The insurgence of the European Precariat

Franco Berardi Bifo

*Translated by Alex Diceanu and Arianna Bove. The original Italian text is published on the Rekombinant mailing list. The French translation by Serge Quadruppani is available on Multitudes. 2006AD

A new European cycle

The struggle of French precarious and cognitive workers could mark the beginning of a new political and cultural cycle in Europe. Fully aware of being at once students, cognitive labourers, and precarious workers in the fluid cycle of recombinative capital, they started occupying the schools. This is a novelty: hitherto, such awareness had not been so manifest in student struggles.

If the French students defeated the CPE, they would certainly not have defeated precariousness: they will only have rejected its legal formalization and initiated a new phase in European social history. This phase of struggle and social invention will allow for the formulation of new rules and criteria of regulation of the labour-capital relation beyond neo-liberal slavery.

The dark core

Rather than a particular element of the productive relation, precariousness is the dark core of the capitalist process of production in the sphere of the global network in which a flow of fragmented and recomposing info-labour continuously circulates. Precariousness is the transformative element of the whole cycle of production. Nobody is shielded from it. The wages of workers on permanent contracts are hit, lowered and broken down; everyone’s life is threatened by precarisation. Digital info-labour can be broken down into fractal elements to be then recomposed in a place separate from where labour is supplied.

From the standpoint of capital valorisation, this flow is continuous; from the standpoint of the existence and time of cognitive workers, the character of labour performance is so fragmented that it can be recomposed in a cellular form. Pulsating cells of labour are lit and extinguished in the large control board of global production. The precarious nature of info-labour is not due to the accidental mischief of the bosses: the reason for it lies simply in the nature of the supply of labour time. Labour time can today be detached from the physical and legal person of the worker and becomes an ocean of valorising cells singularly called upon and recomposed by the subjectivity of capital.

Either guaranteed income or slavery

We need to rethink the relationship between recombinative capital and cognitive labour in a new referential framework. The attainment of a contractual negotiation of the cost of labour based on juridical persons is no longer possible because the supply of abstract productive labour is detached from the physical individual worker: the traditional wage form is outdated, it no longer guarantees anything. Hence the income of subordinate workers and employees is constantly decreasing whilst slave-like working conditions are being re-established.

Whilst it is true that the number of work places is on the rise, total wages have decreased.

But unemployment is much better than slavery. And this is what the French rebels have realised: they refuse the employers' blackmail : if you want to work, you must put up with slavery. The struggle of French precarious workers puts the question of wages on the agenda as question of global politics and demands a new wage form: a guaranteed income detached from work.

Clearly, guaranteed income cannot be seen as an extremist watchword. It is the only chance to flee the constitution of the generalised slave regime of labour relations. So long as the criteria of social government remains confined to the conceptual framework of economic growth and to the predominance of accumulation over and at the expense of social interest, guaranteed income will remain empty talk. The ties to growth and competitiveness, presented by dogmatic neo-liberal theory as natural laws and accepted as such by a Left incapable of non-dogmatic autonomous thought, are actually rules established and founded on a relation of forces that digital technologies have tilted in favour of capital through the deterritorialisation of labour.

Rules and forces

Rules are not immutable and no rule compels us to comply with the rules.

This is what the legalist Left never understood. Fixated on the idea that rules must be respected, it was unable to withstand confrontation on the new grounds opened up by digital technologies and by the globalisation of the cycle of info-labour.

The Right understood this very well and subverted rules that a century of trade unionism had established. In the classical mode of industrial production, rules were founded on a rigid relationship between labour and capital, and on the possibility of determining the value of a commodity on the basis of socially necessary labour time. However, the stage of recombinative capital is founded on the exploitation of fluid info-labour and there is no longer any determinate relation between labour and value.

Rather than restoring the rules violated by the Right we must invent new rules that are adequate to the flexible nature of the labour-capital relation that no longer presents any quantitative determination of value and time or any invariable element in the relationships between macro-economic forces.

Cultural insurrection in Europe

After the elections in Italy, a cultural process of generalized insurrection against precarious forms of existence needs to take place. Getting rid of the Right will only help to remove the tool of political power from the hands of dangerous people; but the struggle will start afterwards and we must strive to fight under the banner of a guaranteed income detached from the fluid process of cellular recombinative labour supply.

The struggle of French students can effect a revival of the European process. The French 'non' to the referendum on the constitution was essentially motivated by a refusal of the precarisation and devaluation of wages. Today, we are seeing the 'propositive' side of this 'no' vote. The European process can be governed by the interests of capital, whether it be protectionist or globalistic. But only labour, in its process of social recomposition, can function as the source of European justice and culture. This is another lesson of the French struggles in March.

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