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Tell Me It’s Going to be OK

Self-care and social retreat under neoliberalism

Siegfried Kracauer, one of the eloquent theorists of pop-culture associated with the Frankfurt School, frowned upon the cinema with its velvet drapes and plush seats, calling it “distraction raised to the level of culture.” In his dour view of things, the urban working masses were lulled into sitting in the dark and gawping at mesmeric light projections while sinister forces shifted the world under their feet. “In the streets of Berlin, one is struck by the momentary insight that someday all this will suddenly burst apart,” he portended in 1926. The cinema still offers mental vacations from our existence of exploited labor, but capitalism’s more evolved form, neoliberalism, has delivered another, more pernicious sedative to take the edge off: medicinal jargon. The language of self-improvement has shifted its focus slightly but notably from motivation (“Just Do It.”) to amelioration (“radical empathy”). From the peppy Queer Eye reboot to Jordan B. Peterson’s angry Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos—the subtitle speaks volumes—the parlance of reassurance is a flourishing industry. An array of Virgils to suit various tastes stands ready to talk us through the many circles of neoliberal capitalism.

It makes sense that hyped-up “you’re OK” language circulates frantically at a time when the marketization of every aspect of our lives has pitted us against the rest of humanity—whether we’re interviewing, at age four, for a spot in an élite preschool or trying to pick the best mutual funds for our retirement portfolios. And yet, this so-called logic of the free market runs counter to what we comprehend of human nature.

Belonging is an essential human need. (Fascists understand this basic fact; neoliberals don’t.)

We crave hearing that we’re alright, we’re not alone, we’re accepted in spite of our flaws. Belonging is an essential human need. (Fascists understand this basic fact; neoliberals don’t.) Loneliness, it turns out, negatively affects not only our psychological well-being, but also our physical health. And yet 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. Only when we’re constantly trying to scoop up each Postmates order or increase our average star rating (on Uber, Goodreads, it doesn’t matter), does the all-important market function properly.

The star rating is a particularly ingenious means of sowing this anxiety. As we all learned in primary school, amounts are nonsense without units. Six, one half, eighty-seven thousand—these numbers do not mean anything unless we know what mutually agreed-upon unit they attach to: fortnights, teaspoons, furlongs, etc. But what is a star? Nobody knows. The star rating average is only meaningful in relative terms: it’s higher or lower than the star ratings other striving workers earn. In other words, user reviews situate our performance not according to some stable benchmark—such as increased production per hour worked—but within an ever-fluctuating hierarchy comprised of our peers.

This all-too-public, shifting performance grid represents but one of many tools that keep the flow of anxiety humming along under neoliberalism. Others abound, and are now such a familiar feature of our working and emotional lives that we scarcely notice how routinely they derange our basic sense of self: there’s the rollback of ongoing employment through the gig economy, the explosion of applications (LinkedIn, for instance, turns its users—even the employed ones—into constant job applicants), zero-sum performance assessments such as Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, just-in-time shift scheduling, entrepreneurial kindergartens, and many more. All of these systems encourage us to view others’ achievements as our own setbacks, to individualize completely all successes and disappointments.

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.”

We are terrified to make even one tiny mistake, yet at the same time we are faced with a ruling class that makes little effort to hide its flagrant misdeeds: graft, corruption, and perhaps most appalling in our age of so-called meritocracy, sheer incompetence. Miss one parole meeting or court date and your life is plunged into an unending hell of punitive bureaucracy and inescapable debt. CIA deputy director Gina Haspel, on the other hand, violates the Constitution by running a secret torture cell, only to be rewarded with a promotion. Despite Hillary Clinton running a ham-fisted and bewilderingly tone-deaf campaign, we had the phrase “most qualified presidential candidate” practically shoved down our gullets. And, of course, Donald Trump is president.

As an individual office worker, you might be terrified that you mishandled one client account. You might spend sleepless nights agonizing that you might have bungled some bureaucratic subroutine that causes your client to complain to your boss. Should such a gruesome fate upend you, you’ll lose your job, then your home, then you and your kids will be living out of your car, and they’ll be condemned to a life of poverty. And it will have been all your fault. Then there’s Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan, who helped to preside over the deliberately fraudulent creation of 1.5 million bank accounts and 565,000 credit cards with virtually zero consequences. Sure, he’s publicly hated, but he’s laughing all the way to the, ahem, bank. What’s the board of Wells Fargo going to do, fire him? After it already paid him untold millions of dollars? Actually, they gave him a raise.

Well, so what? We all know that those at the top play by different rules, and that for most people, consequences can be wildly out of proportion to their blunders. At least under feudalism, this discrepancy was out in the open. Yes, it was unjust, but it also couldn’t be denied. What’s special about capitalism, and its neoliberal version in particular, is how most of us must accept that each and any of our individual missteps justifies all calamity that befalls us, no matter how ruinous. The location of all social problems onto individuals has now reached preposterous proportions. It used to be that people’s hardships owed to their not studying hard enough or having a rap sheet for smoking weed in the 7-Eleven parking lot. Now, ordering avocado toast at brunch is the vice that justifiably closes someone out of the housing market forever. Meanwhile, today’s glorified feudal lords continue committing fraud and torture—or just go on lying and bumbling their way into greater wealth and political glory.

Pabulum for Sale

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.

Occasionally, the contradiction of punitive, intrusive “wellness” becomes too ridiculous to bear and cracks under its own weight. One oft-mentioned catalyst for the recent teacher strike in West Virginia was a proposal to mandate the monitoring of teachers’ bodily movement via Fitbit just as the state government moved to limit pay raises and school funding. Capitalism will deplete you, while letting you think you have the means to improve your lot. Indeed, it will attempt to force its therapy on you. In the case of West Virginia’s top-down Taylorist wellness crusade, the state authorities clearly overplayed their hand; far more common are employer-sponsored initiatives, whether packaged as mindfulness training or meditation classes, that have been inserted into our working lives to help us talk ourselves down. 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. In 2016, Lyft elevated a nine-months pregnant driver and mentor into a position of corporate celebrity for accepting a fare during labor. Asking for similar “exciting” stories, Lyft cast its employee’s story as one of positive enterprise. Like any other company, Lyft knows that workers brimming with good feelings are rarely motivated to organize and demand working conditions that don’t require employees who are about to give birth to drive strangers around town.

It’s also no coincidence that the politician who presided over the final triumph of neoliberalism as American social and economic common sense was Bill “I Feel Your Pain” Clinton. Clinton threw poor single mothers off of public assistance, but any cost-cutting pol can do that. Clinton’s gift was that he could make even self-identified left-liberals feel good about such punitive policy shifts, by making it appear that they were in fact helping these women help themselves. In many ways, Clinton’s sleight of hand encapsulates neatly the narcissistic feedback loop of neoliberal positivity, which focuses on what feels good, rather than what is gracious and just.

Condition Blue

Such withdrawal into the self was on display by the Clinton political project just after Hillary’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump. As the careening emergency that is the Trump presidency was set into motion, Hillary Clinton embarked on a self-care regimen of walks in the woods and alternate nostril breathing. Still, dwelling on her alone leads us into the very trap of individualizing social problems that we should avoid—Hillary was hardly the only person who felt the impulse to check out and focus on personal recovery after the election. All variety of people pledged to abandon all news media and leave the country in order to nurse their wounds and turn their attention toward self-discovery. Particularly revealing are the remarks of one voluntary exile from Trump’s America traveling across Asia with her family: “I try not to engage . . . We’re here to be students, and not talk about terrible things.” Such reactions are perhaps sympathetic, but politically, yoga retreats, news blackouts, and glasses of chardonnay only deliver would-be reformers into dead ends.

Two decades after the Clinton White House’s neoliberal reign, the same navel-gazing dynamic operates deep within our social media feeds. The main benefit of social media, according to Mark Zuckerberg, is that it provides the infrastructure to “bring the world closer together.” Through platforms like Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, we can interact more often with more people, and across greater geographical distances than ever before. Nevertheless, thanks to the atomistic social arrangements that dominate the rest of our lives, people tend to dwell mostly within their own little cliques, reinforcing their previously held notions of good politics, taste, etc.

More alarming however, is what might be termed the paradox of neoliberal social retreat: although people gravitate to social media in order to feel connected, social media, and Instagram in particular, has a tendency to make people feel worse about themselves. Instagram’s genius in distributing bad feelings across a vast social network is particularly revealing, as Instagram is typically considered to be the most upbeat social-media venue on offer—not the platform of massive owns and pile-ons. Indeed, the Instagram platform is host to a large crew of wildly popular posters of positive and reassuring content, such as pretty food and easily digestible poetry.

Neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy.

However, it turns out that this kind of content tends to make viewers feel alienated—by the ever-competitive logic of capitalist emotional display, even the feel-good content featured on Instagram breeds a perverse sort of invidious malaise, with each new post about an excellent meal leaving a powerful residual sense that the onlookers’ own lives are acutely lacking in the material to generate similarly celebratory posts. And yet, in another brilliant stroke of cloistral neoliberal mood marketing, the feelings of insufficiency that Instagram fosters in many of its users are exactly what make Instagram positivity all the more appealing to them. Feeling blue? Why not scroll through some non-challenging four-line poems and a pleasing table setting?

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.

There is a reason why re-emergent words and phrases like “solidarity,” “class consciousness,” “mass movement,” “organize,” and “collective struggle,” sound old-fashioned and in need of a good dusting-off. They didn’t simply fall out of vogue; they were aggressively obsolesced in our everyday lives by a variety of interests—employers, corporations hungrily eyeing public assets—determined to alienate us from each other in the interest in marketizing our souls for their own benefit. In return, they bestowed to us a self-oriented language of supposed care, that was never really meant to liberate us from the sources of our anxiety and depression. It’s only there to blunt the pain temporarily—long enough to enable us to move on to the next TaskRabbit assignment, Uber client, or briskly managed election cycle.