Looking at the contemporary conditions of work and how these give rise to anxiety and depression.
In this opening part of this three-part article will outline changes in workplace and its role in generating anxiety. In the second part of this article, I'll return to the metrics of productivity that open this post before turning to consider capitalist management of anxiety and depression in the workplace. To do this I will touch on aspects of psychology and pharmacotherapy, as well as looking at other suggested modes of managing the unproductive bodies of "sick workers" (especially the new "Mindful Employer" scheme). In the third part of this article, I'll briefly discuss modes of resisting precarity, efficiency and the colonisation of desire.
We're living through an epidemic of anxiety and depression. Ours isn't the first generation to think of itself as living through an Age of Anxiety. For past generations the anxiety was related to the looming threat of thermonuclear war and AIDs, the breakdown of the nuclear family, and an apparent spike in crime. For the post-war generation anxiety was less about psychopathology and more about authenticity, an experience that revealed our being-towards-death or the inescapability of the chasm of metaphysical freedom. The current waves of nervousness, a term that pre-dates the artificial psychiatric distinction between anxiety and depression, come at a time when we face similar situations. Among the real threats that we face and which seem to spiral beyond our control are climate change and ecological catastrophe, the related prospect of resource wars, the ongoing mutual antagonism of state surveillance and exposure to images and promises of terror, and the re-emergence of full blooded fascism. There is a lot to be anxious about, and we no longer have the luxury of ultimate existentialist comforts. But for most of us there is a much more immediate and pressing concern. Our age of anxiety coincides with a particular recomposition of labour.
In 2000 the Mental Health Foundation 1 reported that work-related stress was among the leading occupational health risks in the UK. According to the same report 1 in 3 members of the British workforce will have a diagnosable mental health problem, likely to be anxiety or depression. Since the "financial" crisis of 2008 these figures can only have risen. A more recent 2011 report by the Department of Health 2 has identified that in the year 2008-09 11.4 million working days were lost due to stress, anxiety and depression, giving us the handy individualised statistical equivalence of 27.3 days lost per "affected person. They also cash this out for us in terms of cost per year per "affected person" per employer: £6,850 for anxiety; £7,230 for depression. The DoH confirm to us that 'research has demonstrated a link between debt and mental health' but despite this give only a passing reference to the return of the repressed that was the crisis of 2008. In the eyes of the DoH the crisis only intensified an existing problem, and in one way this is absolutely the case: financial precariousness, personal debt, and workplace stress all pre-existed that crisis. What the DoH don't and can't consider is that the two phenomena aren't linked as cause and effect but are part of the same catastrophe. But to see this would already be to see that capitalism is as much about the production of subjectivity as it is about the production of goods. What they also don't and can't consider is that it is the wage and work, the other side of debt, that is the problem.
Recomposition of labour-decomposition of subjectivity
The recomposition of labour that has been ongoing since the 1970s has been marked by the causalisation of work, a transformation in the sites and processes of the mode of production, and with them a slew of new demands made on workers. Among these transformations have been the decline of traditional working class occupations in factories as manufacturing has become increasingly off-shored and automated; new forms of work have risen up to take their place in the service industry that involve increasing amounts of emotional, interpersonal and cognitive work, often with low to no renumeration. With such transformations come a slew of new modes of subjectivation, the loss of familiar forms of life, and with them the shattering of assumptive worlds.
The theory of assumptive worlds was formulated by psychologist CM Parkes in order to describe the way in which humans are able to organise their current experience on the basis of their past experiences 3 . This becomes interesting when we consider that we aren't just making assumptions about the present but that we also make intuitive assumptions about the future. When the assumptive world is shattered- Parkes talks primarily about bereavement- we loss the familiar coordinates that structure our experiences in the present and therefore also loss the capacity to form easy expectations about the future. Without the assumptive world our unconscious expectations are also shattered.The result is a condition of abject uncertainty, the inability to form those predictions about our future that we are not consciously aware of making but which allow us to make more explicit plans for the future.
What happens to the assumptive world of the zero-hour, sessional or part-time worker who doesn't know when they're working next, or for how many hours? What becomes of those workers whose jobs haven't yet been computerised, robotised or otherwise automated? What could be an opportunity for the expansion of free time and an emancipation from work is in today's conditions more likely to hang over these workers like a grim spectre threatening their biophysical survival. The promises of some writers on the prospects of new jobs emerging out of the "Second Age of the Machines" after an interim period of adjustment are likely to offer cold comfort to those needing to feed themselves or their families, who may already be struggling to keep a roof over their heads, to keep themselves from breaking under the pressure. After neoliberalism's normalisation of a permanent condition of dissolution (deregulation) an emergent technocapitalism is already attempting to upregulate cells of labour, exponentially increasing the number of productive bodies available to capital. Technocapitalism has principle it places before all others: efficiency. In this way the upregulation of labour has a strange continuity with Fordism. For an increasing body of workers efficiency is experienced as the daily struggle of living beneath the living wage or in receiving no wage at all.
The casualised, precarious worker exists as what Franco Berardi has called a cell of time: capitalism increasingly no longer requires us 5 days a week, for 8-12 hours a day, because it can rent any number of these cells, activating them at any time of the day or night with 24/7 availability, deactivating those it no longer requires. What Bifo doesn't talk so much about is the fact that these cells aren't necessarily even human bodies any more. We thus see a decomposition of subjectivity in at least two senses. First, in the production of psychopathological states like that get encoded by psychiatry as anxiety and depression; second, in the tendency towards the actual disappearance of subjectivity from the labour process. This is a perverse development given that so much of what is often called cognitive labour depends upon the exploitation of the subjectivities of workers as well as consumers, with the line between the two becoming ever more indistinct 4 . At the same time cognitive labour is usually defined as forms of work that depend on species-capacities of language, emotion, thought and creativity and thus describes a vast bulk of work performed in the north's service industries 5 .
With the casualisation of work has come an increased sense that each worker is in competition with every other worker. This isn't just true of those looking for work or for a change of jobs, but also in terms of climbing internal company hierarchies and securing "meritocratic" performance related bonuses. The loss of places of mass labour resulted in the erosion of the capacity for building active solidarity that allowed the labour movement to become as strong as it once was, and this is loss of solidarity is accelerated when the working environment is engineered into a war of all against all. This has definitely been one of the aims of bosses in their internal wage deregulation processes and the fragmentation of roles into higher and lower qualified positions, even if workers still routinely enact any number of small acts of mutual aid and solidarity with one another. But management have attempted to get around this too: a number of industries have workers performing essentially the same roles but at different wage rates related to their professional status, the assumed motivation being to create divisions among their workers based on personal envy and resentments.
The professionalisation and entrepeneurialisation of certain jobs also leads to demands for continuous professional development, evidenced by the demand to keep up with the newest research in a given field outside work hours, attending the latest training, and essentially making one's life a succession of work-related self-improvements that can be reduced to CV fodder. How often do we hear people saying "it'll look good on my CV?" and put themselves through situations they hate because of it. In jobs that are yet to be professionalised- sales assistance on retail outlet floors, for instance- it is no less expected that workers take pride in their companies brand and products. In either instance technologies of the self are deployed that link the individual worker to their workplace in a way that exceeds simply working there. An attempt is made to pin the worker to a particular work-identity. A whole series of identifications that pass through one's job, one's employability, one's attractiveness to potential employers. Desire itself is thus colonised by work. Is it any wonder that work has become fraught with stress, burnout, anxiety and depression?
The increasing dependence of labour on new technologies also has an anxiogenic effect insofar as it opens up the prospect of rapidly changing workplaces and working practices. The way you perform your job today may not be how you perform it tomorrow. Likewise, the place that you work is may also undergo dramatic changes. This can serve to heighten the sense of uncertainty around work even among those who have been in a job for a long time. In my own training as a nurse, I couldn't tell you the number of health care workers who have stumbled over new electronic record keeping practices and confessed their feelings of inadequacy. Even people who know what they are doing no longer know what they are doing; and there is seemingly no way to predict what changes might come next.
In those sector of labour that aren't marked by casualisation there is nonetheless a system of expectations in place that workers can do more with less. Work hours have gone up in the UK, with work loads also increasing. A whole series of technologies have also been put into place that allow us to work more outside of working our working hours and without pay. I won't dwell on these technologies here as they are by now well known. Suffice to say that more and more people are reading and responding to work emails on their smartphones before they get to work or on the train home, while these wireless devices connect us to the internet so that work can be undertaken anywhere, any time.
These technologies of tele-presence allow us to be "there at a distance" so that the workplace becomes a virtual dimension that doesn't coincide with its physical location in spacetime, to exist in what Virilio calls a "stereo-reality"6 Work becomes deshackled from the working day, the working week, the factory, the shop, the office, and no longer obeys the logic of days off, weekends, and holidays. At the same time work is one of those mechanisms by which we feel compelled to be constantly connected to the machineries of the society of stimulation, increasing the our anxiety levels even more. Listening to Gang of Four's plea "please give me evenings and weekends" feels both all the more urgent and somehow nostalgic.
It is also worth noting here that just as political networks of workplace solidarity have dissolved- even as we begin to see new forms of it emerging- the new conditions of labour put increased strain on other kinds of support networks. Family and friends have long been regarded by psychiatry as protective mechanisms for preventing psychological suffering. But today the family is often ill-equipped to provide this role, instead being the place where rising anxieties are worked out in anger, hostility or mutual isolation. This isn't to say this is true of all families, or that this is an eternal law of family dynamics, but the family is often the place that these anxieties come to the fore 7
The situation is that we are expected to work more for less money, with less security and certainty, and to actively enjoy an exploitation that was once seen as a necessary exchange in order to survive. It is becoming more and more apparent that the inevitable upshot of these transformations is the production of the anxious worker, the depressed worker. It becomes easy to see a seemingly inevitable identification: anxiety is the psychopathological expression of the combination of precarity, efficiency, and the colonisation of our desires by work. These are three terrains that have to be contested.
- 1 Mental Health Foundation. 2000. Mental health in the workplace: tackling the effects of stress. London: Mental Health Foundation.
- 2Department of Health. 2011. Mental health promotion and mental illness prevention. London: Department of Health.
- 3C.M Parkes. 1988. Bereavement as a psychosocial transition: process of adaptation to change. Journal of social issues. 1988: 44]. pp.53-65.
- 4This zone of indistinction is captured in the portmanteau "prosumer" that was coined by futurologist Alvin Toffler. In his book Future Shock Toffler described the emergence of a time when firms would increasingly create products marked by "mass customisation". Perhaps the best examples of this come from the digital marketplace with companies devoted to the consumer's production of content that other content producers then consume. The most obvious examples are social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, but Google's personalised advertising algorithms is probably a much better example. In this case, the very activity of being online is a productive activity. This even extends to the maintenance of blogs- like this one. As Ivor Southwood puts it in non-stop inertia: 'Like unpaid technicians, we all obediently maintain our own media networks. Ivor Southwood. 2011. non-stop inertia. Hants: Zero Books.p. 10.a
- 5 Like many people I find the term "cognitive labour" incredibly problematic. With its link to the immaterial labour of the post-autonomia movement it remains close to the tendency to underplay the continued relevance of industrial production in global capitalism- including the industrial agricultural production that provides most of us with our food- and has disembodying undertones. The problem of embodiment exposes theories of cognitive labour to feminist critiques and to the obscuring of the place of sex workers, especially those working in porn who might be seen to disrupt a neat division between digital, cognitive, affective and manual labour
- 6 The idea of "stereo-reality" is intended to invoke a sense of psychosis at work in digital technologies. While this seems hyperbolic, there is nonetheless something to the idea that we have a proliferation of worlds in which our mirror image begins to crack.
- 7For all this, I'm certainly not suggesting we need to be nostalgic for The Family or for the familialism that almost all antipychiatrists correctly identified as a potentially destructive fetish.