Depression and anxiety; The new racism

It’s been a hell of a few weeks. Clearly I am suffering from stress. It could lead to depression, or perhaps anxiety.

Or perhaps I’m just busy and under pressure. Perhaps I’ll just harden the fuck up for a bit and see if that helps.

First; a warning. This is just some out-loud thinking. Sorry if it doesn’t make any sense. I’m stressed etc.,.

Yesterday I heard Frank Furedi speaking about freedom of speech on Radio National. I’ve not heard of Furedi since I was an undergrad student, about 20 years ago. I liked his work then, but have shifted in other (leftward) directions since.

Yesterday, I listened to him argue that Western universities are increasingly self-censorious. This is because, under a neo-liberal consumerist model, they’re competing for students. There are prizes for the least confronting course content, according to him.

Education has become commodified, of course, but it’s happened in weird ways. University is no longer an adult stage, it is a continuation of a cosseted larval form, where endlessly fretting parents shuffle continuously build a fuzzy little ‘happy bubble’ around their children.

Every year the numbers of university students applying for special consideration on the basis of ‘stress’ or ‘depression and anxiety’ increases, as students pathologise the normal pressures of life in the adult world into an ever-expanding rubric of ‘wellness’.

Furedi often writes about this cultural turn. Furedi seems to focus on the personal elements of this; the pedestrian dog-whistle that all young people are feeble minded snowflakes. I’m unmoved by this, as it’s basically just same-old inter generational cruelty. What’s more interesting are the structural dimensions – how did we get to the point where these frailties became such an integral part of identity?

In the period of late capitalism, we are encouraged to focus our attention on ourselves so as to avoid looking at the structural inequities and problems that may affect our ‘wellbeing’. This is one of the key ways that neo-liberalism works – it is the cult of the individual; If you can’t make life work, it’s because you’ve got something wrong with you. You have an illness. I’ve moaned about how this insidious cult of wellness operates before.

There are many orthogonal structural considerations here. For just one example; all capitalist systems require a certain degree of labour market elasticity. This is what the NAIRU (Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) refers to. It is simply the rate of unemployment that can be sustained before inflation rises.

In the old days, the easiest way to secure churn at the bottom of the labour market was simply racism – you brought people in to your country and then stigmatised them so they would remain at the bottom. I’m over simplifying, but we can recognise this pattern in the Australian context, and in other places too. It’s hardly a radical observation. The decline in Empires (something that really only happened with the recession in the second half of the 1970s) has made flat-out racism more unpalatable (but still very much alive make no mistake) and immigration much harder to manage. But the market still needs a bunch of people who will buy things but can’t work all the time. I find it fascinating to see how ‘anxiety’ plays out, the structures around it, and most importantly, the intersection with the labour market. Those with ‘mental health’ (we’ve dropped the ‘problems’) are frequently cycled in and out of the labour market, and enfeebled by a coterie of ‘experts’ who convince them of their lack of self worth. It is unsurprising to me that this predominantly affects women, and has risen in lock step with the expansion of the service sector, with its zero hours contracts and predominantly women’s participation.

There’s another dimension to Furedi’s comments about education and feeble-mindedness, however. The commodification of a university education under a neo-liberal model has seen a dramatic increase in university enrolments. I’ve written about this in the Australian context before. My point is, universities are now accepting students who are completely unprepared for a university education.

One of the one hand, it’s predatory lending – inviting students to buy a mediocre education where they barely scrape through a general degree, with the help of multiple concessions to ‘stress’ or ‘depression’, is of questionable benefit. Many emerge with little more than a more finely honed sense of their acute and personal failings. There are graphs around that demonstrate the rise in ‘support services’ within the tertiary sector.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I left school very young, with no qualifications, convinced by my family and teachers that I was so hopelessly stupid that if providence smiled upon me I’d end up in a medium security prison. It was through a series of accidents that I found myself at university in my early 20s, entering through a special dispensation – ‘you can have a crack and if you pass everything, you can stay’.

So I’m cautious about Furedi and suggesting that university entry requirements should be tightened as it may exclude those who might genuinely benefit, but it doesn’t prevent a clear eyed discussion of what the actual benefits are, or what role university education might play in a person’s life.

I’ll leave that there. Apologies for lack of coherent thought.

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