This rambling essay by Franco “Bifo” Berardi is full of provocative yet unsubstantiated prophetic statements about semiocapitalism and the like, so naturally it appealed to me. His argument, such as it is, hinges on the relation of time, money and value: “capital is value, or accumulated time,” Bifo claims, drawing on the labor theory of value. Socially necessary labor time in the abstract is objectified and stored as money; labor time is directed into projects through investment.
But this way of understanding value and the meaning of money breaks down when one considers immaterial labor: “try to decide how much time is needed to produce an idea, a project, a style, a creation, and you find that the production process becomes semiotic, with the relationship between time, work, and value suddenly evaporating, melting into air.” The links between these concepts thus function in a purely ideological way — we think they denote equivalences but they mask inequities, exploitations.
Time is no longer an objective measure of labor (if it ever was), but begins to vary in intensity; it becomes subject to acceleration. Bifo argues that “if you want a growth in productivity — which is also a growth in surplus value — you need to accelerate work time. But when the main tool for production ceases to be material labor and becomes cognitive labor, acceleration enters another phase, another dimension, because an increase in semiocapitalist productivity comes essentially from the acceleration of the info-sphere — the environment from which information arrives in your brain.”
In tandem with this acceleration in productivity comes a sort of inflation in semiotic saturation: “you need more and more signs, words, information, to buy less and less meaning. It is hyper-acceleration used as a crucial capitalist tool.” There are more and more floating signifiers, but no one is sure what are the signifieds. This is source of endless competition — who gets to affix signifieds to signifiers with socially acknowledged authority. This is what it means to have cultural capital, to have “cool.” Bifo connects unbridled competition with fascism; what happens in semiocapitalism is perhaps a kind of fashion fascism.
Part of the point is that knowledge is inhibited by an overflow of data — individuals are becoming dividuals, to adopt Deleuze’s term. (See this paper by Robert Gehl) This makes subjects easier to control, makes us more susceptible to control by technology, to giving in to the way technology is developing to accelerate our consumption for its purposes rather than our own. We start consuming to keep up rather than to experience pleasure or to meet any other personal need.
When more signs buy less meaning, when there is an inflation in meaning, when the info-sphere accelerates and your attention is unable to keep up, what do you need? You need someone who makes things easy for you.
And that “someone” is pharmaceuticals, amphetamines, infantilizing GUIs, recommendation engines, and all the other so-called innovations that substitute convenience for engagement or experience. As Bifo concludes, “Our relationship to the world will become purely functional, operational—probably faster, but precarious.”
This is several removes from the sort of precarity that comes with being food-insecure or undocumented or unemployed, but it is precarity nonetheless, an unsustainable relation to the realm of information that one comes to feel one must maintain to be employable or to have a valuable brand. We start to believe we must keep up with the flow of information in order to be able to produce meaning that has current value; we need to remain in tune with novelty. But the cycles of fashion are so rapid that it is nearly impossible to keep up; the edifice fractures into hyperparticular niches, all of which are defining their own versions of contemporary cool, and we can be masters of some few of these while the mass of other niches serve to keep us feeling inadequate, insecure.