A VISUAL INTERPRETATION OF THE CONTEMPORARY CHAOS
(about Max de Esteban’s work)

FRANCO “BIFO” BERARDI


Franco “Bifo” Berardi is a writer, media theorist and media activist. Founder of the magazine A/Traverso and Radio Alice in Bologna and an important figure in the political Italian Autonomia Movement, he worked with Felix Guattari in the field of schizoanalisis. Contributor to magazines such as Semiotexte (New York), Chimeres (Paris) and Metropoli (Rome), BIFO is the author of The Soul at Work (2009), After the Future (2011), The Uprising (2012), Heroes: Mass murder and Suicide (2015) and And-Phenomenology of the End (2016), among many other books. He teaches Social History of the Media in the Accademia di Brera in Milano.


 

I spent lot of time in Barcelona during the last six months, when the effects of the European society produced paradoxical effects in the Catalonian and in the Spanish political landscape.

The Catalan independentismo has been energising the hidden franquismo of a part of the Spanish population, while the neo-franquista government of Madrid has obtained the effect of energising the catalan rage.

In my opinion however the only way understand the whimsicalities of Catalonian independentismo is to focus on the nationalist outcome of European financial dictatorship.

Now the Catalonian troubles seem to be temporarily suspended, but the calm that comes with humiliation announces a wave of depression and more violent explosions in the future.

The Catalonian crisis is only one of the uncountable points of collapse of democracy inside the European Union. The worst memories of the past are obscuring the euro-landscape, democracy is going bankrupt in many European countries and political instability is spreading all over the continent.

Like in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, like in the United States of Donald Trump, the schism that opposes unionists and independentistas in Catalonia seems to be irreversible. Trumpists and democrats will never find a common civil ground, Brexiteers and remainers will never be reconciled. The schism can hardly be understood in terms of right and left, as the divide is not political, but anthropological. So the ghost of civil war is looming again over the Western world.

Identity (national, religious, racial and otherwise) is the last resort of people who have lost any sense of universality, because their humiliation has grown too deep for political mediation.

The question however is: why? Why people have grown so disgruntled? Why reason has abandoned them, why do they resort to barbarian behaviours?

Infuriated by the impoverishment that financial plundering has provoked, humiliated by political impotence, the crowd is grasping to identitarian ignorance and calls for revenge against Reason.

As Reason has been reduced to the rationale of the financial algorithm, Dementia is reclaiming its rights.

In the days of the independentista rage I read interesting analyses in the Barcelona newspapers, I listened to lively discussions among friends, but I did not really understand the roots of the inconclusive crisis of Catalonia.

Then I went to the Virreina Centre de la Imatge. to visit the audio-visual installation of Max de Esteban, Twenty Red Lights and I found some clues.

(http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/lavirreina/en/exhibitions/20-red-lights/186)

The installation has little to do with Catalonia, independence or similar political subjects. It is about figures, abstractions, the mental consequences of the techno-media aggression, and about the financial automaton that is jeopardising democracy in Europe.

Twenty Red Lights, a project named after a phrase from the Rolling Stones song Far Away Eyes questions some of the foundations of contemporary financial capitalism. The twenty red lights are concepts for understanding the grammars of neoliberal economics: Shareholder Value, Credit Default Swap, Asset-Backed Security, Investment Thesis, No Mac Clause, Collateralized Loan Obligation, Thin Capitalization, Chinese Wall, Pik Toggle Holdco Debt, Vendor Due Diligence, Structural Subordination, Bullet, Negative Assurance, Off-Balance Sheet Financing, Amend & Extend, Revolver, Adjusted EBITDA, Sweet Equity, No Covenants, Expectation.” (from the text of presentation written by Diana Padrón & Lorenza Pignatti).

The installation of Max de Esteban is an attempt to visualise the financial dynamics, and the effects that it is producing in daily life and social imagination: effects of panic, madness, breathlessness.

As you enter the space of the exhibition you face three photographs: dark buildings of large corporations, darkly enlightened windows of banks at night. Black, white, grey, a touch of blue, and red numbers of thirteen ciphers. Bank codes, passwords, cryptographs, proliferation of meaningless signs: dumbness and code.

Max Esteban has an interesting background. An engineer by formation, he has been a financial agent in the City of London for a few years of his life. A successful professional of money he retired just before the big crash of 2008.

Furthermore Max Esteban is a photographer, more precisely a meta-photographer.

In his past publications (Heads will roll, 2017, and Propositions, 2015) he has particularly reflected on the digital re-framing of photography: digital simulation of light, of darkness, of black white and red.

He exposes the technicalities of digital photography. Digital simulation as an extension of the experienceable world, as the visible materiality of the immaterial.

Also this installation Twenty Red Lights is based on digital abstraction and photo-simulation, but photography here is only a metaphor of a larger simulation that is swallowing the life of the planet and turning it into financial nothingness.

Thunderous towering buildings is the first thing that you perceive as you enter the room, then you see a large screen where a video-magma of accelerated media streams is fast forwarded as an attempt to disarrange your mental equilibrium.

Simultaneously you hear voices. Recorded Voices melt with the noise of the soundtrack of the breakneck breathtaking movie. Calm voices of men in telephone conversation with Max.

The artist, actually, has called on the phone some of those who were his colleagues in the years spent in London’s city, asking them to consider their financial activity from the point of view of the destiny of mankind.

The former colleagues of Esteban are not cynical brutes. Their answers are not stupid or elusive. They are not only smart, but somehow impassioned. In order to defend the financial activity they frame the current financial absolutism in an evolutionary context in which happiness and wellbeing of large populations is irrelevant as the expansion of the economy is the only thing that counts. What is more impressive in the talk of the interlocutors of Max is the persuasion that economic expansion is the only way towards the human progress, even if the price of economic expansion is widespread psychosis, utter environmental devastation and uncontrollable aggressiveness.

Listen to their words, while trying to imagine a screen filled with the hellish frenzy of violent visual hyper-saturated streams.

“I come from Huntington, Oregon, a very small town. My father was an illegal immigrant who worked at the gas station, pumping oil and cleaning windshields 10 hours a day. My mother served at a deli. Not an easy start.

I hated the place…. worked my ass off to get through Portland State University while delivering pizza on weekends.

But I did well there… after graduation I was accepted in Cornell’s MBA with a full NSH scholarship. And then straight into Wall Street. No silver spoon, no privilege,…, only hard work. I am the true American dream.

All your comments about fairness might sound good for your friends, preppy east coast intellectuals raised in affluent families, but guess what? I’ve earned every cent I have and paid all my taxes!

I work more than 70 hours a week, spend more nights in a plane than at home and I barely see children…

…You don’t want to understand how Wall Street works. This is tough, you know? Very tough to get in, very tough to hold on. One is as good as his last deal. No friends. Shit life. And you are alone to make it or break it.

No, we are not “masters of the universe”…

…fucking sweatshop workers we are.”

(from interview 1)

Reading these words I have been reminded of a shocking thing I discovered some years ago while writing a book about suicide: the social category that is by far the more prone to suicide is guess who? Financial brokers. Stress and guilt, competition and loneliness, frenzy and sudden bursts of depression and panic. This is the real life of the golden boys who work in the sweatshops of financial trading.

Why they do harm to themselves? Is greed their only motivation? Yes and not.

The fourth interview replies to this question, in a way: we, the financial agents are the indispensable engine of the only progressive system, of the only system that can give a chance of survival to seven billion people.

“The idea that capitalism fosters inequality is ridiculous.

I am frequently shocked by claims made by seemingly informed people. Inequality is one of them.

Until the advent of capitalism, there was no growth and the world was zero-sum. The few had everything, the rest nothing. Inequality at a global scale was brutal and remained brutal for 10,000 years.

Capitalism changed everything. The well know graph that plots the development of global wealth and population from say 5000 BC until today is mind-blowing: A horizontal line until the XIX century and then a vertical line of super-accelerated growth that does not stop, regardless of horrific wars and periodic crisis, until today.

Capitalism is the only successful mechanism for economic growth. This is indisputable.” (interview 4).

I don’t want to dispute the indisputable argument of this woman of experience.

Capitalism is actually the only successful mechanism for economic growth. But is growth still desirable, as this implies the final destruction of the physical environment of the planet, the spread of precarious slavery worldwide, and a wave of suicidal despair in the global mindscape?

The inescapable automatism of the market has taken the place that in the theocratic cultures only belongs to God.

The complexity of financial capitalism has grown unknowable and uncontrollable by the human mind.

“We are an over-regulated business. It’s nuts. Our bank hires more than 100 lawyers just to make sure we comply with regulatory requirements. And most new regulations simply don’t work. Take Title 7 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which regulates OTC derivatives. It is just the result of our government’s distrust of financial institutions. And they are making a fool of themselves. Government simply does not have the technical capabilities nor the resources to set the margin rules of complex derivative contracts.

And by the way, why should governments know better than the market?” (Interview 2)

Regulation has shifted from the field of political decision to the field of algorithms, so democracy has proved useless, inert. And because of the humiliation and impotence, people get nervous, resentful, aggressive, and look for some kind of identity and for some kind of revenge.

This is why the exhibition of Max de Esteban gave me a key to understand the surrounding chaos of our days, and particularly the Catalonian chaos, now turning to depression.

The Catalonian peaceful but self-harming insurrection has been a by-product of ten years of authoritarian austerity and of financial plundering.

In many European countries impotent rage is taking the form of a racist rejection of migrants. In Catalonia it took the shape of national separatism, because the Catalans have identified the Spanish government as the collector of the bank system.

When I was a young man the political unification of Europe was expected to be a post-national experiment, and this idea I found quite good. But the game has totally changed after the neoliberal takeover of the Union, when the Union has been turned into a purely financial concatenation.

National states have not at all disappeared, they only have changed their nature: they used to be the site of political sovereignty, and political sovereignty is over. But the loss of sovereignty has not weakened the national states, it has turned them into local articulations of the financial grip.

So people turn against the national states because they are the transmission belt of the financial plundering, and simultaneously people idolise national identity as a define against the effects of globalisation. Separatism is gaining ground because people reclaim the local identity against the national state because the national state is reduced to be the collector of the global plunderers. And nationalism is reemerging against the centripetal force of local interests. The European Union is disintegrating because of these contradictory tendencies, but the only way to understand what is happening is reading the words of the financiers who talk on the phone with the author of Twenty Red lights.