The obsession with identity fascism

Franco Berardi Bifo

Translated by Steve Wright. This text is an extract from Franco Berardi's La nefasta utopia di potere operaio. The original can be found here.

Potere Operaio presented itself explicitly, even provocatively, as a movement that had severed all links with the history of realised socialism. Just as decisively, it refused to identify with the tradition of anti-fascism. We have seen in the group's political history, after the 1970 Florence Congress and the Leninist turn, the reinvigoration of the languages and methodologies of the Third International tradition, to the point that these suffocated the group's originality. But it remains true nonetheless that the peculiar conception of the relation between working class autonomy, power and development elaborated by Potere Operaio in the first phase of its history was able to escape the historicist model of the realisation of socialism. Nor was its judgement on the socialist mode of production compatible with the Marxist-Leninist tradition. With Lenin's affirmation in the NEP period that socialism equalled 'soviets plus electricity', and his embrace of the taylorist model, socialism could not but become (and here the Mensheviks were right) bureaucratic capitalism. Potere Operaio did not develop a more profound reflection on the Soviet model, on its feudal- bureaucratic character, on the military apparatus as the cement of the social structure, and thus its imperialist vocation. Then again, no-one else in Italy took this up either.

Studies such as that of Castoriadis — whose Devant la guerre (Paris, Seuil, 1981) analysed the stratocratic character of the USSR and its intrinsic rigidity — or that of Isabelle D'Encausse — whose L'empire en miettes (Paris, Fayard, 1981) anticipated the Empire's collapse from a range of pressures (of identity, and of centrifuge) — have never found the audience they deserved in Italy. The analysis of realised socialism and its crisis has largely been institutional, focused on the formal political sphere (politicista). The PCI's hypocrisy on this point was the worst obstacle to a critical understanding. The PCI spent decades repeating formulas about the Soviet regime's 'backwardness, errors, deviations', systematically refusing to address the organically criminal character of that regime. But this is understandable, given that the PCI was born out of the same matrix, and had functioned as an organic part of the international system of authoritarianism. The collapse of the socialist regimes was inscribed in the horizon of possibilities foreseen by Potere Operaio's analysis. What instead was certainly alien to its predictions was the close connection between the collapse of the Soviet empire and the crisis of every internationalist perspective, and so the outbreak on a planetary scale of a civil war over the question of identity.

This is the prospect that has unfolded over the course of the nineties. It is on the basis of the crisis of internationalism that the obsession with identity has taken the initiative, darkening the planetary horizon. Metropolitan cosmopolitanism remains limited to the virtual class, to the globalised stratum of the planetary network. The great majority of humanity remains excluded from the cabled circuit of hyper-modern cosmopolitanism, and is gripped by its obsessions with identity. Residual localisms acquire a desperate energy. But this signals the beginning of the crisis of modern universalism. What does universalism mean? We can talk of universalism when confronted with a perspective of ethical, political and existential value that possesses a universal normative force beyond (a prescindere) cultural differences. Materialist dialectics opposed bourgeois universalism with proletarian particularism, the negative force of a partisan interest that contained within itself the nucleus of a higher, more fully human form of social relation. But this particularism still possessed (dialectically) a universalist horizon. Affirming with sectarianism working class particularity meant, in the dialectical vision, posing the conditions for a higher universality. This ideological schema is clearly of Hegelian, historicist derivation. But this does not take away the fact that internationalism was something more concrete than a moral proposition.

Internationalism was not an abstract value to pursue, but a fact of collective experience that lived in the struggle of workers against capitalism, and in the unity of proletarian interests that knew no borders. Workers have the same interests in every place across the globe: to appropriate growing quotients of the wealth that they themselves have produced, and to reduce the time of their dependence upon wage labour. The stronger workers are in one point of the cycle, the stronger workers are in all other points of the cycle. This elementary truth did not allow us to foresee the profound cultural change which followed the capitalist attack of the eighties. In order to defeat working class autonomy, to drive back the libertarian and anti-productivist wave of the movements, capital created the conditions for the diffusion of a widespread aggressiveness in the form of the re-emergence of 'the people'. The re-emergence on the world scene of 'peoples' is the sign of working class defeat: peoples are the particularity that cannot be rendered dialectical, the particularity without a universal project, the idiot particularity.


In the years when the movements were at their height, fascism, in all its forms, appeared to us as an epoch that was dead and gone forever; or, at most, as a brutal instrument of repression. We thought a new type of totalitarianism was possible, but under the banners of social democracy, of a concentrated and technological hyper-development. Only social democracy, it seemed to us, was capable of dividing the movement of workers and subordinating it to reformism and statism. We thought that the fascists and various other criminals would only reappear on the scene thanks to the initiative and goodness of the reformist state. The scenario of the nineties is completely different. It is no longer true that the decisive forces are capital and the working class. As in a game of mirrors, the context has been fragmented, multiplied, overturned. Capital and working class continue to confront each other, but in a manner that overturns their relation in the sixties: the initiative (which then belonged to the workers) has today decisively shifted to international finance capital. At the same time two other figures have appeared: the virtual class, that is the cycle of globalised mental labour; and the residual class, the shapeless mass of populations excluded from (or never part of) the production cycle, which press aggressively to conquer a space of survival and recognition in the planetary spectacle.The word 'revolution' no longer means anything within this new configuration—but then neither does the phrase 'political democracy'. An ethical, immaginary, projectual level common to the figures of globalised fragmentary labour no longer exists, because they lack a shared social foundation. While capital courses through them all, because it continues to be the agent of generalised codification, the figures of mental labour are simultaneously fragmentary in their inmost (intima) constitution, and global in their extrinsic relation, mediated by technology.


A very tight dialectic between capitalist progress and working class revolution was the horizon of Potere Operaio's thought. Communism was simply a weapon of this struggle: 'communism is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things'. That dialectic bore its own fruit: the development of labour's autonomy from the factory, intellectualisation, enormous productive potentiality, the reduction of the labour necessary for global reproduction. But at this point the world presents itself in another light. No longer the light of a dialectic in which particular subjectivities produce a universal perspective, but the disquieting light of devolution, of a regression that society inflicts upon itself in order to withstand capital's mutagenic impact upon its anthropological and psychochemical composition. One recognisable form of devolution is fascism. Fascism, that strange word, that shapeless word. For a long time I strove to find a concept able to define the different (and contradictory) forms of authoritarianism, of nationalistic or ethnic aggression and so on, but without success. In his article 'Il fascismo eterno', Umberto Eco recognises that 'the characteristics cannot be marshalled into a system, many are mutually contradictory and are typical of other forms of despotism and fanaticism. But it is sufficient for one to be present for a fascist nebula to coagulate'.

There follows a list of Ur-fascism's characteristics: the cult of tradition, the refusal of modernism, action for action's sake, the fear of difference, and so on. But, as interesting and pertinent as these characteristics are, Eco himself recognises that the effort of definition seems ultimately to end in frustration because the object continues to get away. For example, after having said that fascism is contrary to modernism, it must be recognised that historic fascism played a role in the modernisation of society in both Italy and Germany. In the absence, then, of a satisfactory and comprehensive definition, we run the risk of defining fascism as everything that disgusts us, and of identifying fascism, simply, as the party of imbecility and violence: as the party of evil. And this, naturally, doesn't work, it doesn't define anything. The problem is that that to which we are referring, using this word—fascism—which is imprecise and historically far too dated, is an extremely vast field of forms of life, behaviours, ideologies, prejudices that have, in the last analysis, a single element in common: the obsession with definition. The obsession to define is, in the last analysis, the characteristic common to the field of phenomena that we define as 'fascism'; it is simultaneously comprehensible and difficult to define.

'Fascism', in its maximum conceptual extension (encompassing nationalism and religious fundamentalism, political authoritarianism, sexual aggression and so on . . .) can be brought back to a fundamental obsession: the obsession with identity, the obsession with belonging, with origin, with recognisability. This obsession has grown, extended itself, exploded over the course of our century, precisely because our century is a century of deterritorialisation, of cultural contamination and de-identification. The pressure (pulsione) that seems to guide fundamentally those behaviours which fall within the ambit of 'fascism' is the pressure to recognise ourselves as identical, identifiable, and therefore belonging to a community (of language, faith, race . . .). based upon origin. Only origin bears witness to belonging, and as we know, origin is an illusion, a legend, an attribute that is more or less shared, but unfounded. Ethnic identity does not exist, any more than linguistic identity. While each of us comes from a history of crossbreedings and contaminations that can neither be attested nor authenticated, there are illusions of ethnic belonging; while each of us speaks our own dialect that can never be fundamentally translatable by another speaker, there are illusions of linguistic comprehension. Living together is premised on these. The more the field of ethnic identifiability, of comprehensibility, of origin are perturbed, the more acute becomes the need to identify, to the point of obsession.


In the end, the inhuman appears as the dominant form of human relations: reaction devolved to a development of capital that, even as it proceeds triumphantly, excludes and crystallises growing sections of the planetary nervous system, and secretes inhumanity. After having subordinated the working class variable, capital readies itself for its new, titanic enterprise: subordinating the entire cycle of human cognitive activity into an automated system that is cabled on a number of levels: the economic, technological, psychochemical—and perhaps in the future, also the biogenetic. But the residues that this enterprise leaves along its course are immense, corresponding to the majority of the human population.

After having incorporated working class autonomy in technique, and after having eliminated every alternative perspective, capital imposes itself as the accumulation of automatic processes that are no more governable nor opposable. Techno-social interfaces progressively connect towards the transformation of the global economy into a hive mind that functions according to prescribed goals and cabled in the techno-linguistic garb of its human terminals. At this point, the bio-computer super-organism reads the human and discards it as noise.

This process goes towards the creation of a super-identity completely indifferent to identities of origin (of sex, race, faith, nationality). But in the process of this super-identity's formation, an enormous quantity of human material is discarded: the majority of humanity, which remains outside the cabled circuit of the globalised techno-economy. This material residue identifies itself through aggressive cults, founded on the illusion of an originary authenticity in need of restoration. Only the affirmation of an identity makes survival possible in a world increasingly dense with conflicting territorial projects, in a world dominated by the paradox of growing wealth that produces an expanding misery.

In the horizon of evolution, the problem of collective happiness and liberation comes to be posed in terms that are completely asymmetrical to those we have known in the past. How will the human singularity reproduce itself in the sphere of the posthuman? Harmony, happiness, awareness: how can these be singularised in the sphere of the cabled global mind? The universality to which dialectical thought aspired was the result of the very process of the particularities' capacity to constitute themselves as a conscious subject, and therefore to surpass the particular. The abolition of wage labour by the class of wage labour ably represented this process of inverting the whole starting from the negative affirmation of the parts. What is instead determinate is another type of universality: the abstract universality of code that semiotises every fragment of the existing without respecting any pulsation of living human particularity.

The century is ending under the sign of an inhuman universality, the universality of Code, of abstraction that manifests in money, in the circulation of information and finances. Therefore an abstract and disincarnated totalitarianism takes the place of the machine of universal semioticisation. Facing it, the massive return of the residual human, of the body, of blood and soil, of tradition and identity: the rancorous and aggressive reaffirmation of particularity against every other particularity in the name of no universality.

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