One of the many paradoxes of the 2016 US Presidential election is a wide disconnect between economic data and public perception. By any objective standard the US economy is doing quite well. As Ben Casselman ably explores in a recent piece for fivethirtyeight though, many voters feel that this is not the case. On both the right and the left, there is a widespread belief that ruin—national, personal, environmental, spiritual—is imminent. What’s going on here? What accounts for such widespread, even apocalyptic, anxiety?
This is of course a big issue (the biggest perhaps), but as far as I can tell two intertwined factors provide the best explanation. First, operating at the material level, is an increased level of connection. Whereas thirty years ago it was possible to turn off the TV, divert your eyes from the newspaper, this is, for many people, no longer an option. Our tools, and the capitalist impulses which create and sustain them, demand our constant exposure to intense expressions of pain, pleasure, love, fear. Our monkey brains, designed to operate under very different material circumstances, have trouble adapting.
By way of explanation, imagine our evolutionary ancestor. He or she sees a snake, feels fear, moves away from the snake, feels better. With Facebook and Twitter and 24 hour cable news though we can’t get away from the snake. Plane crashes, mass shootings, the new iPhone: we are constantly confronted with “the desire of the Other,” as Lacan would say, in its most intense, egregious expression. Our monkey brains simply can’t process this, leading to high baseline levels of anxiety.
So even in 10th century China—a pastoral setting if there ever was one—if the peasants were live-tweeting every rice planting, they too would be pretty stressed out. This material element doesn’t completely explain our current anxiety though. We also have to look at the ideology, or worldview, under which advanced capitalism, particularly the American version, operates.
The ideological keyword of our time has to be neoliberalism. Following Michel Foucault, we can trace the rise of this ideology (or sub-ideology) to roughly the 1970s. In broad terms, it involves the weakening of restrictive social structures (the family, the church, the welfare state, unions) and a move towards “personal responsibility.” This means that people have more “freedom”—think of legalized gambling, marijuana, same-sex marriage—but at the same time, must be increasingly willing to take advantage of this freedom. We must be “entrepreneurs of self,” taking risks in the name of profit.
This new social structure has numerous effects. First, without the leveling tendencies of the older system, some exceptional individuals are able to reach new heights of wealth and power. These figures—think of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Barack Obama—represent an ideal which works to justify the system. At the same time though, many more individuals are left behind, unable (for whatever reasons) to cope with the demands of this increasingly intense capitalist system. Here think of rural working class whites, whom recent reports indicate are facing declining life expectancy. Whereas once church, family and a paternalistic sort of capitalism provided support for these marginalized subjects, those foundations are now gone. It’s sink or swim. And they’re like stones.
Even for the financially secure though the current system offers little in the way of emotional security. Casselman’s article does a good job of highlighting this. Here we have a multi-millionaire Tea Partier, who despite owning a flourishing business, sees an economic system in ruin. We also have a young teacher, comfortably middle class, feeling that he is only one misstep away from personal ruin. Whether or not these claims are objectively true (and I would argue that they are most likely not), they feel true to the claimants because this is what neoliberalism demands we feel. To keep striving, to keep placing our bets in the casino of the marketplace, we have to be afraid: of rival capitalists or losing our job or not have the most sustainable foods on our plate.
So here, in short, we have the two mutually sustaining causes of our anxiety: the material and the ideological, tech and neoliberalism. What do we do? I don’t have an answer for that, though I do think an important first step is recognizing the logic at work. And when people blindly promote these logics (E.G. tech boosters, Republican presidential candidates), we must call them out. That seems to be the only way we can learn to chill.