The condition and politics of anxiety (1): analysing contemporary precarious consciousness

People who follow us closely will have noticed that one of my current priorities in the wiki is documenting solidarity mechanisms. This is not an accident, and the following analysis, a brilliant essay and an absolute must-read, shows us why.

We present it in two parts, the first part analyses the contemporary human condition in the current configuration of capitalism, while the second installment will focus on the counter-strategies for social change.

The original and full article can be read here.

From of Institute for Precarious Consciousness

Part I

* 1: Each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect.

Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. This is not a static situation. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and /or its social sources are formulated. Hence, capitalism constantly comes into crisis and recomposes around newly dominant affects.

One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.

Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem. In the modern era (until the post-war settlement), the dominant affect was misery. In the nineteenth century, the dominant narrative was that capitalism leads to general enrichment.

The public secret of this narrative was the misery of the working class. The exposure of this misery was carried out by revolutionaries. The first wave of modern social movements in the nineteenth century was a machine for fighting misery. Tactics such as strikes, wage struggles, political organisation, mutual aid, co-operatives and strike funds were effective ways to defeat the power of misery by ensuring a certain social minimum. Some of these strategies still work when fighting misery.

When misery stopped working as a control strategy, capitalism switched to boredom. In the mid twentieth century, the dominant public narrative was that the standard of living – which widened access to consumption, healthcare and education – was rising. Everyone in the rich countries was happy, and the poor countries were on their way to development. The public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s – a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery. Job security and welfare provision reduced anxiety and misery, but jobs were boring, made up of simple, repetitive tasks. Mid-century capitalism gave everything needed for survival, but no opportunities for life; it was a system based on force-feeding survival to saturation point.

Of course, not all workers under Fordism actually had stable jobs or security – but this was the core model of work, around which the larger system was arranged. There were really three deals in this phase, with the B-worker deal – boredom for security – being the most exemplary of the Fordism-boredom conjuncture. Today, the B-worker deal has largely been eliminated, leaving a gulf between the A- and C-workers (the consumer society insiders, and the autonomy and insecurity of the most marginal).”

For thesis 2 and 3, see the original article:

2: Contemporary resistance is born of the 1960s wave, in response to the dominant affect of boredom.

3: Capitalism has largely absorbed the struggle against boredom.

Part II

* 4: In contemporary capitalism, the dominant reactive affect is anxiety.

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

One major part of the social underpinning of anxiety is the multi-faceted omnipresent web of surveillance. The NSA, CCTV, performance management reviews, the Job Centre, the privileges system in the prisons, the constant examination and classification of the youngest schoolchildren. But this obvious web is only the outer carapace. We need to think about the ways in which a neoliberal idea of success inculcates these surveillance mechanisms inside the subjectivities and life-stories of most of the population.
We need to think about how people’s deliberate and ostensibly voluntary self-exposure, through social media, visible consumption and choice of positions within the field of opinions, also assumes a performance in the field of the perpetual gaze of virtual others. We need to think about the ways in which this gaze inflects how we find, measure and know one another, as co-actors in an infinitely watched perpetual performance. Our success in this performance in turn affects everything from our ability to access human warmth to our ability to access means of subsistence, not just in the form of the wage but also in the form of credit. Outsides to the field of mediatised surveillance are increasingly closed off, as public space is bureaucratised and privatised, and a widening range of human activity is criminalised on the grounds of risk, security, nuisance, quality of life, or anti-social behaviour.

In this increasingly securitised and visible field, we are commanded to communicate. The incommunicable is excluded. Since everyone is disposable, the system holds the threat of forcibly delinking anyone at any time, in a context where alternatives are foreclosed in advance, so that forcible delinking entails desocialisation – leading to an absurd non-choice between desocialised inclusion and desocialised exclusion. This threat is manifested in small ways in today’s disciplinary practices – from “time-outs” and Internet bans, to firings and benefit sanctions – culminating in the draconian forms of solitary confinement found in prisons. Such regimes are the zero degree of control-by-anxiety: the breakdown of all the coordinates of connectedness in a setting of constant danger, in order to produce a collapse of personality.

The present dominant affect of anxiety is also known as precarity. Precarity is a type of insecurity which treats people as disposable so as to impose control. Precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally.

Precarity leads to generalised hopelessness; a constant bodily excitation without release. Growing proportions of young people are living at home. Substantial portions of the population – over 10% in the UK – are taking antidepressants. The birth rate is declining, as insecurity makes people reluctant to start families. In Japan, millions of young people never leave their homes (the hikikomori), while others literally work themselves to death on an epidemic scale. Surveys reveal half the population of the UK are experiencing income insecurity. Economically, aspects of the system of anxiety include “lean” production, financialisation and resultant debt slavery, rapid communication and financial outflows, and the globalisation of production. Workplaces like call centres are increasingly common, where everyone watches themselves, tries to maintain the required “service orientation,” and is constantly subject to re-testing and potential failure both by quantitative requirements on numbers of calls, and a process which denies most workers a stable job (they have to work six months to even receive a job, as opposed to a learning place). Image management means that the gap between the official rules and what really happens is greater than ever. And the post-911 climate channels this widespread anxiety into global politics.

* 5: Anxiety is a public secret.

Excessive anxiety and stress are a public secret. When discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation.

Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us “safe” (through securitisation) and “competitive” (through performance management). Each moral panic, each new crackdown or new round of repressive laws, adds to the cumulative weight of anxiety and stress arising from general over-regulation. Real, human insecurity is channelled into fuelling securitisation. This is a vicious circle, because securitisation increases the very conditions (disposability, surveillance, intensive regulation) which cause the initial anxiety. In effect, the security of the Homeland is used as a vicarious substitute for security of the Self. Again, this has precedents: the use of national greatness as vicarious compensation for misery, and the use of global war as a channel for frustration arising from boredom.

Anxiety is also channelled downwards. People’s lack of control over their lives leads to an obsessive struggle to reclaim control by micro-managing whatever one can control. Parental management techniques, for example, are advertised as ways to reduce parents’ anxiety by providing a definite script they can follow. On a wider, social level, latent anxieties arising from precarity fuel obsessive projects of social regulation and social control. This latent anxiety is increasingly projected onto minorities.
Anxiety is personalised in a number of ways – from New Right discourses blaming the poor for poverty, to contemporary therapies which treat anxiety as a neurological imbalance or a dysfunctional thinking style. A hundred varieties of “management” discourse – time management, anger management, parental management, self-branding, gamification – offer anxious subjects an illusion of control in return for ever-greater conformity to the capitalist model of subjectivity. And many more discourses of scapegoating and criminalisation treat precarity as a matter of personal deviance, irresponsibility, or pathological self-exclusion. Many of these discourses seek to maintain the superstructure of Fordism (nationalism, social integration) without its infrastructure (a national economy, welfare, jobs for all). Doctrines of individual responsibility are central to this backlash, reinforcing vulnerability and disposability. Then there’s the self-esteem industry, the massive outpouring of media telling people how to achieve success through positive thinking – as if the sources of anxiety and frustration are simply illusory. These are indicative of the tendency to privatise problems, both those relating to work, and those relating to psychology.

Earlier we argued that people have to be socially isolated in order for a public secret to work. This is true of the current situation, in which authentic communication is increasingly rare. Communication is more pervasive than ever, but increasingly, communication happens only through paths mediated by the system. Hence, in many ways, people are prevented from actually communicating, even while the system demands that everyone be connected and communicable. People both conform to the demand to communicate rather than expressing themselves, and self-censor within mediated spaces. Similarly, affective labour does not alleviate anxiety; it compounds workers’ suffering while simply distracting consumers (researchers have found that requirements on workers to feign happiness actually cause serious health problems).

The volume of communication is irrelevant. The recomposition – reconnection – of liberatory social forces will not happen unless there are channels through which the public secret itself can be spoken. In this sense, people are fundamentally more alone than ever. It is difficult for most people (including many radicals) to acknowledge the reality of what they experience and feel. Something has to be quantified or mediated (broadcast virtually), or, for us, to be already recognised as political, to be validated as real. The public secret does not meet these criteria, and so it remains invisible.”

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