Breaking chains: precarity in the Age of Anxiety

  • October 16, 2015

Capitalism & Crisis

In our Age of Anxiety, society assaults us from every possible angle with an avalanche of uncertainty. How do we fight back under conditions of precarity?

An Age of Anxiety is upon us, one where society assaults us from every possible angle with an avalanche of uncertainty, fear and alienation. We live with neither liberty nor security but instead precariousness. Our housing, our income and our play are temporary and contingent, forever at the whim of the landlord, policeman, bureaucrat or market. The only constant is that of insecurity itself. We are gifted the guarantee of perpetual flux, the knowledge that we will forever be flailing from one abyss to another, that true relaxation is a bourgeois luxury beyond our means.

Our very beings come to absorb this anxiety. We internalize society’s cruelty and contradiction and transform them into a problem of brain chemistry, one that is diagnosed and medicated away instead of being obliterated at root. All hope is blotted out. Authentic experience, unmediated conversation, distraction-free affection and truly relaxed association feel like relics of a bygone era, a sepia dream that perhaps never existed.

Instead we have the frenetic social arenas of late capitalism: the commodified hedonism of clubs and festivals, express lunches, binge culture and the escapist, dislocating experience of online video games, all underlined by either our desperate need to numb our anxieties or to create effective, time-efficient units of fun so we are available for work and worry.

This is assuming we have work, of course. Many of us are unemployed, or are instead held in constant precarity. Stuck on zero-hour contracts or wading through as jobbing freelancers in industries that used to employ but don’t anymore, we are unable to plan our lives any further than next week’s rota, unable to ever switch off as the search for work is sprawling and continuous.

And if we do have traditional employment, what then? We are imprisoned and surveilled in the office, coffee shop or back room, subject to constant assessment, re-assessment and self-assessment, tracked, monitored and looped in a perpetual performance review, one which even our managers think is worthless, but has to be done anyway because, hey, company policy.

Continuous is the effective probationary period and we are forever teetering on the edge of unemployment. We internalize the implications of our constant assessment, the knowledge that we’re always potentially being surveilled. We censor ourselves. We second-guess ourselves. We quash ourselves.

And thanks to the effective abolition of the traditional working day, work becomes unbearable and endless. The security of having delineated time — at work and then at play — has been eradicated. Often this is because individuals have to supplement their atrocious wages with work on the side. But it is also because traditional 9-to-5 jobs have suffered a continuous extension of working hours into out-of-office time, enabled and mediated by our laptops and smartphones. These gadgets demand immediacy and, when coupled with the knowledge that you are always reachable and thus available, they instill in us a frantic need to forever reply in the now.

And with this expectation comes obligation. Hyper-networked technologies gift our bosses the ability to demand action from us at any moment. Things that had to wait before become doable — and thus are done — in the now. If you are unwilling, then someone is ready to take your place. You must always be at their beck and call. From this, our only refuge is sleep, perhaps the last bastion of delineated time against frenetic capitalism, and one that is being gradually eroded and replaced.

For those that are out of work the situation is no better. They face the cruel bureaucracy of the Job Centre or the Atos assessment, institutions that have no interest in linking up job seekers with fulfilling employment but instead attempt only to lower the benefits bill through punitive, arbitrary sanctions and forcing the sick back to work. Insider accounts of these programs betray the mix of anxiety inducing micro-assessment and surveillance they employ.

Disabled claimants — always claimants, never patients, insists Atos — are assessed from the moment they enter the waiting room, noted as to whether they arrive alone, whether they can stand unassisted and whether they can hear their name when called. Compounding this is the hegemonic demonization of those that society has failed: if you are out of work, you are a scrounger, a benefit cheat and a liar. Utterly guilty of your failure, a situation individualized in its totality and attributable to no system, institution or individual but yourself.

We are surveilled, monitored and assessed from cradle to grave, fashioned by the demand that we must be empirical, computable and trackable, our souls transformed into a series of ones and zeros. This happens in the workplace, on the street and in various government institutions. But its ideological groundwork is laid in the nursery and the school.

These institutions bracket our imaginations while still in formation, normalizing a regime of continuous surveillance and assessment that is to last for the rest of our lives. Staff are increasingly taken away from educating and nurturing and instead are made to roam nurseries taking pictures and recording quotes, all to be computed and amalgamated so authorities can track, assess and predict a child’s trajectory.

It is true that this does not trouble the child in the same way traditional high intensity rote examination does. But what it instead achieves is the internalization of the surveillance/assessment nexus in our minds; laying the groundwork for an acquiescence to panoptical monitoring, a resignation to a private-less life and a buckling to regimes of continuous assessment.

Britain is particularly bad in this respect. Not only does our government have a fetish for closed-circuit television like no other, but also, GCHQ was at the heart of the Snowden revelations. Revelation, however, is slightly misleading — as what was most telling about the leaks wasn’t the brazen overstep by government institutions, but that few people were surprised. Although we didn’t know the details, we suspected such activity was going on. We acted as if we were being watched, tracked and monitored anyhow.

In this we see the paranoid fugitive of countless films, books and television dramas extrapolated to society writ large. We are all, to some extent, that person. Our growing distrust of governments, the knowledge that our technologically-integrated lives leave a heavy trace and the collection of “big” data for both commercial and authoritarian purposes contributes to our destabilized, anxious existence. An existence that impels us towards self-policing and control. One where we do the authority’s job for them.

Many individuals offer the amount of choice we have, or the amount of knowledge we can access at the click of a button, as the glorious consequences of late capitalist society. But our rampant choice society, one where we have to make an overwhelming number of choices — about the cereal we eat, the beer we drink, or the clothes we wear — is entirely one sided. While we have an incredible amount of choice over issues of little importance, we are utterly excluded from any choice about the things that matter; what we do with the majority of our time, how we relate to others or how society functions as a whole. Nearly always these choices are constricted by the market, the necessity of work, cultures of overwork and neoliberal ideology.

Again we find this ideology laid down in primary education. Over the years more and more “continuous” learning has been introduced whereby children, over a two week period or so, have to complete a set of tasks for which they can choose the order. This is an almost perfect example of how choice functions in our society, ubiquitous when insignificant but absent when important. The children can choose when they do an activity, which matters little as they will have to do it at some point anyway, but cannot choose not to do it, or to substitute one kind of activity with another.

Why does this matter? Because meaningful choices about our lives give us a sense of certainty and control. Avalanches of bullshit choices that still have to be made, as study after study has shown, make us incredibly anxious. Each of them takes mental effort. Each contains, implicitly, the multitude of choices that we didn’t make; all those denied experiences for every actual experience. This is fine if there are only one or two. But if there are hundreds, every act is riddled with disappointment, every decision shot with anxiety.

Compounding this orgy of choice, and in itself another root cause of anxiety, is the staggering amount of information that assaults us every day. Social media, 24-hour news, the encroachment of advertising into every crack — both spatially and temporally — and our cultures of efficiency that advocate consuming or working at every possible moment all combine to cause intense sensory overload. This world, for many, is just too much.

Although we’ve talked mostly about work, surveillance, assessment and choice, there are a multitude of factors one could add. The desolation of community due to the geographical dislocation of work, the increased transiency of populations and the growing privatization of previously public acts — drinking, eating and consuming entertainment are increasingly consigned to the home — shrinks our world to just our immediate families.

Camaraderie, extended community and solidarity are eroded in favor of mistrust, suspicion and competition. Outside of work our lives become little more than a series of privatized moments, tending to our property and ourselves rather than each other, flitting between the television shows, video games, home DIY and an incredible fetish for gardening with no hint towards the thought that perhaps these experiences would be better if they were held in common, if they appealed to the social and looked outward rather than in.

In the same way we could mention the ubiquity of debt — be it the mortgage, the credit card or the student loans — and the implicit moral judgment suffered by the debtor coupled with the anxiety-inducing knowledge that they could lose everything at any moment. Or we could consider the near-existential crises humanity faces, be it climate change, ISIS or the death throes of capitalism; all too abstract and total to comprehend, all contributing to a sense that there is no future, only a grainy, distant image of lawless brutality, flickering resolutely in our heads.

But the crux, and the reason anxiety could become a revolutionary battleground, is that neoliberal ideology has individualized our suffering, attributing it to imbalances in our brain chemistry, constructing it as a problem of the self, rather than an understandable human reaction to a myriad of cruel systemic causes. Instead of changing society the problem is medicalized and we change ourselves, popping pills to mold our subjectivities to late-capitalist structures, accepting the primacy of capitalism over humanity.

This is why “We Are All Very Anxious”, a pamphlet released by the Institute of Precarious Consciousness, is so explosively brilliant. Not only does it narrate the systemic causes of anxiety, but it situates the struggle within a revolutionary strategy, constructing a theory that is at once broad and personal, incorporating one’s own subjective experience into an explanatory framework, positing anxiety as a novel, contemporary revolutionary battleground, ripe for occupation.

It is, they claim, one of three eras spanning the last two-hundred years where we have progressed between different dominant societal affects. Until the postwar settlement we suffered from misery. The dominant narrative was that capitalism benefited everybody; while at the same time overcrowding, malnourishment and slum dwelling were rife. In response to this appropriate tactics such as strikes, mutual aid, cooperatives and formal political organization were adopted.

After the postwar settlement, until around the 1980s, a period of Fordist boredom ensued. Compared to the last era, most people had stable jobs, guaranteed welfare and access to mass consumerism and culture. But much of the work was boring, simple and repetitive. Life in the suburbs was beige and predictable. Capitalism, as they put it, “gave everything needed for survival, but no opportunities for life.” Again movements arose in opposition, positioned specifically against the boredom of the age. The Situationists and radical feminism can be mentioned, but also the counter-culture surrounding the anti-war movement in America and the flourishing DIY punk scene in the UK.

This period is now finished. Capitalism has co-opted the demand for excitement and stimulation both by appropriating formerly subversive avenues of entertainment — the festival, club and rave — while dramatically increasing both the amount and intensity of distractions and amusements.

In one sense we live in an age of sprawling consumerism that avoids superficial conformity by allowing you to ornament and construct your identity via hyper-customized, but still mass-produced products. But technological development also mean that entertainment is now more total, immersive and interactive; be it the video game or the full-color film watched on a widescreen, high-definition television.

Key to this linear conception is the idea of the public secret, the notion that anxiety, misery or boredom in these periods are ubiquitous but also hidden, excluded from public discourse, individualized and transformed into something unmentionable, a condition believed to be isolated and few because nobody really talked about it. Thus to even broach the subject in a public, systematic manner becomes not just an individual revelation but also a collective revolutionary act.

I’ve seen this first-hand when running workshops on the topic. Sessions, which were often argumentative and confrontational, became, when the subject was capitalism and anxiety, genuinely inquisitive and exploratory. Groups endeavored to broaden their knowledge of the subject, make theoretical links and root out its kernel rather than manning their usual academic ramparts and launching argument after rebuttal back and forth across the battlefield.

But more than this, there was a distinct edge of excitement, the feeling that we were onto something, a theory ripe with explosive newness, one that managed to combine our subjective experiences and situate them in a coherent theoretical framework.

However, we must be critical. To posit anxiety as a specifically modern affect, unique to our age, is contentious. What about the 1950s housewife, someone mentioned in one of the sessions, with her subjectivity rigidly dictated by the misogyny and overbearing cultural norms of the time? Didn’t this make her feel anxious?

Well, perhaps. But if we take anxiety to mean a general feeling of nervousness or unease about an uncertain outcome — with chronic anxiety being an actively debilitating form — then we can draw distinct differences. Although the housewife was oppressed, her oppression was codified and linear, her life depressingly mapped out with little room for choice or maneuver. Similarly with the slave — surely the universal symbol of oppression — hierarchies aren’t nebulous but explicit, domination is ensured by the whip and the gun, the master individualized and present.

This is in stark contrast to the current moment. While it is obvious that oppressions are distinct and incomparable, we can nevertheless see that the fug of the 21st century youth is of a different nature. Our only certainty is that of uncertainty. Our oppressor is not an individual but a diffuse and multiplicitous network of bureaucrats, institutions and global capital, hidden in its omnipotence and impossible to grasp.

We aren’t depressed by the inevitability of our oppression, but instead are baffled by its apparent (but unreal) absence, forever teetering on the brink, not knowing why, nor knowing who we should blame.

Similarly it is bold to claim that anxiety is the dominant affect of Western capitalism, tantamount to pitching it as the revolutionary issue of our age. Yet if we analyze the popular struggles of our time — housing, wages, work/life balance and welfare — they are often geared, in one way or another, towards promoting security over anxiety.

Housing for many is not about having a roof over their heads, but about security of tenure, be it via longer fixed-term tenancies or the guarantee that they won’t be priced out by rent rises that their precarious employment can’t possibly cover. In the same way struggles over welfare are often about material conditions, but what particularly strikes a chord is the cruel insecurity of a life on benefits, forever at the whim of sanction-wielding bureaucrats who are mandated to use any possible excuse to remove your only means of support.

Anxiety is also a struggle that unites diverse social strata, emanating from institutions such as the job center, loan shark, university, job market, landlord and mortgage lender, affecting the unemployed, precariously employed, office worker, indebted student and even the comparatively well-off. Again we find this unification in the near-universal adoption of the smartphone and other hyper-networked technologies. All of us, and especially our children, are beholden to a myriad of glowing screens, flitting between one identity and another, alienated and disconnected from our surroundings and each other.

This is not to say a movement against anxiety itself will ever arise. Such a rallying cry would be too abstract and fail to inspire. Instead, anxiety must be conceptualized both as an affect which underlies various different struggles, and a schema within which they can be assembled into a revolutionary strategy.

So, what is our tangible aim here? In part it must be to reduce the level of general anxiety so as to increase quality of life. Yet if we are to take a revolutionary rather than a mere humanitarian approach, this drop in anxiety must in some way translate into a rise in revolutionary disposition. In certain ways it obviously will. If there is a public realization that large swathes of the mentally ill are not as such because of their unfortunate brain chemistry but instead because of a misconfiguration of society, people are already thinking on an inherently challenging, systemic level.

Similarly, conflict with the state or capital — be it on the street, in the workplace or inside one’s own head — tends to be high-impact and anxiety-inducing. A drop in general anxiety will make it more likely that individuals will engage in such moments of conflict and, crucially, experience the intense radicalization and realization of hegemonic power that can only be achieved through such visceral moments. But a second part to this, hinted at already and integral to giving the struggle a revolutionary edge, is to emphasize that there is a public secret to be aired. As well as combating the sources of anxiety, we must say we are doing so; we must situate these struggles within larger frameworks and provide education on its systemic nature.

Thus, any strategy would need to be both abstract and practical. On one hand we must explode the public secret by raising consciousness. This would require a general onslaught of education, including, but not limited to, consciousness-raising sessions, participatory workshops, articles, books, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, YouTube videos and “subvertised” adverts. The emphasis would be to educate but also to listen, to intermingle theoretical understanding with subjective experience.

The second part would be to strategically support campaigns and make demands of politicians that specifically combat anxiety in its various different guises. When it comes to work, the abolition of zero-hour contracts, the raising of the minimum wage in line with the actual cost of living, and the tightening of laws on overwork as part of a broader campaign to assert the primacy of life over work, of love over pay, would be a good start.

For those out of work, underpaid or precarious, the introduction of a basic citizen’s income would represent a revolutionizing of the job market. In one move it would alleviate the cultural and practical anxieties of worklessness — ending the bureaucratic cruelty of the job center while removing the anxiety-inducing stigma associated with claiming benefits — while simultaneously allowing individuals to pursue culturally important and revolutionary activities such as art, music, writing or (dare I say it?) activism, without the crushing impossibility of trying to make them pay. When we look to housing obvious solutions include mandatory, secured five-year tenancies, capped rent increases and a guarantee of stable, suitable social housing for those who need it.

There are many more reforms I could list. You will notice, however, that these are indeed reforms; bread and butter social democracy. Does that mean such a program is counter-revolutionary? A mere placatory settlement between capital and the working class? No, it does not. Revolution does not emerge from the systematic subjection of individuals to increased misery, anxiety and hardship as accelerationist logic demands. Instead it flourishes when populations become aware of their chains, are given radical visions for the future and the means to achieve them. It is when leftists critique but also offer hope. It is when the population writ large are included in and are masters of their own liberation; not when they are viewed as a lumpen, otherly mass, of only instrumental importance in achieving the glorious revolution.

Look at the practicalities and this becomes obvious. How can we expect individuals to launch themselves into high-tension anxiety-inducing conflicts if the mere thought of such a situation causes them to have a panic attack? How can individuals, in the face of near panoptical surveillance and monitoring, combat the overwhelming desire to conform if they aren’t awarded some freedom from the practical anxieties of life? How are we to think and act in a revolutionary, and often abstract, manner if the very real and immediate anxieties of work, home and play fog our minds so totally?

This is not to say freedom will be given to us. It must always be taken, and we must not rely on electoral politics to hand us the revolution down from above. Nor will true struggle ever be an anxiety-free leisure pursuit. Genuine conflict with the state and capital will always entail danger, stress and the possibility of intensified precariousness.

Nevertheless, the dismissal of electoral politics in its totality represents abysmal revolutionary theory. The pursuit of reforms by progressive governments being bitten at the heels by sharp, vibrant social movements can produce real, tangible change.

It was what should have happened with Syriza, and it is what will hopefully happen with the new Labour leadership in the UK. And if, as individuals and communities, we are to puncture the distress, precariousness and general sense of cruel unknowing so particular to the moment in which we live, if we are to overcome the avalanche of bullshit and reclaim our confidence, if we to construct and disseminate a distinctly communal, hopeful revolutionary fervor, such changes are imminently needed.

Joseph Todd

Joseph Todd is an activist, writer and post-graduate student living in London. More of his writing can be found at

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