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Net Culture, New Media And the Social Body

An interview with Franco Berardi Bifo. He spoke to Wolfgang Sützl about his concept of the "cognitariat"

Wolfgang Sützl: Bifo, one of the terms that have come to be associated with your work is the concept of the “cognitariat“. Does this concept refer to a danger, a new form of oppression? And if so, which possibilities of emancipation does it allow? What is the social perspective that the idea of the cognitariat holds?

Franco Berardi Bifo: The idea of the cognitariat, and of the “cognitarian“ as a member of the cognitariat, is connected to the idea that during the last years, perhaps the last decade, we lost touch with our body - with our social body, and our physical, erotic body. Net culture and all the new forms of digital production and new media have erased our relationship with our social body. But at the time of social and economic crises we are forced to take account of the fact that we do have a body, that in fact we do have a social and a physical body. Cognitarians are the workers of the virtual production. There is a moment when they can become aware of the fact that they are not purely virtual, they are not purely economic, that they also are physical bodies.

Wolfgang Sützl: How is the concept of the cognitarian related to the proletarian in the Marxian sense? In Marxist theory, too, estrangement of the body occurs because of an enslavement to the machine, and becoming conscious of this is a prerequisite of emancipation.

Franco Berardi Bifo: Of course the concept of the cognitariat has something to do with cognition, with the activity of knowledge, intellectual production, let’s say of collective intelligence, but it also contains the idea of proletarian in the Marxian sense. Who are proletarians? They are the people who have nothing to lose, because they have no property. The cognitarians have only their intellectual work force, and in the present crisis of the New Economy we will discover our social nature, our social relationships with each other.

Wolfgang Sützl: In Marxism, such a discovery leads to the proletarians emancipating themselves by taking power in the form of a revolutionary struggle. Nowadays few would find the perspective of a revolutionary overthrow convincing. How does the cognitariat liberate itself?

Franco Berardi Bifo: I don’t know. Nobody knows, because we are at the beginning of a process. At the beginning of the last decade, maybe in the last two decades, we have witnessed the formation of a completely new kind of relationship between human beings and their technical environment, and the productive processes changed rapidly in that period. So far, we have been deluded. We have been convinced by neo-liberal ideology that the end of the enterprise and labor are the same thing, that capital and labor are the same thing, and that intellectual labor is completely different from previous forms of labor. So far we have had a distorted perception of our reality, a kind of trompe d’oeil. I think that the process of emancipation has not yet begun. It is only in the course of the crisis of the New Economy that we can start to understand what this process could be like. You are right, the age of the revolution is over, probably for the cognitive labor, for cognitarians the process of emancipation is the same thing as the discovery of a new epistemological form, of the connections within the collective intelligence.

Wolfgang Sützl: There are many people around, especially in Internet culture, who would say that the Internet and ICTs offer a kind of a post-revolutionary space for emancipatory processes by making it possible to distribute and share knowledge before it can be appropriated by capital. Do you think that this is too optimistic a perspective?

Franco Berardi Bifo: There are people like Pierre Lévy, Derrick de Kerckhove and others, thinkers that I appreciate very much and I consider very important in developing a new social point of view, who have reflected on the rise of a new social force, the collective intelligence. But they have not seen – probably they have forgotten – the fact that this social force is not only intellectual, it has also a body – a socio-economic body ... If we lose our jobs, we lose everything. In the present crisis, investment tends to be channeled in to military technology, reducing the scope of innovation. But we have a social and a physical body, which is erased in the virtual economy. This is the point of departure of a new social thought. We have seen nothing so far.

Wolfgang Sützl: So for the cognitariat, emancipatory thought cannot work without the physical body. Street protests etc. still have a significance, even in the sight of virtualization and informatization. How do you assess the activities of the so-called anti-globalist movement, which seems to have one of its points of gravity in Italy?

Franco Berardi Bifo: The anti-globalist movement is in reality the global movement - it is the only global movement that exists nowadays, because capital has left the global arena and has re-assumed nationalistic forms, for example in the policies of the George Bush Administration.

Wolfgang Sützl: So capital is no longer organized in a globalizing fashion?

Franco Berardi Bifo: I think so, I think that the crisis of neo-liberal ideology is leading us towards a kind of resurgence of nationalism. During the next years we are going to see a destruction of the globalization process. The crash between America and Europe is really going to destroy it.

Wolfgang Sützl: So the anti-globalization movement is more global than globalization itself?

Franco Berardi Bifo: We really have the task of launching a new globalization, a globalization from below, a globalization of rights. You know, so far the anti-global or global movement has been largely an ethical movement. People have been protesting for ethical reasons. I sympathize a lot with the ethical revolt, but I think that ethical revolt is ineffective. And the revolt of the movement has been ineffective so far. In the present crisis this movement is going to become not only an ethical revolt, but also a social one. And this will change things. Because we will be involved in the movement not only through our ethical sentiment, but also socially, in our daily time, in our labor, in our social relationships, in our possibility of creation of understanding, of scientific research, and so on. The movement from Seattle to Genoa has been an ethical movement, in the future we are going to see a social movement of globalization from below.

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