today’s turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged economy, anxiety and
insecurity have become the new normal.
How did this happen - and how do we fight back?
six months ago, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern for Bank of
America Merrill Lynch in London, died after working for 72 hours
straight without sleep.
Journalists found a strange bravado among City
workers, reflected in their tributes to a value-system of drive,
resilience and regularly ‘pulling an all-nighter’ beyond all normal
measures of exhaustion.
That’s nothing. As one said,
“On average, I get four hours’ sleep about 70% of the time … [but]
there are also days with eight hours of sleep. … Work-life balance is
bad. We all know this going in. I guess that’s the deal with most
entry-level jobs these days.”
Coupled to ambitions to succeed in careers
scarcely worth the reward is a fatalism about expecting any change.
That’s how it is.
unflinching dedication to the job - indeed the job with the utmost
virtue of wealth production - indicates a set of moral and social values
increasingly used to describe both individual and national economies.
On the one hand, productivity, growth, entrepreneurialism and drive are
‘virtues’ both of the effective individual and the expanding economy.
contrast, depression, crisis, zero-hour insecurity and burnout are used
to describe both ‘failing’ economies and individuals who must work
harder to perform.
Whilst failing states are humiliatingly ‘bailed out’,
usually under punitive conditions, individuals experience similar
‘interventions’ by more successful peers (and celebrities) on reality TV
formats to increase their productive value through getting a job,
looking sexier, or something similar.
In each case, some internal
failure (bloated public sector, childhood setback) is considered the
cause of the ‘problem’ and remedied through external improvement of the
similar disengagement with reality occurred in the UK with the series
of suicides and unofficial explosion in homelessness following the
coalition government’s scorched-earth retreat on social spending and
welfare. One man died
by self-immolation in Bolton after harassment from debt-collectors
became too much to bear.
Yet in each case, the media narrative of
individual self-isolation and appeals to ‘speak up’ in times of hardship
ignores the common societal causes of these issues. It also reinforces
an effective narrative that welfare, sick leave or social support should
not be given to the ‘feckless’ and ‘undeserving’, but creates a culture
of dependency (of which the reactionary ire over Channel 4′s Benefits
Street is just the most recent example).
This perverse rebranding of the
relief of poverty is succeeding, with recorded social attitudes in the UK considerably hardening towards welfare recipients since 1997.
rates of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety also correlate to
worsening personal debt and public health problems like obesity and
Though research remains undeveloped in this area
(after all, what multinational or western government would fund such
politically explosive material?), evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), the US National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
together indicate clear links between poverty and clusters of mental
and physical health problems.
This is not to suggest that mental health
or suicides have only an economic cause (a recent series of suicides
by high-profile ‘burnt-out’ French workers would challenge this), but
the poorest have fewer forms of social and economic support in difficult
times, and less opportunities to change their circumstances, than those
with university educations, more extensive social circles or affluent
Obesity, diabetes, ‘toxic stress’,
and many forms of cancer have such a clear link to poverty that these
ought not to be considered as diseases of affluence, but conditions of
poverty in the same way that rickets, tuberculosis and infant
malnutrition were to the deprived and exploited labouring classes of the
health and homelessness charities are being overwhelmed by appeals from
millions abandoned for the sake of economic recovery.
Study the news for
long enough and stories of self-immolation, suicide and death by
overworking are by no means unique to the UK (in Japan they term the
latter karoshi, whereas in the case of Moritz Erhardt, our
coroners call it an entirely unrelated epileptic seizure).
But what is
innovative is the effective management of the reality presented to
entirely remove any collective, public or social basis for these growing
problems. Instead responsibility is attributed to the individual, who
has either been unfortunate or ineffective at adapting to the world
I highlight are extreme situations, and my interest is more in the
millions who continue to live in more disempowered and restricted
Behind such cases is a new normal of zero-hour contracts,
working without payment (either internships at the top or ‘workfare’ at
the bottom) and in states of stress and anxiety, as an increasing
dependence on management thrives on sucking the remaining residues of
performance from precarious workers.
Living costs have sharply risen in
rents and goods, while supermarkets, energy firms, landlords and
financial traders have greedily increased their profits.
institutions of popular power, scandals like the undemocratic
catastrophe of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the exposure of GCHQ and
NSA’s total surveillance of internet and telecommunications, mass fraud
by MPs of expenses, the rises in university tuition fees and the removal
of EMA, regular press phone-hacking, the exposure of Murdoch’s power
over successive governments’ policy, routine police racism, unlawful
spying of protest groups, or the unprosecuted murders of members of the
public, and - as we have already forgotten - the failure to meaningfully
punish anyone in the City for the bank collapses of 2008 should have,
each, led to a crisis of political legitimacy in the UK.
props of the illusion of freedom and prosperity are weakened, yet remain
for now stuck in place. The expense of such illusions is a grinding and
unnecessary burden, felt by many occasionally and some increasingly
often, a burden that for now is explained as the individual’s to carry.
is a generational feature to this. Those who have grown up in a society
transformed by the anti-social, economic Darwinism mantras of Margaret
Thatcher have experienced an intensification of productivity in the most
intimate aspects of personal life.
Increasing and intensified school
examinations at earlier ages, combined with regular media terror-tales
of abducted children and random youth violence, alongside an aggressive
marketing of leisure technologies towards children has created a more anxious,
distracted, allergic, paranoid and restless generation than those
This comes with some mental toll, and another remarkable societal
transformation is the frequency and normalisation of mental health
disorders, particularly among young people.
many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are
not technical terms but personal experiences.
It was only a year or so
ago that I realised just how depressed I had been across my adult years.
Continual tiredness, regular little ailments related to stress, an
occasionally total mental paralysis, the silent conviction of being a
fraud, and the anxieties each of these engender: I knew what my symptoms
meant even then.
Through a very fortunate change of circumstances,
getting funding to do a PhD, I finally obtained financial stability and
the chance to work towards an actual personal interest, and on my own
I’ve been lucky, though academia is less a lifeboat and more a
ship of fools, steered by bloated Vice-Chancellors. Mental health problems and anxiety disorders are growing in academia,
particularly among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.
problems of continual productivity, heavy teaching workloads, workplace bullying, casual sexism,
poor or non-existent pay, no work-life balance, and of competing (never
cooperating) as a
high-impact entrepreneur of oneself, are each
features of modern labour in capitalist workplaces.
Stress is the cost
of success. Insecurity is the new normal, as is the passive acceptance
of such insecurity as some unfortunate but necessary stage to success.
my case, a series of jobs that I had largely loved in the
charity/ voluntary sector had already familiarised me with these things.
Free of the stress of seeking or holding down employment, or of trying
to justify myself in competitive and insecure workplaces. Free in time I
could actually spend on things of my own free choosing.
that stress had acted like a perverted mental program since my early
teens to work long and hard, independently, for an image of material and
existential ‘success’ that no-one, in hindsight, can possibly
This program, one that prizes and rewards aggressively macho
behaviours like competition, cunning and strength of will over
cooperation, compassion and indifference, considers life as a game of
winners and losers.
The existential effect of such a worldview combines
restless labouring for the next project, followed by the next, alongside
a crushing and inexplicable self-loathing that inverts the neoliberal
narcissism of reality gameshows like Big Brother, X Factor and The
Apprentice into a nasty minor key.
this common self-loathing is the repressed sense that this is not
right, that life should not be lived in this way. But, unable to join
the dots and connect a sense of personal alienation to material
circumstances, I followed the common social direction and put the blame
on my own individual defects.
Not any more. I suspect my own case is not
unique. How is it that so many females my age I know well enough are
suffering from mental health problems and accessing public or private
From my work as a men’s suicide prevention campaign
coordinator, I also know from conversations and research that depression
and anxiety are probably experienced in equal measure by men, but who
are far less likely to consider getting outside support beyond the
off-licence. Is it really such a coincidence?
These might all be conditions of modern life: rates of allergies
like hayfever and eczema in the UK population have risen to 44% in
2010, whilst rates of depression have similarly soared.
levels of these ailments may signal a greater awareness and ability to
self-diagnose these conditions, one could argue; but this alone doesn’t
sufficiently explain why anxiety disorders began rising first of all.
Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social
structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial
capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and
living in the neoliberal era.
Greater insecurity in the workplace or
school leads to an intensification of individual failure that is also
manifested in the growing trend of bullying,
which further reinforces the cycle of stress, depression and suicide.
think this insecurity is also expressed through the very media used to
communicate and function in everyday life. By this I mean the
intensification of information technologies into domestic and personal
life, what Paul Virilio calls a ‘tele-present’
From home computing for leisure, to the internet, hand-held
communication devices, and social networking sites, in the last two
decades there has been an unprecedented intensification of technologies
that continuously connect users to hyperactive news streams and a
disembodied form of social interaction, whose psychosocial norms
deserves deeper analysis.
the panic of losing a mobile phone, of having no access at all to the
internet, to one’s games, movies, photos, or common nodes of social
interaction that we call our friends or followers. A power-cut, a
burglary… would it be wrong to call them addictions?
Yet we have neither
selected this basis of social organisation, nor should we guiltily
consider ourselves lucky first-worlders gorging gluttonously on the
backs of the deprived billions.
Whilst digitised technologies have
abstracted and placed many cultural forms on a single homogeneous
platform, personal technologies have the worker connected and
potentially labouring at all hours in ways that operate, at minute
level, the exchanges and processes that neoliberal capitalism requires
Against such a backdrop, our politicians, the public face
of neoliberal capitalism, cajole us through fear and envy to keep up our
duty as citizens: spend, borrow, buy, 24/7, 365 days a year, be it
Christmas, Valentine’s or whatever, one must never shirk in one’s duty
to service the economy.
medical establishment has also transformed its understanding of rising
anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
of the American Psychiatric Association has, since the publication of
DSM III in 1980, been considered the authoritative index of mental
disorders, codified within a system of diagnostic management.
The new fifth edition
of 2013 describes ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ as ‘excessive anxiety
and worry’, which the individual experiences and finds difficult to
control for more days than not for at least six months. It is an
uncontrollable worry that largely dominates the sufferer’s time, and
usually defined by three or more symptoms, including ‘restlessness’,
‘being easily fatigued’, ‘difficulty concentrating or mind going blank’,
‘irritability’, ‘muscle tension’, and ‘sleep disturbance’.
anxiety concerns an excessive and painful ‘apprehensive expectation’ for
an uncertain future event, rather than of the present, as in fear.
disorder isn’t simply a reflection of an individual struggling against
unusual duress, but extends to an anxiety about even the most mundane of
things, like completing household chores, being late for appointments,
or of one’s inadequate performance as a worker or friend.
wonder if the DSM-VI will propose it on a collective scale? These
symptoms describe those of the precarious worker, exhausted, fed up, yet
compelled to stay awake just to finish a little more work from home,
screens stained by old microwave meals, spilt coffee and reminder notes
about looming dates, gym reminders and so on.
Depression and exhaustion
are endemic and act as marks of an affective and immaterial economy
where employment is now to be found in the services - retail, leisure,
call-centres, cleaning, childcare, sex work - where an inflated mood,
one indeed of motivation, is required, as the recent attention to
‘affect’ in critical theory is making clear.
another part of the service worker’s uniform. Recent reports
detail increasing depression and anxiety: a 2003 survey by the American
Medical Association (AMA) found that 10% of 15-54 year olds surveyed in
the US had had an episode of ‘major depression’ in the last 12 months,
with 17% of these over the course of their lifetimes; a figure echoing
the 15.1% found in the UK to be suffering from ‘common mental disorders’
(stress, anxiety and depression) by the NHS’s most recent 2007 adult survey.
women were twice as likely to suffer from depression in both the AMA
and NHS Surveys - the 15.1% average comes from 12.5% in men, 19.7% in
women (the real unrecorded numbers are probably higher, and this is
still the most recent survey, based on symptoms in the last seven days).
The NHS Survey also found that self-harm and suicidal behaviours in
women had increased since 2000, with ‘being female’ at one point listed
by the survey as a source of depression, without irony or sociological
Finally, one-fifth of all working days
in Britain are estimated as lost due to anxiety and depression forcing
workers to take time off, a very shaky estimate given the stigma and
perceived weakness of openly telling managers of mental health problems;
but given the current prospect of increasing working hours in Britain
as labour regulations are further ‘liberalised’, this anxiety will only
general, non-personal causes of these common mental disorders, evidence
beyond the obvious observations of one’s surroundings suggests that
living standards are declining, affecting men and women differently,
with a high suicide rate amongst men on the one hand - suicide is the single biggest cause of death
in men aged 15-34 in England and Wales - and a higher incidence of
depression among women on the other.
Recent employment statistics
demonstrate that women have been adversely affected by the large
redundancies within the public services in the UK following the
neoliberal austerity cuts, with a 2011 TUC report
finding female unemployment had risen 0.5 points to its highest level
Single-parent families are largely led by females, who are
struggling with reduced welfare support, inflation and reduced
employment opportunities, while continually demonised by the right-wing
media and Conservative governments as ‘feckless’ and irresponsible.
Austerity becomes the state of exception of British neoliberalism, with
the need for deficit cuts being used both by Thatcher and succeeding
governments to further reduce welfare and support services whilst
justifying wage freezes and unemployment, which adversely affect women.
Age of Anxiety?
rather than restrict the medicalisation of social issues or universal
experiences of human life, the DMS-5 instead created a number of new
disorders like ‘disruptive mood disregulation disorder’, for temper
tantrums and other wilful behaviour, and extending ‘major depressive
disorder’ to include bereavement, against the advice and review of much
of the medical establishment, including the producers of previous DSM manuals
who have already much to answer for (but, the influence of DSM should
not be too over-stated: beyond the USA, many countries like the UK
instead use the WHO International Classification of Diseases).
major pharmaceutical companies will not fail in honourably and
dispassionately servicing such individual maladies, and others such
discovered in 2013.
In the UK antidepressant usage
is rising year on year, more than any other item prescribed. Prescriptions tend to be highest in areas of greater social deprivation
(particularly northern towns like Blackpool, Barnsley and Redcar), but
with over 50 million such prescriptions dispensed in England alone in
2012, increasing on the previous year by 7.5%, their usage has become democratically universal.
The OECD have found that mental health problems now cost the UK economy £70 billion a year,
or 4.5% of GDP, primarily through productivity losses and disability
Concerned only for economic growth, even the world’s “smartest
men” - the neoliberal economists - are starting to doubt the
credibility of the UK’s recovery, with more workers reporting mental
health disability (just under 40% of all new disability claims) than any
other developed country.
By 2020, the WHO predicts that depressive
disorders will be the leading cause of disability and disease burden
across the globe.
have found that a poor material standard of living accounted for nearly
25% of cases of common mental disorder in 1998, a figure which, given
increasing poverty, debt and social inequality, will have surely risen.
So is ours an age of anxiety?
have also claimed this thorny crown, particularly those ravaged by
social and economic inequalities like the 1930s. Yet it is in these last
few years more than most that anxiety, precarity, crisis and burnout
have become regular keywords, and where continuous productivity,
connectivity and alertness are demanded at all hours.
To anyone who
values the lives of other human beings over the growth of stocks, shares
and tax-free profits, this situation should be appalling. It will also
To continue insisting that the mass breakdown of workers into
malfunctioning anxiety machines is down to some failure of the
individual is either callous or blind. As a collective that prizes its
own freedom and happiness, then, what is to be done?
That old question
we always ask and to which, like chronic depressives, we can never
commit resolutely to any sure answer. Perhaps, like guerrilla fighters,
we might re-purpose these underlying controls identified into weapons of
Not through some juvenile dream of accelerating the
contradictions of capitalism, nor through the perverse belief that
university-press-published critical jargon will undo the grip of
neoliberal ideology on the lives and hopes of the majority. No, no.
wonder instead if we might take a cue from the cod-psychology of
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), popular in management and popular
Though rightly discredited by many experts, NLP considers that the
human experience is entirely based on the individual’s cognitive ‘map’
of the world. This mind can be re-programmed to visualise and experience
more positive ‘frames’ of mind.
It has been adapted for mass audiences,
with great success, by TV hypnotist and celebrity advisor Paul McKenna.
It shares a number of underlying premises with Cognitive Behavioural
Therapy, now one of the most common non-pharmaceutical mental health
treatments in Britain, like the onus on the individual to internally
manage and remedy negative associations and behaviours.
In NLP, common
to treatments of individual problems is the requirement to visualise and
step into a positive future persona. By adopting and embodying more
proactive states, usually by mimicking ‘successful’ figures or a more
positive projected self-image, the individual gains confidence and power
over themselves and their surroundings.
Now, what if we were to discard
NLP’s neoliberal emphasis on the individual imagining a more positive
future self, in favour of a collective imagining of a more positive future society? What would the coherent visualisation and supposition of such a society look like, feel
A society where equality, liberty and justice were fully
supported by institutions of democratic political organization that
meaningfully gave citizens power and effectively safeguarded against
corruption or military/ police abuses? What would the features of these
brains and backs are tense and tired, our minds shattered and nerves
shot by increasing demands by managers to do the impossible: increase
our productivity, when what is produced is less necessary and of worse
quality than before.
The demand everywhere is the same: do it more, do
it quicker, do it better! Never must we act, think, feel or simply be
for what is good itself. Part of the problem is that the good itself is
never presented or introduced, its possibility unthinkable.
By the good I
mean a sense of future, not just for oneself, working against difficult
circumstances to survive or succeed, but a quality of life that all can
democratically produce and enjoy together.
Where the needs of society
determine economic activity, and where an ethics of public service
determine political conduct. Where the qualities of a flourishing
society, like unions, welfare, asylum, populism, social service,
council, and public are no longer pejorative terms.
Instead, people with
good intentions on the Left have become confused, like two lost
travellers fighting over the interpretation of a map, either pointing blame at other activists, cynically taking the dollar
of private finance for more short-term gain, or simply giving in.
exhaustion and depression that some activists are feeling also mirrors
this wider dislocation of hope, the good, and a future, from our myriad
basis of our future political activity, we should begin by thinking what
is possible and what is desired. Transforming the way we work, live
together, understand ourselves, and communicate with each other will
require brave new ideas that adapt the benefits of these technologies to
the prior well-being and welfare of each of us collectively. It won’t be
But given the fact that anxiety disorders, suicides and wider
mental health problems are rising and becoming normalised to a fairly
terrifying extent, I think it’s fair to give these a political
Rising anxiety disorders are connected to the growing
pressure on workers to increase their productivity.
It is encouraged by
the growth of working from home, and smartphone technology, which
irrevocably blur the work/ life distinction. It is encouraged by the
growing power (and pay) conferred to managers, to the rapid decline of
workers rights, and of trade unions to legally resist these. It is an
effect of the collapsing infrastructure of our communities and the loss
of support services that once could help.
Therefore, what could be done
is to reverse each of these in turn: challenge and, how I dream it to be
possible, overthrow governments that act only in the interests of large
To fight for things like a fixed working day, a living
wage, and to fight for massive increases in the resources given to
support mental health problems.
To discuss these things more openly, too
- exhaustion is increasingly the norm. And then to politicise these
experiences, and begin to dream together and work together to produce
the kind of society where mass depression and collective anxiety are
Today we are
spent and we are broke, fit only for a few decades of underpaid labour
before being cast aside by the markets as unproductive fodder. Things
will worsen unless we politicise anxiety and depression, and start the
fight to prioritise the welfare of our societies.
Many of us feel
paralysed, buckling under the pressure to keep it all together but
knowing that the way we work - and live - is damaging us and our
Globalisation of neoliberal political and economic
practices is now creating an equality of insecurity and misery for all
people, particularly the young, who have little chance of getting even a
pension or affordable care in their final years.
In such a moment of
over-extended transition, where the credibility and legitimacy of the
0.01% has never looked weaker, what future is ours?
It will be the
future that we dream of, that we refuse to abandon, and that we cannot
possibly entrust to the deceptive economic motives of our undemocratic
elites. Societies must express collective desire or they will not be at
JD Taylor is a researcher and writer from London, and author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (Zero, 2013). Follow JD on Twitter: @jd_taylor.