November 4th, 2018
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
But here’s the truly wonderful thing about neoliberalism—as it turns us all into paranoid, jealous schemers, it offers to sell us bromides to ameliorate the very bad feelings of self-doubt and alienation it conjures in our dark nights of the soul. Neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy. It is no coincidence that as we become more nervous, “wellness” and “self-care” have become mainstream industries. Over the last few decades, workplaces have become ever more oppressive, intensely tracking workers’ bodies, demanding longer hours, and weakening workers’ bargaining rights while also instituting wellness and mentoring programs on an ever greater scale.
Occasionally, the contradiction of punitive, intrusive “wellness” becomes too ridiculous to bear and cracks under its own weight. One oft-mentioned catalyst for the recent teacher strike in West Virginia was a proposal to mandate the monitoring of teachers’ bodily movement via Fitbit just as the state government moved to limit pay raises and school funding. Capitalism will deplete you, while letting you think you have the means to improve your lot. Indeed, it will attempt to force its therapy on you. In the case of West Virginia’s top-down Taylorist wellness crusade, the state authorities clearly overplayed their hand; far more common are employer-sponsored initiatives, whether packaged as mindfulness training or meditation classes, that have been inserted into our working lives to help us talk ourselves down. Mindfulness—a state of hyper-awareness tempered with disciplined calm—has become the corporate mantra du jour. By encouraging increasingly put-upon employees to assume tree poses or retreat into an om in the face of frustration, corporate overlords mean to head off any mutinous stirrings before they have a chance to gain momentum. Even if CEOs themselves occasionally adopt these regimes with apparent sincerity, mindfulness serves the companies’ bottom lines first and foremost because it is fundamentally anti-revolutionary. “It’s hard not to notice how often corporate mindfulness aligns seamlessly with layoffs,” Laura Marsh writes. “Employees need a sense of calm too when their employer is flailing. Those productivity gains—an extra sixty-nine minutes of focus per employee per month—count for more when the ranks are thinning.”
This mode of psychic self-instruction presents a revealing complement to the anti-union propaganda films that employers may—and frequently do—require workers to view. Silly as all this instructional media may seem, those who circulate it understand that it is worth the investment. They know that language matters. Nothing cuts off self-determination more efficiently than eradicating its language. Replacing it with misdirecting prattle that locates all blame as well as the possible redemption from it back onto the individual is a magnificent coup for those who would like to keep us wary of one another. Corporate feel-goodism has a sick way of twisting the grimmest instances of exploitation and desperation into tales of individual triumph. In 2016, Lyft elevated a nine-months pregnant driver and mentor into a position of corporate celebrity for accepting a fare during labor. Asking for similar “exciting” stories, Lyft cast its employee’s story as one of positive enterprise. Like any other company, Lyft knows that workers brimming with good feelings are rarely motivated to organize and demand working conditions that don’t require employees who are about to give birth to drive strangers around town.
It’s also no coincidence that the politician who presided over the final triumph of neoliberalism as American social and economic common sense was Bill “I Feel Your Pain” Clinton. Clinton threw poor single mothers off of public assistance, but any cost-cutting pol can do that. Clinton’s gift was that he could make even self-identified left-liberals feel good about such punitive policy shifts, by making it appear that they were in fact helping these women help themselves. In many ways, Clinton’s sleight of hand encapsulates neatly the narcissistic feedback loop of neoliberal positivity, which focuses on what feels good, rather than what is gracious and just.