The Conservatism of the Left

On describing postcapitalism as an emerging ideological proposition attempting to constitute itself as a force, I noted that “whether basing postcapitalism within the world of information flows or within the developments of automation, an assumptive rationality emerges that suggests a unidirectional travel”[1]. Postcapitalism as a pre-constitutive force aims to transcend the dialectic through the peaceful acquisition of power brought forward by production technologies and the new classes they inhere. It is paradoxical in implementing itself through indeterminacy, that being its strength and its weakness as it can both exploit capitalist dynamics but also be exploited (and expropriated) by them. Such exploitability is evident in the direction postcapitalism attempts to cohere a transformational moment (or series of moments), eschewing violent revolution, democratic arbitrage or shadow sectors in government or civil society in favour of a post-political moment of automation, where the forces of the fourth industrial revolution prove beyond the control of capitalist forces, producing societal contradictions in the form of automation-based mass unemployment and goods abundance on such a scale that the cognitive workers that undergird these systems become the modus operandi for transformation.

When reading Franco Berardi’s Futurability I felt a sense of déjà vu. The postcapitalist ideology was in full view as it posited a static, unidirectional conception of the future, paradoxically hopeless and hopeful. Berardi posits the “cognitarian” class as the vehicle for a postcapitalist future, so long as they can develop a level of social autonomy from “techno-linguistic automatisms” that control and direct the forces of capitalist production, investment and distribution. “Those who have the potency to disentangle the content of knowledge and technology are those who produce this content: the cognitarians. Disentangling their activity and their cooperation from the gestalt of accumulation is the only way. What they need is a technical platform for autonomous cooperation of the cognitive workers of the world, towards the view of dismantling and re-programming the machine. And what they need is the consciousness of their potency”[2].

How such autonomy is cultivated is never really specified beyond the idea of the general intellect. The collective cognitive capacities of those working in sectors related to artificial intelligence, robotisation, clerical automation and machine autonomy represent the facility for a revolutionary vector. Not through violent means or political movements that attempt at hegemony, but through the inherent contradictions of post-industrial production. In his analysis of the artist, the engineer, and the economist, Berardi shows how two forces of social autonomy (the artist) and technical capability (the engineer) are hamstrung by the social engineering and ideological obfuscation of the economist who, through sophisticated modelling and an uber-Methodenstreit, constructed parameters through which the imaginary conceals the real. The forces of capital constrain and constrict the potential forces of automated production which reveal a world of minimal work and greater abundance.

But why should this be so? Why should a vastly heterogenous collection of actors (both individual and collective) that make up the technological apparatuses of the modern world, ranging from Silicon Valley and military-industrial complexes to advertising agencies and data brokerages, produce a class consciousness that can structure a postcapitalist settlement? How can this class transform and transcend the inherent conflicts of technology and automation? In Berardi’s formulations I don’t see a potential figure or structure that moves us beyond capitalism, but a further entrenchment of the conservatism of leftist thought that continually grasps at the enlightenment potential of utopic humanism and struggles to recognise the violent underpinnings and coercive necessities of collective action and socio-economic transformation.

Berardi’s humanism shows a cloying framework through which to view relations with technology. While critical of Hardt & Negri’s boundlessness of possibility in the human condition, Berardi presents no meaningful limits to the capacity of human action. “It is instead ontological freedom, independence from predetermined forms”[3]. However, what does this mean in the presence of institutional coercion and the instantiation of force. While Berardi states humanism isn’t freedom from laws or states, surely these are themselves predetermined forms that parameterise freedom and possibility. Such freedom is depoliticised and asocial, as its conditions of possibility are proscribed not by the limitations of god, but by the collective limitations of legal capacities and institutional illegibility/complexity.

Such ontological freedom appears to reflect the impotence Berardi ascribes to the present condition. Limitations are present in all courses of action, representing the vitiation of conflicting forces of will that Nietzsche describes[4]. Such forces are not transcendable as conflict is a condition of collective existence. Politics and war are thus not things to be overcome. They can only be temporarily subsumed and controlled.

The hubristic humanism Berardi promotes appears to be little different to the propaganda of business management studies and their endless focus on the unlimited potentials of human capital as an innovative force in the post-industrial workspace. Berardi’s refusal to truly engage with the underlying violence of humanistic systems only encourages this pastiche potentiality of the human condition. His criticisms of writers like Heidegger and Schopenhauer further underlie a naivety perfectly at home with capitalist modernity, as he both reproaches the techno-semiotic condition of modernity while criticising any strong criticisms of it. He talks of re-founding a relationship with technology, but what this means in practice is ambiguous. Surely in re-founding, we must have coercive apparatuses that regulate such relationships or rely on the innate antagonism of the relationships themselves, as the inequalities of technological innovation and the displacing effect it has turn into new conflicts and sites of struggle.

Thus his humanism, while theoretically boundless, is entirely constructed within a postmodern technocratic means of control. Thus his praise of figures like Obama and Pope Francis. Here, in the non-populist centre, sit figures of despairing joy, whose potency can found new means of human relationship and control. It is a Habermasian discursiveness that moves from the coffee houses to the committee tables as collective potencies are strained through a post-democratic sieve. But the limits of such control have become evident in the successive crises defined by financial technocracy in 2008 and medical technocracy in 2020. The capacities of the things being controlled extend well beyond the cognitive and coercive capabilities of the controllers.

Such humanism sits within a wider array of forces and conflicts that are economic, viral and phenological. The complexity of these entities is beyond either individual or collective comprehension, as the intercursive flows of financial markets, global viruses and climactic variation limit the extension of human action, requiring adaptation, population reduction and social conflict over resources and arable land. Berardi’s conservatism comes to the fore in wishing for a humanistic technocracy that resituates the human as the initiator of potency while seeing post-political mechanisms as the best actant for this. Such a view is paradoxical, as ontological freedom is curtailed by the unaccountable bureaucracies that implement “solutions” for uncontrollable intercursive flows.

It then never escapes the neoliberal paradigm it so vociferously criticises, effusively praising figures like Obama as post-political saviours while failing to note the technocratic nature of Obama’s rule as a condition for the very forces that succeeded him. In many ways this is reflective of Berardi’s political inclinations. Post-politics itself is a slippery description for the occlusion of politics from popular spheres of discourse, debate and conflict. It is not the end of politics, but rather its centralisation into opaque forums. “Expecting the revivification of democracy and fighting for such a goal would be futile because the very conditions for the effectiveness of political reason (and particularly of democratic politics) have since dissolved”[5]. However, politics is not dead. The forces of populism, nationalism and irredentism that Berardi notes are themselves forces of political will, however futile they may end up being. Rather, in associating political action with democracy, Berardi closes off collective potentialities that go beyond the merely human limits of deliberation and co-optable democracies as for him so-called “reactionary” forces are no vector of transformative possibility.

Such an occlusion on his part reveals the limitations of his post-political humanist project premised on the autonomy of a diffuse cognitive class. Such a class itself constitutes an elite, both in the existing machinations of capitalism and in any theoretical postcapitalism. Their methods of learning and knowledge are inscribed in the algorithmic control they possess, and in extending this they extend their power over a wider array of apparatuses and systems. Their current entrenchment in capitalist dynamics shows their expropriability as a managerial class, of which “the science of operating and directing mass organizations, including the auxiliary sciences and fields that are necessary to their operation”[6] is key. Any capacity to escape via social autonomy is limited by their constitutive elitism within the capitalist-managerial regime, where they hold power. In this elite construction, there will emerge further limitations on ontological freedom.

What is dead is a leftist imaginary that can conceptualise popular mobilisation outside the restrictive paradigm of a progressive, technology-led humanism. Berardi demonstrates this by suggesting the only way out of capitalism is through the contradictions of post-industrial systems of automation that will awaken class consciousness against an enveloping automatism. But “no one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works”[7]. Capitalism thrives on contradiction as it produces the space for new capitals to emerge and methods of production and circulation to innovate.

“The future does not emerge from pure fantasy nor from political will; it is inscribed in the present. Nevertheless it is not inevitable, because the present exists in the oscillation between uncountable bifurcations”[8]. Yet the intentions of Berardi’s prescriptions posit a contradiction beyond capitalism. Where is it? The crises being thrown at capitalism are being absorbed, with their solutions actively endorsed by many on the left. Such is the death of the imaginary that the widespread implementation of medical surveillance (pushed alongside increasing police powers to limit protests and prevent forms of civil action) is celebrated as the return of the state. A variety of mandates, digital identification systems, infrastructural investments and policies aimed at stakeholder capitalism are welcomed as the return of the social as they limit the freedom of individuals to exit the yokes of coercive systems.

Such leftist conservatism has been on full display in the coronavirus pandemic, as elements of the left have restricted beliefs in popular will and liberty, now favouring technocratic control of our medical and economic lives. Benjamin Bratton is representative of this trend[9], as he sees the gains of internationalism best preserved via databanks and public regulation of technology. He proposes little on how this is achievable, instead heaping praise on countries like China and South Korea as examples to follow (while ignoring their fault lines and authoritarianism). Similarly, zero covid advocates play the same game as they suggest we can actually eliminate a respiratory virus through coordinated international action while giving no indication of how this might actually play out in the real world (except suggesting endless lockdowns and mask mandates which are neither sustainable nor desirable unless one really sees the purpose of life to be lived through a prism of pure safety). Both end up becoming reliant on a despairing joy of the almost limitless potency of human action, recognising neither constraints nor institutional entropy. It is a matter of willpower, thus reflecting Berardi’s criticism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in that they show willpower to be the limiting factor in human action, producing conflict as forces of will collide. Berardi rather sees willpower as the extension of potency as it branches out on an infinite plane, collaborating rather than colliding. As crises continue to envelop and retard human actions and institutional growth, I think we can see which is more likely.

Berardi’s description of an anti-globalist front demonstrates their own contradictions that are easily co-opted by neoliberal forces. “The emergence of Trump in American politics, and the proliferation of nationalist regimes in the Euro-Asian continent, may be read as the formation of an anti-globalist front that unifies Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Jarosław Kacziński and Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Boris Johnson. This front is the expression of the pressure of the white working class defeated by financial globalism, and it is heading for a total opposition to the neoliberal elite”[10]. The decaying effects of neoliberalism present in restrictive labour market, inflationary price increases, a generation locked out of home ownership and the delimitation of identity into the confines of consumerism naturally cause backlash. But for Berardi this is backlash of the wrong kind, as it finds solace in ethnic and national identities (as if these were a conceited fantasy rather than a common cultural marker) in lieu of an internationalist class identity (as much a fiction as ethnicity or nationality). Why shouldn’t the white working class have a shared identity that can oppose globalist or neoliberal forces? Why is such cohesion anathema yet other racial awakenings are progressive in character? Berardi’s thought here shows the apodicticity of his cultural attitudes and how they are easily co-opted to capitalist functions. Surely in creating spaces for social autonomy and new class identities, space is left for the development of other identities too. We see here the technocratic, occlusive nature of Berardi’s prescriptions.

Technocratic presumptions are also present in Berardi’s attempt to conceive of a postcapitalist subject as one devoid of struggle or the possibility for violent action (either defensive or offensive). While he talks of bifurcations as the outgrowth of possibilities, a wide range of social action designed to preserve forms of autonomy is excluded in the double bind of denying identity to “regressive” classes while seeing capitalist contradictions as the mechanism of its overthrow. Everything is reliant on the forces of automatism, all while automatism is decried as a reduced form of humanity. “The utopic attempt to remove struggle is simply the attempt to instantiate a devalued mechanism of meaning, one that is as much an outgrowth of capitalist dynamics of alienation as it is a limited horizon for socio-political cohesion/consolidation. A world without struggle is meaningless, in that labour is not the only form of struggle or suffering that can potentiate new or existing lifeworlds. It is ironic that they discuss the production of a utopia through struggle, sacrifice and crisis (which are prerequisites for any counter-hegemonic project) but then produce an administrative workaround for how society will be structured after the struggle. The culmination of utopia is the production of a dynamic entirely at odds with the production of its initial conditions, as the post-hegemonic position recreates the secular fantasy of a world at its endpoint, a true end to history”[11].

Berardi’s description of the necro-economy shows this as there is a recognition of the potential collapse of Western systems of rationality and discursivity but a failure to see that these systems rested on the very violence he eschews. Like much of utopian writing, Berardi sees in the social transfers of wealth and (limited) power to the industrial working classes in the West that followed the Second World War and the pax Americana a type of golden age (with significant caveats) which neoliberalism has privatised and deregulated into non-existence.

Now the crumbling effects of neoliberalism are taking their toll, there is a proliferation of micro-conflicts and a growth of shadow economies that latch onto and integrate with legitimate markets. Drug cartels, terrorist activity in the oil and natural gas exchanges, uranium sales and the fragmentary arms trade blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate profit. However, this very micro-violence is the very condition upon which human life and the fetters of civilisation have developed. Both cooperative and conflictual behaviours have defined the trajectory of societal developments, as humans have always grouped into tribes and stratifications. This original condition pervades all social forms[12].

How does Berardi think the golden age of capitalism developed? It was reliant on external markets for primary resources, particularly oil, iron ore and nickel, much of it located in former colonies under the yoke of American imperialism. How does Berardi think societies based on post-work and self-care can truly develop without a violent background to control their territory and preserve their gains? Societal action is premised on transfers of power, wealth, resources and knowledge, the very flows of intercursive activity that underlie the expansion of cognitive factors beyond the immediate individual. Violence is the original condition, and any capacity to create peace is premised on the externalisation of war. As much as Berardi wants to believe that the achievement of social struggle (of class over class) produces a conflict-less world, the phantasms of ethnicity, creed and tribe are innate human reactions to their environment, as well as outgrowths of intercursive activity in producing differentiations.

In these utopian schema we see a conservative drive for the nostalgia of class politics drafted onto class fragments that neither wholly represent a new proletariat nor have any degree of collective consciousness. The cognitive workers described by Berardi as constituting the productive class that are exploited represent a varied field of social actors as he admits. It runs the gamut from corporate management to programmers, database managers and administrative functionaries. There only connections tend be educational and demographic, with nearly all in these groups having university degrees and most tending to be urban or suburban. This has produced contradictory class dynamics as witnessed in the coronavirus pandemic, with these administrative fragments surviving comfortably and even profiting from stay-at-home orders while relying on the wider precariat to provide them services.

This conservative nostalgia for a cognitive class-in-waiting also ignores the realities of productive life i.e. the resource inputs required to fuel the automation and agriculture that will presumably provide comfort to this new class society. The blithe disregard for the livelihoods of those who mine the cobalt and lithium, and the for the continued environmental destruction that these inputs will produce for solar batteries, public transport, smart infrastructure, etc. is evident in the way that these problems are dealt with via the deus ex machina of automation. There is a certain irony in Berardi opposing the theological arguments of capitalism and automatism while allowing them in through the backdoor as automation is the linchpin through which a societal re-founding must follow. Suggesting a new social relation with technology is simply kicking the problem of human-technic relations further down the road. Unless we follow the plans of widespread soybean agriculture and meat replacements promoted by the Gates Foundation and other billionaire “luminaries”, the expanding world population combined with increasing land aridity and soil degradation (which centralised solutions through seed oils, ammonium usage and intensive monoculture only exacerbates) will meet phenological limits[13] that no amount of automation will solve.

Political violence will proliferate so as long as elite structures and technocratic systems remain as black boxes[14], unaccountable and asymmetrical in their effect and control. The limitations of human potency are ever present, whether in technic, economic or phenological forms. The expansion of potentials will always meet the will of alternatives forces. Utopic schemes provide nothing but a dead imaginary caught up in nostalgic dreams, positing a new end of history that will be grasped by an ethereal class or system. They represent occlusions easily co-opted by centralised narratives. Adaptation, liquidation and the forging of exits are the way forward.


[2] Franco Berardi, Futurability

[3] Franco Berardi, Futurability

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

[5] Franco Berardi, Futurability

[6] Samuel T. Francis, Leviathan & Its Enemies

[7] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

[8] Franco Berardi, Futurability

[9] Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real

[10] Franco Berardi, Futurability




[14] Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society

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