Be angry, don't despair. Photo: Flickr/Pabak Sarkar
Show Hide image

Don't give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy

Don't let the bastards get you down – choose action over despondency when coming to terms with the general election result.

Hours after the Conservatives were re-elected, the government looked at cutting access to work schemes for the disabled. You'd think they'd at least have the decency to bring some flowers before shafting the vulnerable, but no. Not these guys. Not today. Today is not yesterday. Today, David Cameron does not just have the political will to slash welfare and widen the wealth gap: he has a mandate.

I have spent much of the past 48 hours lying in bed staring at the ceiling, reading despairing, four-letter posts on social media and trying to work out how on earth this happened, as if anyone with half a brain doesn't know. The political elites closed ranks and capitulated to a politics of fear, first in Scotland, and then across the nation.

The muddled, equivocating voice of what was once the party of the left could not compete with the merciless message of austerity telling us we got what’s coming to us. We know what that is. More cuts to public services. More inequality. More lies. More of the old Cameron doctrine with no pratting about pretending we’re all in it together. The same great taste, now with zero liberals.

A lot of people are very depressed today, and with good reason. I think it’s important to talk about that depression. Talking helps. I read that in a pamphlet somewhere.

Depression is a physical and emotional illness with a profound sociopolitical component. It’s also a total bastard. Depression tells you that you're lazy and worthless. That the bad things that may happen to you and your family are all your fault, and if you feel like dying, you'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Sound familiar?

There's a reason depression and its precarious cousin, anxiety, are the dominant political modes of late capitalism. This is how you're supposed to feel. This is how you do feel, if you accept their logic. You don't need a nasty little voice in your head telling you you're useless and deserve nothing. You've got Iain Duncan Smith. For five more years.

The Tories prey on the politics of despair, and I think we've let them do it. It’s not our fault. Depression is still a source of shame, especially in a country like this. When everything feels awful and out of control, it's paradoxically easier to blame yourself and your neighbours than it is to direct anger outwards.

When things are getting worse very quickly, when society is getting meaner and more expensive, when your work is precarious, your housing is precarious, and precariousness itself has become an anxious daily reality, it's somehow comforting to think that you and your community could have changed it all by making different choices. That it's your fault for being lazy and sick. It may not feel good, but it feels safe – safer than facing the idea that so many decisions about your life are being made without your input, by people whose interests are so alien to your own they may as well be on a slab in a base in New Mexico.

The psychiatrist M Scott Peck is one of many experts to observe that depression is just anger, defanged and turned in on itself. That's as true on a social level as it is on a political one. An angry population is hard to govern. A depressed population is easy. The new Tory government would really prefer it if our collective political position was “prone”.

It is no accident that, of all the public services that have been cut to the gristle by what we must now think of as the first five years of Tory austerity, the already-underfunded mental health system suffered most. The crisis in mental health in Britain is profoundly political.

The politics of the modern right are the politics of depression, and right now they are winning. What remains of the British left is flat on its back, staring at the ceiling in a mess of unwashed sheets, and shouting at it to get up is not going to help right now.

I’m not about to tell you to just buck up. I’m not advocating enforced blissed-outedness like a sort of fascist Gwyneth Paltrow. Some of my best friends are hippies, and I like yoga and meditation and suspicious smoothies as much as the next bourgeois lefty throwback, but downward-facing-dog is not a radical position, and that’s not what this is about.

I’m talking about treating ourselves and others, if we can stomach it, with some basic charity right now. I’m talking about being careful not to slip into catastrophic thinking, which is difficult, because there actually has been a catastrophe.

Depression is not inappropriate at this time. But the moment when you give in to it utterly is the moment they've won. They win when people start saying things like “that's just the way the world is”.

The opposite of depression is not happiness. It’s not even hope. The opposite of depression is action. It's dragging your bone-weary carcass into the shower and doing what needs to be done so you can deal with the day. It's reaching out to friends even when you have no idea what to say. It's making a to-do list, even if nine out of ten numbered points are “drink, because fuck this”.

The opposition of depression is action. Action is the only thing that gets us to a better world, and big actions start with very little ones. We don’t have to overthrow the government today. We can take a few days to drink cold tea and listen to Billy Bragg’s saddest albums. Depression wins when getting better seems so overwhelming as to be impossible. Recovery begins one tiny, tiny step at a time.

I understand that it's comparatively easy for me to say this. I have a job. I'm studying abroad right now at an elite American university. There is a huge difference between being depressed because your country is going to hell and your communities are fragmenting and being depressed because your own life, in addition, is about to implode under the weight of George Osborne’s red briefcase. Those of us with the good fortune to be in the former category have the option of staring blankly at the wall, because at least we still have a wall. More than anyone else, those people have a responsibility to get up and do something as soon as the hangovers wear off.

This is not a moment for people who happen to have made it through the past five years with moderate financial stability and our consciences intact to accept the narrative that we are assigned politics by class. That the best way to read our ethics, our understanding of the worth and purpose of humanity, is off the back of a bloody bank statement. This is not a moment to throw up our hands, open a packet of biscuits and say – fuck it, I got mine.

Because that’s a disgusting thing to do.

I am not particularly interested in how or whether the Labour party is going to choose to sort its sorry self out and provide a real, electable alternative to the politics of fear and hopelessness. I hope it does, but right now I'm more concerned about what's going to happen to people on the ground. Right now, the important thing is to take care of ourselves and one another, and to be as kind as possible. Because there’s a big fight ahead, and kindness is more important now than ever.

Kindness is mandatory. Anger is necessary. Despair is a terrible idea. Despair is how they win. They won’t win forever.

And we don't ever have to talk about Nick Clegg again now. So there's that.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Carl Court/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war