From anxiety to revolt? Against the financialized university
By Max Haiven and Aris Komorozos-Athanasiou
Can we find, in the “mental health crisis” in financialized universities, the seeds of radical refusal?
The decade since the Great Recession has revealed the promise of the corporate, neoliberal university to be a lie: going massively into debt to improve one’s human capital with a degree is unlikely to save today’s youth from a dismal non-future of precarious work, spasmodic income and relentless anxiety.
All this while the fabled virtues of the enlightenment university — truth, evidence-based inquiry, civil argumentation, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge — appear to either have been cruelly betrayed by a rapacious capitalist world system — e.g. “who cares about climate science” — or, worse still, weaponized as slogans by reactionaries —“free speech!”
Indeed, far from the euphoric and uniform imagery still presented by university public-relations offices in their scramble for enrolment, the contemporary Anglo-American university is experienced mostly as a miserable and melancholy place. This is not only the case for increasingly overworked, precarious and austerity-ravaged faculty, but also for alienated, anxious and unhappy students. Both are demanding mental health services in record numbers.
The post-war narrative that a university education might provide an escape from the precarious drudgery of working-class employment, or that it might educate future generations of responsible citizens, seems quaint to the point of absurdity today.
While statistics still indicate that a university education improves one’s competitiveness on the job market, even sociologically-illiterate undergraduates seem to know that this competition feels purposeless and far from guaranteed. This cynicism has been compounded, on both sides of the Atlantic, by recent but unsurprising revelations about the way wealthy families game the admissions to the most prestigious schools to ensure their class reproduction.
Yet precisely the moment when the combined forces of neoliberal austerity and financialization transform higher education into a form of human warehousing — a distant but unmistakable cousin of the prison — for an unnecessary generation, the university also becomes a key – if not the key – forum for the affective politics of our age: rage, melancholy, cynicism and anxiety.
The lightening-struck ivory tower
This strange conjunction is connected to the emergence not so much of a new political class and not so much of a new political generation as a new political mood, or, better, moodiness. This moodiness is specific and unique to what we will call the post-speculative subject: a political agent that is caught between the failed promises of neoliberalism and a structural anxiety about the future.
This is a subject that has been raised in and calibrated to a financialized society where public concerns are made into private risks and where we are all exhorted to conceive of ourselves as a competitive “investor” in all aspects of our life. Yet what makes this speculative subject “post” is the grim, if often unnamable, recognition that, in contrast to the one-time enthusiasm and optimism for a market society at the proverbial “end of history,” today — to quote Leonard Cohen — “everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”
Our argument is that the anxieties of the university — and its subjects — are both indicative and constitutive of this overarching idiom. The recent uptick in student anxiety can be described both in terms of an ambient “structure of feeling” as well as in terms of official diagnoses and requests for accommodation routed through offices of student services.
On the one hand we have austerity-wracked and debt-encumbered universities which are increasingly anxious to improve what is often euphemistically described as “student experience” which will result in higher applications numbers, greater student “success” and retention and, ultimately, better performance by the various metrics imposed — or self-imposed — on universities to ensure “value-for money” in the eyes of students, parents, governments and, increasingly, private sector “investors”.
On the other, the students who are ultimately seen as the key investors — and also investments — are increasingly claiming a kind of individual state of exception to the culture of anticipatory and competitive achievement-oriented “success” normalized by the university and the society of which it is a part. In many cases, their existential opposition to this order is framed in the language of mental health.
Mainstream publications now echo the warnings issued by student-oriented councilors and administrators: there is a “mental health epidemic” on campuses that is overwhelming the capacities of universities large and small.
We do not wish or intend to in any way delegitimize the challenges many individuals face that, today, go under the medicalized banner of depression, anxiety or mental illness. Nor do we seek to question the vital forms of relief and survival many students and other people find in the conventional medical therapies and pharmaceutical interventions associated with these diagnoses. Rather, from a critical sociological standpoint we have set ourselves the task of asking a few critical questions.
Why this “epidemic” of mental health now, among this generation and in these institutions?
What sociological, political and economic tendencies might the largely individualizing language of “mental health” obscure?
Beyond the public anxiety about the “fall of the university” to the scourge of lazy, entitled, snowflakes, how might the “anxiety crisis” of the institution indicate a new terrain of social struggles germane to a financialized, digital age of climate, economic and political crisis?
And, most importantly, is there some way to see this whole paradigm from a different angle: might we reframe the nebulous problem of “youth anxiety” not as evidence of decline and abjection but, in a strange way, as a source of — perhaps yet inchoate and disorganized, but potentially radical — resistance?
Financialization and the young subject
At its most basic level, the term financialization names the incredible growth in the economic and political power and influence of high finance, emblematized by investment banks, hedge funds, bond markets and the rule of debt that has grown and grown since the dawn of the neoliberal age in roughly 1973.
At a deeper level, financialization refers to the way the values, ideas, metaphors and methods of the financial sector steep into and begin to color almost every other realm of society.
Government programs are recast as impact-maximizing enterprises and subjected to forms of measurement, competition and speculation, reminiscent of the most unforgiving trading floors. Education and healthcare are presented as personalized investments and citizens are rebranded as either celebrated risk-takers or worthless “at risk” scroungers.
Today’s university is an example of one of society’s most financialized institutions, and not only recent for-profit universities. The fate of many universities depends on invested endowments or on their role as vehicles for urban property speculation.
Universities have been at the forefront of developing methods of quantifying, measuring, managing and disciplining cognitive forms of labor that they might better be assessed as sites of investment by prospective students, government funders and private donors.
And, indeed, in an allegedly post-industrial “knowledge” economy the university is the paradigmatic institution for the — increasingly individualized — investment in workers entrepreneurs’ “human capital.” The university remains the forge of market-based meritocracy investment, where hard work and competitive enthusiasm allegedly pays off, first as high grades, then as success in other markets.
Before the 2008 financial crisis it might have been possible for some of us to sustain what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism: a bad-faith enthusiasm that playing by the rules will allow one to get ahead. Except, the rules keep reproducing the system of doom.
Yet until the bubble burst, neoliberalism’s future promise still managed to maintain a veneer of redemption: “suffer now but there will be benefits to be reaped in the future.” House ownership and family stability were the future “return” on the investment made in the present.
Since 2008 whatever privatized utopia neoliberal financialization promised is off the table: forget a rising tide lifts all boats, just claw your way to the driest end of the sinking lifeboat. No wonder we are now seeing epidemic levels of anxiety and other responses that are named, or that name themselves, as mental health disorders.
The post-speculative subject, which we recognize in ourselves and in our students, and also in the troll armies unleashed online and at the ballot boxes by the latest reactionary wave, is one forged within financialization. It is a subjecthood not limited to those born in the ’80s and ’90s, though it is most frequently exhibited in them — many older subjects cannot remember a time before the plague years.
It is a subject that has been cajoled, shamed, seduced, threatened and educated to tirelessly “invest in themselves” to compete with one another in an age of rapidly diminishing expectations.
Worker, know thyself
It would have been simple for Marx and Engels, writing the Communist Manifesto in 1848, to rail against the seeming political apathy and even reactionary politics of the deskilled industrial proletariat. Many of their radical contemporaries did so, preferring the militant skilled craft unionists who were being replaced.
Marx and Engels refused to do so, and instead tried to discern the revolutionary potential in the massified industrial working class, leading to perhaps the most powerful movement for economic and social transformation in world history.
From Marx and Engels we take the inspiration to have the courage to look beyond nostalgia but without romanticization towards the forms of struggle and the radical imagination that might emerge from the damned. But we also importantly retain their insistence that the struggle has to be positioned in terms of the way capital is restructuring social and economic life.
For Marx and Engels, labor unions had to appropriate rather than merely criticize the conditions that was assigned to workers by their class enemies. While, for Marx and Engels, the world-historic task of the industrial proletariat was to abolish themselves as a class in the process of abolishing social class entirely, this task had to begin with a strategic theoretical understanding of their class composition.
Notably, it implied a recognition of the way capitalism had, necessarily, created its own gravediggers: a massified industrial working class with nominal individual rights — unlike, say, enslaved people — concentrated into worksites where they could easily communicate and organize — unlike, say, peasants scattered on the land — at the very heart of the capitalist value system: the factory.
The Manifesto did not so much describe a current reality as it — correctly — predicted a subterranean shift, not only demographically but politically.
We do not necessarily agree with the conclusion typically — although perhaps mistakenly — attributed to Marx and Engels that only the industrial working class in “developed” capitalist nations are worthy revolutionary subjects. But we do want to highlight the point that, at certain historical moments, certain institutions become pivotal and that revolutionary subjects and possibilities emerge based on unforeseen contradictions, though these contradictions may be opaque and these subjects may not recognize themselves, or one another, as such. Our argument, which draws on the analysis developed in the early 2000s by the EduFactory Collective, is that, in our age, the university may be such a space.
This is decidedly not because, as we have become comfortable imagining, university students are wide-eyed dreamers eager to overturn the system. Our experience indicates exactly the opposite: students are increasingly disengaged and cynical.
Rather, our interest in the university and its melancholic subjects stems precisely from their melancholy, cynicism and disengagement.
Speculative politics in the anxious university
In “Sick Woman Theory” Johanna Hedva asks “As I lay there, unable to march, hold up a sign, shout a slogan that would be heard, or be visible in any traditional capacity as a political being, the central question of Sick Woman Theory formed: How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?”
Hedva’s concern is for all those, like herself and so many of us, who suffer chronic illness that prevents them from “participating” in capitalist exploitation such that they are, essentially, abandoned as “surplus” population relative to those — socially constructed as — “healthy” people deemed worthy of being worked to death.
There is a danger in our extending her argument to the often highly privileged figure of “the student.” Yet we find important her provocative questions about how chronic illness — including those medically diagnosed as anxiety and depression — render up an unseen, often unseeable political constituency whose forms of political action may appear radically unfamiliar.
At the same time, of course, this invisibility is rendered quite visible in the volume of the online “extenuating circumstances” forms uploaded to the universities’ “online learning environments.” But it is also in the worlds of 4chan, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit and other technologically augmented media spaces, where the affects and endogenous theories of students’ cynical “non-participation” are often expressed.
So how to illuminate and understand this hyper-visible invisibility of the dis-engaged student?
What if the epidemic of anxiety on campus was an incipient form of a general strike? What if the refusal of students to engage with school was a form of mass refusal that dared not — yet — speak its name?
As with any grassroots movement, we should certainly expect the defenders and beneficiaries of the system to decry such protest as hopeless, useless, counter-productive and immature. How many times have the white bourgeois press mocked racialized rioters, commenting that “they’re burning down their own neighborhoods!”
Sabotage is always condemned as hurting the workers most. Shoplifting is framed as a sin against the consumer whose prices will rise. So too, today, are the revolting subjects of an anxious age pilloried for failing themselves.
Of course, individual acts of sabotage, uncoordinated refusal and withdrawal are not going to catalyze the change we need to escape capitalism’s death spiral. But perhaps recognizing the affects of the financialized university and the post-speculative subject might help us better comprehend the forms of organizing germane to our age.
Unfortunately, many scholars, activists and organizers dedicated to class struggle against capitalism tend to see these affects and the new formations of solidarity they produce as useless or even reactionary. The forms of self-organization of anxious post-speculative subjects, often marked by a discourse of self-care and a culture of largely online, social-media bound affirmation, are usually seen as narcissistic, immature, wasteful, consumerist and self-indulgent.
Is there more to be learned?
There are many risks to such an analysis. Apathy, individualism and “addiction” to capitalist digital devices calibrated to hack the human neurosystem are indeed massive problems.
Equally, we do not want to simply be seen to be lending legitimacy to an apolitical culture of social-justice flavored online affirmation politics, which replaces collective struggle with righteous slogans and sassy memes.
We have in mind an analysis that can help explain, in the same sweep a modality of capitalist power and resistance to it that perhaps helps us surpass a long-standing opposition between the wounds of exploitation and the wounds of alienation.
In this, such an analysis might help us link, on the one hand, the forms of radical withdrawal and refusal we have identified here with other tendencies in our age, notably the extremely worrying reactionary turn among many young people, for instance towards the now digitally perfumed reanimated corpse of 20th century fascism or clownish ethno-nationalism.
At stake, for us, is developing a means to grasp the subterranean flows of what Cornelius Castoriadis called the radical imagination: that elemental social force out of which all social institutions are formed, but which then also occasionally erupts to sweep them away before again hardening into new institutions.
Like the buildup of tectonic force between two great continental plates, today there is a disaster brewing in the tension between, on the one hand, how a financialized society has shaped the conditions of “youth” and, on the other, the “youth” themselves.
The eruptions and tremors have begun and we take it as our task to name something stirring beneath the surface.