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Jobless students, a new 'cognitariat'

Europe has vast numbers of young, unemployed academics. They need to stop paying their debts and start stealing from supermarkets: Most importantly, they need to change the way they think, argues Italian theorist Bifo

»Philosophically, we need a new perspective. We need to work our way towards a state of balance and accept that we cannot have more.«

The Italian scholar Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s statement resonates oddly in a time where the dominating political discourse is prescribing economic growth as the cure for the current crisis.

However, Bifo is far from mainstream politics: Since his teens in the early 1960’s – where he became a member of the Italian Communist Youth Federation – he has been an activist on Italy’s political left and is considered a leading figure of the Autonomia, an extra-parliamentary leftist movement.

Growth is, says Bifo, not the answer to the current crisis. Quite the opposite, it is the ideology of growth, which has created it in the first place.

»We have to recognize – and this is denied in normal political rhetoric – that what we are facing is a classic problem of over-production,« Bifo says.

Not only are we producing an increasing number of traditional goods. But also, what Bifo defines as semiotic goods – the immaterial ‘products’ in areas such as digital technique, media, information etc.- like facebook, apps and downloadable knowledge. »It is a production which has not been supported by social demand. And it was this bubble which burst in 2008, when the crisis exploded.«

Welcome to the cognitariat

His critique of the capitalist system is not strictly to do with the workings of the finance, capital and money in it. This sticks out compared to traditional Marxist thinking, as he put it recently to Alytus Art Strike Biennale.

»The solution to the economic difficulty of the situation cannot be solved with economic means: the solution is not economic.«

He speaks of a transformation which has taken place since the 1980’s.

»What has happened is the enlargement of the role of mass intellectual or cognitive labour. Labour is no longer primarily physical but has become immaterial,« Bifo says.

This has changed the role of work. Instead of being something people do to survive, it has instead become, at least for the new group of well-educated, independent and creative labourers, a part of their self-perception.

This new class of ‘cognitive workers’, has consequently become vulnerable to the market’s exploitation. Work has become their very means to self-realization.

»The problem is that this understanding of intellectual labour is based on a massive denial of the cognitive labourers as a social body – the class formation I have called ‘the cognitariat’. Where the traditional working class was aware of its physical and economic exploitation, the intellectual and psychic exploitation of the cognitariat is hidden and forgotten,« says Bifo.

The individual and the crisis

If the exploitation is invisible, its psychological impact on the class has become tragically clear.

»What has arisen together with the cognitariat is an entirely new pathology,« Bifo says.

»It is different from the Freudian neurosis insofar that its cause is not repression but the state of hypermobility which is characteristic of capitalist society. Here the demand of self-realization and the ever growing competition between labourers creates massive panic, depression and an overwhelming loneliness.«

Or to put it another way: Where the traditional working class, when faced with unacceptable exploitation, collectively went on strike, the new proletarian, the cognitive labourer of today breaks down personally. And, according to Bifo, it is precisely this type of reaction – stress, depression, panic – that is the result of the European growth policy:

»The main trend especially here in Italy, but also in Europe in general, is the attempt to increase our productivity by decreasing salary, labour and in the general costs to society. In other words: Europe wants to accelerate production for less money. What we are experiencing is a fundamental paradox. We urge people to work more, demanding them to find work. But at the same time on a structural level, we are creating massive unemployment.«

Resurrecting solidarity

So what is your solution to this paradox?
»I will remind you of the slogan of the Autonomia movement back in the 70’s: ‘Work less, work for everybody.’ The only way to fix the problem of mass unemployment is to reduce the work time for everybody. Share the work, let people retreat, let people have their pensions. That is both in the social interest and in the financial interest.«

So how should we do this?
»Well, I am tempted to say, through a European resurrection. It is a good answer, but somehow it is also an empty one. The thing is that today traditional political power means nothing. The real power no longer belongs to governments, but to a financial class which – just think of Italy and Greece – is taking charge. And it is this financial capitalism which is destroying the very foundation of European social welfare.«

»The first task is to recreate solidarity. People are literally killing themselves; in Italy the suicide rate is up by 25 percent. People cannot find a way out of their frustration alone. Therefore the only exit is a new social experience of solidarity. For instance: In Argentina after the bankruptcy of 2001, people struggled to afford food. Then these little street ‘restaurants’ began to occur in the streets, where people shared their food. Something similar has to start in Europe.«

How about the young unemployed. What is your message to them?
»For a start: Refuse to pay your debts, stop paying your mortgage, start taking things, plunder the supermarkets, occupy abandoned buildings. This is the beginning of a process of a new organization of society.«

The end of growth

A number of economists predict the end to the recession and maybe the end to mass unemployment.

Why, then, this call for a radical transformation of society, why not just wait it out?
»We are no longer in the 1920’s or 1930’s. There you had the actual possibility of recovery, because capitalism was on the rise, the future was progress,« Bifo says.

»But the possibility for growth is over. We are no longer a world of young people but a world of the old. And we have to re-organise ourselves in a more egalitarian way. If we believe in a new age of growth – and continue acting according to this belief – our societies and the planet will not be able to survive.«

Thus Bifo’s message for the the cognitariat, Europe’s young academics is quite clear. We cannot expect a return to the way things were:

»The most important task for the young people is to change their expectations. The future is over in the sense that it has to be reframed. However, this reframing holds the potential for a new solidarity and a collective reclaim of happiness – a happiness which is not founded on an ideology of work and growth.«

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