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First misery, then boredom, then anxiety
May 22, 2014 6:36 AM   Subscribe

We are all very anxious - how constant observation and mass precarity undermine our ability to change and resist.
Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us “safe” (through securitisation) and “competitive” (through performance management). Each moral panic, each new crackdown or new round of repressive laws, adds to the cumulative weight of anxiety and stress arising from general over-regulation. Real, human insecurity is channelled into fuelling securitisation. This is a vicious circle, because securitisation increases the very conditions (disposability, surveillance, intensive regulation) which cause the initial anxiety. In effect, the security of the Homeland is used as a vicarious substitute for security of the Self.
posted by Happy Dave (28 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
Workplaces like call centres are increasingly common, where everyone watches themselves

This is what I find really insidious, we've been trained to watch ourselves. We no longer need guards, we police ourselves. Big Brother is us.
posted by arcticseal at 6:59 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


I wonder if this article reads less awkwardly in the original Martian.
posted by idlewords at 7:05 AM on May 22 [20 favorites]


I like this a lot. One of the things I like about it is the tone - very often, this type of piece is written in a tone (not a vocabulary) that makes me feel excluded, like it's for, you know, cool revolutionary people (or white rich people in their early twenties!) only. I can't quite put my finger on what creates this tone, but I noticed immediately that this piece was not written in it and did not make me think "yeah well all this radical theory obviously isn't for people like me, because we're always-already too stupid and coopted to matter".
posted by Frowner at 7:08 AM on May 22 [9 favorites]


Workplaces like call centres are increasingly common

I think this statement is ahistorical, or at least myopic. Open floor plan / row-of-desks offices used to be the norm, at least for clerks and people working the typing pool and draftsmen and engineers — basically anyone working in a non-executive, non-managerial capacity. (It's easy to forget when watching Mad Men, because we spend so much time in Draper's office, but all the peons are working at desks in what's essentially just one large room with the offices at its outside perimeter, not unlike CSRs in a callcenter.) That was a standard office layout from at least the 20s to the ~70s when cubicles started to appear. It's cheap and minimalist and dehumanizing: in other words, the corporate ideal.

The real question is why companies ever bothered to install cubicles. I think it's because as they fired all the secretaries and typists and clerks and draftsmen, they felt it necessary to create the illusion of managerial professionalization for those who were left, even though in many cases there wasn't anyone left below them to manage. In other words, they were trying to hide the fact that the bottom layer of the pyramid had just dropped out, and if you were a former middle-manager, well, you're at the bottom now, pal.

Companies seem to be realizing that the illusion is no longer necessary; the slack labor market means they can go back to treating their call center operators the same way they used to treat their typing pool, or like the phone company did its operators.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:37 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


Precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally.

This is a pretty nice articulation. Thanks for posting.
posted by enn at 7:39 AM on May 22 [10 favorites]


Open floor plan / row-of-desks offices used to be the norm, at least for clerks and people working the typing pool and draftsmen and engineers — basically anyone working in a non-executive, non-managerial capacity.

But the proportion of people working in white-collar, non-executive, non-managerial positions is much higher now than it has ever been before. So while open offices may have been typical of a small junior clerical class in the 20s, they are now much more broadly typical of a larger swathe of the workfroce.
posted by enn at 7:42 AM on May 22


idlewords: "I wonder if this article reads less awkwardly in the original Martian."

Yes, it does suffer from an excess of seminar-speak and it's core ideas could probably be articulated far more succinctly and with more impact, but I thought it was a powerful concept.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:53 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Totally agree that this isn't written using the sort of alienating language to which I've grown accustomed to seeing when it comes to in-depth discussions of, say, capitalism and its effects on the populace; I appreciate it immensely. Normally stuff like this is discussed all but exclusively in a recursively high-level academic way that makes me feel like an utter fucking imbicile, but this was easy for me to read and grasp. The language is simple and clear to me, and very resonant besides. A couple of my favorite bits:
Communication is more pervasive than ever, but increasingly, communication happens only through paths mediated by the system. Hence, in many ways, people are prevented from actually communicating, even while the system demands that everyone be connected and communicable. People both conform to the demand to communicate rather than expressing themselves, and self-censor within mediated spaces.
and
A hundred varieties of "management" discourse – time management, anger management, parental management, self-branding, gamification – offer anxious subjects an illusion of control in return for ever-greater conformity to the capitalist model of subjectivity. And many more discourses of scapegoating and criminalisation treat precarity as a matter of personal deviance, irresponsibility, or pathological self-exclusion.
Per the article's focus on precarity, it's an excellent take on why people who come from poverty are so disinclined to take what we have learned to perceive as grave risks... like, say, trying to become a first-generation college student with no institutional or familial support rather than heading directly into the workforce in the custom of your forebears.

When you've been scraping and clawing for everything you have since you were born, and you have direct and explicit knowledge of the notion that no one is going to catch you if you fall, you're not exactly going welcome it when you're inevitably told to step out of your comfort zone and reach out toward some unrealized -- and possibly altogether illusory -- future benefit. The ground beneath you could give way at any moment, so it's best to focus on what you know you can accomplish now as opposed to what you might be able to accomplish eventually, and only then if a number of incredibly important but terrifyingly unpredictable variables (housing, a modicum of economic stability, good health, safety, etc.) are settled forthwith.

Lots and lots to chew on here. Excellent find, one of the most compelling things I've read in a while. I wish more theory-related articles were written like this. Thanks for posting!
posted by divined by radio at 7:55 AM on May 22 [13 favorites]


Trotskyites Discover Social Media 101.

(No, seriously: the authors of this piece don't use the word dialectic, they just think it very hard indeed.)

(Note that this doesn't mean I disagree with them; merely that I think it's useful to know where they're coming from.)
posted by cstross at 8:04 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]


"I wonder if this article reads less awkwardly in the original Martian."

What's kind of funny (and I'm not sure if it was an intentional joke and I am stating the obvious) is that's only one letter off of "Marxian," which is what I took to be the probable mind set of the author(s).
posted by aught at 8:17 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


cstross: "Trotskyites Discover Social Media 101.

(No, seriously: the authors of this piece don't use the word dialectic, they just think it very hard indeed.)

(Note that this doesn't mean I disagree with them; merely that I think it's useful to know where they're coming from.)
"

Well, yes. Hence this paragraph:
We need to reconnect with our experiences now – rather than theories from past phases. The idea here is that our own perceptions of our situation are blocked or cramped by dominant assumptions, and need to be made explicit. The focus should be on those experiences which relate to the public secret. These experiences need to be recounted and pooled — firstly within groups, and then publicly.
Emphases mine. I've been thinking for a long time we need new 'isms' and 'ites' - witness any conversation on here about socialism, fascism, liberalism, conservatism or any other 'ism' that near universally devolve into hair-splitting about differences in meaning and 'yes, but they're not actually wearing black shirts and shooting people, thus your argument is invalid/hysterical/foolish'. The first part of fixing is a problem is finding the language, couching and space to discuss it. Otherwise we're just shouting at each other.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:36 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


I think, fundamentally, all the hand-wringing and anxiety this article describes stems from the anachronistic historical moment we are currently in: that of the mass for want of a better term intellectualization of work. Historically, Labor has been physical; now it is, overwhelmingly (and from a social standpoint, ideally) mental. If Capitalism has conquered and colonized our Bourgeois inner lives to the degree it has, it has been with our willing collaboration. The ideal job nowadays seems to involve sitting on one's ass for 40 years (albeit, in an ever-increasingly luxurious seat), doing complicated mental gymnastics, the actual physical denouement of which is handled in some nebulous warehouse or Chinese factory or noisy call-center by people who are considered by the cubicle set to be losers. And yet, it is among these "losers" that I find most of the nicest, most well-adjusted individuals I know.

TL;DR: There is something about being a boss that makes a lot of people assholes. And nowadays, we all want to be the boss.
posted by Chrischris at 8:42 AM on May 22 [6 favorites]


Happy Dave: well yes, and I mostly agree ... but having looked at their website I now have an itchy-crawly feeling that it's a case of an existing group inventing a shiny new look and feel for recruiting purposes, rather than trying to go back to basics and work out what is to be done now, today, in the 21st century (rather than the late 19th/early 20th).

Hopefully I'm wrong. But I'm getting a strong old-wine-in-new-bottles vibe off them.
posted by cstross at 8:43 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Outing myself as a hopeless philistine for about the millionth time: I think it's really important for formally uneducated people to be able to learn about these things, but I also think that encountering ideas like this wholly outside of their associated labels is very important. Detaching a basic philosophy from what can be (rightly or wrongly) perceived as a deeply intimidating historical context can make the ideas themselves much more approachable.

Like, I'd guess that I have a ~6th-grade education when it comes to any/everything except English usage and the skills required to keep food on my table and a roof over my head, but this article was like catnip to my soul, and I would have never read it if it had been explicitly labeled as fodder for Trotskyites or Marxists because I have no fucking idea what a Trotskyite or a Marxist is or even could be (NB this will stop being true as soon as I hie myself to Wikipedia, but still). I don't even really know who Karl Marx is aside from "important philosopher guy whose name is used as an epithet in much the same way that communist and socialist are used," but based on the comments above, I get the sense that he is someone I should probably learn more about.

It's not too often I can encounter ideas like this that are not preemptively couched in high-level (collegiate+) academic language. But the use of misery, boredom, and anxiety as methods to corral and subjugate a population? That's language I can understand. I'm well aware that this educational and intellectual deficiency puts me in the minority at MeFi and everywhere else that tends to trade in high-minded rhetoric, and I feel like an idiot about it every day because I know I am never going to be able to catch up. But articles like the FPP make me feel a little better, a little smarter, a little more capable. It's reassuring when a lofty philosophical discussion can reach down and meet me where I'm at.

So more than anything, I wish a lot of this stuff was made easier to approach for the absolute layperson, because I think there are a lot of us out there who have the will and desire to learn and explore but not the educational currency that is so often presumed to be a prerequisite to entering the conversation.
posted by divined by radio at 8:44 AM on May 22 [37 favorites]


> And nowadays, we all want to be the boss.

If you don't strive for promotion into -- and up through -- the managerial ranks, you will be fired. There is no room in modern large businesses for people who prefer to make a career of improving their skills, and the institutions are socially structured to reject people who do.
posted by at by at 9:12 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


That's nonsense, at by. People who strive to move up to positions above their current work position are terribly unproductive at working their current positions almost always as a rule. They're usually great at sucking up to their superiors and casting themselves in the most favorable light when trusted to report objectively on project status, but when it comes to actual, measurable productive output, these strivers rarely produce anything. Stack ranking (as you linked to) is supposed to call for culling the bottom producers in a workforce, not the members of the workforce that don't get promoted often enough or who don't successfully delegate more of their workload to others (which is how, if we're being honest, you really get into mgmt anyway: by demonstrating the ability to pull that old Tom Sawyer trick and get others to paint your fences for you but still let you take the credit).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:26 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]


cstross: "Happy Dave: well yes, and I mostly agree ... but having looked at their website I now have an itchy-crawly feeling that it's a case of an existing group inventing a shiny new look and feel for recruiting purposes, rather than trying to go back to basics and work out what is to be done now, today, in the 21st century (rather than the late 19th/early 20th).

Hopefully I'm wrong. But I'm getting a strong old-wine-in-new-bottles vibe off them.
"

I get the same feeling, which is why I haven't actually clicked the 'Contact' link. But the fact that someone, somewhere is articulating this creeping unease in a way that isn't explicitly recycling a bunch of 'isms' does give me a bit of hope, as per divined by radio's comment above.

I've just realised this is actually an interesting companion piece to your own Nation of Slaves blog post. Bugger. Wish I'd thought of that before I posted it.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:39 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Hopefully I'm wrong. But I'm getting a strong old-wine-in-new-bottles vibe off them."

My guess, based on internal evidence within the piece itself, is that they're actually a bunch of disillusioned ex-ravers from the late '90s. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:50 AM on May 22


Meh, the jumping through hoops to explain why Marxist Triumphialism hasn't happened yet seems to be overfitting the data. And the solution, consciousness raising! Stop me if heard this one before.

Still a bunch of people creating fringe groups, and waiting, waiting, for the people to rise up. With little idea about what will happen afterwards, just that they're sure it will be better than this, and worth the cost, violent or otherwise.

Given the rise of proto fascist groups, and other far right parties in England and elsewhere, I don't think I'd be willing to take that bet.
posted by zabuni at 9:51 AM on May 22


But the proportion of people working in white-collar, non-executive, non-managerial positions is much higher now than it has ever been before. So while open offices may have been typical of a small junior clerical class in the 20s, they are now much more broadly typical of a larger swathe of the workfroce.

This may be true of the workforce as a whole, due to the decline of American manufacturing pushing people into office work instead of the factory, but it's certainly not true within the confines of an office. There are many tasks which used to involve many more people than they do today. In that sense, office work has paralleled manufacturing (although not to the same extent) in replacing people with machines.

The clerical class was a huge component of an office's workforce in the pre-computer era. I suspect at something like a law firm, the ratio of attorneys to support staff has been completely upended vs. what it would have been like 60 years ago. (Although this is is probably due to the economics of the legal profession; 60 years ago it made sense to have a bunch of secretaries taking dictation to keep an attorney busy, now you just hire two attorneys and make them do their own typing.)

So on one hand, manufacturing is pushing people from factories into offices. On other hand, offices don't have a place for the entry-level typists and file clerks and mailroom boys that they used to. What we have instead are CSRs and data-entry "technicians" and junior IT guys. For a while, for various reasons, these jobs rated cubicles and the trappings of professionalization. My theory is that this was part of a greater scam on the American working public to believe that we could somehow all be managers in the 'knowledge economy'. But for whatever reason it happened, it's unwinding now, and we're going back to an office culture where a very small number of Don Draper types get offices, and everyone else works in the pit.

Whether or not that end-state is better than the 1920s, when probably just as few people had offices but fewer people worked at desks and more people worked on factory production lines (which is dehumanizing in its own way) is arguable.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:04 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


more people worked on factory production lines (which is dehumanizing in its own way)

Having done both, my take on it is that the emotional/affective labor required of customer service or call center work is more dehumanizing than factory work, though I'm sure mileage varies.

Standing at a conveyor belt doing things with widgets keeps your hands busy and leaves your mind mostly free, while convincing strangers of your sincere friendliness and sympathy for a full day's work steals your emotions.

Unfortunately, emotional labor pays better than manual labor at entry level, and you usually get a chair. (Unless it's retail, in which case you get to stand so as to better project obsequiousness.)
posted by asperity at 11:30 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


I like this piece a lot and it articulates what (I think) we've all (for values of "we" equal to "people kind of like me") been experiencing. My one quibble is that it treats anxiety as a new strategy. To my eye, it seems like less a distinct stage and more of a transitional state — anxiety is what we experience as we sense the impending re-immiseration of most working people, rather than a method of control in and of itself.

I recall David Harvey saying at some point in his class on Capital that when he started teaching that class in the 1970s his students didn't see how it applied to their world. The methods of repression in Capital Volume 1 just didn't seem to be in play anymore.

He followed this up by saying that his students today rarely express the sentiment that Capital Volume 1 doesn't describe their lives. As Harvey put it, it turns out that the methods of repression and control that Marx describes, the ones established during the Victorian era, had been largely gone in the 70s — but with the completion of the neoliberal counterrevolution, they're back with a vengeance.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:32 AM on May 22 [16 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: "To my eye, it seems like less a distinct stage and more of a transitional state — anxiety is what we experience as we sense the impending re-immiseration of most working people, rather than a method of control in and of itself."

That's a hell of an insight. Wow.

It also plays into another side of this kind of discussion which I often find frustrating, the idea that there is some kind of grand plan behind all of this. Sinister cabals etc. When in reality it's much more boring than that - we've built systems in which individual self-maximisation (or attempted, on the part of the poor) on the part of everyone crushes nearly everyone.

Sorry for posting another of your posts cstross (I really should have done this linking of things up front when thinking about the content for the post) but I think your Invaders from Mars post about corporations being effectively alien intelligences powered by the aggregate 'tragedy of the middle managers' is highly relevant. When we build systems that can be captured by money, the momentum is unstoppable. Compound interest always wins.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:48 AM on May 22


This was a reprint ("reposted with the kind permission"), so written by a group of some sort? And what sources do they cite to establish their points? I wonder why this piece lacks references.

It's a timely essay, and at least one of their assertions triggered an "Oh my god, that's exactly right", but it's that very plausibility that I've come to be wary of. If it were fiction/literary text I wouldn't be curious to know, but so in this case I feel that a) references on their part, and b) context of discussion in terms of reviews/rebuttals/critiques of this article are really important sources of information.
posted by polymodus at 5:28 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


This may be an interesting topic to read about--it's saying that we have anxiety because we're always watched, right?--but it's so hard to wade through the language to find this out.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:27 PM on May 22


polymodus: "This was a reprint ("reposted with the kind permission"), so written by a group of some sort?"

It's also here on the Occupy Wall Street site, credited back to Plan C. So, who knows I guess.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:11 AM on May 23


Reading the Plan C website gives me a feeling like it's a mix of Trotskyists and Autonomous Marxists.

I enjoyed the article, and I do agree that anxiety has become the dominant type of control in the industrialized countries. In the white collar or service job context this is especially true. I read an article a couple of years ago where the author said that people in "front of the house" service jobs adopted the attitudes of the people they served, while people in "back of the house" jobs did not. The author talked about his experience working in restaurants, where the waitstaff emulated the customers and the kitchen staff was more consistently blue collar in orientation.

I think that one major driver of anxiety in the white collar/service job environment is the "everyone for themselves" attitude that is pounded into people either through high ed or through the service industry "everyone smile" management crap. The traditional heavy industry jobs like mining or steel making come with an element of severe physical danger. There's just no way to work in a job like that without coming to trust your coworkers. Otherwise you'll just die, and maybe kill everyone else in your team. That physical danger bonds people together.

However in a typical office or retail job, people are pitted against each other at all times, and with the lack of physical danger, alienation becomes more pronounced. My experiences in non-union retail were like this to an extreme degree. Maybe that's because I was in floor sales. But still, the wider problem is that people just don't know how to work together and how to trust each other on a basic level.
posted by wuwei at 10:57 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Did a little more searching, here's what appears to be a capsule history of the Plan C folks:
As well as widespread militancy, there was a large minority discussing radical politics which was talking in the language of autonomy. Although opposed to both the government and the National Union of Students (NUS) this hostility was not captured by either existing socialist or anarchist politics. Of course not all students fell into this category but a large minority did, these students began exploring communist ideas whilst occupying University buildings, chasing their “representatives” off demonstrations and physically confronting the police (as well as the motorcade of Charles the Prince of Wales!).
Link
posted by wuwei at 11:00 AM on May 23


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