The Politics of Affect: Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

There has been some productive discussion on Twitter around Jessica Irvine’s piece in Fairfax publications today Unpicking the Collective Whinge. In this post I shall engage with Irvine’s piece in the context of some of the discussion from Twitter and finish with a bit of an exploration into post-ideological politics. Irvine is working to diagnose a specific problem she identifies in the current Australian political climate: 

I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out how Australia’s economic vital signs can be so good – low joblessness, low inflation, trend growth – and yet Australians can remain so resolutely miserable.


There can be only one answer: we are, as a nation, chucking a full-on, all-screaming, all-door-slamming teenage temper tantrum.

I agree with the problem she is identifiing, but not the diagnosis. My colleague Jason Wilson’s observation is that this diagnosis is typical of (small-L) liberal political punditry and I believe he is writing a blog post on the matter.

Nation of Whingers

For international readers, ‘whingeing’ is a bit like whining, but in Australian culture it has a particularly nationalistic inflection due to the characterisation of ‘whingeing poms’. Irvine is arguing that ‘whingeing’ is the modus operandi of most of the nation.  ‘Whingeing’ in this context means attempting to extract more value from the current composition of arrangements (‘rentseeking’), normally via some kind of government-based dividend (reduction of regulation or increased welfare). She is collapsing two (or more) responses to the current economic situation in Australia, both of which are micro-economic responses to the apparently positive macro-economic well being of the entire national economy. Rather than diagnosing the problem as ‘whingeing’ my suggestion is that the current situation needs to be dissected to separate (at least) two levels social and political anxiety. 

  1. At the level of what Irvine calls ‘business’, she describes how they are “chucking hissy fits about workplace laws and taxation”. Shes notes that “most of the tantrums come from big business in Australia – the banks, resource companies and retailers that generally operate under little competitive pressure and enjoy a captive customer base.”
  2. At the level of ‘consumers’ and Irvine’s deployment of a collective ‘we’ (which I’ll take to mean salaried employees and non-big business owners) and others who have high household debt. They are “complaining about the cost of living and wailing about any attempts to wind back a bloated welfare system”.

Rather than bundling up all responses to the apparently positive macro-economic health of the nation in terms of ‘whinging’ it makes better sense at an analytical level to separate (at least) two responses and critically engage with them on their own terms. In response to Jason’s comments, in my tweets I suggested there was a kind of dissonance being experienced because of the apparent contradiction of the relatively good macro-economic health and wellbeing of the national economy versus the experience of dominant neo-liberal modes of workplace management and performance-based audit culture. In a performance-based audit culture all workplace activity is measured against performance-based indexes. Certain ‘targets’ need to be met: sales targets, satisfaction targets, conversion targets and so on. This is a naked attempt to extract more labour from workers, particularly when the ‘targets’ are not realistic. But it is only own example of the ‘insecurity’ experienced at the level of the individual or household. The pressure experienced by individuals and ‘households’ radically increases once a huge debt burden is factored into the equation. The sloganistic description of this mode of capitalism is to “Privatise profits and socialise risk.”

I’m updating this post 23/5/12 with comments from Ross Gittin, economics writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, who hits the nail on the head with his column about the self-interest of business people who frame changes to superannuation and tax regulations in ways to suit themselves:

David Anderson, the managing director of Mercer, a financial services provider, warns that ”continual changes to superannuation will unfortunately create a wave of uncertainty, confirming the commonly-held view that superannuation is an irresistible honey pot”. ”There is a risk that further complicating and continually changing the rules in superannuation will reduce investor confidence in super and that would be a most unfortunate outcome,” he says. Sorry, but most of all that is self-serving tosh. […]

The media have a tendency to quote uncritically business spokespeople who want to have a crack at the government of the day. But most of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They claim to be speaking in the interests of their customers but, for the most part, they are, in the money market phrase, ”talking their book” – that is, offering advice that serves their own interests. Even when measures have been carefully targeted to hit only the well off, they’ll be shedding bitter tears and predicting dire consequences. Why? Partly because they’re very highly paid themselves but mainly because they make more money out of the rich than the poor.

I want to make a further critical point about why it is necessary to separate the two levels and I want to relate to the move from ideologically-based poltical arguments to a post-ideological context. The problems of big business are not ‘our’ problems. ‘Our’ problems are not the problems of big business. Irvine’s piece would’ve been far stronger had she made this explicit distinction in her column.

On the Shared Experience of Anxiety

 The current mainstream media continually produces stories that attempt to forge a connection between the experience of dissatisfaction because of insecurity with the current government or state of affairs. This is the absolute travesty of media reports about the mining tax or the so-called ‘carbon tax’. The Australian newspaper has been particularly virolent in its efforts to forge this connection and then using it to attack the current minority Labor government under the aegis of ‘holding them to account’. The end result is that the very real feeling of insecurity at the level of the individual or household is rearticulated as the consequence of the ‘same’ problems that ‘business’ is using to win rentseeking concessions from government.

In late-1970s versions of Marxist-inflected media studies, this would’ve been interpreted as a classic example of the hegemonic effect of the mainstream media being in the pockets of capitalists. Basically the media is being used to suture over apparent class contradictions. The ‘consumers’ and ‘householders’ have come to perceive the world in ways that benefit the ‘business’ classes. Fear and anxiety are often used as the currency or building blocks of such an approach. If you experience ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’ then whatever the situation is must be ‘real’ as you otherwise would not feel such emotions. The now ubiquitous ‘moral panic’ is an example of this work. Isolate a ‘folk devil’, represent them as the cause (rather than symptom) of some stuctural tension, and reap the political capital benefits.

The current situation is different. ‘Insecurity’ is experienced as anxiety or even dread about whether or not ‘we’ are able (and importantly continue to be able) to afford the ‘costs of living’. ‘Costs of living’ bundles up a large number of diverse expenditures for a diverse range of people. Does it refer to current costs of health insurance? Or rent and housing? Mobility in the form of ongoing registration and fueling of a vehicle? Time and money costs of public transport? Food and clothing? Irvine reduces all this to a paternalistic and cynical ‘lolly prices’:

True, lolly prices were rising, particularly on consumer sensitive items like petrol, food, education and health. But average income gains were more than enough to offset the rises for most, if not all, Australian households.

‘We’ don’t have a large degree of control over most of these costs. We can ‘choose’ not to have private health insurance or ‘choose’ not to have a car, but the quality of life can change considerably. If this was an ideological move, then the average punter would believe the same thing that the ‘business’ class believes. To some extent they do, but the point I want to make is that this is premised on a shared experienced of anxiety.

Post-Ideological Politics?

In Anti-Oedipus, French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and post-Lacanian psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari, (in)famously declared: “There is no ideology and never has been” (4). They were discussing literature, describing it as a ‘machine’. They were primarily concerned with the way ‘desire’ is invested throughout the social field and developed the concept of ‘machines’ to reframe the problem.

The ‘literature machine’ is an assemblage of books, people, cultural events, language, logistical apparatuses of the publishing industry and so on that cuts off or opens up flows of desire; using ‘desire’ as a resource, such ‘machines’ produce the social field itself. Desire is in ‘scarequotes’ because Deleuze and Guattari modify the classic neo-Freudian conceptualisation of ‘desire’ as a ‘libidinal force’ to argue that ‘desire’ has an ontological valence actualised as the ‘social reality’ encountered as the product of ‘machines’.

In more recent developments engaging with similar problematics this ‘desire’ is more often discussed in terms of ‘affect’. This was also the trajectory of Deleuze and Guattari’s own work developing from Anti-Oedipus to their follow up volume A Thousand Plateaus.

What I find fascinating about Irvine’s latest column is that it is an example of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘Oedipalization’. The social field is described in terms of being a ‘family’ with the paternalistic government trying to deal with the ‘teenage tantrums’ of both ‘business’ and ‘us’. It is up to the government ‘parents’ to intervene:

In the teenage economy, the returns from rentseeking – or seeking special treatment from mum and dad – are higher than the returns from productive pursuits, like actually innovating business practices. Business chucks a tantrum because it’s easier to manipulate mum into given you $20 than going out and getting a job and earning it yourself.

What then of the character of post-ideological politics? There has long been an anxiety about post-rational politics. This means thinking about politics as involving emotion, feeling and ‘affect’. Some authors describe this in terms of the aestheticisation of politics and turn to the great facist movements of the 20th century. I don’t think this is the case here, however.

To feel this level of anxiety about the current state of affairs means ‘you’ are thinking through a range of issues, calculating household budgets, contemplating how various macro-economic indicators will affect your micro-economic wellbeing. Rather than affect being purely autonomous, the current political discourse locates it within a framework of macro-economic wellbeing. For example, within the machinery of political commentary ‘interest rates’ function as a thermostat of anxiety and the affective contexture of the nation more generally.

Interest rates and commentary about interest rates are used to ‘modulate’ the affective state of a large group of anxious people. As Brian Massumi notes if you take seriously the colour-coded terror alert system developed to inform US citizens about possible terrorist threats, then you should always be in a state of alertness. There is no ‘safe’ setting. As Massumi puts it: “The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety.”

Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

The contradiction between macro-economic wellbeing and micro-economic anxiety is being used to fuel a politics of frustration.  What Irvine misses in her column is that most of the activity of ‘us’ that she describes captures those things we are meant to be doing as fully functioning members of society. Having families, buying homes, trying to maintain a career and so on, yet the anxiety around future micro-economic conditions is still apparent. What if a general anxiety about ‘costs of living’ was precisely the point of the current neoliberal machinations? What if the duopoloy of Coles and Woolworths benefit from an anxiety about fuel and food costs? What if banks and other loans and credit card providers produce anxiety about ther products (intentionally or not)? Who benefits from this politics of anxiety?

10 thoughts on “The Politics of Affect: Using Anxiety as a Political Resource”

  1. A hyperrealist view:

    The global narrative is based on fear and anxiety since there are real causes for that in other parts of the world. Distrust of institutions, politicians, and a fear of the future make a lot of sense in countries where banks have collapsed, governments go against the will of the people and real wealth is diminishing.

    We consume and reproduce this narrative here because the broad themes of distrust and fear sound ‘authentic’ (and resonate with other ‘Australian values’ [self-reliance, the fair go, the bush-ranger, the convict, the swagman]) even if we can’t directly point to a stimulus that makes us feel that way. Additionally key influencers in our national narrative are watching global news constantly looking for stories and ideas to try locally (particularly innovations in conservative politics in the UK and the USA). What’s more we often don’t absorb events in a comprehensive way but instead filter them through highly stylised formats, such as popular commentators or things like The Daily Show.

    It’s not hard to see the simulated nature of this fear and anxiety: Employment is up, interest rates are low and while spending is restrained in the retail sector there are other things, such as house prices, still at historically record levels. Each of these indicators depends to some degree on actual confidence in the economy as opposed to a notion of how one should feel.

    Basically our national narrative is completely disconnected from reality because we’ve stepped a little further into the simulcra.

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