Cheer up ‘Bifo’—history hasn’t ended yet

What’s the relationship between capitalism and mental health? A review of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide.

Julian Sayarer
15 June 2015

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. Credit: All rights reserved.

Verso’s new Futures series was put together, so states the inside page, to assess the “outer limits of social and political possibility.” So it’s disappointing to find in Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s contribution Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, such a lack of the possible. Indeed, the book often seems little more than a lament for the impossible scale of the task facing advocates of progressive politics in an age of neo-liberalism.

From Virginia Tech to Norway’s Anders Breivik, mass shootings are mashed together with collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps to create an antediluvian collage of the variety used to caricature leftists as disgruntled losers with a dislike of progress.

By the closing chapters, when Berardi seems to disown his own ‘horrible’ miscellany of bloody mental health disasters as only a form of purging, the reader is somewhat confused as to what the author was meaning to achieve in the first place. Misleadingly, there is very little of the ‘future’ in the book at all.

Rather, Heroes is more the presence of a man looking constantly for answers to problems as they would have manifested in the past. Berardi, aged 66, has created a rich nostalgia, often very eloquent, but possessing an internal consistency that unravels with the gentlest application of the world and events outside his theory.

It being far easier to criticise than create, however, it’s important to recognise the value of Berardi’s offering: the absolutism of his ideas on the destructive relationship between mental health and modern capitalism. These ideas, at the very least, present a strong blueprint from which the issues can be examined in the future with less dogma and more light.

Berardi is at his most insightful when asking compassionate, human questions rather than enjoying his platform for polemical rhetoric. Is it problematic for humans and our ability to communicate with one another that children are now exposed to more speech and dialogue via media and screens, so that language is learned without direct need for human interaction? Does the market-logic of neo-liberalism—the all-pervasive idea of competition and optimisation—encourage behaviour in which the spectre of competition destroys our sense of self and our ability to be amongst others as relaxed, non-economic beings? Since human labour inputs have become mental rather than physical, is the mechanisation of our brain some sad inevitability?

Heroes reads more as an impassioned, despairing plea for reason than its grand, academic tones suggest, and the book would likely be less frustrating if read as such. Its pages are fit to bursting with a sense of end-of-history, though Berardi seems to date this varyingly—1978 and David Bowie’s release of ‘Heroes;’ 1977 and a mass suicide in Japan; 1492 and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, along with Columbus’ landing in America; the Berlin Wall; Paris 1968; and the death of Charlie Chaplin.

Most of all, Berardi seems determined to create an emblem of suicide as the triumphant, self-obsessed pinnacle of some orgiastic misanthropy. The Germanwings plane crash in the Austrian Alps occurred tragically close to his book’s publication, perhaps giving the author an ugly validation as he toils to present the death of society and a diminishing love for our fellow humans. And yet more than an explanation of the world, Berardi seems in thrall to writing some stoic but cherry-picked portrait of despair, taking an obvious enjoyment in a mode of theorising that seems to assuage any misery, or even genuine engagement with the perils he proclaims now engulf us.

His concluding remarks summarise a book that’s trying hard to stand for something. Berardi proscribes joy as the antidote to despair (despite providing many reasons for the latter and none for the former), suggesting vaguely that what he terms “neuro plasticity will be the key asset in twenty-first century liberations. He concludes in praise of irony, while instructing his readers not to believe or take-seriously the previous 225 pages of (by now we must presume) recreational doom-harbinging.

Indeed, were it not that Berardi’s logic were so selective and its perspective so narrow, the book would be all the more disheartening. Fortunately, also conspicuous is an author who is himself struggling with the present, soothing his concerns with an easy, leftist lament that envisages no greater role for humans than that of the happy worker.

He raises objections to algorithms (rather than—more helpfully—arguing that these tools might serve human ends), and wishes for a time when humans made ‘real objects.’ The book also advances an elementary critique of monetary systems that rightly illustrates the economy of faith that is currency, but seems only to conclude that some finite resource (such as gold and the gold standard it once underpinned) might in some way be an improvement.

All of this is profoundly unfortunate, for few would deny that modern work patterns must be made fairer and more human. Early on, Berardi writes:

“History has been replaced by the endless flowing recombination of fragmentary images… frantic precarious activity has taken the place of political awareness and strategy.”

The ironic missed opportunity of Heroes is that in it, the author has produced only one further recombination: a pastiche of graphic events, mass shootings and assorted corporate abuses that fall victim to the same shallow lust for spectacle that Berardi devotes such worthy efforts to decry. Anders Breivik, Virginia Tech, the Aurora Killings, Japanese suicide patterns and much else besides—modern capitalism has had an enormously detrimental effect on the lives of billions, and yet a statistically irrelevant number of these sorrows and grievances culminate in either mass shootings or suicides.

Berardi identifies the existence of an iceberg, and yet contents himself with describing only its very tip. He eschews the banal and the human to focus on the fast-sell of the sensational, prophesising some coming end rather than taking on the more trying but rewarding task of explaining how things persist when so much suggests they might fall apart. He explains exceptions delightfully, while seldom troubling himself with the rule itself, or the norm he condemns.

It is this very tendency that must be redressed, as Berardi probably would agree. He affords no attention to peer to-peer lending, fossil fuel divestment, credit unions, ethical banking growth, worker co-ops, fair tax certification, communication expansion through cell phones and the internet, or innovations in mobile currency.

All of these changes are potentially problematic developments that are of course vulnerable to the replication of old injustices. No less certainly, however, they offer evidence that the status quo Berardi describes is neither static nor condemned only to change the world for the worse.

Heroes reads like a man eloquently giving up, and, in the last event, trying hard to assure the reader that this was never his intent. In this and many other regards, Berardi does not convince. 

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