Politics in Times of Anxiety

by | 8 Jun 2014


Politics in Times of Anxiety springs from the 9/11 attacks, when public safety and security turned into a central concern across the globe. The subsequent economic crisis that broke out in 2008 in the USA and its gradual spread across Europe initiated a protracted period of global slump and distressed views of political representation to be found in the Occupy movement, for example, the Indignados, or, more recently, uprisings in Greece, Turkey, and Brazil, to name but a few.

In these instances, fear about environmental sustainability, economic stability, or social exclusion has permeated the public discourses, creating a strong narrative of an immanent threat or uncertainty about the future. These expressions of uncertainty and dissatisfaction are more than mere signs of insecurity. They are also attempts at managing, dealing with and manipulating anxiety.

The official political discourse aims to identify various different objects of anxiety and claims to secure populations from them (we have seen the emergence of a number of ‘new security threats’ such as the environment, uncertainty, natural disasters); while political subjects’ responses to anxiety are somewhat different.

Some embrace anxiety and see it as a strategy or a possibility of a radical change in the existing political discourse, while others strive to overcome it and seek security. As a result anxiety profoundly questions how we conceive of politics. From classical political action to a different sense of belonging and societal reactions such as artistic expressions, but also religious ones, we ask:what is at stake when anxiety becomes the driving force in politics?  

Anxiety has become a pronounced feature of our time. The impact of the different forms, feelings, and affects of anxiety on democratic and liberal politics is more profound than it might appear to be. This conference aims to engage with the effect anxiety has on our every day socio-political reality, as a phenomenon spread across society, personal life, as well as the global, regional, and local levels.

In this week’s guest feature, we would like to share with you some of the themes of ‘Politics in times of anxiety’, beginning with the state of anxiety itself, the paralysing of society, the social and political concerns this evokes and the attendant security, surveillance and policing practices.

Situating anxiety

Looking at political as well as academic discourse over the past ten years it seems that our social and political reality has indeed entered ‘times of anxiety’; either in the form of ‘Living in the End Times’ as Slavoj Zizek argues, or as a discourse of exception where different political measures and logics are required to battle external threats, to follow Bush, such as an atmosphere of radicalisation and fear, economic instability and austerity, or a curious re-conceptualisation of security.

But what triggers such escalating discourse, a discourse which aims to draw our attention to the limit, a proximity of a threshold and thus to the death of life as we know it? This is a question we still struggle with. The Institute for Precarious Consciousness for example, sees anxiety as the hidden truth of modern socio-political life.

Anxiety is different from fear, which, according to Sigmund Freud, always refers to or comes with an object. One ‘fears’ or has a ‘fear’ of different things or situations, which can be pinned down, located, represented and of which we have knowledge.

By contrast, anxiety occurs without a specific object. For Freud, anxiety evokes a particular feeling of unease, which cannot be explained or caught in knowledge. As a reaction, anxiety hints towards the existence of something more fundamental, to a particular structure, which produces an anxious subject. Thus anxiety is fundamental to a split postmodern subject, a subject of ideology and a subject who is manipulated by political strategies of control.

It is not that anxiety is either present or absent: anxiety is always ‘here’; it is a fundamental condition of our political and social existence, but different manipulating strategies make us more or less aware of it.

Highly unstable, precarious and allegedly insecure times escalate public anxiety and governing practices work to channel anxiety towards particular threats, such as migration, radicalisation, war on terror, austerity, etc. Here anxiety is turned into a governing strategy through various forms of public surveillance, policing, control which give subjects an illusion of control and safety. Or anxiety is turned into a resistance practice, where the state of anxiety is assumed as something that can be taken on, embraced and through conscious if not strategic action turned resistant to the governing structures.

Anxiety: a strategy of control or force for political change?

Security can be a concept of comfort or of threat, depending on where you stand. As mentioned above, it has become key in political discourse, and is used as a justification for a wide range of political decisions, both domestic and external. For our example, we might take a quick look at the UK Cyber-Security Strategy documents — a re-conceptualisation of security whereby the primacy of human or state security gives way to economic security.

Anxiety plays a vital role in the very possibility of such decision-making. Not only are security policies implemented from the top-down, but, often, there is a desire among the population to secure the borders, to control the Internet, to catch those vile individuals or organisations that threaten our existence. The anxious citizen turns to the powers of the state apparatus for comfort and for stability.

Similarly, in times of economic depression, austerity becomes a mantra in a world of ever-increasing unemployment, of evictions, and declining living standards. In Europe, the current generation can expect neither job security nor the material well-being of their parents. Faced with such a situation, the grinds of capitalism can spin even further, often justified as “the only way”. The solution becomes more austerity, and more control and also a sense of guilt among the population for their previous excesses, something which is often untrue. A fear of more financial instability enables measures previously unthinkable, such as promoting technocracy and expert rule.

Anxiety, then — as a number of this week’s contributions aim to show (see below) — is a strategy of governance. But perhaps to follow Michel Foucault, it is a strategy of governance as well as a strategy of self-governing.

As a governing strategy it works at the level of the economy and security. Saturated with hyper or over-excitement, anxiety makes its subjects inoperable; in turn, it subordinates populations and makes them dependant on security and surveilling mechanisms.

Anxiety exposes a new regime of visibility

Driven by enhanced policing and surveillance and coupled with people’s own desire to expose their private lives (on social media), it brings to an end the classical assumption whereby the public aims to hide in the face of the sovereign gaze.

No longer is there an incentive to hide, absolute freedom and security (such is the assumption) can only be attained if the subject voluntarily exposes itself. The revelation or the exposure does not take place in the realm of security or politics, but in the realms of entertainment or social interaction. In other words, the subject exposes itself without knowing it or as a form of on-line interaction and convenience.

Secrecy-driven security is thus coupled with the everyday economy of the public, and their micro-managing practices. Hyper-anxiety as a form of strategy aims at bringing the subject to the point whereby s/he is faced with no other choice but to subordinate her/his private life to the sovereign’s micro-managing and policing practices.

Presented with such a negative outlook, we must ask if there is any possibility of resistance, can anxiety produce positive reactions, empowering the sometimes so powerless citizen?

As our current political landscape demonstrates, anxiety paired with anger can yield a spark of resistance among the population. We witness the rejection of economic governance in southern Europe and elsewhere; the never-ending bravery of the migrant crossing borders; and we can also see a global upsurge in the calls for justice.

Utilising the same tools that are used for control, spaces for resistance are created, both in the virtual and in the real. As such, anxiety permeates the political subject, the practices of governance, and therefore politics at large, which justifies our quest for understanding the intricacies of a politics of anxiety.”


Introduction to the week’s contributors with links to the features:

On Monday, Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest social theorists of our time, took on the crisis of the European Union for his keynote speech. He describes this crisis, which has left many of its people in a precarious situation, as ultimately a crisis of agency, and of territorial sovereignty. Bauman identifies some of the inherent problems with the breaking down of “politics as we know it”. Around Europe, anxiety is rising due to issues with representation and governance at large, as was obvious in the recent elections to the European parliament. But where are the solutions to be found?

A direct link to the failure of representation is offered in Norma Rossi’s piece, which sees the rise of extremist right-wing parties as the product of a politics of anxiety. However, contrary to many explanations of the rise of such parties, Rossi argues that moderate or mainstream parties in fact feed off and benefit from this development.

Constructing the same issues and the same threats as extremist parties, mainstream actors play on their objective, moderate, and technical profile to seem more credible than their opponents.  In reality, the issues remain unchallenged: so that for instance the depoliticisation of migration is ever ongoing. As such, the politics of anxiety feeds a politics of exception.

Didier Bigo introduced us on Tuesday to the concept of GPS security — Global, Preventive, and Surveillance — which permeates the everyday practices of every individual. In the second keynote lecture this week, he observes that security now is “global, limitless, primary, and preventive” in opposition to the former concept of security which was “national, bounded territorially, liberal, and punitive”.

As such, taking off from a discourse of anxiety, from the politics of unease, security now lingers in the micro-levels of human life, in health, insurance, risk, finance, bank securitisation, and cannot be resisted. We have entered an environment where security “exists before freedom” and therefore freedom is no argument against the new security practices.The human subject must adapt to this new reality, and is indeed also becoming an agent of surveillance.

One of the areas where security as a politics of anxiety works most efficiently is in the field of migration. Dimitris Skleparis turned our attention yesterday to the practices of border control between Greece and Turkey. Here, migration into Europe is rapidly becoming a crisis of security, both national and human.

Greek border control has time and again been accused of compromising human rights in their handling of the migrant situation; however, many of their actions are directly in line with European directives on control, and the idea of European/international security as cultural security. Nonetheless, there are struggles between Greece and the EU over the definition of security. Anxiety is a key instrument in creating narratives of the threat from migrants, both in economic terms, and when it comes to health. The politics of anxiety, again, enable practices which are clearly in opposition to basic human rights, but which have become normalised in our public discourse.

Violence and violent actions and their intrinsic link to anxiety are Wednesday’s subject: political violence is either an outcome of social and political anxiety or its cause. These two contributions look at the knottings of the economy of violence in a spectrum of anxious politics. In particular they discuss how different discourses of radicalisation or repression are mobilised by the aim of ‘ordering’ the past, ‘securing’ the present and/or ‘pre-empting’ the future.  The piece by Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet, Didier Bigo, Laurent Bonelli, and Francesco Ragazzi draws on the alleged political anxieties surrounding the travel of European youth to Syria to fight with the opposition forces. The ‘radicalisation’ of youth in Syria is what the EU as well as its member states see as particularly dangerous, anxious about the manifestations of such radicalisation in the European space upon their return. Referring to a recently published report for the European Parliament, this piece questions the anxiety surrounding the political hype of radicalisation, and points in other directions for greater dangers to security in Europe.

Henrique Tavares Furtado looks at the discourse of political anxiety in Brazil, unearthing a close link between state violence/discourse of violence and economic prosperity. In the wake of the World Cup the Government is resorting to violent acts of repression to tackle the recent (and still on-going) protests against the economic situation in the country; it aims to reclaim history by introducing truth commissions to identify ‘the terrorist’, appease the nation and reclaim its democratic credentials.

Thursday’s contributions aim to show that anxiety is not only a political practice but also a condition of one’s existence in the world. Our two interventions focus on how the political subject can grapple with political realities — how the subject can redirect the anxious gaze back to the power of the state, consciously working with or through anxiety to resist the dominant political narratives or create its own space of personal freedom.

Ian Parker’s contribution looks at what he calls the post-political cultural project NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and its famous avant-garde music group Laibach. Parker shows how Laibach and NSK mobilise commonly recognised fascist iconography precisely to provoke and expose the (open or uncovered) authoritarian logics at play in Yugoslavia, but also in modern politics (e.g. Europe). By working through the anxiety induced by fascist iconography, he argues that a challenge to politics takes place.

Andrea Rossi’s paper takes us through the philosophy of modern political subjectivity, by describing how anxiety is a founding condition of the political subject. Political subjectivity can be mobilised, however, to counter-act the political anxieties and impending threats of an approaching end of the world.

We conclude our guest editorial week with a look at the work anxiety does in modern political systems and structures. Two contributions delve into modern state practice.

Michael Dillon’s closing keynote speech opens up the question of death and the monopoly of state power in controlling, administering and ultimately deciding whether someone/something is worth protecting or put to death. Drawing on the Bush/Blair conspiracy on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the highly controversial execution of Clayton Lockett (whose execution turned into a 43 minute long ordeal of struggle between life and death), Dillon exposes the messiness of state power and shows how failure is integral to the practice of state sovereignty. Iraq, Afghanistan and Lockett are not exceptional cases. Quite the contrary, they represent the true face of the modern state.

Japhy Wilson’s dissection of neoliberal ideology suggests that the capitalist system is far from being a monolitic and stable entity; instead, its state of play is much closer to what psychoanalytic discourse describes as an anxious social fantasy or an obsessional neurosis in which the neoliberal subject is engaged in frenetic activity to prevent anything of real importance from happening. In other words, neoliberalism is an anxiety-ridden form of crisis management, reaching its endpoint, as Wilson sees it, in “zombie neoliberalism”. No different from any other form of ‘zombieism’, the neoliberal zombie, too, wants to eat your brain.

Emmy Eklund is a doctoral candidate and Andreja Zevnik a lecturer in international politics at the University of Manchester.

Repost openDemocracy with minor modifications


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