Wu Ming: A band of militant storytellers
The Celluloid Liberation Front speak to the Italian literary collective Wu Ming, whose work draws readers in to exchange, sharing and confrontation.
‘We’re not on Facebook because we find it disgusting.’
Wu Ming’s top 10 utopias
From William Gibson to Robert Macfarlane, the novel-writing Italian collective pick books that construct utopian worlds and explore our impulse to build them.
At last Altai is out in English. Here’s the page Verso dedicated to the book.
And here’s a piece by our old pal Stewart Home who interviewed us in Bologna a few weeks ago.
And here’s comrade and fellow writer Ron Jacobs writing about Q and Altai.
WM1 and WM2 will be in the UK from 29 May to June 1 to promote the book. We’ll post the details ASAP.
In the meantime, we’ve got a new book out in Italy…
Point Lenana is best described as a UNO (Unidentified Narrative Object). It took 4 years to research and write. It’s about mountaineering, the relationship between Fascism and the Alps, racism in 20th century Italy, postcolonial spleen, the ghosts of history walking in the streets of Trieste, Italian POWs in 1940s Kenya, the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya, fascist war crimes in Ethiopia and the Balkans and many other things. The book revolves around the life of Felice Benuzzi, renowned author of No Picnic on Mount Kenya. In the most lazy and conservative manner, Point Lenana could be described as a narrative biography of Benuzzi from his birth in Vienna (1910) to his death in Rome (1988), but there’s much more than that. WM1 and Santachiara climbed Mount Kenya themselves in order to write the book.
Point Lenana is the dizygotic twin of another UNO, Timira by Wu Ming 2 and Antar Mohamed, which was published in Italy last year and covers the lives of Italo-Somali former actress Isabella Marincola and her brother Giorgio, the only Black partisan in the Italian Resistance. Giorgio Marincola was killed in the very last Nazi massacre on Italian ground (Stramentizzo, 2 May 1945).
Point Lenana reached bookshops on 30 April and in a few days went straight to no. 9 in the saggistica [non-fiction] best-seller list.
«Marriage is a bond between a man and a woman. How can you institute marriage between two persons of the same sex? Why not marriage between three persons then? Why not marriage between you and your animal? Some people have a strong relationship with their animal, would you allow them to marry it?»
(Francesco Perra, 5SM candidate at the recent national election, 8 June 2012 )
There is much confusion in other countries about what has been taking place in Italy in the past five years – the era of Late Berlusconism – and what is going on after the latest national election. At the time of writing, nobody knows what government Italy will have. No stable government can be formed without the vote of confidence of the Five Star Movement, the political organisation led by former stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo and web marketing guru Gianroberto Casaleggio. The 5SM, which stood for national election for the first time, gained 25.5% of votes for the Chamber of Deputies and 23.8% for the Senate.
Several Left-wing and progressive commentators tend to look with a certain sympathy to the Five Star Movement. They heard that even Dario Fo, a famously leftist Nobel Prize Winner, endorsed Grillo during the campaign. They think that Grillo’s fiery, pied-piperesque speeches are just a bit of theatre – he used to be a comedian after all.
Indeed, news from Italy are baffling as usual, but in the end, many have the impression that the 5SM is a populist movement oscillating between the progressive and radical quarters of the political spectrum. A movement having features in common with other anti-austerity movements and mobilisations across southern Europe (Portugal, Greece, Spain, Slovenia).
People who make that assumption should – literally – know better.
Trouble is, many Italians should know better too.
Simone Di Stefano: «Are you an antifascist?»
Beppe Grillo: «This question doesn’t concern me. 5SM is an ecumenical movement.»
(Conversation between Grillo and one of the top leaders of neofascist party CasaPound, 11 January 2013 )
Some of you may have Italian friends who used to place themselves to the Left and recently chose to vote for the 5SM, or even become 5SM activists. We bet they didn’t tell you about the more right-wing aspects of the movement, because you’d certainly ask them: «I beg your pardon? You’re doing political work side by side with fascists? You’ve joined a movement that rejects the very notion of antifascism? A movement that wants to abolish trade unions?! You voted for a guy who praises Ron Paul and US-style ‘libertarianism’? Mate, what’s wrong with you?», and they’d have to scramble for self-justifications.
«Before it degenerated, fascism had a sense of national community (which it took directly from socialism), the highest respect for the state and a will to protect the [institution of] family.»
(Roberta Lombardi, 5SM member of Parliament, 21 January 2013 )
Your friends are probably aware of those aspects, but either underestimate them or instantly remove them, because they’re too disquieting. Such is the disgust toward «the old political system» that criticising a «new» movement is deemed as a manifestation of pedantry and intellectual luxury: «First of all, let’s give a shoulder push to the rotten political establishment, then we’ll talk about Grillo’s faults. We can’t afford that now!»
To us, this is a very dangerous approach.
1. How rancour towards «The Caste» helped preventing social conflict
Many factors can explain Grillo’s success. The Zero years were a decade of social devastation, in which social movements encountered thundering defeats, while Late Berlusconism was fostering cultural and moral bankruptcy with the complicity of the long-discredited «centre-left».
Then, at the beginning of the new decade the Euro crisis hit us between the eyes. During the summer of 2011, the capitalist class and the European Central Bank decided that Berlusconi’s government was completely dysfunctional and unfit to enforce the «necessary» austerity measures. Despite a vast majority in both branches of Parliament, with a sort of legal coup the «centre-right» government was replaced with a «technical» government led by Mario Monti, a neoliberal economist long associated with Goldman Sachs and the Trilateral Commission.
Monti’s government was supported, albeit grudgingly, by both the centre-right and the centre-left. To tell the truth, the centre-left gave the impression of supporting Montilessgrudgingly than the centre-right. In the end, the Democratic Party appeared more responsible than Berlusconi for the aggressive austerity measures which worsened the condition of the working class and the lower middle class in 2012. Something similar happened in Greece, where Papandreou’s Socialist Party was more strictly associated with cuts than the right-wing party New Democracy was.
The difference is that Greece witnessed mass demonstrations and general strikes against austerity, the IMF, the European Central Bank and so on, whereas in Italy social discontent was channelled toward a different target: the so-called «Caste».
«The Caste vs. the Honest People» is the most powerful conceptual frame in today’s Italy.
The Caste: How Italian politicians became untouchable is the title of a best-selling book written by two journalists, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. It was published in 2007 and covered the ways in which national and local politicians used taxpayers’ money to become parasitic oligarchs. The book’s title provided the perfect metaphor to frame the debate on politics into a new version of a classic right-wing dichotomy: «ordinary people» are «clean», whereas «politicians» are «dirty». Indeed, they are not only dirty, the biggest problem in the country. Let’s get rid of politicians, and everything will be ok! The fact that politicians are in office precisely because the good ordinary people repeatedly voted for them is rarely mentioned.
«The Caste vs. the Honest People» proved to be the perfect diversionary narrative. Anger and frustration were channelled toward members of parliament, their salaries, public funding to political parties etc., which are real but lesser problems of the system. Meanwhile, austerity measures and eurocratic neoliberal policies were ravaging society, encountering no opposition. Unlike in Greece, Spain and Portugual, there was no mass movement fighting back. It goes without saying that the real «caste» – the caste of millionaires, top CEOs, financial speculators and the likes – didn’t pay any price for the situation they had created. We even heard such tycoons as Flavio Briatore making anti-Caste statements, slagging off politicians and so on.
To name but one concrete consequence of the «Caste vs. the People» frame, this depoliticising narrative made the idea of a «technical» government acceptable, indeed, even desirable. Public opinion was brought to believe that a government with no politicians would be better than any traditional government. That’s why Mario Monti took advantage of an extended «honeymoon period» and was able to pass draconian acts that impoverished the majority of the population.
The «Caste vs. People» frame was activated in the political debate slightly before the 5SM came into existence, and paved the highway for it.
What Grillo and Casaleggio did on their own was extending the concept of «Caste» to include almost all civil servants, which the 5SM rhetoric turns into mere parasites. In one of his most infamous blog posts, Grillo demanded that «tens of thousand of public employees [be] laid off». As Rossana Dettori – a leader of CGIL trade union – correctly pointed out, behind the phrases that Grillo uses in an abstract way (eg «public employees») there are hospital and emergency room personnel, firefighters, schools and kindergartens, social services for the elderly and the gravely ill, «as well as democratic institutions which ensure that such services keep working».
Truth is, Italy’s public sector has the highest rate of union enrollment and activity. 78.79% of public employees take part to the election of their workplace union representatives (RSU). Therefore, the real targets of Grillo’s invective against public employees are trade unions. He called for the utter «elimination» of trade unions more than once.
2. Mock «anti-austerity», mock radicalism
Not that Grillo doesn’t mention capitalism, the faults of bankers etc. He does it. However, there’s no peculiarity in that part of his discourse, he simply revives all the cliches of European right-wing populisms. The issue is framed in a simplistic neo-nationalist way: «real» capitalism (ie productive capitalism) is described as good because it is rooted in the territory, whereas financial economy is degenerate because it’s in the hands of evil transnational cliques and lobbie groups. Since the Euro is the main cause of the present crisis, if Italy leaves the Eurozone and gets rid of politicians and kicks «tens of thousands» of (unionised) employees out of the public sector, then we’ll have the conditions for entering a new golden age.
We all know that there’s often an antisemitic streak underlying this kind of talk about «nationless» enemies. Is it a coincidence that antisemitic tirades and insults are frequent in the below-the-line section of Grillo’s blog? In November 2012 a guest-blogger on beppegrillo.it attacked Gad Lerner, a Jewish journalist who dared criticise Grillo, by calling him «Gad Vermer». Verme is italian for «worm», a classic insult in the antisemitic repertoire.
The most important thing to say about Grillo’s «anti-austerity» and anti-financial stance is that it’s COMPLETELY FALSE. Grillo is a phony. At the end of the day he’s a multi-millionaire, for Christ’s sake!
Whenever a conservative populist movement is voted in office or takes over, their «anticapitalist», anti-finance rhetoric evaporates very soon and they end up administering the present state of things, financial capitalism included.
Maybe that’s why Jim O’Neill, the retiring chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, recently wrote:
«I find the [Italian Election] outcome quite exciting because it seems to me for a country whose GDP has basically not changed since EMU started in 1999, something big needs to change. Maybe this election outcome and the peculiar mass appeal of the Five Star movement could signal the start of something new?»
Did we say «Goldman Sachs»? A few days ago, Grillo stated that the 5SM parliamentary groups were willing to vote for a new «technical» government including no politicians, because they would never vote confidence in any political government. They were even willing to support a «Monti Bis», a second Monti government, albeit with a limited mandate and strictly controlled by the new parliament. After months spent calling the premier «Rigor Montis», Grillo implicitly said that the former international advisor for Goldman Sachs is the «lesser evil» compared to political parties.
It was just a fleeting glimpse of naked truth, then the former comedian changed position one more time. Now he’s saying that he wants to conquer «100% of parliament» so «citizens become the state» and the movement «will no longer need to exist», which of course doesn’t mean anything but is good for causing a sensation.
[N.B. The last political leader to conquer 100% of Italian parliament and overlap his movement with the state ended up hanging upside down in a Milan square. Unfortunately, it happened twenty-six years too late, but nowadays things happen faster, you know, there's the Internet and so on.]
In case you still cling to your prior impression that Grillo’s movement is anti-austerity and radical, or at least a force for concrete change, why not take a look at what 5SM has been doing in the towns and cities they administer? For example, let’s look at what mayor Federico Pizzarotti did in Parma.
The key point of Pizzarotti’s campaign was opposition to the construction of a big incinerator whose impact on the environment and the health of citizens was considered catastrophic. In June 2012 Grillo himself stated: «They will never build that incinerator, if they want to build it they will have to step on the mayor’s dead body!». When journalist Marco Travaglio asked Grillo about the penalties the city would have to pay to contractors and subcontractors, he gave this answer: «Let’s not be silly: If paying the penalties is obligatory, we’ll find a way to pay them.» Well, the incinerator was turned on on 3 March 2013. The city couldn’t pay the penalties. Nobody had to step on Pizzarotti’s corpse.
During his campaign, Pizzarotti also promised that he wouldn’t raise the house tax and the boarding charge for public kindergartens. After he was elected, he raised both and explained: «We couldn’t do anything else». Like any other politician.
Now he’s planning to cut the salaries of city employees.
3. Right-wing influences on the Five Star Movement
Grillo’s rhetoric is choke-full of elements that can be traced back to different right-wing traditions, which he and Casaleggio meddle into a toxic jumble.
The most recognizable tradition is that of European conservative populism. In France this approach is known as poujadisme, after its main 20th century promoter Pierre Poujade. In Italy, we usually call it qualunquismo [which we could translate as 'anyoneism'], after a mass petty bourgeiois movement founded by playwright Guglielmo Giannini in 1946.
Another tradition is US «libertarianism» / «anarcho-capitalism»: Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, that kind of stuff. This influence is detectable in several parts of the 5SM programme. One of the movement’s freshly elected MPs, Vittorio Bertola, explicitly stated «I like Ron Paul».
Of course, in Grillo’s rants we can also find the usual set of Thatcherite tropes and cliches which have become commonplace all over the West.
All these traditions have some basic features in common, one of which is the hatred for trade unions and, generally, for the workers’ collective organisation and conquests, like national contracts etc. This hatred permeates all Grillo’s speeches.
The reason why it is such an ungrateful task to expose the right-wing elements of Grillo’s rhetoric, is that confusionism is an intentional strategy. Grillo repeatedly screams that «there are no Left and Right anymore!». Meanwhile, he and Casaleggio skillfully intersperse the right-wing elements with left-wing ones, reproposing buzzwords, concepts and claims they hijacked from the previous social movements. These concepts are reprocessed, they receive a treatment that strips all articulations and leaves them void of all content. The most striking example is «direct democracy».
4. Direct democracy, Führerprinzip and character assassination
Despite all the talk about direct democracy or online liquid feedback, the 5SM is a top-down organisation with no intermediate bodies between Grillo and Casaleggio and the populace of fans/activists. Every major decision is taken by those two wealthy sixty-somethings, and «direct democracy» only amounts to calling on the base to approve it in a tele-plebiscitarian way.
In the 2011-2012 period, the 5SM of Emilia-Romagna (the region whose capital is Bologna, the city in which we live) was stormed by a wave of expulsions. «Dissidents» like Giovanni Favia, Valentino Tavolazzi, Federica Salsi and many others dared question the absence of internal democracy. As a consequence, they were kicked out and exposed to angry online mobs. Expulsions were decided by Grillo and Casaleggio and communicated to the world by short posts on beppegrillo.it.
Local activists expressed solidarity with the expelled and organised meetings in which the majority voted in favour of readmission, but their vote was completely overruled by the two bosses.
The final step was the use of the Internet to slander the expelled in all possible ways. «Loyal» grillini devoted their time and efforts to disrupting all online conversations in which anyone defended the «traitors» and criticised Grillo and Casaleggio for their clearly autocratic behaviour.
5SM local leaders seem to have no hesitation in using «lynching» as a positive concept. On 2 March 2013 Andrea Defranceschi, 5SM representative at the Emilia-Romagna council, stated: «If some of us betray the movement, the Internet will lynch them.»
By «lynching», of course, Defranceschi means the character assassination of dissidents. If anyone dares disagree with Grillo and Casaleggio, their reputation must be destroyed, and this destruction shall continue long after the expulsion. These people cannot be simply left alone, their blog or Facebook page must be bombarded with derogatory comments every day. In a matter of few months, local councillor Giovanni Favia shifted from being revered as the very incarnation of 5SM values to being described as the vilest traitor. And if the dissident is a woman, sexist insults will rain on her: «whore», «bitch» and the rest of the repertoire. That’s what happened to Federica Salsi.
This is a clear manifestation of cult mentality and, in fact, the 5SM is often described as a cult. It is often compared to Scientology. Scientology rejected the comparison.
You may ask: how can Grillo and Casaleggio get away with all that?
Well, it’s all written in the movement’s «Non-Statute».
The «Non-Statute» is a very short text which, for years, has been the only written document regulating the movement’s internal life. It mainly says that the 5SM’s name and logo are the sole property of Beppe Grillo and that the movement’s «headquarters» are located on Grillo’s weblog, beppegrillo.it.
If you already think that the 5SM notion of «online direct democracy» is bizarre to say the least, well, wait, you haven’t seen anything yet! We suggest you to watch a sort of video-manifesto which Casaleggio authored and produced in 2007. It’s entitled Gaia: The Future of Politics. «Creepy» is the right adjective for the anarcho-capitalist future Casaleggio enthusiastically envisions.
How do pro-Grillo leftists or former leftists react when someone points out these serious problems?
5. Fascists in Grillo’s (and Berlusconi’s) Fatherland
Before answering that question, it is necessary to make clear that the vast majority of both 5SM activists and sympathisers do not come from the radical Left. Most of them are quite young and have no previous political experience (or even position); others come from the right and even the radical right.
In several areas of the country, the backbone of consent for the 5SM is formed by people who previously supported Berlusconi, the xenophobic Northern League, and in some cases utterly neofascist parties such as New Force and Tricolour Flame. In 2012, when the 5SM won the election in Parma and managed to elect Federico Pizzarotti as mayor of the city, the biggest chunk of votes (25.9%) came from people who had previously chosen the Northern League.
After all, Grillo’s and the 5SM position on immigration and minorities is very close to that of the NL. We quote from one of his blog posts , its title was «The Desacred Borders» and was published on beppegrillo.it in october 2007:
«A country cannot PASS THE BUCK TO ITS CITIZENS in dealing with the problems caused by tens of thousands of Roma gypsies coming to Italy from Romania. Prodi’s objection is always the same: Romania is in Europe. But what does ‘Europe’ means? SAVAGE MIGRATIONS of jobless persons from one country to another? Without knowing the language, with nowhere to put them up? Every day I receive hundreds of letters on Roma gypsies, it’s a volcano, A TIME BOMB, and it must be defused… What is a government that doesn’t guarantee the safety of its citizens good for?… The borders of the fatherland used to be sacred, politicians have desacred them.»
Last but not least, Casaleggio himself is a former sympathiser of the Northern League.
According to attorney Vincenzo Forte - an ex-leader of the neofascist Italian Social Movement and now a supporter of Grillo – three of the new 5SM MPs and one 5SM senator (all four elected in Lombardy) have a radical neofascist background. Forte didn’t reveal their names but added:
«These are not isolated cases, it’s a much more vast, deep-rooted phenonemon, a carefully organised strategy to penetrate Grillo’s movement. This strategy is being carried out with maximum discretion by local neofascist groups. »
The 5SM has no ethical or theoretical defence against this, because Grillo and Casaleggio have staunchly refused to adopt antifascism as a differentiating value. Grillo wants the movement to be «ecumenical» and antifascism «doesn’t concern him».
Silvio Berlusconi after too many facelifts.
It is far from incomprehensible that many fascists, berluscones and leghisti are now looking to Grillo. Not only they like many things he say, but he also embodies their idealtype of the Strong Man mesmering enthusiastic crowds. To these people, Berlusconi and Bossi were no longer strong/fascinating enough, for they became too compromised with «old politics« and «the Caste». That’s why these angry petty bourgeois are making an emotional investment on someone they see as a new leader.
Moreover, there are deep similarities between Berlusconi and Grillo. They are both living testimonies of how the 1980s entertainment and television industry reshaped Italy’s national life. Journalist Giuliano Santoro wrote a very interesting book about this, it is entitled Un Grillo qualunque: Il populismo digitale nella crisi dei partiti italiani [A Grillo whatsoever: Digital populism in the crisis of Italian parties].
As a matter of fact, one cannot fully understand Grillo if s/he didn’t understand Berlusconi. Three years ago, in a piece for the London Review of Books, we easily predicted that after the fall of Berlusconi there would be a Berlusconism-without-Berlusconi. Nowadays things are even worse, because Berlusconi «fell» but is still around and 29.1% of voters have chosen him for the umpteenth time. As a result, we have both old, classic berlusconism-with-Berlusconi, and a new kind of berlusconism without him. Giuliano Santoro wrote that «Grillo is the continuation of Berlusconi by other means.»
6. TINA, TITA and the 5SM’ «neitherism»
Now let’s focus on those leftists and ex-leftists who are – critically or uncritically – giving their trust to 5SM. We want to focus on them for two reasons:
First, it is important to understand what consequences the Left’s absence or bankruptcy can have during a crisis like the current one;
Secondly, we have noticed that the representation of Grillo’s movement among radicals and progressives abroad is more or less a synthesis of the two typical discourses uttered by Italian pro-Grillo radicals – only with much less information available.
We call these discourses «5SM TINA» and «5SM TITA».
These days, each time we talk with veterans of yesterday’s struggles who voted for the 5SM and try to reason with them, the most likely words we manage to extract from their mouths is:
«Yes, I do know it’s an ambiguous movement. I’m not at ease with everything they say and do. Yeees, yes, their agenda is partly neoliberal. Their statements on migrants are unacceptable. I don’t like the blend of populism and corporate jargon either. I’m suspicious of the personality cult surrounding Grillo, and the role played by Casaleggio isn’t clear. I agree with you, there’s more than a little bit of fanaticism within the movement. I did see pro-5SM trolls in action on the Internet. I agree with you, those mass expulsions make me think of 1937 stalinist purges. Do you think I’m blind? Of course I see that fascists are also joining… And yet some of the 5SM claims and proposals are exactly the same that we’ve been making for years! Their program includes the «citizens’ income», the defence of commons, ecology… I know many decent people who’ve become 5SM activists. Maybe we can tactically use the 5SM in order to smash the old political system, they’re doing that, aren’t they? Nobody managed to do that before. Why not try and see what happens after the shoulder push? There Is No Alternative anyway. The left is dead.»
This is what we call the Five-Starred Leftist «There Is No Alternative» Discourse. It is based on a classical Yes/But device: people say they agree on all the critical issues, which are many, then they say something like «but» or «and yet», and even if the adversative is sustained only by wishful thinking, it wipes out everything they just acknowledged.
In short: they understand that the 5SM is a confusionist movement with a dominant right-wing approach to many key issues, but the movement’s success and the fact that some proposals have Left-wing origins make them hope this is a good opportunity to «do something».
To us, «doing something» is not necessarily a good line of conduct. It depends on what you do. Sometimes it’s better not to do anything than doing something stupid. Mistaking a right-wing movement for a left-leaning one is definitely stupid.
Other former leftists are buying whatever story Grillo and the 5SM tell them. They utter another discourse, the Five-Starred Ex-Leftist «This Is The Alternative» Discourse:
«What you’re saying is false. You believed the vicious lies that the Caste spreads around. There are certainly some racists, because the movement is open to everyone, but they’re minorities. The majority are people like you and me who want to fight the system. We’ll keep racists in check. Those who were kicked out of the movement were opportunists and infiltrators sent by the old parties. They violated the Non-Statute. Grillo is not a leader, he’s nothing other than a megaphone. The fact that he legally owns the movement’s name and logo is only a guarantee that local sections will respect the Non-Statute. I trust him. When the movement is strong enough, Grillo will step aside. Casaleggio only suggests communication strategies, there’s nothing dark or ambiguous about that. This Is The Alternative, at last! I’ve been waiting for something like this for years, don’t ruin everything with your usual criticism!»
Notice the classic faith in a «two-stage» process: in the current situation Grillo has necessarily to play a major role; later on, he will surely step aside.
In the history of communist movements, all personality cults were invariably described as merely «transitional».
In 1958 Mao Zedong famously argued that there is nothing wrong in personality cult in and of itself. It depends whether that personality represents revolutionary truth or not.
Eighty-seven year old Dario Fo, to mention but one name, was very close to maoism during the 1970s.
This mindset facilitated the conversion of former communists to Grillismo. In this way, we think they ended up on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
When did such a thing happen last time?
It happened in the early Twenties.
The 5SM’s catch-all programme cannot but remind us of early fascism’s Programme of San Sepolcro (1919). In those days, fascism was still a «neitherist» movement («neither left nor right») launching «revolutionary» slogans in every direction.
In 2011, when we started citing that historical precedent, many people sneered at us. Then, on 5 March 2013, Roberta Lombardi – fresh president of the 5SM group at the Chamber of Deputies – made an explicitly positive reference to the Programme of San Sepolcro in order to explain the unacceptable statement we used as one of the epigraphs of this article.
Are we arguing that, when all is said and done, the 5SM is a fascist movement?
The answer is: no.
For sure there are fascists in there, and certainly the right-wing elements of the programme are more relevant than the left-wing ones. However, the 5SM is indebted with different right-wing traditions, a part of its constituency is still on the left, and labelling the movement as merely fascist would be too simplistic.
What we’re trying to say is that, especially in Italy, confusionist «neitherism» always thrives on economic and political crisis, and a part of the Left is tempted to listen to that siren song. Those who don’t resist the temptation invariably end up on the Right, be they aware of it or not.
7. Now what?
Why aren’t foreign correspondents living in Italy saying these things? They write about Grillo every day, but they rarely provide insights on the movement’s inner contradictions. Maybe these contradictions are less visibile if one doesn’t have a deep knowledge of our national history? And yet racist, homophobic or aynrandesque statements should be recognizable in all contexts. We don’t have a clear answer for such questions.
Gianroberto Casaleggio, co-leader and media guru of 5SM.
What’s going to happen now?
As far as «change» (that empty word) is concerned, probably much less than everyone expects. As we tried to demonstrate above, the 5SM is far from being a radical force and its programme is full of «solutions» that are actually part of the problem. Even on the very day of the election, while many commentators were jumping on Grillo’s bandwagon, we wrote that, despite its incendiary slogans, the 5SM acts as a diversionary movement and prevents social conflict from erupting. Grillo says that himself, although of course he calls conflict «violence»: «If violence doesn’t start here, it’s because of the movement».
As often happens with populist movements, Grillo’s movement will apparently destabilise national politics, but it will only ripple its surface, and in doing so it will stabilise the system. That’s why pro-Grillo excitement can be found in such an unlikely place as Goldman Sachs.
We hope that progressives and radicals who joined the 5SM, or sympathise with 5SM, or at least voted for it, understand that the tiresome «neither left nor right» stance can no longer hide all the contradictions we highlighted.
We recently wrote that «we’ll side with rebellion inside the 5SM». What does that mean?
It means that we expect these contradictions to get ever sharper, to intensify until they explode. The movement’s «Left» must overcome TINA and TITA, manifest itself in a clear way and reject both the agenda of the «Right» and Grillo’s blank, confusionist rhetoric. Internal conflict is not an implausible outcome of this phase. We must look at that process with great attention, and be there when some of the energies that Grillo and Casaleggio captured will manage to get free from that grip. Those energies can be invested into a more consistent, unambiguous, radical movement. That’s why we tifiamo rivolta , we «cheer for a riot» inside the 5SM.
Bologna, 4-8 March 2013
Está claro que esta noche no hay gloria. Y mañana ningún horizonte. Era antifrástico también el título de la película de Stanley Kubrick, uno de los más hermosos contra la obtusidad antihumana del militarismo. El argumento es conocido: durante la Primera Guerra mundial, en el frente occidental, un general francés inepto lanza un ataque imposible contra una fortificación alemana. Las tropas francesas no consiguen ni siquiera salir de las trincheras; las ametralladoras los aniquilan y se repliegan. El ataque es una catástrofe colosal. Para no pasar por incapaz, el general echa la culpa a la cobardía de sus soldados y pide que se fusile a cien, elegidos al azar. El Alto Mando le concede tres. Tre chivos expiatorios que pagaran por todos, aunque la culpa no sea de nadie, o mejor, lo es de quien mandaba desde lo alto. Y de quien quiso esa guerra.
La justicia italiana, esta noche, no es distinta de la justicia militar del film de Kubrick (que se inspiró en un hecho sucedido realmente). También allí había un buen abogado defensor al que derrotaban con una sentencia grotesca, casi caricaturesca de puro absurdo.
La justicia italiana ha decidido que cinco personas pagarán por todos. Acaso se les sumen otros cinco. Así se obtiene un especie de empate político con la sentencia por el asalto a la escuela Díaz. Poco importa que las condenas de los policías se refieran a las palizas y la masacre premeditada de personas, por lo demás indefensas, mientras que las de los manifestantes se refieran a la destrucción de cosas, de objetos inanimados, en medio del caos generalizado. Alguno de ellos se pilla diez años de cárcel.
Diez años. Casi el mismo tiempo que ha pasado desde entonces. Entre tanto, las vidas de esas personas se han convertido en quién sabe qué respecto a la de aquellos días. Entre tanto, los daños materiales a las cosas se han reparado, las aseguradoras han indemnizado, el mundo ha cambiado. Entre tanto, las imágenes de Génova de esos días, con el comportamiento de las fuerzas del orden y del clima que se creó han pasado por todos los canales de comunicación como un bucle hasta convertirse en parte del imaginario colectivo. Entre tanto, sobre el G8 se han rodado documentales y películas, se han publicado decenas de libros y escrito ríos de tinta. Y después de todo ello, debe llegar la sentencia que pretende que paguen la cuenta diez personas, metafóricamente extraidas por la suerte del destino, mediante una filmación y no otra, mediante una foto sacada un segundo antes en lugar de un segundo después. Los tres soldados de la película de Kubrick.
Estuve en Génova aquel julio de hace once años. Estaba detrás de la primera fila de escudos de plexiglass en la via Tolemaide, cuando cargaron sin más contra la manifestación y nos asfixiaron con gas en un trecho del recorrido autorizado. No era posible retroceder con diez mil personas detrás y la única solución para salvarnos e impedir que machacaran a la gente fue responder a las cargas como se podía, y al final, después del desastre, tras la batalla, la muerte, proteger la cola de la manifestación que retrocedía bajo los manguerazos de los hidrantes.También estuve el día siguiente, con muchos otros, trepando por callejuelas y senderos con los helicópteros sobre nuestras cabezas hasta lo más alto de la ciudad para llevar a todo el mundo a la base.
Podría haber sido uno de ellos. Uno de estos infantes extraídos por la suerte. En cambio, estoy aquí, escribiendo, en plena noche, incapaz de dormir, sabedor de que mañana la cosa irá mejor, que dormiré más y que poco a poco me podré conceder el lujo de reducirlo todo a un mal recuerdo lejano. Ellos no. Las vidas que han llevado en estos once años se interrumpen y Génova vuelve a empezar desde el principio.
Este país está acabando como se merece. En Génova del 2001 nos manifestábamos contra el poder oligárquico de los grandes organismos económicos internacionales. Pensábamos sobre todo en las recetas neoliberistas fracasadas que el FMI imponía a los países más pobres, devastando sus economías con chantajes y ahogándolos con el mecanismo de la deuda. Hoy esa cura nos toca a nosotros. En Italia mandan comisarios no elegidos del Banco Central Europeo y aplican la misma receta a base de recortes del gasto público, cuyo fin se reduce en definitiva a un enunciado sencillo: salvar a los ricos.
El enemigo hace rehenes.
Hasta que la marea vuelva a subir otra vez.
People often ask us where they can find informative pieces in English on what’s going on in Italy streetswise, grassrootswise, riotwise, revolutionwise and so on. Sometimes they ask us to translate stuff ourselves, which we aren’t able to do even for our own material (that’s why this blog, in sharp contrast to Giap, is so frustratingly still, with updates as slow as frozen shit).
Well, there are at least two blogs entirely, quixotically devoted to providing counter-information in English on what you folks are interested in: Struggles in Italy and Italy Calling. Check them out, those activists also cure profiles on several social media etc.
In a near future, not many years after a Crisis that has reduced Italy to a pre-industrial or even pre-modern condition, a middle-aged woman wanders in the half-flooded countryside between Ferrara and the river Po delta (North-Eastern Italy). She has no name, and refers to herself by antonomasias such as the Historian, the Writer, the Seer… She is seeking the places of her childhood and, perhaps even more important, she's pursuing echoes of her native dialect. She is visited by different versions of the same dream. She meets a man called Matteo, they talk and then they experience an epiphany, an illumination: the word «Arzèstula» (ferrarese for Great Tit) evokes the very little bird it designates. Then the woman returns to the place she belongs, that is, a former motorway café at Cantagallo, south-west of Bologna, which is now home of a free community of outcasts affected by neurological disorders. At night, all together, they perform rituals that allow them to see the future. Not the future that's behind the corner, but a future beyond that, an extremely distant future.
Arzèstula was written by Wu Ming 1 in 2009 and included in our anthology of novellas and short stories Anatra all'arancia meccanica [Clockwork Duck à l'Orange], Einaudi, 2011. It is now available in English as one of the stories collected in I'm with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet (edited by Mark Martin, Verso, New York / London 2011).
Here's an interview with Wu Ming 1 published on STIR magazine's website. It isn't only about Arzèstula, WM1 answers questions on the Occupy Wall Street movement, post-apocalyptic literature etc.
Last week a Pennsylvanian daily newspaper, The Morning Call, published a long and detailed inquiry – entitled Inside Amazon's Warehouse – on the appalling work conditions at Amazon warehouses in the Lehigh Valley. The article, resulting from months of interviews and direct checks, is being spread around the world and has gotten coverage from the New York Times and other mainstream media. The picture is grim:
- extreme job insecurity, a mood of perpetual blackmailing and lack of rights;
- inhuman work routine, with a pace that can be doubled overnight (from 250 to 500 units per day, with no advance notice), at an internal temperature beyond 40 Celsius that at least in one case reached 45 °C (114 °F);
- disciplinary actions against workers who slow down the pace, or simply faint (a report of the 2nd of June mention the fainting of 15 workers due to heat);
- "exemplary" immediate sacking, with the guilty escorted outside before the eyes of co-workers.
And there is more. Read the whole piece, it is worth it. The key sentence was said by a former Amazon warehouseman: "They're kiling people mentally and physically".
Jeff Bezos. INSEGVENDVM AB OPERARIIS FORCONIBVS.
Judging by online comments, many people were taken by surprise, finding out for the first time that Amazon is a mega-corporation and Jeff Bezos is a boss who – as bosses customarily do – seeks profits at the expenses of any consideration for dignity, justice, and safety.
As should have been suspected, Amazon's "miracle" (super-discounts, ultra-quick shipping, "Long Tail", a seemingly infinite catalogue) is based on the exploitation of workforce under vexatious, dangerous, humiliating conditions. Just like the Walmart "miracle", Sergio Marchionne's FIAT "miracle" or any other corporate "miracle" the media have dished up to us in recent years.
What I just wrote should be obvious, but it is not. These revelations are not about a company whatsoever: they are about Amazon, a sort of Big Friendly Giant always portrayed in uncritical, praising and populistic ways —- also in Italy.
The Morning Call broke a charm. Until a few days ago, with a few exceptions, the media (and the customers themselves) took Amazon's propaganda at face value, without the hint of a doubt. From now on, perhaps there will be more fact-checking, assertions will be properly verified, potential bluffs will be called. With the crisis getting worse and worse, the ranks of skeptics seem to increase.
The problem of multinational corporations being perceived as "less corporate", "cooler" and ethically — almost spiritually — better than others regards especially companies that are so tightly associated with the Internet, as to be identified with the net itself. Another typical case is Apple.
iPhone, iPad, youDie
Foxconn is a corporation in whose Chinese plants many digital devices are assembled, including iPads, iPhones and iPods. Last year, a wave of suicides among Foxconn workers caused a brief sensation all over the world, before being silenced and covered up. Actually, suicides started in 2007, and the phenomenon is not over (the last confirmed suicide dates to last May; another worker allegedly killed himself in July). On the whole, about twenty employees have committed suicide. Various inquiries and reports cited as likely causes the unbearable work pace, lack of human relationships in the workplace and psychological pressure from the management.
Sometimes things went beyond psychological pressure: on July 16th, 2009, a 25-year-old employee called Sun Danyong was beaten up by a company security squad [not an exceptional situation, judging by this video] and threw himself from a roof right after. He was suspected of the loss or theft of an iPhone prototype.
What kind of solutions did Foxconn implement to prevent further tragic events? Well, they installed anti-suicide nets, for example .
[To dig deeper into this subject, I recommend SACOM's report Workers as Machines: Military Management at Foxconn, the links collected in the Wikipedia page and the video Deconstructing Foxconn].
Such behind-the-scenes of the Apple world do not receive much attention, compared to news on Steve Jobs' health, or pseudo-events like the opening on via Rizzoli, downtown Bologna, of the biggest Apple Store in Italy. In that circumstance, many people spent the night in front of the store, in order to be admitted among the first into the Temple. Those people ignore the entanglement of work and death lying upstream of the brand they worship. Putting the largest possible distance between upstream and downstream is the quintessential ideological operation under capitalism.
Fetishism, Subjugation, Liberation
Whenever we talk about the Internet, the "mythological machine" in our discourses — powered by the ideology that we breathe every day, wheater we like it or not — reproduces a myth: the idea of technology as an autonomous force, a subject with its own spirit, a reality that evolves on its own, spontaneously and teleologically. Somebody even had the great idea of nominating the internet (which, just like any other infrastructure and network, can be used for every purpose, including war) for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
This rhetoric conceals class, property, and production relations: we can only see their fetishes. Here's why the pages Karl Marx devoted to commodity fetishism are still useful (my italics):
«There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.»
"Fantastic form of a relation between things". Like the computers interconnected to form the web. Behind the phantasmagory of the Internet lies a set of definite social relations, and Marx means production relations, exploitation relations.
The net rhetoric hides these relations. It is indeed possible to talk about the Internet for hours, days, months, touching only marginally the issue of who owns it, who is really in control of the nodes, the infrastructure, the hardware. The pyramid of labour — including slave-like labour — incorporated into the devices we use (computers, smartphones, ereaders etc.) and as a consequence into the Internet itself, is even less discussed.
Eveyday, corporations expropriate social wealth on the net, and oppress the working class at each corner of the Earth behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they are considered less "corporate" than others.
Until we realize that Apple is like Monsanto, that Google is like Novartis, that praising a corporation is the most toxic narrative we can choose, wheather we are dealing with Google, Fiat, Facebook, Disney or Nestlé—-until we realize all this, we will stay in the net like fish.
[Let me put things clear: I do have a Mac, and I work well with it. I also own an iPod, a smartphone with Android, and a Kindle. My job requires me to know and investigate the ways in which culture is shared and the net is used. As I will explain later, this essay does not focus on the behaviour of the individual consumer -- on which a diverting rhetoric has been built in the latest years -- nor it implies any accusation of moral "incoherence" against him or her. What I am discussing here is the necessity of connecting online activism to the struggles that are taking place upstream, during the material production phase.]
Because of net-fetishism, the spotlight is always on the practices of liberation pervading the Internet — ie the kind of practices we Wu Ming have put time and effort into for twenty years —, which are customarily described as the rule. In this way, people dismiss as exceptions all the practices of subjugation , eg using the net to exploit or underpay intellectual work, to control and arrest people (see what happened after the recent UK riots), to impose new idols and fetishes, to spread the dominant ideology, to enforce the same financial capitalism that's destroying us.
On the net, the practices of subjugation are the rule as much as the others. In fact, if we want to nitpick, we should consider them the rule more than the others, if we take into account the genesis of the internet, which evolved from ARPAnet, a military computer network.
The question is not wheather the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That's the net's dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contraddiction in process. Capitalism developed itself by setting individuals free from the old feudal bonds, and at the same time by imposing new kinds of subjugation (to the controlled time of the factory, to the production of surplus value etc.) Under capitalism, everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level.
Therefore, the struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations.
If technology could develop outside of these relations, thanks only to its being innovative, the steam engine would have been adopted in the 1st century AD, when Heron of Alexandria invented the aeolipile—-but the antique mode of production did not need machines, since all the necessary workforce was provided by slaves, and nobody could or wanted to imagine any concrete development of that invention.
By fetishising technology as an autonomous force, we remain trapped within the old conceptual frame "Apocalyptic vs. Integrated". If you make the slightest critical remark about the net, the "Integrated" will mistake you for an "Apocalyptic", and will accuse you of incoherence and/or obscurantism. The former accusation resounds in such phrases as: 'Aren't you using a computer right now?', 'Don't you buy books on Amazon too?', 'You own a smartphone too!', and so on. The latter is expressed in the form of such useless preaches as: 'Try to picture a world without the Internet…'
On the other hand, any argument about the positive aspects of the net will be welcomed by the "Apocalyptic" as a piece of servile, "Integrated" propaganda.
Let us always remember Heron of Alexandria. His story teaches us that, whenever we talk about technology (and about the Internet in particular), we are actually talking about something else, ie social relations.
Let us ask again then: who are the bosses of the net? And who are the exploited of the Net, and by the Net?
It is not that difficult to find out: it suffices to read the "Terms of service" of the social media you're using, read the licenses of the software you keep on your computer, digit "Net Neutrality" on a search engine—-and, dulcis in fundo, keep in mind stories like those of Amazon's warehouses and Foxconn's factories.
Only in this way, I believe, we will avoid such bullshit as the "Internet for peace" campaign or the horrible, "softly" totalitarian scenario prefigured in Casaleggio & Associati's infamous video Gaia: The Future of Politics.
Let us not deceive ourselves: only violent conflicts will decide whether the evolution of the net will impose the supremacy of the practices of liberation over those of subjugation, or the other way around.
All the (shitty) work embodied in a tablet
Steve Jobs with an iPad
Recently, those who consider Marx's labour theory of value to be outdated in contemporary capitalism, have been referring to the iPad as an example: the physical work performed by factory workers to assemble a tablet, they explain, is not a big deal, and the tablet's value depends mainly on the software and apps running on it, therefore on the mental, cognitive work of invention and development. Such work is elusive, unmeasurable in terms hours of work.
This is supposed to question Marx's idea that — to put it very roughly — the value of a commodity is given by the amount of labour it embodies, or, more accurately, by the work time that is socially necessary to produce it. (By "socially necessary time" Marx means the average time used by the producers of a particular commodity at a given stage of capitalist development).
I'm not a expert of political economy, but they look like two co-existent levels to me. Maybe the labour theory of value is liquidated too hurriedly. I believe that the core of its meaning (its "philosophical" and very concrete kernel) persists even through changing conditions.
Nowadays, work is much more socialised than at Marx's times and the productive process is far more complex (and capitalism is more conditioned by external, environmental constraints). And yet, those who give this example shorten the cycle and single out the act of assembling an individual iPad. It sounds like a serious methodological mistake to me.
We should take into account the mass of work along the whole productive cycle of an entire batch of tablets (or laptop computers, smartphones, e-readers, whatever). As Tuco correctly said in the discussion thread in which this essay started to take shape:
«One of the essential points is that the whole contraption could never be set to motion to produce one hundred iPads. You've got to make one hundred million at least. At first glance it could look like the intellectual work needed to develop the iPad software generates value by itself, irrespective of the rest of the productive cycle. But this would imply that the value generated by this intellectual work is independent from the number of iPads being produced. Actually it's not like that. Were it not part of a cycle that involves the production with Fordist methods of a hundred million iPads, this intellectual work would generate virtually no value at all.»
Once this point is clarified, in considering how much labour gets embodied in a tablet one can:
1. Start from the retrieval of raw materials like lithium. Without lithium there would be no rechargeable batteries in our gadgets. It does not exist in nature in a "pure" form, and the process to derive it is costly and impacts on the environment. (By the way, 70% of the world reserves of lithium is at the bottom of Bolivian salt lakes, and the Bolivian government has no intention to sell it off. Apart from geopolitical issues, even earthquakes contribute to the mess. This primary stage of the cycle is bound to get more complicated and require more and more labour);
2. Take into account the work (and the harm suffered) by those who work in the petrochemical industry producing the necessary polymers;
3. Take into account the work lacking any safeguard of the toilers assembling the devices (we've mentioned above the work conditions at Foxconn);
4. Finally, take into account the (undignified, noxious, almost inhuman) work of those who "dispose" of the laptop's or tablet's carcass in some African dump. Being these rapidly obsolescent commodities, and particularly, commodities whose obsolescence is planned, this work is already embodied in them since the beginning of the cycle.
Taking all this into consideration, we will notice that a batch of iPads does indeed embody a large amount of labour (shitty, exploited, underpaid, toxic toil), and a large quantity of working time. Without a doubt, the latter is socially necessary working time: nowadays this is the only way iPads are produced.
Without this work, the applied general intellect that creates and updates software just could not exist. Therefore, it could not produce any value. It takes a tree to make a table, and it takes a factory worker to make a tablet —-and a miner before him, etc. Without factory workers and their labour, no valorisation of digital commodities, no Apple stock quote would be possible. Shareholders and investors trust Apple because it develops, enhances, and sells hardware and gadgets, and sometimes hits big by placing a new cool "jewel" on the market—-and who makes the jewel?
Whether a precise counting in terms of working hours is still possible, I cannot tell. Let me repeat myself: I am not a political economist. What I do know is that when we trash a perfectly working cell phone because a new model can do more things, we're trashing a good portion of life and toil of a large mass of workers, who are often underpaid and booted in their butt into the bargain.
Collective Intelligence, Invisible Work and Social Media
What I am trying to explain has already been tackled by Marx in the Unpublished Sixth Chapter of the Capital. The excerpt is particularly dense, since it was never edited for publication (my italics and underlining):
«The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances [...]. This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.
The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital.»
In a nutshell, Marx is saying that:
1) the collective, cooperative nature of labour is really subdued (the term is sometimes translated as "subsumed") under capital—-which means that it's a specific collective nature that did not exist before capitalism.
The "real submission" of labour under capital is set by Marx against the "formal subsumption", which was typical of the dawn of capitalism, when the capital used to subdue pre-existent kinds of labour: hand weaving, the processes of agricultural labour, etc.
"Real submission" (or "subsumption") means that the capital turns into productive force a social cooperation that did not pre-exist it, because workers, salaried labour, machines and new ways of transportation and distribution did not exist before capitalism;
2) the more advanced the productive process (thanks to the application of science and technology), the more mystified the representation of productive cooperation.
Let us look now for some current examples of this formulation: the production of sense and relations on the internet is not considered as productive force of cooperating workers; nor does the dominant ideology allow to recognize the work of a single person. All this production is fraudulently, mythologically attributed to the capital itself, to "entrepreneurial spirit", to the supposed genius of the capitalist, etc. For instance, it is often said that Facebook exists thanks to Mark Zuckerberg's "insight" blah blah blah.
Such production of sense is often considered, as Marx says, "productive power of labour in so far as [it] is identical with capital". Let's translate and apply this principle: the exploitation is hidden behind the appearance of an autonomous, non-subordinate work that relies on independent entrepreneurship and free agreements — even if a significant chunk of web content is produced by the subordinate piecework of several "ghostwriters", hired by such companies as Odesk.com.
Does what Marx called the "Gemeinwesen" – ie the tendency of human beings to cooperate and be part of a community – really exist? Yes, indeed. It is always risky to use such terms, but if there is an "anthropological universal", it is definitely that. "Companionable animal" ("Compagnevole animale") is how Dante translates Aristotle's "zoon politikon" ("Ζῷον πολιτικὸν")—-and neurosciences are proving that we are wired for the "Gemeinwesen" (the discovery of mirror neurons, etc.).
No mode of production has "subsumed" and "made productive" the human tendency to cooperation with the same strength of capitalism.
The best example of this subdued cooperation — and at the same time of an invisible work that is nor perceived as such — is offered by social media.
Mark Zuckerberg. INSEGVENDVM DEINDE COSPARGENDVM CATRAME PLVMISQUE.
I am going to use Facebook as an example. This does not imply that other social media are "less evil". The reason I'm focusing on Facebook lies in its being the largest, the most yielding and (as illustrated by the latest wave of new options and add-ons) the most enveloping, persuading, and expansionist social networking site on the web. It looks like Facebook wants to engulf the whole net to replace it. It is the social networking site par excellence, and therefore it offers us the clearest example.
Are you one of the 700-and-something million Facebook users? Well, it means that you produce contents for the network every day: any kind of contents, including emotions and relations. You are part of Facebook's general intellect. To put it short, Facebook exists and works thanks to all the people like you. What is Facebook if not a mass of collective intelligence that is not produced by Zuckerberg & Company, but by users?
In fact, you actually work on Facebook. You do not notice it, but you're working. You work and do not earn—-others are making money with your work.
What turns out to be useful here is the Marxian concept of "surplus labour". It is not an abstruse concept: it is the part of work that, albeit producing value, is not converted into salary but in profit for the capitalist, since the latter owns the means of production.
If there is profit, it means that there has been surplus labour. Otherwise, if all the labour were paid according to the value it creates—-well, that would be communism, a society with no classes. It is obvious that the capitalist must pay the workers less than the sum he earns with the sale of commodities. This is what "profit" means—-it means paying workers less than the actual value of their labour.
For several reasons, the capitalist may not be able to sell those commodities and make profits. But this does not mean that the workers have not provided surplus labour. The whole capitalist society is based on surplus value and surplus labour.
Your whole work is surplus work on Facebook, because you are not paid. Everyday Zuckerberg sells your surplus work—-that is to say, he sells your life (your sensitive data, your navigation patterns, etc.) and your relations. He makes several million dollars each day, because he is the owner of the mean of production, and you are not.
Information is a commodity. Knowledge is a commodity. In fact, it is the quintessential commodity in Post-Fordism (or whatever you want to call it). It is a productive force and a commodity at the same time, just like workforce. The Facebook community produces pieces of information (on individual tastes, consumption habits, market trends) that are wrapped up in form of statistics and sold to others and/or used for customising ads and any other kind of offer.
Moreover, as a representation of the most extended network of relations on the planet, Facebook itself is a commodity. The company is able to sell information only if, at the same time and incessantly, it keeps selling that particular representation of itself. That representation too is generated by users, but Zuckerberg is the one who pockets the cheque.
Of course, the kind of "work" described above is not comparable for toil and exploitation to the labour mentioned in the early paragraphs. In addition, Facebook users do not form a social class. The point is that we must always consider both the toil at the base of hardware production and the continuous, predatory embezzlement of collective intelligence taking place on the internet. As I wrote above, they are two "co-existent levels". The production of value depends on both activities, and they should be pictured and analysed together.
There is no "Outside" vs. "Inside"
At this point, should somebody ask me, "Do I have to stay outside social media?", or "Can I solve the problem by using only free software?", or even "Should I avoid this or that device?", I would reply that the question is ill-framed.
Of course, it is a good and right idea to create different, grassroots social media running on free software and not based upon the trade of sensitive data and relations—-but so is also holding a critical, informative presence where the majority of people live and communicate, perhaps trying to devise conflictual ways of using the existing networks.
We've suffered for too long the hegemony of an apparatus that "individualises" revolts and struggles, focusing mainly on what is or can be done by the single consumer (a subject who is continuously reproduced by specific social technologies): boycott, critical consumption, radical personal choices, and so on.
Personal choices are important, but:
1. Too often this way of thinking brings to a competiton on who is "purer" and more "coherent". There will always be someone boasting choices that are more radical than mine: the vegan bashes the vegetarian, the raw fruitarian bashes the vegan, etc. Each one claims to be "further outside", more "independent" from capital —-a picture that is completely delusional;
2. The consumer is the last ring of the distribution chain, and his or her choices are made at the estuary, not at the source. Perhaps we should recommend more often the reading of a "lesser" text by Marx, the Critique of the Gotha Program, in which he criticised the "vulgar socialism" focused on distribution instead of production.
I have being trying for a while to explain that, in my opinion, spacial metaphors (such as "Inside" and "Outside") are inadequate, because if the question is, "Where is the outside?", the answer — or lack thereof — cannot but be paralysing, since the question itself is already paralysing.
It could be more useful to employ, and reason in terms of, temporal images. Focus on time, not space.
It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as "the nature of things"), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the "naturalization" of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.
There is nothing new in what I'm saying: once it was customarily called "class struggle". In a nutshell: the worker's and the employer's interests are different and irreconcilable. Any ideology (whether corporatist, nationalistic, or racist) concealing this difference must be fought against.
Think of the dawn of the labour movement. Proletarians work 12 to 14 hours per day in brutish conditions, and the same conditions are shared by children who hardly see the sun's light. What will they do? They will struggle. They will struggle until they wring eight-hour working days, pay for the overtime, health assistance, right of organization and strike, laws against child labour… They'll take back part of their time and claim their dignity, until these achievements will be questioned again and a new struggle will be needed.
To realize that our relation with things is neither neutral nor innocent, to find ideology therein, to acknowledge commodity fetishism—-these are all achievements in themselves: we may still be injured and insulted, but at least we are not "injured, insulted, and loving it". The injury is still there, but not the mockery of believing to be free within frameworks whereas we're actually exploited. We should always find the dispositifs that subjugate us, and describe them while finding ways to put them in crisis.
The digital devices we use incorporate exploitation—-let us realise it. The Internet stands upon gigantic pillars of invisible labour—-let's show it, and let's show the struggles and the strikes. Although still little debated in the Western world, there are indeed strikes in China, and there will be more and more.
Whenever a loser becomes a tycoon, we should go and check how many heads he stepped on to get where he is, what work he exploited, how much surplus work he did not reward.
When I talk about "defetishising the Net", I mean the acquisition of this awareness, which is the requirement to stay "inside and against", inside in a conflictual way.
If we stay "inside and against" the Net, we may find the way to enter into an alliance with those who are exploited upstream. A worldwide alliance between "digital activists", cognitive workers, and electronic-industry workers would be the most frightening thing for the bosses of the Internet.
The forms of this alliance, of course, are all to be discovered.
Wu Ming 1
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