Diary of a Domestic Extremist | Obstacles to Solidarity: The Age of Anxiety

Continuing his examination of the decline of radical activism, Mikhail Goldman explores the theory that we are all very anxious. Precarious employment, continuous surveillance and the threat of sanctions under modern capitalism paralyse us and make us more alone than ever. We need to recognise and fight these obstacles to solidarity.

Diary of a Domestic Extremist, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, January 8, 2015 20:05 - 1 Comment

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In my previous column, I examined some of the reasons that I feel radical organising in the UK has been suppressed, including the impact of austerity, state repression, disparities of privilege and a climate of cynicism about the possibility of change. A perhaps more satisfying theory, proposed by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness in an article entitled ‘We are all very anxious’ (referred to as WAAVA throughout the remainder of this piece), is that the economic and social conditions imposed by neoliberal capitalism are inducing a generalised anxiety that constitutes a barrier not only to dissent but even to genuine warmth and communication between people. This mass anxiety, the authors state, is a public secret – something we all experience yet cannot identify, as the dominant discourse always presents it as individual pathology or failure. This theory is a significant step forward in understanding the roots of our malaise and presents some useful ideas for resistance.

The thrust of WAAVA is that there have been three successive phases of capitalist development, each associated with a predominant affective state. In the first phase, capitalism imposed misery on people. This was resisted by the rise of the labour movement, strikes and mutual aid. These successes were responded to by capital in the post-WWII consensus and Fordism, which made work sustaining and relatively stable in exchange for making it repetitive and extremely boring. This ‘boring’ phase of capitalism gave rise to new forms of resistance, such as those formulated by the Situationists and Autonomists, as well as more recent movements such as Reclaim the Streets and DIY culture. It is these reactions to Fordist capitalist boredom that still shape the culture of resistance in existence today.

However, capitalism has moved on. It has largely recuperated the struggle against boredom through modern management techniques, a massive expansion in the range of consumer products and the harnessing of more and more areas of life in the pursuit of profit. Contemporary capitalism’s main mechanism of control is anxiety. Whether through mass surveillance, precarious employment or the threat of sanctions at the jobcentre, capitalism uses the threat of exclusion and denial of the means of meaningful existence to condition our behaviour. We feel under constant anxiety about falling out of line with this web of discipline. The source of this anxiety is frequently hidden from us, rebranded as a personal failing rather than something that is generated by the dominant ideology of our society. Movements of resistance to this system, the article continues, have failed to develop an effective way to counter this anxiety.

Whilst I broadly agree with this theoretical framework, I think it applies most strongly to the experiences of a privileged stratum of people living in the global North. Excluded and peripheral groups of all kinds, such as migrants, have always faced this anxious way of life in order to navigate compliance with the roles expected of them by settled, more privileged sectors of society. It is also a little naive to suggest that the phase of misery ever ended – it was simply outsourced to the poorer nations. Misery remains the dominant affect in Congolese mines, the slums of Manila and the garment factories of Bangladesh.

I would also argue that there are many parts of the world in which state control is much weaker than it is in the North and where anxiety is much less relevant to the populations of these regions. Indeed, it seems that the author overstates the extent of this control even in the centres of global capitalism. For example, is it really the case that “All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety”? This assumes a total control that I do not believe actually exists, much though those in power would like it to. It writes off our resilience and determination to live according to our own desires rather than those manufactured for us by our masters. These criticisms aside, WAAVA is particularly strong on the effects of surveillance and how anxiety fuels social control. The pessimistic statement that “people are fundamentally more alone than ever” seems depressingly accurate.

WAAVA’s thesis has important implications for current forms of resistance to the status quo. When resistance is effective, “people feel a sense of empowerment, the ability to express themselves, a sense of authenticity and de-repression or dis-alienation which can act as an effective treatment for depression and psychological problems”. In other words, successful resistance can help us to overcome our anxieties. However, current forms of militant direct action involve participants intentionally placing themselves in extremely anxiety-producing situations (riots, direct actions, heavily policed street demonstrations), something that can precipitate trauma, depression and burnout.

Thankfully the Institute has some suggestions for laying the groundwork for resistance against anxiety. Drawing inspiration from feminist consciousness raising, WAAVA suggests reconnecting with current experiences rather than theories from the past, asserting the reality of our pain and learning to reconnect with our own desires rather than the system’s. These aims would be achieved through the construction of dis-alienated spaces where groups could analyse their experiences with a view to turning their new awareness into action. The groups would provide a place to find like-minded individuals, to prepare for future revolt and shift “so-called public opinion” in favour of those seeking radical change.

Whilst such spaces and groups can be extremely important in creating new perspectives, I feel that they are really only one element of what needs to change. For a start, radical movements are already riddled with groups that aspire to fulfil these functions, yet we are no closer to developing successful resistance to neoliberal capitalism. This is partly because few groups are both sufficiently analytical and based on personal experience, but there are many other issues associated with the shared-personal-experience group. These groups tend to reinforce informal hierarchies with dominant personalities using them to receive a disproportionate level of attention for their own problems whilst those with less social capital feel excluded. Groups with a very theoretical basis tend to favour the highly- (perhaps over-) educated to the exclusion of others whilst groups that are more focused on action can assume a basis in shared experience and analysis that simply does not exist.

There is also the worry that a new focus on anxiety as the cause of our problems may lead to a downplaying of other important issues such as sexism, class prejudice and racism which may be souring group interactions. The solution to most of these problems, in my opinion, is to make the groups smaller, like affinity groups for direct action that only involve a few, well-trusted individuals who understand and respect one another. This has its own downside, however, in that it can result in a narrowing of experience and a loss of criticality. Some kind of balance between the two kinds of space is probably necessary although that leads to another objection – who in this world of precarity and anxiety has the time and resources to get them to several regular groups to talk about their experiences? Whilst these kinds of groups certainly are an important element in the construction of sustained resistance to the capitalist order, I feel their importance should not be overemphasised.

I think it is worth analysing the types of anxiety that those resisting the capitalist system face in order to find ways of minimising its impact. There seem to be two main types of anxiety – the acute kind, faced by those contemplating and undertaking risky action or faced by sudden and severe repression, and the long-term, grinding, generalised anxiety that we are less likely to be aware of but is more omnipresent. This chronic anxiety is probably the most destructive as it can cause long-term depression and despair and affects many more people. Some ideas for combating chronic anxiety include building committed solidarity and support networks in all aspects of life, such as communal housing, catering and caring, creating workers cooperatives to provide a decent income, residents and tenants groups to provide a buffer against aggressive landlords and developers, etc.

There is nothing new here and, to be fair, political activists have promoted these kinds of living arrangements and community building exercises for some time. What would be new would be to see these support networks as a way of turning participants’ anxiety into a group concern, lessening individuals’ anxiety and increasing their capacity for resistance. As such, such projects would be better off taking a less combative stance and consequently drawing less anxiety-producing state reaction to participants. They would act as a buffer between the worst excesses of bosses, landlords and business and those less privileged.

It also seems necessary to accept that, whilst anxieties are inevitable in resistance, individuals will need periods of time out to reduce their chronic anxiety and escape the worst pressures of the system. The wider community may need to support safe spaces for those who have been particularly under the cosh. Obviously it would be counter-productive to create such buffers and spaces with a new mesh of strict rules around them as many seem keen to do. It is precisely such intense regulation and surveillance that these safer spaces would be aiming to provide a break from.

Then there is the acute anxiety that forms a sudden barrier to contemplated action. This is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction that we need to be able to harness in order to fight back or protect ourselves rather than being frozen into a state of helplessness. Some useful lessons can be learned here from those who have had to learn how to control their adrenaline and channel it into action, like bouncer-turned-writer Geoff Thompson. Thompson analysed his experiences on the doors of violent pubs and clubs, where he had to teach himself to mask his fear and habituate himself to simple actions rather than bewildered inaction when necessary. He developed training methods which enabled him and his training partners to engage in increasingly realistic simulations of fights, so they knew how they would react and what would work, making them more confident in those situations. The key was not to focus on stopping the fear, which was inevitable, but to learn how the fear changed a person’s capabilities and find what worked in that state. With regards to political action, we might try simulating stressful situations as closely as possible in the run up to carrying them out, starting with very small levels of adrenaline and ramping it up as our confidence increased. Similarly to Thompson, we should pay attention to the way our cognition and physical capabilities change with increased adrenaline and adapt what we do so that we can be more confident, in spite of the fear.

In my experience, the key to overcoming anxiety about acting in opposition to the dominant ideology lies in participation in collective, successful activities against the system. Many participants in moments of insurrection describe a sudden realisation that they are no longer afraid – that the forces of repression seem to suddenly evaporate (albeit temporarily) allowing a space for creation and reconfiguration. To take one fairly recent example, during the 26 March 2011 anti-cuts protest there seemed to be a moment when the ranks of police melted away and the Black Bloc had free reign along the length of Oxford Street. The pounding adrenaline of violent confrontation evaporated giving way to a feeling of joy and mischievousness in which the trashing of capitalist icons and taunting of the police was more of an outburst of carnivalesque fun than aggressive resentment. Such moments are the ecstatic “peak experiences” WAAVA describes as having such a therapeutic effect on our anxieties. After all, there are few things more liberating than participating in moments of blissful release from our chains. If we accept the theory that our epoch is one dominated by anxiety, I think we would be most fruitful in our attempts to overthrow it if we tried to understand and replicate these moments of mass liberation.

It is easy to characterise such experiences as belonging to the riot, the (at least partially) spontaneous and violent uprising against the current order that occurs against centres of power. But these experiences can be felt (albeit less intensely) whenever we are involved in successful actions, especially when those actions are engaged in with large numbers of others. Whenever we are capable of coming together to strike a blow against poor working conditions, creeping surveillance or the destruction of our environment, without playing by the rules of the masters, our shackles are loosened a little. We feel empowered to take further action, provided that the resultant state reaction has not caused us trauma or increased our anxieties. Trying to evade the reach of such reactions is essential to sustaining such resistance. Indeed, the riot that attacks the security apparatus head on is most likely to bring the most severe repression and may be considered to be one of the least sustainable forms of resistance, unless it can bring about a permanent shift in power relations.

Victories that are achieved through using less obviously criminalised means, which jam the system with its own weapons, are satisfying and effective but remain relatively safe. For example, the blockade of an abusive company’s own call centres by a mass of simultaneous complaints is hard for that company to do anything about as it has specifically invited consumers’ calls. The threat of such action can bring about sudden desperate concessions, lifting the weight off the people who were being victimised and giving a great confidence boost to wider solidarity movements.

This is not the kind of action that will bring capitalism juddering to a halt in one fell swoop, but it is through actions such as these that movements grow in capability and confidence. I keep returning to such community-based solidarity movements because, in my experience of a variety of forms of resistance, these seem to combine effectiveness and sustainability more favourably than other modes. Of course, there is no reason that the state will not seek to criminalise such methods of resistance should they become more popular, necessitating a rethink.

Anxiety is an important factor in preventing people from realising their desires under 21st Century capitalism but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to never take any risks; to always play safe and be legal rather than attempting to push boundaries and break rules. While, as the Institute for Precarious Consciousness state, “the psychological barriers to action are real”, they are not permanent and must continually be pushed against if we are not to retreat into an ever smaller cage.

A greater attention to anxiety is necessary to gauge your own and your affinity group’s capacity for action, avoiding trauma and burnout and the reproduction of statist anxiety within the activist milieu. Anxiety is something that we all need to work on, both individually and collectively, if we are to create sustained and viable movements of resistance.

To read other pieces in the series, visit the DoDE column page.

Mikhail Goldman is a former domestic extremist from the Midlands. His interests include anarchism, anti-fascism and anti-racism, counter-surveillance, no borders and tea of all varieties.

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Jason Coyne
Oct 8, 2016 16:25

“We feel under constant anxiety about falling out of line with this web of discipline.” I found resonance in this sentence especially.

While reading i also thought about a phone zap I participated in against a realty company (in Portland OR) who was mistreating tenants. Anyway, a low risk form of solidarity it was, but in order to warm to the task I wrote out my spiel on paper so i wouldn’t get tongue tied. This composition proved a good place to work out literary issues also and, even though very short, it had the unmistakable feel of creativity to it.

It’s weird that art and politics have this produced antagonism, maybe even weirder that people focus on art, its alleged internal dynamics, to explain or critique this antagonism. Anyhow, nice piece here. Stuff to think about…

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