The Globalized Jitters

Fighting for change in an anxious age

s
a
l
v
o
s

We were on our way from breakfast to the bodega when the stomach-scrambling panic started to kick in. My best friend and I had embarked on what was supposed to be a gonads-to-the-wall gonzo journalist reporting project, interviewing activists and radicals all over post-Trump California. We were camped out in Downtown L.A. in a ridiculous hotel room we’d rented cheap—a space she declared a “Kubrickian Porno Suite,” full of ergonomic lounge furniture spotted with suspicious stains. It was day one, and we had already made our first mistake. We had underestimated the strength of the breakfast coffee.

By the time we figured out just what was amiss, it was far too late. I had had two, and she had had three—it was free, after all—and thus it came to pass that mere hours into our comradely, clichéd, hell-raising road trip into the dark heart of the Trump resistance, I was hyperventilating myself into a spiral of neurosis over an unmemorable Facebook flamewar, and she was having a full-on panic attack. 

We lost the ability to deal with the outside world somewhere outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Gathering our jangled wits, we made a tactical retreat to the corner of the store, sipped some chamomile tea, took some deep breaths and tried not to think about politics.

“What would Hunter Thompson do in this situation?” I wondered aloud when we finally made it back to the room. “Probably eat a cocktail of Valium and LSD and go on a bender down Sunset Boulevard to see how many cops he could antagonize before he got arrested.”

“That sounds awful,” said my friend, from her strategically recumbent position underneath a fuzzy blanket. “Let’s not do that.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do you want to watch the video where the little pig goes down the stairs?”

So we got back into our pajamas and spent the afternoon hiding in bed, eating Triscuits, napping, and watching videos of baby animals behaving badly on the internet until we felt a bit calmer.

Only then did we dare to turn on the news. It was also at this moment that I decided that trying to ape the cocaine-and-testosterone-fueled gonzo journalist model of the 1970s had been a silly idea. Hunter Thompson and his pals, after all, were dealing with a society whose dominant political affect was boredom, and we’re dealing with anxiety as the relational mode of the age. I popped my head out from under my own morale-restoring blanket. “I think anxiety is the relational mode of the age,” I announced to my friend.

“That makes me feel better,” she said. “I thought we were just being wimps.”

“Wimp is the new black,” I said, setting up my phone with shaking fingers to play twenty minutes of calming rain sounds. 

When the caffeine jitters had subsided, we sent some messages to the activists we’d invited over for interviews, asking if they wouldn’t mind, rather than the planned wild chemical rager, if we all sat around drinking tea, wearing cuddly jumpers, and generally having a nice, relaxing time instead. The response was instant, universal relief. Someone offered to bring a bag of animal onesies and some ice cream. It was going to be the best night ever.

News Updates from the Edge

All the cool kids have anxiety disorders these days. I’m not claiming that this makes me one of them. Correlation, as we all know, does not imply causation, and I am reliably informed that the cool kids also understand Snapchat, wear floral jumpsuits, and know how to talk to people they fancy without pulling a face like a spaniel on acid. Nevertheless, if depression was the definitive diagnosis of the 1990s, anxiety is the mental health epidemic that makes the modern world what it is: overwhelmed, unstable, and in serious need of a decade-long lie down.

The ubiquity of anxiety disorders would shock anyone who hadn’t watched the news lately and understood quite how much most of us have to worry about. Nearly one in five American adults over the age of thirteen suffer from an anxiety disorder, with women twice as likely to be affected. Depression, anxiety, and related disorders have increased in the decade since the financial crash, and we can’t blame it all on Big Pharma. In June, New York Times writer Alex Williams sized up a slew of anxiety memoirs atop the bestseller lists and noted that “Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax.” 

Anxiety, unlike depression, is exciting to write about, in part because it is a condition in which absolutely everything is suddenly way too exciting.

If dealing with your anxiety is now a lifestyle trend, talking about your anxiety is a publishing trend. Part of the reason that memoirs by professionally neurotic authors are now so bankable is that the last best job of a writer is to make the anxieties of the age beautiful, comprehensible and, if possible, lucrative. It helps that many of them—like Kat Kinsman’s Hi, Anxiety and Andrea Petersen’s On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety—are also deliciously well-written. Anxiety, unlike depression, is exciting to write about, in part because it is a condition in which absolutely everything is suddenly way too exciting. This, by coincidence, is also a neat description of the geopolitics of the chaotic adolescence of the twenty-first century. In the immortal words of Horse ebooks: “Everything happens so much.”

The problem is both profound and profoundly modern. The problem, specifically, is that a lot of us are pretty freaked out pretty much all the time, and whether or not we’ve good reasons for it, the condition of constant panic is debilitating. Despite the rash of articles suggesting a novel condition known as “Trump-related anxiety,” this is a problem far bigger than the presidency. The gurning batrachian monster that crawled out of the mordant id of mass society to squat in the Oval Office was a symptom of our collective neurosis before he was a cause.

“Each phase of capitalism,” according to the activist collective Plan C, 

has a particular affect which holds it together. . . . Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localized locations—such as sexuality—to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

One major part of the social underpinning of anxiety is the multi-faceted omnipresent web of surveillance. The NSA, CCTV, performance management reviews, the Job Centre, the privileges system in the prisons, the constant examination and classification of the youngest schoolchildren. But this obvious web is only the outer carapace. We need to think about the ways in which a neoliberal idea of success inculcates these surveillance mechanisms inside the subjectivities and life-stories of most of the population. . . . We are failing to escape the generalized production of anxiety.

Anxiety may be a logical response to overwhelming stress and insecurity, but it is also a very easy way to keep people isolated, cowed, and compliant.  Existing in a state of constant agitation is unpleasant, but it is also useful.  Anxious people get things done—at least up to a certain point, at which productivity rapidly plummets in a condition known euphemistically as “burnout,” “stress,” or “complete and utter wall-gnawing, corner-scuttling, gibbering breakdown.”

In his forthcoming book Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris draws on a body of psychological research to observe:

Given what we know about recent changes in the American sociocultural environment, it would be a surprise if there weren’t elevated levels of anxiety among young people. Their lives center around production, competition, surveillance, and achievement in ways that were totally exceptional only a few decades ago. All this striving, all this trying to catch up and stay ahead—it simply has to have psychological consequences. The symptoms of anxiety aren’t just the unforeseen and unfortunate outcome of increased productivity and decreased labor costs; they’re useful. . . . Restlessness, dissatisfaction and instability—which Millennials report experiencing more than generations past—are negative ways of framing the flexibility and self-direction employers increasingly demand. . . . All of these psychopathologies are the result of adaptive developments.

Your employer, senator, and bank manager might acknowledge the importance of good mental health—but a certain amount of neurosis is in their interests, and your own, if you want to keep up in the world. If you actually relaxed, you might be less able to meet the many shifting obligations that minimal non-optional engagement with modern life involves. It’s a delicate balance, of course: in another recent panic memoir, Anxiety for Beginners, Eleanor Morgan points out that anxiety disorders cost the UK billions of dollars a year, chiefly in lost working days and productivity. Sadly, the simple bid to justify our mounting collective unhappiness by making clear that this may affect the profit margins of major firms says a lot about the priorities that got us here.

Low Anxiety

Last week, I traveled home on the train with another dear friend who has suffered from what the Victorians might have called “nerves” for the twelve years we’ve known each other. She is now in her mid-thirties and recently married, and we spend a lot of time having the sort of conversations where old friends check in on what sort of adults we’re becoming. “I don’t understand why I’m still anxious,” she said. “Things are going so well. I’ve a job I quite like, a stable relationship, and two rabbits.”

“Look,” I said, “that’s great. But your job pays you hardly anything, and you could lose it any day. You’ve spent the last decade living out of a suitcase, scraping yourself through college and grad school with no idea what. You’ve been working two jobs for most of that time and your health is only just back on track. You’ve had to leave London because nobody can afford it anymore, and most of your friends are here. Yes, we’re lucky to get to do work we love, but we’re still taking the night tube home in ninety-degree heat with backpacks that weigh as much as we do, and neither of us knew this morning where we would be sleeping tonight. And yes, you’re doing great. We’re not as worried about you as we were. But for our parents, this wouldn’t look like the good life. You’ve every right to be stressed out.”

We live in a culture of constant competition, brutal performance evaluation, and escalating pressure to succeed despite the looming question mark over the meaning of that word. We are burdened with debt, exhausted by unending insecure work, and bombarded with reminders that if we stumble, fall behind, or simply fail to win a game that’s impossibly rigged in favor of the rich and their progeny, it’s our fault for not working hard enough. Of course we’re anxious: if you’re not anxious and you’re living on the same planet as me, I’d like to know what’s in your medicine cabinet—although I have a feeling it might be money.

“When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house,” the mooning manchild protagonist of Douglas Coupland’s cult 1991 novel Generation X observes, “they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. You can immediately assume so many things: that they’re locked into jobs they hate; that they’re broke; that they spend every night watching videos; that they’re fifteen pounds overweight; that they no longer listen to new ideas. It’s profoundly depressing.” 

Depression is, or rather was, the dominant affect in societies that convinced themselves they had nothing better to hope for. The glory days of neoliberalism produced a disaffected, drop-out youth culture that scorned their parents’ ideals of security and consumerism. At its vanguard were punks and poets whose anger turned inward into a tangle of disaffection, reverb, and unfortunate bleach-jobs. 

Twenty years later, whenever someone I know tells me they’ve just bought a house, my reaction is unalloyed delight—one more person I don’t have to worry about quite as much!—mixed with pressing suspicion over where exactly they got the cash. For millennials, the picket-fence prosperity model that disgusted previous generations is an unattainable dream. Choose life? Choose a home, a family, and a job? Most of us can only dream of having enough security to settle into the idea of being alienated by it.

Talking about generations is an easy shorthand for discussing shifts in the social and cultural environment—so it may well be true, as this new batch of anxiety testimonials suggests, that every unhappy generation is unhappy in its own way. Generation X was paralyzed by inauthenticity, by the self-consciously ludicrous search “for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma,” per Troy Dyer in Hollywood’s remixed, prettified version of the Gen X existential plight, Reality Bites. The standard complaint among the disenchanted bohemians of the nineties was that nothing felt real. They were absolutely right, of course. Now that the other shoe of neoliberal disaster economics has dropped, it has indeed transpired that the world we thought was solid was just as fake as all those plaid-clad indie-rock singers warned us—only now it feels more than a little irresponsible to shrug before the specter of crushing meaninglessness and say “Nevermind.”

Reality Bites Back

If anything, nearly two decades into the new millennium, everything feels a little too real. In place of predictable consumerist anhedonia, instead of the blithe horizon of cardboard cut-out suburban security, reality has come back with a mouthful of razors ready to rip open the throats of anyone pretending they know what’s coming.

This age of anxiety did not begin with this presidency, nor does it end at the U.S. border, but there is something fundamentally Yankish about the culture of dogged, dead-eyed competition that produces it. It’s what happens when the American Dream becomes a nightmare you can’t wake from, and not just because you haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in years. It’s what happens when a society clings to a defining mythos that celebrates working until you drop, abhors poverty as evidence of moral failure, considers the provision of a basic safety net a pansy European affectation, and continues to call itself free. 

On top of your deadlines, your debts, and the crawling curiosity about which will fall apart first, your life plans or western civilization, you now also have to deal with being crazy.

Mental health is invariably political, even if the first available solutions are individual. Anxiety keeps us ready for a fight-or-flight response in a society that has all but outlawed both flight and fight. Today’s anxiety memoirists, in particular, are attached to the understanding of anxiety as a disorder with only a tangential relationship to real-world events. There is a focus on “raising awareness” of the condition, as if awareness by itself were any sort of answer. Those of us who live with anxiety have more awareness than we know what to do with, including of how our own brains can ambush us with the sudden black anticipation of imminent death. Knowing that you might at any point be incapacitated by panic is not a restful prospect for anyone who has been there. On top of your deadlines, your debts, and the crawling curiosity about which will fall apart first, your life plans or western civilization, you now also have to deal with being crazy. 

But just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you’re wrong. The problem is not that a very large number of us are very worried almost all the time; it is, rather, that there are an awful lot of things to worry about. This is true both at the micro level—how will you ever pay off the debts you ran up earning those qualifications you were told you needed for that job you can’t get?—and at the macro level, where we peek through our fingers at the wildfires and war refugees on the news and wonder if it’s worth starting any long books. Constant concern may be unhealthy, but it is not illogical. Of course, I would say that. I have an anxiety disorder.

On the other hand, simply recognizing that your fears are abundantly founded doesn’t make you less unwell—and choosing not to manage your anxiety is hardly an efficient way of enacting social change. No reputable shrink can write you a prescription for the psycho-social symptoms of late capitalism in its current form, and structural solutions for chronic despairing precarity are not available in over-the-counter form. But people still need to get up and go to work in the morning, whether or not it terrifies us. So what are we supposed to do?

The Organizing Cure

Well, we can always go shopping. The cultural response to this ambient panic can be measured in the desperate mood of wish-fulfillment we see in the sprawling market for emotionally stabilizing sloganeering and interior design. There is, for instance, a bewildering number of throw-pillows currently on sale begging for “good vibes only.” The aesthetics of pop culture are washed in a frantic blush-pastel color scheme, all seafoam green and soothing “millennial pink” and bare stripped-down minimalism, as if we’re desperate to decorate our box-room apartments like the inside of a psychiatric ward. And then there’s the pop culture meme that refuses to die—the endless regurgitation on T-shirts and tea towels and pocket pill-cutters of the cheesy Blitz-era slogan “keep calm and carry on,” as if either approach were a remotely appropriate response to the mounting crises that are engulfing the common weal. The last thing any of us needs to do is keep calm.

Entire industries have metastasized in response to the dread induced by, among other things, late capitalism. The market has created its own burgeoning demand for existential folk remedies—in this case a yawning void of pitch-black future panic begging to be filled with $3,000 yoga retreats for those who can afford them and Trump-face stress-balls and essential oil sets for everyone else. 

I’m not precisely complaining about any of this. I was collecting herbal teas, going around in cozy jumpers and making chill-out playlists in order to avoid staring soul-crushing dread in the eye before it was cool, and I really do appreciate the expanded range of animal-themed hot water bottle covers on offer. I fully intend to make my home a sacred space just as soon as I get around to having one—although ten years of trying to live somewhere in my nation’s capital that wasn’t crawling with insects and festooned with drug-addled refugees from the culture wars of the last decade has done more to shred my nerves than anything. There are worse things to be, after all, than a fucking wellness hipster. Some of my best friends are fucking wellness hipsters and they’re absolutely insufferable, but their strategies for dealing with the yawning horror of late-stage capitalist grim meathook reality are largely aesthetic and basically benign. There are other possible responses to that terrified voice in your head. One of them is violence.

Fear of Fear Itself

Another word for anxiety is fear. One way to stop fear taking over your life is to give it somewhere to go. It is difficult to talk sensibly about fear, especially if you were raised male in a culture that considers self-validating masculine swagger synonymous with brazening it out—even if what you’re afraid of is legitimately anxiety-inducing. In the months leading up to Brexit, the Remain campaign repeatedly warned of economic and social catastrophe if Britain were to vote leave the EU, and was relentlessly mocked as “project fear.” It turns out that the Remain camp was, if anything, hedging its warnings. Fear was absolutely appropriate. It is not cowardly to identify a problem and try to avert it. All over the developed world, nationalist and neo-fascist movements backed by unscrupulous corporate cartels are capitalizing on fear and uncertainty to slither their way into power and buy up the world’s executive systems. Five years ago, I’d have struck that sentence out as unfeasibly paranoid, but today I have no alternative but to leave it there so we can all have a good hard think about what we’ve done.

These parasites of contemporary paranoia appear to believe that moral compunction is for the proles. They sport surgically enhanced smiles that don’t flicker as they shovel resources toward the already wealthy away from the poor, sick, and underslept masses they’ve fobbed off with giant glitzy racist rallies, claiming all the while to speak “for the people.”

The simple fact that any of this is remotely plausible may speak to the near-crisis level of public desperation in the capitalist democracies of the West. When your belly is boiling with anxiety, you’d do anything to make it stop. If you’ve lost your place in the story of your own life, it’s tempting to leap at the first lazy narrative that makes the world make sense again. Anxiety gets in the way of adult decisions. It makes you feel like a frightened child. And frightened children can do some dreadful things. 

Frightened children would do anything to be comforted—and to have someone else to take responsibility. Now people with cartoon ideologies in kindergarten colors have turned up with the haircuts of mad clowns—and the moral compass to match. They promise to make us all feel better if we’ll only keep giving them our attention, our votes, and our obedience. Yoda was right: fear is easily transposed into the key of hate. Hatred, for many of us, is easier to manage. Hatred takes the problem to a place reassuringly outside of ourselves and promises to return us to a world that makes sense. Any schoolyard bully knows that a fast fix to stop yourself feeling weak and scared is to scare and weaken someone else.

Now the schoolyard bullies are running the world—and millions are running after them. In study after study, ordinary people who abuse strangers on the internet have been asked why they do it. This type of violence, still known by the nebbish name trolling, has now become a recognized political strategy with a presidential seal of vengeful glee—but for we political civilians, the studies uniformly show, the appeal of trolling resides in some variation of “because it helps me relax.” It’s a way to de-stress. Unwind after a long and humiliating day at work by sending some woman you’ll never meet elaborate fantasies of her inevitable rape by Islamic extremists. Externalize your existential crisis by blaming migrants and Muslims for your broken sense of self in a burning world. It won’t actually solve—or help you to acknowledge—any of your problems, but it might make you feel better.

To observe that a great deal of modern bigotry is motivated by terrified rage is not to excuse it; quite the reverse. It’s time we began overtly, and repeatedly, acknowledging that there are far, far better ways of managing your anxiety than becoming a Nazi. Call a goddamn helpline. Watch some videos of puppies howling like they’re full-grown dogs. Do some deep breathing. These are not substitutes for well-funded public mental health treatment—or, indeed, for a sane and livable social universe, but as self-help schemes go, they’re better than fascism, and so is everything else.

Managing your anxiety in a healthy, non-fascist manner is not, in itself, a revolutionary strategy, but it’s not a bad place to start. The larger question lurking beyond the present panic-stricken political moment, though, is just how we can marshal the baseline rejection of mass fascist psychology into strategies of resistance that are at least as psychologically and emotionally compelling. We can work on the answer to that one just as soon as our hearts stop hammering like angry neighbors through a party wall. As Plan C observes, “If the first wave [of anti-capitalist resistance] 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. . . . 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.”

Revolution with Throw-pillows

Back in that L.A. hotel room, people started turning up as it got dark. By that time my friend and I had calmed ourselves down, laid in some cookies and beer, and set Sean Hannity on silent, which remains one of the more satisfying things you can do with a remote control. By eight o’clock the hotel room was full of weirdos, worried people, and grown women dressed in fluffy bear pajamas, the ones with feet, down for some serious cozy time. The giant beds were bounced on. The giant bath, which was set in the floor in the middle of the room for reasons I’d rather not guess, was sploshed in, especially after some genius produced a small flock of rubber ducks. And we talked about how we were going to keep our heads above the water for four years and more, and how we could lift up others, and whether it was alright to fit your own life vest first.

We watched rich old white men screaming silently at one another on the big screen. We wondered aloud how much of what we treasured would survive these men. We decided, quietly, that it was alright to be anxious, to not have answers, to seek comfort, to want to throw up half the time—because at least we hadn’t handed our hearts to venal petty tyrants who promised to free us from fear, or turned aside and let it happen. We were going to try to soothe ourselves like grown-ups, instead; which is when we got out the ice cream and switched to cartoons and remembered, where appropriate, to take our bedtime medication. 

It’s okay to be scared. You don’t have to act tough. You’re allowed to hoard fidget-spinners and build blanket forts out of mawkish throw-pillows and do whatever it takes to keep your head above water through this weird, worrying stage in human history. Just so long as you don’t give up, or give in.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

You Might Also Enjoy

Introduction

The Baffler

  To even the most indifferent of observers, this can hardly seem the appropriate time to launch a literary review.

intros and manifestos

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading