When you have to compete in a world that is structurally unfair and where the game is so often loaded against the little guy, stress and anxiety result. A society of individuals frequently switching jobs, relocating, and preoccupied with personal risk and self-interest is conducive to neither stable families nor cohesive communities. Where career is no longer a meaningful concept, it is no longer possible for one to make and maintain the long-term commitments required of people to form their characters into sustained narratives. Instability and insecurity of the COVID pandemic is also hugely damaging to well-being. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.
Neoliberalism should be interpreted as an anxiety-ridden form of crisis management that is constantly attempting to cover over the gaps and ruptures in its own ideological fabric caused by the contradictions that it is structured to conceal. Moreover, creating anxiety and uncertainty among employees, even ones at the highest level, is actually the point. Such anxiety and uncertainty hinder them from taking risks in participating fully in society as political actors. The same logic would apply to environmental, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the population at large. If you want your country to be competitive, it is best to keep such regulations to a minimum. The power of debt in neoliberalism represents a highly efficient mechanism of control and capture, and much more efficient than the modes of resistance put in place by the workers’ movement.
Metaphors can create anxiety: Donald Trump launched his political career by embracing a brand-new conspiracy theory twisted around two American taproots – fear and loathing of foreigners and of nonwhites. The commodification of politics and social services has stoked mass cynicism towards reigning neoliberal elites, creating receptive audiences for populist slogans to ‘drain the swamp’ at the heart of governments. Populists classically claim to speak for, and personify the interests of, ‘ordinary people’ against established elites (even when these leaders often emerge from elites themselves), and they condemn those who disagree as somehow not genuinely ‘of the people’. In particular, they tell people what they want to hear, often appealing to popular beliefs, prejudices, anxieties and fears, without the need to anchor their programs or policies in scientific or expert knowledge.
One reason for the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories is that they serve an important psychological function for people trying to cope with large, stressful events like a terrorist attack. People “need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen said, defining the term as a belief that “a group of actors is colluding in secret in order to reach goals that are considered evil or malevolent. People don’t like it when things are really random. Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy. You can prepare for an enemy; you can’t prepare for coincidences.” Conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s need to feel special and unique (a form of agency detection) because it gives them a sense of possessing secret knowledge. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.
The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. In the moment, cognitive dissonance can cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. And the degree of these effects often depends on how much disparity there is between the conflicting beliefs, how much the beliefs mean to that person, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. This cognitive dissonance can be seen particularly in economists – scholars, politicians, media commentators. Paul Murawski notes: Neoliberal theories are unable to explain the financial crisis, there is a gap between the accepted theory and reality. Instead of recognizing that a paradigmatic change is necessary in mainstream economics, the economic profession stubbornly sticks to their mathematical models. On the other hand, the general public believes that this ideology supporting individualism, less government and regulations can no longer be falsified by anything as trifling as data from the “real” economy.
The media also creates cognitive dissonance, this feeling of uncomfortable tension, in many individuals in other areas. The cult of individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because our personal identity is very important. We see ourselves as stable self-contained beings. However, advertising that we may be missing something, or not fitting in creates anxiety. Television tends to feed an information diet (of self-approval) similar to consuming too much sugar inducing short-term euphoria and happiness while distracting from reality. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us into the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.
Now many workers find themselves stressed working 60-70 hours a week as the only way to survive. These long hours are mentally and physically exhausting and lead to stress at work and at home. Long-term stress can result in anxiety, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. It also contributes to depression, obesity and heart disease. People who experience excessive stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes or abusing drugs and alcohol. The New Economics Foundation’s analysis of European data found that the difference in well-being between temporary and permanent workers was actually greater than that between temporary workers and the unemployed. If this seems surprising, that’s perhaps because we so drastically underestimate the anxiety and stress caused by insecurity. The promotion of ‘flexible labor markets’ in the name of growth and competitiveness may therefore not make us better off if it leads to the proliferation of insecure work.
The diagnosis of social anxiety is now commonplace – you become very anxious about what other people may think of you, or how they may judge you. Social anxiety is now the third most common psychological disorder after depression and alcoholism. SmithKline Beecham, makers of Paxil decided to promote it as treatment for social anxiety – bringing social anxiety into focus in the community. A multibillion-dollar marketing campaign linked the disorder to all manner of interpersonal and job-related problems in a way that fashioned all social discomfort as disease. However, success in the competitive marketplace emphasizes the importance of networking, self-presentation and the belief in the ever-present potential for opportunities; the required vigilance maintaining the kind of personal image that attracts them demands relentless self-monitoring. The problem is in the workplace of enterprise culture: anxious self-surveillance is both pathological and prescribed. We need to stop overthinking.
Neoliberalism in terms of its practical effects on people working in areas subject to its power creates a climate of fear and marginalization which expresses itself in the form of cultural anxiety and doubt. Søren Kierkegaard (1815-1855) claims everyone harbors a fear of being alone, forgotten by God, overlooked by his friends and relatives. He concluded that it was in our anxiety that we come to understand feeling that we are free, that the possibilities are endless. Even though anxiety can ignite all kinds of transgressions and maladaptive behavior, we should recognize it as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending upon how we approach it. Kierkegaard argues, without anxiety there would be no possibility and therefore no capacity to grow and develop as a human being. Kierkegaard concludes, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate… Anxiety can be replaced only by the freedom whose harsh requirements are its cause.”
Neoliberalism must be replaced by a social movement pressing for support of the working classes. We must counter the structural domination of capital – of alienation, loneliness, anxiety and isolation. Johann Hari observes, “Depression and anxiety are signals telling us that our needs are not being met, and I would say the single most helpful thing we can do going forward is to allow ourselves to hear the signal.” We can learn positive lessons about how to redesign our society to reduce depression and anxiety going forward if we allow ourselves to hear this signal. The single most important thing that has to be done to deal with people’s depression and anxiety is to deal with the financial insecurity they’re facing.1 It is necessary to limit this powerlessness by acting in solidarity through unions, social movements and election campaigns. The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character.
1 Roge Karma (28 March 2020) Coronavirus, anxiety, and the profound failure of rugged individualism https://www.vox.com/2020/3/28/21196268/coronavirus-johann-hari-lost-connections-anxiety-depression-failure-rugged-individualism