This is the Age of Anxiety, and Community is the Antidote

Jesse Meadows
5 min readOct 20, 2021

I’m anxious, you’re anxious, we’re all anxious together.

Art by the author

I went to the doctor last week, a rare and difficult feat for me, and while the nurse was asking the standard medical history questions, he said, “Do you have any depression or anxiety?”

I didn’t want to give away too much about my deviant mental states lest my physical symptoms be overshadowed diagnostically, so I shrugged and joked, “Yeah, anxiety, but doesn’t everybody?” He shrugged back.

According to anti-capitalist group Plan C, my deflection actually held a deeper truth. They call it our public secret:

“Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. This is not a static situation. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and/or its social sources are formulated….every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about.”

The first part of the last century was dominated by misery, then post-war Fordism shifted us into boredom, but now, “Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious.” We only talk about anxiety in disorder terms though, as if it is an anomaly to be treated by medicine, a bug, but not a feature.

This collective anxiety is due to a couple things, first, “the multi-faceted omnipresent web of surveillance,” and second, our constant “performance in the field of the perpetual gaze of virtual others” on social media.

“In this increasingly securitised and visible field, we are commanded to communicate. The incommunicable is excluded.”

Exclusion is the punishment of our age, the thing we all fear most: “from ‘time-outs’ and Internet bans, to firings and benefit sanctions — culminating in the draconian forms of solitary confinement found in prisons.”

Another way the authors define the anxiety of our age is precarity: “a type of insecurity which treats people as disposable so as to impose control. Precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally.”

This isn’t the only way I’ve seen precarity defined, though. Anthropologist Anna Tsing says it is “the condition of being vulnerable to others.” What could leaning into that vulnerability look like? How could we transform it from an insecurity to a strength?

Plan C recommends forming affinity groups for consciousness-raising, which can also be “a life-support system” and “a space to step back from immersion in the present.”

If you consider anxiety to be strictly a medical disorder, this may sound like I’m shrugging you off with “We’re all a little bit anxious.” But as someone whom a psychologist once wrote has “anxiety high even for clinical levels,” I find the notion that my suffering is shared to be a comforting one.

Thinking about the forest makes me feel less like a lone tree, and thinking about the storms that shake us all makes me feel less despair.

Aside from surveillance and performance, there’s another weather pattern that contributes to our collective anxiety — the sheer pace and volume of modern life, and the fear of being left behind by it.

“In today’s liquid times, people’s problems are rarely about ‘breaking free’ from norms,” Svend Brinkmann writes in his book Diagnostic Cultures, “but rather about ‘catching up’ with developments that are experienced as constantly expanding.”

He continues:

“Our problems and disorders used to originate from a profusion of prohibitions, but nowadays they tend to grow from an oversupply of possibilities. In plain terms, this means that the statement: ‘I have done something wrong’ is replaced by ‘I cannot catch up’ as a fundamental explanation of human distress.

One might say that it is no longer allowed not to do the possible, not to live up to one’s ‘potentials’, not to realize one’s true self…Self-realization has become a duty…Marginalization no longer follows from a transgression of the norms only, but — to put the matter paradoxically — from a failure to transgress, develop and constantly be on the move.”

How much of our anxiety — and ultimately, our shame — stems from this feeling of not doing enough, not being enough, not accomplishing enough? How much marketing (which Brinkmann calls capitalism’s poetry) is targeted toward these anxieties? How much have we pathologized “a failure to transgress” by turning underperformance into medical disorder?

The antidote to these anxieties is not self-improvement work or pharmaceuticals, but slowness and connection; letting go of the rush we find ourselves caught in, the endless chasing of individual potential we can never truly reach, and reaching out to each other instead.

I don’t mean slowness in a strictly literal sense, but as self-described “recovering psychologist” Bayo Akomolafe says:

“Slowing down is not a function of speed. It’s not, ‘let’s take a break’, ‘let’s go on vacation’, ‘let’s leave it all behind.’ It’s none of that. Slowing down is a function of deepening awareness, noticing the others in the room.”

Capitalism relies on us ignoring the others in the room, and as a deeply social species, this makes societies ill — in their book The Inner Level, researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain the dire health effects of economic inequality and status anxiety.

The health consequences of low status are obvious — poverty causes all manner of acute and chronic illnesses — but those at the top of the social status chain can also expect to see shortened life expectancies and worse quality of life due to the constant pressures of keeping up appearances, the fear of losing what they have, and the guilt of having it when others don’t. The more unequal a society is, the more public health crises it faces.

Status anxiety also makes societies more policed, as illustrated in research on guard labor by economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev.

In his book Sedated, James Davies explains:

“After assessing employment statistics in many different societies, they found that the proportion of people employed as police, prison officers, security guards, bouncers, etc. — basically the people we use to protect ourselves from each other — actually increases with inequality. It is as if levels of fear and distrust grow proportionately with the social distances existing between us. In the era of extreme inequality, what matters is not whether you are safe but whether you feel safe.”

True safety doesn’t come from police or prisons, it comes from knowing your neighbors, having people you trust to lean on when you need help. This is what we need to foster in a capitalist system that would like to keep us solitary and precarious, that “turns human suffering into gold,” as Susan Rosenthal writes.

When the world is burning and anxiety is woven deep into the fabric of our everyday lives, community is really all we have.



Jesse Meadows

writer + digital artist doing critical adhd studies + re-politicizing mental health | they/them