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This is your fault as an individual: depoliticizing distress

There’s an old joke that goes “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” The joke implies a setting where lack of morale is unacceptable to people in power. It’s not especially funny but made literal, it’d be genuinely appalling: a person beaten until they pretend to feel good despite the beating, and only then does the violence end and normality return. Any setting in which that would happen would have an unpleasant baseline normality.

In workplaces and more broadly in society today there’s an emphasis on rhetorics of wellness, self-care, and mental health that are in the spirit of that joke. All of these treat distress as a problem to solve and, implicitly, a problem that people in positions of authority don’t particular want to be made aware of - certainly not a problem that permits a variance in how people meet their obligations. A wellness seminar isn’t an offer of more time off work. It’s a suggestion of doing more work off the clock, for your own good, where your own good likely makes you an employee more efficient, effective, or pleasant to be around.

All of the rhetorics are forms of what Mark Fisher calls the privatization of stress. Another way to put it would be the depoliticization of distress. These rhetorics ask why you, as an individual, are in distress. The answer is often some variant on a deficit in you the individual: you need to be taught - to take time for yourself, to eat and sleep well and exercise, to control your so-called cognitive behavior - or you need a prescription for something that will adjust your unfortunately suboptimal neurons. Now, I’m aware that therapeutic and medical interventions can produce quality of life improvements for some people and more power to anyone who finds that in their own life. But these techniques are tied to understandings - to ideologies - of distress that preclude other ways of understanding distress. As Fisher puts it, no one disputes that mental illness has a chemical-neurological expression, but why that illness occurs is still an open question, and we know there are significant social determinants to that occurrence. These rhetorics largely ignore those social determinants. (There's been a partial exception around the covid pandemic in invocations of kids needing to be back in school for mental health reasons and arguing that suicides will rise due to social distancing. My understanding is that these are predictions that have not proven correct according to recent research. In any case that invocation of social determinants of health as argument for why policy can not be used to provide pandemic-reducing economic benefits is an interesting one and bears more scrutiny for the different ways it breaks with and also exemplifies current patterns.)

As an analogy, I once had a few hundred pounds of wood fall on me in a factory I worked at, breaking a bone in one of my knuckles. A company-paid medical company provided me with an ice pack and splint that improved my quality of life within my injured condition. It didn’t do anything to all attention to, let alone to change, the conditions that generated the injury. Nor did it make visible any commonality I had with my coworkers via those conditions - I later learned randomly that another coworker had on another occasion been whacked in the head with some lumber, breaking several bones in his face. He was treated by the same benefits-management company. My and coworker’s distress were depoliticized and made harder to perceive, even though we also got some level of care that served to help us in our respective injured states. This situation is analogous to what goes on with wellness, self-care, and mental health talk.

Why is our wellness in need of improvement? Why do we not have enough of the (self)care we need? Why are we anxious, depressed, etc? Those questions can’t really be asked in those terms. For one thing, there is more often “I” rather than “we” in those rhetorics. For another, where there is a “we” it is a particular kind. The “we” that appears in such frameworks is a collection of individuals who are most parallel - facing similar challenges - with no meaningful relationships among each other that shape one another. That means there is no recognition that there are some of “us” who need to spend more time on “our” well-being give orders to others of us, and that order giving is one source of distress. Order-givers should be called “they” rather than included in “us” far, far more often. Nor is there any recognition that some of us could collectively oppose what “they” demand of us. This is part of what I mean by the depoliticization of distress: within these rhetorics the conditions that generate distress are fixed, out of sight and so out of mind - nothing that could be changed, only palliated. And the primary goal behind that palliative care is often not the well-being of the person getting the care, but others whose interests are ill-served by that distress. Nor do these rhetorics allow much room for distress to be objectionable. Rather than moral outrage over injustice, these rhetorics primarily invite a response to distress that is a kind of polite sadness (how unfortunate that this individual has that uncomfortable deficit, I hope they take the necessary steps and get the help they need from qualified experts -- thoughts and prayers, now onto our next agenda item, the budget cut...). I will add that we know that stressful circumstances lead to spikes in mental illness. We know that providing housing and raising the minimum wage reduces suicides. Distress is significantly political, the result of actions that could be otherwise.

I have begun to suspect that the primary beneficiaries of these kinds of rhetoric are neither the individuals in distress nor the much more powerful people who shape their lives. I think the main beneficiaries are the distressed’s immediately proximate social betters - their supervisors and other staff who try not to think too much as they plan how to implement higher authority’s orders, and who don’t want guilty consciences. There’s no conspiracy at work. Rather these rhetorics are delivered by professionals who sell their services, and the buyers aren’t the distressed or their immediate supervisors but middle and upper management. Those service-and-rhetoric sellers appeal to the people who sign the checks, and the checks get signed because management find the rhetoric appealing because it works as I’ve said here. This rhetoric takes problems generated by policies and organizations and provides a band-aid for them without anything so inconvenient as a more thoroughgoing re-arrangement or having to face collective action.

I’m somewhere between agnostic and skeptical that any of this matters in the sense of being socially consequential. This means I have some reservations and disconnects with Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, as I think he overstates the degree to which some facets of what he calls capitalist realism matter in the world. I do suspect that this kind of rhetoric intensifies distress for people who buy into it (“I’ve done all the self-care but I still feel lousy!”) but I’m unsure who buys into it. I assume most people who aren’t management or a politicians - I think being such involves a willful blindering - see through it and understand that the heart of the issues are really in how social conditions and demands on our time and energy are organized. I suspect that this sort of rhetoric does help management and state personnel to live with themselves (the Paul Ryan problem) to an undeserved degree, and it’s deeply disrespectful. I also think that this kind of rhetoric is a little taxing on people because hearing it and not buying in takes a little work - it takes a little energy to block this stuff out. Above all I think these rhetorics are symptom rather than cause, symptom of domination and exploitation as currently organized and relative lack of available collectivity for pushing back. (“The position being taken is not to be mistaken for attempted education or righteous accusation, only a description, just an observation, of the pitiful condition of our degeneration.”) Efforts at building such a collectivity has no use for these rhetorics. If those efforts grow and spread and succeed as I hope they will, they’ll build their own different rhetorics embedded in and informed by collective action. Such efforts will, through that collective action, challenge these depoliticizing rhetorics and the social conditions they depoliticize. Can’t wait.

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