on 20 July 2014
Franco Berardi has written a short, complicated book, with a simple message often obscured behind clouds of self-consciously clever rhetoric. It's worth persevering, though, as this is one of the better books to come out of the revival of Marxist studies (in the widest sense of the term) since 2008.
Berardi essentially makes two arguments. The first is that, unlike in Marx's time, the capitalist no longer actually has to do things or provide services in order to skim surplus value off the top. Today, money and profits have become entirely virtual, transnational dematerialized, and we are victims of economic forces which might as well be magic for all the understanding or control we have of them. Second, and as a result, the capitalist system is not only sick itself (witness the use of words like "depression" and "panic" in the financial media), it's also making people ill and mentally unstable.
On the whole this s a convincing analysis - it's just a pity that it's written in a self-indulgent style, employing the kind of deliberate exaggeration and fondness for paradox that European intellectuals tend to be so keen on. And it suffers also from repetition (it started out as a series of essays) and from having been written in the period of relative optimism that followed the 2011 Occupy movement.
So what has poetry to do with all this, I hear you ask? Not much, really, in spite of some confident statements to the contrary. Thus, poetry "is the semiotic concatenation that exceeds the sphere of exchange and the codified correspondence of the signifier and the signified". Got that? He's saying, in effect, that poetry is a kind of free speech, in all senses of the term. Maybe.
The book is rescued at the end, however, by a complete departure: an eloquent and scornful attack on the prevailing mode of cynicism, in which intellectuals worship power, compared to irony, which has a long tradition of opposing power. Maybe he's right. If not poetry, then maybe irony will save the world.