High Anxiety: Capitalism and Schizoanalysis

There is an emergent disconnection between the focuses of activism and the current structure of oppression in everyday life.  What revolutionary politics lacks is a new psychology, an anti-psychiatry that will help us to undertake the task of gradually releasing our repressed emotional, visceral, and affective concerns from the grips of our current society continuous of control.[1] The primary aim of schizoanalysis is to fulfill this lack — to take the affirmative possibilities of contemporary groundlessness to its limits in order to rupture the anxious realities of neoliberal capitalism (realities such as the NSA, CCTV, performance management reviews, the unemployment office, the privileges system in the prisons, Trump’s presidential victory, the constant examination and classification of young schoolchildren). Indeed, to push through the limits imposed by the psychological alienation of capitalism, to replace our position as Oedipualized, defenseless, guilt-ridden puppets in internal straight-jackets, with free, empowered, de-securitized, uncoded subjects that have the tools to overcome anxiety by transforming fear into anger, and acting on this anger through affective projectiles of attack.[2]

Etymologically, the schiz in schizophrenia and schizoanalysis comes from skhizein, which means to split, break, separate, rupture, or divide. With schizophrenia, this refers to the ‘split’ in the mind, or the multiple, broken up experiences of someone with schizophrenia.[3] Schizoanalysis operates by extracting the emancipatory potential of the schiz — the ability to constantly break free from the dominant emotional controls — from the debilitating disorientations of the illness in order to locate exactly where and how these breaks in reality arise in the social, and then mobilize them to manufacture new forms of affective resistances.

According to the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who coined the term, schizoanalysis is not a political ideology; it is an active, creative force that works micro-politically from the bottom up to raise radical political consciousnesses by uprooting people from the reactive social causes and traditions that have placed them in a state of perpetual anxiety. Deleuze and Guattari contrast this active force of schizoanalysis with the reactive force of capital-induced anxiety — a process of alienation and decomposition that disempowers and segments populations by turning them against each other and themselves by making social spaces “neat and orderly,” creating governable subjects conducive to top-down quantification and control, and providing the work-discipline and speed which capitalism demands. In other words, the reactive forces of capitalism create anxiety through bodily, emotional and sexual repression that operates through a restriction, a blockage, and a redirection of affect.

Anxiety within capitalism is reactive and personalized: from New Right discourses blaming the poor for poverty, to contemporary therapies which treat anxiety as a neurological imbalance or a dysfunctional thinking style, a hundred varieties of management discourse — time management, anger management, parental management, self-branding, and gamification — all offer anxious subjects an illusion of control in return for ever-greater conformity to the capitalist model of subjectivity. By complicating these doctrines of individual responsibility which reinforce vulnerability and disposability, schizoanalysis offers us a creative way to confront these anxieties plaguing contemporary politics in the Global North.[4]

Take a survey the current political landscape. During his annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin appeared on national television and avowed that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. With spectacular conviction, Donald Trump took center stage at a rally and insisted that the Mexican government wittingly allows “bad” immigrants to cross the US–Mexico border. In somber fashion, Boris Johnson proclaimed the Brexit campaign was bravely staring down a direct threat of Germano-Franco-European military intervention.

What is so different about the likes of Putin, Trump, and Johnson? After all, ideologues have never been the type to let contradictory facts get in the way of a rousing speech. But these men aren’t lying so much as signaling, with unabashed arrogance, that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, that we are living in a “post-fact” or “post-truth” world: not merely a world in which politicians and media lie (they have always lied to secure power), but one in which they are no longer forced to appeal to facts or address their critics in order to be successful.

Technology is often blamed for such a reductio ad absurdum. If a lie is clickable, it will feed into existing prejudices. This is the nature of a networked society. Supraliminal algorithms curated by Facebook and Google are now based largely on our previous search histories. Social media, now the primary news source for most of the connected world, have pushed us deeper into an echo chamber of interpretation, wherein every version of an event is just another narrative and lies can be excused as an alternative point of view or an opinion, because it’s all relative and everyone has her own truth.

Yet social media platforms are merely a means through which a post-fact world is being distributed. This desire to take shelter in a personal techno-fantasy is a symptom tethered firmly to an underlying economic, social, and political anxiety which has manifested as an impending sense of uncertainty that has spread from the individuals into the whole of the social field.

After all, if the empirical data — what we call “the facts” — say “you have no economic future,” “the environment is deteriorating at an unprecedented rate,” and traditional sources of “stability and security” such as the state and market are culpable in all of it, why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where political instability in Central Asia leads to the loss of livelihoods in Detroit, where governments seem to have no control over what is going on, public trust in the institutions of authority — politicians, academics, the media — buckles under the weight of our collective uncertainties. Anxiety is a pandemic of postmodernity.[5]

From the 2011 dismantling of the Occupy encampments in Zuccotti Park to the recent dispersion of Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas, the inability of contemporary social movements to develop viable, long-term alternatives to the destabilizing processes of capitalism is directly related to their failure to respond to the reactive problem of anxiety. In actively confronting the condition of collective anxieties, schizoanalysis offers an alternative basis for a political project which provokes a new way of resisting the rhetoric, fear, control, and perpetual uncertainty that characterizes the groundlessness of our post-fact era.

By rejecting the internal attribution of blame and the individual orientation of therapy, schizoanalysis emphases social oppression and collective responses. This perspective can transform the anger and alienation resulting from the oppressive experiences of capitalism into a more positive, focused kind of discontent. In situating the problem of anxiety socially (as opposed to individually), schizoanalysis affords us the creativity to feel anger, both as subjects and a collectivity, which can overcome earlier prohibitions by making anger an energizing force for change, increasing confidence, and enhancing activist relations.

By analyzing the ways in which the “personal is political,” activists can overcome the reactive personalization of oppression and begin to see the ways in which each phase of capitalism is qualified by a particular affect — emotion, way of relating, bodily disposition — that holds it together.[6] This is not a static situation. As capitalism is always redefining its own limits, it constantly comes into crisis and recomposes and reterritorializes around new affects. As its power comes largely from its alienating force, the pervasiveness of a particular form of affect management only lasts until strategies of resistance break down its social source.

An international organization of revolutionary artists, activists and theorists known as the Situationists emphasize that every phase of affect management under capitalism is a public secret: something that, though everyone knows and experiences, nobody publicly acknowledges or talks about. As long as the dominant affect of anxiety is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies directed against its sources cannot emerge.

Thinking of capitalism as a mode of managing our dominant affects presents an alternative to theories that celebrate the rise of immaterial labor — labor that produces informational and cultural content as commodities — as a path to eventual liberation through the unleashing of human creative power. Theories of immaterial labor wrongly assume that capitalism releases human creative potential and that the main problem is merely the privatization of its product. In other words, they locate the problem not in the processes of capitalism itself, but rather in the ways in which it commodifies outputs.

If capitalism is conceived of as a mode of affect management it clearly does not release human creativity in new forms so much as it reactively traps them in anxiety through a compulsion to communicate in terms of artificial social performances grounded in the dominant system’s terms. Simply put, alienation is internal to the functioning logics of post-fact capitalism, not merely the exploitation of its production. For example, the dominant narrative suggests we need more stress so as to keep us “safe” (through securitization) and “competitive” (through performance management). Each moral panic, crackdown or new round of repressive laws, adds to the cumulative weight of anxiety and stress arising from general over-regulation. Real, human insecurity is channeled into fuelling securitization. This is a vicious circle, because securitization increases the very alienation (surveillance, regulation) which causes the initial anxieties.

Illustrative of this alienation are the ways in which capitalism reinforces vulnerability and disposability. It keeps people fragmented and disillusioned by personalizing responsibility for collective crises like rampant inequality and global warming. Instead of being urged to confront the sources of these social ills — the fiscal servitude imposed on the Global South by outrageous IMF loans or a steadfast commitment to expanding fossil fuel capacities, for example — citizens of developed-world nations are told to keep calm, donate to charity, participate in patronizing “voluntourism” projects, recycle, refrain from watering the lawn on weekdays, and compost kitchen scraps. All of this is further reinforced by a self-esteem industry that tells people how to achieve success through positive thinking, as if the sources of anxiety and frustration are simply illusory. Philanthropy, therapy, and the self-esteem industry exemplify the way in which problems that are directly related to social reproduction are re-framed in terms of individual psychology.

In a similar way, public secrets are typically individualized. The problem of anxiety — that familiar, unpleasant rumination informing psychosomatic turmoil — is only visible at the personal, psychological level, its social causes remain concealed. In other words, each phase of capitalism blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. As a result, capitalism vindicates its own violences by portraying the fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localized problem: in the same way capitalism faults the poor for their poverty, it blames the depressed for their anxiety.

Of course, anxiety is not new under capitalism. As early as the 1930s, psychoanalyst William Reich theorized anxiety as the result of a conflict between the libido — unconscious desire — and the outer world. What is new about capital’s management of affect in a post-fact era is that anxiety now subsumes the whole of the social and emotional field, rather than being concentrated in specific spaces such as sexuality.[7]

There are various mechanisms for this total subsumption of anxiety. Professionalized networking permits communication only along systemically mediated paths; existence becomes reduced to 140 characters or less, and that which cannot be communicated within this limit is systematically excluded. The internalization of these mechanisms leads to self-surveillance and self-association with quality metrics and social media networks. French theorist Paul Virilio refers to this phenomenon as “telepresence,” or the immediate presence of different spaces to one another. Telepresence causes generalized vulnerability to the gaze of others. The result is a culture of groundless reconsumption underpinned entirely by anxious social performances that, rather than producing sites of creativity and empowerment, compel people to keep up the appearance of simulated happiness and participation in order to maintain their followers.

During periods of mobilization such as May 1968 — a state of unrest characterized by demonstrations, massive general strikes, and the occupation of universities and factories that started in France and spread across Europe — people felt a sense of empowerment, the ability to actively express themselves, a sense of authenticity and de-repression or de-alienation that can act as an effective treatment for psychosomatic despondency. A kind of affective plateau, the opening of previously unimaginable political possibilities, however impermanent, is what is needed in order to rejuvenate activism over the long-term.

In their work on power, resistance and conflict, social movement theorists Athina Karatzogianni and Andrew Robinson refer to this moment as the click, that is, the moment in which societal inequities are realized. It is the instant at which experiences and feelings suddenly make sense in relation to the repressive bureaucracies of capitalism — something quite different from conceptualizing structural violence in the abstract. Afterwards participants feel that they know the impact of affect management, that they have an affective answer to the “why?” of resistance. This is crucial for an emotional transformation of anger and fear towards a sense of injustice, a type of empowered anger which is less resentful and more focused, a move towards self-expression, and a reactivation of resistance. “The click” brings about validation and focus to our anxiety, a focus which is different from the hopelessness and frustration experienced previously in that it exercises voice, it moves the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, contributing to the reversal of perspective – seeing the world through one’s positions and desires, rather than the system’s.

Such experiences have become much rarer in recent years. Anxious individuals are faced with immense difficulties in acknowledging their reality and pain in a world in which something must be counted by “quality” regimes or mediated by television or the Internet to be validated as real. Many of them are unaware of the fact that they belong to an oppressed group because the repressive bureaucracies of the society of control have become normalized and their psychological effects personalized. The unacknowledged nature of anxiety as a public secret within dominant political, economic, and social discourses further reiterates this point.

Social movements today do not have the proper mechanisms in place for combating anxiety. Calls for deliberate exposure to high-anxiety situations — physical confrontations with the police, open marches in the streets — are indicative of the reactionary indisposition of contemporary social movements towards anxiety. For example, a traditional tactic, what activists call the “do-ology,” is that of the vague injunction, “Just stop being afraid!” Yet anxiety is not simply the specter haunting action; it is a material force — the psychoanalytic apparatuses of control are very much material, and thus the question of overcoming the specters of anxiety is rarely as simple as consciously rejecting it.

The intensified securitization of the surveillance state makes this process of recognition and resistance even more difficult as affect management takes on the form of preemptive control techniques that stop protests before they start or before they can achieve anything. Kettling, mass detainments, stop-and-search, lockdowns, preemptive arrests, group infiltrations, and practices of disposability, such as violent dawn raids and unmitigated police brutality, are examples of these kinds of tactics.

What’s more, psychosomatic torture techniques — “punishment by process,” as French theorist Michel Foucault terms them — keep individuals fearful and feeling vulnerable through the abuse of procedures designed for other purposes, such as keeping people on pre-charge or pre-trial bail conditions in order to disrupt their everyday activities, using no-fly and border-stop lists to harass known dissidents, needlessly putting people’s photographs in the press, arresting people on suspicion, using pain-compliance holds, or quietly making known that someone is under surveillance. While fear of state interference has been a tactic of control for centuries, today such tactics are inflated and reinforced by an ever-expanding web of visible surveillance gridded across public space which act as strategically placed triggers of trauma and anxiety.

Needed now are not just better tactics for confronting preemptive control or circumventing psychosomatic torture. Rather, needed are long-term strategies for disrupting this lynchpin of subordination. Needed is a machine for combatting anxiety. This is something which does not yet exist, because what the Situationists call a reversal of perspective has yet to be accomplished. Today’s main forms of resistance are largely ineffective precisely because they are based in struggles against previous forms of more overtly physical repression.

Most of the strategies employed by current social movements tend to mirror what has worked in the past. Strikes, wage struggles, co-operatives, partisan political alternatives, street protests, the refusal to work, working to rule, and occupying various public spaces may have proven highly effective in combating earlier manifestations of state repression, but they are largely ignorant to the ways power is modularized today.

Take Occupy’s attempts at capturing Zuccotti Park and other public spaces. Occupy failed in its actions, and its anti-corporate messages were subsequently coopted by the partisan power of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. Its failure owed in large part to the rise of the surveillance state. Public spaces where people can engage in free speech and assembly unobstructed by state and corporate power don’t exist anymore.

When Black Lives Matter occupied a Minneapolis police station, their every movement was surveilled and recorded 24/7 by a dozen adjacent security cameras. When rioters in London took to occupying their neighbourhood streets and shops to protest the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011, the state stood aside, let the riots run their course, and then proceeded to round up over 5000 people by cross-referencing their actions with thousands of hours of CCTV footage. And when a pro-Palestinian demonstration broke out in Toronto in 2012, police were able to intercept and shutdown the march by following the detailed instructions posted by organizers on various social media sites.

What has self-securitized actions such as these is the gap between radical processes of thought and traditional practices of action. Simply put, though Occupy and similar movements have illuminated the ways capitalism is deployed as power for violating populations according to dominant socio-material logics controlled by white, wealthy, masculine, minoritarian (a minority that wields an over representative degree of political control) groups, their mobilizations take place on a plane of traditional tactics. They protest, march, and occupy, all strategies which have been proven ineffective in our securitized climate.

This situation creates a feeling of powerlessness, when people are not in fact powerless. In Precarious Rhapsody (2009) Italian theorist Franco Berardi points to how unemployed youths suggest they are often hopeless both about getting work and rebelling — the desire for “something more” has been corroded.

We must re-direct our energies towards creating active configurations of sufficient power for interrupting the dominant construction of anxiety; a reversal of perspective, a unifying break, a click, a moment in which it is realized that tactics must be immanent to thought. And while more traditional tactics can and still work effectively against more traditional forms of repression, a politics of schizoanalysis pushes us to directly confront our anxieties by learning that it is good and positive to express our viscerality, to be angry and to convey anger every time we confront the affect management of capitalism.

Such a visceral emancipation is crucial in transforming our anxiety into active forces which enable recomposition, such as love, courage, laughter and focused anger. As a result, the consciousness–raising processes of schizoanalysis are psychologically positive in untying knots and releasing active force because they allow for a recognition of anxiety as a social effect and a matter of power, which can in turn, shift perceptions of the social field from a game of competitive success to a conflict scenario and a narrative of oppression and liberation. In other words, the central contribution of schizoanalysis is the discovery that modern (reactive) anxiety and its resultant feelings of powerlessness actually contain (active) resistance to capitalism.

By extracting the emancipatory potential of the schiz — the ability to constantly break free from the dominant forms of emotional control — a schizoanalytical perspective offers a contingent grounding for an anxious, groundless world — a way of deepening our understanding of the post-fact society by pointing to the ways in which the transformation of reactive affects into movement-focused anger and courage is only viable through the reconfigurations of horizontal connections that stave off both meaninglessness and isolation.

Such schizoanalytical reconfigurations require:

1) the production of new non-dogmatic theories relating to experience (our own perceptions of our situation are blocked or cramped by dominant assumptions, and need to be made explicit);

2) recognising the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences (we need to affirm that our pain is really pain, that what we see and feel is real, and that our problems are not only personal);

3) the transformation of emotions (people are paralyzed by unnameable emotions that need to be transformed into a sense of injustice);

4) creating expressive voice (the exercise of voice moves the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, contributing to the reversal of perspective – seeing the world through one’s own perspective and desires, rather than the system’s).

The point is not simply to recount experiences but to transform and restructure them through their theorization. Participants change the dominant meaning of their experience by mapping it with different assumptions. This is often done by finding patterns in experiences which alleviates anxiety by providing political awareness of the origins of affects while simultaneously gesturing towards the power of group support. Seeing personal problems and small injustices as symptoms of wider structural problems has the power to initiate the “frightening” (active) as opposed to the “frightened” (reactive).

Social movements are only a frightening force when they do not succumb to anxiety. Moving forward, we must work toward providing an alternative to processes that begin and end with the development of critical capacities, as well as to approaches that funnel critical development into traditional organizations. By reconnecting with our experiences now — rather than theories from past forms of affect management — recognizing the shared, systemic nature of our experiences, and working to transform emotions and construct dis-alienating spaces by unifying through patterns in our shared experiences, a politics of schizoanalysis is an anti-psychiatric form of collective care that has the potential to mutate into affinity groups within a wide network of autonomous organizations that have the critical and tactical capacities to move beyond reactive critique and towards active social transformation.

AT Kingsmith is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada.



[1] A system of governance introduced by French theorist Gilles Deleuze to describe the current ways in which populations are managed, a society of control is a diffuse matrix of information gathering algorithms where everything we do is being tracked, encoded, and interpreted. It does not matter if you are actually being watched—in a control society, what matters is creating the feeling you might be under surveillance at any given moment.

[2] This article will deploy a Deleuzian approach to affect (in which affects of active becoming are contrasted with those of reactive blockage), to understand transformations in the dominant regime of the control society and thus to theorize the next step for activism.

[3] To be clear, schizoanalysis does not romanticize asylum inmates and their often excruciating and exploitative conditions of existence—conditions which are directly fostered by the ‘mental health’ institutions proliferated by capitalism. As opposed to an individualized psychological ‘problem,’ schizoanalysis re-conceptualizes schizophrenia as a broad socio-historical system of control that results from the generalized production of psychosis and anxiety that are currently pervading capitalist society—a process that no single psychiatric patent could possibly embody.

[4] The discussion here is not fully relevant to the Global South. The specific condition of the South is that dominant capitalist social forms are layered onto earlier stages of capitalism or pre-capitalist systems, rather than displacing them entirely. The South has experienced a particular variety of affect management distinct from earlier periods: the massive forced delinking of huge swathes of the world from global capitalism, and the correspondingly massive growth of the informal sector, which now eclipses the formal sector everywhere in the ‘developing world.’

[5] In ‘Empire and the End of History’ Rob Los Ricos makes the useful distinction between three kinds of anxiety. For the socially included, anxiety comes from the fear of loss of status. For the socially marginal, the fear of exclusion and the loss of subsistence. For the socially autonomous and excluded, the fear of state violence and repression. As a result, people are deemed disposable in that violent tactics can be used against anyone—even privileged subjects—without entailing any systemic illegitimacy.

[6] Capitalism is defined here as a diffuse economic and political mode of social organization that is tied together by the dominant affect of the era. In the modern era (until post-war settlement), the dominant affect was misery—the public secret of this narrative was the misery of the working class and the exposure of this misery was carried out by revolutionaries. When misery stopped working as a control strategy, capitalism switched to boredom. In the mid twentieth century, the public secret was that everyone was bored. This was an effect of the Fordist system which was prevalent until the 1980s—a system based on full-time jobs for life, guaranteed welfare, mass consumerism, mass culture, and the co-optation of the labour movement which had been built to fight misery.

[7] As Reich points out, it would be a mistake to imagine that the (partial) sexual revolution of the 1960s amounts to a disruption of the underlying structures of repression—structures that cause people to feel threatened by difference and to seek to impose (not simply defend) their own way of life and to censor views which risk disclosing their irrational motives. Sexual repression does not have the centrality it once had, but sexual anxiety (i.e. sexual repression) has been diffused across the social field, displaced onto a thousand scapegoats, and the previous restriction of sexual enjoyment has been extended to enjoyment and intense commitment in general.