Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide is a book by Franco Berardi, and is the stimulus for this discussion about the state of our current social climate. I take interest because of the parallels between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the increasing abandonment of life today. Of course, artists have a track record of feeling these social anxieties acutely. They offered us the development of abstraction in the 30s, what will we see this time round?
“Irony and dystopia have to be a starting point for a new reflection, a new political and existential imagination.”
Irony is not about superiority and joking about the awful treatment of people. Essentially it is an awareness that our knowledge is limited and ambiguous and that these gaps can prevent things from making sense to us. The effect is a fragmented conception of reality where the sensation of alienation is inevitable. We will, at times, fail to understand ourselves in relation to all things, and irony is a way of accepting and communicating that.
Suicide, then, is not the only way out. In recognising that the nature of epistemology is fragmented - that there will always be something more to understand - Franco suggests we take ourselves and our politics less seriously. This is not meant in an irresponsible way, but as a means to create a more positive environment for finding a resolution to the current crisis of apathy and detachment. Using irony and humour, he argues, can empower people to engage with society without the pressure to be seen as the best. It offers a means to undermine the competitiveness of our capitalist society because it acknowledges the limitations of what we can know about what we will achieve. Rather than discuss the future, he coins the term ‘futureability’: what is our potential?
‘Possibility' is another key word in his manifesto, and possibility is the result of an empowered imagination. The pursuit of possibility, he believes, can result in liberation, as reflected in the rapid development of technology. Technological possibility has reduced our responsibilities and freed up our time. Perhaps an ideological vision, but, according to Franco, technology has the potential to liberate us from 'the real slavery of salaried work'. It can open up more opportunity for cognitive creativity, he says, but with such liberation comes the threat of bare life and the absolute abandonment of society; anarchistic chaos. The mission is to find a means by which the concepts of liberation and society can happily coexist. But at the moment it seems we have neither.
The current political climate fails to inspire the imagination to think in terms of possibility, and hence we are suffocated by an almost global social depression. Enthusiasm is hugely endangered. ‘We have lost the psychological ability to think about our lives in terms of freedom,’ Franco says, implying that we need to look in completely new, radical directions to find a means of resolving our situation.
‘We are frightened by the idea of being really free. Not politically. Forget about the shit of political freedom! Freedom is not a political thing. It’s something much more serious than politics. Freedom is being with yourself, your body, your time. We have lost the ability to live together with our time. That’s the problem.’
Franco speaks with conviction that the core of the problem of our so-called society is that people have lost interest in truly understanding what they are. The empowerment of the imagination therefore remains integral to social development. This is a type of philosophical nihilism brought alive in writings by Nietzsche, but the lived reality of nihilism today manifests in everything being reduced to it’s monetary value and the privatisation of most social goods. ‘Life is more interesting than work and profit’, he says. How nauseating it is that we’ve forgotten that.
But can we really take such a metaphysical approach in restoring the notion of society, and coming to terms with our individual alienation? We cannot separate ourselves from capitalism without dying a social or literal death; we have to work in order to live, and as such, our motivation to imagine possibilities is compromised. Although technology has this potential for opening up creative time and space, it can also be totalitarian and alienating in a frightening way.
Without individualism there is no imagination. Without imagination there are no possibilities for change. Without possibilities there is no motivation or empowerment. Without empowerment there is no solidarity. And without solidarity, there will not be a functional, democratic society inspired to maintain the progression of humankind.
‘Our political task is to create a happy environment’, Franco says, and then comes the development of our understanding. Cognitive empathy, the intellectual belief in ourselves and other people, I am convinced is our objective.