Neoliberalism, Precarity, and Ontological Security: The Current Crisis of Existential Anxiety

This post is about the idea that some cases of anxiety are linked to predominantly social causes, principally ideological sociocultural outputs of late-stage capitalism and neoliberalism. The analysis here then, is not on the individual or their genetics and biology. Instead, the focus in on how people react to uncertainty and the looming dread of things such as underemployment, meaningless work, unemployment, short term low-paid contracts, extreme labour market competition, and rising costs of living. That is to say, while a naturalistic argument for anxiety rooted in evolutionary biology seems defensible (as it comes off as logical in the sense that anxiety plays a part in our ability to anticipate danger and therefore take action to survive), the causes of anxiety are not internal per se, but are, in fact socioculturally bound and linked to the material aspects of our existence. The upshot then is that genetic studies about so-called anxiety disorders in context of heritability do not make much sense as they say little about the causes of anxiety but more so just create tautology – that anxiety is genetic, we all have it and experience it in various ways.

While I’m still in the research phase of this work (and will be for awhile), my initial comments are to say that anxiety as a result of precarity seems like an obvious argument. In a global capitalist society, the way to survival is to sell one’s labour for money, which in turn, can be transformed into products and services that enable survival (e.g. food, housing, medicine etc.) When people’s mode of survival is threatened, then it makes sense that anxiety – our natural survival mechanism – gets set off. And since the neoliberal turn in the 1980s, the tendency has been to reduce job stability and incomes as well as globalize the workforce, which has invariably led to a labour surplus when coupled with the simultaneous automation of jobs. In short, the rich are getting richer, and every other social class is getting poorer.

The social fallout is the creation of the ‘precariat’ class, which is theorized as a class of person’s who are simply tasked to work harder for much less compensation in terms of money. On top of this, the competition for stable income jobs with benefits has become increasingly intense and led not only to both physiological and psychological burnout, but also social anxieties in terms of antisocial behaviours predicated upon the ideology of neoliberalism pitting individuals in competition for their survival (a relevant theory of ‘social anxiety’ seems to be that it arises as a result of this relentless win-lose competitive binary at play in contemporary society). Jobs are rewarded by competing with others as if humans are commodities in the same way machines are expected to function. Ironically, the kinds of supposedly objective methods for electing one job candidate as opposed to another has little to do with winning a job competition based on competence, sometimes a case can be argued for competence, but what is usually instead the case is that people are put in stable economic positions based on political and cultural conformity. Therefore, such a system imposes a kind of insidious oppression as it forces people to conform to the values of neoliberal capitalism for their economic and thus existential survival.

Of course, such a world is not going to mix well with the human spirit and nature in all its dynamic and protean ways.

With neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism, the cliche “it’s a dog eat dog society” has taken on a completely new intensity. Ontological security is vastly diminished in such a system, which then correlates to heightened existential anxiety. But losing one’s job or failing to compete for a job is not the only dimension of the existential anxiety. We also have to consider the nature of work in neoliberal capitalist society, which is generally only in the best interests of capital. That is to say: there are a lot of people doing jobs everyday that they hate and who are alienated from their work. (For a good analysis of meaningless work, see David Graeber’s article on Bullshit Jobs here). Such alienation relates to a sense of purposelessness and then meaninglessness, which then sets the foundations for anxiety and depression. The trajectory begins with alienation, progresses through to meaninglessness, and then arrives at anxiety as options to escape such a social system are non-existent. My theory is that depression, in this case, then follows anxiety when the subject simply capitulates and turns their situation inward, or blames their person, which is also linked to neoliberal ideology (e.g. poverty is linked to not working hard enough, if you’re poor or don’t have a job, it’s your fault and has nothing to do with society etc.)

In a world with constant bombardment of climate change catastrophe; extremely high costs of living and wage stagnation; the 24-hour doom and gloom news cycle; and the deliberate psychological manipulation of so-called ‘social media’; the case for a sociocultural existential anxiety is further heightened. It is also quite uncanny that the DSM-III (the book psychiatrists use to categorize and diagnose mental disorders) came at the same time as the neoliberal turn in the early 1980s. What is even more uncanny is that the invention of anxiety as a medicalized disorder appeared in this volume. My assumption here is that the authors of the DSM were simply reading cultural trends, not creating mental disorders that never existed previously. Aside from that, there’s also the trend of medicalization, which is also linked to the neoliberal capitalism and will be discussed in future posts.

The concept of the precariat class was initially described and developed by Guy Standing in his book, “The Precariat Class: The New Dangerous Class.” I recommend reading it, although many Neo-Marxists are adamant to acknowledge such a class exists or the use of such a construct.

This post will be updated as the research matures and solidifies. Thanks for reading.

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