Happiness or barbarism

A conversation with Franco “Bifo” Berardi, philosopher and essayist

by Rossella Menna

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In your books, you claim that the most widespread feeling among the generation of thirty to forty-year-olds of today is humiliation. I agree. We feel frustrated by not measuring up to the idea that we had of ourselves, the special destiny that we were certain we were entitled to, if we put all our effort into it. Who convinced us that commitment and an iron will were enough to win our place in the sun? Who convinced us that if we don’t find that place, we’re worthless?

Those who convinced us that freedom of enterprise, competition and meritocracy are positive values. This was a criminal deception, which disarmed us against the attack that neoliberalism has brought against social civilisation.

What do you mean?

From an evolutionary point of view, neoliberalism has produced effects that are worse than those produced by Nazism. It has worked deeper, it has prepared a catastrophe that might be worse. Now, everyone is beginning to understand that the neoliberalist promise is a trap. I was a teacher until three years ago, and until then I always maintained that the era in which we live is frightening from an ethical, aesthetic, and existential point of view – that there were worse times regarding cold and hunger (at least in our part of the world) but, from the humiliation point of view, we have never suffered as we do today. However, while I was teaching and until I wrote Futurability, I was certain that history had not closed yet, that there was still a possibility of redemption that was all played out on the grounds of the relationship between technology and sociocultural organisation, and that that door could be reopened by a political and poetic reactivation (that is, psychological) of the collective body. I don’t believe that anymore.

As you wrote on many occasions, it is never correct to state that the possibility has become extinct.

True. The possibility never becomes extinct. However, the level of political probability has been reduced to such an extent that I can no longer describe it as a viable possibility. In the last few months, I’ve seen four movies that have somehow made me feel authorised to confess what I’ve been thinking for a long time but I wouldn’t dare tell people: Joker by Todd Phillips, Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, Sorry we missed you by Ken Loach and Cafarnao by Nadine Labaki. The latter, for instance, finally raises a central issue, that of procreation, from which we can no longer escape. I’m not a parent, intentionally, because I think procreating is irresponsible. I’m glad that we’re starting to discuss this publicly. In Staying With the Trouble, 2016, Donna Haraway admits that the feminist movement has avoided raising the issue of procreation to avoid being party to population control policies, such as China’s. But now, as Haraway says, we can no longer remain silent, because of all the catastrophes that are gathering around mankind right now. What makes all the others definitive is the demographic explosion that characterises half of our planet, right when that part of the world (that until today has dominated) watches terrified at an opposite demographic trend: its decline. Demographers, as the philosopher explains, tell us that we will reach eleven billion people in the second half of the century, but by then the habitable space on Earth will have been reduced. In most of the Eurasian continent, fifty-degree temperatures have become the norm for three months of the year, coasts are becoming uninhabitable… In conclusion: very soon there will be more of us and in a smaller space, and this is a guarantee, a certainty, of extinction.

Why aren’t we capable of reorganising in light of the awareness of what is happening to us?

Because the power of technology has almost entirely absorbed the energies of subjectivity. There is no longer a difference between the machine and the subjectivity that energises it. The subject is no longer capable of distinguishing himself from the machine enough to sabotage it, allowing it to progress by opening up frames of freedom. The forces of labour, cognitive labour in particular, are progressively transformed by automatisms and tend to make themselves robotic in order to survive. So, we should unravel ourselves from the algorithm and reprogram the algorithm itself.

And yet, I can’t help but think that, as you wrote quoting Keynes: in the end, the inevitable does not occur because the unexpected, the unpredictable prevails.

Of course! Perhaps, at this very moment in Jakarta, a 17-year-old boy is discovering how to obtain clean energy through an unimaginable process. It will change our destiny. It’s not impossible. As I was saying, we are philosophically bound to reaffirm the inextinguishable of the possible, but politically we are required to map the “most likely”, that is extinction.

The extinction of what? Of Man? Of Earth?

Physical conditions for the survival of the human strain won’t be completely cancelled and, on the other hand, the human being is well enough equipped to be able to protect itself from the end (a bunker, an interstellar journey). So, it is not mankind that is extinguishing. And it is not even civilisation, because it’s likely to persist in the robots that will survive in a separate form from the human being. Civilisation survives in the intelligent automaton and man survives in a separate condition from automated intelligence. So, what will disappear is the human civilisation which sees body and mind as united. It’s a barbarism we’re already seeing: a humanity literally separated from its mind. Inhuman civilisation, barbarian humanity. It’s the trend that has been outlined since 2016, the year of Brexit, the victory of Trump and Narendra Modi…

What’s the right political action to take (and, on our part, to support)? In your words, there is a clear resonance of the prophetic Socialismo o barbarie by Rosa Luxemburg. In Secondo Avvento (DeriveApprodi 2018) you wrote that only the return of the internationalist conscience could avoid the prospect of apocalypse. Do you still believe in the possibility that communism will once again become a credible prospect?

If there’s a possibility, I believe that is in the full deployment of the possibilities of knowledge and technology on equal terms, or rather redistribution of wealth, and frugality. Under those conditions, communism remains possible. The first step would be the reactivation of social solidarity. But all this is literally impossible in a society dominated by the principle of competition, automatism and financial abstraction, because even politics can no longer decide to invert the paradigm. In the best-case scenario, politicians try to do what can’t be done: conciliate the effort to improve the environment and stimulate economic growth. This combination doesn’t make sense.

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Mark Fisher summed up our condition very well.

His only flaw was the melancholic nature. It takes a happy energy to tell the truth.

And so, in front of this scenario, what’s the point of mapping? Wouldn’t it be appropriate perhaps to feed images of other signs that could feed that “possible” which could save us? Wouldn’t it be more effective to look for and show escape lines?

It reminds me of what Federico Campagna, the author of the beautiful Technic and Magic: the reconstruction of reality (Ed: Bloomsbury London 2018), says in a new book on “prophecy” that he’s writing in these months. Now, he says that in the history of modernity, the philosophical thought essentially had the task of saying how one can live well. But now it has the task of saying how one can die well, of creating the conditions for happiness during the conscious extinction, that could also constitute an inheritance for those who will survive. Because, as I said, mankind is destined to survive its own civility. Barbarism will spread everywhere, but someone will be able to escape it and cultivate a new humanism. So, the political, aesthetic and cultural task is to be happy!

So, we have to be happy despite the awareness of the catastrophe?

We must honestly analyse the trend inscribed in the present, then be able to glimpse countertrends and escape lines (be happy) in it, and finally create the conditions so that if there’s something that really escapes the trend, it can be increasingly enriched. We must tell the truth and, at the same time, produce mental conditions for collective happiness. At its foundation, Autonomy is this: to be happy in conditions that make happiness impossible.

In The Good Fight, an American web series which is overtly anti-Trump, the main character, a democratic lawyer who is obsessed with the Republican President, persuades herself that the only way to survive the spreading madness is not to struggle to save the world conceptually, but to protect the sense in its space, to focus on one’s own daily practice. Perhaps it is precisely the abstraction from a concrete and visible doing, from some form of craftsmanship, that prevents our happiness?

Despair is the only intellectual position that is adequate to our time, but friendship is the power that transforms despair into joy. Where communication between conscious humans is possible, then there’s happiness. Friendship, complicity – as Deleuze and Guattari already said – create a space in which the world, the whole history, can reproduce like a hologram through an act of language.