Crisis and creeping despair
From the killing spree by a lucid yet paranoid Anders Breivik to the increase in private and public suicides in austerity Europe Paul Demarty asks, what is capitalism doing to our minds?
On Wednesday April 4, Dimitris Christoulas, an elderly retired pharmacist, walked to Syntagma Square and shot himself in the head outside the Greek parliament. As the anti-austerity movement, and civil society more generally, was coming to terms with Christoulas’s final protest, another country had its own bit of soul-searching to do, as the trial of Anders Behring Breivik began in earnest in Oslo.
On the face of it, not an awful lot connects these two individuals. Christoulas was, by all accounts, a committed leftwinger and a regular fixture on anti-cuts protests in Athens. At 77 years old, he does not cut the now stereotypical figure of the young black bloc partisan, petrol bomb in hand; rather, he has become symbolic of the utterly indiscriminate devastation wrought by the austerity programme of the troika and its Greek patsies.
Breivik, on the other hand, is affiliated with the extreme right. At 33, he is young; but his rightism is of a very contemporary sort as well, consisting in admiration for the Tea Party, English Defence League and other expressions of 21st century petty bourgeois outrage. Unlike the seasoned protestor Christoulas, Breivik’s horrific massacre of Norwegian Labour Party youth seemed to appear ‘out of nowhere’; until then, he had apparently no far-right activity to his name, barring some relatively sanguine comments on far-right internet sites. His war in defence of Christendom was conducted entirely behind a keyboard (apocryphally, he is supposed to have taken a year out of the writing of his bloated ‘manifesto’ to play the online World of Warcraft game).
‘Delirium of a madman’
In order to draw links between the two men, it is worth asking ourselves the question that will continue to dominate proceedings in the Oslo courthouse in the coming weeks: viz, is Anders Behring Breivik sane?
The question is, of course, politically loaded. Those on the far right whom Breivik admired are very keen to single him out as a lunatic. A spokesman for Vladimir Putin, one of Breivik’s less likely heroes, condemned his actions as “the delirium of a madman”.
On the left, meanwhile, there is the opposite temptation. Breivik’s hatred of Muslims and multiculturalism is the common touchstone of the contemporary far right, especially in Europe. There is, the argument goes, an exterminationist logic to these ideas; not to say a certain tendency towards murderous anti-leftism that stems from the millenarian character to the rhetoric surrounding Europe’s ‘Islamisation’.
Besides which, Breivik’s crime was not one of passion, or the result of a momentary psychotic episode. It was planned with disturbing lucidity; he even refrained from saying anything too hot-headed on the internet that might alert state security services. Everything played out perfectly, down to the last detail; only his desire to be martyred in a hail of police gunfire went unfulfilled, but he is finding ways to make use of his time in court for similar ends.
This is all true, and it is probably enough to establish a criminal standard of culpability in his case (although his trial is already being cited as a possible turning point in the history of forensic psychology). Yet, if he indeed was not in some kind of hallucinatory delirium, there nonetheless is something more than a little psychotic about Breivik. The classic Freudian definition of paranoia is a kind of excess of meaning; all manner of epiphenomena are totalised into a narrative of persecution focused on the paranoiac individual.
There surely exists no better description of Breivik’s views - a grand conspiracy of Muslims, multiculturalists and Marxists to undermine Europe’s cultural integrity and bring about a ‘Eurabian’ caliphate. One does not have to be a liberal Guardianista to understand that this conspiracy simply does not exist; it takes a contingent encounter of west European and American state policy vis-à-vis ethnic minorities and the emergence of the war on terror, throws in some perfunctorily secularised, millenarian Christianity, and stitches it all together into a 1,500-page narrative.
If Breivik, on this analysis, is a madman, then so are an awful lot of others. Tommy Robinson of the EDL, Tea Party icons like Glenn Beck and a whole host of far-right populists across the European continent rehash major aspects of this narrative. It should perhaps not escape notice that, in advance of Sunday’s presidential election in France, the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips urged a vote for Marine Le Pen. Her paper at least tried to be horrified at Le Pen’s senior’s triumph in 2002; now, it seems, the author of Londonistan - yet another paranoid narrative of ‘Islamisation’ - is happy to risk reminding people of the Mail’s ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ prime.
The killing spree finds something of a dialectical opposite in suicide. While the former is almost by nature a public spectacle, suicide is the consummation of very private psychic forces.
These days, however, suicide has been recuperated as a spectacular act of protest. Christoulas’s death cannot but remind us of the self-immolation of the impoverished Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, which unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of his compatriots against a corrupt and tyrannical regime, and in turn sparked the series of protest movements that became the Arab awakening. And Christoulas is not the only one to follow Bouazizi’s example: a spate of self-immolations was reported across the Arab world last spring.
That is one context in which to place Christoulas. There are others. Rather more mundane suicides are on a noticeable upward statistical trend on countries worst hit by the economic crisis. Ireland is a peculiarly disturbing case: in 2009, 527 people took their lives, according to official figures - the highest number on record ... until, that is, the stats for 2010 came back with 600. Suicide helpline ILife is buckling under the weight of a hundred desperate calls a day, and charities believe the government figures are highly conservative.
This is, of course, a statistical abstraction of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of particular cases of the most abject despair; these suicides were not supposed to ‘mean’ anything, unlike those of Christoulas and Bouazizi. Still, the distance between the two phenomena is not as great as all that. Those close to Christoulas were not aware that he had anything of the sort in mind. If the act itself was public, it still marks the same kind of progressive, introverted abjection that leads anyone to commit suicide.
It would be easy enough to draw a direct causal link between economic crisis, with its associated devastation of millions of people’s lives, and the termination of those lives in suicide. There is a missing mediation here, though - and its nature is precisely highlighted by the case of Breivik. There are all manner of ways of rebelling against intolerable conditions, ranging from revolutionary struggle to reactionary terrorism.
In fact, all three cases - that of Breivik’s massacre, of Christoulas’s suicide and the creeping despair in Ireland - are different responses to the decay of capitalist society in the longer term than the recent crisis. The collective life of capitalism is increasingly bureaucratised; it is something which is done to you. The result is atrophy at the base, and the increased social atomisation of people.
Most importantly, the decline of the left and associated defeats of the workers’ movement have all but destroyed the most effective counterweight to this process - the development of an authentic collective life in and against the decaying forms of capitalism.
Crisis then sends capitalist ideology, like everything else, into chaos - one can, like Breivik, find solace in the pseudo-community of European Christendom and the irrationalist far-right milieu; or one can privately sink into despair; or one can make of one’s death a voluntaristic protest. We can add in last summer’s riots as another option - a white-hot outburst of nihilistic rage.
One hears, more and more often these days, the notionally Chinese curse - ‘May you live in interesting times’. The ‘interest’ for most lies in the way the west collapses into one futile and destructive war after another, the way stock markets suffer palpitations every time a European population gets a sniff of an election, and all the quotidian signs of Armageddon that litter newspaper front pages these days.
Yet there is another story behind it, which is a kind of psychic disaggregation. Whether it takes the form of the rise and rise of a clinically psychotic far-right populism or the recuperation of suicide as a political act, capitalism is eroding our minds as surely as our bodies.