I haven’t written anything on this blog, or anywhere else, for months. I’m busy I suppose, but also side-lined, bright-lined and maligned by the endless task of interpreting statistics about disease and the lack thereof. Shifting paradigms.
Increasingly I’m drawn to two orthogonal poles. The first we might broadly refer to as ‘science’ – the shambling, iterative, dirty net curtain of rationality and causality. The second is more sociological or cultural – the idea that there are patterns, fashions, if you like, that characterise different intellectual epochs. These are slippery and developed in concert with their constituent technology. The best example of course, is the current one, our kind of technocratic rationalism, running on the fumes of utilitarianism with the inferred certainty of a kind of social Carnot cycle. In this model, we take scientific rationalism and apply it, writ large, to social problems.
As a fashion, we’ve been subject to this model for quite some time. Bureaucrats carefully but assuredly ‘pulling levers’, feebly adjusting the fuel mix of the economy in the vain hope that it will overcome its chaotic wobbliness. I suppose this is neoliberalism – the promise of certainty, stability in the face of an economic rationalism that perpetually threatens to end it all.
The model is anywhere and everywhere, the language of rational management, the bloodless accounting of society’s ups and downs. Consider the enormous and still flourishing network of ‘mental health’. An institution is sanctified and legitimised once it reaches a certain size and begins to upholster its processes with the baubles of ‘wellbeing’. One is ‘at risk’, then ‘assessed’ then, ‘assessed for risk of immediate harm’ then assessed for one’s ability to ‘engage with processes that might engender a meaningful shifts in outlook’ and then, and then and then. Of course, to those experiencing the pointy end of whatever institutional shafting the Random Shafting Generator has selected for them on any given day, this window-dressing is offensive. And that’s the point. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. It shifts blame to the victim, while assiduously ossifying the power of those who seek to create a seamless integration of professional and personal. The shiny-bummed carpet baggers.
Your personal is your political, and your political better get the fuck on board.
Examples abound. Just two days ago, the NSW state government declared a massive increase in funding for Headspace. This is a service that ‘deals with’ mental health issues amongst young people. Only, of course, it doesn’t. Being well acquainted with a former manager of Headspace, I can unsurprisingly inform you, Dear Reader, that Headspace does absolutely nothing for the mental health of those who seek its services. Because it provides nothing. That’s the point. It sits there telling young people who are distressed because they feel alienated from their lives, their families, their nature and their culture, that they have mental health problems. Young people who’re expected to find their way in the world, stumbling along on a diet of chicken salt and Fortnite.
Of course, for those who do, in fact, have mental health problems, like schizophrenia, no help exists at all. It was ever thus. The ex Headspace manager mused about the amount of money that could have been spent on young people with schizophrenia, were it not all being soaked up by the dangly-earring set, feeding teenagers a quaintly June Daly Watkins/Margaret Thatcher habitus.
I’ve digressed. Because this, ‘mental health’, was only meant to be an example of the broader style, or fashion, of thinking and talking, in which we are training ourselves. The technocratic rationality. At times is becomes visible for all – the anti vax debate is a particularly current example. On the one hand, the simple, modernist and muscular public health logic dictates the best outcome for the most people. On the other, a supreme adherence to individualism, fostered by what is now 30 years of neoliberalism, and cosseted by the rude good health guaranteed by previous public health measures based on the aggregated self, now illustrates the extent to which people grapple with the invisibility of government and their own (in)significance.
It feels clumsy to lump this way of thinking into BN (Before Neoliberalism) and after, but it is easy to delineate some key differences, through the prism of public health. We imagine the state is invisible, imagine our lives as governed by our own hard work and good fortune. Of course, this is sheer folly. The average Filipino works just as hard, if not harder, than the average Australian. Our Australian cards sit on the top of the economic deck because of our position in the ‘first world’, or ‘global north’. These benefits are almost entirely due to our government’s ability to consolidate influence within the global financial markets, either to create wealth from wealth, or to capitalise on wealth we ‘produce’ (commodities). At no point is there a direct linear relationship in which we can compare the output of an Indian, Filipino or Nepalese worker and an Australian in the same position.
I’m not going to get into a long-winded account of global currency markets, but it’s enough to say that our government’s role in our welfare and wellbeing is mostly ‘international’ rather than domestic. And yet it is the domestic politics with which we are the most familiar. This is how our governance is presented to us. Hot Mess Gladys and the endless handwringing over the intergenerational inequities in the housing market.
Public health is also invisible, unless there’s a crisis. Our wellbeing, the security of our nation in terms of ‘burden of disease’ is only relevant in broad terms.
I remember, many years ago, reading about risk and public health, from Nikolas Rose, who, ironically, is a biologist. What occurs (and this is because I can’t recall if it’s his idea, or perhaps my own that was generated through interaction with his work – suspect the former) is that risk helps us to imagine ourselves in the aggregate – it is a tool through which we might be controlled. Talking about our bodies through a prism of risk is something Foucault got hot and bothered about too. We can think of ourselves as entities disseminated through multiple strategies of risk. We’re all familiar with this way of talking and thinking about ourselves.
‘Smokers have a 50% chance of dying from a smoking related illness’
In this way, we might imagine ourselves as a collective, constantly shifting the levels on the risk amplifier we share with everyone else. Certainly, this was an element of neoliberalism – the utilitarian model applied to bodies as a means to control and moderate them, and to perfectly integrate them within a model of ‘productivity’.
And this is where fashion comes in. Because I am now old enough to recognise when this went out of favour, with the rise of identity politics. It happened with fatness. Partly, this was to do with over-reach. The model was overfitted. Risk was attributed everywhere, to everyone. The model got lazy. I remember the first debunking of the ‘Obesity Epidemic‘. Supposedly, obesity was causing high rates of diabetes and other poorly defined problems. The pendulum swung back, people began to question lazy data science. And, most importantly, there was a growing focus on the social consequences of ‘epidemics’. Who is affected and why? Who gets categorised, and what does that mean for them? What are the implications of being labelled fat?
We witnessed a shift in thinking, away from the rational, bio-deterministic models of social control, partly due to sloppy science, and partly due to the rise of the individual. Identity emerged; we began to hear terms like ‘fat shaming’ and the reclamation of physical attributes as identity (reclaiming the term ‘fat’ for instance). This is an interesting shift, a revocation and refusal of the bio medical model that sees humans as barely functioning meat-sacks on the fritz.
And then, we can trace the rise of the ‘victim’ narrative, salvation through identity. The rise of the virtuous disability, as yet another way to claim power.
Underneath it all, to me, these modes of thinking all retain one thing in common; they serve the same power that they always did.
That’s enough crapping on for one morning.
Addendum, By the way, I note that Nikolas Rose has shifted his interests to the ‘psy-disciplines’ and is, unsurprisingly, friendly with Foucault.