Afterword: Politics in Times of Anxiety

We hope that those of you who attended the Politics in Times of Anxiety conference found it as productive and stimulating as we did. Thank you for all your contributions. For those who couldn’t make it and for those of you who wish to revisit some of the excellent discussions the conference stimulated, a good place to start are the articles that we published on Open Democracy as part of our guest editorial. We provide a guide to these pieces here:

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest social theorists of our time, took on the crisis of the European Union for his keynote speech. He described this crisis, which has left many of its people in a precarious situation, as ultimately a crisis of agency, and of territorial sovereignty. Bauman identifies some of the inherent problems with the breaking down of “politics as we know it”. Around Europe, anxiety is rising due to issues with representation and governance at large, as was obvious in the recent elections to the European parliament. But where are the solutions to be found?

A direct link to the failure of representation is offered in Norma Rossi’s piece, which sees the rise of extremist right-wing parties as the product of a politics of anxiety. However, contrary to many explanations of the rise of such parties, Rossi argues that moderate or mainstream parties in fact feed off and benefit from this development.

Constructing the same issues and the same threats as extremist parties, mainstream actors play on their objective, moderate, and technical profile to seem more credible than their opponents.  In reality, the issues remain unchallenged: so that for instance the depoliticisation of migration is ever ongoing. As such, the politics of anxiety feeds a politics of exception.

Didier Bigo introduced us to the concept of GPS security – Global, Preventive, and Surveillance – which permeates the everyday practices of every individual. In the second keynote lecture of the  week, he observed that security now is “global, limitless, primary, and preventive” in opposition to the former concept of security which was “national, bounded territorially, liberal, and punitive”.

As such, taking off from a discourse of anxiety, from the politics of unease, security now lingers in the micro-levels of human life, in health, insurance, risk, finance, bank securitisation, and cannot be resisted. We have entered an environment where security “exists before freedom” and therefore freedom is no argument against the new security practices.The human subject must adapt to this new reality, and is indeed also becoming an agent of surveillance.

One of the areas where security as a politics of anxiety works most efficiently is in the field of migration. Dimitris Skleparis turns our attention to the practices of border control between Greece and Turkey. Here, migration into Europe is rapidly becoming a crisis of security, both national and human.

Greek border control has time and again been accused of compromising human rights in their handling of the migrant situation; however, many of their actions are directly in line with European directives on control, and the idea of European/international security as cultural security. Nonetheless, there are struggles between Greece and the EU over the definition of security. Anxiety is a key instrument in creating narratives of the threat from migrants, both in economic terms, and when it comes to health. The politics of anxiety, again, enable practices which are clearly in opposition to basic human rights, but which have become normalised in our public discourse.

Violence and violent actions and their intrinsic link to anxiety are Wednesday’s subject: political violence is either an outcome of social and political anxiety or its cause. These two contributions look at the knottings of the economy of violence in a spectrum of anxious politics. In particular they discuss how different discourses of radicalisation or repression are mobilised by the aim of ‘ordering’ the past, ‘securing’ the present and/or ‘pre-empting’ the future.  The piece by Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet, Didier Bigo, Laurent Bonelli, and Francesco Ragazzi draws on the alleged political anxieties surrounding the travel of European youth to Syria to fight with the opposition forces. The ‘radicalisation’ of youth in Syria is what the EU as well as its member states see as particularly dangerous, anxious about the manifestations of such radicalisation in the European space upon their return. Referring to a recently published report for the European Parliament, this piece questions the anxiety surrounding the political hype of radicalisation, and points in other directions for greater dangers to security in Europe.

Henrique Tavares Furtado looks at the discourse of political anxiety in Brazil, unearthing a close link between state violence/discourse of violence and economic prosperity. In the wake of the World Cup the Government is resorting to violent acts of repression to tackle the recent (and still on-going) protests against the economic situation in the country; it aims to reclaim history by introducing truth commissions to identify ‘the terrorist’, appease the nation and reclaim its democratic credentials.

Thursday’s contributions aim to show that anxiety is not only a political practice but also a condition of one’s existence in the world. Our two interventions focus on how the political subject can grapple with political realities – how the subject can redirect the anxious gaze back to the power of the state, consciously working with or through anxiety to resist the dominant political narratives or create its own space of personal freedom.

Ian Parker’s contribution looks at what he calls the post-political cultural project NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and its famous avant-garde music group Laibach. Parker shows how Laibach and NSK mobilise commonly recognised fascist iconography precisely to provoke and expose the (open or uncovered) authoritarian logics at play in Yugoslavia, but also in modern politics (e.g. Europe). By working through the anxiety induced by fascist iconography, he argues that a challenge to politics takes place.

Andrea Rossi’s paper takes us through the philosophy of modern political subjectivity, by describing how anxiety is a founding condition of the political subject. Political subjectivity can be mobilised, however, to counter-act the political anxieties and impending threats of an approaching end of the world.

We concluded our guest editorial week with a look at the work anxiety does in modern political systems and structures. Two contributions delve into modern state practice.

Michael Dillon’s closing keynote speech opens up the question of death and the monopoly of state power in controlling, administering and ultimately deciding whether someone/something is worth protecting or put to death. Drawing on the Bush/Blair conspiracy on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the highly controversial execution of Clayton Lockett (whose execution turned into a 43 minute long ordeal of struggle between life and death), Dillon exposes the messiness of state power and shows how failure is integral to the practice of state sovereignty. Iraq, Afghanistan and Lockett are not exceptional cases. Quite the contrary, they represent the true face of the modern state.

Japhy Wilson’s dissection of neoliberal ideology suggests that the capitalist system is far from being a monolitic and stable entity; instead, its state of play is much closer to what psychoanalytic discourse describes as an anxious social fantasy or an obsessional neurosis in which the neoliberal subject is engaged in frenetic activity to prevent anything of real importance from happening. In other words, neoliberalism is an anxiety-ridden form of crisis management, reaching its endpoint, as Wilson sees it, in “zombie neoliberalism”. No different from any other form of ‘zombieism’, the neoliberal zombie, too, wants to eat your brain.

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