Post by Rusty
"Autonomy is the independence of social time from the temporality of capitalism." - Franco "Bifo" Berardi
You ever been at a party & it seems like all folks can talk about is their work? And when they try to shift to other issues, an awkward silence descends? Work, it would seem, eerily defines us not only to our employers or the government, but to ourselves.
Yet, as the above quote from Berardi testifies, a central part of achieving true freedom is reclaiming our time, learning to exist outside the capitalist demands of production & consumption. I begin with Berardi because I'm thinking through Italy's Autonomia Operaia, which lasted from the late 1960s to its brutal suppression in 1979. The Automonist movement loosely connected factory workers, university students, & economically marginalized folks. Together they fought to dismantle capitalist forms of alienation, exploring how everyday folks could reclaim power over their lives. While the Autonomists were influenced by previous Marxist strains of thought, they loathed the Communist parties & refused any form of top-down politics. Any change had to emerge from the bottom-up, had to come from a collective that refused the temptations of power. For the Autonomists that change could only come if we dismantled traditional notions of work.
Questioning the value of work is still perceived as threatening & bizarre. I once taught the CrimethInc's EVASION to a group of horrified college freshman. This novel follows folks who give up the working life to become crusty punks that dumpster dive & shoplift. Students simply could not understand why an individual would desire to escape our economy's bear-trap. The "work ethic" has transformed an economic imperative into a moral one, forbidding us to imagine otherwise. According to this moral regime, to refuse to work is to become an abject parasite, a step away from being considered expendable. Yet, as Berardi notes, refusing to work has complex motivations: "by the daily action of withdrawal from exploitation, of rejection of the obligation to produce surplus value and to increase the value of capital by reducing the value of life" (75). Viewed in this light, refusing to work is an attack on the core of how capitalism operates.
If Autonomists' calls to refuse to work rang true in Milan's Fiat plant in 1973, they have become harder to enact in the 21st century. How to define work these days? Information is the primary object of production in many sectors of the economy. Project demands are increasingly digitized, flexible, & precarious. The factory worker pulling 14 hour shifts on Fiat's assembly line bears little resemblance to the contemporary person who balances 5 hour shifts on a graphic design internship while driving for Uber at night.
Berardi offers this eerie yet accurate description of the 21st-century worker: "The worker does not exist any more as a person. He is just the interchangeable producer of microfragments of recombinant semiosis which enters into the continuous flux of the network. . .The worker (a mere machine possessing a brain that can be used for a fragment of time) is paid for his punctual performance." (84). In Berardi's imagining, we've plugged ourselves into a network that increasingly parcels out our time until there's nothing left of our subjectivity. Pay attention to how Berardi relies on machines to produce metaphors for contemporary personhood. One can longer conceive of people without also taking machines into consideration.
COMPUTERS AS CAPITALIST ACCELERANTS
This brings us to computers & their relationship to work. Early computer developers such as Ted Nelson proposed that computers were tools of liberation, a narrative happily deployed by Silicon Valley behemoths for their marketing campaigns. However, the opposite is largely the case: computers actually accelerate capitalism's inherent tendencies & exponentially increase methods of exploitation. Consider how computers aided the collapse of industrial labor in the global North through automation. Consider how computers are intimately tied to electric grids, those networks still largely reliant of fossil fuels & controlled by corrupt state & private interests. Consider how computers panoptically monitor worker performance.
Computers also helped innovate new forms of exploitation. Through the use of free digital services, consumers are now workers too. For example, Facebook not only extracts labor from its paid employees; it also extracts it from users who carefully craft & curate online identities that the company then markets. The traditional capitalist logic has become scrambled: we're consumers that labor on the products of ourselves that ultimately benefit digital capitalists. Even the internet's free circulation of information just replicates capitalism's insistence that commodities freely cross borders.
If computers are so heavily implicated in some of capitalism's worst tendencies, is there any hope for them as liberation tools? There is, but on one condition: they must prevent the smooth function of socioeconomic systems, that is, they must destroy the very objectives that they were invented to aid. We need to find ways to use computers to reclaim our time & to create safe spaces that forbid capitalist exchanges.
COMPUTERS FIGHTING FOR AUTONOMY
Let's begin this section with the Beastie Boys: "Listen all y'all, it's sabotage!"
The Autonomist Antonio Negri explains that sabotago disrupts capitalism's emphasis on exchange, "stripping it of any internal rationality and compelling it to be an efficacious spectacle of domination and destruction." In other words, by rupturing smooth exchanges, sabotage allows us to see capitalism in all its exploitative ugliness. Thus, any attack on the sacredness of the exchange would allow autonomous spaces to appear.
The following thoughts are not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. They undoubtedly possess many flaws. However, they are my attempt to imagine otherwise. Surely, this is a valuable exercise in itself.
DREAM #1: BARRICADED NETWORKS
Computer networks, like the capitalist system itself, are structured to run on efficient exchanges. In a global network where data & information are coveted commodities, any breakdown in that information's access & circulation creates autonomy, if only briefly. As a result, computers that aid in the fight for human autonomy need to make the circulation of information online much more difficult. The prevalent idea that everyone should be able to access everything everywhere naively relies on the premise that we all possess freedom. In reality, we're facing what Berardi dubs, "the post-human transition to digital slavery" (33). Easy network access merely allows individuals to be exploited by other parties & opens vulnerable folks to attack.
We should insist on small networks instead, filled with known actors. We should foster relationships in those networks that don't require commodities or money to survive. Build barriers that rebuff outsiders. Hopefully, information will then circulate in a trusted environment without the fear that it will leak out. A network that's small & cannot be monetized would create an autonomous space where folks would be free to imagine otherwise.
DREAM #2: ERASABLE DATA
If data is such a valued commodity, we should build protocols that erase it. After all, the cataloging & archiving of data only increases individuals' vulnerability; the quantified individual is the only one recognizable to capitalism. Methods should be established to erase nonessential data so it cannot be weaponized against users or monetized by capitalist interests at a later point in time. Maybe we can break ourselves of what Pierre Nora diagnoses as the pathological need to archive everything & revive the practice of collective memory.
DREAM #3: USER-CONTROLLED INFRASTRUCTURE
Users should ban together into small collectives that take ownership of digital infrastructures. Let's get a critical mass of folks involved in green computing on network-wide levels, moving us away from the corrupt electric grid. Cloud services should be discontinued. The very concept of servers should be closely investigated since they tend to separate users from their data. In fact, instead of focusing on improving servers, we should focus our attention on reviving previous peer-to-peer (P2P) protocols & develop alternative methods of sharing information.
DREAM #4: SIMPLICITY AS A VALUE
We need to break out of our dependence on Big Tech's omnipresent programs that now monopolize our data &, by extension, our lives. Big Tech often offers programs that are simple to use, but possess a complex & invisible structure. We need to develop more & more alternative programs, but ensure that they remain simple so that they can be more easily adopted by everyday users & maintained by more & more users. Complexity just maintains privilege & we need to destroy that.
DREAM #5: TECHNOLOGY'S REDUCED ROLE
Technology has gone from offering us tools, to somehow becoming the all-encompassing goal in the march of human progress. Fuck that noise. We find ourselves on a dying planet beset with so much suffering; we can no longer entrust our collective happiness to the machines & systems we created. Quite simply, we are not the things we produce. We need to stop pathologically innovating new technologies just for the sake of innovation. Technology needs to return to the status of mere tool. With each new task facing us, we should ask ourselves, "Do we need technology to achieve our goals? If so, what's the bare minimum of technology needed?"
All of these thoughts are new to my brain & I fully anticipate changing them over time. However, we need to indulge in more incomplete dreaming; it's the first step to declaring our autonomy. If all of this seems overwhelming, let's remember this words from Berardi: "We cannot know, we cannot control, we cannot govern the entire force of the global mind. But we can master the singular process of producing a singular world of sociality. This is autonomy today" (85-6).
Beastie Boys. "Sabotage." ILL COMMUNICATION. 1994.
Berardi, Franco "Bifo." PRECARIOUS RHAPSODY: SEMIOCAPITALISM & THE PATHOLOGIES OF THE POST-ALPHA GENERATION. Eds. Erik Empson & Stevphen Shukaitis. Trans. Arianna Bove et al. London: Minor Compositions, 2009.
Negri, Antonio. CAPITALIST DOMINATION & WORKING CLASS SABOTAGE. Milan: 1977.
Soweli Lukin Issues Alex Schroeder