The nervousness of politics

The nervousness of politics

A brief look at Plan C/ the Institute for Precarious Consciousness's recent theses on anxiety. The claim that anxiety is the hegemonic affect of late capitalism is explored a little. If you don't have time to read this, go and read the theses anyway.

Go and read Plan C's We are all very anxious.

This post could have just said that.

But once I start writing I have problems stopping.

I'm an anxious man. Even when I write.

I want to briefly look at Plan C/the Institute for Precarious Consciousness's excellent article on anxiety. Along with the current openDemocracy editorials on the politics of mental health, and the Occupied Time's recent special on madness, it seems like the second wave of anti-psychiatry could be preparing itself to emerge, recovering from its long catatonia and recuperation in the service-user or consumer movement.

In brief, the article argues for a periodisation in which successes phases of capitalism produce their own hegemonic mode of affectivity. These periodisations aren't absolute, with aspects of the time of misery still operant today and, arguably, the phase identified with boredom still affecting certain aspects of culture. There isn't much to disagree with in the continuity between these phases, although a short piece like the one Plan C have published leaves a lot of the detail left for us to analyse.

It is Theses 4 that contains the major claim of the article:

In contemporary capitalism, the dominant reactive affect is anxiety.

I think that this is absolutely true. I've written in the past that what got me into mental health nursing and the politics of madness was my own problems with anxiety. I used to get frequent and severe panic attacks. I was never diagnosed, thankfully, but my symptoms met with the DSM criteria for panic disorder. When I went to a GP I was offered a printed sheet of breathing exercises. At the time I wanted drugs. Now I'm happy not to have got them.

It wasn't just my own anxiety. It was everyone around me. As the article says, anxiety has become an open secret. The article links anxiety to precarity, correctly pointing out that anxiety is the obvious affective response to a systemic uncertainty and fears that lack concrete objects. It also links it to securitisation, but I think we should also link it to the related militarisation of urban spaces and, beyond that, to the climate of catastrophe in which we live. There are how many impending disasters on the horizon? Not one we can respond to as bodies that experience a collective threat as individual. Heidegger wrote that anxiety was the affect that Dasein experienced when it experienced its being-towards-death. For Heidegger this being-towards-death is what allowed for the appropriation of one's "ownmost" authentic existence. Today, for us, the threat of death is just as often collective as it is individual. I can't appropriate "my death" when the forms of death that populate our minds are military, climactic, and economically induced. The catastrophic imagination has this going for it: death, and anxiety, becomes collective.

One of the deep problems of the collective or transindividual nature of anxiety is its management. All anxiety eventually being the anxiety of vulnerable bodies open to threat and so, in the last instance, the lurking threat of death. But the Terror Management Theory school of social psychology has conducted well over 300 empirical tests to establish that clinically induced anxiety and fears lead to the strengthening of in-group/out-group identifications and the search for scapegoat figures. The semioproduction of "cultural anxiety buffers"- systems of social meaning- bolster us in the face of terror. Consider the surprising extent of this as it is revealed in the following from one of the leading TMT researchers, Tom Pyszczynski:

One of our earliest and most widely replicated findings is that reminders of death increase nationalism and other forms of group identification, making people more accepting of those who are similar to themselves and more hostile toward those who are different. For example, in a very early study we found that reminding people of death led them to react more positively toward a person who praised America and more negatively toward a person who criticized America (Greenberg et al., 1990). Similar patterns have been found all over the world. When subtly reminded of death, Germans sit closer to fellow Germans and farther away from Turks (Ochsman and Mathay, 1994) and, more recently, show an increased preference for the deutsche mark over the euro (Jonas and Greenberg, in press); Dutch citizens exaggerate how badly the Dutch national soccer team will beat the rival German team (Dechesne et al.. What Are We So Afraid Of? 8372000); Israelis are more accepting of fellow Israelis and rejecting of
Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel (Florian and Mikulincer, 1998); Italians view Italian identity as more "real, reflecting bigger differences between Italians and people from other countries (Castano
et al., 2002); and Scots are more discriminating in judging pictures as either Scottish or English, viewing fewer faces of Englishmen as Scottish (Castano, Yzerbet, and Palladino, 2004). These findings all come from highly controlled laboratory experiments

I've written about TMT elsewhere and I intend to return to it on here, as I think it is invaluable to understanding our ontological vulnerability and to the development of an anarchist theory of psychology. Consider what the TMT researchers found in the wake of 9/11, a moment of "mortality salience" and death anxiety on a cultural and national scale. In response to the greatest trauma on the American psyche in recent history the response was an increase in a fervent nationalism, increased intolerance of dissent, more hostility and violence towards people who are different, a desire for revenge and a need to find heroes (whether they be American soldiers going out for revenege, or the firefighters at the scene of the devastation), as well as a desire to help in the cause. In a chapter for a (hopefully) forthcoming book I've written on how capital and governments like to expose us to anxiogenic conditions, to expose us to our vulnerability, in order to illicit precisely these effects. This is the necropolitical side of biopolitics and to my mind it is this that current strategies of the decomposition of labour aim at: the capture, intensification and even production of anxiety.

This is compounded by the demand that we self-objectify from the outset, everything about us being reducible to its use and attractiveness to an employer, the "CVisation of life", the making of oneself into a particular brand, with the self-management involved in our behaviours, choices, and speech, and the constant coupling of existence to a deluge of different (economic; psychometic; sexual) measures of performance. Consider the massive increase in diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. Setting questions of the degree of diagnostic fashions to one side, isn't a disorder that describes someone with a crippling fear of being judged or evaluated in social settings exactly what you would expect given the conditions? When you're expected to be creative, to market yourself, to CVise your life, when this is the new conformity, social anxiety is both pathological and protective. Likewise, consider the rise in OCD diagnoses. In OCD people perform ritualistic behaviours (compulsions) in order to stave of vague feelings of impending dread (obsessions). These behaviours range widely from performing actions a given number of times to changing clothing to driving miles past your house. In the case of Yayoi Kusama it involves painting dots, as with the image at the top of this post. This disorder is incredibly debilitating but seems to be fiar play for bad taste jokes and all that crap. What really is so strange about OCD? What it describes is people who are acutely attuned to their anxiety attempting to enact safety behaviours to alleviate that anxiety. In these cases it becomes stunning clear that psychopathology- madness- is the new condition of alienation.

Precarity is a machine for anxiety; austerity is a machine for making-vulnerable; psychopathology is the machinery of alienation.

These strategies co-exist alongside and within what I have been calling on this blog "the society of stimulation". This is intended to describe various aspects of control societies that emphasis the regulation of bodies, the movement away from the production of docile bodies that belonged in disciplinary spaces and towards that of hyperaroused bodies. Hyperaroused bodies are those wired into the wireless circuitry of the production and consumption of biochemical states, substances and conditions. Far from having entered a domain of semiocapitalism in which the main commodities are signs and sign-systems (finance, for instance), we have entered the era of pharmacocapitalism in which strategies of an accelerated and relentless stimulation takes place at the molecular level: the regulation, incitement, production and consumption of hormones, neurotransmitters, pornographic images, antidepressants, anxiolytics, erections, cognitive enhancements, and so on occur at the molecular level. In this regime of production the key figures aren't necessarily artists or the so-called cognitariat, or at least not only them. Knowledge workers are aligned with factory workers in the production of synthetic hormones, are aligned with sex workers in the field of sexual excitation and release (sex work as the production of ejaculations- with all the affective effects this has), are aligned with psychiatric and additions workers, are aligned with drug dealers and so on. Baudrillard, writing against the libidinal economies of popular in 1960s French theory once wrote "beware the molecule" but today we must read this much more literally. Beware the molecule, but do not renounce it.

The society of stimulation seeks to produce bodies that are capable of working all the time, whenever, as perfectly flexible neurochemical and biophysical agents. It plug us into speeds and volumes of information and data that we can't possibly attend to, sort, store, decide on and so on. Our nervous systems just can't handle it. As physiological units we live in an environment that is more complex than that which we evolved for: the primordial Savannah; plus the urban environment, with its militarised facades and police presences, its attention-demanding neon signs, music, ringtones, a cacophonous rhythm that disrupts our own biorhythms, as do the work patterns and the stresses we're expected to endure; plus the infosphere being delivered by hand held devices, head mounted eye wear, delivering us more data, more news, and news as it happens, that we are demanding to have a response to. The news itself is involved in producing affective states, making us fearful, and does so in such a manner as to make sure we don't have time to think. This is Virilio's democracy of emotion/communism of affect, and it is among the major reasons why we need to reclaim the mediasphere.

This reclaimed media would form part of what Plan C's article dubs "a machine for fighting anxiety":

If the first wave provided a machine for fighting misery, and the second wave a machine for fighting boredom, what we now need is a machine for fighting anxiety – and this is something we do not yet have. If we see from within anxiety, we haven’t yet performed the “reversal of perspective” as the Situationists called it – seeing from the standpoint of desire instead of power. Today’s main forms of resistance still arise from the struggle against boredom, and, since boredom’s replacement by anxiety, have ceased to be effective.

Current militant resistance does not and cannot combat anxiety. It often involves deliberate exposure to high-anxiety situations. Insurrectionists overcome anxiety by turning negative affects into anger, and acting on this anger through a projectile affect of attack. In many ways, this provides an alternative to anxiety. However, it is difficult for people to pass from anxiety to anger, and it is easy for people to be pushed back the other way, due to trauma. We’ve noticed a certain tendency for insurrectionists to refuse to take seriously the existence of psychological barriers to militant action. Their response tends to be, “Just do it!” But anxiety is a real, material force – not simply a spook. To be sure, its sources are often rooted in spooks, but the question of overcoming the grip of a spook is rarely as simple as consciously rejecting it. There’s a whole series of psychological blockages underlying the spook’s illusory power, which is ultimately an effect of reactive affect. Saying “Just do it” is like saying to someone with a broken leg, “Just walk!”

This is the most important aspect of the article. The recognition that existing forms of resistance don't work and that we are still driven by spooks. If Stirner were writing today his critique of spooks would be written in the language of obsessions, compulsion, safety behaviours. To my mind radicals are exposed to necropolitical manipulation and strategies of stimulation just as much as everyone else. What radicals also face that others don't is that additional level of surveillance and precarity that comes from "being a known face" and receiving ludicrous bail conditions, and the other examples that Plan C discuss. The other thing that radicals face, possibly more than other people, although maybe not, is a visceral experience of the Kafkaesque distributions of power and responsibility through the networks that composed the structures of late capitalism.

In psychiatry- who makes the decisions about your treatment? The nurse? But he's just doing what the team decided. The multidisciplinary team? But they're just doing what the psychiatrist wants, in the end. The psychiatrist? Just applying a pre-existent body of knowledge and algorithmic decision making processes (DSM). The psychopharmacologist then? But she's in the same boat as the psychiatrist. So is it the American Psychiatric Association? The NHS? The Royal College of Psychiatrists? But these are just bodies composed of smaller bodies. This is the fundamental problem of the slippery circulatory nature of sovereignty. If the sovereign is the one who decides but the one who decides can always point to some other person or organisation or structure or body of knowledge or method or condition then the ultimate decision is always infinitely deferred. The same is true with the police. Name the capitalist institution; the same story. Much was made of the strap line from the Hunger Games part 2: "remember who the enemy is"...but we don't have the luxury of big badies to point to. We only have labyrinthine structures that twist away from us. It is depressing. People used to think of depression as rage turned inward. In the situation we face it is much closer to an impotent rage gone cold.

I think this is also part of our condition: we have fallen into a learned helplessness and are compulsively repeating various safety behaviours. In 1965 Martin Seligman electrocuted some dogs. Investigating the famous classical conditioning discovered by Pavlov. Pavlov discovered that dogs associated a ringing bell with the appearance of food and that they would salivate just upon hearing the bell, even in the absence of food. Seligman decided to see what happened if instead the dogs received an electric shock. After the dogs were conditioned to the shock he put them in a box divided in half. His hypothesis was that when he rang the bell- know associated with the electric shock- the dogs would attempt to escape. It didn't. Instead, it stayed put and endured the electrocution. This became the bedrock of the learned helplessness theory of depression. With the depressed individual, the theory runs, it is possible to suppose that the loss of a job or a relationship can lay in a profound course towards despair. If the person experiences a series of "negative life events" then they become depressed: they learn that everything is shit and there is nothing to be done about it. We need ways to come out of this learned helplessness. I think at least part of this means being humble, starting small, just learning to reactivate struggle, rather than hoping for revolution in five minutes. We have to be pragmatic in this regard: to learn how to fight again.

And this leads me to a last theoretical point. The only thing I worry about in placing anxiety as the hegemonic affectivity of precarity is that it plays into the emotional semiology of psychiatry. If you trace the history of diagnostic nosology you very quickly realise that anxiety as a symptom is almost as new as anxiety as a categorisation. Only in the DSM IV, with its abandoning of psychoanalytic language, did anxiety and depression appear as separate, even if co-occurring, symptom clusters. Rather than say we're all anxious, although I think we absolutely are, I would say we are all nervous. This might seem a small point to make but consider the treatments, the meanings, and the political mobilisations surrounding anxiety and depression. Also consider that "nervousness" was always understood immediately by laypeople outside of psychiatry. "Nerves" sounds unscientific, a bit silly, but it is actually part of a language that medicine had to obliterate in order to become the sanctioned discourse of pathologies of experience. The hegemonic affectivity today is nervousness: the co-mingling of depression and anxiety, experiences that almost always appear together anyway and which were really finally separated by the need to produce commodity markets.

Finally, the discussion of the consciousness-raising group that Plan C advocates is absolutely essential. The Institute for Precarious Consciousness is hopefully only the first in a flourishing burst of such subject-groups. In looking for models of resistance to a psychiatric power that is suffused through the fabric of late capitalism feminism is one of the most potent that we can turn to. This isn't only because feminism is aligned to the model of consciousness-raising but also because of its long tradition of autonomous health networks and its commitment to overcoming the false dichotomy that splits mind and body into distinct or mysterious substances, the foundational move of orthodox psy-disciplines.

At the same time we need to look to other strategies to resist the psychopathological fallout of capitalism and to turn illness into a weapon. People who experience psychosis- always at risk of being forgotten in radical circles- also have something to say, having organised themselves into affinity groups and so on. The psychotic experience is often one marked by the semiosomatic coupling of attributes to appearance: the psychotic is the one who really "looks like" madman. To my mind this also places machines for fighting psychopathology into resonances with anti-racist strategies: from black power to mad power?

A lot of people don't like that I've attached this blog to the history of antipsychiatry and that I talk about a second wave of antipsychiatry. All that is finished with. It went too far. It was immature. It was dangerous. Antipsychiatry was always about writing. The radical experiments in with psychiatry- experiments that we could undoubtedly learn from in political struggle- were never attempts to negate care for mentally ill people. And the idea that antipsychiatry was obscene, dangerous and all the rest is one echoes by a psychiatry that has absorbed its theory, minus the radical core. The same thing is said about communism, isn't it?

A popular unconscious admission today: keep calm and carry on. Keep calm: This is how the open secret of anxiety, of nerves, and the injunction to destimulate is expressed today. Even our despair is sold back to us; even the recovery of our nervous systems. Carry on: stay in the holding pattern of your safety behaviours, don't go too far, don't go astray. The denial of anxiety and the denial of communism displaced and compressed into one compact knotted slogan.At the moment I'm working with others to create an online space for a new militant mental health movement, and to set up something similar to the Institute for Precarious Consciousness. If there are still those who doubt the importance of these kinds of projects, they might want to consider the fate of Seligman's dogs: keep calm, get electrocuted.

Posted By

sometimes explode
Apr 14 2014 00:22


  • Precarity is a machine for anxiety; austerity is a machine for making-vulnerable; psychopathology is the machinery of alienation.

Attached files


Apr 14 2014 16:31

Thanks for this (despite some of the unfamiliar terminology) as I read the Plan C re-issued text which doesn't, as with much else there, come with any follow-up discussion outside their own group.

I thought it was the Institute rather than Plan C as such who were promoting a new venture in 'consciousness raising groups'. I can see the relevance of such groups as a minor contributing part of a wider anti-capitalist social movement but there are presumably some negative as well as positive lessons to be learnt from the experience of such groups in the earlier feminist/womens liberation movement. Certainly my experiences with 'copycat' mens groups at that time wasn't very encouraging.

Hudds Ludds
Apr 19 2014 11:05

'A machine for fighting anxiety' !
The root of much anxiety is in fact the machine, the alienation of technological society, the divorce from nature which predates capitalism.
Technological society, even that of neolithic farmers, also creates technological realtionships between humans which obstruct authentic human relationships.
It reinforces the power of instrumental reason and exacerbates the disconnect in the brain between neo-cortex activities and the hypothalamus and limbic system. Arthur Koestler proposed that this be restored using drugs.
But we need a society that controls technology and the perception of human beings as just tools to be used in the creation of a megamachine.
Any 'consciousness raising' must be predicated on this challenge to technological society, not merely its capitalist form.

Mar 18 2016 09:37
Hudds Ludds wrote:
Any 'consciousness raising' must be predicated on this challenge to capitalist social forms, not merely its technology.

Fixed that for you.

Jun 30 2016 21:15

Thanks for these insights!

I've found the discussion on capitalism and anxiety/ nervousness appealing. The collapse of identity isn't taken up here, but I'd be interested in others' opinions on how to deal with this in terms of organizing.