Bifo - Diary of the psycho-deflation #2: “Normality must not return.”
Franco 'Bifo' Berardi charts the spiralling collapse of the social order under the effects of COVID-19.
In the morning silence, some puzzled pigeons look down from the church rooftop and seem stunned. They cannot make sense of this urban desert they are looking at. Neither do I.
I read the first draft of Jess Henderson’s Offline, a book that will be released in a few months (at least it should come out, but who knows). Today, the word “offline” acquires a philosophical significance: it is a way to define the physical dimension of the real, in opposition to or better to say, in subtraction from the virtual dimension.
I wonder how the relationship between offline and online is changing during the spread of the pandemic, and try to imagine the aftermath.
In the last thirty years, human activity has profoundly changed its relational, proxemic, cognitive nature: an increasing number of interactions have moved from the physical, conjunctive dimension—where linguistic exchanges are imprecise and ambiguous (thus infinitely interpretable), and any productive action consumes physical energies, as bodies get in touch in a flow of conjunctions—to the connective dimension, in which linguistic operations are mediated by computer machines and therefore respond to digital formats. Any productive activity is partially mediated by automatisms, and people interact more and more densely although their bodies never meet. The daily existence of entire populations has been increasingly chained to electronic devices related to huge loads of data. Persuasion has been replaced by pervasion, as the psycho-sphere got innervated by the flows of the Info-sphere. The connection presupposes a hairless and dust-free accuracy. Computer viruses might interrupt or divert this accuracy, which does not know the ambiguity of physical bodies nor does it contemplate inaccuracy as a possibility.
Now, here it comes, a biological agent introduces itself into the social continuum, makes it implode, and forces it into inactivity. Conjunction, the sphere of which has been largely reduced by connective technologies, is the cause of contagion. Conjoining in the physical space has become the absolute danger that must be avoided at all costs. Conjunction must be actively prevented—don’t leave your house, don’t visit friends, keep a distance of two meters, don’t touch anyone on the street…
What we experience in these weeks is a huge expansion of the time spent online, and it couldn’t be otherwise because the emotional, productive, educational relationships must be transferred to the sphere in which one can not touch nor conjoin. Any sociality that is not purely connective ceases to exist.
And then? What happens next? What if this connection overload ends up breaking the spell?
I mean, sooner or later the epidemic will disappear (if this ever happens, they say in Italy it might happen on April 25th), wouldn’t we tend to psychologically link our online life to the disease? I imagine an explosion of a spontaneous caressing movement, inducing a substantial part of the younger population to shut down their connective screens, as reminiscent of this unfortunate lonely period?
I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do think about it.
“…the financial system is losing its grip: in the past, mathematical fluctuations determined the amount of wealth that everyone could have access to. Now, they no longer determine anything. Now, wealth no longer depends on the money we have, but on what belongs to our mental life.”
The earth is rebelling against the world. Pollution evidently decreases. The satellites are sending photos of China and Padania, completely different from the ones they used to send two months ago. I do feel it in my lungs, which haven’t been breathing as well for the past ten years, since I was diagnosed with severe asthma caused by the very air of the city I live in.
The collapse of the stock exchange is so serious and persistent, that it is no longer newsworthy.
The stock exchange system has become the representation of a vanished reality: the supply and demand economies are unsettled, and will neglect the amount of virtual money circulating in the financial system for a long time. But this means that the financial system is losing its grip: in the past, mathematical fluctuations determined the amount of wealth that everyone could have access to. Now, they no longer determine anything. Now, wealth no longer depends on the money we have, but on what belongs to our mental life.
We must think about this suspension of the functioning of money, because maybe this is the keystone to get out of the capitalist form—to definitively break the relationship between labor, money and resource access. To affirm a different conception of wealth, as wealth is not the amount of monetary equivalent I have, but the quality of life I can experience.
The economy is entering a recession, but this time the supply support policies are not very useful, nor are the demand support policies. If people are afraid to go to work, if people die, no offer can be raised. And if we are confined at home, no demand can be raised—for a month or even two, three months…
Enough to block the machine, a block that will have irreversible effects. Those who talk about the return to normality, those who think they can reactivate the machine as if nothing happened, did not understand what is going on.
For the machine to get working again, it will be a matter of inventing everything from scratch. We must be ready to prevent it from functioning as it has done for the past thirty years: market religion, privatist liberalism ought to be considered as ideological crimes. Economists who have been promising for the past thirty years that the solution for any social disease was cutting public spending and privatization will be socially isolated if they try to open their mouths again, they deserve to be treated for what they are: dangerous idiots.
During the past two weeks I have been reading Sara Mesa’s Cara de pan, Lectura facil by Cristina Morales, and the withering Chanson Douce by the horrible Leila Slimani. I’m currently reading Babine, an Azerbaijani writer, who tells about Baku at the beginning of the 20th century, about the sudden wealth accumulated through oil and about her very rich family, who lost everything during the Soviet revolution.
More by chance than by choice, this year I have only read female writers, starting with Djavadi’s wonderful novel called Disoriental, a story about Islamist violence, exile, loneliness and nostalgia.
But for now, enough with women and human tragedies. Enough is enough. So I went and got a relaxing book, the Orlando Furioso read by Italo Calvino. When I was teaching, I always recommended it to children. I’ve read a few chapters. I’ve read it ten times and gladly read it again.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
A few years ago, with my friend Max—inspired by my friend Mago, I published a novel we didn’t have a title for. We liked the titles KS and Gerontomachia. But the publisher who had to publish the book (after many had understandably rejected it) imposed a rather ugly but certainly more popular title: Morte ai vecchi (death to the elderly). The book didn’t sell any good, but told a story still seemingly relevant to me. Some sort of inexplicable epidemic breaks out: thirteen-fourteen-year-old boys kill the old, first some isolated cases that become more and more frequent, and eventually it happens everywhere. I’ll spare you the details or the technical-mystical mysteries of the plot. The point is that young people decided to kill old people because they poisoned the atmosphere with their sadness.
Tonight it occurred to me that this whole coronavirus affair could be metaphorically read as such: on March 15th last year, millions of girls and boys took to the streets shouting—you delivered us a world where we can’t breathe, you have plagued the atmosphere, now it’s time to stop it, reduce oil and coal consumption and lower fine dust levels! Perhaps they hoped that the rulers of the world would hear their pleadings. But as we all know, they were disappointed: the Madrid summit in December, the last among countless international events on climate change, was just another failure. The emission of toxic substances has not diminished at all in the last decade, and global warming has happily advanced. The huge coal and plastic oil corporations showed no interest whatsoever in quitting. Then at some point, the kids got pissed and made an alliance with Gea, the divinity protecting the planet earth. Together they launched a warning slaughter, and the old men began to die like flies.
Finally everything stops. After a month, the satellites photograph a land very different from what it was before the gerontomachy.
Since I don’t own a television, I follow the unfolding of events online: CNN, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, El pais… Then at lunchtime, I listen to the news on the radio.
The rest of the world has vanished from any information, nothing but coronavirus. Today there was no news on the radio but the epidemic. A friend from Barcelona tells me that he spoke to an editor of the Spanish national television: it seems that when they send news on something that is not the contagion, people call them pissed off, or they insinuate that they are hiding something…
I understand the need to keep the public’s attention focused on prevention measures, and I understand the need to repeat one hundred times per day “you must stay at home.” But this media strategy has an anxiety-inducing effect absolutely not needed; moreover, it has become almost impossible to know what is going on in Northern Syria. Eight schools were bombed in a single day in Idlib a few days ago. And what’s going on at the Greek-Turkish border? No longer any boat full of Africans in the Mediterranean that risk sinking or that are stopped and sent back to the Libyan concentration camps? Of course there are, actually to be more precise, just yesterday I happened to find news on a boat with one hundred and forty people on board, sent back by the Maltese coast guard.
Just to update, here is a partial list from March 1st until today, of what is happening in the world, beside the epidemic.
From the peacelink website I transcribe the armed conflicts that did not stop during the past three weeks, while we were all concerned about the fact that no one could leave their house.
Libya: Violent clashes erupt across the north as forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) attempt to advance – Libya: Le Haftar forces bomb 2 schools in Tripoli – Democratic Republic of the Congo: At least 17 killed in clashes with the Allied Democratic Forces – (ADF) in Beni, Somalia: 5 al-Shabaab members killed in a single attack – USA/Nigeria plane: Six killed in attack by Boko Haram on the military base in Damboa Afghan army resumes operations against the Taliban – Afghanistan: Taliban and Afghan forces collide in Balkh province – Thailand: 1 soldier killed and 2 others injured in clashes with militants in the South – Indonesia: 4 rebels from the Army of Liberation West Papua (WPLA) killed in clashes with the forces of security in the Papua – Yemen region: 11 killed in clashes between rebels Houthi and Yemeni army in Taiz – Yemen: 14 Houthi rebels killed in clashes with Yemeni government forces in Al-Hudaydah province Turkey: Turkish fighter shoots down Syrian warplane over Idlib – Syria: 19 Syrian soldiers killed in Turkish drone attacks.
A friend sent me a video showing a long row of military trucks in Bergamo. It is nighttime, they proceed slowly. They are carrying something like sixty coffins to the crematorium.
I wake up, shave, take my hypertension pills, turn the radio on… shit… the national anthem! Can someone explain to me wtf national anthems have to do with what’s happening? Why bring in national pride? The same hymn was leading soldiers to Kobarid, where a hundred thousand died.
I turned off the radio and shaved silently. Dead silence.
Jun Hirose is a Japanese friend who writes books on cinema. Recently, he traveled to South America to present the Spanish edition of his book Cine-Capital. Returning from Buenos Aires, he planned to stop in Madrid and Bologna, where Billi and I were waiting for him. He is a very pleasant and witty person, and hosting him for a few days is always a pleasure, every time he passes through Italy, once a year.
When the infection got to Madrid and exploded in the city, he got stuck there, where he’s hosted by another dear friend, Amador Savater. So now, they can spend some time together, and I envy Amador a bit because Jun is also an excellent cook—and I love Japanese cuisine. At night, they host a small cineforum, and a few nights ago they watched The Thing by John Carpenter, a film that makes so much sense in this moment. Then Amador wrote an article for the Argentine magazine lobosuelto. Amador writes “The Thing triggers some thoughts. We must think of the epidemic as an interruption. An interruption of stereotypes’ automatism, and of what we take for granted: health, the health system, cities, food, the ties and concerns of every day must be rethought from scratch.”
When the quarantine ends—if it does and it is not sure that it will—we will be devoid of rules, but also devoid of automatism.
Humans will then regain a role that is certainly not dominant in respect to chance—as the virus teaches us human will has never been decisive—yet significant. We will get the chance to rewrite the rules and break any automatism. But it is good to know, this won’t happen peacefully.
We cannot foresee the shape the conflict will take, yet we must begin to imagine it. Whoever imagines first wins—one of the universal laws of history. At least, I think so.
Tiredness, physical weakness, slight breathing difficulty. Nothing new, it often happens to me, it is caused by the pills against hypertension, and by my asthma, which has been kind to me during the past month, perhaps because it does not want to scare me with ambiguous symptoms.
It’s a sweet sunny day, with clear sky on this beautiful first day of spring.
A friend from Buenos Aires writes to me:
“Llegó el terror,
if huele desde la ventana
blunt as a flor cualquiera”
The vice president of the Chinese Red Cross, Yang Huichuan, arrived in Italy, accompanied by doctors Liang Zongan and Xiao Ning, respectively professor of pulmonary medicine at the Sichuan hospital and deputy director of the national prevention center. Fifty-eight physicians, experts in infectious diseases, arrived from Cuba.
A few days ago the German Minister of Economy Peter Altmaier responded to a request from Trump, rejecting his request for the concession of exclusive rights on the development of a coronavirus vaccine studied by a private company in Tübingen. According to the advances published yesterday by Die Welt, the United States had offered to the German pharmaceutical company CureVac, which is developing the vaccine, the sum of one billion dollars to acquire the right to industrialize and therefore to sell exclusively the product, once the tests will be completed and the product available.
Exclusive. America first. In Trump’s country, the queues in front of gun stores have been multiplying lately. In addition to whiskey and toilet paper, they all buy weapons. In a disciplined manner, they keep their regulatory one meter distance, and the rows get lost on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party dismisses Sanders, killing the hope to change the very same model that has reduced life the way it is. 81% of Republicans keep on supporting the blonde beast Trump.
I don’t know what will happen after the end of the scourge, but I am pretty sure that humanity at large will develop a sentiment towards the American people similar to the one spreading after 1945 towards the German people—enemies of humanity.
It was wrong then, because many anti-Nazi Germans had been persecuted, killed, exiled, and it is wrong now because millions of young Americans supported the socialist presidential candidate, until his cancellation by the money and media machine.
But it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. This is not a political issue—horror is never rationally chosen, but rather unwittingly felt. A horror towards a nation born out of genocide, deportation and slavery.
“Boredom is not apathy. Apathy is resignation in impotence, a flat calm, inertia. Boredom is restlessness, it is inwardly very vital, it is dissatisfaction, agitation…”
The doctor who has been taking care of my ears for fifteen years is a professionist with extraordinary diagnostic acuity and an exceptional surgeon. He did surgery on me six times in ten years, and each operation has had an impeccable result, allowing me to prolong my hearing ability for fifteen years. A few years ago he decided to leave the public hospital in which he operated, and since then I had to go to a private clinic to be able to benefit from his skills.
Since I have never understood his decision, once he told me without much fuss: the public system is at the verge of collapse because of the cuts caused by the current financial situation.
This is why the Italian health system is on its last legs, that’s why 10% of doctors and paramedics got infected, that’s why intensive care units are not enough to treat all patients. Because those who have governed in recent decades have taken advice from ideological criminals such as Giavazzi, Alesina and company. Will these scoundrels continue to write their editorials? If the coronavirus forced us to acceptthe entire population’s house arrest, is it too much to ask those individuals to be banned from uttering a word in public ever again?
I don’t know if we will get out of the storm alive, but if we do, the word privatization will have to be cataloged in the same register as the word endlosung.
The devastation produced by this crisis should not be calculated in terms of the financial economy. We will have to assess damages and needs based on utility. We will not have to face the problem of having successful ends in the financial system, but we will have to make sure to guarantee basic needs for everyone. Is there anyone who does not like this logic because it reminds them of communism? Well if no one has come up with better and more modern words, we are still entitled to use the same, a bit old but still very appealing.
Where will we find the means to deal with this devastation? In the coffers of the Benetton family, for instance, or rather in the coffers of those who took advantage of servile politicians to appropriate public goods by transforming them into instruments of private wealth, and letting them decay to the point of destruction, that caused the killing of forty people who were driving on a Genoese bridge.
On an online psychiatry magazine, Luigi d’Elia wrote an article called The pandemic is like a Collective Compulsory Health Treatment. Although it’s in Italian, I highly recommend reading it, so I will just briefly summarize it: a TSO (Italian for Involuntary treatment) is practiced when a person’s psychic conditions can cause damage for themselves or for others, and any smart psychiatrist knows that it is not a recommended therapy, actually it isn’t a therapy at all.
D’Elia advises all of us who are secluded to transform the current mandatory preventive condition into an actively therapeutic condition, moving from TSO to TSV (voluntary health treatment), that is to say we should transform our state of necessary detention into a self-analysis process, open to self-analysis of others. I believe this to be one of the most precise suggestions, not only psychologically speaking, but also politically, one of the more forward-looking I have read so far.
We should be able to transform the prison condition into a self-analysis mass assembly. D’Elia suggests something even more accurate: the object of our analytical care must essentially be fear. “If well focused, fear is the main drive for change. Jung says it clearly, “where there is fear, there lays the task,” he writes. What is the object of fear? More than one: fear of disease, fear of boredom, and fear of what the world will be like when we will finally leave the house.
But since fear is an engine of change, what we need to do is to create conscious conditions for change.
Boredom can be worked out on a psychologically useful level, because as D’Elia says: “Boredom is not apathy. Apathy is resignation in impotence, a flat calm, inertia. Boredom is restlessness, it is inwardly very vital, it is dissatisfaction, agitation. Boredom shouts: this is not where I should be, this is not what I shall be doing! I should be elsewhere and be busy with something else!”
Right before midnight
Fourteen out of twenty-six European countries have decided to close their borders. What is left of the Union? What’s left of the Union is the Eurogroup that met today to discuss measures to be taken to deal with the foreseeable collapse of the European economy.
Two theses are facing each other: for once, the countries most affected by the virus asking for possible interventions of expenditure not bound to the criminal fiscal pact based on budget equality, that the improvised Italian political class has previously constitutionalized. German, Dutch and other fanatics’ answer is that—no, you can spend only on the condition you apply the right reforms. What does it mean? For instance, that the reform of the health system will further reduce intensive care units and wages for hospital workers?
To me, the most fanatic of all seems to be this funeral Dombrovski who should apply for a job at a funeral home, since he got the physique du role and it is a field in which there is more and more need, thanks to people like him.
While in Italy Confindustria is still opposing the closure of non-essential companies, meaning to the daily mobilization of millions of people forced to expose themselves to the danger of infection, the ever-emerging matter is still the pandemic’s economic effects. On the front page of the New York Times today an editorial by Thomas Friedman bears the very eloquent title “Get America back to work – and fast.”
Nothing has stopped yet, but the fanatics are already worried about being quick—going back to work as fast as possible, and most of all, about going back to work as we used to.
Friedman (and Confindustria) have an excellent argument on their side: a prolonged block of production activities will lead to unimaginable consequences from an economic, organizational, and even political point of view. All the worst scenarios can occur in a situation where goods are starting to run low, unemployment is rampant, and so on. So, Friedman’s argument should be considered with due care, and then shrewdly discarded. Why? Not only for the obvious reason that if you’d stop activities for a couple of weeks and then go back to work as before, the epidemic will resume with renewed fury, killing millions of people and devastating society forever. Of course, this is only a marginal consideration from my modest point of view.
The consideration that seems most important to me (whose implications we will have to unfold in the upcoming weeks and months) is precisely as follows: we will never be able to return to normality ever again. Normality is what made the planetary organism so fragile and paved the way for the pandemic, to begin with.
Even before the pandemic exploded, the word “extinction” had begun to appear on the century horizon. Even before the pandemic, the year 2019 had shown an impressive crescendo of environmental and social collapses that culminated in November with New Delhi’s unbreathable nightmare and Australia’s terrifying fires.
The millions of kids who marched through the streets in many cities on March 15th, 2019 demanding to stop the death machine, have now reached the core and the climate change dynamics have been for the first time interrupted.
After a month of lock down, the air in the Po area has become breathable again. At what price? A very high price, now paid for in lost lives and rampant fear, that tomorrow will be paid for with an unprecedented economic depression.
But this is the effect of capitalist normality. Returning to capitalist normality would be such a colossal idiocy, we would have to pay for with an acceleration towards extinction. If the Padana air became breathable thanks to the scourge, it would be a colossal idiocy to reactivate the machine that makes the Po Valley unbreathable, carcinogenic and an easy prey for the next viral epidemic.
We must begin to think from this topic, quickly and unscrupulously.
The pandemic does not cause any financial crisis. Of course the stock exchange plummets and will continue to plummet, and someone will propose to (provisionally) close everything down.
Unthinkable is the title of an article by Zachary Warbrodt published on POLITICO, which examines in terror the possibility of closing down the stock market.
But reality is way more radical than the most radical of hypotheses: finance has already shut down, even if the stock exchange remains open, and speculators earn their dirty dollars by betting on bankruptcy and catastrophe—as Republican Senators Barr and Lindsay did.
The crisis to come has nothing to do with the one in 2008, when the problem was generated by financial mathematics imbalances. The depression to come depends on the intolerability of the human body and mind toward capitalism.
The ongoing crisis is not a real crisis. It is a RESET. It is a matter of turning off the machine and turning it on again, after a while. Yet, when we turn it back on, we can decide to make it work as before, running the risk of finding ourselves living the same nightmare all over again—or we can decide to reprogram it, according to science, consciously and sensitively.
When this story will end, (and in a sense, it never ends, because the virus will be able to recede without disappearing, and although we might invent vaccines, the virus can always adapt) we will have to face a period of extraordinary depression. If we simply pretend to return to “normal” we might have to face violence, totalitarianism, massacres, and the extinction of the human race before the end of the century.
Normality must not return.
We won’t have to ask ourselves what is good for the stock market, or for the economy of debt and profit. Finance has gone to hell, we don’t want to hear about it anymore. We will have to ask ourselves what is really useful. The word “useful” must be the alpha and omega of production, technology and activity.
I realize that I am saying things bigger than myself, but we must prepare ourselves to face huge choices. When the story ends, if you want to be ready you need to start thinking about what’s useful, and how you can produce it without destroying the environment and the human body.
We will also have to think about the most delicate question of all: who decides? Pay attention, when the issue “who decides?” arises it brings along the question “what is the source of legitimacy?” This is the question to begin the revolution with. Whether we want it or not, this is the question we ought to ask ourselves.
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