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12 July 2023

“Take back control” has become “we can’t control”

The implication of Labour’s focus on “resilience” is that modern subjects are weak, inflexible and unable to cope.

By Ashley Frawley

Brexit provides a historic chance for British policymakers, extricated from EU regulatory fiat, to enact an economic project to rejuvenate the nation. But Labour is failing to exploit the political moment and appears to be placing its electoral fortunes on a hoped-for return to a post-political age. On 6 July, Keir Starmer presented the last of his “five missions”: education, following the economy, the NHS, crime and climate change. In both content and register, his speech was yet more evidence of a party committed to “ruling the void”, rejecting mass politics and ideological contestation for the technocratic management of decline.

In his remarks the Labour leader advocated for “a greater emphasis on creativity, on resilience, on emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt”. For decades the British governing class has endeavoured to solve the problems of modern politics at the level of individual emotional and mental states. Having no idea how to pull us out of the sharpening descent into recession, Labour is again resorting to the language of feelings, of “shaking up” education with the therapeutic notion of “resilience”.

The concept of cultivating resilience is hardly new. Since the early 2000s teaching people to be tougher and more flexible has been extolled as a way to crisis-proof a population, and make them more amenable to the demands of life under capitalism. Resilience, so its pedagogic and political boosters proclaim, makes people cope better with the stresses of life, improves their relations with others, and equips them to respond to so-called black swan events. It also makes them less reliant on expensive state support.

But if resilience is the solution to life in increasingly unstable and economically punishing societies, what is the implied problem? The implication is that modern subjects are weak, inflexible creatures, unable to cope with or rebound from dilemma and adversity without some kind of external intervention. Rather than elevating our potential to thrive, those who preach resilience expressly break us down, convincing us of our inherent feebleness and incapacity. We must learn that our free will isn’t something that empowers us to make and remake our individual and collective worlds but is a source of danger. As David Halpern, the head of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the so-called Nudge Unit), has said of the Conservatives’ lockdown strategy, people now “know what the drill is” and are primed to comply with technocratic commands in the event of another Covid-like emergency. In this era of populism, the political subject has been reminded of its place again – real decisions must be left to the experts.

As politics focuses on mental states, where the answers to the disorders of capitalist modernity – alienation, inequality, spiritual desolation, precariousness – are said to “lie within”, so the economy is exiled beyond the realm of political contestation and debate. In 2022 the Labour MP and shadow mental health minister Rosena Allin-Khan tweeted in response to Liz Truss’s mini-Budget: “The Conservatives’ cost-of-living crisis is wrecking the British economy – we all know this will damage people’s mental health. That’s why a Labour government will revolutionise access to mental health treatment.”

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While initially referring to economic problems, Allin-Khan pivoted to the damage economic crises inflict on mental health. This switch happens all the time. Ask a politician about jobs or economic security, and after the necessary furrowing of brows they turn to mental health.

But Starmer’s education speech was symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Having given up on exerting control over the economy or their economic lives, subjects can only be “resilient” to whatever exogenous shocks transpire around them. The message of Brexit was “take back control”. The dominant political message today is, “we can’t control”. We just have to be “resilient” to a world beyond our control. This is the dark, unspoken side of securonomics.

The more politics foregrounds emotions and mental states, the more it neglects issues of political economy. This is not unintentional – it is the manifestation of anti-politics. As the theorist Philip Cunliffe and others have argued in Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023), as the links between the state and civil society have diminished over the decades, those in power have ruled over a void where the material question of economic justice, of who gets what, once existed. But that is the point of End of History anti-politics – politics is reorientated around “well-being” and other positive psychologies that define what the sociologist William Davies calls “the Happiness Industry”. In the mid-2010s, when the electorates in the US and Europe were agitated by inequalities of wealth and power, the political classes recoiled in horror.

Just like the failure of previous therapeutic fads such as the self-esteem movement of the 1990s, reciting the neoliberal mantra of “resilience” will not prepare people to sop up whatever poor-quality or precarious work is available. Starmer said of his idea of resilience in education: “We’ve just got to get this into our heads.” But Labour needs to get out of people’s heads and into the machinery of state. Given this easy and predictable slip back into familiar touchy-feely rhetoric about individual mental health, I’m not holding out hope.

[See also: Andrew Marr: Can Labour inspire hope?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation