Filet of Soul


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In the past year I’ve reviewed books on what I thought were diverse topics: the philosophy of time, neurobiology, writing, happiness, mental illness. It turns out they were all about the same subject: how to live. Many of the books thought they had it all figured out. The problem is cell phones! No, wait, it’s our ambition! All we need are fish oils and Vitamin D! Or a hug, how about a hug? And I can’t even count how many of them included the words “money does not make a person happy.” The world does seem to be reordering itself — with or without our permission — and everyone is trying to make sense of it, from philosophers to scientists, theologians to poets.

  • The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy by Franco Berardi. 192 pages. Semiotext(e). $14.95.

I guess it’s no surprise I was unconsciously pulling down these
books. Like a lot of people, I had a chaotic 2009. E-mails from friends
became litanies of terrors — terminal cancer diagnoses, deaths in the
family, financial collapses, break-ups, suicidal ideation. A poet I
admired killed herself on Christmas. If we hadn’t heard from each other
in a while, emails would go out: “I love you. Are you OK?”

Meanwhile, I was reading these books and secretly hating most of them.
It’s one thing to read about money not making a person happy, which is
true and the subject of countless psychological studies, but it’s still
not the message you want to hear when your bank balance has gone way
down low and you don’t know how to make it go up again: There’s
happiness and then there are groceries. When you’re reviewing a work,
you are generally either supposed to attempt a level of objectivity, or
you are at the very least supposed to pretend. That gets harder when
you have just moved from one country to the next, then soon after take
a plane to another hemisphere, where you are sitting in an anonymous
hotel room, telecommuting to your job, and reading a book that tells
you this is a horrible way to live. It’s hard to quell fears, distance
yourself, and write something other than “Go to hell, lady.”

I really wanted to read something abstract and distant — you know, take
a little break from figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing
with my life. What better thing to pick up than a book about
post-Marxism? Is there anything more abstract about Marxism these days?
We outsourced all of our labor, made it more like slavery than
alienation, and kept it completely out of view except for the
occasional documentary or news program. I thought Franco Berardi’s The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy would
be a vacant little thought experiment. Berardi was one of the leaders
of the Italian Autonomia Movement that attempted to humanize the worker
during the tumultuous late ’60s into the ’70s. He writes in typical
philosophy-speak, with an abstraction and precision that can make it
difficult to ground in the real world, pretty theories about Marxism
and alienation that don’t really apply to your daily life unless you
are a 19th-century mill worker, at least so I thought.

To the question “What is wealth?” we can answer in two
completely contrasting ways. We can evaluate wealth on the basis of the
quantity of goods and values possessed, or we can evaluate wealth on
the basis of the quantity of joy and pleasure that our experiences are
capable of producing in our feeling organisms.

God. Not him, too.

The “soul ” of the title has nothing to do with God or religion, but
“the mind, language and creativity.” The West may have outsourced all
of our labor needs, getting rid of that whole alienation between body
and mind, work and end result problem. In doing so, however, we
invested our souls in our work. We are now on call at all hours of the
day, and we are emotionally invested in our output. Most of the job
holders in the West are physically doing the same job, the one I’m
doing now: sitting in a slightly uncomfortable position, staring at a
computer screen, waggling our fingers over our keyboards. What’s
different is what’s going on in our minds. We specialize ourselves to
be able to do one thing: from brain surgery to blogging, accounting to
architecture. Sometimes there is some standing, maybe a little talking,
but for the most part we all sit, stare, and type all day long.

Was it a trick? How did this happen? We may be invested in our
employers, but our employers are not invested in us. We all know the
facts about predatory capitalism by now: the business heads’ making a
hundred times the lowest salary of the company, the extravagant
bonuses, the companies using the recession as an excuse for mass
layoffs despite posting profits. And yet still those studies say we’re
happiest when we’re working. Part of it is our culture’s value of money
(forgive me for bringing this up again). It’s not just that we believe
money is the thing that will bring us the most happiness. I think it’s
because it’s the thing we seem to have the most control over. We know
how to get money, at least in theory. If we get this job, and then work
hard, we’ll get this promotion which comes with a X percent higher
salary. It’s not so much that we disbelieve what the studies, the
gurus, and Oprah have to say about love and community and altruism.
It’s that it’s difficult to make a checklist to achieve a sense of
community. We know the rewards that come with staying at work extra
hours. We also know the humiliation of reaching out to someone else for
a connection and being rejected.

Berardi writes, “We renew our affection for work because economic
survival becomes more difficult and daily life becomes lonely and
tedious: metropolitan life becomes so sad that we might as well sell it
for money.” The longer our goals remain materialistic, the harder the
structure becomes to break out of. We’ve seen the rise of gated
communities, where no one actually has to see another person. Love
becomes a priority second to marriage. We start families and become so
consumed with after-school activities and employment and academic
achievement that the loudest complaint you hear is that families don’t
talk to one another any more. In this new dynamic, we’re not alienating
our bodies from our minds, we’re alienating our souls from our lives.

So belonging, community, happiness, all of these things that we are
supposed to use as our proper, new definition of “wealth” are generally
“by-products,” as writer Iain McGilchrist told me recently in an
interview. Go chasing after them with a butterfly net and you’ll come
up empty. So how do we overcome the disappointment and bring joy back
into our lives? Berardi distinguishes between what he calls
“semiocapitalism” — the post-Ford labor that is done in cubicles rather
than manufacturing plants — and “enterprise.” “Enterprise means
invention and free will.” He means work where you are invested in both
the labor and the end result, where the value system is not based on
money but on pleasure and making a difference. Doing what you love, and
doing it with your values realigned, can bring about those by-products
that seem so elusive in modern life. It sounds so simple, and yet it is
also something so incredibly difficult to find and maintain in a
society that will probably think you mad. The last words of The Soul at Work are encouraging and discouraging at the same time:

“Autonomy is also a process without end.”

Now they tell us. • 6 January 2010