In his recent article on the Germanwings crash, Franco Beradi uses the example of the suicidal terrorist who apparently acts “for political, ideological or religious motivations” but whose inmost motivations are the same as with any suicidal individual: “despair, humiliation and misery”, that is to say primarily psychological, and political only on the surface or to a lesser extent. This does not explain the connection the author is trying to make between the psychology of the individual in capitalism (which he correctly connects with the increasing working hours at precarious jobs) and the psychology of the suicidal terrorist, the vast majority of which do not live in an environment of capitalist competition and alienation. In what ways does the suicidal terrorist see him-/herself as expendable in a theocratic, ethno-religious community which has very little in common with the capitalist paradigm of competitive productivity and Protestant work ethic?
The answer can be better articulated on a political, rather than a psychoanalytical basis, as a stress on psychoanalysis would suggest that there is something in human “nature” which predisposes us to be self-destructive when the circumstances are ripe. To avoid reducing this to another nature v nurture contest, I want to suggest that to identify capitalism as the reason for the “transformation of social life into a factory of unhappiness” as Beradi says, is a too schematic interpretation of the phenomenon. There is something essential missing from the obvious equation: capitalism = suppression = suicide; and this is another obvious but largely forgotten concept: the public sphere. The public sphere, as Hannah Arendt sees it, is a “space lying between individuals, in which they can move, speak and act” (Cavovan, p. 225), where the words move, speak, act are used as categories of political life and not as social or private possibilities. Thus the individual, in a truly inclusive public space, can be regarded as an equal speaker and actor that co-formulates public policy, including matters of work, finance, culture, and decision-making in general. This concept of emancipatory politics for the many, although articulated at length by important thinkers (Arendt, Castoriadis, Bookchin and others), seems to be a lone voice on the fringes of the mainstream radical critique of the capitalist model, with most of political thinkers avoiding to suggest what kind of ideals and institutions they would like to see replacing the (undoubtedly inhumane) existing ones.
A genuine public space that would have nothing to do with parliamentary lobbying, the markets or society as a “pseudo-public realm … characterised by a combination of conformity and egocentricity” (Canovan, p. 117) and dominated by ‘social events’ and material interests, is necessary in order to begin the seemingly impossible work of change: institutional, cultural, and of collective and personal conscience. If this looks like too daunting a prospect, we can start from simple questions: How much, for whom and to what ends do we work? How do we define the words holiday, free time, creative work? By simply posing and beginning to discuss these questions in public, a space and a possibility open up for the re-evaluation of fundamental concepts that we now accept as given, eternal and indisputable. This precious political breathing space is what is missing from both the lonely worker and the suicidal bomber, a space where they can be affirmed as citizens that is to say as distinct individuals with a collective responsibility for the constitution of public life.
Canovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt, A Reinterpretation of her Political Thought. Cambridge University Press, 1992.