The Anxiety of the Freshly Unemployed Man on Labor Day

The Anxiety of the Freshly Unemployed Man on Labor Day September 7, 2015

The horrors of an economic wrong turn. It feels like hell (Michelangelo, Detail of Last Judgment, 1541; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).

According to Heidegger’s Being and Time anxiety is the state of dizziness in the face of possibility. Anxiety does not have a definite object like fear, because it is concerned with the whole of our being and its place in the world. It ultimately calls us to change our lives and is not meant to be a permanent condition. Those changes are supposed to make a difference and reinsert us back into our daily lives changed. Simon Critchley sums it up the difference between fear an anxiety in the following Guardian blog post:

Matters are very different with anxiety. If fear is fearful of something particular and determinate, then anxiety is anxious about nothing in particular and is indeterminate. If fear is directed towards some distinct thing in the world, spiders or whatever, then anxiety is anxious about being-in-the-world as such. Anxiety is experienced in the face of something completely indefinite. It is, Heidegger insists, “nothing and nowhere”.

But let’s back up for a moment here. Heidegger’s claim earlier in Division 1 of Being and Time, is that the human being finds itself in a world that is richly meaningful and with which it is fascinated. In other words, the world is homely (heimlich), cozy even. In anxiety, all of this changes. Suddenly, I am overtaken by the mood of anxiety that renders the world meaningless. It appears to me as an inauthentic spectacle, a kind of tranquilized and pointless bustle of activity. In anxiety, the everyday world slips away and my home becomes uncanny (unheimlich) and strange to me. From being a player in the game of life that I loved, I become an observer of a game that I no longer see the point in playing.

Being at-home-in-the-world is, or should be, the fundamental value of labor. Labor allows you to form a set of habits so that you do not have to construct life like a set of LEGOs every morning. On the other hand, the dizzying uncanniness of getting up and sending out yet another job application is at the root of joblessness. Nothing is set in place. Every possibility is open, but there is no guarantee that any of those possibilities will materialize into something definite, something like a career, calling, a place to go home. There is only a grasping at the possibilities, some of which conflict with each other, in the hope of clamping down on something definite.

This is made all the worse by the necessity of paying the bills. These loom everywhere. What’s worse, the money you have on your bank account seems to evaporate all the more rapidly the less you’re making of it. Sometimes you find a contract job, but then you have to face the anxiety of wondering whether taking such work will only prevent you from submitting the application that might dig you out of the rounds of temporary employment.

It’s been said that our economy is moving towards becoming a contract economy, also known as a, “gig economy“. The arrangements of such an economy seem like a respite from the constant job search, but it can only ultimately mean more anxiety in the long term:

Such arrangements can send even highly skilled workers into a precarious state. Unlike many of their colleagues in the fast-growing legal outsourcing and temping market, lawyers who work for Axiom, one of the industry’s leading players, receive health insurance, paid time off, 401(k)’s and money comparable to what they would make at a traditional firm or corporation. Yet many live with the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will go between assignments, during which time they earn no income from the company.

“When I’m done with this job, it could be a month, two months” before another one, said a lawyer who worked for Axiom until 2013 and requested anonymity to avoid drawing attention to her current employer. “It was a stress point for me. My family depends on me.” (An Axiom official said the company worked hard to minimize unwanted downtime, which he said had fallen significantly in the last few years.)

Advertisement Continue reading the main story Advertisement Continue reading the main story Contingent workers still represent a limited corner of the nation’s approximately $17.5 trillion economy. But even many full-time employees share an underlying anxiety that is a result, according to the sociologist Arne L. Kalleberg, author of Good Jobs, Bad Jobs, of the severing of the “psychological contract between employers and employees in which stability and security were exchanged for loyalty and hard work.”

Therefore, getting a job is no insurance of ridding oneself of labor-induced anxiety. This turning of the labor force into disposable economic cogs is at the root of John Paul II’s criticism of real-existing capitalism in Laborem Exercens:

A systematic opportunity for thinking and evaluating in this way, and in a certain sense a stimulus for doing so, is provided by the quickening process of the development of a onesidedly materialistic civilization, which gives prime importance to the objective dimension of work, while the subjective dimension-everything in direct or indirect relationship with the subject of work-remains on a secondary level. In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he-he alone, independently of the work he does-ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the programme or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called “capitalism”-in the sense more fully explained below. Everybody knows that capitalism has a definite historical meaning as a system, an economic and social system, opposed to “socialism” or “communism”. But in the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process-first and foremost of the production structure that work is-it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.

Browse Our Archives