Feverish (new work). Ballpoint pen on paper
It seems to me that the crucial thing to do right now (individually, socially, and internationally) would be to pause for deep reflection on the situation neoliberal economics has brought us to, as if we could reach a consensus to slow the treadmill back down to walking speed (at the very least). Ironically “pausing for reflection” is perhaps the one act that is fundamentally anti-neoliberal – and actioning this when its agenda dominates decision-making across the globe seems unfathomable. Yet this is what is needed if we are to even come close to stalling the rise in right wing populism, frightening levels of inequality, state surveillance, cyberspace misogyny, and (lest we forget) climate change.
When a lone human being hits a crisis point, they only recover after slowing down to the point of almost total entropy, often having to become so disillusioned with daily social reproduction, that society’s feverish demands of them become inaudible as one becomes (metaphorically-speaking) submerged underwater, in a state of ‘depressive withdrawal’. Beaten, bruised, and perhaps finding oneself back at the beginning of a rigged-game of snakes and ladders that constitutes life in such a competitive system, but nonetheless able to reflect, without respiratory unease.
I have often found the dark optimism of theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s potential solution of ‘depressive withdrawal’ from cyberspacial capitalism an inconceivable solution whilst the majority of us are put to (unpaid) work within cyberspace in order to hopefully track down a relatively worthwhile future for ourselves – especially as the unpaid labour we give extends far further into life than traditional job-seeking endeavours. With a process he calls ‘semiocapitalism’, Berardi tals of how our entire cognitive and emotional energies are appropriated into the reproduction of the system, and that this demand of us is in a state of perpetual acceleration. “Semiocapital puts [our] neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of networked productivity. As a result, the emotional sphere linked with cognition is stressed to its limit”. My own recent experiences of ‘trying my best’ via cyberpsace (interpreting and taking part in political discussion via social media platforms, whilst simultaneously trying to ‘career-hunt’, promote my art, and – wait for it – even considering Internet dating) has made me feel so disorientated, and unable to gain understanding of situations, due to the speed at which information sources bombard you, that I am now writing this after slowly coming up for air from month-long spell of depressive withdrawal.
Life is increasingly mediated via cyberspace – a mixture of platforms tending to and enhancing our panicky aspirations, our need of social approval, and depressive pleasure-seeking that results from the exhaustiveness of all that precedes it. Regarding trying to play a traditional participatory citizen’s role via Cyberspace, I have found myself bombarded daily with calls to stop TTIP, challenge the threat of UKIP, Boycott Israel, and help gain the Green Party the media limelight their policies deserve. Yet I feel bowled over, electrodes hitting me from all sides, ticking boxes of things I haven’t read, just ticking boxes of my pre-set ideas of what is just and unjust, not gaining a clearer understanding of anything, except a growing disbelief in the dissemination of information.
Yet social reproduction is incredibly claustrophobic once it is echoed from every device capable of connecting to the web. Our souls are put to work feverishly, trying to get places, gain things, learn things, yet learning nothing really. As the journalist John Pilger said in a recent lecture, the world is experienced as a “a tsunami of unexplained horror through the media”. Contemplation is squeezed into narrowing pockets of time, promoting its opposite: pure emotive reaction.
The ‘social-disease of neoliberalism’ has taken over 30 years to reach its current austerity-age fever pitch level. When the profit motive eclipses everything else, reflection isn’t required, or given a chance; just the emotive reaction. No matter how much information disseminated about the truth behind Farage’s UKIP (for example), its emotive pull creates such a huge din that reason becomes unreasonable. Neoliberalism forces down upon us an emotive populism, from Xfactor-style television to UKIP-dominated current affair panels. Thought is compressed into tactics on how to gain ground in a race to the bottom reality, whilst the quality of our lives is evaluated via media-interfaces, often only leaving space for the grubby residue of life’s wealth – what Paul Verhaeghe calls ‘depressive pleasure-seeking’.
We have found ourselves living under a strange Autocracy of Populism. “Everything must be entertaining, everything must entertain”, and we are expected to be constantly performative (and with success). an exhaustive psychic shutdown and depressive withdrawal is inevitable to many of us; yeah, we start from scratch, but it always strikes again.
And all the while the so-called protestant work ethic has intensified in response to the increasing difficulties of getting by. With each of us working our hardest, hoping the system will spare us (and grant us the leafy and comfortably-off 2.4 children lifestyle) the survivalist instinct has become feverish, repeatedly reinforcing the dog-eat-dog social reality. Since the austerity-age reality adjustment of the past half-decade, the work ethic has become hysterical in society. To challenge hard work is seen as heresy. In fact work isn’t even good enough, you need to be striving to move onwards and upwards constantly. Yet this hysterical work ethic only registers paid work as legitimate; all the unpaid exhaustion of energy that constitutes our so-called leisure time isn’t recognise one bit.
To be successful is all. The biggest fear is to fail – to be systematically reduced to an ‘invisible’. Being socially visible, whether at celebrity or at group level is all – to be validated within the believed-to-be all-seeing all-knowing media (or social media), which the writer Carl Neville says has taken on the role of a “benevolent deity, conferring riches and status”[Classless, Zero Books]. Whether it is the high echelons of celebrity media, or cyberspace social media – it is the all-important decider.
In one of his essays on the erasure of class struggle within British cinema, Carl Neville says that “In Xfactor Britain, we’re all just one step away from being a celebrity. …that exclusive x factor, detecta ble only by those of truly heightened sensibilities such as Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole [the media embodied], are your tickets out of the most degrading of all personal situations, anonymity”.
We’ve all been pitted against each other, all against all, in this daily exhaustion to ‘get out’, to escape poverty, misery, anonymity. No wonder video trends with names like Epic Fail are so popular on the one-versus-all battleground of social media. Is the Xfactor nation depicted in the 15 Million Merits episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror really so far from our current situation? Will our lonely and feverish plights to ‘get out’ get more desperate, and more ruptured by increasingly frequent depressive shutdowns?
Within this drawing every figure is initially frantic. The zombie-like look isn’t coincidental; once the pursuit of ‘LIFE’ becomes feverish, lived life itself feels like it has ceased to be; many a frantic moment I have felt undead. It seems appropriate to add then that when I’m in a state of depressive withdrawal, whilst I go into a state of psychic shutdown, I still require to be in motion. But not frantic motion, more endless urban meandering, and a wish that the train journeys would never end, carrying on into an endless night. The problem isn’t movement, it is when competitive forces dictate movement. And these competitive forces are crucial to neoliberal dominance.
Our current situation isn’t understood because the speed of daily life has increased as to cancel out the bringing in of new understandings. Our current work ethos belongs in the 1970’s at the latest; in 2014 it is driving us mad, literally. The only solution is a reduction in the speed, but the fever has our blood racing. But patronising individuals by telling them to chill out and relax is both futile and part of the very atomising structure set in motion by the neoliberal ideology – ascribing an unreal self-determination to people which places them in charge of something they cannot alter from an individual basis, lets our current social reality off the hook. A global consensus on the need to stop and reflect is essential. If one chooses to argue that perpetual acceleration is at the heart of capitalism, then I think we can agree on the root-source of this ‘planetary mental illness’.