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The American Insurrection as Preventive Psychotherapy

In this excerpt from The Third Unconscious: The Psychosphere in the Viral Age, Franco "Bifo" Berardi discusses the significance of the massive George Floyd protests. Berardi analyzes the conditions of this insurrection as a response both to structural domination, racism, and violence, as well as the alienation of late stage capitalism.

Franco "Bifo" Berardi26 October 2021

The American Insurrection as Preventive Psychotherapy

When I wrote that the pandemic environment (lockdown, social distancing, phobic sensibilisation) is the best cultural soup for a wave of autism, I was not strictly referring to a psychopathology but to a psychocultural trend: the impending psycho-scape is marked by the possibility of a widespread diffusion of desensibilisation to the other.

When reasoning about the collective psycho-sphere, we should avoid generalisations, and most of all 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 sensibilisation.

Psychoanalysts, no less than activists and artists, should focus on this perspective. Psychoanalysts should elaborate a therapeutic methodology for avoiding a pandemic of regression, autism and depression.

I’ll try now to be more clear on this point.

In the weeks that followed the murder of George Floyd, an insurrection exploded in American cities. The political message of that insurrection is crystal clear: We, Black people, Latinos and precarious workers, have been the main target of the virus because we have limited access to the expensive health system and are victims of the racism embedded in American culture and of the systematic violence of police. We have said many times with James Baldwin, ‘The fire next time!’ Now it is next time, and we’ll reply with fire to the fire. 

But the American insurrection has not only a political significance. In my opinion it has also a psychotherapeutic implication. 

According to the Guardian, ‘those aged under twenty-five are three times more likely to report that they are not enjoying their day-to-day activities as much as they were two years ago, while almost half said they were struggling to concentrate, compared with just over a fifth in 2018’.

Certainly the economic effect of the pandemic is going to be especially resented by the new generation whose expectations have been thwarted so early. 

‘The research revealed that a third of this age group had lost their job in the pandemic, compared with one sixth of working-age adults generally, and that those currently on furlough expect to have an increased risk of later unemployment when the job retention scheme ends.’ 

But the psychological effect of the contagion is no less important, because it is directly affecting the process of social subjectivation, solidarity, autonomy and joy. 

Can we imagine a political strategy, and a psychotherapeutic strategy, to heal suffering subjectivity? Democratic participation is a deceit, as politics is clearly unable to keep any promise, and democracy is empty, boring and fake. I think that repressed energy has to erupt freely, and that the fear of death has to be overcome: insurrection is the only way to heal the suffering of millions. The American insurrection that exploded after the execution of George Floyd is the proof of this. 

After the long-lasting lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, after the long-lasting misery and suffering in small uncomfortable houses, after a long period of distancing and loneliness, millions of young Americans have thought more or less, ‘Our mental balance is in danger. If we do not react to intolerable acts of violence and humiliation like the atrocious public execution of George Floyd, we are going to enter a tunnel of eternal depression; we will be swamped by a suicidal wave. 

‘We must react, and we have to do it now, even if it is going to be dangerous because the pandemic is still here, and because the police are no less murderous than the coronavirus. It will be dangerous, but we must react now.’ 

So they got out in the streets, they marched, they chanted, but also they attacked and burned the buildings of the police; they also looted stores and supermarkets; they launched Molotov cocktails; they responded with fire to the fire of the racists. They paid a high price: Young activists have been killed by police and white supremacists. Thousands of them have been arrested. But dying is not the worst thing that can happen, when the prospect is to survive amid racism, misery, unemployment, the virus and the police. 

But the stakes are not only political: the humiliation that racists are imposing on us is not only dangerous for our physical survival; it is dangerous too for our psychological condition, for our dignity (whatever the word dignity means), for our possibility of enjoying life. 

Therefore we must say loud and clear: We are no more ready to exchange our survival with systematic humiliation. We are ready to fight and to die, because dying is not the worst future for those who are young in these times. 

If you focus on eroticism and 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 a nuclear bomb upon 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? 

The young Americans’ insurrection paves a possible pathway of emancipation from the depressive backlash of the pandemic. I see this insurrection as a psychotherapeutic explosion, one that risked creating a surge in the contagion, and risked provoking greater repression (10,000 people were placed under arrest in the first month after Floyd’s execution). These are danger signals, but the insurrection paid dividends in terms of psychic healing and social solidarity. 

The uprising has shown a possible way out from the protracted lockdown and a form of respiration for a society that is suffocating. Permanent insurrection is the only way to breathe, 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 mostly suffocation. 

Panic crises have quadrupled.

Friends who work in mental health centres say that there is a surge in suicide, particularly among young people. 

How can we emerge from this claustrophobia? The uprising is exposing young people to the virus, that’s true. But inaction would expose them to a tunnel of depression and suicidal drive in the next future. The American insurrection is an answer to this dilemma. Only insurrection can save us from a long-lasting depression: insurrection means togetherness, solidarity, embrace, friendship, mutual assistance, erotic pleasure, collective orgasm, exorcism. 

I don’t know if the American upheaval is the beginning of a world cycle – I hope so. There will be no economic recovery in the next few years, because economic growth is over, debt is exploding, and insolvency will spread unavoidably. We must turn insolvency into a conscious, intentional, political act of refusal, of self-organisation, an act of rejection of monetary alienation. 

This situation will be extremely volatile, and social subjectivity may veer unpredictably. The only way to escape the dire psychological consequences of this catastrophe is social autonomy, economic egalitarianism and a common act of rebellion. 

I use the word uprising, but I am not referring to the experiences of armed struggles of the past. The Black Panthers belong to the landscape of the 1960s and ’70s, and their armed experience cannot be proposed again, because the disproportion between the movement and the imperialist state is so enormous that thinking of an armed struggle would be suicidal. 

The spirit of the Black Panthers, of the Red Brigades and of the Rote Armee Fraktion is out of the picture. However, misery, exploitation, police violence, racism have persisted and worsened in the last decades. 

The force of the movement has changed ground: we do not need guns, because 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 for our well-being and also in order to reprogram from scratch the social machine. 

We should avoid the repetition of the old antifascist discourse, which was based on the goal of the Restoration of Democracy. We should avoid this trap, because democracy is dead and is no more appealing. The root of suffering is not fascism, but capitalism. Fascism is essentially a psychotic reaction to impotence and humiliation. 

A hundred years ago fascism was the aggressive ideology of a young culture that trusted expansion as economic possibility, as national glory, 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, and economic recovery is an empty promise. 

Expansion would mean only further devastation of the physical environment, further devastation of the mental environment.

What we need now is not empty words about democracy, empty words about recovery. Out of the mythology of expansion we have to adopt a frugal, egalitarian culture. Not more useless goods to ingest, but more time to enjoy with our friends, our lovers: this is frugality. 

Exhaustion has taken the place of expansion. 

Exhaustion, extinction, proximity of death: if we react to this prospect with a reactionary approach aimed at relaunching economic growth at all costs, we will enter a spiral of violence, racism and war. Instead, we must accept the reality of the exhaustion and face reality on egalitarian terms: share frugally what knowledge, solidarity and technology can provide. Redistribution of wealth egalitarianism, frugality: this is the recipe for survival, and possibly for a new pleasurable social life. 

According to the sociologist Émile Durkheim, in times of war the suicide rate decreases. People are so busy saving their lives from the bombs, that for a while they forget to kill themselves. 

So at the beginning of the quarantine I expected a reduction in the suicide rate, because I equated the quarantine to a war, which was wrong. The psychic effect of the contagion is different from the psycho-effect of war: the main trend is deflation, regression, passivity, while in war you have to be permanently mobilised. 

In the second year of the pandemic we don’t have final statistics about the suicide rate during the pandemic – we’ll have to wait for this. But the accounts of psychologists and 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 … 

I also think that we are slowly beginning to see the horizon of the century, and we are slowly understanding that extinction is marking that horizon, and we are not prepared to spend our lifetimes under the shadow of the extinction. We must learn to do it, because accepting the horizon of extinction, and avoiding panic, will probably be the only way to escape extinction itself, the only way to find a different horizon, a different future. 

Political will has lost autonomy, and most of all it has lost effectiveness because it is subjected to the automatisms of techno-financial capitalism and because it is subjected to the unchaining forces of nature: pandemics, psychosis, climate change … 

What is the task of political action in this pandemic time? Enforcing techno-sanitary goals. Those politicians who have rejected the sanitary approach (Trump, Bolsonaro) are the cause of uncountable suffering and death. 

They tried to exert the autonomy of political decisions, and the result was catastrophic. 

It would be delusional to think that we must seize political power in a revolutionary way or through elections. A revolutionary government would be obliged to bend to the obligations of contagion, of environmental catastrophe, of psychotic explosions. 

Human will is impotent: let’s accept this reality; let’s look for different ways of coming to terms with evolution. 

Not political revolution, but schismogenesis – a separation of a part of society from the decaying body of capitalism. Creation and proliferation of autonomous communities, food self-sufficiency, self-defence against police, against the racists and against the state. 

This is a strategy for survival and for reinvention, a strategy for healing the psycho-sphere and the social mind.


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The Third Unconscious
The Unconscious knows no time, it has no before-and-after, it does not have a history of its own. Yet, it does not always remain the same. Different political and economic conditions transform the ...