Anxiety and self-sabotage in the neoliberal university

The following essay by me and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou is forthcoming as a chapter in Clickbait Capitalism: Economies of Desire in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Amin Samman and Earl Gammon forManchester University Press in the later half of in 2023.

Anxiety and self-sabotage in the neoliberal university

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and Max Haiven

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Mark Fisher’s theorisation of mental and emotional life under the disenchanted conditions of capitalist realism was deeply compelling not only for scholars, but also a whole generation.[1] His exploration of the chasm between, on the one hand, the relentless demand on individuals to become successful ‘risk-taking’ entrepreneurs of the self, and, on the other, the profound unlikelihood of finding success, let alone happiness or fulfilment, became emblematic for a whole generation of struggles, especially among young people in universities in the wake of the crisis. This was a generation who had at least some memory of a ‘before,’ a moment of neoliberal optimism. But today a new generation is emerging into adulthood, for whom neoliberalism, financialisation, and their anxieties are all they have ever known. As this new generation takes the stage, what forms of subjectivity, struggle, survival, and mutual aid are they inventing? And what might their emergence onto the stage imply for social and cultural critics of financialisation and its aftermaths?

In this chapter, we explore new tendencies within society and subjecthood that may be emerging in the wake of changing pressures on capitalism’s anxious subjects, for whom risk management is no longer a triumphant imperative to embrace one’s potential, but more a banal and fated norm. We take as our case study the Anglophone North Atlantic university and its increasingly anxious students. No person working in the university in these contexts can be unaware, anecdotally at least, of the drastic rise in anxiety among students and efforts by university administrators to address this. Media stories, government reports, and academic studies have been sounding the alarm for more than a decade, not shying away from terms like ‘epidemic’ or ‘crisis’ to describe the situation.[2]

Unfortunately, the ‘epidemic of student anxiety’ tends to be framed in three unhelpful ways. First, as the predictable and annoying plight of oversensitive, ‘coddled’ youngsters who have been so cushioned by liberal educational discourse, permissive parenting and strident social justice rhetoric they cannot handle the rigours of the world; second, as the result of a generation raised on and addicted to social media platforms; or, third, as simply an individuated biomedical problem to be addressed by therapy or drugs.[3] There is an element of truth to all these explanations, but they fail to account for the anxiety-inducing elements of the overarching system of financialised capitalism that frames universities, parenting and teaching styles, social media and handheld technology, and biopharmaceutical intervention.

In this chapter, we ask a series of speculative questions about the subterranean cultural politics of anxiety in the neoliberal university. What will, or what can, come after the ‘financialised subject’ that has been the topic of our collective inquiries now for some years? Is it possible that financialised capitalism might inadvertently be generating a countervailing force at the level of subjecthood? And, if so, then what are the prospects that such subjects might recognise their commonality and band together to challenge the conditions of their misery? Would we critical scholars, who have trained ourselves to look to a now-familiar repertoire of protest tactics and rhetoric, be able to recognise their resistance and rebellion if it took unexpected new forms? By posing these questions, we are seeking the contours of a range of emergent political subjecthoods whose imaginings are fundamentally shaped by financialisation, but that also strive to exceed it. We focus, specifically, on university students’ inchoate practices of resistance to the neoliberal university through anxious disengagement, practices that we suggest might be understood as forms of sabotage against an unacceptable future of financialised extraction and anxiety for which the university strives to prepare them. Our argument is that what appears to be ‘self-sabotaging’ behaviour can be fruitfully interpreted as a form of nascent rebellion, an expression of collective refusal of the conditions faced by students in universities today.

In previous moments of capitalism, we have seen workers undertake what outside observers have thought of as ‘self-defeating’ and counterproductive acts of rebellion, including burning plantations, sabotaging machines, and destroying slums.[4] At the same time, as Thorstein Veblen argued powerfully over a century ago, capitalists themselves may also embrace sabotage as a core tactic for beating market competition and ensuring profitability—in the form of, for instance, keeping production ‘short of capacity’ through withdrawal, retardation, or the ‘unemployment of plant and workmen.’[5] This already suggests how the politics of sabotage plays out through discourse: those whose interests are aligned with the reigning order have every reason to suggest that those who are oppressed by and oppose it are short-sighted, vindictive, and self-destructive in their resistance and refusal. Meanwhile, this rhetoric hides those qualities of the system itself. But as Gavin Muller argues, there is a utopian dream and a generative refusal at play in the collective actions of those who break the machines.[6]

In what follows, we consider today’s neoliberal university as a key site of the reproduction and expansion of financialisation, especially at the level of subjecthood, and explore whether the ‘anxiety epidemic’ can be read as, in part, mass refusal or uncoordinated sabotage. We argue that students’ anxious forms of resistance, notably their withdrawal and refusal to participate, are akin to other such moments in the history of capitalism, when sabotage was key to both the system’s reproduction but also to forms of resistance. In our case, the productive apparatus being sabotaged is the subject itself: the target of value creation and extraction in an age of financialised cognitive capitalism. Without losing sight of the profound consequences that anxiety presents for individual students and institutions alike, we explore the possibilities emerging out of such a reframing of the current ‘anxiety epidemic.’ We begin by outlining the way financialisation has raised a generation, now making their way through university, who are profoundly, indeed constitutively, anxious. We then turn to the way capitalism has historically both feared and sought to incorporate sabotage, including the way that finance itself represents a form of capitalist sabotage. Finally, we reframe students as workers within an apparatus of financialised cognitive capitalism and suggest that, from one angle, anxiety represents a particular form of sabotage.

The anxious neoliberal university

The plight of anxiety engulfing public-sector universities in the Anglophone North Atlantic and beyond is, by now, a well-documented and widely debated phenomenon.[7] In this context, students, teaching staff, and other denizens are increasingly governed by stress. The university itself is increasingly anxious about its place in the world and its ability to maintain a residual attachment to its founding values—the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of student capacities, and so on—in the face of rapid market-oriented restructuring and financial discipline.[8]

This anxiety crisis is intimately linked to an ongoing and intensifying student debt crisis. As Caitlin Zaloom has compellingly shown, middle-class families in countries such as the US are agonising over swelling debt burdens (taking out second mortgages and draining retirement savings), in an escalating struggle to pay for university education, which further withers their already battered financial security.[9] Pervasive indebtment has particularly devastating effects on working class students, who are faced with vastly unequal paths to future employment while also being compelled to work alongside their studies.[10] There is perennial concern that such rising debts present a risk to their future ability to invest in housing, business enterprise, even their own social reproduction.

These stressors within the university are compounded by wider societal pressures on young people, including the rising cost of housing and increasingly austere and exploitative labour markets. Keir Milburn, for one, locates the political anxieties and tendencies of this generation in the gulf between, on the one hand, being unable to access assets like housing through which elder generations have secured future wealth and livelihood and, on the other, the dawning recognition that their privatised and increasingly debt-fuelled ‘investments’ in their own human capital are unlikely to be recompensed in future job markets.[11]

Financialised universities preside over a systematic and wholesale transfer of risk and responsibility to students. Yet their function as debt-fuelled ‘promise-machines’ is all but lost. Following the motto ‘sacrifice today and hope for a reward in the (distant) future’ simply becomes untenable in the precarious, anxious university, where horizons of possibility and promise fulfilment are foreclosed, out of reach—slowly cancelled, to recall Fisher’s memorable phrase. The university becomes the antechamber of the financialised world of work precariousness and socio-economic conditions of relentless uncertainty. The politics of debt, however, does not merely point to the foreclosure of possibilities and narrowed future horizons; indebtment can also trigger a different kind of relationship with the present and induces forms of sociality and subjectivity that push beyond lenders’ technologies of control.[12]

For all these reasons, the university makes for a particularly salient space in which to study the links between indebtment, anxiety, and sabotage. Beyond the familiar ‘poverty of student life,’ there is a widely reported sense of cynicism, hopelessness, or avoidance prevalent among ‘Generation Z’ that seems wildly out-of-step with the polished optimism with which universities advertise their services as pathways to a ‘good life.’ It has become commonplace to note the tongue-in-cheek, post-ironic, meme-driven sentiments of this generation which makes it difficult to track their political orientations on grids calibrated by their elders.[13] These developments call for fresh approaches to understanding often surprising re-alignments and political constellations in the present.

What is undeniable is the rapid increase in anxiety among students.[14] Anxiety is an ambivalent descriptor because it names a wide spectrum of phenomena: the kind of embodied and episodic hyperarousal common to all animals; the kind of existential dread that plagues human beings (especially those in disenchanted modern societies); the pervasive feeling of being unable to cope with circumstances; and, in its most extreme forms, a debilitating psychiatric condition that is widely studied, subdivided, and met with a range of therapeutic and pharmacological treatments. Despite this ambiguity, we retain the term and note that no statistics we have found disprove the claim that, in all its manifestations, anxiety is on the rise among almost all university students. In the most conservative sense, students declaring and seeking learning accommodations from their universities for professionally diagnosed anxiety-related disorders has increased nearly everywhere, with profound consequences. In a broader sense, self-reporting of debilitating anxiety among university students on surveys has also increased precipitously, leading many researchers, commentators, clinicians, and administrators to sound the alarm of a massive ‘epidemic’ on both sides of the North Atlantic.

The least controversial of our claims is simply that we should not insist on separating these disturbing trends from the experience of this generation growing up under, and understanding that they will graduate into, a financialised society whose undergirding libidinal economy is characterised by profound anxiety. The university is itself an institution that resonates with and reproduces the anxious logics of financialisation, and in so doing, it provides the backdrop for new, more ambivalent practices of resistance and sabotage that are in some ways redrawing the map of university politics.

Techno-powered ambivalence

Students’ immersion in the world of digital technologies is often seen as a key contributor to the ‘anxiety epidemic’ and is typically met by commentators with derision and cynicism. The most regressive of these views accuse anxious students of malingering, using a poorly defined psychiatric complaint to get out of the hard work universities are supposed to demand to fulfil their role as guardians of a ‘capitalist meritocracy.’[15] This conservative critique dovetails with popular narratives that frame genZers as a generation of entitled ‘snowflakes’ obsessed with ‘victimhood,’ wielding a revanchist ‘cancel culture’ against anyone or anything that would threaten their comfort. Whereas in previous generations those suffering mental ill health found themselves stigmatised, today’s youth seem far less reticent to express their diverse experience and needs. Indeed, many observers note that this generation generates new complex forms of solidarity, mutual aid, and fellow feeling from these shared experiences. And often these forms of collective organising can appear to take the form of retreat, ambivalence, disinterest, disengagement, and withdrawal. This generation’s use of technology teaches us an important lesson about the complexities of resistance and anxiety in our troubled age.

One of the most palpable manifestations of precarity-induced anxiety is compulsive social media use. Just as indebtedness, work and housing insecurity, and a generalised sense of precarity percolates through university life, there is a growing and uneasy immersion of students into the digital technologies of everyday life. Zers are spending more and more time on digital platforms, with smartphone ownership currently ubiquitous amongst teenagers, and daily usage of social media reaching record levels in young adults of university age. Fisher used the term depressive hedonia to refer to the contradictory state in which young people attempt to cope with emotional stress, low self-esteem, loneliness, and exhaustion by constantly looking for pleasure as a form of distraction.[16]

Students’ most preferred social media are image and video sharing platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, whose emphasis on the visual intensifies pressures on young users to meet bodily norms of beauty—with especially pernicious effects for women, queer and trans people, and people of colour, whose bodies are often spectacularised and at the same time erased.[17] Meanwhile, the explosive proliferation of mobile dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Her, and Hinge on university campuses adds to the veneration of the ‘short-lived’ experience, with mixed effects on students’ social life, as distance and absorption come to co-exist in their digital swipes.[18]

However, and importantly for our discussion, we know that these technologies have become not only instruments that trigger high levels of student anxietybut also, increasingly, a respite to such anxiety. The digital sphere is not merely a place of systemic co-optation, surveillance, commodification of experiences, but a more ambivalent space in which, as Susannah Paasonen puts it, ‘Frustration and pleasure, dependence and sense of possibility, distraction and attention, boredom, interest, and excitement enmesh, oscillate, enable, and depend on one another.’[19] Geert Lovink theorises the compulsive checking of smartphones as a way of daydreaming: ‘Unaware of our brief absence, we enjoy the feeling of being remotely present. We remember what it’s like to feel.’[20] Even outside of the digital realm, studies suggest that these technologies also nurse new types of collective belonging ‘in real life,’ often reducing the feeling of loneliness amongst school leavers entering the university.[21]

However, there may be other possibilities contained in the ‘speculative intimacies’ enabled by digital dating apps. Studies of gay intimacy, for instance, emphasise the more transformative ways in which dating apps can inhabit sexual fields to pursue ‘connection and community building, which is a very different notion of how to create a better and more secure tomorrow than “‘meeting the one.”’[22] Such connectivities are articulated in apps like Grindr (the world’s most popular platform for men seeking men), which explicitly shift focus from the importance of lasting commitment and associated claims of a secure future to a more politicised present experience of sex as an act. Politicised experiences of intimacy may engender more radical forms of sociality, such as those that are ‘forged through sharing stories of failure to achieve romantic intimacy or pain and melancholia.’[23] Arguably, then, the ‘speculative intimacies’ pursued by today’s genZers cannot be reduced to doom-scrolling escapism; their political potential lies in their puncturing of the false sense of security offered by the neoliberal notion of the ‘romantic entrepreneur.’

Writer Roisin Kiberd captures poignantly the contradictory experience of navigating technologically-fuelled anxiety in her recent digital auto-fiction novel Disconnected, where she describes her university student life as ‘a mockery of adulthood’ with ‘actions confused, muddled by a quiet desperation’ and yet guided by an inescapable, alluring pull.[24] The uncertainty that is actively cultivated by the techno-worlds of social media undoubtedly benefits Silicon Valley because it is greatly monetisable. The student subject constituted under the effect of these contradictory forces is increasingly an anxious one, buffeted by financial demands on its future and immersed in a vertiginous, precarious present. Yet, a more complex picture of student anxiety begins to emerge when we account for the contradictory role of digital technologies in mediating the collective experiences of students. What threads such experiences within the university (and, more broadly, in Zers daily life) seems to be a state of ambivalence: a feeling of being at once enticed and concerned by the thrill of the never-ending scroll and the infinite swipe. The questions we want to ask, then, are as follows: What are the implications of such heightened ‘attunement’ with the present—even if this is a ‘screen present’—for dwelling in the uncertainty of the ‘here and now’? How exactly does this ‘immersive distraction’ feed into a sense of ‘togetherness’ within financialised universities? And what kind of community is being formed in the ebbs and flows of such ambivalence, where doubt, confusion, and pleasure inform the rites of passage into an uncertain shared reality?

The state of collective suspension and ambivalence that we have so far outlined is important because, at its core, it also reflects the increasingly cynical embrace of a more anxious subjectivity. Often, the mainstream picture painted of genZers is one of a passive disillusionment and withdrawal, manifested in a distrustful stance towards liberal democracy (measured, for instance, by low electoral participation in countries such as the US, where less than 30% voted in the 2018 elections). When not accused of undermining free speech by ‘no-platforming’ transphobic or racist speakers, gen Z students are cast as suspicious and dystopian, even ‘misanthropic’—cynical doom-scrollers that have become entirely detached from mainstream political reality.[25] Yet by contrast, we suggest that student cynicism can be both more strategic and collective than such views allow; it can be weaponised and directed towards a more tactical embrace of their ambivalent position in the neoliberal university. Elsewhere, we have looked for such attempts to challenge finance on its own turf through the prism of counter-speculation and revenge.[26] Here, we want instead to examine vernacular socio-cultural forms that weaponise ambivalent cynicism and confused collective immersion to articulate a politics of sabotage.

Sabotage, resistance, rebellion

The forgoing discussion of young people’s ambivalent engagement with digital technology should inspire in us a curiosity for the way resistance, rebellion, and refusal take on confusing and unexpected forms in this moment. We are familiar with the repertoire of student action that includes coordinated acts of protest and an explicit rhetoric of rebellion. However, in an anxious age, we may need to look elsewhere for signs of refusal and resistance. Though far less dramatic, the way students navigate anxious spaces in and around universities can be seen as challenging the universalising narratives of passive acquiescence in the face of neoliberalism’s failed promises and foreclosed possibilities. From the Zoom seminar to the online student information service environment, universities are also sites of anxious solidarities, formed around unseen and often ‘unseeable’ struggles that cannot be answered by either the cloak of individual psychology or the discourse of ‘anti-politics.’ They often unfold in the dark corners of ‘speculative technologies’—in Instagram posts and Facebook comment feeds, where students’ anxiety reverberates but at the same time also blends with irony, playfulness, and routine expressions of mutual care. Their fuzzy navigations of such technologies create bonds within ephemeral digital spaces, through rituals that are not necessarily a symptom of anxiety but perhaps a way of countering it as a pathologised individual condition.

We have opted to think this turn through the language of sabotage to call up the long history of workers’ resistance to exploitation that, from the perspectives of outsiders, can appear counter-productive, self-destructive, ill-considered, or nihilistic. Marx and Engels, for example, saw workers’ sabotage as a counterproductive mode of resistance to domination, but one that might also signal the conditions for a potential solidarity from which more elaborate and successful forms of collective resistance might grow.[27] Importantly, as Eric Hobsbawm elucidates, sabotage and other isolated or reactive forms of resistance might be early signs of the revolutionary potential of a seemingly apolitical class hidden in plain sight.[28] Whereas the militancy of skilled craftsmen was widely celebrated by socialists of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels looked to the seemingly apolitical, apathetic, and uneducated mass industrial worker as the gravedigger produced by industrial capitalism and destined to destroy it.

 Setting aside debates on Marx and Engel’s historical determinism, we propose taking seriously their encouragement to look to the actually existing forms of rebellion, which might at first seem counterproductive, as indicators of a wider trend or a movement yet to come. Specifically, we follow their lead in trying to understand how the recomposition of capitalist exploitation gives rise to new constituencies and new subjects, and how those constituencies and subjects come to know themselves and their power through forms of resistance and rebellion that might, at first, seem insignificant or counterproductive. Students can indeed appear to be sabotaging their education, their lives, and their careers by the forms of ambivalence, withdrawal, and disengagement which, at one extreme, come to express themselves in the language of anxiety. But perhaps this is how a fully financialised generation, who have no memory of a time before and no vision of a time after, rebel against a system and an institution that makes their own subjectivity part of the cycle of capitalist accumulation.[29] They themselves are the machine into which they might throw the proverbial sabot, and in sabotaging or putting at risk their own productive apparatus, they take their small revenge. As with saboteurs of the past, they might, in the hiatus when the machine stops, discover who else shares their experience and develop new modes of solidarity.

And yet sabotage is no easily defined thing, in part because the meaning of the word is always political. While workers have, in the past, resisted domination through acts of sabotage, the term has also been used to describe a tactic employed by capitalist actors to undermine their rivals, or by warring states to diminish the other’s industrial or war-making capacity.[30] Sabotage, in terms of the intentional disruption of a productive process, can describe a wide variety of activities. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bourgeois press was keen to frame both working class saboteurs and foreign agents as dangerous and unscrupulous villains, an impression compounded by war propaganda in the twentieth century.[31] As a result, notions of sabotage and the saboteur are freighted with infamy. Working class organisers have, at various points, sought to turn the discursive tables, accusing bosses, corporations, or the ruling class as a whole of sabotaging their livelihoods, organisations, and campaigns.

What this short history of the term’s ambiguity reveals is that it is possible to see sabotage not as a startling exception to capitalist development, but as an integral part of it.[32] We suggest this in three parallel ways. First, capitalism has long maintained its dynamic equilibrium by sabotaging itself, especially through the mechanisms of the financial sector. Second, capitalist dynamism and the concomitant drive to lower costs sabotages the lifeworld as workers and whole populations are recruited, disrupted, or abandoned. Third, capitalism’s constant pattern of self-sabotage persistently places workers in new geographic or communal constellations, undermining established forms of collective action or rendering them obsolete. This, in turn, leads to the renewal of worker sabotage as a typically individuated and uncoordinated means to resist domination. For centuries, capitalism’s advocates and its critics have marvelled at its capacity to rapidly reinvent itself as rival capitalist actors compete to gain market share. The American institutional economist, Thorstein Veblen, suggested that this process was a kind of integral sabotage, especially when it led to irrational and often deeply inhumane impacts, as with the shuttering of whole industries and the loss of investment, or the laying off of thousands of workers and the economic denudation of whole regions in favour of the hyper exploitation of other populations or ecologies.[33]

Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan have revisited Veblen’s observations in connection with the financial sector, arguing that ‘financial innovation’ can be understood as an ongoing attempt to sabotage pre-existing financial norms, protocols, and regulations in order to take advantage of loopholes that might allow investors to ‘beat the market’ (of which they are, of course, a part).[34] To this we can add the way the financial sector actively seeks to sabotage government efforts to effectively regulate, tax, or constrain its activities. While Polanyi does not use the term ‘sabotage’ to describe the way ‘the market’ undermines the institutions of society and politics, the term would well describe the process by which, in an uncoordinated fashion, the financial sector drives the kinds of deregulation and market-oriented reform characteristic of neoliberalism and financialisation.[35] We might even see the shift from the mass public university to the financialised and neoliberal university as an example of sabotage: we are, on both sides of the North Atlantic, seeing a highly-paid managerial class actively seek to sabotage what remains of the public university system built in the post-war period, with its now-anachronistic beliefs in equality of access, affordability, a complement of permanent, non-precarious teaching staff, and its commitment to education in the public interest.[36]

If, then, sabotage can be seen as an integral element of capitalism’s reproductive cycles, we must also account for the way in which capitalism’s generative self-sabotage also undermines workers’ lives and their capacity to struggle and form social solidarity, especially within traditional trade union communities. Closer to the topic of this chapter, we might observe this kind of social sabotage at play in the changing lives of faculty and students in the anxious neoliberal university. As we have seen, these changes have been built on the rapid escalation of student debt and the increasing precariousness of faculty, but they have also fundamentally undermined, or sabotaged, the traditional forms of solidarity by which staff and students resisted their conditions.[37] Faculty trade unions, now starkly divided between permanent and temporary or precarious staff (and often isolated from the rest of the labour movement), have largely been unsuccessful at resisting these shifts. Meanwhile, despite a great deal of heat and some light at times, the mass action of students has had little influence on policy in the last decades.[38] Older modes of subjecthood and solidarity that centred on ‘the student’ as a social subject have been sabotaged by the imperative to become risk-taking entrepreneurs of the self, in constant competition with one another.

When capitalism subverts society and the capacity of workers and communities to resist, we might anticipate that rebellion increasingly takes the form of sabotage. Marx and Engels disagreed with the vengeful politics of the Blanquists and the ‘propaganda of the deed’ promoted by anarchists, which saw sabotage as a means to catalyse worker solidarity and to take direct action against the literal and metaphorical gears of oppression.[39] For the authors of the Communist Manifesto, the urge to sabotage was understandable, but unstrategic: it might be a satisfying form of vindication, but it could not build a structured movement for change. Isolated acts of sabotage were not nearly enough to catalyse a revolution and often seemed to undermine the saboteur’s own wellbeing: the shutdown of a factory for repairs meant no wages, with potentially lethal consequences. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels recognised that the appearance of sabotage often indicated hotspots of class conflict amidst capitalism’s rapid changes, and anticipated a form of agency that might, one day, take a more promising form.

Self-sabotage within, against, and beyond the university

If students are workers then theirs is the kind of ‘work of the self’ anticipated by Foucault in his lectures on neoliberalism, and more fully developed by the Italian post-Autonomist thinkers.[40] Central to this tradition is the concept of ‘cognitive capitalism,’ which not only recast the student as a worker, but also suggested that the university had moved from the margins to the very centre of economy and society.[41] This body of work, much of which orbited the Edu-Factory Collective, sought to address the changing political situation of ‘the student’ in a moment of class decomposition and recomposition.[42]

            Whether or not we accept the argument that students are workers in a new paradigm of cognitive capitalism, a broad range of scholars agree that the relationship between universities and work is changing and the two institutions are in some ways converging.[43] The birth of the now-paradigmatic globalised tech sector in California’s elite universities bestowed it, and the ‘no-collar’ order of work it inspired, with corporate ‘campuses,’ conspicuously casual workspaces and managerial cultures, even dorm-style accommodation, all aimed at exciting workers’ creative and collaborative abilities. While these conditions may only exist in delectable form for the most privileged of workers, management consultants throughout the 1990s and 2000s advised even the most conservative clients that a new generation of workers wanted more flexible, casual, and ‘creative’ spaces reminiscent of universities, and that providing this could see impressive improvements in productivity.[44]

Meanwhile, university became more work-like. For decades, critical education scholars had been noting the ‘hidden curriculum’ of schooling to train obedient, diligent workers habituated to performing work, getting evaluated, and obeying the rigid extrinsic rhythms of the institution, punctuated by bells.[45] However, as universities came under neoliberal restructuring and began increasingly to compete for enrolment and ratings, they also accelerated efforts to impress potential students, their parents, and industry that they could instil ‘job ready’ skills that would improve graduates’ job market prospects. In many ways, today’s ‘hidden curriculum’ is actually the debt students are increasingly forced to incur, instilling the hard lesson that one enters the formal workforce desperate for work and, therefore, presumably less likely to risk workplace organising or resistance for fear of losing one’s source of debt servicing.[46]

From a strict political-economic perspective, it is hard to acknowledge students as workers. They may indeed ‘work,’ often under coercive and even exploitative conditions, but they are not remunerated, and (allegedly) they ‘work’ for their own benefit, rather than that of others. But from a broader Marxist perspective, they are certainly a member of the class we used to call the proletariat—they are non-owning producers—though for various historical reasons, they have not yet been permitted to sell their labour time for wages (although, of course, many, many do, while also studying).[47] While students may not earn wages for their school work, their work at school might be seen as an effort to improve their capacity for future wage earnings. The proposal that students are workers would likely offend many waged workers, who might see students as privileged youth, and also many serious students, who earnestly prize the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. But there is perhaps enough evidence to allow us to posit the political claim that we can fruitfully imagine students as workers, and to note that the insistence we see students as not workers is also a political claim, even if it is also a banal one.

If, then, students are workers, how might we see their refusal to work as a form of rebellion? Our conjecture here is that refusal to work in the edu-factory is a refusal to work on improving oneself, a form of political self-sabotage that is also a form of sabotage aimed at the machine of capitalist value extraction. This perspective makes better sense of the often-bemoaned fact that anxious students, in refusing to engage or compete, seem to ‘only be hurting themselves.’ Self-sabotage can be situated within a longer history of worker self-actualisation and rebellion that occurs in the wake of capitalist sabotage and under conditions where workers are recomposed into new constellations and must, anew, rediscover the grounds for solidarity and the tools of rebellion. In this interregnum, sabotage is, to borrow Martin Luther King’s formulation regarding riots, a language of the unheard.

Mass refusal has long been a strategic horizon of working-class movements, based on the understanding that the capitalist system of domination, because it depends on labour, is particularly vulnerable to the interruption of supply. The general strike may be the highest articulation of this strategy and gave inspiration to many revolutionaries who surmised that in the mass refusal of work, workers would not only manifest their power in the streets but also come to recognise one another and their collective power, leading to a revolutionary moment. In a favourable reading, the sabotage of industrial machinery aimed towards the same ends: even though workers who idled while machines were repaired might lose a precious day’s pay, they would have time and space to recognise how vulnerable were their oppressors and exploiters, and how powerful they were when they dedicated their energies to ends other than generating commodities for their boss to sell.

If, then, anxious students are workers struggling to know themselves and recognise their commonality and collectivity, it is possible they are not aware of this ambition. But we should not be too quick to imagine that student-workers are completely unaware of their power, even if they do not necessarily frame it in such stark or Marxist-inspired terms. Recent waves of student activism have increasingly made access to mental health services, and accommodations for students with disabilities, a key demand.[48] Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of high profile student occupations and protests in the US, UK, and Canada all named these as key demands, often linked to broader issues of institutional racism.[49] Meanwhile, almost every university campus we could investigate has some form of peer-support group for suffering students, sometimes formalised and associated with the university, sometimes autonomously coordinated. And we have observed an effervescence of online spaces dedicated to connecting suffering students to offer moral support, advice, and companionship.[50] A great deal of organising is occurring within, against, and beyond financialised universities by afflicted students.


The problem with anxiety is that while it might indeed prompt a refusal of work, it can license a refusal of the work of rebellion and resistance too. On this view, the decline of traditional student militancy may be a sign of students being too anxious to rebel. But, as we have argued in this chapter, as class and capitalism are recomposed, the nature of protest is shifting too. After all, this was also the generation that grew up in the shadow of the largest coordinated street demonstrations in world history, against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, utterly failing to achieve any measurable lasting result, and who were in their early adolescence when the Occupy movement flared.

Berardi has argued that for a generation traumatised by the near complete domination of their subjecthood, the prospects of mass revolt are largely foreclosed. A major influence on Fisher, Berardi suggested that, in the years to come, therapy and radical politics would in a sense merge or at least become largely indistinguishable.[51] At first blush, the enthusiasm for today’s anxious students to come together and advocate for access to therapy and ‘support,’ and to provide such support to one another, seems to be evidence in favour of Berardi’s prediction. On closer inspection, however, this therapeutic turn also manifests a politics of inchoate rebellion and refusal of work that may go beyond the tragic and melancholic modes.

            Here, it seems germane to draw on insights generated by the field of critical disability studies, as well as the debates that have occurred in the mad pride and anti-psychiatric movements since the 1960s. Both fields see ‘ability’ and ‘mental health’ as discursive and material constructs of capitalist exploitation, entangled with the power structures that form around gender, race, class and other vectors of oppression.[52] Turning towards such ideas would beg several further questions. Are ‘anxious students’ disabled subjects? If so, how might they make common cause with other workers and people whose bodies and minds are wounded, oppressed, or excluded by capitalist systems of domination? Towards what common, revolutionary horizon might such alliances travel? How might such a convergence overcome the significant difference in power between students who feel they cannot go to class or complete an assignment, and people who are at imminent risk of institutionalisation or incarceration for ‘mental illness,’ or who simply are too sick to find an easy place in movements built around the ideal of the ‘able bodied’ radical?


[1] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero, 2014).

[2] See Richard Scheffler et al., ‘Anxiety Disorder on College Campuses: The New Epidemic,’ Berkeley Institute for Young Americans, April 2019; Henry Xiao et al., ‘Are We in Crisis? National Mental Health and Treatment Trends in College Counseling Centers,’ Psychological Services 14, no. 4 (2017): 407-15; Payton Jones, So Yeon Park, and G. Tyler Lefevor, ‘Contemporary College Student Anxiety: The Role of Academic Distress, Financial Stress, and Support,’ Journal of College Counseling 21, no. 3 (2018): 252-64; Elizabeth Sweet, ‘“Like You Failed at Life”: Debt, Health and Neoliberal Subjectivity,’ Social Science & Medicine 212 (2018): 86-93.

[3] For a summary and critique of these positions, see Max Haiven and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, ‘An Anxiety Epidemic in the Financialized University: Critical Questions and Unexpected Resistance,’ Cultural Politics 18, no. 2 (2022): 173-93.

[4] Evan Calder Williams, ‘Manual Override,’ The New Inquiry, March 21, 2016,

[5] See Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan, ‘Sabotage in the Financial System: Lessons from Veblen,’ Business Horizons 56, no. 6 (2013): 723-32.

[6] Gavin Mueller, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job (London: Verso, 2021).

[7] See note 2 above.                                                                                        

[8] Haiven and Komporozos-Athanasiou, ‘An Anxiety Epidemic.’

[9] Caitlin Zaloom, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[10] The Debt Collective, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2020).

[11] Keir Milburn, ‘Generation Left after Corbynism: Assets, Age, and the Battle for the Future,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 4 (2021): 892-902.

[12] The Debt Collective, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.

[13] See Geert Lovink, Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism (London: Pluto, 2019).

[14] See note 2.

[15] Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2017).

[16] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero, 2009): 21-22.

[17] Sarah Banet-Weiser. Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham NC and London: Duke University Press, 2018).

[18] Komporozos-Athanasiou, Speculative Communities.

[19] Susanna Paasonen, Dependent, Distracted, Bored: Affective Formations in Networked Media (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 2021), 4.

[20] Lovink, Sad by Design, 38.

[21] Thomas, Lisa, Elizabeth Orme, and Finola Kerrigan. 2020. ‘Student Loneliness: The Role of Social Media Through Life Transitions.’ Computers & Education 146. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103754.

[22] Laurie Essig, Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2019), 70.

[23] Dasgupta, Rohit K., and Debanuj Dasgupta. 2018. ‘Intimate Subjects and Virtual Spaces: Rethinking Sexuality as a Category for Intimate Ethnographies.’ Sexualities 21 (5-6): 945.

[24] Roisin Kiberd, The Disconnected: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (London: Profile Books, 2021), 206.

[25] Lovink, Sad by Design.

[26] Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021); Max Haiven, Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts (London: Pluto Press, 2020).

[27] Darin Barney, ‘Sabotage,’ Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 2 (2018),

[28] Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘The Machine Breakers,’ Past & Present 1, no. 1 (1952): 57-70.

[29] Gigi Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America, trans. Enda Brophy (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011).

[30] Maureen Ambrose, Mark Seabright, and Marshall Schminke, ‘Sabotage in the Workplace: The Role of Organizational Injustice,’ Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 89, no. 1 (2002): 947-65.

[31] Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency (Chicago, IL: IWW Publishing Bureau, 1917).

[32] Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, ‘Growing through Sabotage: Energizing Hierarchical Power,’ Working Papers on Capital as Power No. 2017/02 (2017): 1-59.

[33] Nesvetailova and Palan, ‘Sabotage in the Financial System.’

[34] Ibid.

[35] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2001).

[36] Randy Martin, Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011).

[37] Peter Fleming, Dark Academia: How Universities Die (London: Pluto, 2021).

[38] Rose Cole and Walter Heinecke, ‘Higher Education after Neoliberalism: Student Activism as a Guiding Light,’ Policy Futures in Education 18, no. 1 (2020): 90-116.

[39] Williams, ‘Manual Override’; Barney, ‘Sabotage.’

[40] Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent, eds., Foucault and Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2015); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. Giuseppina Mecchia and Francesca Cadel (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009).

[41] See Wages for Students, Trilingual Edition (Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2016); Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge.

[42] The Edu-Factory Collective, ed., Towards a Global Autonomous University (New York: Autonomedia, 2009).

[43] Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (London: Pluto, 2013); Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[44] Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004).

[45] Henry A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition, Second Edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001).

[46] Jason Thomas Wozniak, ‘The Miseducation of the Indebted Student: An Educational Argument for Full Student Debt Abolition,’ Academe, April 1, 2021,

[47] George Caffentzis, In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Brooklyn, NY: Common Notions, 2013).

[48] Akemi Nishida, ‘Neoliberal Academia and a Critique from Disability Studies,’ in Occupying Disability: Critical Approaches to Community, Justice, and Decolonizing Disability, eds. Pamela Block et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2016), 145-57; Annemarie Vaccaro and Jasmine A. Mena, ‘It’s Not Burnout, It’s More: Queer College Activists of Color and Mental Health,’ Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 15, no. 4 (2011): 339-67.

[49] Meagan Casalino, ‘Students Protest Outside U of O President’s Office for Better Mental Health Services,’ Fulcrum, February 12, 2020,; Samira Shackle, ‘“The Way Universities are Run is Making Us Ill”: Inside the Student Mental Health Crisis,’ The Guardian, September 27, 2019,; Sally Weale, ‘Students occupy Goldsmiths in protest at institutional racism.’ The Guardian, March 20, 2019,

[50] Haiven and Komporozos-Athanasiou, ‘An Anxiety Epidemic.’

[51] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012).

[52] See Nishida, ‘Neoliberal Academia and a Critique from Disability Studies’; Mike Condra et al., ‘Academic Accommodations for Postsecondary Students with Mental Health Disabilities in Ontario, Canada: A Review of the Literature and Reflections on Emerging Issues,’ Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 28, no. 3 (2015): 277-91; Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011); Tala Khanmalek and heidi andrea restrepo rhodes, ‘A Decolonial Feminist Epistemology of the Bed: A Compendium Incomplete of Sick and Disabled Queer Brown Femme Bodies of Knowledge,’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 41, no. 1 (2020): 35-58.