Psychosis: A severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.
It is unclear whether the metaphor of being in “touch with reality” is adequate to understand human life in general, or human social and political life more particularly. And if it is flawed, then to read contemporary politics as “psychotic”, in contrast to a presumably “rational” politics of bygone days, is itself problematic. Have we not always been at war, socially, or have not societies always been constituted by the temporary balance of contending forces and worlds? If so, then Bifo’s brief reading of our times, which we share below, may be of limited importance. But it is by no means without interest and invites further reflection.
Global civil war and the rotting of the white mind
Franco “Bifo” Berardi (Verso, 16/03/2018)
According to official figures, 1.3 million Americans have been killed in all the wars in the entirety of U.S. history. Yet since 1968 alone, 1.5 million Americans have been killed by firearms in non-military use–and the pace of this conflict is accelerating, alongside the intensifying rate of drug related manslaughter due to the opioid crisis.
Literally at war with themselves, Americans are in a state of undeclared civil war that doesn’t look set to end. And this is not simply only an American phenomenon: civil war is a global trend, spreading at various degrees of intensity in many countries of the world. However, the American case is particularly interesting as two phenomena are meeting there at particularly acute angles: the privatisation of war and weaponry, and psychotic epidemics.
October 1 2017 in Las Vegas, 58 people were killed while listening to music at a country music festival. The killer, a middle-aged man who had rented a room in the nearby Marriott hotel, stuffed his room with weaponry and began randomly firing into the crowd.
November 5th 2017 in Sutherland springs, Texas: 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 and injured 20 others at a Baptist Church. Following the incident, President Trump’s comments focused on the issue of mental health:
“I think that mental health is a problem here. Based on preliminary reports, this was a very deranged individual with a lot of problems over a very long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a guns situation … we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was, it would have been much worse.”
Trump’s argument here is mind-boggling: as lot of people are mentally disturbed in this country, says Trump, we need more weapons in order to kill them in case they try to kill us. Nevertheless there is some truth in these hypocritical words: by themselves, easy weapons do not explain the manslaughter. The malady here is deeper. It concerns social subjectivity itself.
Then, in February 2018, a young man in Parkland, Florida went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people, mostly students.
This last event has provoked a wave of protest from students and their parents. For the first time in the US a civil rebellion against NRA hubris exploded.
The students of Parkland have been very active after the shooting: marching on Washington and challenging politicians like Marco Rubio and NRA representatives. The debate that followed focused on the issue of gun ownership, and for the first time the NRA was widely blamed and obliged to step back on its arrogance.
This is all good and well, but the sudden outburst of awareness will not be enough to stop the expansion of civil war in the United States. The problem is that there are currently over 300 million guns in the US, and there’s a distinct correlation between gun ownership and racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and trumpism.
Let’s not forget that during his electoral campaign Donald Trump hinted that the only way to stop crooked Hilllary was to shoot her. “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump said, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the second amendment people; maybe there is.” This was not only an appalling obscenity: it was a call to the army of resentment and fear. The people of the Second Amendment are the bedrock of Trumpism, and they will not easily step back.
In A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates gives a dramatic account of the present condition of the United States through the prism of the daily life of two families. Although they live close to each other, culturally they live in two different and incompatible realities: the family of Luther Dunphy, an evangelical bigot who kills a doctor who works in an abortion clinic; and the family of Gus Vorhees, a liberal activist well known in the circles of Planned Parenthood, and the doctor killed by Luther.
What Oates describes is not an ideological or a political conflict that may eventually be resolved democratically. It is a clash of incompatible cultures that do not, and cannot, belong in the same political universe. Civil war is the name we give to this incompatibility. Civil war is not only the name of what is going on right now in the United States of America, but also, in changed forms, what is happening in the EU and the United Kingdom. Brexiteers and remainers are not two political parties that may eventually find a common ground of democratic government, they are two cultural armies that for the next generation will diverge more and more. Across the world, as political government is replaced by automatic governance, the very sphere of social intercourse is collapsing.
If what was formerly called “the West” (“the West” having collapse as a geopolitical entity in the post-Trump world) has already entered a period of civil war, the backdrop of this is a larger and more cataclysmic war: that being, the clash between the victims of colonialism (both past and present) and the white populations of Europe, America, and Russia. The background of the present internal decaying political order in the Northern hemisphere, and the return of racism on a massive scale, is the inability to deal with the end of modernity, and to confront the great migration, and the legacy of centuries of colonialism, exploitation and devastation. Civil war in the white countries is the other side of the same coin.
When mass shootings take place, shaking the foundations of daily life in North America, Donald Trump seeks to play down the causes: the issue for him is the mental health of a few troubled individuals. Even if his intention in doing so is to protect the interests of the NRA, he isn’t wrong. The mental health crisis is spreading, and this is coupled with the huge consumption of opioids and other drugs. It is here that has to be found the deep roots of the on going civil war. We are not dealing with some rare occurrences of mental breakdown. Mental distress, mental suffering and mental breakdown are a massive phenomenon in the United States: as artificial intelligence promises to extend our memory into infinity, we see an epidemic in cases of dementia.
Nervous breakdown, outbursts of panic, and widespread depression are the different shapes that the wave of dementia takes. That takes form in the American psyche as the aging, white mind becomes increasingly obsessed with the myth of potency and the humiliating experience of impotence.
As the techno-financial automaton takes control of the Infosphere, as rational language is absorbed by digital exactness, the sphere of inexactness (the sphere of human language) is swallowed by a psychotic whirlwind.
The American liberals, like the centre-left politicians of the European continent seem to think that global trumpism is a provisional disturbance, and democracy will sooner or later be restored and historical reason will regain its course.
They are deluding themselves. Global trumpism is not going to give way to a restoration of the modern reason. The global spread of dementia that has emerged in the years 2016 and 2017 is the new psychosphere of the planet.
Politics can do nothing to deal with the psychotic shift in the social sphere: the political tools for rational government are out of order, and for good.
As reason has been captured by financial algorithms, this evolution has taken a path that seems incompatible with rationality.
We must think of the future from the point of view of systemic psychosis, and this mean the abandonment of political action and of political theory.
Trump, Humiliation, Populism: Franco “Bifo” Berardi in conversation with Verso