Comments on the Uprising — In Conversation with Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Comments Off on Comments on the Uprising — In Conversation with Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Tuesday — 11.13.12 — Comments on the Uprising — In Conversation with
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

0. Introduction
1. About the book
2. A Letter from Sandy’s Sister

1. Introduction

What: Discussion and Meeting with Franco Berardi
When: Tuesday November 13th at 7:00pm
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor
Who: Free and Open to All

This Tuesday night (tomorrow), we would like to invite you for an informal
conversation with Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. For those of you who took part in
the Collective Mutations seminar in 2009 with him and many other friends
and contributors, this will be an opportunity to revisit together some
questions which emerged at that time (for example, “What can be done, …
when nothing can be done?”) and relate them to  developments since then
(namely, a sprawling uneven global uprising which continues to be
represented and understood as isolated and unrelated events).

For those who do not know his work or have not had the chance to take part
in 2009’s Connective Mutations seminar, this will be a nice chance to sit
together and have a conversation with one of the more creative and engaged
thinkers drifting with us through the fog of our present.

We will gather around the pretext of a newly published book in the
Semiotext free agent series, entitled the “Uprising, on Poetry and
Finance”, and we hope to begin with some remarks on the book and its
relation to previous conversations we have had and contemporary

The task for the evening could be to begin to consider together a few
central questions emerging at this moment, in relation to Bifo’s writings.

1. About the book

The Uprising is an Autonomist manifesto for today’s precarious times, and
a rallying cry in the face of the catastrophic and irreversible crisis
that neoliberalism and the financial sphere have established over the
globe. In his newest book, Franco “Bifo” Berardi argues that the notion of
economic recovery is complete mythology. The coming years will inevitably
see new surges of protest and violence, but the old models of resistance
no longer apply. Society can either stick with the prescriptions and
“rescues” that the economic and financial sectors have demanded at the
expense of social happiness, culture, and the public good; or it can
formulate an alternative. For Berardi, this alternative lies in
understanding the current crisis as something more fundamental than an
economic crisis: it is a crisis of the social imagination, and demands a
new language by which to address it.
This is a manifesto against the idea of growth, and against the concept of
debt, the financial sector’s two primary linguistic means of manipulating
society. It is a call for exhaustion, and for resistance to the cult of
energy on which today’s economic free-floating market depends. To this
end, Berardi introduces an unexpected linguistic political weapon–poetry:
poetry as the insolvency of language, as the sensuous birth of meaning and
desire, as that which cannot be reduced to information and exchanged like
currency. If the protests now stirring about the world are to take shape
and direction, then the revolution will be neither peaceful nor
violent–it will be linguistic, or will not be at all.

2. A Letter from Sandy’s Sister

Dear Bifo,

What are we welcoming you to in post-Sandy New York? How to welcome a
friend to a disaster site, especially when the disaster is surpassing our
capacity to see it, yet alone bear witness, or act up to it, in response
or relation to it.

What is the context here in New York, you and many other comrades must be

The storms came and went, and we are living in their wake. The city is
what you would expect after a very intensive period of resistance, the
energies have dispersed but remain tethered. The struggles have coalesced
around a few more focused initiatives. What exploded last Fall here in the
city is clearly not finished. A lot of people remain involved on an almost
daily basis and at this moment, a lot of the work of the last year has
translated into organizing relief efforts from the grounds of the most
devastated parts of the city.

Of course many involved in the occupation drifted away, beyond those who
lost their encampments, some out of exhaustion, others who simply lost the
thread, others at the inability to find what they came looking for, and
many others because of the daily grind or toll of being a human being,
having to pay rent, taking care of friends, family members, health
problems, depression, work, bills, payments, loans, debt, everything that
ails us, the structural adjustments inherited from the neoliberal

Of course, the recent elections and the fear that things could turn even
more dire corralled some of the more liberal elements involved. But there
is a sense, at least among those who saw what we saw here, that there is
no way to return back to a ‘normal state of things’, especially after the
sustained though fragmentary experiences of a more communal collective
public or common existence in the streets of the city.

The often mundane and sometimes willfully ignorant continuation of
activities in the city (cultural ones least exempted) without any sense of
what we are living through, both the joys and severe disappointments of
what unfolded on the streets of the city last year, is sometimes
unbearable. Those institutions, and those who work in them, who found a
way to talk themselves out of that moment last Fall, to treat it as
something exterior, sometimes with an approving but eventually patronizing
and distancing attitude, as well as those not allowing or fearful of
things getting out of hand, who discovered the police inside themselves or
in the places where they derive their income, in their spaces of work.

Most times it’s not the police that one has a hard time looking at in the
eyes, but more so, those closer to one’s circle of activities who took no
part, or at best found their own way to feed off it without risking
anything. It is not a moral problem or even an ethical one simply, it is
also about a disconnection of not having shared something very powerful.
Like a birth or death of a loved one which one is living through or after.

And those challenges are just a fragment of the picture. There are
interpersonal challenges, the politics of small groups; dynamics of race,
class, gender; the tugs and pulls of practical “consequential” work and
those with less immediately visible results; speed and action versus
contemplation, slowness, perceived inaction, human strike.

And its less the old tug of war between art and activism, and more the
rejection of both as we have known them.

The hurricane brought with it a new energy into the city.

In the Sunday leading up to the arrival of Sandy, one had the epiphany
that it was not that people are more willing to believe that the world
will end than they are able to imagine the end of capitalism. Rather, the
only way people can imagine the end of capitalism is through some
catastrophic or apocalyptic change. Of course, they should look to
Fukushima to dispel that hope or belief. But nevertheless, there was a
certain giddiness and pleasure of people finding solidarity waiting in
long lines to purchase whatever would be needed for the coming storm. And
this almost palpable collective sense that only such a natural disaster
could truly stop this monstrous machine which enslaves most of us. In its
aftermath, of course, all of lower manhattan was crippled without
electricity. Some parts of the city fared well while others lost
everything. This I don’t have to tell you, as it is likely people outside
New York saw much more of the spectacular images of the damage from the
storm than those who live inside the city. A friend of our’s whose family
lives in Syria spoke to us of frantic phone calls from relatives,
convinced after seeing the images on television that their son may have
perished in the flooding.

Immediately once the hurricane’s damage became apparent, someone wrote in
a local paper that these events only prove the need for a big state and so
would boost the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Ironic that both in the
aftermath of Fukushima as well as here in New York, those most able to aid
and help those devastated are not the state nor their corporate sponsors
but individuals acting collectively. Occupy Sandy outdoes the Red Cross
and FEMA and Walmart.

But even here, questions emerge about how the intense efforts of those
taking part in Occupy Sandy or the networks of solidarity and mutual aid
in post-Fukushima Japan are also in some way fulfilling the unremunerated
work of social reproduction that the neoliberal state relies upon to
“compete in the marketplace”.

I don’t mean to say this is work that the state should do. No, this social
reproduction is work that the state and corporations have never done, but
rely upon, increasingly so without any support, to sustain themselves.
Wages for Housework? Wages for Mutual Aid?

Can these processes and networks of mutual aid retain some antagonism to
the neoliberal state through a production of a common(s) or do they remain
as isolated efforts of assuaging the externalized costs of the violent
systems which govern our lives?

As some struggle to invent new forms of solidarity in the post storm
context, other comrades have been involved in attempting to target the
negative commons of capitalism not through the ecological dimension but by
addressing debt. And different campaigns and actions have emerged to raise
the possibility of a debt strike, student debt strike, consumer debt,
housing debt, …. . There are also efforts to take matters into people’s
own hands, by collective purchasing of junk debt, which collection
agencies or others buy and then try to collect upon. In this case, money
is raised to purchase the debt and then forgive it under the banner of a
rolling people’s jubilee.

In both cases, the question emerges, can a desiring community, or a
process of conscious collective subjectivation emerge as a response to the
negative commons of capitalism? And more importantly, can whatever we are
doing alter the sphere of social consciousness, the daily life, rhythm,
and social relations of the inhabitants of the city. And what happens when
these alterations are the result of impacts of ecological ruin and
financial ruin rather than conscious collective action? Or when the
conscious collective action is tied to the rhythms and narratives of a
capitalist media and an ever unfolding capitalist crisis which knows no

Is this part of the totally new brand of communism which you thought would
surface as a form of necessity and as the inevitable outcome of the stormy
collapse of the capitalist system? If so, how to build up the social
consciousness of this? Or is it, as you wrote in your book “After the
Future” a few years ago

“The fantastic collapse of the economy is certainly going to change things
in daily life, you can bet on it. But is this change consciously
elaborated? Is this connected with some conscious collective action? It is
not. This is why neoliberal fanaticism, notwithstanding its failure, is
surviving and driving the agenda of the powers of the world.”

Earlier in the same book you outline the following questions emerging from
what you called the zero zero decade 2000-2010.

a. how can we imagine a future of conscious collective subjectivation?
b. how will it be possible to create a collective consciousness in the age
of precariousness and the fractalization of time?
c. how will it be possible to practice social autonomy in a world where
capitalism has instituted irreversible trends of destruction?

I have wondered what have the sequence of events and uprisings, which were
sparked in Sidi Bouzaid after the immolation of Mohammad Boazzizi brought
as response or elucidation to these questions for you?

Moreover, in the seminars of 2009 at 16 Beaver, and in your recent
writings, you retain an almost obsessive insistence on inventions in
language, modes of irony, and poetry as necessary elements for provoking
or exploring the limits of our imaginary.  Interestingly, the struggles
over the last years, maybe more than anything I have mentioned exposed
some of the limits of that social imagination.

Of course, the police and the state resorted to the same imaginary of
provocation, extra-legal legal measures, and when all else fails,
violence. Of course, the capitalist press has no imaginary to speak of,
other than trying to fit these struggles into the existing paradigms of
political efficacy, movements, campaigns, and eventual absorption into
liberal democratic processes which could reform “the system” or systems.
And of course this immense climate change which mark these uprisings has
been framed, even by sympathetic commentators (and even from those
involved), often in the language of historical movements or the alter
globalization struggles, sometimes inadvertantly foreclosing emergent or
nascent political innovations.

Those of us struggling within continue to have to grapple with our own
imaginary. Beside an abstract idea of global justice, less inequality, …
what is the world we project, what is that horizon? Are we capable of
replacing representative democracy with more direct democratic processes?
Can democracy be disentangled from the capitalist and nation-state
assemblage it has been tethered to for so long?

Rather than project something into the future, these movements over the
last year or so have worked to emphatically reject the negative commons of
neoliberalism (comprised of the toxic debt, waste, and ecological ruin
which are its collateral damage). Here together with friends, we have
collectively explored the premise of the commons as a footing for this
global social justice we struggle for. We have relied on refusal,
disobedience, indignation, and revocation to find a language to describe
the social attitudes which can overcome the despair you have also spoken
of when confronted with the enormity of challenges and complex forms of
violence and destruction which persist globally. We have considered what
could be the cultural shifts and social practices which could compose a
non-capitalist life.

But we are also confronted with our own limits of a better future.
Ironically, a very source of strength of these struggles, which is no
longer believing in the future, in a progressive course, as if by nature
things just improve, also becomes a potential limitation. How to avoid the
mistakes of reconstructing a futurist “progressive” perspective, while
maintaining an idea of a horizon, some horizon. And if our horizon cannot
be one of disaster, catastrophe, apocalypse, or fear what could it be?

What about this question of language, poetry, irony, and the imaginary?
And what to do with this question of a future without a future?

It seems that this ongoing catastrophe is marked by small incremental
steps toward an abyss. For example, here in the US, in the Bush years, it
began with a Patriot Act, the camp in Guantanamo Bay, renditions and black
prisons. It continues now under Obama with additional laws allowing
interminable detainment of US citizens without charges (something
previously preserved only for detainees of other countries’ nationals) and
even extra judicial killings and assassinations. Ecology wise, it begins
with a depleting ozone layer of the 80’s, Chernobyl, the increased
destruction of rain forests, global warming, seed privatization and
destruction of biodiversity, to this summer’s report of the alarming rate
of melting polar ice caps, and most recently hurricane season as a common
phenomenon in New York City. The Gulf Oil Spill, Fukushima, and the
countless other disasters which amplify the toxic mix of global corporate
rule and the apparent inability to stop the course of this “progress” are
staggering. But the changes appear in increments and with time amount to a
very different world but one we don’t have access to. It is not unlike
what our friend Jalal Toufic talks about when he speaks of the things
which do not accede to awareness during extreme situations, and which he
claims, art and writing can resurrect.

So there you go, I have written you about art as well, and with some
affection and affirmation. But what I wanted to ask you about was
activism. I was amused by what you had written about Lenin’s depressive
episodes, and activism in general, a term which you connect to the
counter-globalization movement and suggest can be a kind of depressive
narcissistic response to this growing inability to confront a catastrophic
capitalist reality.

Further in the same book, you speculated:

“Scattered insurrections will take place in the coming years, but we
should not expect much from them. They’ll be unable to touch the real
centers of power because of the militarization of metropolitan space, and
they will not be able to gain much in terms of material wealth or
political power. As the long wave of counter-globalization moral protests
could not destroy neoliberal power, so the insurrections will not find a
solution, not unless a new consciousness and a new sensibility surfaces
and spreads, changing everyday life, and creating Non-Temporary Autonomous
Zones rooted in the culture and consciousness of the global network.”

Well, those insurrections have come. And with them, the attempts at
instituting non-temporary autonomous zones through the occupations of
squares and public spaces. These sites became useful not only as places of
convergence, assembly, and conversation, but also as immensely powerful
symbolic sites for staging, in some sense, a desire to change this
everyday life, to discover or invent collective processes of withdrawal
from activities (i.e., work) which colonize our time but are meaningless,
unfulfilling, and cumulatively destructive.

Of course, occupations of space were nothing new in the political
vocabulary of the previous century, but the processes which emerged from
North Africa were truly of another order and magnitude.
Unfortunately, the liberated spaces of the occupations became temporary
after the militarized evictions and now we struggle to discover what the
results of these experiences can produce. Were the millions that took to
the streets depressives, who even in deposing dictators, ultimately and
hopelessly confront their own inability to change the material economic
forces which dictate their growing or continued immiseration? Or are these
multitudes on the streets a massive social awakening? What constitutes
political activity today? What constitutes poetic activity today? And with
all of this activity, where can we discover the potency of the necessary
withdrawal we have spoken about in the past.

These and other ruminations preoccupying me at the moment, we await your

with love and solidarity,
Sandy’s Sister

16 Beaver Group
16 Beaver Street, 4th fl.
New York, NY 10004

for directions/subscriptions/info visit:

4,5 — Wall Street
2,3 — Wall Street
J,Z — Brooklyn Bridge
A,C — Fulton Street
1 — Rector Street