One October afternoon in the corona year 2020, MODERN TIMES meets the Italian activist philosopher Franco «Bifo» Berardi for a conversation in Bologna, his hometown. Berardi, perhaps one of the most important thinkers of our time, is skeptical of the new, pandemic existence.
It's embarrassing not to be able to be close to other people, to hug and kiss here in Italy when we meet. When I see other people's skin, now suddenly my perception is also marked by a certain phobia. But it is worse for a younger generation on their way into their social life, their erotic life. Keeping distance from other bodies is internalized as "natural" for them. We ask Berardi, who has the answer at hand:
- This is very serious from a social point of view. Since March, I have participated in a weekly seminar with international psychotherapists to map the psychological consequences of the pandemic. The psychological aspect is interesting, since it is directly related to the political. Any political, social or artistic subjectivation process is based on the joy of being together. We feel better with others, but now being together has become dangerous.
What does this mean for social and political movements?
- They are out of action. In Italy, all forms of social organization have disappeared in the last six months. I try to understand what is happening privately – what do people think and feel in their isolation? What will happen when we get out of this black hole? I have the impression that we are facing a kind of schizophrenia – on the one hand we are paralyzed, but at the same time the awareness increases that something must happen. People understand that the health care system is collapsing due to economic priorities – they understand that capitalism is dead, it is unable to take care of us.
- I no longer know what or where the left is.
- The social gathering has been canceled – and then it becomes difficult to imagine how we will get out of this trap. Social ideas arise when people are physically present in the same room. If you are alone, you are paralyzed. That is why we are now seeing a huge wave of depression. In Italy, the suicide rate has quadrupled in the last six months. The newspapers do not write about it, but in the psychiatric environment this is much discussed.
Loneliness and rebellion
Is the despair over loneliness also expressed as a devilish attitude towards a society that has failed?
- After the public execution of George floyd, where one could almost see the Ku Klux Klan disguised as a police strangle a man on TV, there were riots in the United States every day. The wild reaction to the violence and humiliation from the authorities had a psychotherapeutic significance: If you went outdoors, you could be killed by the police, by racists – or by a virus. But the feeling was: If we do not act now, it means suicide – we have nothing to lose. This suicidal desperation seems to have spread.
Risk life or accept death?
- Exactly. Sooner or later we will have a global explosion of riots. Do not forget that in the autumn of 2019, people revolted everywhere, from the yellow vests in Paris to protests in Chile, Barcelona, Tehran and Hong Kong. Mostly as a kind of desperate convulsion in the body of society. The message was clear: I can no longer endure, I would rather die than continue to live this way. But a strategy for uniting in a conscious movement was lacking.
- Because this is not something that happens in lockdowns, in isolation. It can only happen through cooperation and discussion.
That is why this pandemic is so disturbing – we are prevented from living a full life, from being happy. This is how it feels to grow old. It becomes more difficult to achieve joy, but the need for joy does not disappear! Should we just accept our own death, our own extinction?
The activist group Extinction Rebellion has maintained its commitment during the pandemic, most recently with actions in several countries in October. An example to follow?
- I think it is important to emphasize the word extinction here. Never before has the political language used this word – the prospect of extinction is completely new. We should be able to think that the extinction of humanity is a possibility, but the question remains: Can we live a happy life when extinction is our horizon? My answer is yes! We must be happy, even with the prospect of extinction, because that is the only way to escape extinction. Only by creating moments, arenas and relationships based on joy do we get the strength to find new solutions. To cope with my own mortality, I must fill my life with joy.
- I have no faith that Joe Biden will be able to do anything about racism.
The only thing he can do is allocate more money to the police.
- Extinction Rebellion is important because it emphasizes extinction, but rebellion must apply to capitalism – because it is the one that destroys our natural and peaceful relationship with death. In our Western culture, we are not willing to accept old age and senility. That is why, for example, white Americans are so aggressive – they are unable to reconcile with the decay of their culture.
USA: a self-effacing arrogance
In your essay "The American Abyss", you write about the coming collapse of the United States. What do you think will follow the presidential election?
- I am not a prophet, but I can say that regardless of the outcome, the American election will not solve anything. The United States has long been caught up in a self-destructive arrogance, a kind of synthesis of racism and male chauvinism that makes white Americans today, frankly, behave worse than the Nazis. Yet I feel a kind of tenderness for them, for they are old and impotent, and they know that the end is near. But they will not admit it, and that is why they are so dangerous – they will do everything they can to defend their sexual, military and economic potential. They are obsessed with the idea of white power. But whites no longer dominate, so Trump is their last hope. They are on the verge of becoming a minority like everyone else, and that is unacceptable. They feel humiliated and they react with oppression.
What about the left, what prevents them from creating a real alternative?
- I no longer know what or where the left is. It has shone with its absence since the 80s and 90s, when it completely failed as a critic of neoliberalism and its privatization and deregulation. The left suffers from an inferiority complex and an inability to understand and use new technology. While the trade unions and the communist parties identified the new technology as an enemy they were to reject and fight, the Social Democrats completely surrendered to the "new" without criticism of or alternatives to the neoliberal form of use. Forget the Democrats, they exist only as an illusion of the good old American imperialism. I also have no belief that Joe Biden will be able to do anything about racism. The only thing he can do is allocate more money to the police. All the conditions for civil war are there, the federal state is already dead: states like California and Oregon are preparing for secession. The question is what political consequences such an internal collapse in the United States will have for the rest of the world.
- I think people supported Trump because they are frustrated and desperate. They feel powerless in a socio-economic system without social mobility. So they needed someone who gave them a false sense of hope, a little false encouragement about a coming time of greatness for the United States. All this is nonsense, but people are so depressed and impotent that they take what they can get – even if it came from Trump.
Will the pandemic save us?
How should we approach each other again?
- Buddhism talks about the impermanence of life, and I think politics would benefit from learning from psychoanalytic and Buddhist reflections. My current pessimism is that we no longer own our own consciousness. The mental dimension has been invaded by an infinitely accelerating flow of information, a nervous overstimuli that takes over our attention. We are drawn into a whirlwind that the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls a "shit storm". What was once called politics is completely dead. Now we need therapy, not politics.
Where do we get a new kind of meta-narrative, which gives us back a meaningful inspiration?
- We need a new meaning, a new relationship with the outside world. We have to accept all the weird, but in an ironic way. Maybe we should be more tolerant of conspiracy theories. Trump's election victory in 2016 was proof of a collective simulation. Something in me hoped for the unthinkable: that Trump, whom I hated, would win. You do not want the rational – basically you want the impossible. That the unpredictable happened was a revelation. It opened up opportunities.
Of course we can choose to correct our narrative and expectations, but I do not think we will restore our mental balance until we get out of capitalism's dominant mode of production. In my opinion, capitalism is dead, but it still rules over us like a corpse. Will the pandemic save us from the suffocating stench of the corpse? Or is the pandemic, on the contrary, the last nail in the coffin? The choices we make going forward will be fateful.