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The techno-nihilistic capitalism, interview with Mauro Magatti

Ivo Quartiroli: Prof. Magatti, how would you define techno-nihilistic capitalism, the subject of your book, Libertà immaginaria: Le illusioni del capitalismo tecno-nichilista (Imaginary freedom: The illusions of techno-nihilistic capitalism), and what are the differences with the previous stages of capitalism?

Prof. Mauro Magatti: The idea is to give a complete picture of the last 30 years which began with the coming of so-called neo-liberalism in the Anglo-Saxon countries. My book traces and develops the hypothesis of authoritative colleagues, especially the works of Boltanski in France, Bauman in England and Beck in Germany.

The idea is that those 30 years represent something as unitarian, which is detached from the previous stages (which I call “societal capitalism”), and is based not only on the nation state, but on the social and economic effects which the nation state is not able to load and which are usually referred to as “the welfare society.” The fundamental peculiarity of techno-nihilistic capitalism is a kind of new vision of the world, a new weltenshaung, which makes nihilism, traditionally a philosophy which expresses itself in stages of decadence when the established values had to be destroyed, a useful vision for accelerating both economic and technological growth on a planetary scale.

There’s a capitalism which tries to free itself from the cultural background which the national state established. This capitalism defines itself in an alliance between a technique which is supposed to be intangible, in a very thin cultural setting, or even when it is absent and, on the other side, a full availability, a full manipulability of every cultural meaning, which has to be continuously redefined, transformed, and overcome.

Quartiroli: You affirm that technology gives an imaginary freedom, yet many people, based on this very interview, could well say the opposite. I came to know about your book on the Net, sent you an email and you graciously agreed to be interviewed by me. We use Skype for the interview and then I will publish it in my blogs. This gives us a broad freedom. We don’t have any editorial limitation regarding space or length and we don’t have a director to approve our conversation. Online, we don’t even need to publish it before a certain date. And even better, we can reach hundreds or maybe thousands of readers in every corner of the world directly.

Kevin Kelly, one of the most passionate supporters of technology, in his recent article “Expansion of Free Will” says that, “Technology wants choices. The internet, to a greater degree than any technology before it, offers choices and options.” And more, “the technium continues to expand free will as it unrolls into the future. What technology wants is more freedom, expanded free will.” The idea of freedom and expansion of our possibilities is chased by every technological gadget and by every software which interacts with us. All seems very pleasurable, free and fulfilling, so what’s wrong in this expansion of our options?

Magatti: Kelly’s quote is excellent and gets to the point. Techno-nihilistic capitalism, passing the previous stage of societal capitalism, legitimates itself through this increasing of possibilities, which then is connected to the expansion of choices.

Nobody can deny that, in general terms, to go from a condition where we have less opportunities and choices to one where, instead we have the possibility of expanding our doings, in a way expands our freedom. For instance, when we can move easily and quickly from one part of the planet to the other, we get more chances to “do.”

The point is, what happens in a world where the freedom of choices, where this increase of opportunities is being produced with the speed we experience in our personal and collective lives? We should ask ourselves whether this increase has any effect on the very freedom we want to achieve.

A tangible example to make the point: freedom is somehow like the eye. The eye opens to what is in front, is a sense organ somehow indeterminate since it is connected to what is being seen. The fast-increasing choices in the individual experience give us an excess of things we can see, as fundamental changes in our way of seeing, and we are even subject to the powerful systems which are there to put things in front of our eyes.

This brings the risk of becoming people who are driven from the outside: something is being presented as a choice, which is pleasurable and which increases our power and our fulfillment, but with the risk that freedom implodes on itself and that will deliver us completely to something which is external of ourselves.

To this first problem there’s a second one: all of those opportunities presented to us aren’t as real for most people as they are supposed to be. Therefore, the opportunities in front of us are kept only in an illusory and fantasized state and we withdraw them in. To give a banal example, miraculous or even magical solutions, as would be winning 130 million euro on the Lotto which would allow us to do anything we wanted to, at least in our fantasy.

Because of those two reasons, that world with expanded possibilities which is theoretically associated with an increased freedom, then carries the risk of encaging freedom again. In the book I don’t envision a world where we go back in limiting our opportunities, but to ask ourselves about our freedom and understanding if we are as free as we think we are.

Quartiroli: On page 126 of Imaginary Freedom, you write:

…the changeover which happened between the seventies and the eighties went consistently in the direction of the shift of what “need” – still connected to an objective and material idea, in itself saturable, to “desire”, the place of subjectivity and immateriality, as such, non-saturable.

Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, compares Orwell’s 1984 with Huxley’s Brave New World.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”…In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The shift from need to desire and vice versa, transforming as need the object of infinite desire, is no doubt a practical mechanism for expanding corporate sales, but in what you define as “surplus enjoyment,” which is encouraged by contemporary capitalism, there is the superego aspect too (the set of rules and prohibitions given by the state, by morals, family and by religion), which have been loosened in what you define as techno-nihilistic capitalism.

The liberation from the superego and the quest for pleasure have a positive effect in the release of new life energies and in exploring ourselves and the surrounding world. However, in my opinion, if this, though welcome loosening of rules doesn’t match the development of the essential human qualities (compassion, perseverance, search for truth), we end up living only at our instinctual levels, combined with the mental area, which is overstimulated by technology, without a mediation of the heart. Intelligent beasts. A dangerous combination both for the human relationship and for the environment (many of the desires are fulfilled by goods and products which somehow contribute to environmental disaster).

On the other side, I don’t foresee nor welcome a return to the rules of the “old” capitalism which gave structure, rules and rigid roles. We would hardly give up desires, even though those will be like mirages. The genie is already out of the bottle. What’s your opinion about it?

Magatti: The question is very challenging. First, a one-liner about the fact that Lacan was right regarding Marx. It is not capitalism which creates desires, but capitalism, as a system, is even able to supplant religion, understands the importance of desire in the human experience and give fuel and substance to it. In particular, with the development of the consumer society first and with the communication society later, and finally in what I call techno-nihilistic capitalism, desire is being made pleasure.

The point is not to put the genie back in the bottle, which is impossible; the point is to get desire back not only on an individual level, but on the collective one as well. In the twentieth century, as well as a reaction to the repressive approach of industrial needs, of bureaucracies and of religions seen as a rule system, desires have been rediscovered even in relationships with the body and, this is something which has to be valued and not discarded.

The problem is that techno-nihilistic capitalism again seized desire and constrained it, in the sense that my experience, my sensation is like living in a big cathedral, almost a medieval monastery where you cannot turn your head without being continuously solicited, first on the sensorial level, in reducing our desire to what is being sold by the market or by TV. Desire in this way is being dramatically flattened in a materialistic experience which produces selfish relationships and, on the environmental level, has devastating effects on the environmental balance since, in order to satisfy this desire with no limits, it produces the effects we are experiencing.

Capitalism understood that this desire can be reproduced at will, so it got into it with great ease. I think that, if there is a solution – and this is, of course, very difficult and complex to find – it is in coming back to ask ourselves about desires, which is a mystery for everybody. Of desire, we can on one side be aware of the physical and sensorial aspects and of the deep aspects of our Self in psychoanalytical terms and, on the other side we can consider the metaphysical dimensions too, connected to the sense of mystery, of the infinite, to the meanings which can direct our lives.

We could also try to find a new synthesis between the pulsional element of desire, the deep element which goes back to the development of our personality and, as well, with the intellective element. In the twentieth century, we created this opposition between reason and desire, as if the two would exclude each other. I think instead, that the two can talk to each other, a communication between the pulsional element and reason. Both are important to feed desire, even with different forms and modalities.

Quartiroli: This reminds me of a Buddhist image, where in their tradition there’s the “hungry ghost” realm, greedy ghosts who can never satisfy their hunger, having a huge stomach and a tiny mouth, representing the impossibility of satisfying every desire. In this tradition, the way out from this hellish circle is about loving the truth, substituting compulsion with the desire for truth. In this regard, the metaphysical and spiritual aspects, which take different forms in different traditions, could show us the exit from this dead end, since we cannot go back denying desires but can’t go forward on the road of desires either, because desire, even before being fully satisfied, will devastate the planet and maybe even our psyches.

Magatti: Assuming that the East and the West follow very different paths, though in some aspects are complementary, so both journeys are interesting if they are part of the question. I resume from the last words, “love of truth.” Well, one of the dramatic things which are present on the historical stage we are populating, is the crisis of truth the West has experienced, the crisis of truth in the way it has been built in the previous centuries, up to the point of rejecting the issue of truth itself.

One thing is pretending to know truth and impose it on people; another is the desire for truth and accepting that, even though it is something which is larger than us, is something which we all long for. Wanting to separate any connection between freedom and truth is for sure one of the basic reasons which then progressively leads to what I call techno-nihilistic capitalism. On this basis, I agree fully that those hungry populations which run after their desires are really amazing.

Desire, if we don’t compress it immediately in the material dimension but leave it open on the spiritual dimension, gets a perspective such as this Western destructive effect, which at least can be reduced. Being able to again open this space in Western culture is really quite a big job because the obsessive presence of those ghosts which are conjured by the media system continuously saturate our horizons, and frame our horizons. Then the reopening to the sense of mystery, to the search of the truth seems literally inhibited.

Quartiroli: Since desire is what keeps the entire production machine running, it has to be continuously stimulated. The naked women on magazines’ covers are certainly functional to the selling of the magazines themselves, but are probably even more useful to predisposing the reader toward a desiring attitude which will then be transferred to the advertised products. Depression, perhaps as well as a result of the frustration of unfulfilled desires by most people, is the most widespread contemporary mental health discomfort.

The use of antidepressive and stimulant drugs, legal and illegal, has been increasing over the years. Depression, the real enemy of the market which needs ever-desiring people, has thus found its market in the treatment of depression itself, up to making pathological even those behaviors which are part of the normal human experience, as sadness or simple introversion. Any moment of emptiness has to be filled, if not otherwise, by a drug which operates on our nervous systems. Recently, I was reading that some psychiatrists are suggesting the use of antidepressives for babies 3 years old and less. As you wrote on page 187:

In front of the complexity of reality and on its incessant change, the self has to give up its unity, because that’s nothing else than the infinite series of stimuli which it is exposed to. This pressure is infinitely more powerful than any inwardness.

So, when those stimuli stop, an inner void opens showing a frightening abyss which is avoided as much as possible but which could be the door itself toward reconstructing an identity based on the deep inner perception instead of the external messages. When the techno-nihilist machine stops, who are we, Prof. Magatti?

Magatti: The dramatic condition of the contemporary Self, of the subjectivity, is to find itself scarily empty. The disproportion between the surrounding world and our psyches is so wide that we are always forced to conform to the external instead of investing in our inner lives, instead of loving and preferring what could allow us to grow something inside from our experience and to mark our paths in life. Our paths can be unique only if we accept the limits, as when the painter has the whole color palette in front of him. If he doesn’t decide to choose some and to stay inside the limits of the frame, then there will just be a mess.

One of the contemporary syndromes is the inability of many people, as psychotherapists say, of being able to narratively recount ones own experience, which is made up of individual and separate moments, experiences and situations which we cannot explain why they came out and why we found ourselves in them.

Depression comes when stimuli stop, for instance, with retired or unemployed people, or as also happens because of exhaustion: the physical and psychological effort needed to chase every opportunity is huge. There’s a time in life when we can’t take it any more or we feel inadequate compared to this very demanding model. Depression occurs from lack of sense as well, which produces not only the inability to understand ourselves and others, but on arriving at a point where there’s a growing difficulty in feeling anything in those opportunities and experiences which are more or less amazing if we throw ourselves into them.

So we have a being who manifests as powerful and skilled but actually hides an incredible incapacity to trace his peculiar history and his particular vision of the world. This brings us to the massification of behaviors we dramatically read in statistics where we all behave the same way.

One of the basic points of the book is that what Nietzsche introduced at the end of the nineteenth century is central to understand what’s going on. Our will to power is continuously called up as a fundamental energy to push the individual to match the surrounding environment. However, this will to power is reduced only toward the external and becomes useless toward the deep desire and instinct which we all have about becoming and letting others become.

One of the shocking things about the contemporary reality is that we have many options in many life situations, but we lose the basic, that is how to be and let others be. For a time which boasts of being a model regarding freedom, this is a dramatic outcome.

Quartiroli: A young woman, one of the so-called digital natives, part of the generation which grew with the Net and high technologies, recently wrote to me, referring to the precariousness of everything (work, relationships), that “in this confusion, the Net, paradoxically, offers an anchor.”

The Internet, and especially social networks like Facebook, represent a continuity, as they are a primary object relationship, a very early one. As the dean of the Faculty of Sociology at the Università Cattolica of Milan, you are in a favored observatory about the digital natives. How are relationships redefined and, in particular the Self relationship and the issue of identity?

Magatti: First, I think that being young nowadays – and this has been happening for a number of years – is an experience opposite to the one which the 1968 generation had. Then, there was a world of adults and of institutions which claimed to be coherent, cohesive and to express meanings and values. One could agree and integrate, or one could challenge that world and take a contradictory stand.

Today, the experience is the converse: the world of adults is a confused one, is contradictory, institutions are basically voiceless, and the level of legitimation is very low. The fundamental concern of young people is not to oppose somebody: when a problem is encountered, when a contraposition is met, they turn around and move in a different direction in order to avoid conflicts.

The main problem of today’s youth is to eventually understand whether they subsist as personal entities, even though changeable and contradictory, that is, whether there’s still any passion about searching for a lasting center of gravity around which they can base their lives. This explains why young people often appear lost and dazed regarding the surrounding world. Of course, they are thirsty and they enter life with the enthusiasm and creativity of their age to find supports and places which could possibly help them to realize this circular and complex process of circumnavigating their experience without immediately feeling closed or identified in a specific position.

In this regard, the Net is definitely a tempting tool and, in many aspects it is on the extent that the Net will be able to let experiences, questions and context be born which will have the sensitivity to avoid the ephemeral which characterizes our times. Obviously, the big limitation of the Net is the lack of direct relationships, of face-to-face connections, of the complexities of contextual relationships and its aim of building a network of connections which by definition remain ever-susceptible to being dissolved by the participating subjects. The potentialities which can be found in this setting are immense and have to be balanced with the limits, whereas the interacting person can always participate in the process, keeping a part out of it.

This has always happened even in face-to-face relationships; we do that every day at any time, showing one face and keeping other faces hidden or uninvolved. But perhaps in direct relationships this is more difficult, while on the Net’s relationships this is easier and is an aspect which shouldn’t be underestimated.

Quartiroli: These days I am especially struck by the indifference of the collective answer regarding the tragedy of the immigrants who died in the sea trying to reach our coasts and, in general on themes of sorrow. On compassion, on page 265, you wrote: “Demobilizing values – seen as unnecessary obstacles – and riding the will to power, the techno-nihilistic capitalism erodes the very bases of compassion and the human capacity of taking care.”

I find your assertion true and ask myself about the roots of the lack of compassion. There’s a sentence of Mark Slouka from War of the Worlds (Basic Books, 1995), one of the first generation’s books critical about technology of the Internet era.

The world provides context, and without context, ethical behavior is impossible. It is the physical facts of birth and pain and pleasure and death that force us (enable us) to make value judgments: this is better than that. Nourishment is better than hunger. Compassion is better than torture. Virtual systems, by offering us a reality divorced from the world, from the limits and responsibilities of presence, offer us as well a glimpse into an utterly amoral universe.

The technological setting is basically disembodied, where the body has a marginal role, when not seen as an impediment; likewise, Descartes regarded it as such in his scientific method. This negation of the body has more ancient roots then Descartes’ philosophy which characterized the scientific development of the last centuries. The roots have to be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition which relegated the body to a role far from the divine, when not an instrument of sin. You end the book writing of a coming back to bare faith as an antidote to the loss of sense and you wish for an open and non-dogmatic faith.

Do you think that the body, in this faith, could be brought back to a new worthiness and healthy vitality, instead of letting the body being managed by the society of surplus enjoyment? Christianity, in denying the body, in my opinion also negated the very bases of compassion, which become active in an integrated process of body, empathy, feelings, mind and divine values present in any human being, which we can approach through our body.

Magatti: One of the cultural traces of the twentieth century is this ambiguous rediscovery of the body, against its negation in the previous cultural structures. The problem is that technical development produces a new compression of the corporeality, mainly because techniques need abstraction. In its constituent language and in the kind of conditions created, this has to be over-contextualized and based on the creation of distance.

This created a new reduction of the corporeal element, which seems to weaken especially over face-to-face connections and caring connections and compassion. I think that our era pays a big penalty to an anthropological idea of the human being, the will to power which Nietzsche referred to. This is a very complex power, of course, known only negatively, even though it can be managed with difficulty, but which forgets other anthropological dimensions which are equally fundamental.

In particular, it forgets the experience we make of others through what, according to Levinas, the other’s face conveys to us or, according to Ricoeur, through what he calls the ordinary kindness, that is the human attitude to understanding each other, to find acknowledgment in each other and to depend on each other regarding our needs.

All of those dimensions are based as well on direct physical experience, on face-to-face dimensions which are dramatically negated and seized in social life. This not only damages the individual at the psychological level but also creates a series of problems in interpersonal connections and in the social world we live in. It’s impressive to see that in techno-nihilistic capitalism it seems almost annoying referring to and talking about questions which have to do with justice, poverty, about people who live in worse conditions, about the mutual sensitivity human beings have for each other.

I really think it is a lack of anthropological definition which when translated in an institutional organization and in lifestyles then makes this caring attitude even weaker. I think that they might instead (even on the institutional level) open channels, creating spaces and stimuli where this attitude can grow and compensate and balance the destructive aspects which the will to power can provoke if left to itself.

Quartiroli: Nihilism states the lack of meaning and of value of many aspects of life. From time to time nihilism emerged in the Western world in different forms. You say that contemporary capitalism, even with the important support of technology, tends to fragment, dismantle and melt any meaning and value, leaving only the society of surplus enjoyment.

I ask myself what the roots of nihilism in the Western world are and why we don’t have an existential perspective – we could say metaphysical or spiritual – beyond ideologies and the world of matter.
While some religious traditions, especially the Eastern ones, contemplate that human beings can reach divine spiritual states in this very life and in this very body, in the Christian tradition it is not possible to become like Christ, who is the only son of God and as such at most can be imitated through our virtuous actions, but not reachable as a state of being, at least in the earthly life.

So I’m not surprised that, given the impossibility of reaching the transcendental, and in the face of the intrinsic weakness of ideologies in the given sense to humanity, nihilism can slip in, which cancels everything and one can refer only to the certainties of consumerism and materiality.

Aurobindo said: “Every finite struggle to express an infinite which feels is his very truth.” Lacking the authentic transcendental infinite, the ego craves for it on the mental plane, which is being chased at the technological level, of information, of production, which gives the hope of obtaining divine powers (being in every place at the same time through the Net, extending life with bioengineering, life and death managed by medicine, omniscience with Google and so on). What’s your opinion about it?

Magatti: The point you raised is of crucial importance. It is based on events that are centuries old and mark different civilizations in depth. I won’t, in this instance, take a stand on what I was formed as and where I find myself, which is Christian and Western. However, I find an important convergence about the point where a human being is the intermediary between the finite and infinite and the way which this intermediation is played decides many things in our real lives and in social settings.

In the Christian tradition, transcendence is the ultimate source of desire, the deep drive of human beings. As Severino writes, the whole history of modernity is marked by the pretension of reducing transcendence to immanence through the systematic application of the will to power to the expansion of the freedom of goals.

As far as it is a carrier of material well-being, such movement is designed to create many problems, as history tells us. Here comes the Christian solution which asks to never close this frontier but to always keep the look open on the infinite.

Techno-nihilistic capitalism is a system which wants to be based on an immanence-immanent, subjugated to the systems of power which give a continuous mutation. Even if it introduces itself with no claims, techno-nihilistic capitalism is a view of the world and of history. Somehow, it is a religious system.

Unmasking this pretension is the first step to reopen the discourse about freedom and happiness.

Mauro Magatti. Libertà immaginaria. Le illusioni del capitalismo tecno-nichilista (Feltrinelli, Milano, 2009)

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