The stress of having no control

John Deery considers the ways the organisation of power and control is changing in modern society, and why we should be worried.

Jon Deery
1st April 2021
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In the first article of this series, I quoted biologist Dr Robert Sapolsky on the main causes of prolonged stress. At the start of his list, he says you’re more likely to suffer from stress-related diseases “if you feel like you have no control.” That’s what this article will be about: in the year 2021, how many reasons do we have to feel the emotional strain of powerlessness?

“As soon as the sun went down, police stormed the bandstand.” On Saturday the 13th of March, Sisters Uncut tweeted those words, referring to the excessive police response to a vigil for a woman likely killed by a member of the police. It is a continuation of the forceful police responses towards activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion in the past couple of years, and yet another example of institutional violence against women.

In a lecture on depression at Stanford University, Dr Sapolsky points out that “women have a higher incidence of depression than men do. Approximately twice the rate.” As a biologist, he naturally focuses on the hormonal and cognitive origins of this statistic, but then argues that a sociological approach is also necessary to understanding this disparity:

“Lack of control can cause depression; in society after society, women traditionally have less control. No wonder they fall into more depression.”

But with the introduction of the new Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, every one of us should be stressed about losing control in the 21st century: we are about to lose the right to protest freely.

Let’s think back a few years: Brexit’s ultimately successful Leave campaign was constructed around the slogan “Take Back Control”, and the mastermind behind the phrase, Dominic Cummings, has something interesting to say about why it worked:

“It worked on different levels. The most obvious level was ‘we’ve got to take back control from Brussels’, but it was also... about taking back control of the system itself.

"For a lot of people ‘Take Back Control’ made them think ‘yeah, these were the guys who screwed up the economy, who drove it off a cliff in 2008, whose mates are all Goldman-Sachs bankers and hedge funders on massive bonuses. Us mugs on PAYE are the ones paying the bills for this. We’ll show those guys. We’ll take back control from you lot in London.’”

Brexit has not given us control over “those lot in London”

Brexit has not given us control over “those lot in London”, and especially hasn’t given us any more influence over the bankers or hedge fund managers. But clearly, our perception of a lack of control over those things is stressing us out enough to drive a momentous vote like Brexit. 

Cummings points to the 2008 financial crisis as a moment people felt especially disillusioned with the system, and I think that’s because it embodied the ruthless, unstable nature of deregulated capitalism perfectly: everyday people suffering for the mistakes of unaccountable, super-rich stock traders.

In his essayPostscript on the Societies of Control”, philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote: “the conquests of the market are made by grabbing control and no longer by disciplinary training…  Corruption thereby gains a new power.” 

Writing in the early 1990s, Deleuze also feared that the corrupt upper classes might find new ways to control us by force. He imagines a city where nobody could get anywhere without an electronic card that opened barriers for them. “But,” he wrote, “the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person's position - licit or illicit - and effects a universal modulation.”

In China, there is already a “social credit” system that enforces this kind of control. The Chinese government has also kept a blacklist of debtors, which has stopped everyone on the list from flying, taking high-speed trains, and various other activities unrelated to their debt.

But in the West we’re seeing a similar kind of power emerging. Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, has said that if someone stops making monthly car payments, “Nowadays it’s a lot easier just to instruct the vehicular monitoring system not to allow the car to be started.”

It’s proof that the staff in some of the largest Western technology companies are excited about the prospect of switching off our cars whenever they decide we’re not paying them enough

This might seem innocuous, but it’s proof that the staff in some of the largest Western technology companies are excited about the prospect of switching off our cars whenever they decide we’re not paying them (or their partners) enough. It’s all-powerful tech companies claiming immediate physical control over us.

Deleuze sums up our new state in one sentence: “Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.”

We must find a way to “take back control” that doesn’t just mean cracking down on protest or on Brussels bureaucracy, that addresses the injustice of severe economic inequality. Our mental and physical lives depend on it.

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