Bifo: “…like aliens on an unknown planet”

An interview with Franco “Bifo” Berardi by Serena Tarabini originally published in Il Manifesto on December 9, 2023

In September, a hundred people met on the island of Vis, Croatia, to present the project of the Island School of Social Autonomy (ISSA), a school that would seek to answer the question of how to survive in the times of a planetary crisis that is leading humanity towards catastrophe.

Between philosophical theories and sustainable practices, the school will be pursuing knowledge that is useful for living better in the present when there is no glimpse of a better future. Does it amount to an army of nihilists?

Writer and philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi is one of the founders of the project. The core idea is to defect: from weapons, war, exploitation, “hysterical heroism,” profit, consumption, progress. Defection from the limits and impositions of the global system of government is the thread that runs through his most recent writings.

Is the school meant to be a place of defection? What is the purpose of minding one’s own business and valuing other dimensions of existence – is it to throw a spanner in the works of the mechanism?

The project aims to start up research centers for knowledge that we currently lack. Knowledge that relates to our survival as individuals and as a community in environmental conditions changed to the point that we’re moving “like aliens on an unknown planet” (to quote Sabu Kosho from Japan, who wrote Radiation and Revolution, a book on the aftermath of the Fukushima event).

The political responses we’ve inherited from the 20th century are all flimsy. Political action, whether the (threadbare) one that calls itself left-wing or the (burgeoning) one that calls itself right-wing, are reduced to ineffective rituals: rabid proclamations, or attempts to prevent panic with old recipes whose validity has long since expired.

Perhaps we should start with the admission of a failure of political reason, and, without waiting any longer for anything to come from the decisions of politics, we should begin to ask: how will we live if the edifice of social civilization disintegrates, as seems to be happening? This is the question that the Island of Vis school is intended to answer; which, however, does not exist at this point. It is only a project.

We met up on Vis and we discussed these issues with about a hundred people, mostly from former Yugoslavia. We first visited the places of resistance and liberation of the island from the Nazi-Fascists. Then we reasoned about how we’re going to live now that the “Black Death,” defeated in 1945, is making a comeback everywhere.

As early as 1972, the Club of Rome report entitled “The Limits of Development” signaled that the dominant humanity had crossed a threshold. Since then, it has been a succession of endless alarms. What is the point of understanding reality if there is no will to change it?

Sometimes the will is not enough. In fact, if I may be honest, I think will is a cognitive faculty greatly overrated by moderns. The pride of the will, the romantic and futurist machismo heroism has led us to believe that politics can do everything, while actually it can do little, and now it can do almost nothing.

What frightens me about the reactionary wave is not the malice of particular wills, but the abysmal ignorance and the aggression that comes from powerlessness when the psychotic cult of power prevents you from coming to terms with reality. In the 20th century we have failed to accomplish the most important thing of all: to liberate technological knowledge from the dogma of economics. Cognitive work has failed to free itself from the dictatorship of profit and war. Here is where Oppenheimer is trapped, here is knowledge hostage to the military and financial system, here are electronic technologies functioning as an accelerant of exploitation.

It seems to me that this is first and foremost why the labor movement has lost. Alarms about the devastation of the environment are of little use when no one is willing to abandon the model based on unlimited growth, when the redistribution of wealth is culturally unacceptable. Now climate collapse is before everyone’s eyes (and being felt by everyone), but that changes nothing, because the profit of plastic producers is more important than the effect microplastics have on the body. And the defense of national borders is more important than the lives of those who were brought into the world without asking for it, and now serve as cannon fodder to be slaughtered in the name of liberal-fascism and the borders of the homeland.

The world debate is entirely focused on global warming, while all other environmental disasters caused by human beings are almost completely ignored, despite the fact that we’re getting sick and dying here and now. The only subject put forward to solve the crisis is the one who created it, namely capitalism with green seasoning. How far have environmentalists fallen into this trap?

The cycle of termination is beginning to emerge in all its complexity: capitalism has destroyed the environmental balance and initiated climatic and geological mutation. This mutation causes huge migrations, displacement of human masses predominantly from the South, which no longer have a livable territory, due to the growth of the North. The great migration is provoking a panic reaction that manifests itself as the epidemic of nationalist madness and war. War devastates territories and communities, reactivating the cycle of termination.

Green capitalism is a business destined to be short-lived, boosting the profits of the one percent of the white population who are preparing to emigrate to Mars with Elon Musk. And who would the environmentalists be? The German national-greens, Robert Habeck and Annelise Baerbock, these two distinguished gentlefolk who decided to reopen the coal mines in the name of the values of Western civilization, which would then be the values of Auschwitz and Hiroshima?

The only environmentalism that is intellectually up to the task is that of the kids who call themselves the Last Generation. Lastness is the condition in which we find ourselves, whatever politics does or does not do.

When we said “Socialisme ou barbarie” (Socialism or barbarism), we were not joking. Socialism lost, and I am not sure it could have made up for five centuries of colonialism and devastation anyway. In any case, there is no one left who wants to (much less would be able to) stop the termination of the human. There is an urgent need to recognize this, because only those who recognize that time is up will be able to reason about the possibility of collective survival for defecting autonomous communities.

In the context of defection, how do you see those who still take to the streets, whether for the environment, for jobs, for social inclusion? And who are mobilizing for the climate gripped by eco-anxiety?

Filling up the squares or occupying university faculties (as would be urgent to do) should not be understood as a mobilization of will to govern the ungovernable. The assembly meeting is for healing, it is for curing the mass psychosis that no psychiatrist is able to cure. In 1919 Sandor Ferenczi said that psychoanalysis could cure individual neurosis but not mass psychosis. I have always thought that collective mobilization does not serve to stop power, to overthrow or correct it, but it serves to consolidate solidarity and therefore autonomy.

Not even in 1968 did I think that we would win, that we would make a revolution and take power and teach old dogs new tricks. I never seriously thought that. I saw how it had turned out in the Soviet Union, and I thought, it’s better not to try it again, it would certainly end badly.

I’ve always thought – and I think more than ever today – that the demonstration, the occupation, the march are occasions to mobilize the energies of solidarity, of collective search. Today it is important to create opportunities for collective mobilization in order to experiment with frugal and solidarity-based forms of life, independent of the market, independent of the state. Organizing on a mass basis to defect from necro-capitalism: this is what many are beginning to do. Looking for lines of flight, niches of autonomous survival. Many are doing this: mass abandonment of work, desertion from war, desertion from the reproduction of humankind under inhuman conditions.

All the more so at this time, when the inhumanity of the human condition is particularly evident and frustration is a common condition more than ever?

I have come to the conclusion that we are facing the situation that will define our lives, the ethical and intellectual mark we will leave behind. Our grandchildren (if they even want to deal with us) will not be wondering what we did in 1968 or how we reacted in the face of the fascist attacks of the 1980s, or the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. Instead, they will ask: How did my grandmother act, what did my grandfather say and do, when they realized that in a place called Gaza a genocide was taking place not unlike that which from 1942 onward the Nazis perpetrated against Jews, Roma, homosexuals and communists, to name but one of the countless massacres that have dotted human history? I am aware that at the start of this current genocide was a pogrom, an act of atrocious violence. I have reflected and read a lot, and I feel a lot of pain and shame.