“Capitalism is no longer inevitable.” A Conversation with Franco “Bifo” Berardi

Activist philosophy has long focused on how to think about mobilisation from the perspective of the joyful passions. It is true that feminism has alerted us to our vulnerabilities and that feminists have made the effort to reflect and to do politics from that position. But militant political thought has usually assumed that bodies are inexhaustible in what they can do. The Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi (Bolonia, 1949), however, has always taken into account the role of the sad passions: fear, depression, and the suicidal urge. Two of his books in particular consider the relationship between capitalism and illness: La fabbrica dell'infelicita' (2000) and Heroes. Mass Murder and Suicide (2015).

Bifo is a philosopher and a long-standing supporter the idea and the practice of autonomy. He is known for his involvement in the 1977 riots in Bologna, and recognised for his activism in the creation of independent communication media and networks since his participation in Radio Alice, the first free pirate radio station in Italy. I can’t say when we first met in person, but he has been part of my memories for a very long time, sharing two kinds of situations: walking together in demonstrations and talking generously for hours, because Bifo is a gracious, cultured man, always surprisingly inventive. During my quarantine, I was tempted to go back to his book And: Phenomenology of the end (2015), whose title is a play of words on “end” and “and”, a phenomenology of both conclusion and conjunction. Inspired by this book, I had the impulse to talk to him about how we should narrate this crisis of civilisation, taking into account the widespread feelings of fear and even terror at the sense of having reached an end point, but without fuelling the apocalyptic imaginaries that nurture the new authoritarianisms and new ecofascisms. This conversation took place on Tuesday, 7 April 2020.

Bifo, you’re in Bologna, aren’t you? How are you feeling?

I’m well. I feel pretty good. I’m in Bologna. I have a house that’s not too far from the famous Towers of Bologna, in the centre. The city is deserted like many other cities in the West. And in the East.

How are things in Bologna in relation to the Lombardy region and other cities that have been most affected by the pandemic?

Bologna is in the southern part of the Po Valley in northern Italy, which is known to be one of the hardest hit areas, more than Wuhan in terms of deaths. Bologna is the least affected city in the region. It is interesting to consider why the Po Valley and not Naples or Sicily, which were much less affected, or hardly at all. Why New York and not the open plains, why Wuhan and not elsewhere? I think that the virus hit hardest in the most polluted places, where our lungs are weaker. It is a sign that atmospheric conditions have reached levels that are dangerous to humans. The air is now magnificent in Bologna. I can open a window and breathe. I usually couldn’t before. Every day of the year, we exceed the air quality limits set by the European Union. But for the past few days the air has been clean. What does that mean? I don’t know. Or I know but I won’t say. [laughter]

You’ve already written two articles on the pandemic, “Chronicles of the Psycho-Deflation” and “Beyond the Breakdown:Three Meditations on a Possible Aftermath”. The chronicles include a couple of minor images that are very moving. The first tells how you became aware of your particular vulnerability in the current situation. You describe a phone call from your niece Tania, which was your first warning of the need to take seriously the aggressively infectious nature of Covid-19. While talking to her, you suddenly became aware of your particularly vulnerable status during the pandemic: with your characteristic self-irony and black humour, you describe yourself as an old asthmatic, somebody who is part of the “high risk group”, an ambivalent term that both protects and stigmatises. Irony aside, how are you feeling about these matters now? Are your thoughts on illness and mortality changing as a result of recognising that you are directly affected by this particular fragility?

I have to admit, my day-to-day life has not changed much. I travel constantly, and that has certainly changed. I can’t travel and I don’t know when I’ll be able to come to Barcelona. I have a very strong desire to come to Barcelona, but I know that I won’t be able to do it for two, three months... how long? I don’t know. But aside from that, my life in Bologna has always been very domestic. I have a house full of books, I can paint... I live well here. I don’t go out when I’m in Bologna. What has changed is my relationship with mortality, as you put it. But not because I hadn’t thought about it before. I’ll tell you a secret: this year I’ve started writing a book called Becoming Nothing, by which I mean dying. It’s a book about death in which I develop ideas based on Schopenhauer, Spinoza... a kind of declaration of rejection of longevity. I don’t like old people, I don’t like myself as an old man, and I don’t think that it has been a good idea to prolong human life beyond dignity. It is also a declaration of friendship with death, which is something that modernity has rejected and tried to eradicate. So, the pandemic started and I found myself forced to think about death in less philosophical and more medical or concrete terms. And at the same time I’ve been overtaken by a kind of joy in the unpredictable. In recent years I keep repeating John Maynard Keynes’ idea that we must talk about the inevitable: capitalism, violence, totalitarianism... but we also have to talk about the unpredictable. Voilà! The unforeseeable has arrived, and it has given me an intellectual vigour that I no longer had. Because before it seemed that capitalism had won for good, that it would continue to transform itself in increasingly automatic and totalitarian ways without us being able to do anything about it. But now the unpredictable was opened a new scenario. It is tragic, it is shocking, it is brutal... but at the same time it is the opening of a new possible against the inevitable.

In your chronicles, your niece alerting you to your status triggers a second image, which goes beyond you as a vulnerable individual subject. The reason for her call was to stop a date from happening: to prevent you, your sister Lucia, and your brother Fabio meeting for dinner. You tell us that you had continued to meet sporadically as a residual habit of the regular gatherings to eat at your mother’s house. You write about your mother’s long decline before her death, and how family ties languished with her. You have always placed subjectivity at the centre, one could say that you have almost always thought out loud from the perspective of “a” body. But I had never heard you use this testimonial tone. What is happening to us, Bifo? How can we interpret this sudden widespread emotiveness, the way in which the importance of cultivating significant relationships is becoming central once more, not only philosophically, as you mentioned, but in material ways such as the health and death of our bodies?

Of course, direct family relationships become important because they are the closest. But I don’t really like the idea that we might be going back to the family dimension. Yes, we are at home, and those of us who, like me, live with a partner can enjoy sharing, talking. Those who live alone have to consider solitude as a situation that may be rich or may be sad... But the real problem is not what we have left, but above all what we are missing. And what we are missing are relationships that have meaning. What I miss most, I have to say, is my African friend who sells me hashish. I can’t see him, I don’t know where he’s got to! [laughter], but that’s just a small detail. On a large scale, during quarantine we miss meaningful relationships because we are thinking from the point of view of fragility. We are reassessing what life might be like when we emerge from quarantine. And from the intellectual perspective, I don’t see this situation as an impoverishment. I see it as a refining and broadening of our horizon. A thousand times my friends have said: “Your thinking is depressing!” But it wasn’t depressing before and I haven’t suddenly turned into a happy guy. No. What is happening is that I think we are in a position to rethink things: everything that was simply habit has disappeared, and now we are looking at the essential.

You say “when we emerge”. In your article, you conjure up another image on a very different scale from domestic life: that of millions of young people and adolescents occupying global public space in 2019 to alert us to the climate emergency and demand that we stop the global model that is causing it. How does this image relate to the pandemic and its corollary, the mass quarantine? It is true that much thought is being given to the relationship between the damaging effects on the planet and its ecosystems as a result of capitalism (especially four decades of neoliberalism) and the simultaneous damage to the public policies that were supposed to look after the reproduction and sustainability of our societies. But do you think there is more to be said about these contradictory images arising from the terminal crisis of neoliberalism? On the one hand, we have three million young bodies in the global square, and on the other, millions of confined bodies. All within the framework of climate and health consequences that are impacting on the most vulnerable bodies on a scale without precedent in contemporary history.

You’re talking about the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements... I took part in the climate strike on 15 March 2019, which was a mobilisation of very young people, even primary school children, who shouted a very clear message: “We don’t want to live in the world of climate violence that capitalism has produced.” I mean, the word “capitalism” was written on the children’s signs. They were questioning capitalism itself, the industrial society, the patriarchal society... the society in which we are called to live. Around the same time, in April 2019, I saw a powerful film by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, called Capernaum (2018). It’s a very moving film that tells the story of a boy who goes to a judge and says that he wants to sue his parents for bringing him into this world. I said to myself, Greta Thunberg’s revolt is very close to this feeling of total hopelessness. Then came the Climate Summit in Madrid in December 2019 and it showed the total impotence of the global political class, its lack of will, its ignorance... There are of course criminals like the president of the United States of America, but there is not just a violent desire for power, there is also a feeling of impotence: “What can we do? Stop the machinery of production? No, we can’t! The machinery of production is indispensable, we will die without it!”... and voilà the unpredictable! We’ve reached a point where the machinery of production inevitably stops because if we don’t, we die. An extraordinary paradox! If we don’t stop the machinery now, we will die by the millions. So that’s when they stop it. But what happens beyond stopping it?

I have a suggestion: buy the latest issue of The Economist, the most important magazine of neoliberal thought. It’s title is “A grim calculus”. What is this bleak calculation? The magazine is realistic and honest: we are forced to shut down the economy, because if we don’t, we die. But watch out, because more people will die over the next five years as a result of the economic shutdown, given that breaking the production and distribution chains will lead to enormous unemployment, hunger, and desperation. We can’t say that The Economist is saying crazy things, because if we think about the future we know that’s how it will be. So I propose a reflection that would have seemed totally utopian six months ago, but doesn’t now. It’s true that if we continue to use the criteria of the consumerist economy, if we shut down the economy based on the kind of capitalism that prioritises maximising profit, we will inevitably bring about catastrophic consequences in the coming years.

What can we do? We can renounce profit, private property... the priorities specific to capitalism. The first thing we have to do, and we have to do it right now, is establish our basic needs: food, medicine, communication, affect, the pleasure of talking to others... The things that we cannot forgo because without them we die. Of course I like flying, I want to fly again one day, please! But I can do without it. But when it comes to changing the criteria for deciding what is essential, then if restrictions begin, a political problem arises: what is the source of legitimacy for making these decisions? Who makes these decisions about priorities? This sets up a totally new political world that will open up in a few months or a year.

After the 2008 financial crash came a citizen response that involved uprisings in squares around the world: from Tahrir to Occupy and 15M, the anti-austerity protests in Greece and Portugal, the student movements in Colombia, Mexico and Chile... From 2011 to 2013, these protests established a connection on a mass scale between virtual networks and mass mobilisations on the streets. This was necessary in order to challenge what you call the source of legitimacy regarding decisions about priorities, a legitimacy that then resided exclusively in neoliberal governments. In Spain, this citizen response turned out to be decisive. As a result of the uprisings in the squares, we are now dealing with the multiple crisis unleashed by this pandemic in a situation that is more complex, based on more than just neoliberal criteria. However, although we need to continue the struggle that will allow the radical paradigm change that you propose, we can no longer turn to that connection between networks and city squares. It will be a long time before we can resume forms of protest that consist of mass occupation of public space, as was the case in 2011 and also in 2019, as you mentioned. And as if this were not enough, in many countries we now have to deal with governments that are not just neoliberal but developing authoritarian forms of neoliberalism.

There is one fundamental difference between what happened in 2008 and today. The 2008 collapse was essentially a financial collapse. In other words, we faced the problem of re-establishing a balance in the functioning of finances, and, of course, also between the financial balance sheet and social economy. The big novelty this time is that even if everything possible is done at the financial level, it won’t make much difference. What’s the point of injecting billions of euros or dollars if we don’t have masks, ventilators, or food, very specific material things that are products of human scientific intelligence? Without this, you can have a billion dollars: it won’t do you any good.

You mean that a bank bailout like the one that mitigated the 2008 crisis will be inadequate as the sole solution to the pandemic.

Of course, because the fundamental problem is how to give priority to the things that are useful, all the things that have been gradually devalued in the course of capitalist history. The history of the last two centuries is the history of the devaluing of the concrete, of use value. And suddenly use value is back, breaking all the abstract financial machines and urging us to go back to speaking in very concrete terms. It is not just a problem of who will pay for the crisis. Obviously if you have a lot of money you will be able to bribe somebody to get priority access to a ventilator. But at the social level, the problem is what useful things we specifically need. This is extraordinarily new, because the financiers who made the decisions ten years ago, and who couldn’t care less about the needs of the population, are not the people who matter now. No. The important people now are scientists, technicians, those who know how to make masks, those who know how to grow the lettuce for the salad we are going to eat tomorrow. It is we, the producers, especially the scientific producers, who are at the centre of the process of reactivation of the useful, of concrete needs.

We’d been warned about this collapse by the climate emergency movement and more generally by the new global ethics which urges us to reconsider the sustainability of all life on the planet in a non-anthropocentric way. We are clearly in the midst of a crisis of humanism, but it is a highly ambivalent decline. On the one hand, it is true that modernity put “man” at the centre (a highly connotated man, of course: white, European, etc.), endowing him with a sense of omnipotence that turned out to be destructive. At the same time, it is equally true that the Enlightenment forged the political and ethical values whose destruction by neoliberalism has led to the breakdown of democratic systems. The legacy of European modernity needs to be re-examined in the light of colonialism and of anthropocentric violence on the planet as a whole. But in the global crisis of democracy, neoliberalism turns into authoritarian monsters. To fight them, it seems more urgent than ever to the reclaim human rights and values of solidarity that are also a historical legacy of modernity. These contradictions have been acute in Europe in recent decades, but they seem to have become a major problem now that our continent is the global epicentre of this first pandemic of the new millennium.

It seems that aggressive, Trump-style nationalists are somewhat sidelined in this crisis. I see it in Italy, where Salvini has become an almost ridiculous figure. He demanded that everybody be able to attend Solemn Mass at Easter, when Pope Francis had asked people to pray to God at home. Francis was magnificent, in an artistic performance in front of an empty St Peter’s Square, saying things that are ontologically very deep, such as for instance that this pandemic is not a divine punishment. God is not going to punish his children, it is a social sin, we are crazy if we think we can be healthy in a sick society! Francis is a genius, while the right wing seems diminished. Look at Boris Johnson. I hope he recovers from his illness very soon, but he is the symbol of the existential incompetence of the global right. Even so, I think that Trump will win the elections and that there will be a second Civil War in the United States. The United States is dead, believe me. But that’s a different story...

What you’re suggesting is that neoliberalism itself will take aggressive, totalitarian forms. It won’t necessarily need the fascist right, because if neoliberalism wants to reproduce its processes it will have to adopt totally repressive measures. This is why I argue that we have to, as peacefully as possible, create the conditions to try a totally new methodology. Europe is ideal for this. Europe has been hit harder than other places, and it is undergoing a motivational crisis of the right (I know that Orbán exists, but I honestly don’t think he matters much in this order of things). Spain in particular is a place where the “occupy the squares” movement has produced significant forms of organisational and subjective transformation, perhaps not enough to change the world, but enough to show that it is possible to create forms that will, in turn, change the world through everyday life. Not through parliament, that won’t be the central place. The central place will be assemblies, neighbourhood associations, doctors, and scientists who get together to ask, what do we need? This is what we need. And then if there is a factory that produces military aircraft, we’ll close it down because we need a factory that produces ventilators, food... The European military system must be shut down. This needs to be said: instead of buying an American F-35 military plane, Italy could have produced and distributed two thousand intensive care units. Two thousand! And we bought one F-35 instead of intensive care! One day soon, we’re going to have to say, OK, forget the past, scurdammoce 'o passato, simmo 'e Napule paisà, let’s forget about the past, we’re compatriots from Naples, as the Neapolitans say. What happened in the past is not important. The important thing is that we do not need military aircraft now. And then we channel not just the money but also the physical and material energies used to produce weapons into producing food, medicine, and books. It would be one way to start. I know I’m raving, but what I’m trying to say is that we have a real possibility now, because there is a clear choice: we produce military aircraft and die, or we don’t produce military aircraft and we live. Tutto qua.

That reminds me of another idea that you bring up in the “Chronicles of Psycho-Deflation”, which is that “capitalism is axiomatics”, that is, it is based on axioms that are self-justifying, without the need for further explanation. And we can now clearly see which of these axioms have turned out to be fallacies that damage the economy, practices that harm subjectivity, and even policies that are a crime against life on the planet. You list some of them: individualism, aggressiveness, competitiveness... And you make a contrasting list, not of axioms, but of... values? Would you use this humanist term, or something else? In any case, they are frugality, degrowth, solidarity, bodily contact... But above all, you argue that we must put the idea of “equality” centre stage. This is curious, because equality was one of the key ideals of modernity, it is right there in the middle of the republican motto. Where does your reflection take us? If we agree that humanism is undergoing a radical crisis, does that mean that we need to reinvent the meaning of equality in this age that Donna Haraway calls the Chthulucene? Indeed, in the second article you wrote about the pandemic, “Beyond the Breakdown”, you say that in philosophy it was Haraway who best anticipated the pandemic.

Two aspects interest me in your question. The first has to do with the meaning of equality. The United States Declaration of Independence talks about equality, as do other constitutions around the world. This kind of equality is political, or even purely formal. Now we have to look at equality differently, from a concrete rather than moral point of view: the point of view of frugality. It is a philosophically complex but very important point of view, which has to do with happiness, with pleasure. Pleasure doesn't mean having many things. Pleasure means enjoying time, it means being in harmony with others, with nature. It may seem banal, but we have been discovering it intensely in recent days. So, essentially, equality means the equal distribution of the things we can produce, and by collaborating we can produce enormous amounts, enough to meet the needs of everyone on the planet and much more. The problem of scarcity belongs to the pre-modern past. Modernity created the conditions for sufficient availability of resources thanks to the power of science and technology. So we are not talking about a merely ideological or political idea of equality, but one which is based on access to the things people need.

The second aspect of your question that interests me, and that may make these ideas about equality even more concrete, has to do with the criterion that gave rise to the history of the capitalist economy: the criterion of profit and the accumulation of surplus value, of abstract value. Well then. There is a recent example I found quite shocking, I read it in an article by Farhad Manjoo, a guy who writes about technology for the New York Times. One of his recent pieces was about a subject that is discussed a lot these days, the face masks that are impossible to find. What’s going on in the world’s greatest economic power, the United States of America? They have four million surgical face masks and they are going to need three billion over the next months. Which means they have 1% of what they need. And they can’t produce masks because it takes time to build a factory to make them... And why is this so? Why this madness? The explanation is simple, and the New York Times acknowledges it: the criterion on which economic decisions are based is maximum profit. Manufacturing face masks is not very profitable, and they can do it in China, where labour is cheap, right? As a result, 80% of the world’s face masks are made in China. Unfortunately, China suddenly needed to use them. So what happened next? Well, everyone is trying to find these essential items that are not manufactured in the United States because of the overriding focus on making a profit. We must forget that old idea of profit, economic competitiveness, and the accumulation of surplus value, and start to value the things we really need. We have to make a list. What do we need most? In the first place food, then second, third, fourth, fifth, up to a hundred... A very beautiful pink shirt and a supersonic plane will also be on the list of necessities, but they will be in the thousandth place. We must make these decisions urgently, based on the problem of criteria, because there is a criterion for choice: first, the things that are concretely useful to most of the population. This makes it much easier to understand the concept of equality: there is a list of things that everybody needs. Then, if you like the pink shirt or black pants, you add them to the list, but near the end.

I’d like to ask you one last question. There is an image from your book The Uprising (2012) that I always carry in my mind. You use it to condense everything to do with the subjective level of the uprising in the revolutions of 1968. You describe a performance in Italy by the Living Theatre, which involved starting up rhythmic breathing by everybody in the theatre, and ended up turning into a mantra. This very beautiful image suggests principles of relational harmony through the rhythmic coordination of bodies. It shows the link between “conspiring” and “respiration”, both based on the Latin spirare, to breathe. Conspiring for the uprising means inspiring each other and also breathing rhythmically together.

Over the last few weeks, there has been a proliferation of interpretations based on the idea that this mass isolation required by the quarantine could be an exercise in new forms of techno-authoritarian control, which would hypothetically be used to manage the foreseeable economic collapse that comes with the health crisis. In “Beyond the Breakdown” you accept that this is a possibility. But you point out a different one: that the bodies in quarantine will internalise the psychological identification between the illness and being forced to reproduce connections remotely due to confinement. In other words, perhaps the imposed distance will not become normalised, and instead we will psychologically connect this “social distancing” with the idea of being sick. If so, then perhaps after the mass quarantine, subjectivities will refuse to accept this situation of exceptionality as normal, and a new collective desire for the conjunction of bodies, for physical relationality, may emerge. In this sense, we could say that during the quarantine, as a result of what you call the terror (which is not the same as fear) caused by the pandemic, the same struggle between authoritarianism and the reinvention of democracy that has very clearly been taking place at least since the 2008 financial crisis may also be taking place in our own bodies, on the psychological level and in subjectivities.

The first thing we should note is the fact that during these days of being forced to talk through screens, remote connection has become omnipresent. Perhaps this will continue after the pandemic. Or perhaps the response will be a highly likely, totally understandable psychological phenomenon: we may identify screens with a grim period of isolation. In this case there might be a return to coming together, to conjunctive relationships, which doesn’t mean forgetting about remote connection, but treating it as something merely instrumental. Secondly, I thank you for what you said, which we didn’t prepare in advance [laughter], your considerations on breathing. The title of my latest book, which has not been published in Spanish yet, is Respirare, and it explores the question of breathing. We are in the midst of a global crisis of breathing: our lungs and air pollution are today’s problem. But at the same time, we are discovering a kind of relationship between humans that takes precedence over economic and instrumental relationships. It is the relationship of the harmony of breathing, of sharing a rhythm, an erotic rhythm, of intelligence, of poetry, of walking through the city, of night and day. The rhythm of breathing. I am waiting for the emergence of an idea of equality based on the planetary harmony of breathing.

This conversation is part of The pandemic in germinal. Conversations on a world in quarantine, a series produced by El Aleph. Festival de Arte y Ciencia of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) with the collaboration of Galería Àngels Barcelona, La Maleta de Portbou (Revista de Humanidades y Economía), Revista CTXT (Contexto) and Nodal (Noticias de América Latina y el Caribe), and L'Internationale.

English translation by Nuria Rodríguez. Original version in Spanish. Podcast of the interview.