Essay

The privatisation of anxiety

Wellness, self-help and the resilience doctrine

AT THE LAST moment, I had stuffed K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher into my carry-on case. At 817 pages and weighing in at over a kilo, Fisher almost cost me an excess luggage charge. Better to have packed my local bookshop’s most pilfered title, Fisher’s pocket-sized Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Having landed at Alice Springs, I hired a car and headed west to a motel. Every afternoon, after driving out to explore, I had stationed myself outside my room on a plastic chair, sticky with sweat, sweltering in the heat with Fisher and squadrons of tiny flies.

A year after my trip to the desert, I was under lockdown, my days rotating between reading, walking within a five-kilometre radius and Zooming out to other parts of the world.

Several weeks into Melbourne’s first lockdown, in search of an antidote to the sermonising Be kind exhortations that were seeding on myriad hashtags and in the media, I revisited my edition of K-Punk, Fisher’s fervent dissections of contemporary life. His excoriation of precarious work and its production of anxiety and depression aptly describes the Covid recession, which has exacerbated the pre-existing failures and fragilities of the socio-political order. To take just one example: aged-care homes proved to be high-risk locations for viral transmission, as a poorly trained, under-resourced, casualised labour force working across multiple locations to stitch together a living wage, unknowingly spread Covid.

Even before the pandemic, around 40 per cent of Australian workers were in non-standard forms of employment, one of the highest rates in the world. Variously casualised, contracted, hired out and otherwise short-changed, the business model of precarious employment is crafted to shift financial risk to workers in the ruthless pursuit of ever-higher profit margins. Daily life increasingly plays out for many as a horror story of generalised precarity and anxiety, especially for expendables such as temporary visa-holders, those employed by, or studying in, universities, and many casual workers, who were excluded from welfare and income support during the pandemic.

As CEOs and those who inhabit the corridors of power feather their own nests with executive bonuses and dividends and take lessons in how to let go of their employees with empathy, their underlings are trained in the gospel of ‘resilience’. Amped up by flaky mindset coaches and self-help gurus, they’re lectured on how to ‘bounce back’ in a labour market in which there are too few jobs to go around. An unemployment benefit well below the poverty line supposedly incentivises shirkers to get a job, no matter how poorly paid and precarious. The Prime Minister’s favourite mantra, If you have a go, you’ll get a go, insinuates that the unemployed are to blame for their plight. As state supports put in place during the pandemic are stripped away, self-reliance – the alibi of neoliberalism – has been emphasised.

As political theorist Wendy Brown has noted, neoliberalism is a cultural, political and economic order that shapes both the responsibilities of the state and how we understand ourselves. The neoliberal subject is self-governing, responsible for their own happiness and success. Dovetailing with this principle is the doctrine of resilience, a market-friendly palliative touted as a solution to coping with the depredations of contemporary capitalism.

Handmaiden of the neoliberal ethos, the global, multibillion-dollar self-help industry propagates illusions and reinforces delusions about individual agency. Sustaining the neoliberal paradigm of individual rather than collective responsibility, it deflects attention from systemic causes of distress, encouraging endurance and a retreat into the private space of affects. We are instructed to renovate the self instead of working to dismantle the hegemonic order that oppresses and depresses. No wonder politicians peddle the resilience imperative. The Prime Minister’s response to a summer of extreme temperatures, catastrophic bushfires and floods was all about resilience and adaptation to extreme weather events rather than addressing their cause. And instead of acknowledging the links between climate change and the increased risk of future pandemics, Scott Morrison is wearing out his Pentecostal prayer knees, and putting his happy-clappy faith in a gas-fired, post-pandemic recovery to benefit his mates in the fossil-fuel industry.

 

PROMOTING RESILIENCE IS a neat fit with the war metaphors that political leaders around the world have been spouting in this pandemic: We must build toughness so we can recover from this all-in-this-together war with the invisible enemy virus! Eager to capitalise on the collective shock and generalised insecurity caused by harsh economic conditions, opportunistic governments are winding back labour and welfare protections in the name of getting the economy moving again. While governments in post-World War II Europe and parts of the Anglosphere invested in public healthcare, social security, housing and education – prioritising social goods over private interests – somewhere along the line our governments have not only reversed that order, but made it appear to be the natural state of things.

A few years ago, Hugh van Cuylenburg, a very successful antipodean resilience proselytiser, had an epiphany in India (a popular locus of enlightenment for middle-class, white Westerners). While teaching in an impoverished community with no running water, electricity or other basic amenities, he claimed to have come across the happiest child he had ever met, despite the boy having no home or family. Back in Australia, convinced that he had discovered the secret to happiness and resilience, van Cuylenburg reimagined the well-worn, poor-but-happy trope to birth a self-help product: The Resilience Project™. Marketed as a quick-fix method of ‘rewiring’ one’s brain in twenty-one days, his recipe for building happiness and resilience is a daily practice of Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness: do one kind deed; journal your gratitude for three things that went well for you; and practise ten minutes of mindfulness. (Self-help gurus are fond of attaching acronyms and metrics to their homiletic prescriptions so as to give them a pseudo-scientific aura of efficacy.)

It is indicative of our cultural moment that van Cuylenburg’s epiphany led not to reflecting on the normalisation of gross inequality – and the social, economic and political systems that perpetuate such disparities – but rather to market a self-help product. Looking inwards for solutions, as resilience proselytisers urge us to do, is in keeping with the contemporary focus on atomised self-optimising, self-monitoring and self-reliance – the journey of the self. Underpinning the resilience narrative is a foregrounding of personal wellbeing rather than collective betterment and the social good. It depoliticises and individualises, disregarding socio-economic and political causation. Irrespective of personal circumstances, it is up to the individual to resolve her psychological distress. The individual has a responsibility to bounce back from adversity. As Fisher has written, in a competitive and insecure world in which institutions can no longer be relied upon to support or nurture individuals, a therapeutic narrative of self-transformation is the only story that makes sense. Building individual resilience functions as an alternative to better social supports. Resilience is not only a tool to overcome adversity, but also a pathway to happiness and success. And if you don’t take ‘learnings’ from adversity, emerge stronger from negative experiences, it’s a case of you’re just not trying hard enough.

In her essay for Griffith Review 69: The European Exchange, ‘From Bosnia to Australia’, Sanja Grozdanic recounts an anecdote about a friend who was asked to give a lecture about what the war in Bosnia had taught her. The occasion was the twenty-fifth anniversary of her friend’s immigration to Sweden; the audience consisted of recently arrived refugees:

The lecture was intended to project a well-meaning exercise in resilience, a word my friend detests. She says resilience is a Western notion – that our bias towards a cure leaves out a lot of data. I want to agree. For every example of resilience is an example of its opposite: those who did not survive. So when my friend was asked, politely, to describe what war had taught, she replied, the experience taught me nothing.

At its worst, the resilience imperative is an offensive, exclusionary narrative that blames individuals for their predicament. Encouraging us to internalise, rather than question, the dominant logic of neoliberal values and the structural inequalities and social determinants that contribute to poor mental health, it undermines our impulses to solidarity. And at its best? Perhaps when it emerges from resistance and solidarity – not compliance and individuality.

 

THE SELF-HELP INDUSTRY’S moralising frame of reference offers the psychological comfort of consolatory distractions, encouraging conformity rather than criticality. Changing the status quo requires resistance, not resignation and compliance with the sanitised dictates of self-help gurus, and their market-friendly humbuggery that promises individual transformation and human flourishing without altering the structural conditions that contribute to distress.

Anxiety is symptomatic of the radical contingency of our era. Normalised precarity has normalised anxiety. To feel anxious, vulnerable and unhappy in a system that masquerades as freedom and demands that workers be resilient while leaving them unprotected is an understandable outcome. It is, perhaps, more accurately described as adjustment to reality, not maladjustment. In Feminism and the Politics of Resilience: Essays on Gender, Media and the End of Welfare, cultural theorist Angela McRobbie writes:

When the social world increasingly defines itself in terms of anxiety and uncertainty, and when it is seen as shameful to be dependent on others, the need for resilience also becomes part of our everyday commonsense, one which binds us to its terms and reconciles us to its conditions. This popular truth, as all truths do, has the ability to become a kind of inevitability, reducing our capacity to think or act otherwise. Because they are so widely in circulation, we find ourselves taking up these vocabularies and using them, even as we doubt them or refute them. 

As the vocabularies of self-optimisation, personal responsibility and resilience have been embedded into our social thinking, resilience has become a moral imperative, a civic duty. Internalising the values of the institutionalised social order of neoliberalism, we adjust and accommodate, becoming quiescent, rather than questioning, subjects.

 

PRECARITY IS A corrosive condition of dependency and instability, a structuring of the labour market that mandates ‘flexibility’ while manipulating lives and resources according to market dictates. Globalisation and neoliberal restructuring have reconfigured the economic and affective relations between worker and boss. In the absence of reciprocity, trust declines. Offloading unwanted labour from a digital platform such as Uber is as simple as sending a text: You have been deactivated.

Wendy Brown has suggested that the best way to grasp the times is to think against the times. So, instead of cultivating a compliant mindset and journaling our gratitude, we need to resist the soothing therapeutics of the resilience doctrine and kick back against those responsible for our dispiriting conditions. There is solidarity in recognising the reasons for our alienation, in rejecting the depoliticising embrace of cod psychology. Unless we construct alternative projections of a post-pandemic world that is worth our attachment, we will return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’.

Despite its glittering promises, the neoliberal social order has delivered loneliness, alienation and anxiety. Along with stupendous wealth for a few, we have witnessed rising inequality between the asset-owning class and the rest. Life is increasingly ordered by the speculative asset economy. Employment precarity and wage stagnation have occurred alongside asset inflation, shaping social stratification and exclusion. Intergenerational transfers of wealth embed and exacerbate inequality. As Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings argue in The Asset Economy, intergenerational transfers of wealth have become a key mechanism in the new logic of class. Government policies – and their absence – have buttressed the inegalitarian effects of the asset economy.

The pandemic has exacerbated the wounds inflicted upon us by the neoliberal social order. It’s time to emerge from the burrows of our subjectivities, to shed the premise of politics being practised as an exercise in personal expressiveness. Let’s ditch resilience and positivity dictates and overturn the cultural hegemony of therapeutic narratives that locate social problems at the level of the individual.

Unequal societies produce higher rates of chronic stress, anxiety and depression as well as other pernicious effects in public health, education and social mobility. A fairer, more egalitarian society that nurtured human flourishing, and was built on care of its people and environment, would have little need for resilience and positivity mandates.

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