To earn a living you have to quit dreaming. To fall in love you have to get over yourself. Working and dating: two chores I have no energy for.
Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, Franco “Bifo” Berardi tells us in The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy that “there will be no full employment in the future.” The global workforce over the last twenty years has been forced to work more and more but with less and less guarantee of job security or economic stability. Working from home sounds convenient, but what happens when jobs become increasingly “temporary” and flexible workers drift from low wage job to low wage job without health care or the promise of retirement benefits? The precarious nature of work is indeed a dire situation, but it might be a blessing in disguise. Against centuries of capitalist logic, Berardi states his case for a dramatic reversal of values:
Society does not need more work, more jobs, more competition. On the contrary: we need a massive reduction in work-time, a prodigious liberation of life from the social factory, in order to reweave the fabric of social relation. Ending the connection between work and revenue will enable a huge release of energy for social tasks that can no longer be conceived as a part of the economy and should once again become forms of life. (213)
Berardi is dead serious: too much work is killing the Soul. There’s no use producing goods and services for bodies too exhausted to enjoy them. The Soul, which Berardi says includes language, creativity and affects, has fallen into a deep depression. People suffer individually. Society suffers as a “hole.”
It’s time to utilize our creative powers to rebuild a more just society in which everyone is entitled to food, clothing and shelter.
“Every person has the right to receive the amount of money that is needed for survival. And work has nothing to do with this. [. . .] Until the majority of mankind is free from the connection between income and work, misery and war will be the norm of the social relationship” (214).
Depression is a natural response to perpetual misery and war. But a way out emerges in the midst of tragedy, a revolution via the Soul. The pain of depression is infused with the potential to develop a new existential template, an enlightened approach to life accessible to us only through our unique brand of suffering under capitalism. To overcome depression—both on a personal and social level—we need a special type of therapy, one that helps each patient “singularize” and “become conscious of his or her differences, to give him/her the ability to be in good stead with his being different and his actual possibilities” (216).
The goal of therapy is to find and embrace my “self” in order to appreciate the Otherness of others.
After the Great Recession, de-growth is here to stay. Today the notion of wealth should not be based on possession but enjoyment, on having enough time to spend with each other in communities rooted in trust and understanding. Politics and therapy should be one and the same.
A therapeutic politics. A political therapy. Berardi is the ultimate idealist; for his passion and vision I applaud him. But he wrote The Soul at Work at the beginning of Obama’s first term as president. Hope and change were promised but rarely delivered. Congressional Republicans had made a pact, we later learned, to thwart the first black president’s efforts at the same time he was dancing with his wife at the inaugural ball.
Berardi puts too much faith in rationality and the triumph of compassion over fear and bigotry. Some people hate for no reason. Some people vote for “security”—from minorities, immigrants and refugees—over their own economic interests. Economic competition is no longer just a race; it’s about “opposing” races competing for American jobs that end up being outsourced or go to robots that don’t complain or call in sick. Inequality is a social, not a natural, division between individuals who all live and suffer and die together. We are more alike than different, and we’re all afraid of poverty, disease and isolation. Yet our misery under capitalism grows.
Prior to 2015, few could imagine a Donald Trump presidency. Berardi has redefined some of his thought in light of Trump’s rise to (white) power, but the core ideas he laid out eight years ago appear naïve today. Rather than less work, there will be more work. Plenty of work after Trump unravels “the fabric of social relation.”
We live in a post-truth world. Can the Soul survive post-hope?
“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.
The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).
Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:
People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)
The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.