Franco Berardi Bifo: “Permanent insurrection is the only way to breathe”
Franco Berardi Bifo is an Italian philosopher who is currently working on a new opera, as he told us. Although he is no stranger to artistic endeavours – he has previously collaborated with Warren Neidich and lectured at the Academy of fine arts of Brera in Milan – he is much better known for his political and theoretical work.
He joined the Italian Communist Youth Federation at the age of 14 but got expelled three years later because of alleged factionalism. He participated in the student movement of May ‘68 in Bologna and the Worker’s Power group where he met Antonio Negri. In 1975 he founded the magazine A/traverso, co-founded a pirate radio station Radio Alice, and was part of the Autonomia Operaia, autonomist movement in Italy.
In 1976, he was arrested on the suspicion of working with the Red Brigades but was acquitted a month later. In 1977, Radio Alice was shut down by the police and Berardi was charged with instigating class hatred on the radio. He fled to Paris where he worked with Felix Guattari. He then returned to Italy in the ‘80s and later moved to California where he published some essays on cyberpunk.
After he returned to Bologna in 1990, he was a subject of a documentary movie Il trasloco by Renato De Maria, a documentary about the history of his apartment which in the ‘70s and ‘80s served as one of the centres of an autonomist movement of that time and also the place where Radio Alice was born. The film premiered on Italian public television on the day Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union was dissolved.
In 2016 he joined the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25) but resigned a year later after the Paris meeting on the Europe migrant crisis in Italy. He stated that “Democratic Europe is an oxymoron, as Europe is the heart of financial dictatorship in the world… Europe is nothing but nationalism, colonialism, capitalism and fascism.”
In one of his latest books “Futurability” Bifo wrote about imagining the future, about mass murder and suicide in “Heroes”. He also analysed the recent uprisings in Europe and the USA in “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” and “Breathing: Chaos and Poetry”.
If we start with the current situation in the USA, I am guessing you are not surprised by the recent surge in violence. You have described the USA as “walking dead” after all, and also predicted that in case Trump was not impeached in the first year of his presidency, the civil war is inevitable. Is this the civil war you anticipated?
No. I think the situation is much more complicated. Obviously, when I used the expression “civil war” I don’t exactly know what civil war is in our time – in the age of the internet and so on. But the point is that the United States of America is a country in which it is difficult to imagine cultural peace. A cultural understanding and political alliance between the part of the white population that has voted for Donald Trump and still supports Trump and the liberal establishment of that country.
The current “black riots” are not only black and are not riots. This is an insurrection of precarious workers who are black, white, Latino, and especially young, although not only young are protesting. This is a real social insurrection against racism and against capitalism because in the United States, capitalism and fascism are one and the same thing. So this is not a civil war. This is an insurrection. But this is going to be the situation that makes the next six months until the election very unstable.
The really dangerous conflict – which is not essentially social but essentially cultural and political – will explode, and it will be a conflict between the liberal establishment and the racist, “Second amendment people”. Trump has used this expression many times as you may know: I call to the “Second amendment people”. What is the meaning of this? Second amendment is the amendment that gives the American people the possibility of having a gun. Of having weapons. So Trump is explicitly calling the 30 percent of the population – the white supremacists – to civil war. And I think he will be successful.
All those people who march in the American streets against racism are antifa even if they have never heard about a group labelled like that.
In The Uprising, you have described neoliberalism as the most perfect form of fascism. Would you say that Trump’s description of the protesters as ANTIFA is perhaps one of his most accurate observations, since that would, in his own words, make his government fascist?
Neoliberalism has proved to be the most destructive form of socio-economic regime because it has destroyed the very roots of human solidarity and planetary stability. I think that it is more appropriate to assimilate neo-liberal ideology with Nazism: Thatcher’s strategy is in fact based on the idea of natural selection: only the fittest will survive while all others have to be eliminated.
But you are perfectly right when you say that Trump’s declaration of Antifa as the enemies of America is the final confession: yes, anti-fascism is anti-American. You know that Antifa is not an organisation. It is a loose label by which hundreds of groups around the world have chosen to define themselves. All those people who march in the American streets against racism are antifa even if they have never heard about a group labelled like that.
Looking at the current uprising, it is difficult not to compare the movement to Black Panthers. Do you think that the spirit of the Black Panthers still lives in today’s America? Does the current uprising have a socialist agenda?
Guerrilla, armed fight, clandestine: The Black Panthers belong to the landscape of the ‘60s and the ’70s that can no longer exist today. Why? Because the disproportion between the movement and the imperialist state is so enormous that thinking about an armed struggle is suicidal.
So I would say not. The spirit of the Black Panthers is out of the picture. Nevertheless, misery, exploitation, and police violence are similar and the class rage that is emerging in American society is also quite similar to that earlier situation. But the force of the movement has changed ground. We do not need guns now because the cognitive workers have weapons much more explosive and annihilating than guns. We should deploy the force of techno-cultural sabotage and the force of techno-scientific invention in order to fight and to re-program the social machine from scratch.
The protests are exposing young people to the virus, that’s true. But inaction would expose them to a tunnel of depression and suicidal urges in the alternative future.
You talk about the importance of language. How it determines, in Wittgenstein’s terms, the scope of our worlds. Has the insurrection in the USA changed the discourse? We finally talk about antifascism, Urban dictionary’s words of the day have now consistently been ACAB, 1312, Ok Bootlicker etc…
Yes, the American insurrection has certainly had – and is still having – an important effect. But not because we are using words like “antifascism” more often. In my opinion, the explosion is showing a possible way out from the protracted lockdown and a possible form of respiration of the suffocating American society. Insurrection, permanent insurrection, is the only way to breathe. It is the only way to avoid a deep psychological depression in the coming months and years.
During the lockdown, young Americans – and not only Americans – have been experiencing loneliness, fear, powerlessness, and near suffocation. Panic attacks have quadrupled according to research published by the New York Times. And some friends of mine who work in the mental health centres say that there is a surge in suicide particularly among young people.
How can we come out from this claustrophobia? How can we tolerate the violence of the police? The protests are exposing young people to the virus, that’s true. But inaction would expose them to a tunnel of depression and suicidal urges in the alternative future. The American insurrection is an answer to this question. Only insurrection can save us from a long-lasting depression.
Are the current protests in America part of a larger global insurrection? How will this affect other countries, especially the EU, when facing its own racism? European racism is currently focused on refugees from Middle Eastern countries but some »older« questions are still relevant in modern discourse. Does it make sense to distinguish between »old« and »new« fascism?
I don’t know if the American upheaval is the beginning of a world cycle. I hope so, but it’s difficult to imagine how their rebellion can become disruptive in Europe. I think that there will be no economic recovery in the coming years. Economic growth is over, debt is exploding, and insolvency will become unavoidable. This situation will be extremely volatile, and the collective subjectivity may veer unpredictably.
I would not speak of fascism. The fascist discourse is as widespread in Italy as in other countries, but the overall trend is not towards classic authoritarian politics, but towards chaos and towards psychotic reactions to chaos. These psychotic reactions sometimes have fascist forms of identification. But the political interpretation of the process does not seem useful to me, you know. It’s no longer about politics or ideology. It’s about psychopathological reactions to a psychopathogenic condition.
Obviously “old” Fascism can resurface. It is actually resurfacing. Just look at Orban, at Erdogan, at Salvini… These are Fascist translations of the mix of fear, aggressiveness, panic, and depression that is spreading all over the social mind.
We need to come out from the mythology of expansion. We have to adopt a frugal, egalitarian culture. We have to accept the idea that exhaustion has taken the place of expansion.
You describe the current fascism as the impotent fascism of old white men as opposed to fascism in the 1917 which was the fascism of young men, of colonizers. What does this mean for the fight against it? Does it matter what kind of fascism we are dealing with?
Yes, it matters enormously because we should learn to avoid the repetition of the Anti-fascist discourse which was based on the goal of Restoration of Democracy. We should avoid this trap because Democracy is dead, and it is no longer appealing. The root of suffering is not fascism but capitalism. Fascism is essentially a psychotic reaction to a situation that appears more and more a dead-end situation.
A hundred years ago, Fascism was the aggressive ideology of a young culture that believed in expansion as an economic possibility, as national glory, and as individual improvement. Aggressiveness was aimed at expanding the space of white civilisation, of industrial progress. Nothing is left of that landscape now: expansion is over. We know that, we feel that, and all the words about recovery cannot fool us. Now expansion only means further devastation of the physical environment and further devastation of the mental environment.
What we need now are not empty words about democracy or empty words about recovery. We need to come out from the mythology of expansion. We have to adopt a frugal, egalitarian culture. We have to accept the idea that exhaustion has taken the place of expansion.
The old age of the world, the proximity of death. This is the prospect of the century. We can aggressively reject this prospect and face the hell of violence, racism and war. On the contrary, we can accept exhaustion on egalitarian terms and share frugally what knowledge and technology can provide.
You wrote about the Occupy movement in The Uprising, and later in Breathing you wrote about the murder of Eric Garner. Now, after the pandemic of covid-19 – a respiratory disease – it seems almost poetical how the globalised world is literally preventing us from breathing normally. Do you see any symbolism in this?
Of course I see symbolism. We are talking of metaphors, of course. I speak metaphorically in The Uprising, and in Breathing. But you know metaphors are not mere fantasy. They are the way the social brain tunes-in with the real trends of evolution.
The metaphor of breathing emerged in 2014, when thousands of people marched protesting the death of Eric Garner. Since then it has worked deeply in the social unconscious of the new generation and now that metaphor is at the centre of the social culture.
You describe the concept of fake news as ridiculous because there is no such thing as real or fake. What kind of role does fiction play in this world and what role does poetry? Are TV series and movies more real than the news?
It depends on your point of view. From the point of view of the imagination news is affecting our mind the same way that movies do. It is difficult to distinguish the imaginary effect of fiction from the effect of Trump’s tweets and also from the effect of the demonstrations and of the riots…
The concept of fake news is politically weak because we are not influenced by the facts reported by the media. We are influenced by our real experience – misery, homelessness, precariousness, anguish, and depression – and we are simultaneously influenced by the flow of nervous stimulation that come from the media.
The young Americans’ insurrection is showing a possible pathway of emancipation from the depressive backlash of the pandemic.
When you write about solidarity you emphasize how physical proximity – living the same kind of life – is necessary for true solidarity. Has the online life we developed during the quarantine changed your perception? Is there such thing as solidarity that can be built online? Even perhaps online and between continents? Has the precarization of labour perhaps prepared us for regular quarantines?
Well, I cannot properly answer this question because I cannot know what the outcome from the lockdown will be. If you focus on the erotic sociability you understand that a huge catastrophe is underway. For the first time in history the physical proximity of bodies is in danger and the approaching of lips is abhorrent. Potentially this is the atomic bomb upon the prospect of social solidarity. Solidarity means nothing if it is not based on the pleasure of the presence of the other. Solidarity is not a moral concept; it is an affective one. What about solidarity if we’ll be led to suspect, to fear, to avoid, the presence of the body of the other?
But the young Americans’ insurrection is showing a possible pathway of emancipation from the depressive backlash of the pandemic. I see this insurrection as a psychotherapeutic explosion that will probably cost something in terms of surge of the contagion and something in terms of repression because ten thousand people are under arrest. But it will pay off in terms of psychic healing and of social solidarity.
Could you describe the quarantine as some sort of involuntary “hikikomori” – acute social withdrawal – that you describe in Heroes?
Yes, in a sense it is a sort of involuntary hikikomori but it is no more the experience of a minority.
There appears to have been a surge in suicide numbers during the pandemic. Why?
Good question. According to the sociologist Emile Durkheim, in war times the suicide rate decreases. People are so busy with saving their lives from the bombs that they forget about killing themselves for a while.
So, at the beginning I expected a drop in the suicide rate during the quarantine because I equated the quarantine to a war, which is wrong. The psychic effect of the contagion is different from the psychological effect of war. The main trend is depression, regression, and passivity, while in war you have to be permanently mobilised.
We don’t have final statistics about the suicide rate in the days of pandemic. We’ll have to wait for this. But the accounts of psychologists and of psychiatrists speak of a relevant increase in the number of suicides, particularly youngsters. The immediate causes of this are too easy to detect: you are forbidden to meet your school friends, you are separated from your lover, you feel the shame and the anguish of being a possible bearer of the virus, and so on…
But more deeply I think that we are slowly beginning to see the horizon of the Century. We are slowly understanding that Extinction is marking that horizon and we are not prepared to live under the shadow of the extinction. We must learn this because accepting the horizon of extinction will probably be the only way to escape extinction itself: the only way to find out a different horizon, a different future.
In your diary, you talk about the possibilities of relating to a human body after the pandemic. You see it either as a development of a new disgust and fear towards the human body as was established during the HIV epidemic, for example, or as a way of finding new desire for slowing down, for embracing. Now, slowly going out of quarantine, which way do you think our perception will turn?
If I may go straight to the point I would say that we are going to deal with a phobic sensibilization to the body of the other. The body of the other is going to be perceived in a different way – as a potential danger.
Beware, when we speak of the collective psycho-sphere we should avoid generalising and most importantly we should avoid being deterministic. I’m not saying: people will be “phobically sensibilised”. I’m saying that the spectrum of mental disease will lean towards a phobic sensibilization.
We must find out the cultural, and aesthetic therapy so to prevent and to heal this possible curve of the psycho-sphere.
Do you, in general, see the pandemic as a lesson learned? Has the quarantine slowed down the hyper-acceleration or only made it worse?
You see what is happening everywhere. The inability to exit the dominant economic form of imagination is already relaunching “business as usual”. Green capitalism is a fake. If you want to save capitalism you have to forget about the environment. If you want to heal the environment and yourself in it you have to forget about debt, profits, and competition.
So I expect more devastation, more extraction, more pollution, and more war in the coming years.
Political will has lost all autonomy because it is subjected to the automatisms of techno-financial capitalism and because it is subjected to the unyielding forces of nature: pandemics, climate change, and so on.
In The Uprising you write that the concept of revolution no longer corresponds to anything, because it entails an exaggerated notion of political will over the complexity of contemporary society. Instead, you propose a paradigmatic shift. I am again coming back to the pandemic: has this shift not shown itself, if only for a little while? The slowing down, the reimagining of a social state, universal income, solidarity in communities?
Yes, the experience of this spring of mutation is crystal clear.
Human will has been relevant in the past times of modernity. Not so overwhelmingly relevant, note, but relevant up to a certain degree. In our age the relevance of human will has been reduced to almost nihil. Not nihil but close to nihil.
That’s a problem of relation between the complexity of the info-sphere and the speed of mental processing. Napoleon and Lenin could process a large part of the contemporary info-sphere of their time. Today Lenin would be puzzled. His will would be paralysed.
Political will has lost all autonomy because it is subjected to the automatisms of techno-financial capitalism and because it is subjected to the unyielding forces of nature: pandemics, climate change, and so on.
What is the task of political action in these months? Enforcing the techno-sanitary goals. Those politicians who have rejected the sanitary approach – like Trump and Bolsonaro – are the cause of uncountable suffering and death.
Not political revolution but schismogenesis: separation of a part of society from the decaying body of capitalism. This is a strategy for survival and for re-invention.
You often mention the year 1977 as a turning point in recent history. Also 2011, 2016… But considering everything that’s happened so far in 2020 – is this perhaps the new big year? The Turning point?
The turning point is 1977. What happens now is only the developing of a trend that was already visible in what was already narrated in that year. Read Burroughs, Dick, Baudrillard, Guattari. Read the last issues of the magazine A/traverso, listen to Heroes of Bowie, Transformer of Lou Reed, listen to Philip Glass and Keith Jarret in that year… and you’ll see that the turning point was there.
Of course, I’m joking. Up to a certain point. I’m just introducing your next question, which will be, I guess, about irony.
As for Irony. You praise Irony as means of communication based on sympathy. There has been a lot of criticism of prevailing irony in today’s communication especially in advertising. You don’t see irony as a sort of distancing? Distancing from the matter, the point?
There are two different way to distance from the point and there are two different ways of suspending our identity with ourselves.
The first is the cynical way. I don’t want to be hurt by reality, so I break my empathic link with those who suffer in order to maintain my mental order.
The second is the ironic way. I want to heal the wounds that reality is unavoidably inflicting on me so I enhance my empathic link with the other because I know that there is no mental order to maintain.
If you were a rock star, I would conclude this interview with: so, what new material are you working on? As you are a philosophy star, I am asking what is the next book/essay going to be about?
I will surprise you. My next thing is not a book but a music opera. Well, sort of. In the last six months I have been working with an Italian musician called Marco Bertoni, the American performer Lydia Lunch, and the Scottish singer Bobbie Gillespie on the production of a musical opera called Wrong Ninna nanna. It is a series of lullabies that a young mother sings to her child as they are rejected at the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Or maybe they are sailing in a rubber boat in the Channel of Sicily.
The vinyl will be produced by 42nd Records and some of the video-musical clips will be out in You Tube and Vimeo at the end of June.