The precarious soul!

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen amongst us. – visiting/This various world with as inconstant wing/As summer winds that creep from flower to flower. -/Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,/It visits with inconstant glance” From Hymn to Intellectual Beauty by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Let’s be clear, we are not talking about the metaphysical soul. This more like the soul, or consciousness that emerges out of matter. Something like Daniel Dennett’s moment when competence morphs into comprehension. Or, maybe, Thomas Aquinas’s view that if one says that someone has a soul it means little more than simply being alive.

In fact, the 13th century scholar is an interesting thinker. He is generally regarded as one of the most materialistic of theologians, although, unlike modern materialists, he saw no reason to believe that nothing but matter exists. Nevertheless, according to Denys Turner in his book on Thomas Aquinas, the latter shocked contemporary theologians because he ‘seemed scarcely to need a special account of the human soul at all, and therefore would seem to have no basis for an account of what is “spiritual” about human beings’. For Aquinas the soul was intellectual – and for holding such views at the time when he did he sailed very close to the wind indeed.

It is in this spirit, so to speak, that Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi approaches the subject in his book The Soul at Work – From Alienation to Autonomy: “The soul I intend to discuss does not have much to do with spirit. It is rather the vital breath that converts biological matter into an animated body.” And it is this soul, writes Bifo, that has been rendered precarious by 30 years of neoliberalism. Under Fordist industrialisation the worker had to leave his or her soul at the door of the factory; today the soul itself is harnessed to the neoliberal yoke. As Shoshana Zuboff wrote in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, matter is no longer the stuff of capitalism, our own experience or data is the new raw material upon which billions are made.

For Karl Marx it was our social being that determines our consciousness, not the other way around as Hegel believed. But for Bifo, in the random regime of fluctuating value under which we live today ‘precariousness becomes the general form of social existence’. And again: “The neoliberal values presented in the 1980s and 1990s as vectors of independence and self-entrepreneurship reveal themselves to be manifestations of a new form of slavery producing social insecurity and most of all a psychological catastrophe.” Once wandering and unpredictable, the soul ‘must now follow the functional paths’. The digitalized information that lies at the heart of every product and service – what Bifo calls ‘semio-capitalism’ in true continental philosophical style – is made possible by the mobile ‘phone as the lived experience of the worker is subsumed into the system.

For Yanis Varoufakis in Talking to My Daughter capitalism is characterised by what he calls exchange value in which everything is commodified and instead of going to the market we are the market. Now, according to Bifo, it’s not human labour that is up for sale but ‘packets of time’. And he adds: “De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights.”

His solution is not the collapse of capitalism but a society in which it will ‘lose its pervasive, paradigmatic role in our semiotization, it will become one of possible forms of social organization’. Further: “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 the 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 part of the economy and should once again become forms of life.”

What Bifo does not say is that this might not be a choice in the years to come but something foisted upon us by the exponential development of artificial intelligence. For him communism ‘will never be the principle of a new totalization, but one of the possible forms of autonomy from capitalist rule’. But, of course, there is a much simpler way of achieving this and that is by introducing a Universal Basic Income. According to Parijs and Vanderborght in Basic Income it is ‘arguably not only fair but also economically clever to give all, not just the better endowed, greater freedom to move easily among paid work, education, caring, and volunteering’.

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