“we have apparently chosen, via liberal democracy, to live according to a system of social organization that requires us to be jumpy paranoids, suspicious of everyone and terrified of our own potential mistakes. Believers in capitalist liberal democracies may cluck at the over-the-top Maoist inquisitions devoted to revolutionary self-criticism, but our society encourages us to practice the same extravagant self-loathing, only privately. That’s why America’s vast therapeutic brain trust has steadily eradicated the language of solidarity and class consciousness, honed through collective struggle, and replaced it with exhortations to “do what you love” and “live your best life.” Both aphorisms imply that what we’re currently doing is not enough.
Given that we spend most of our waking hours in an alienated, desperate grind to obtain or maintain a life-sustaining job, blaming ourselves for every snag along the way, gospels of reassurance and self-care are precious cargo. We are denied the ability to seek comfort from colleagues, neighbors, or—heaven forbid—comrades, because neoliberalism has turned them into our competition. Instead, disaffected souls are relentlessly steered back into the thrall of a marketplace where we can access, individually, little hits of succor.
The American Jitters
The individual under neoliberalism is atomized, competitive, and above all, anxious. Indeed, as David Beer and others have pointed out, it’s precisely the gnawing and ever-present sense of anxiety that serves as the neoliberal social order’s psychic motive force. Only when we humans hold each other in paranoid suspicion does the so-called free market work.
But here’s the truly wonderful thing about neoliberalism—as it turns us all into paranoid, jealous schemers, it offers to sell us bromides to ameliorate the very bad feelings of self-doubt and alienation it conjures in our dark nights of the soul. Neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy. It is no coincidence that as we become more nervous, “wellness” and “self-care” have become mainstream industries. Over the last few decades, workplaces have become ever more oppressive, intensely tracking workers’ bodies, demanding longer hours, and weakening workers’ bargaining rights while also instituting wellness and mentoring programs on an ever greater scale.
Mindfulness—a state of hyper-awareness tempered with disciplined calm—has become the corporate mantra du jour. By encouraging increasingly put-upon employees to assume tree poses or retreat into an om in the face of frustration, corporate overlords mean to head off any mutinous stirrings before they have a chance to gain momentum. Even if CEOs themselves occasionally adopt these regimes with apparent sincerity, mindfulness serves the companies’ bottom lines first and foremost because it is fundamentally anti-revolutionary. “It’s hard not to notice how often corporate mindfulness aligns seamlessly with layoffs,” Laura Marsh writes. “Employees need a sense of calm too when their employer is flailing. Those productivity gains—an extra sixty-nine minutes of focus per employee per month—count for more when the ranks are thinning.”
This mode of psychic self-instruction presents a revealing complement to the anti-union propaganda films that employers may—and frequently do—require workers to view. Silly as all this instructional media may seem, those who circulate it understand that it is worth the investment. They know that language matters. Nothing cuts off self-determination more efficiently than eradicating its language. Replacing it with misdirecting prattle that locates all blame as well as the possible redemption from it back onto the individual is a magnificent coup for those who would like to keep us wary of one another. Corporate feel-goodism has a sick way of twisting the grimmest instances of exploitation and desperation into tales of individual triumph.
Anxiety, and especially depression, as the late social critic Mark Fisher noted, often have social causes, but we are led to believe that we suffer individually and must struggle alone. Fisher’s point is that we are prevented from even considering such conditions as social. The treatments on offer, the most common ways to discuss recovery—therapy and pharmaceuticals—are essentially solo journeys that patients undertake. Against this hyper-individualist vision of psychic healing, we do well to highlight Fisher’s core insight that the tools we are given skew how we understand the world and our place in it. Language, typically the most essential method by which we articulate our affective life, can be a most insidious means of our own oppression if co-opted by those who would exploit us.