Anxious Resilience

By Mark Neocleous, 18 August 2011
Image: Isabelle Grosse, Basel SBB, colour photograph, 2007

Anxious subjects are also docile and self-absorbed subjects. The neoliberal state’s production of generalised anxiety through non-stop risk pre-emption and contingency planning produces subjects that fit perfectly with the needs of capital – writes Mark Neocleous. This is the concluding article to this issue’s short series on surveillance, national security and logistics driven production


I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

– W.H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’


The bombs, bullets and gas that were to be launched across the world would prove that in September 1939 W.H. Auden was right to be anxious, but his uncertainty and fear never quite left him. In 1947 he published what was to be his final book length poem. It follows the lives of four characters, beginning as a conversation between them in a bar, and goes on to explore personal issues and western culture in the context of the defeat of Nazism and the rise of the Cold War. In so doing it unravels the ways that everybody these days ‘is reduced to the anxious status of a shady character or a displaced person’. It is called The Age of Anxiety.1


Auden was hardly alone in thinking about the contemporary moment as an age of anxiety – in 1949 one Cold Warrior, Arthur Schlesinger, would declare in The Vital Center that ‘anxiety is the official emotion of our time’, and in 1950 Rollo May would publish The Meaning of Anxiety as a response to what he saw as a growing post-war condition. But the republication of Auden’s book in the Spring of 2011 might make us wonder: why now? Why republish a 1947 book-length poem on the ‘age of anxiety’ in times which, we are told, are so very different from the years after WWII?


The republication of Auden’s book could possibly be an attempt by the publishers to tap into what has become one of the central cultural tropes of our time. In 1996, Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter edited a collection of essays on the ‘age of anxiety’ and, since then, the idea of such an age has become part of our cultural common sense, being used to think through questions of crime (Fear of Crime: Critical Voices in an Age of Anxiety, 2008); conspiracy theory (The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences, 2001); corporate management (Global Firms and Emerging Markets in an Age of Anxiety, 2004); parenting (Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, 2005; Worried all the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It, 2003); religions of all sorts (Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of St. Francis in an Age of Anxiety, 2002; For Our Age of Anxiety: Sermons from the Sermon on the Mount, 2009; Ancient Wisdom for an Age of Anxiety, 2007); language (At War with Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety, 2000); drugs (The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers, 2009; A Social History of the Minor Tranquilizers: The Quest for Small Comfort in the Age of Anxiety, 1991); new age claptrap (The Road Less Travelled: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety, 1997); sex (Mindblowing Sex in the Real World: Hot Tips for Doing It in the Age of Anxiety, 1995); food and drink (Consuming Passions: Cooking and Eating in an Age of Anxiety, 1998); and just plain old hope (Hope in the Age of Anxiety, 2009). This list could go on, but mention must be made of Haynes Johnson’s history of national security drawing parallels between the McCarthyism of the post-war security state and more recent forms of McCarthyism being finessed in the War on Terror, called The Age of Anxiety.


Image: Isabelle Grosse, Parc André Citroën, colour photograph, 2002


This huge intellectual production parallels developments in the psychiatric field. In 2013 a publication is due to appear called DSM-V. ‘DSM’ stands for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and is the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders and how to diagnose them. It is the essential text for mainstream medicine, psychiatric practice and medical education across the globe. This one is called DSM-V because it’s the fifth edition. The first edition in 1952 ran to 129 pages and contained just 106 diagnostic ‘disorders’. Note: 129 pages, with 106 diagnostic categories. The second edition was published in 1968, with 134 pages and 182 categories. DSM-III, in 1980, was 494 pages long and contained 265 categories. DSM-IV, from 1994, had 886 pages and 297 diagnostic categories. DSM-V will be even larger and more substantial. Part of the increase in size and proliferation of categories has been because disorder has been defined according to forms of behaviour, so that aspects of our behaviour are used to define clinical categories. For example, being a bit nervous or shy is a symptom of an underlying condition, which then becomes a clinical category, such as social phobia, which is the term used as an explanation of what the manual calls ‘social anxiety disorder’ (SAD). Some of what it says about social anxiety concerns specific conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or disfigurement, but the term is also intended to capture fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the person is exposed to scrutiny by others, such as having a conversation, being observed, performing; fear that one will act in a way that will be negatively evaluated; and fear of social situations which might provoke anxiety, and which are thus either avoided or endured with intense anxiety. DSM-IV then adds further detail on what it calls ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ (GAD), which includes excessive anxiety and worry about two or more domains of activities or events such as family, health, finances, and school/work difficulties; excessive anxiety on more days than not and for three months or more; anxiety showing symptoms such as restlessness, edginess, muscle tension; anxiety associated with behaviours such as avoidance of situations in which a negative outcome could occur, or marked time and effort preparing for situations in which a negative outcome could occur, or procrastination due to worries, or seeking reassurance due to worries. And on it goes.


Performance anxiety

Image: Mark Stivers, Performance Anxiety, 2004



Note that the main way most of us would find ourselves in the pages of DSM – aside, that is, from sex (since, although homosexuality has been removed from the Manual, the inclusion of sex related diagnoses of all manner of desires, even having a low sex drive, means that it would not be difficult to find most of us in there somewhere) – is through the category of ‘anxiety’. If one takes ‘excessive anxiety’ concerning two or more domains of activities or events such as family, health, finances and work, and one throws in some ‘muscle tension’ for good measure, it would be hard to find people who did not fit the category. On the basis of the DSM it might actually be impossible to be human and avoid being diagnosed with a treatable mental disorder connected with anxiety.


This would be consistent with the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, anxiety has emerged as the most prevalent mental health problem across the globe (a process encouraged by the drugs industry, helping to generate an ‘anxiety market’ for drugs such as Paxil and Prozac, and extensive media coverage of the most recent ‘anxiety’ over anything from terrorism and social status down to cancer causing vegetables).2 Thus one finds anxiety articulated everywhere. The Agoraphobia Society started life in the UK over 30 years ago with a fairly specific remit. It later became the National Phobics Society, with the remit extended along the lines of its change of name. It has recently renamed itself Anxiety UK. Perhaps symptomatically, what used to be called hypochondria is now officially ‘health anxiety’. Freud, in his 1917 Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, makes the point that anxiety is the thing about which neurotics complain most.3 In the light of the definition of more or less all of us as anxious, to be a neurotic citizen now seems to be a civic requirement.4


In this regard we might pay heed to Franz Neumann’s comment on the role of anxiety as one of the cornerstones of the political mobilisation of fear under fascism.5 But Neumann was also sensitive to the ways in which anxiety could play a similar role in the formation of liberal political subjectivity, one which opened the door to authoritarian mobilisations and manoeuvres. Might not that be especially the case in an ‘age of anxiety’ which is also an age of neoliberal authoritarianism? And how might that be connected to the fact that the age is also, if anything, an ‘age of security’?


It is no exaggeration to say that the political production of subjectivity is now centrally driven by a security-anxiety field. A cursory glance at any security text, from the most mundane government pronouncement to the most sophisticated literature within ‘security studies’, reveals that through the politics of security runs a political imagination of fear and anxiety. I want to suggest that the management of anxiety has become a way of mediating the demands of security. It has done so within a broader logic of endless war. We have been told time and again that the War on Terror is a war like no other: this is a war without end, a permanent state of emergency, a peace which is also war. Because of this, the ideas of war and peace have been increasingly subsumed under the logic of police and security. Might we not think of the age of anxiety as a form of police power deployed for the security crisis of endless war?


One way to consider this is through the prediction of catastrophe and the anticipation of disaster that has come to the fore. A notable feature of political discourse has been the proliferation of ideas and categories centred on the idea that there is a disaster about to happen. Preparedness, prevention, planning and pre-emption have therefore become core ideas: everywhere one looks one finds emergency preparedness, contingency planning and pre-emptive action being addressed. Each of these is a concept with some scope, extending to war preparedness, disaster planning and terror attacks, and each of them resonates with and reinforces a whole gamut of associated security measures. They play heavily on the idea of potential ‘natural disasters’, but their real power lies in the presentation of endless war in terms of the coming political disaster. They are intensely future oriented, in that they seek to shape behaviour towards a future event beyond our control, but which we must be prepared to take under our control. The worst case scenario must be prepared for, even though we don’t know what it is yet and never can know what it is, and the preparations in question are a means of accommodating us to the security measures constantly established to deal with the catastrophe and disaster. Or, put differently: the security measures help us deal with the anxiety over the catastrophe to come. Anxiety has become a means of preparing us for the next attack in the permanent War on Terror. The attack, we are told time and again, is bound to come – how many times does a politician, police chief or security intellectual tell us that ‘an attack is highly likely’? How many times are we told this even after a supposed victory in the war?6 One which could be, and probably will be, worse than the last attack and might even be worse than anything we can imagine, all of which enables an acceptance of the ubiquity of the war, its claimed endlessness and the permanence of the security preparations carried out in its name.


Central to this process is the rise to prominence of the concept of ‘resilience’. In the aftermath of the bombs in London in July 2005, Tony Blair spoke of ‘the stoicism and resilience of the people of London’, and Brian Paddick, then Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, assured viewers that the emergency services ‘had sufficient resilience to cope’. Their use of the term was significant. ‘In the past few years’, noted James Harkin in The Times in the aftermath of the bombing, ‘the idea of resilience has been elevated to the most important buzzword in defence policy making circles. Since 11 September 2001, the Ministry of Defence has been busy commissioning all manner of research into the resilience of our big cities in the event of terrorist attack. Boffins in the Strategy Unit of No 10 have written countless turgid reports about what resilience means. Universities have set up whole departments, such as Cranfield University’s Resilience Centre, to teach and study it.7


Resilience stems from the idea of a system (the term originates in ecological thought), and the official documentation on the term, of which there is now an enormous amount, plays on this: the 2008 OECD document on state building, styled ‘from fragility to resilience’, defines the latter as ‘the ability to cope with changes in capacity, effectiveness or legitimacy. These changes can be driven by shocks… or through long-term erosions (or increases) in capacity, effectiveness or legitimacy’.8 A key United Nations document on disaster management suggests that resilience requires ‘a consideration of almost every physical phenomenon on the planet’.9 Note: almost every physical phenomenon on the planet. Although the overall argument is couched in terms of physical risks, the UN links it explicitly to the wider security agenda in a way which connects it intellectually and politically to domestic legislation such as the UK’s Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which involves contingency plans for anything which might be said to affect the ‘welfare’ of the UK. The extent to which ‘resilience’ has come to the fore in the politics of planning is witnessed by the London Resilience Team set up to ‘deliver Olympic Resilience in London’, and the extent to which it is designed to connect emergency planning to the logic of security is evidenced in the fact that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games has a ‘Security and Resilience’ section.


As these examples suggest, in terms of state power, huge resources are now spent to map out potential disasters and apprehend coming disasters. Playing on the origins of resilience in systems thinking, the idea of planning out organisational and institutional resilience has become a key strategy across central state agencies, local governments, emergency services and health authorities. In the UK, for example, this would stretch from the creation of ‘UK Resilience’ based in the Cabinet Office right down to the fact that sniffer dogs, like their handlers, now ‘have to be resilient’.10 There has also developed a commercial rhetoric of ‘organisational resilience’ for corporations.


This rise of ‘resilience’ during neo-liberalism’s development is significant. Although this connection might seem odd given that, more than anything, resilience assumes a massive state role in planning for the future, the point of this future is that it is unknown and uncertain. Thus, as a political category, resilience relies fundamentally on an anxious political psyche engaged in an endless war and perpetually preparing for the coming attack. Such a strategy foregrounds a politics of anticipation, in which the anticipation itself becomes both an exercise and a source of anxiety. But the term has been expanded to straddle the private as well as the public, the personal as well as the political, the subjective as well as the objective, and so organisational resilience is connected to personal resilience in such a way that contemporary citizenship now has to be thought through ‘the power of resilience’. Thus one finds a set of texts on personal resilience which would not be out of place were they situated on the same bookshelves as the works on anxiety cited above: texts about resilience as a personal attribute in which citizen-subjects are trained to ‘achieve balance, confidence and personal strength’ or, in the subtitle of another, ‘find inner strength and overcome life’s hurdles’, or better still, just ‘bounce back from whatever life throws at us’.11 The anxious citizen is acknowledged as the resilient citizen and championed.


George Grosz - Fit for Duty, 1918

Image: George Grosz, Fit for Duty, 1918


It is here that one finds the relationship between the economic development of neoliberal subjectivity and the political development of resilient citizenship. Marx long ago spelt out the ways in which capital, as a system rooted objectively in uncertainty, instability, restlessness, agitation and change, generates the very same subjective feelings in the workers it uses; capital thrives on anxiety. The neoliberal intensification of this process – repackaged by politicians and employers as an inevitable fact of contemporary labour and exacerbated by the anxiety associated with the rise of consumerism, a decline of trust in public institutions and private corporations, and a collapse in pension schemes – has been compounded by this articulation of resilience as something personal as well as systemic. Resilience is thus presented as a key way of subjectively working through the uncertainty and instability of contemporary capital. The neoliberal subject can ‘achieve balance’ across the several insecure and part-time jobs they have, can ‘overcome life’s hurdles’ such as facing retirement without any pension to speak of, and just ‘bounce back from whatever life throws at us’, whether it be the collapse of welfare systems or global economic meltdown. The policing of the resilient citizen coincides with the socio-economic fabrication of resilient yet flexible labour. Neoliberal citizenship is nothing if not a training in resilience.


All of which is to say that anxiety and resilience are now core to the jargon of neoliberal authenticity.12 Superficially, such jargon is full of ‘recognition’ for the complexities of human experience (‘of course you are anxious’; ‘we all share the same fears’; ‘it’s only natural to be anxious’), but this merely encourages the naturalisation of a neoliberal subjectivity mobilised for security and capital: the jargon of neoliberal authenticity is the jargon of neoliberal authoritarianism. This is police power at its most profound, shaping subjectivity and fabricating order through counselors within police departments, therapists within the community, psychologists in the media, and experts working in the cultural field, all offering advice on our anxieties and coaching us in our resilience. And it is a police power par excellence in closing down alternate possibilities: we can be anxious about what might happen, but our response must be resilience training, not political struggle. We can be collectively anxious and structurally resilient, but not mobilised politically.




Mark Neocleous <> is Professor of the Critique of Political Economy at Brunel University, UK, and on the editorial collective of the journal Radical Philosophy. He is author of Critique of Security (2008), The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (2000), and a range of other books and articles. He has a co-edited book forthcoming called Anti-Security (2011). His current project is a work of counter-strategic theory organised around the concept of pacification




1 W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947; reissued 2011, p.3.

2 ‘The WHO World Mental Health Survey: Global Perspectives on the Epidemiology of Mental Disorders’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

3  Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Part III: General Theory of the Neuroses (1917), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVI, London: Vintage, 2001, p.392.

4 Engin F. Isin, ‘The Neurotic Citizen’, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2004, pp.217-35.

5 Franz Neumann, ‘Anxiety and Politics’ (1954), in Neumann, The Democratic and the Authoritarian State, New York: Free Press, 1957.

6 Most recently, in this comment from Sir Paul Stephenson, Head of the Metropolitan Police, following Bin Laden’s killing, May 2011, cited The Daily Telegraph, 5 May 2011.

7 James Harkin, ‘What is Resilience?, The Times, 9 July, 2005.

8‘ OECD, Concepts and Dilemmas of State Building in Fragile Situations: From Fragility to Resilience’, OECD, 2008, p.17.

9‘ United Nations, Living With Risk: A Global Review of Disaster Reduction Initiatives’, Vol. 1, New York and Geneva: UN, 2004, p.37.

10 Police Inspector Alun Jenkins, cited in ‘Sniffer Dogs Prepare for London Olympics’, BBC News, 15 October, 2010. For ‘UK Resilience’ see

11 Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004; Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, New York: Broadway Books, 2003; Jane Clarke and John Nicholson, Resilience: Bounce Back from Whatever Life Throws at You, Richmond, Surrey: Crimson Publishing, 2010.

12 I am playing here on Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Trans.), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.