, with its linguistic strategies and psychic implications. The economy has become an essentially semiotic process and embodies the chance that characterises the processes of assignment of meaning.
Labour has become fractalised. With the end of large industrial monopolies, now delocalised in the global peripheries, new workers start resembling computer terminals, cells in the process of circulation of the commodity-sign. As the neat borders of industrial society faded out and broke down in atomised workplaces, net slaves underwent two parallel processes. On the one hand, their existence was individualised, both physically and culturally. Each one has to follow her trajectory and compete in the market individually. On the other hand, each worker experiences a situation of permanent cellular connection. Each individual is a cell put in constant productive connection with the others by the web, which ensures a deterritorialised, fractal and fluid sociality. The cellular is the new assembly line, deprived of any carnal sociality.
Simulation and fractalisation are essentially baroque categories. In the shift to post-modernity, the rationalist balance of industrial architecture gave way to the proliferation of points of view. In The Neo-baroque era (1994), Omar Calabrese claims that the post-modern style recuperated aesthetic and discursive models that were experimented in the 1600s by the culture of Baroque. Baroque was essentially a proliferation of points of view. Whilst the protestant rigour produces an aesthetic of the essential and austere images, Baroque declares the divine generation of forms to be irreducible to human law, be it the state, politics, accounting or architecture.
As Deleuze claims, the baroque is the fold: the poetics that best corresponds to the chance character of fluctuating values. When the grand narratives of modernity lose coherence, the law of value is dissolved in an endless proliferation of productivity, inflation and language, and the info-sphere is expanded beyond measure. Mythologies intertwine in the social imaginary. Production and semiosis are increasingly one and the same process. Out of this process simultaneously arise a crisis of economic reference (the relationship between value and necessary labour time), and a crisis of semiotic reference (the denotative relationship between sign and meaning). Value can no longer refer to labour time, because unlike the labour of Marx's times, the time of immaterial labour is not reducible to a socially average norm. Parallel to this, the denotative relation of sign and meaning is definitely suspended in social communication. Advertising, politics and the media speak a declaredly simulative language. Nobody has any belief in some kind of truth of public statements. The value of the commodity is established on the basis of a simulation in a relation that no longer follows any rules.
9. Between Humpty Dumpty and Ubu Roi
Silvio Berlusconi's behaviour is incomprehensible to the conservative right and left, whose political reason follows traditional models. They see it as indispensable to respect official language and cannot imagine a context for political action outside of the abidance to legality. But the strength of Berlusconi's media-populism lies precisely in the systematic violation of the taboos linked to political officialdom and legality. With their glumly seriousness, authoritative figures such as Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi are the best example of this miscomprehension of the new character of post-political language championed by Berlusconi. What seems most unbearable and provocative to the custodians of severity is the ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals slyly and systematically operated by Berlusconi. But there are reasons to believe that the large majority of people who constitute the ‘public' of politics (the electorate) were amused by this ridiculing and provocative gesture and in many cases conquered by it: they identified with the slightly crazy Premier, the rascal Prime Minister who resembles them, as at other times they had identified with Benito Mussolini and Benito Craxi.
The majority of the Italian electorate grew up as TV audiences at a time when television became the primary vehicle for informality, vulgar and coarse allusiveness, the language of ambiguity and aggressiveness. Thus they spontaneously found themselves on the same cultural wavelength as Berlusconi, with his language, words, and gestures, but also with the deprecation of rules in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle. The crazy and cheerful figure of Ubi Roi is irresistible to a public that is used to renounce his individuality in the name of collective irresponsibility.
To the plebeian coarseness of Berlusconi and his perky banqueters in government, the left responded with prissiness and consternation in the face of the violation of the language of political correctness. But calling out ‘Scandal!' proved to be a losing argument against the policies of the centre-right government. In fact, part of the secret of Berlusconi's success in politics lies precisely in the use of excess. The excessiveness of the declarations and actions of this government was a winner in the imaginary of the masses and electoral decisions. Events that exceeded the framework of predictability, tolerability and codified political behaviour acted as a catalyst for the consternation and indignation whilst creating a safe passage for government legislation, the effective dilapidation of collective property, the abolition of workers' rights, the imposition of discriminatory and racist laws. This technique of excess is now well tested: you have to talk big, very big, in order to then enact what is essential for the accumulation of power and the privatisation of social spaces. A minister would take on the role of the ham, the crazy one, and propose to bomb the ships carrying migrants to the Italian shores. He generates scandal, but also an entertaining distraction, and soon enough another minister, more moderate and realistic, demands to obtain military control of the coast, and then a zealous functionary can expel Kurdish and Syrian political asylum seekers without even looking at their requests or knowing their rights, thus comes the possibility of trampling upon the most basic rights of foreign workers.
Berlusconi's language appears to be suited to the ridiculing rather than the denial or restatement of the truth and the affirmation of new principles. His intention is to unveil the hypocrisy of political rules. For Berlusconi, the meaning of words is not that important, so much so that he is used to denying his own declarations on newspapers the day after making them. Berlusconi has often pretended to give his approval to the words of the President of the Republic, even though with all evidence these words blatantly contravened his own actions or the legislative activities of his government. The political word is devalued, ridiculed, captured in a kind of game of three cards, in a semantic labyrinth where every word can mean the opposite of the meaning attributed to it in dictionaries. Scandal for the informality, the vulgarity and the shallow lies is not an effective reaction; on the contrary it strengthens Berlusconi and his regime because at this level the electorate understands him better than the representatives of institutions.
According to common sense, political language has always concealed reality and provided hypocritical cover ups to the arbitrariness and arrogance of the rich and powerful. Berlusconi paradoxically reveals this hypocrisy. He is the rich and powerful who shows that the law is capable of nothing; he is the rich and powerful who laughs at the hypocrisy of those who pretend that everyone is equal before the law. We all know that not everyone is equal before the law; we know from experience that the wealthy and powerful can afford expensive lawyers, impose their interests, and conquer spaces in power inaccessible to the majority of the population. But this is usually hidden behind the smoke screens of legalism and juridical formalism. Berlusconi clearly states: ‘I do what I want, and laugh at the legalists who want to oppose their formalities to my will.'
Now that the power of making and unmaking the law lies in his hands, he uses it to show everyone the impotence of the law. Like Humpty Dumpty, Berlusconi knows that what matters is not what words mean, but who owns them. Their meaning is decided by the master of words, not the semantic tribunals. The interpretation of the law is decided by its master, not the law courts.
The spectators of politics (the electorate) seem to recognise themselves in this game of revelation of the hypocrisy of the language of politics, even though the person revealing that the ‘Emperor has no clothes' is paradoxically wearing the Emperor's clothes. People laugh at what the Travicello King says, but there is complicity in their laughter, because the King is denouncing the falsity and hypocrisy of the words that he himself is uttering, with a smile that says: ‘Here I say it and deny it', or ‘No one is a fool around here'.
The boring opponents of Berlusconi wish to reaffirm the sacredness of power, but Berlusconi has already discredited it with his exercise of a power that has no need for sacredness. Despite being divested of official authoritativeness, the Berlusconi government enjoys the authoritativeness of transgression; it exercises its authority in the name of transgression, laying down laws on every issue, from immigration to the right to work and the judiciary, imposing everywhere the logic of hegemonic interests, reducing social expenditure, shifting wealth from the working classes to the property owners. None of the devastating laws of this government was stopped by parliamentary opposition or the protests of the democratic and priggish public opinion.
Have we come close to a definition of the regime that has governed Italy since 1994?
I believe so. This regime includes the behaviours of fascism (police brutality, as we saw in Genoa 2001, the irresponsibility that led Mussolini's Italy to the catastrophic war of 1940-45, the servility that has always characterised Italian intellectual life). It also includes features that are proper to the mafia (the contempt for public goods, the toleration of economic lawlessness).
But it cannot be defined as a mere re-edition of the fascist regime, nor as a system of mafia. Aggressive neo-liberalism and media-populism are its decisive features. It objectively functions as a laboratory for the cultural and political forms crucial to the development of semio-capital.
The history of modern Italy ought to be written taking the farcical proclamations of Risorgimento, fascism and the democratic republic less seriously. A history could be written starting from the work of Lorenzo Valla, his elegy of vileness and hedonism, and Niccolò Machiavelli, with his affirmation of the incompatibility of morality and politics. This history could be centred around Manzoni's don Abbondio, Vittorio Gassmann and Alberto Sordi, who in The great war embody the popular wisdom that always refused to believe that one's country is more important that life. And it should take into account the Mediterranean cult of femininity, hedonism and tenderness.
The refusal of protestant austerity and self-sacrifice is the salt of the Italian adventure, the elasticity and intelligence of a people who never believed in the mother country or the general interest, and because of this remained irreducible to the logic of capitalism that identifies the general interest with profit and growth.
This cowardice lacked the courage of reclaiming itself, and remained a marginal privy of the lower classes, excluded from history. Official language identified with the rhetoric reminiscent of Roman empires, thus creating the conditions for on the one hand the self-deprecation that rules over Italian public discourse and on the other the pompous and empty affirmation of Italian nationalism and the fascism that is its natural expression.
The main thread in the history of this country and of the self perception of the Italian people is a mixture of unavowed cowardice and self-contempt, the source of the aggressiveness that finds its full expression in fascism. The Latin cult of virility that aggressively posits itself above the tenderness and femininity of Mediterranean culture is both tragic and farcical.
Cowardice is ambivalent: in its immediacy it signals the hedonist consciousness of the supremacy of pleasure over historical duty. But this consciousness does not reconcile with the imperialist and machos mythologies embodied in the tragic farce of fascism.
Unable to accept cowardice as tenderness, unable to accept the predominance of the feminine in Mediterranean culture, Italian history is full of farcical characters who take on heroic tasks and inevitably cause tragedies the ridiculous implications of which can never be concealed. The figure of Salandra, who starts crying during the Versailles Congress because the British would not listen to Italian demands, finds its counterpart in the figure of Mussolini, who wants to vindicate the mutilated victory and exalts the masculine masses with the promise of break-all military adventures, eventually leading the country to a catastrophic war.
By comparing its present hedonism and subaltern status to a mythological past of imperial superiority, Italian culture revels in self-contempt because it refuses to accept its feminine side. When it tried to react to self-contempt by affirming an improbable virility, it embarked on infamous and truly paltry adventures, such as the vile attack on France after it had already been defeated by Hitler in the late spring of 1940, or in its habit of running to help the winners only to discover that they end up losing with its help.
There are rare moments when self-contempt turns into a positive valorisation of tenderness, abandonment and idleness: these are the only times when Italian culture produced something original, when Mediterranean femininity was placated in a collective enjoyment of the potentialities matured by the collective productive intelligence. In the 60s and 70s the predominant movement in society veered towards abandoning all imperialist pretences and embracing a joyous quality of life, freed from the urgency of economic productivity.
The movement in Italy can start again from a declaration of absolute weakness, abandonment, and retreat. Let's withdraw our intelligence from the race of capitalist growth and national identity, let's withdraw our creativity and our time from productive competition. Let's inaugurate a period of passive sabotage, of definitive evacuation of the ridiculous wrapping that is called Italy.
Franco Berardi, May 2008
Translation by Arianna Bove