Neoliberal nihilism and the politics of mass murder-suicide

As Bifo points out in his latest book, mass murder-suicide “is no longer a marginal phenomenon of isolated psychopathology, but is becoming a major agent of the political history of our time.”

When the black box cockpit recordings of GermanWings flight 9525 were found and the world first learned that the plane had been deliberately crashed into a rocky mountain face in the French Alps by its suicidal co-pilot, the first questions raised by journalists at the investigators’ press conference were about the latter’s religion and ethnicity. When it turned out that the co-pilot, Andreas Lübitz, was an “ordinary” 27-year-old white German male with no known terrorist connections, the international press quickly lost interest in the political side of the story.

Instead, the media narrative in the following days was rapidly depoliticized as attention shifted to Lubitz’ psychological background, his relationship status, his torn-up doctor notes, his long-standing struggles with depression, and – perhaps most tellingly – his search history for cockpit door security systems. Amidst endless speculations about the  motives behind this unintelligible act of horror, remarkably few commentators managed to establish the much more self-evident political link between Lübitz’ desperate decision to crash his plane andthe growingphenomenon of workplace massacres, school shootings and other forms of murderous suicide in contemporary society.

It is particularly telling that European leaders chose to play down the massacre as some kind of awful, inexplicable accident. Angela Merkel referred to the crash as a “catastrophe” and stated that “that this news touches me [and] goes beyond what we can imagine.” The contrast to her comments on the Charlie Hebdo massacre – which she called “a barbarous attack against all the values we share” – could not have been clearer. In the case of the GermanWings massacre, both the agency of the perpetrator and the context in which he acted were deliberately pushed to the background.

In the course of this process of depoliticization, the individual psychopathology of an anxious and depressed German pilot has ended up completely overshadowing the collective psychopathology of the increasingly anxious and depressed society from which he apparently sought to escape. Of course Lübitz’ act of horror was not explicitly political in the sense that the 9/11 airplane hijackings were; but we would nevertheless be very mistaken to divorce his decision to crash the plane from the broader context in which he did it – and this context itself is thoroughly political.

In fact, the GermanWings crash was not just an aviation accident; it was yet another act of mass murder-suicide by a disturbed young man at his place of work. As the Italian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes in his latest book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, this increasingly frequent phenomenon can no longer be dismissedas an exceptional occurrence. Instead, it reveals something deeply disturbing about the “kingdom of nihilism and the suicidal drive that is permeating contemporary culture, together with a phenomenology of panic, aggression and resultant violence.”

Bifo writes that he is “interested in people who are suffering themselves, and who become criminals because this is their way to express their psychopathic need for publicity and also to find a suicidal exit from the present hell.” He sees these individuals “as the heroes of an age of nihilism and spectacular stupidity: the age of financial capitalism.” Seen in this light, Lübitz’ method – of deliberately crashing a plane and killing all 149 passengers and crew on board – may have been unusual in its intensity, but the “shape” of the act should not distract us from the underlying similarity to increasingly frequent rampage killings by disgruntled workers or alienated young men.

Crucially, Bifo notes that “it is possible to detect in the actions of many contemporary mass murderers a spectacular intention that has something to do with Warhol’s promise: ‘in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.’ That is, it has to do with the need to be televised as the only proof of one’s existence.” Lübitz’ act seems to closelyfit into this pattern. Apparently hehad even told hisex-girlfriend that“one day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

This strong desire for recognition, which finds its most destructive pathological expression in the case of mass murders like Lübitz, has been greatly intensified in recent decades as a result of the near-complete erosion of community bonds and social safety nets. The unrestrained dual processes of globalization and financialization are thoroughly deterritorializing the economy and subjecting all social relations and individual motivations to the single overarching logic of the market. As Bifo puts it, “our entire precarious life is submitted to this one imperative: competition. All of our collective energies are enlisted to one goal: to fight against all others in order to survive.”

While we do not generally think of highly trained professionals like commercial pilots as precariously employed workers, young pilots – especially those working for budget airlines like GermanWings – are by no means immune from the profound insecurity and extreme competitive pressures of contemporary labor markets. Writing in the Guardian, one commercial pilot reports that, “In addition to fatigue, younger pilots have told me of a different kind of insidious stress while working for budget airlines, and that’s a fear of losing one’s first aviation job as a low-hours commercial pilot through failing to perform to management expectations.” He continues:

This fear, more often than not, surrounds zero-hours contracts and the average £50,000 or more of training debt that a first officer might be carrying when he or she climbs out of a simulator and into the righthand seat of a Boeing 737 or A310 Airbus.

More than one in six of Europe’s pilots are now employed through a temporary job agency, are self-employed or work on a zero-hours contract with no minimum pay guaranteed. As one pilot once remarked to me: “There’s a long queue of desperate young pilots looking for a first step on the career ladder and happy to take my place. If I don’t turn up for work one day, I might not be called again.”

The evidence seems to suggest that Lübitz – who already suffered from severe mental problems and likely suffered extremely low self-esteem – was particularly affected by this stressful and insecure climate of hyper-competitiveness. In addition to his psychological issues he was also suffering from (possibly related) eyesight problems and had repeatedly considered calling in sick for work, even obtaining doctor’s notes exonerating him from his duties – but he tore them up, likely because he was afraid of the consequences of his absence for his career prospects.

In an interview with the German tabloid Bild, Lübitz ex-girlfriend suggested that, if he really crashed the plane as a deliberate act of murderous suicide, it was “because he understood that [with] his health problems, his big dream of a job at Lufthansa, as captain and as a long-haul pilot, was practically impossible.” Not only was he anxious and depressed, he was increasingly disgruntled as well. ‘Simply’ killing himself was no longer enough. Taking down 149 innocent passengers and crew could be seen as a final act of vengeance for all the indignity he had suffered – not unlike the rampage shootings at Columbine High School or the Jokela and Kauhajoki schools in Finland.

A prominent forensic psychologist, Dr. J. Reid Melow, has observed that theone commonfeature returning in almost every act of mass killing is precisely this sense of indignity experienced by the perpetrator. “What’s become clear over the past 30 years of research,” he recently told the New York Times, “is that there’s virtually always a personal grievance that will start a person on a pathway to mass murder.” Another psychologist, Dr. Hatters Friedman, clarified that “what keeps coming up [in pilot suicides] is family stress, relationship stress, work stresses, financial stresses.”

When pushed to its extreme and forced upon the mental lifeworlds of hundreds of millions of people, this anxious and disgruntled subjectivity of permanent stress and hyper-competitiveness is bound to produce monsters at some point – at least among a small, mentally vulnerable sub-section of the overall population. In a commentary on the GermanWings massacre, Bifo writes that for this particularly susceptible group of people (often young men), “the decree to be a winner, compared with the consciousness that winning is impossible, means that the only way to win (at least for a moment) is destroying others’ lives and then committing suicide.”

Yet, as Bifo remarks in Heroes, “the mass murderer is only an exceptional manifestation of a general trend in this mutation of the human mind.” What has been established at the level of the collective psyche in the last 30 years is “a suicidal form of the neoliberal will to win”: a relentless drive towards an ever greater need to reaffirm ourselves through self-destructive deeds. The supposedly “successful” become absolute workaholics; the “ordinary” are subjected to unrelenting stress and self-doubt; and the “failures” grow dependent on anti-depressants and sleeping pills, or systematic substance abuse as a form of self-medication. The weakest, most tragically, quietly slip away on their own.

What the world is experiencing today is a veritable “epidemic of unhappiness.”According to the WHO, suicide rates have risen over 60 percent since 1970. As neoliberalism spreads its nihilistic creed of competition and its narcissistic cult of the individual – with globalization, financialization and digitization gradually undermining our community bonds, our social safety nets and our everyday human interactions – the risk of unpredictable violent backlashes greatly increases, and the incidence of acts of murderous suicide is only likely to further intensify.

Apart from suicide itself, there is really only one way out of this present hell. Against the death drive of neoliberal nihilism we must reaffirm a politics of life. Only a concerted re-politicization of suicide and mass murder can reveal the underlying causes of this (self-)destructive epidemic. Only the construction of an emancipatory political project can restore a sense of autonomy, community and social security. And only a radical empowering of the weak, allowing society’s “failures” to succeed where competitiveness held them back, can prevent future tragedies like the GermanWings massacre.

In other words: only a genuine victory of radical democracy over global capitalism can help us overcome the murderous and self-destructive tendencies in modern society.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos.

Leave a comment