The 20th century was the century that trusted in the future.
Or, as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi – veteran of the 1977 Italian post-workerist movement and founder of the legendary pirate radio station Radio Alice – states in the opening pages of his newest work, ‘After the Future’, “Liberalism and social democracy, nationalism and communism, and anarchism itself, all the different families of modern political theory share a common certainty: notwithstanding the darkness of the present, the future will be bright.”
For Bifo, however, there is nothing natural about the future; instead, the very idea that we are progressing naturally towards a better world is nothing more than an ‘imaginary effect’ of the ideology of capitalist expansion. Locating the symbolic birth of what he calls ‘the century of the future’ in 1909, the year of the publication of the proto-fascist Futurist Manifesto – a zealous endorsement of modernity, industrial massification, acceleration and technological advancement – Bifo traces this naïve technotopianism through to its end in 1977, the year of punk and its cries of ‘no future!’
Indeed, the entire book is permeated by a punk-like aesthetic of resignation and despair. While the century of the future, says Bifo, is now over, this is largely because its logic has so deeply infiltrated our consciousness that we are no longer able to even imagine an alternative and are thus resigned to a rapid collective decline into narcissism, anomie and fragmentation: the precarity and distributed nature of work and the resultant loss of solidarity and possibilities for organisation between workers; the overstimulation of the ‘cognitariat’ by the instantaneity and ubuquity of digital media, leading to a crisis of sensitivity and a diminished capacity for communication; the depression, panic, unhappiness, fear, anxiety and terror which are the natural affective conditions of ‘cognitive capitalism’…
‘After the Future’ is relentless in its hopelessness, even as it offers us a startlingly accurate description of the present. Which of us immured in conditions of immaterial labour, for instance, can fail to recognise ourselves in these lines: “The social field is “an ocean of valorizing cells convened in a cellular way and recombined by the subjectivity of capital”. These info-laborers are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular, yet their entire days are subjected to this kind of production, “pulsating and available, like a brain-sprawl in waiting”, Blackberries and mobiles ever ready.”
There is, however, some small thread of optimism running through the pages. While Bifo does not pretend to have any answers, he does at least encourage us to reflect critically and unflinchingly on the composition of the present and calls on us to practice an ethics of resistance: “I must act “as if”. As if the forces of labor and knowledge may overcome the forces of greed and of proprietary obsession. As if the cognitive workers may overcome the fractalization of their life and intelligence, and give birth to a process of the self-organization of collective knowledge. I must resist simply because I cannot know what will happen after the future, and I must preserve the consciousness and sensibility of social solidarity, of human empathy, of gratuitous activity, of freedom, equality and fraternity. Just in case, right? Just because we don’t know what is going to happening next, in the empty space that comes after the future of modernity. I must resist because this is the only way to be in peace with my self. In the name of self-love, we must resist. And self-love is the basic ethical rule that an anarchist prizes.”
The book concludes with Bifo’s witty and strikingly beautiful response to the Futurists – the Manifesto of Post-Futurism.