Franco 'Bifo' Berardi: The Theorist of 21st Century Unhappiness
19 min read

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi: The Theorist of 21st Century Unhappiness

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi: The Theorist of 21st Century Unhappiness


It’s rare to hear unhappiness talked of much anymore. In personal relations admitting to most people to being unhappy at best produces an awkward silence in conversation and at worst is a source of personal shame and social judgement. Whilst politically unhappiness is a redundant currency, it no longer matters that changes to welfare, unemployment policies or immigration policies might induce a great deal of hardship, suffering depression or even suicide. Those who are sad are increasingly represented as being insistent upon dwelling on their hardship and point blank refusing to open their eyes to the world of potential and opportunity around them. They are at odds with a prevailing ideology of both personal and social relations which advocates that individuals be “go getters” and will their way to success, wealth and happiness. Because, of course, they are only ever around the corner.

Bifo Berardi's work and particularly his new work the charmingly titled Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide enacts is a sort of great revolt against the ideology of happiness and pleasure which has crossed the political divide and is evidenced both in contemporary communicative capitalism and Left-wing activism, with their emphasis on productivity, communication, affirmation, positivity and enjoyment.

These changes can be traced back to a multitude of sources, from the revolution in values after 1968, to the collapse of Fordism, the rise of finance capitalism and the increased importance of technology within social and economic life.  Yet politically these changes were perhaps most significantly asserted in Michel Foucault's introduction to Deleuze & Guattari's "Anti-Oedipus". Anti-Oedipus, was not a new grand theory he argued, but more modest than this an art which tied politics not to science but to the art of the possible or as Foucault put made politics "less concerned with why this or that than with how to proceed".  Anti-Oedipus therefore took aim at those practitioners of politics who sought to place political action within a totalising and scientific ideology who ranged from the "sad militant" to those "Bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of Truth" and took aim at both the Liberal political order and the mass communist parties of the 20th century. Foucault went on to draw out of the conclusions of Anti-Oedipus a new manual for political action. Yet perhaps the most notorious maxim to emerge from this the the following:

Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force."

With this declaration Foucault rallied against a very particular form of political practice which bound up in the seriousness of its own aim and the absolute necessity of its cause called political subjects towards self-sacrifice, denial and absolute commitment and associated pleasure with frivolity, waste and self-indulgence. This attitude was certainly fundamental to the experience of 20th century Communism beginning with the experience of Leninism and soon spreading to the emerging national Communist Parties. Take this quote from Eric Hobsbawm concerning the British Communist Party:

The Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do....Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed....If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so."

Foucault as a short-lived member of the French Communist Party had experience of this, and left on the basis of some combination of the anti-Semitism he observed, the sexual ethics or homophobia he was subjected to and what he viewed as the sterile discipline and hierarchy of the party machine. Foucault could besaid to be well aware of how the disciplinary and sacrificial attitudes of grand causes could coalesce in the production of authoritarian political subjects. The aim of returning desire and happiness to militancy can therefore be said to be aimed at freeing individuals from the need to deny themselves or surrender their individuality to a greater cause, which coincided with the production of a sort of creepy authoritarianism (obsessed with private life and ones secret thoughts).

Gone today are the mass political parties and their cadres, today political action occurs almost completely under the slogan of “activism”, with, as it hints, the focus on the active and productive. Fundamental to the notion of activism is the idea that today power and authority will not be brought down through struggle and the production of a new constituted order, but through a constant activity capable of deposing every attempt of a constituted power to rule. The focus then becomes on the ability of activists to produce and create, and to affirm all that is positive, happy and enjoyable against all that deprives us of this. As comment on the Occupy movement has often shown, the ability of protestors to be creative and happy in their protest has assumed the place of a cardinal principle. One is no longer here faced with the blackmail of self-sacrifice but perhaps its opposite, the blackmail of enjoyment. If power is that which is always represented as repressive and requiring self-denial then the struggle against it must necessarily be enjoyable and positive. One could perhaps first say that this produces a thoroughly sterilised view of happiness, aren’t all happinesses in the end at the expense of someone or something? And secondly what of those who cannot participate in this carnival of happiness those who experience suffering, depression, pain and loss?

Franco Berardi's book is fundamental therefore in taking as its starting point matters of mass murder, suicide, terrorism, fundamentalism and depression in order to analyse contemporary capitalist from its bleaker and more extreme points. His aim here is of course not to return to politics the figure of the sad militant, receptive only to the suffering in a world which can only be saved through his sacrifice but to make politics face up to the very fact of suffering and anguish, and make itself fit to deal with them.

Panic, Paranoia, Depression

We reserve the term Orwellian for that range of emotions and psychological processes proper to the age of mass societies and Totalitarian state structures. Yet with the collapse of this form of historical experience it is increasingly evident that societies today experience a new range of emotions and forms of psychological processes that propose fundamentally different problems. Berardi's work is an attempt to take seriously this shift, and make the analysis of the emotional and psychological topography of contemporary capitalism as important as any other.

This new experience is built around perhaps 3 fundamental axes, firstly the maintainence of a fundamental goal or aim towards which everything is directed, secondly precarity as the experience of an absence of a fixed place in the world or solid limits and thirdly deterritorialization as the preference for that which is ephemeral and liquid over that which is permanent and solid.

This fundamental aim or goal of contemporary existence is of course success. Everyone is now included in a race to the top which is increasingly taken to be the only legitimate form of existence, the idea that people used to have of absolving themselves from such a race, being a deadbeat, a failed writer or drunk, no longer has currency unless it to can be monetized and commercialised as a form of entrepreneurialism. As Berardi notes however this overarching goal has a fundamental flaw, only a few can ever make it, the race to the top can only ever be won by some otherwise it wouldn't be a race at all. The more generalised feeling felt by most is therefore failure. This is perhaps evidenced more than anything by the increased reliance upon testing and formal qualifications, children are tested more and more and told at each hurdle that failure to succeed will be the end of everything, they won’t get into the right schools, get the required GCSE’s, won’t be viewed by employers as employable. At each stage a new batch of failures are cast off until even most graduates come to find their educational achievements insuffient and useful for nothing. And what it ends up is a great weight of personal responsibility placed upon individuals to assume a failure as being their own which is statistically just the result of a bottle neck effect. Only a few can ever “win” according to the rule of the game, most are only ever destined to play minor roles. As Berardi notes this is of course unhealthy, to have the majority of populations busy reproaching themselves and feeling lacking and inferior might make for a competitive job market, but doesn’t perhaps produce the kind of well-rounded individuals capable of producing a satisfied society. What is occurring is rather a build-up of resentment in the system.

Fundamental to this experience is the problem of precarity. If individuals used to have other sources of measure from which to evaluate their existence, be they family ties, political ideologies, or social groupings, the dissolution (or rather mutation) or traditional groupings has ensured that today one form of measurement is completely dominant, that of the market and it is this today that people appeal for a sense of belonging, self-worth and achievement. Yet what this means is that individuals are simultaneously exposed to the infinity of possibilities within the global marketplace but at the same time are robbed of a shelter or base from which to begin their approach out into the market or weather the storms it throws at them from time to time.  Increasingly there is nothing to fall back on. As Mrs Thatcher quite rightly knew, there is no alternative.

Berardi’s book notes that the phenomenon of panic attacks is a relatively new and undiagnosed phenomenon. Returning to the etymological root of panic the Greek word “Pan”, he notes that pan originally defines “everything existing”. Panic, Berardi argues, is related to the experience of “everything existing”. If previously the limitations and shelters possessed by individuals were capable of producing a sort of membrane which could filter contact with the outside world, or perhaps blinkers capable of concentrating ones vision individuals increasingly have to do without such filters. The emphasis then becomes on the now, if in the past our understanding of time was able to differentiate between past, present and future, increasingly we are less capable of  living with time. Take investment, if within the Fordist economy investment had its end in the anticipation of future productive rewards which implied losses in the present for future rewards within contemporary finance capital the anticipation of profits is no longer sufficient, profitability has to be realised immediately in the form of shareholder value, even if through asset stripping or an attack on labour. Yet this is part of a more general trend, if success becomes the supreme and only real value, notions of success become devalued and underdeveloped. Success is no longer something that can be charted over 20-30 years but is a constant demand that one has to actualise each day in every way possible. Success no longer becomes an end goal but rather a way of life or attitude. Yet the antithesis of the constant drive for success is the overwhelming exposure to a whole world of opportunities, all of which possess comparative levels of risk and success and all of which need to be seized. Faced however with limited time, the need to constantly choose and distinguish opportunities becomes increasingly intense. The same has occurred at the level of information, through the internet we have created the possibility of a constant and nearly infinite information flow and the constant availability to connect to work and others. And yet far from empowering this is equally capable of overwhelming individuals who are confronted with the constant ability to be engaged or productive, but simultaneously need to rest, disconnect or be reflective.

You can do a few things in the face of this, you can accept the challenge, and permanently plug yourself into the network, living off little sleep, Red Bull and caffeine pills, you can fail to live up to this ideal and feel the guilty for indulging in rest and reflection, or you can panic. You can freeze in the face of so much pressure and become unable to do anything. Here hyper-mobility is resolved into a complete immobility.

Equally at the level of knowledge the problem of precarity is reflected in a contemporary growth of paranoia. Paranoia is at first perhaps in the face of a continuous demand to succeed a form of over thinking, a knowledge that everything is connected to everything else and thus a knowledge that every action is capable of producing unknowable ripple effects, and that at the root of everything around us is an irreducibly complex series of causes. It hinges therefore on our inability to reduce the event around us to a comprehensible narrative. One is never able to be intellectually satisfied, one is continuously worried that things might be other than they seem, that other things might be behind events. Paranoia is in someways the opposite of panic, for if panic immobilizes, paranoia intensifies and pushes one into overaction. It becomes then all too possible for such a paranoiac mindset to resolve itself into a fear of others or an overaggressive rejection of others.

This as Berardi notes is at the root at a contemporary inversion of the "survival of the fittest" evidenced in most movements of the political Right. We the paranoiacs cry out are the fittest, but the weakest continually attempt to usurp our power not through strength but by subversion, our fitness and strength is therefore what requires protecting through positive discrimination, or the security of closed borders, gated communities and serviced apartment blocks. The constant threat of vulnerabilility leads even those convinced of their own superioirty and success to a constant overaction to protect thesmelves by whatever means such that the survival of the fittest becomes no longer oriented towards success but defensive measures.

What this all comes down to in the last instance is a feeling of weakness. In the end many people come to experience themselves as powerless in the face of this onslaught and yet worse than this they perceive their powerlessness as the fault of others. They know how bad things are and how unsustainable the pressures upon them are, and yet they also know that others know this as well. And yet others in spite of this knowledge continue to participate in the rules of the game and choose not to resist which has the effect of forcing us to play along with this game as well. As such we become alienated and angry at those around us for their failure to act. What we of course forget is that we are perceived by others as those conformists who reproduce the pressure to conform. What this amounts to in the end is a tremendous misunderstanding or a failure to communicate. If previously solidarity and community ensured that individuals possessed a certain inter-subjectivity, the increased individualization of society makes us poorer at understanding the motives and thought process of others, and thus poorer in trying to recognise in others that which is in ourselves.

Why don't we then resist? One of Berardi's fundamental arguments is that resistance is today abundant but more often than not expressed in pathological forms. Within Industrial capitalism the division between work and life ensured that individuals were able to seek meaning outside of the sphere of work and thus resist to the tendency of work to colonise life, by limiting and regulating the sphere of work. Today however work and life are increasingly confused categories and work as service work allows no such rigid divisions between the two, if work increasingly involves developing ones social, communicative and emotional skills, alongside relying upon ones existential choices it therefore coincides with the self such that ones choice of work coincides with ones choice of personality, and ones failings at work constitute a personal failing or defect. More than this as Berardi argues that we increasingly view work as possessing the power to provide meaning and purpose in our lives but this is only possible on the basis of the impoverishment of our ability to find both individual and collective worth in and of themselves, and not as matters of utility. Thus as Berardi expresses it:

We invest or psychic energies and our expectations into work because our intellectual and affective life are so poor because we are depressed, anxious and insecure.

On this basis it becomes increasingly hard to gain that external perspective on work that individuals gained within the age of Industrial capitalism because not only do we identify work we come to be emotionally invested in it and require it to cover the absence that is experienced in other areas of life. And in the same way it becomes increasingly hard for resistance to locate and isolate that object that it opposes because if work used to be the arena of necessity, discipline and need it is today capable of being for us the space of friendship, creativity and happiness. In the same way therefore resistance to work comes to express this confusion of categories whereby individuals who wish to resist the precarity, isolation and vacuity of contemporary work, end up seeing the fault as residing in their own inability to conform.

One fact that Berardi highlights is startling, in the era of Industrial capitalism there was a very limited relationship between work and suicide, more than anything because work imposed less of individuals sense of self, and individuals were able to develop perspectives outside of the sphere of work. Today work-place suicides are on the rise, from Foxconn in China to French Telecom, from high-flying bankers (quite literally..) to the unemployed. Whilst depression has become a normalized cultural problem. The problem is increasingly perceived as being with us, as opposed to in the world out there.

An Ethics of Irony

Why write a book on pessimism?  The writer Christopher Hitchens once said of Ayn Rand's books "I dont think theres any need to have essays advocating selfishness amongst human beings... Somethings require no further reinforcement". Similarly today we perhaps don't require new books to tell us that things are bad, our outlook bleak. We are able to be pessimistic enough without it codified in book form.

Yet Berardi does this because he really has another end in mind, the development of a thinking of ethics that escapes from the two major tendencies in political thinking in modern times, either an ethics pegged to the production of happiness or an ethics tied to the production of truth. The first of these is most fundamentally represented by George Orwell who in his essays and novels catalogued the myths, lies and double-think fundamental to operations of power and advocated for the clear declarations of truths unhindered by obsfuscatory language. This is clear in a quote often attributed to Orwell but for which no source can be found, and therefore is likely to represent more the general reception of his work, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act". The second is more often that not attributed to writers associated with the post-Structuralist tradition such as Michel Foucault (as a thinker of hedonistic pleasure) and Jacques Lacan ("do not compromise on your desire") but is in reality more in keeping with a political Spinozism in which that which increases my power to act is the Good and that which increases my power to act is pleasurable to me.

What Berardi advocates is an ethics based upon irony which challenges the limitations we experience when trying to undertake action from the perspective of Truth or Happiness.

Today I think clear and truthful statements couldn't be in a weaker position. Contemporary news media and the ability to manipulate 24 hour news cycles can ensure that any truth pronounced can be managed and neutralised through any number of methods yet at the same time the truth is more than ever under attack not just from obfuscation but also a complete absurdity. As Peter Pomerantsev argues in relation to Putin's control of Russian politics, the aim is no longer to produce a single and totalising narrative and to suppress all others, but rather to allownarratives to proliferate whilst ensuring their co-option by a ruling order that is capable of saying and being anything, on the basis of its complete detachment from any particular form or ideological government because all it stands for in the end is bare power. The absurdity here emerges when a government with openly authoritarian actions talks the language of rights and the rule of law, and encourages opposition only to co-opt it for its own ends, creates grass roots campaigns and launches anti-corruption campaigns  for its own elite ends, and in which base vulgarity can sit side by side with formal authority.

This isn't however serious, the reversals that take place here aren't real but an open joke which are almost tongue-in-cheek in nature. What here becomes evident is that the truth value of the system becomes irrelevant. The subject addressed by the ideological posturings of the regime isn't required to truly believe that the Putin regime is a bastion of rights and modernity. Rather they are merely expected to percieve the arbitrary power of the regime to be anything that it wants to be which simultaneously attests to the magnificence of the regime, and closes the space for opposition in advance. This is perhaps no clearer than in how the regime comes to deal with those members who attempt a real opposition. As Pomerantsev argues:

The 2009 trial of non-conformist oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the 2013 trial of opposition leader Alexey Navalny were punctuated with absurdity. In both cases, the initial charges were nonsensical: Khodorokovsky was alleged to have stolen oil from himself, while Navalny was alleged to have taken part in corrupt business deals from which he extracted no profit. The testimony of defence witnesses was used as proof of guilt by the sentencing judge in both cases. But this absurdity appears to be deliberate. It proves to the public that the Kremlin can re-imagine reality at will, can say ‘black is white’ and ‘white is black’ with no one able to contradict.

Against the abitrary power of a government that can both do anything and be anything (take any form, shape or ideological position) the truth appears to be blunted beyond repair.

Yet if this is true of Putin's Russia as Berardi argues this is equally true of what he calls "absolute capitalism".  Absolute capitalism is the contemporary form of global capitalism which, liberated from all limits and values, becomes able to be and do anything and can therefore rein down upon human populations anything from the destruction of social-welfare (Greece) to the destruction of the environment at its own whim. As such from the perspective of absolute capitalism everything is possible, and yet from the position of opposition to global capitalism absolutely nothing appears possible.

What is the place of irony here? Primarily perhaps, it could be said, to respond to the suffocation truth experiences in the face of forms of power which purport to be absolute. If within such systems truth is no longer able to make any impact upon its target, but is always displaced and always-already co-opted by those in power then what space exists to step outside such systems and challenge their absolute and arbitrary power? For Berardi it is through irony it is possible to open up this space, for irony is the simultaneous non-engagement with that which is and the process of imagining that which is as being other. Irony has traditionally been placed on the side of cynicism and apolitical disengagement, as a refusal to take seriously political matters. Yet for Berardi precisely this necessity to take such matters seriously ensures that one remains in a struggle with a power that is elusive and cannot therefore be defeated. Irony is the process through which one is firstly able to gain a distance from that which currently 'is' whilst at the same time opening up a space in which one is confronted by the reality of the present, and the possibility of it being other.

A good example of this would be that given by Slavoj Zizek concerning Yugoslav elections.

in early 1980s, a half-dissident student weekly newspaper in ex-Yugoslavia wanted to protest the fake "free" elections; aware of the limitations of the the slogan "speak truth to power" ("The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and that the people already know the truth as they make clear in their jokes."), instead of directly denouncing the elections as un-free, they decided to treat them as if they are really free, as if their result really was undecided, so, on the elections eve, they printed an extra-edition of the journal with large headline: "Latest election results: it looks that Communists will remain in power!" This simple intervention broke the unwritten "habit" (we "all know" that elections are not free, we just do not talk publicly about it...): by way of treating elections as free, it reminded the people publicly of their non-freedom.

Elections here worked on a tried and tested model, the government and party rigged them and then the opposition denounced them for this, were brought into the offices of the party officials to be shouted at which both sides probably enjoyed (party officials were able to exercise their authority, and dissidents were able to feel validated, "we must be doing something important to get the attention of party officials!"). What this missed was that of course on a formal level everyone knew that elections were rigged they just had a certain interest in remaining silent about the matter, what such an act did was to create a space in which it was no longer possible to remain resigned or disconnected but in which one was confronted with a certain reality and forced to think.

Paolo Virno is also aware of this when he argues that the joke is the ultimate form of linguistic innovation insofar as it simultaneously signifies the disconnect between the world of linguistic rules and social reality and the infinite potentiality for creation that this harnesses. The joke is that disconnection which opens up a space for an innovation in reflection.

For Berardi’s part this comes down to the maxim that the only way to take the present crisis seriously is to not take it seriously, to gain that ironic disengagement from the crisis in order to be liberated from it and start to think the world anew. On this basis he is able to rewrite Foucault’s earlier maxim concerning militancy. For if Foucault decried the sad militant and advocated the linking of desire to revolutionary militancy Berardi can offer no such simply connection between happiness and politics. He rewrites Foucault’s thesis with the following:

Remember despair and joy are not incompatible. Despair is a consequence of understanding. Joy is a condition of the emotional mind. Despair is to acknowledge the truth of the present situation but the sceptical mind knows that the only truth is the shared imagination and shared projection . So do not be frightened by despair. It does not delimit the potential for joy. And joy is a condition for proving intellectual despair wrong.”

Here the relationship between happiness and politics becomes resolved into a  permanent dualism. Gone is the injunction to enjoy or be happy and in its place lies a division between the plane of knowledge in which we know very well how bad things are, and the plane of the emotional mind in which inspite of this, joy and collective happiness remain possible. As Berardi well knows, happiness isn’t that which it is possible to realise unconditionally in the present, no matter how much it is demanded of us, it will always be plagued by that nagging knowledge of crisis. This knowledge places the greatest pressures on individuals who, in the face of demands and expectations to be positive and productive turn in on themselves. Yet through developing an ironic distance from that which ‘is’ individuals can simultaneously face up to the conditions of despair and yet find outside of them the possibility of joy.

It is then neither truth nor happiness that are the source of political knowledge and means of political "activism" today. Irony is the terrain on which the political battles of the present take place, and political practice might do better to take up this fact.


When Foucault wrote an Introduction to Anti-Oedipus he talked of it as a book of ethics or as a way of life itself, as an "Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life". Berardi's book is in the same way not only a manual of ethics but also something more akin to a self-help book. For a long time the self-help manual was a mainstay of philosophical writing but today it is almost wholly devalued. Self-help books can stop you smoking, help you lose weight, make you successful and rich, and even proffer to make you happy but if such writing isn't complete quackery, its inability to recognise the way in which our emotions and expectations of ourselves are moulded by the world around us leaves such writings impotent to provide any such help. Berardi's book is a self-help manual to weather the onslaught of demands and pressures placed on individuals today to be more successful, more communicative, more available and more adaptable and most of all more happy.

It offers no simple solutions however. It only offers the ability to set one upright against ones enemy, to perceive the contemporary traps and blackmails we are all faced with, and to rid us of our tendency to reproach ourselves or become overwhelmed by sorrow. It offers us therefore a window out of the stifling insularity and provincialism of a global world order, but what we do with this, that is our own problem.