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This Theorist Believes That Capitalism Creates Mass Murderers by Causing People to 'Malfunction'

We spoke to academic Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, who believes mass killings like the Germanwings tragedy could be caused by the effects of capitalism on our collective mental health.

by Niamh McIntyre
16 April 2015, 9:30am

Photo by Henry Langston

In the days since the Germanwings tragedy, the media has scrutinised every aspect of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz' life. Medical records, past relationships and the testimonies of colleagues have all been analysed and re-analysed, used to construct a narrative in our quest to understand why and how a person could possibly kill 150 people.

For some, however, this obsessive combing through the details of Lubitz' life is misguided, because it places too much emphasis on the individual and ignores the broader structures within which mass murder is committed. Russell Brand recently blamed the tragedy not (as many have), on Lufthansa, the company which employed Lubitz, not solely on Lubitz himself, but on our culture of relentless overwork and social alienation which causes people to malfunction.

The way we talk about mental health is, more often than not, depoliticised. Recovery is the responsibility of the individual. The root of trauma is the family. There's rarely an attempt to situate the individual or the family within structural systems like capitalism or racism. All the facts we have about the Germanwings case, mainly from leaked documents, suggest that Lubitz was mentally ill, and that he hid this mental illness from his employers. Why? Because he would lose his job, his economic security, his means of survival.

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi is an Italian Marxist academic and theorist who has written extensively on the topic. In the introduction to his study of mass murder, Heroes, he says, "I saw the agony of capitalism and dismantling of social civilisation from a very peculiar point of view: crime and suicide". For Berardi, the mass murderer is not an aberration or a monster, but a character directly produced by a system which coerces us all to be constantly productive and competitive.

VICE: We have a commentator here in the UK called Russell Brand. He said that "[Lubitz] lived in a system that causes individuals to malfunction, because we have a lack of cohesion, a lack of connection and a lack of truth." Is this consistent with your theory of capitalism and mass murder?
Franco Berardi
: I'm sorry, I didn't understand... who is this person?

He's a comedian-cum-popular-left-wing-commentator.
I see. Well... we have to ask ourselves, "What is this lack of cohesion? What is its genealogy?" I don't pretend to have a universal answer. But what I will say is that suicide has increased particularly rapidly in the last 45 years – by 60 percent according to the World Health Organisation. It is epidemic.

For every person who succeeds in committing suicide there are 20 people who unsuccessfully try to kill themselves. And what else has happened in last 40 years? Neoliberal transformation and greater connectivity – this is my answer to your question about cohesion. We are seeing an all-time high in the need to compete economically, and a general low in sensibility and human relations.

Which is what Brand seems to be saying about a lack of social cohesion. But how does suicide, which as you say, is epidemic, become these frightening acts of mass murder?
Well, because those people hate everybody. The frequency of psychopathology is on the rise. You see, my book is also an attempt to find a possibility of understanding the spreading suicide of terror, the kind of acts that are currently being committed by the Islamic State, for example. This kind of phenomenon... I don't think we can possibly describe it only in terms of ideological or religious beliefs.

Of course these religious and political beliefs do exist and are important factors, but I believe that the deeper, more universal motivation of these acts is suffering. Because you just can't understand a young person coming from London and going to Syria to kill and be killed only on the basis of their religious beliefs. We have to try to understand their humiliation.... we have to try to understand what kind of hell is inside this person.

You say in your book, controversially, that the mass murderer is "less hypocritical than the average neoliberal politician". Do you think that mass murderers are performing neoliberal ideology?
Well, I will ask: What is the core of neoliberal ideology? Firstly, that you are alone, that you are an individual competing with everybody else. Secondly, that the real distinction among human beings is between winners and losers, right? There's no more stable class identity, no more stable political identity – the real divide is between neoliberalism's winners and losers. And if you are a young person who has grown up in this capitalist environment, and you understand that actually you can never be a winner, what will you do?

In some cases, you decide that you are going to be a winner for a second, for an hour, for a moment. Because you feel like a winner when you kill all the people around you and then kill yourself. And this is not just my theory; it's not me saying all these horrible things. It's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two young men who committed mass murder and killed themselves at Columbine High in 1999. They wrote in their diaries, which are available to read for anyone: "You gave me all this shit, telling me I am a loser, but I will be a winner for a minute." And so you see, it's not so much the neoliberal ideology [that motivates mass murderers]; it's much more the particular psychological effects of this neoliberal ideology.

Would you say, then, that the act of mass murder is sort of an ultimate assertion of individualism, whereby the individual makes their environment and everyone in it submit to their will?
There are two sides of this phenomenon. On one side, suffering and humiliation are pushing you to do the only thing that you see as possible. Killing yourself in order to cancel out the precariousness of your existence.

The second phase is the spectacularisation of the action. In many cases that I try to analyse in my book – particularly Seung-Hui Cho, the South Korean Virginia Tech killer, and Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who carried out the shooting at Jokela school – their spectacular consciousness is very clear. They take selfies before, during and after the event. They send videos and declarations to big broadcasting companies like CBS, they write their manifestoes on the internet.

They want to be a winner for a second, but at the same time they also want to be famous, they want to be known by everybody. So I think that the crucial point is the self-perception of the isolated individual who commits mass murder, and that this kind of isolation finds a way out in the spectacularisation of these kind of acts.

Franco Berardi (Photo via Wiki Commons)

Lubitz didn't make a video, he didn't write a manifesto. With a lack of this very meticulous composition, a lack of "spectacularisation" as you say, is it fair to see him as part of this phenomenon?
Apparently, according to some sources, Andreas Lubitz said some months ago to his fiancé words to the effect of "I will become world famous, I will produce a change in the world". So the megalomaniac tendency of the individual is clearly present in the mind of Andreas Lubitz. But what is more striking about his story for me, is that his depression is totally incompatible with the ideology of the low-cost airline which he worked for; this philosophy of the deregulated economy where everybody is demanded to give ceaselessly in order to survive.

After [the Germanwings incident] airline companies are now being called to double check the psychical conditions of the workers. Pilots should not be panic-prone or depressed. Everybody will be subjected to psychological screening in order to expel these people from the labour market. This would be a good idea – except that the majority of the population should be put on leave.

I'm curious: if mass murder is a symptom of neoliberalism, which all of us live under, then why are all of these lone killers men?
Yes, it's true. In the beginning of my book I say that I will be talking about young and old, white and black, Christians and Muslims – but only men. I don't think that a single woman has ever committed these kind of acts. Why so? The crucial point in the narrative is our culture of competition.

I know that many women are indeed very competitive, but I believe that competitiveness as a trait is essentially a male problem: first at the sexual level, and then also at an economic level. Feminism, as far as I can see, is essentially about abandoning and overcoming this imposed sense of competitiveness. This is why mass killers are men and only men.

Another key point of your book also talks about the way in which our virtual or digital existence suspends, in a way, the belief in reality...
Yes. People are more accustomed to communicate digitally, to live digitally, in a way that eludes the body and encases it in the cage of the screen. I confess that I see a relation between the spread of psychic frailty and the loneliness of a generation that meets people only through connected screens.

Does our virtual existence create a disassociation from our reality that creates a lack of empathy? Or are mass murderers caught up in the digital spectacle, mimicking video games and Hollywood films?
I speak of James Holmes [the "Joker" killer who opened fire on the crowd at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises] in this way. Holmes actually seems motivated by the intention of breaking the separation between the spectator and spectacle. And this kind of killing is part of the story, but once again, the main objective for me is not to draw a phenomenology of suicide and mass murder but to find some genealogy, some points of connection.

So it's very interesting to look at the case of a guy who goes to the movies and kills people while dressed like a Batman character, but it's also kind of a limited case. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are essentially moved to commit suicide simply because they cannot tolerate the humiliation of life under our present social and economic conditions.

@Niamh_McIntyre

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