Mass murder has become all too common in the United States. From Columbine, to Newtown, to San Bernardino the response has been both predictable and banal. There are almost ritualistic calls for additional controls on firearms. There are commentaries on the problem of mental health. And there are suggestions that the depiction of violence in movies, television programming and video games sparks imitation and stimulates the deeply buried dark impulses in the minds of some potentially dangerous people. To some degree these all have a core of truth. To some degree they all have the exaggerations of myth. Yes, we are a gun crazy culture in which the carrying of firearms serves as a substitute for an inability to think and talk our way out of conflict; the inability to defend oneself with our hands and minds; and the inability to contain compulsive masculinity. But, not all gun owners commit mass murder. Yes, starting with Reagan, neoliberalism has eviscerated our mental health care system, contributing to homelessness, social displacement, and some violence. But, not all mentally ill people commit mass murder. And, yes, we glorify violence in mass culture. From sickeningly violent, jingoistic, racist films like American Sniper to the millions of pretend warriors who savage victims with differing skin colors and different cultures, living in foreign lands (both real and pretend) while playing Call of Duty we worship violence as a solution to our problems and as a salve for compulsive masculine behavior. But, not all gamers and movie-goers commit mass murder. The problem is that while there is some logic to all of these responses none of them are able to come to terms with the subjective realities of these crimes. They are all insufficient and partial in their analyses.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi addresses these complexities in his book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. Berardi sees the Columbine mass shooting in 1999 as a pivotal event heralding in a new era of violence and despair. He contends that we should not see these events as isolated phenomena that can be “cured” by a little legislative first aid. Berardi sees these events as acts of desperation, social explosions resulting from the devastation wreaked by pathologies of late capitalism and the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Zygmunt Baumann has written extensively on this process of adiaphorization. According to Bauman, adiaphorization occurs in late capitalism when “systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality” (Bauman and Lyon, 2013: 8).
Berardi’s research centers on a series of case studies. He examines James Holmes’ shooting which killed 12 people and injured seventy more at the Aurora, Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. He also focuses his attention on the Hikikomori culture in Japan; worker suicides in China; and, the violence associated with Islamic fundamentalism.
His analysis of the Aurora shooting and other similar crimes points to the perpetrators as “heroes of an age of nihilism and spectacular stupidity: the age of financial capitalism.” We all recognize the environmental carnage, the gentrification of the inner cities, the pervasive and unending wars and the grinding economic deprivation of capitalism in late modernity. But, Berardi goes beyond a simple recitation of the evils of contemporary capitalism. He is more interested in the devastation of human life, the violence imparted on human consciousness and subjective understanding.
Each of Berardi’s case studies treats personal biographies as secondary to the rational conditions which govern the perpetrators lives. He sees the perpetrators not as victims of tragic events and circumstances but as the victims of what he calls absolute capitalism. Absolute capitalism refers to the pervasive extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of personal feelings and desires. It is the total egoistic, self-absorption which dominates life in late capitalism described by Jock Young (2007) in terms of ontological insecurity and essentialism. Absolute capitalism is also defined by the ubiquitous financial abstractions of the market; the production and exchange of immaterial signs; the randomization of digital values; and, the emergence of a new bourgeoisie no longer bounded by nations or even political ideologies.
Berardi sees Eric Harris, James Holmes, Dylan Klebold and Finnish mass murderer Pekka-Eric Auvinen as complete losers from their experiences in school to their failed attempts to succeed in the new economy of endless and brutal competition. The structured economy of late modernity has seized control of every aspect of life. None of us, any longer, has even a modicum of privacy in which we can hide from the pervasive, eviscerating demands of late capitalism. Berardi analyzes the confessions and manifestos of these mass murderers in excruciating detail. He points to their inability to address the world in any way except for a brutal Social Darwinist ideology. Predatory capitalism has imbued its victims with total isolation and instability. It leaves them desensitized and traumatized. Their horrifying acts are in many ways a form of suicidal acting out which they justified as retributions against enemies who were obstacles to their own pursuit of meaning and status in their miserable lives of desperation.
Berardi sees mass killers as captives of two contradictory impulses. First, there is the oppressive, demoralizing, alienating existence under absolute capitalism and the suicidal urge to escape that existence. But, there is also the ethos of capitalism in late modernity marked by intense competition and a pathological need to be the winner in this brutal, dehumanizing game. It matters little if we are talking about those who have ended their lives as a result of oppressive austerity measures in the European Union and the United States, or the Chinese workers who end their lives as a result of horrifying working conditions, or the mass murderer who seeks to create his own spectacle as he frees himself from social failure. In the winner and loser culture of the 21st Century absolute capitalism demands that the murderer or suicide who is “disconnected from conscious elaboration” and unable to understand his own desperation seeks meaning in a frantic explosion of the violence he has been assimilated to by society’s culture. Berardi sums this up by saying: “The mass murderer is someone who believes in the right of the fittest and the strongest to win in the social game, but he also knows or senses that he is not the fittest nor the strongest. So he opts for the only possible act of retaliation and self-assertion: to kill and be killed.” His violence against others and his release through death is an act of redemption.
The ontological insecurity resulting from globalization and the loss of territorial and national identity has a dangerous underside. While many, if not most people feel a loss of identity, increased isolation, and a sense of what Jock Young calls “vertigo,” others retreat to essentialism. Racism, nationalism, compulsive masculinity, religiosity and other forms of aggressive personal identification become more public and more pervasive. As economies and cultures become global and physical insecurity and displacement become common, identity emerges as a safe place in which to hide. Previously strongly held personal meanings are disrupted and eventually buried by globalized capitalism. Essentialism emerges as a reactionary and totally fanciful return to the “good old days.” So white supremacy and patriarchal terrorism reemerge with increased ferocity in the United States and new far-right political parties threaten political stability in Europe.
It is this ethnic and religious essentialism which Berardi sees as having a major role in the Arab-Israeli conflicts. The calcification of “identity” and the changing territorial realities of the Middle East is, in Berardi’s words the result of a “hypertrophic sense of the root,” and “the reclamation of belonging as criterion of truth and selection.” The violence of Islamic extremism is a result of a “regressive cult of origin.” The nationalism of Israel is similarly linked to an “imagined place of belonging “and a “false sense of memory.” So essentialism and identity become deadly traps and dangerous lies. The collective memory of a primeval source of origin stokes nationalist and religious war.
Differing from the self-loathing and doubt of the mass murderer and the collective sense of historical identity of the Arab-Israeli conflict is another form of desperation and rejection. According to Berardi, absolute capitalism creates a growing, and indeed pervasive, precariat class of workers worldwide. The precariat has no sense of place or permanence, no stable work, no clear social identity. Wage laborers today live in a constant state of anxiety over their economic futures, often being forced to change jobs and homes ten or more times in their lives. This precarious existence impinges on all aspects of life, even those fleeting private moments. In late modernity even pleasure is subject to digitized accounting on social media. Play time and relaxation have become increasingly rare. But even that scarce, precious time is interchangeable and easily replaced with the spontaneity of Twitter, Facebook and the rest. Not only is economic insecurity omnipresent but social insecurity is increased by the constant judgments and records created by social media. So there is no private time, no time to be safe from the social reaction of others. The habitual patterns of even moderate social media consumers, in Berardi’s view, show the same signs of irrational self-indulgence and preoccupation that often explodes in the violence of mass murderers. We become less a living thing and more an automaton in the ebbs and flows of the digital world. We are simultaneously “connected” and totally disconnected from any substantial meaning in our lives.
It is in this context that Berardi turns to an examination of hikikomori (used both as an adjective for a style or life and as a noun denoting a class of people). The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan defined hikikomori as individuals who choose not to participate in society as workers. They are primarily of middle class origin and usually university graduates. They often stay in their abodes having little or no social contact with others. The hikikomori have chosen an alternative to the precarious world of labor. They are isolated from the outside world. They live alone and structure their existence around a computer interface. They believe they exist in a life with no borders, one of unlimited opportunity in an environment of total digital freedom. But, to Berardi the hikikomori are actually committing a form of living suicide. Their lifestyle is not an act of oppositional dissent but simply total surrender.
Heroes is not a happy, fun-filled read. Some criminologists will dismiss Berardi’s work as just more ethnographic, narrative discourse without generalizability or concrete solutions. They will retreat to their datasets, their statistical analyses, and their comfortable government grants. In many ways they will become the hikikomori of academia. On the other hand, there is a point of departure that scholars might embrace. Criminologists might finally admit the empirically obvious: there is nothing the criminal justice system or the criminal law can do to control or reduce crime. Crime is a social fact which has antecedents far above the purview of police, courts and prisons. We might finally point to the savagery of globalized “absolute” capitalism.
Berardi does offer come suggestions starting with distance and disengagement. Berardi calls this “ironic autonomy,” the refusal to participate, distancing ourselves from extant political systems. We should make clear our despair, rejecting existing economic and political structures which have no substance and no truth. Berardi suggests that in that despair we might find imagination and new potential solutions: “Remember despair and joy are not incompatible.” Berardi argues that if you are not outraged you are simply submitting to madness and lies. In Berardi’s view despair is a form of oppositional discourse, a tangible form of social conflict. Berardi argues that we should not retreat but rather we should engage in “skeptical” rejection of all accepted dogmas and rules, and that rejection should be open and visible. As Berardi says “dystopia has to be faced, and dissolved by irony.” Reject and rebel and celebrate that rejection and rebellion.
Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Bauman, Z. & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Berardi, F. 2015: Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. London: Verso. http://www.versobooks.com/books/1746-heroes
Young, J. (2007). The Vertigo of Late Modernity. London: Sage.