Humanism and Automation

In the aftermath of the last possible uprising

Franco Berardi

The uprising in 2011

And Phenomenology of the end is not a political text, far from it. It is concerning the end of Modern Humanism and the shift from the realm of conjunction to the realm of connection, in the field of sensibility. These notes are intended to situate this text in the present historical context.

When I finished writing this text, in the years 2011-2012, an uprising of sort was underway. Students were marching in London to protest against the cuts in education, and a group of rioters surrounded the Charles and Camilla limousine, do you remember?

The Spanish acampada of May June 2011, and the Greek people’s strenuous resistance tried to overthrow the financial dictatorship. In vain.

In the Spring of 2011 the Arab cities saw the widest uprising ever: young people were fighting  against local dictators and global financial capitalism. But the movement of precarious cognitive workers, the avant-garde of the Egyptian and Syrian rebellions proved unable to lead a long lasting democratic transformation of their countries, and the process was hijacked and diverted by all kinds of identitarian fanaticism, and turned finally into a military confrontation opposing nationalism and fundamentalism.

In September 2011 the uprising exploded in New York city, and the outburst of Occupy Wall street was followed by a fresh wave of occupations aiming to the reactivation of the social body of cognitive precarious labor.

The occupy spirit resounded in many places of the world, particularly in the Gezi Park protests and occupations, in the Brasilian  massive protests of Summer 2013. These processes of uprising have been different as different are the cultural contexts and the political outcome, but they share nonetheless a common ground: the social composition of labor, the emerging force of cognitive workers simultaneously global and precarious.
Precarious cognitarians gave the global process a common character and meaning: the search of autonomy of knowledge and technology from the grip of financial capitalism.

If the attempt to resist and subvert the corporate capture of knowledge has been the defining novelty of this movement, the recomposition of the social and erotic body of the general intellect is in my opinion the hidden meaning of the overall process named Occupy.

Media-activism, the development of P2P technologies, and also the experimentation of alternative currencies can be viewed as examples of the attempt to re-appropriate the product of knowledge, while the occupation of spaces has been the example of a process of recomposition of the erotic body of society and an attempt to conjoin with the cognitive potency of the networked general intellect.

But at the end of the day both these processes have proved unable to break the chain of debt and financial automatisms that are provoking the impoverishment of social life.

The 2011 uprising has turned into the ultimate catastrophic defeat: in the Arab world military dictatorship and fundamentalism are now occupying all the political space. In New York city twelve months after Occupy Wall Street the movement changed its name into Occupy Sandy, realizing that only the catastrophe has been left to be occupied.

In Europe the defeat takes a special meaning, marking the end of a long historical cycle: the conflict that started in Paris in June 1848, the gigantic conflict opposing workers against capitalists is over, and the workers have lost. Forever. There will be no return match, there will be no revenge.

Social history is not like a chess championship: if you loose the game you cannot arrange the pawns on the chessboard and start a new game. In social history when the worker class has been defeated everything changed on the chessboard, and the pawns changed their color and their shape, and they are no more were they were.

Therefore social imagination has to find the way to a new process, the chessboard itself has to be changed, as the field of action will shift from politics to techno-science, from economic negotiation to the desertion of the economy, to the creation of non-economic spheres of symbolic action.

The 2011 uprising erupted in different political and social situations, and in the different contexts people were nurturing different expectations. But a common consciousness emerged: financial capitalism is destroying the future of the precarious generation worldwide, and simultaneously is submitting knowledge production.

Precarization is affecting every sphere of working activity, but precariousness is particularly suited to the recombinant networked labor, particularly those forms of labor that can be reduced to information. This is why precarity is the general form of cognitive labor.

By the point of view of the precarious cognitive work, the 2011 uprising was the beginning of a new process that will traverse the social landscape in the decades to come.  But the rebellion of precarious cognitive work has to get free of the legacy of the late modern proletarian revolts and the historical legacy of the industrial conflicts of the past.

The late modern proletarian revolt is over, as the industrial worker class has been defeated long ago, since when the opportunity offered by the technological revolution was missed.  The possibility of a general redistribution of work time was missed, and the worker’s movement marched against technological innovation rather than taking advantage of it. Now it is too late to subvert this defeat.

I don’t think that the old history will vanish. There will be more rebellions, more riots, more wars and scarcities and huge mass mobilization, and rage and despair. You can bet on it.

As huge as they will be, they will only be residuals: ineffective, unable to touch the core of financial abstraction, unable to change the direction of the automated machine. Residuals will be the bodies, the sentiments, the events the will and the rage and the violent despair. History is dead because the Evolution, as a demented inescapable flow, is submerging the traces of historical teleological consciousness. And Evolution has no aim, no rationality and no intention.  Like Nature it is blind, and Nature is now taking its revenge.

The obliteration of Europe

The long lasting (never ending, actually) process of capitalist deregulation that started forty years ago, has established a form of Capitalist Absolutism: the rule of law is over, as the deterritorialized financial capitalism is invisible and unattainable by the law.

The obliteration of the European specificity has been the pinnacle of the aggression that financial capitalism waged against the workers of the world, paving the way to the final dismantling of the social civilization based on democracy and negotiation.

What is the European specificity?

I am not talking of European identity. There is no European identity, as Europe is the crucible of uncountable conflicting identities and the creation of a non identitarian space was the force of the (now extinguished) project of European Union. The force of Europe was exactly here: a project of peace and solidarity based on the will and the free imagination of the future. The Union project was not based on identity, and did not imply any belonging. Nevertheless the European project was based on the specificity of a cultural and political history that the Union was supposed to preserve: the historical legacy of humanism, democracy and social solidarity.

Since the beginning of Modern Age the history of Europe used to be indissolubly linked to the history of Humanism, and the cultural reality of the European countries after the end of World War 2 used to be indissolubly linked to Democracy and social solidarity (call it welfare if you want).

This cultural and social specificity that Europe inherited from history was the main obstacle to the final triumph of the sheer implementation of Financial absolutism worldwide.

In order to oblige the workers of the world to accept any form of exploitation, slaverism and violence, the example of the European workers had to be cancelled, and global financial capitalism put all the efforts into destroying the specificity of Europe in the five years that followed the 2008 crash.

Democracy has been cancelled in the very country where this word was first conceived 25 centuries ago, the very day when Georgi Papandreou was silenced and obliged to resign because he dared to propose a referendum on the diktat of the financial troika. The Welfare system has been carefully dismantled: privatization of the school system, massive layoff of public employees, outright precarization of labor. As a result, the average salary of the European workers has been halved while unemployment is on the rise everywhere and the limits of the work time have been cancelled.

The political panderers now say that the recovery is in view. They call it jobless recovery as it is based on the final humiliation and impoverishment of the European society.

What next? It’s hard to predict if the political format of the European Union will survive. Nationalist parties are on the rise everywhere, civil war is mounting at the borders. The Union will survive or will die, who cares? What counts at the end of the social civilization, the obliteration of a possible model for the workers of the world.

Humanism was based on the premise that the human activity (intrapresa in the parlance of the Italian Renaissance) is not submitted to any theocratic will: God gave a name and an essential nature to every creature of the world, but had no name and no essential nature for his ultimate creature, the Man. This freedom was the foundation of Humanism, and politics in Machiavelli’s thought is the arbitrary exercise of this freedom.

The formation of a theocracy of financial kind has been unstoppable because it is based on a system of inescapable automatisms which are stronger than political will.

After the end of Humanism a sort of Neo-Human civilization is emerging, shaped by the American experience: Puritanism and Virtualization.

The general intellect and the social body

The financial theocracy, however, is only the alienated form of the activity of human brains and digital machines, connected and functioning according to rules that are not naturally inscribed in the system, but consciously and unconsciously embedded in it by the activity of the general intellect.

As the hyperworld, – parallel universe proliferating in the sphere of the virtual ubiquitous nowhere – is provoking a withdrawal of energy from the bodily sphere, competition is exalted as the only form of social relation, and ferocity is spreading wherever in the very fabric of daily life.

The public system of education is under dismantlement, paving the way to the privatization of research and the submission of knowledge to private profit. The unrelenting impoverishment of the social sphere is the predictable outcome of the accumulation of resources in the hands of a tiny financial class. Darkness is falling upon Europe, and it seems difficult to skip the harsh consequences of the war that financial capitalism is waging against the social civilization: poverty, violence, regression.

The next decades in Europe will be marked by impoverishment, decay in the institutions of civilization, identitarian aggressiveness and war. The workers of the so called emerging countries are not going to take advantage from the collapse of the former colonial powers. Low salary, growing exploitation and skyrocketing pollution are their destiny, as the weakness of the Western workers is not empowering the workers of the new industrial world, but the other way round.

Financial capitalism is acting as a draining pump, drying up social life and smashing the cultural foundation of social solidarity. As an attractor and destroyer of future, financial capitalism is capturing energies and resources and transforming them into monetary abstraction: nothing.

Heart of darkness of the Neoliberal agenda, Monetarism is based on the dissolution of the products of labor and intelligence into the abstraction of money, the most effective pathway to capital accumulation. The credit derivatives market is the place where destruction replaces production. Since the ’80, when “futures” have become common place in the deregulated financial markets, financial agencies have started to invest their money in a paradoxical way: if they win they cash money, if they lose they cash more money from insurances on credit default swaps and similar financial tricks.

The old industrial model of accumulation was based on the cycle M-G-M (Money-Goods-more Money). The new financial model of accumulation is based on the cycle M-P-M (Money-Predation-more Money), which implies the following: Money – social impoverishment – more Money.

This is the origin of the Black Hole that is swiftly dissipating the legacy of industrial labor and of the very structures of Modern civilization.

A fissure is running in our perception of time, and we are trying to escape it. It is like a tectonic fault in the texture of our expectations, a deep cut in our imagination of the future.

The Modern art of politics, the rational prediction and the voluntary act of government is deprived of potency and effectiveness.

For the time coming after the future we have to learn how to ride on the dynamics of an irreversible disaster, and simultaneously we have to imagine a different relation between the general intellect and the social body.

The separation of the general intellect from the social and erotic body is the main point of alienation of Semiocapitalism. Questioning this separation is going to be the starting point of the new game, a game whose stakes will be the emancipation of cognitive activity from the automatisms produced by the general intellect itself.

Alternative currencies and the automation trend

Is it possible to undo the financial system from the inside? Is it possible to use money as a lever against the financial trap?

This is the new idea circulating in some areas of the movement and in the heads of some open minded techno-financial nerds. The Occupy spirit was essentially an attempt in deconstructing the financial automation of social life. So when money becomes the general force of domination someone has to challenge the money from inside.

As finance takes over social life subjugating daily life through the imposition of  debt, autonomy from financial command is first emerging as insolvency. Organizing insolvency is only possible when social solidarity is strong, and in the present condition the links of solidarity are weak because of the work precarization. Rudimentary forms of alternative currencies for local exchange have appeared in the last years in many places of Europe adding to experiences like sharing of time and of basic services and goods. More sophisticated forms of alternative currencies have been recently produced by high skilled programmers: Bitcoin is the best known. Generating money is a technical problem, but replacing the financial money with alternative money is a problem of trust.

Money and language are nothing, but they move everything. How can they do that?

Money is a tool for simplification of social relations, and the enormous complexity of the present world of technology and knowledge is translated by the language of money in terms of simple brutality.

Alternative currencies cannot have the same simplicity although they can act as a game changer, I don’t know. What I know is that algorithmic money is the ultimate tool for automation: automation of behavior, of language, of relation, automation of evaluation and exchange.

Regardless of the intentions of the Bitcoin miners, their conception of money is going to heighten the level of automation in the sphere of social exchange. Coding personal relationships into a programming language is the tendency: cryptomoney and cryptocontracts are turning more and more the relation among people into the execution of a programming language, into a sequence of acts that one must accomplish in order to access the following step.

The normative function of law is replaced by the automatic implication of human agents reduced to operational functions.

Automation is a word that enables the understanding of the transformations of social life in the last fifty years, and will be the keyword of the years to come. The concept of automation is intrinsically ambiguous. Think to the relation between automation and labor. Automation was expected to be a tool for the emancipation of time from the chain of salaried work, but generally it was the mechanic, electronic or semiotic submission of human acts to that chain.

If we look at the history of the last 50 years by the evolutionary point of view rather than by the point of view of political history, we understand that the main issue has been automation of the physical work, and the coming 50 years will be mainly about the automation of cognitive activity.

The overcoming of the industrial system has been enabled by the translation of physical acts into information. The automation of linguistic interaction and the replacement of cognitive and affective acts with algorithm sequences and protocols is the main trend of the current mutation.


In the last scene of the last film by Spike Jonze, titled Her, something interesting happens. The movie is about Theodore, a boring and melanchonic boy, who is
especially sad because his wife wants divorce, and has left him alone.
So he buys a last generation OS. Operative systems which evolve together with their users: They capture their owner’s linguistic reactions and moods, they read tons of instructions, and in short they become the best friends of their users. More than a friend Theodore needs a lover, and the OS he bought takes a female voice, and the name Samantha, and the story begins. They fall in love, if I may say so. Theodore falls in love with Samantha, and Samantha is perfectly complementing.
I don’t want to tell you all the story, just the end.
At the end Samantha disappears, and Theodore falls in despair, and goes to visit Sara, a friend who, like Theodore is living a human relation of friendship with a OS. Also Sara is alone, after being abandoned. All the OS have decided to leave.
After capturing the attention, the memory and the imagination of their owners, after sucking the spirit of their lovers, the automated machines get free of their boring, depressed, human friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top