‘Factory of Unhappiness’, interview with Bifo

MF: In your new book, ‘The Factory of Unhappiness’ you
describe a class formation, the ‘cognitariat’ – a conflation
of cognitive worker and proletarian, working in ‘so-called
jobs’. You’ve also previously used the idea of the ‘Virtual
Class’. What are the qualities of the conitariat and how
might they be distinguished from this slightly higher strata
depicted by Kroker and Weinstein in ‘Data Trash’?

Bifo: I like to refer to the concept of virtual class, which
is a class that does not actually exist. It is only the
abstraction of the fractal ocean of productive micro-actions
of the cognitive workers. It is a useful concept, but it
does not comprehend the existence (social and bodily) of
those people who perform virtual tasks. But the social
existence of virtual workers is not virtual, the sensual
body of the virtual worker is not virtual. So I prefer to
speak about cognitive proletariat (cognitariat) in order to
emphasize the material (I mean physical, psychological,
neurological) disease of the workers involved in the
net-economy.

MF: The political / economic theorisation of post-fordism
which has much of its roots in Italian activism and thought
of the sixties, seventies and onwards is now an established
term in describing post-industrial, work conditions. You
present a variant of this, and one which suggests that the
full political dynamics of this change have yet to be
appreciated – how can we describe the transition from ‘The
Social Factory’ to ‘The Factory of Unhappiness’?

Bifo: Semiokapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, and
submits them to machinic speed. It compels our cognition,
our emotional hardware to follow the rhythm of the
net-productivity. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because
cyberspace is an unbounded sphere, whose speed can
accelerate without limits. But cybertime (the time of
attention, of memory, of imagination) cannot be speeded up
beyond a limit. Otherwise it cracks… And it is actually
cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyperproductivity.
An epidemic of panic is spreading thoroughout the circuits
of the social brain. An epidemic of depression is following
the outbreak of panic. The current crisis of the new economy
has to be seen as consequence of this nervous breakdown.
Once upon a time Marx spoke about overproduction, meaning
the excess of available goods that could not be absorbed by
the social market. Nowadays it is the social brain that is
assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding
goods. This is why the social factory has become the factory
of unhappiness: the assembly line of netproduction is
directly exploiting the emotional energy of the virtual
class. We are now beginning to become aware of it, so we are
able to recognize ourselves as cognitarians. Flesh, body,
desire, in permanent electrocution.

Snafu: This consideration opens up, in your book, an
interesting reflection about the mutated relationship
between free and productive time. In the Fordist factory,
working time is repetitive and alienating. Workers start to
live elsewhere, as soon as they leave the workplace. The
factory conflicts with the “natural desires” of the worker.
On the contrary, in the post-fordist model, productivity
absorbs the social and psychological capacities of the
worker. In this way, free time progressively loses its
interest, in favour of what you call the contemporary
“reaffectivization” of labour. On the other side, you depict
the net-economy as a giant “brainivore”. My question regards
the apparent contradiction embedded in this double movement.
How is it possible that people are at the same time so
attached to their job and so exhausted by it? What are the
psychological reasons that push people to build their own
cages?

Bifo: Every person involved in the Net-economy knows this
paradox very well. It is the paradox of social identity. We
feel motivated only by our social role, because the sensuous
life is more and more anorexic, more and more virtualized.
Simultaneously we experience a desensualization of our life
because we are so obsessed by social performance. It is the
effect of the economic backmail, the increasing cost of
daily life: we need to work more and more in order to gain
enough money to pay the expensive way of life we are
accustomed to. But it is also the effect of a growing
investment of desire in the field of social performance, of
competition, of productivity.

snafu: Moving onto a material level, economic conditions
seem pretty irrelevant to the formation of the cognitariat.
But, we all know that enormous disparities take place within
the net-economy. Do you think that all of the cognitive
workers live on their body the same level of exploitation?
And what do these workers are really demanding, more money
or more free time? Do you think that the stress from
hyper-productivity is the only factor in the possible
emergence of a self-consciousness in the virtual class?

Bifo: I do not think at all that the economic condition is
irrelevant. You know, people has been forced to accept low
salaries, flexible and unlimited exploitation, a work day
with no limits because every single fragment of the social
relationship has become expensive. Before the liberist
frenzy you could spend a night with friends and go around in
the city with few money or no money at all. Nowadays, after
the liberist therapy, every human relationship has been
marketed. Gratuity has disappeared from the landscape of
human relationship. This is why the human relationship is no
less and less human.

MF: Following from this, in what ways are people developing
forms of resistance, organisation, solidarity that shift the
algorithms of control in their favour in ‘the movement of
the cognitariat’. Or in other words, what forms – and given
the difference between the ‘felicita’ of the original title
and ‘happiness’ in English – might the production of
happiness take?

Bifo: Resistance is residual. Some people still create
social networks, like the centri sociali in Italy: places
where production and exchange and daily life are protected
from the final commodification. But this is a residual of
the past age of proletarian community. This legacy has to be
saved, but I do not see the future coming out from such
resistance. I see it in the process of recombination. I see
this movement, spreading all over the world, since the days
of the Seattle riots as the global movement of self
organisation of cognitive work. You know, I do not see this
movement as resistance against globalisation. Not at all.
This is a global movement against corporate capitalism.
Problem is: where is it receiving its potency from? I don’t
think that this is the movement of the marginalized, of the
unemployed, of the farmers, of the industrial workers
fighting against the delocalisation of the factories. Oh
yes, those people are part of the movement in the streets.
But the core of this movement resides in the process of
conscious self-organization of cognitive work all over the
world, thanks to the Net. This movement represents, in my
view, the beginning of a conscious reshaping of the
techno-social interfaces of the net, operated by the
cognitarians. Scientists, researchers, programmers,
mediaworkers, every segment of the networked general
intellect are going to repolarize and reshape its episteme,
its creative action.

MF: You were involved in manifestations against the OECD
meeting in Bologna. What are the tactics developing in that
movement and elsewhere that you see as being most useful?
What are those that perhaps connect the cognitariat to other
social and political currents?

Bifo: I do not think that the street is the place where this
movement will grow. In the streets it was symbolically born.
The street riot has been the symbolic detonator, but the
net-riot is the real process of trasformation. When eighty
thousand people were acting in the streets of Seattle,
three, four million people (those who were in virtual
contact with the demonstration thanks to the Internet) were
taking part in a big virtual meeting all around the globe,
chatting, discussing, reading. All those people are the
cognitariat. So I think that the global movement against
corporate capitalism is absolutely right when it goes to the
streets, organizing blockades like in Seattle, Prague,
Bologna, and Quebec City, and next July in Genova. But this
is only symbolic action that fuels the real movement of
sabotage and of reshaping, which has to be organized in
every lab, in every place where cognitarians are producing,
and creating the technical interfaces of the social fabric.
The industrial working class needed a political party in
order to organize autonomy, struggle, self-organization,
social change. The netwoked class of the cognitariat finds
the tool of self-organization in the same network that is
also the tool of exploitation. As far as the forms of the
struggle in the streets are concerned, I think we should be
careful. This movement does not need violence, it need a
theatricalisation of the hidden conflict that is growing in
the process of mental work. Mental work, once organized and
consciously managed can be very disruptive for capitalist
rule. And can be very useful in reshaping the relationship
between technology and social use of it.

snafu: I’d like to know what the ‘keywords of resistance
within every lab’ that you mentioned are, and to ask what
the technical interfaces of the social fabric are? In
particular i’d like to understand if, when you mention the
techno-social interfaces, you refer to non-proprietary
systems such as Linux, or if you have a broader view. But
also, if the shared production of freeware and open source
softwares represents a shift away from capitalism or if we
are only facing the latest, most suitable form of capitalism
given in this historical phase. As far as i know, military
agencies and corporations use and develop free software as
well as hacker circuits…

Bifo: Well, I do not see things in this antagonistic
(dialectical) way. I mean, I do not think that freeware and
open source are outside the sphere of capitalism. Similarly
I do not think that the worker’s collective strike and self
organisation in the old Fordist factory was ouside the
sphere of capitalism. Nothing is outside the sphere of
capitalism, because capitalism is not a dialectic totality
suited to be overwhelmed (Auf-heben) by a new totality (like
communism, or something like that). Capital is a cognitive
framework of social activity, a semiotic frame embedded in
the social psyche and in the human Techne. Struglle against
capitalism , refusal of work, temporary autonomous zones,
open source and freeware… all this is not the new
totality, it is the dynamic recombination allowing people to
find their space of autonomy, and push Capitalism towards
progressive innovation.

snafu: Another question is about the network. It can be used
as a tool of self-organization, but it is also a powerful
means of control. Do you think that there are new forms of
life emerging within the network? I mean, can the network
guarantee the rise of a new form of political consciousness
comparable to the one emerging with mass parties? At the
moment, global networks such as nettime, syndicate, rhizome
and indymedia remain platforms for exchanging information
more than real infrastructures providing support,
coordination and a real level of cooperation (with few
exceptions, such as the Toywar). Do you see the development
of the network of the cognitarians, from a means of
info-distribution to a stable infrastructure? How the
different communities – such as hackers, activists,
net.artists, programmers, web designers – will define a
common agenda? At the moment each of them seem to me pretty
stuck on their own issues, even when they are part of the
same mailing list…

Bifo: The net is a newborn sphere, and it not only going
effect conscious and political behaviour, but it is also
going to re-frame anthropology and cognition. The Internet
is not a means (an instrument) of poltical organisation, and
it is not a means (an instrument) of information. It is a
public sphere, an anthropological and cognitional
environment. Recently I heard that number of scientists all
over the world are struggling in order to obtain the
publication of the results of pblicly-funded research.
“Scientists around the world are in revolt against moves by
a powerful group of private corporations to lock decades of
publicly funded western scientific research into expensive,
subscription-only electronic databases. At stake in the
dispute is nothing less than control over the fruits of
scientific discovery – millions of pages of scientific
information which may hold the secrets of a cure for Aids,
cheap space travel or the workings of the human mind.” The
Internet is simultaneously the place of social production,
and the place of selforganisation.

MF: After the May Day demonstrations in Central London, at
the central end of which the police, several thousand of
them, penned in a similar number of demonstrators for hours,
it strikes me that It’s almost as if the police are
determined themselves to teach the people that staying
static is a mistake. Certainly though, new ways of moving
collectively in space are being invented and many of those
are being tried out in the street. But perhaps amongst other
currents there is also a reluctance or a nervousness about
doing something concrete, about using power in a way that
might risk repeating the impositions we have all
experienced. On the one hand it could be said that this
meakness is a strength, (if not just a public expression of
a vague moral unease) but on the other it could be
understood precisely as a result of this awareness that
people have that their actions are always implicated in a
multi-layered network of medial reiteration. Centralised
networks that stratify and imprison people in the case of
CCTV, but that also networks that are at once diffuse but
that also contain, as you say, ‘exploitation’. Given this,
what are the ways in which you claim that this ‘net-riot’
creates transformation or exerts its political strength?

Bifo: I see two different (and interrelated) stages of the
global revolt: one is the symbolic action that takes place
in the street, the other is the process of selforganisation
of cognitive work, of scientists, researchers, giving public
access to the results of the cognitive production, unlocking
it from the hold of corporations. It may sound paradoxical.
The physical action of facing police in the streets, of
howling below the windows of IMF, WTO and G8, this is just
the symbolic trigger of the real change, which takes place
in the mental environment, in the ethereal cyberspace.

MF: Returning to the issue of the relationship of bodies to
the machines with which they work and to the information
structures they form part of, it seems there are two strands
to this. One is the relatively straightforward attention to
the ergonomic conditions of working with computers,
repetitive strain injury / carpal tunnel syndrome,
eyestrain, the position of becoming an appendage to a
telephone in a call centre etc. The other is how bodies are
opened up as spaces to be interrogated by information
systems. The obvious example of this is in the way that
genetic material is thought about, as something that can be
isolated and databased, but also as an ‘agent’ whose purpose
is to deliver ‘information’ to the flesh that interprets and
realises its instructions and which we will see as providing
a rationale for the ‘improvement’ of bodies. Related to
this, but occurring in a more diffuse way, is the increased
emphasis on diagnosing what can be understood as information
processing sicknesses – the recent study that claimed that
70% of all males have some form of autism for instance. Most
interesting here is the idea of some of these syndromes,
such as Asperger’s Syndrome, which it is often speculated is
one enjoyed by Bill Gates, are increasingly understood to be
productive in certain ways. What might this suggest about
the way notions of health in relation to information and
productivity are treated?

Bifo: I am not able to answer your question properly,
because it implies so many fields of knowledge which I have
only heard of. I see that the Global Mind is creating a sort
of Global body, which is the continuum of distant organisms
connected through the nonorganic electronic network. The
Global Body is the productive body of the net, but it is
also the space where viruses spread, the space of contagion.
So therapy should work at the same level, at the collective
level. This is the idea of therapy proposed by Felix
Guattari.

MF: It’s clear also that the means of access to becoming a
member of this class are becoming hardened as its function
becomes more defined. In the UK and elsewhere, in the sphere
of education there is a substantial slippage of the mask of
Liberal Humanism, with education ‘as a value in itself’
moving towards strictly instrumental vocational training to
create this new workforce. (This is also mirrored in the
economic pain that students are made to suffer if they are
to complete their studies). You are involved with a
Hypermedia course in Bologna. How is an awareness of the
composition of the cognitariat built into the course?

Bifo: I have been teaching in a public school for web
designers and videomakers, but my teaching experience is
very fragmented and scarcely academic. But your question is
very interesting, because it pinpoints the importance of a
new didactic theory. What should we teach to our students?
What should they learn? I say that we should make them
conscious of their belonging to the process, and we should
at the same time show them the possibility of existing
outside the process. The danger in the process of the
transmission of knowledge is the following: the ‘power
point’ technicalities creating the Novum Organum of Science.
Knowledge reduced to a functional system of frequently asked
questions, the digital formalisation of didactics, of the
method and of the contents of knowledge. You remember that
Karl Marx wrote somewhere that the proletariat is the heir
of classical german philosophy. It was just a metaphor. But
now we can say in a stricly literal sense that the
cognitariat is the heir of modern science and philosophy,
and also the heir of the modern art and poetry. The social
liberation of the cognitariat is also their appropriation of
the technosocial effects of knowledge.