Franco «Bifo» Berardi: ‘Leisure has been swallowed by the production of value.’
António Guerreiro

An important Italian thinker in the ‘autonomist’ tradition, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has written lucidly on the labour system and on how meaning and value are produced in the age of cognitive capitalism. This interview, conducted in Lisbon after a talk at the Teatro do Bairro Alto, takes us on a brief excursion through these theoretical territories.

Franco Berardi, better known as ‘Bifo’, is an Italian philosopher whose vast and varied writings deal above all with the workings of post-industrial capitalism and how it has been changed by the communication technologies which underlie what he has identified using the concept of ‘semiocapitalism’, a phenomenon where real life is substituted by signs, simulacra and algorithms. Philosophy, political theory, sociology and communication theory in the age of digitalisation: these are the areas in which Franco Berardi moves in his search to identify symptoms and the underlying characteristics of the world in which we live.

His links to Italian workerism, or rather, the Autonomist movement (the name preferred by Franco Berardi, and clearly less restrictive and more appropriate) and to the figures in this movement, such as Toni Negri and Mario Tronti, constitute his fundamental affiliation in the world of political theory, where ideas of work and class are central. His first book, published in 1970, was actually entitled Contro il lavoro [Against work].

This interview offers an analysis of contemporary systems of work, giving rise also to a number of considerations on the subject of leisure. Work and leisure: this dichotomy occupies a central place in the theme we explore in this issue.

wanda pimentel

Wanda Pimentel, Envolvimento [Entanglement], 1975
© Photo: Marco Terranova / Courtesy Beatriz Pimentel


ANTÓNIO GUERREIRO  You played an important and very active role in the Italian Autonomia Operaia movement. Does the legacy of workerism still have something to offer to contemporary thinking about work?

FRANCO BERARDI  The question of contemporary relevance is a huge issue, and one that interests me a lot. I would say that the concept of the rejection of work, which is what, in autonomist thinking, defines the position of the worker in relation to his or her waged activity, is still relevant today. The concept of the rejection of work remains relevant because, in general, we don’t work because it’s useful or because we derive pleasure from what we do. We work because we need a wage and to have it we are obliged to devote the time we are alive to the value production machine. In this sense, the fundamental issue of workerism and Autonomist thinking remains relevant today, and the relationship with work continues to be one of alienation. But all the rest has changed: the forms of waged work have changed and, above all, relations with the continuity of work have changed, with the emergence of precarity. The concept of precarity is one that comes out of Autonomist thinking. But what does precarious labour mean? Of course, first of all, this is a legal type of question, where the relationship between the worker and employer is no longer continuous, where the worker’s condition is extremely fragile, and solidarity between workers is eroded and disintegrates. Also, on the question of contemporary relevance, on an analytical plane, the workerist analysis still holds at a deep level, but not on the political plane. Workerism was based on the idea that, in a factory, we could point to a political force which was solidarity. But that no longer exists. The subjectivity of work has been destroyed by the shift to precarity. What’s happening in France is very interesting. But France has a political tradition which, aside from labour relations, enables a form of solidarity to function, which is political solidarity. But in general, precarity has destroyed the conditions for the autonomous subjectivity of labour. We should ask: will it be possible to rebuild a labour movement? For now, the answer has to be ‘no’, the conditions are not right.

AG  And what about leisure, how has it fared at the hands of the machine you describe? What is the status of leisure, today?

FB  We need to ask whether leisure still exists. On the one hand, we might say that leisure has increased enormously, because we spend all our time in exchanging signs, which is a condition of leisure. But it’s not true that it has increased, because we produce signs in circumstances that we don’t determine for ourselves, and with a purpose which is not that of leisure, but that of production, the wage. In a certain sense, free time no longer exists. All time has been submitted to the condition of semiotic production for accumulation of value. Digitalisation has produced paradoxes like this of the loss of a dimension of autonomy. Leisure has become an ambient dimension, and it’s been swallowed up by the production of value. We might think of mass tourism, facilitated by platforms such as Ryanair and Airbnb. It’s obvious that this extends the possibilities of mass travel, enabling people to visit cities. etc. But is it really a form of enrichment or rather just supplementary labour that enables the economy of certain countries to prosper, although the quality of life of their people deteriorates?

"In a certain sense, free time no longer exists. All time has been submitted to the condition of semiotic production for accumulation of value."

wanda pimentel

Wanda Pimentel, Envolvimento [Entanglement], 1969
© Photo: Marco Terranova / Courtesy Beatriz Pimentel


AG  And yet, the great utopia of our time is that digitalisation could finally give us much more free time or even liberate us from work.

FB  In his famous Fragment on machines, which I regard as the most important of all Marx’s writings, he uses the expression in English, ‘general intellect’, to speak of knowledge as a factor of liberation from waged work. This fragment on machines is, of course, one of the fundamental texts of Italian workerist thinking. But there is here an ambiguity that Marx could not have imagined. It is true that knowledge liberates from the burden of work, but the problem is: who manages the technical resources that make it possible to transform labour into semiotic activity? The answer is: capital. And under the sway of capitalism, semiotic labour and technical resources function not as factors of liberation, but as ways of creating new work. Where is the trap? I think it’s in the expectation that capitalism produced, the expectation of constant expansion. Expansion of capital, expansion of production, expansion of consumption, and so we are incapable of experiencing the enjoyment of time. We are continuously forced to think that the time we live should be for accumulating: accumulating value, accumulating capital, but also for accumulating consumption, for consuming more. Consumerism is not a fringe phenomenon in the history of capitalism, it’s what forces us constantly to re-enter a relationship of waged dependency, in an employment relationship. Technical advances liberate us from work; the problem is that, at the same time, under the sway of capitalism, technical advances constantly create new needs, new forms of work. I think the concept that workerism never got round to thinking about is that of frugality. In the 1960s and 70s, the political issue was ‘better wages and less work’. And this fed into the idea that workers want more and more. What does wanting more and more, wanting everything, mean? We don’t need everything. What was lacking was a real critique of consumption...

"Technical advances liberate us from work; the problem is that, at the same time […] technical advances constantly create new needs, new forms of work." 

AG  Something that the union movement appears not yet to have understood…

FB  Indeed, no. I remember discussions in the 1970s about consumption. Italian workerism refuted the critique of consumption. Why? Because it felt that workers were right in wanting to consume more. But this, anthropologically speaking, looking beyond the union movement, the immediate struggle of the workers, is a conceptual error. We lost sight of the question of usefulness. Frugality looks like a religious, Christian concept, and so it was unappealing to workerist thinking.