You’re at work one day when your company’s “wellness” department begins handing out “emoji” stickers with words like “frustrated”, “overwhelmed”, and “stressed” printed below their creepy yellow faces. No one uses them, of course. But the message is clear: “[Insert Faceless Corporation] cares about your feelings.”

I would venture that most people would find this scene, relayed to me by a friend, largely innocuous. At the risk of stating the obvious, faceless corporations don’t care about your mental health. And they don’t care about the “stigma” surrounding the expression of feelings. To them, your feelings are just one of many unpredictable variables that must be brought to light, their risks neutralised, managed and controlled.

Yet many on the Left have received the sudden and unprecedented attention to mental health over the past decade as a triumph. Unions, understandably seeking to protect workers from new work hazards, routinely demand attention to emotional wellbeing in the workplace; their student counterparts, meanwhile, have moved from the fight over fees to overseeing the expansion of “mental health” to include an ever-broadening array of human experience.

And in both cases, they are pushing at an open door. For ultimately, managerial jabber about breaking down stigmas is a thin veneer for their view of you as a liability. Your unruly emotions are a potential risk to business, institutions, even society as a whole — you could go off sick, you could go on strike, or you could otherwise be unpredictable in ways that hurt the bottom line. But the corporate obsession with mental health is only the most obvious and easy-to-critique manifestation of a much more profound societal malaise: our whole culture has shifted towards a deep and pervasive concern with human behaviour — to the point that humanity itself is a risk.

Every day, we are told that we are living in the “Anthropocene”, whereby the “irreversible impact of human activity” has permanently scarred this planet. Part of the story of how humanity got too big for its boots is its apparently erroneous belief in its own rationality. If we could approach people as they truly are — not the mythical rational subject of the 18th-century Enlightenment but as truly emotional beings — then we could harness our feelings and transform them from risks into assets. Maybe “climate anger” can be harnessed for climate activism, suggests one study. Maybe the “mindful consumer” can change the world, offers another.

As a good person, employee and citizen, you learn to consider that exercising your free will without the careful consultation of expertise as reckless. You must consider yourself not just as “at risk” but also “risky”. You should be perpetually insecure, constantly surveilling your inner world, and ready and willing to seek guidance when you find a problem. Core to this worldview is disclosure. You must not only be on the lookout for risky thoughts, feelings and behaviours in yourself and others, but must openly identify them since doing so opens the door to training.

Bupa, for example, enjoins us to “open up” and make “mental health a normal topic of conversation in the workplace”. Doing so entails four steps, the first two dealing with identifying and expressing potentially risky emotions and “issues”, and the latter two with “training” and “treatment”. Its “Managers guide” even recommends adding staff discussing their wellbeing as a standing agenda item in team meetings. Unilever suggests embedding “wellbeing ‘rituals’ into the everyday”. A mental health toolkit for construction workers states that a “sound mind = a safe site”. Those who do not disclose are a workplace safety hazard. Emote — then seek the rules, the guideline, the script.

At the heart of these initiatives lies a concerted effort to cultivate a new mindset among employees and citizens — one where individuals are encouraged to view their thoughts and feelings as risks, who bring their “whole self” to work so that it can be assessed for hazards that can be managed and controlled. This is a necessarily “inclusive” mission: your whole self includes the expression of everything about you. No one and nothing must escape the lens of the bureaucratic machine. Everyone, it’s time to talk.

“No one and nothing must escape the lens of the bureaucratic machine.”

But what are we supposed to talk about? Here, talking about your feelings is the only safe, neutral territory. Translate material problems into the language of feelings and these can be converted into something safer, something more productive, something less risky and unruly.

Of course, many interventions and advice for maintaining mental health are harmless in and of themselves, and will undoubtedly help many people. But populations have been doing this for decades — and there doesn’t appear to be a movement of “mindful consumers” changing the world, or young people with self-esteem so high it’s vaccinated them from social ills; there are no fewer “mental-health problems” and no drastic decline in suicide. And every time, despite each intervention failing, bureaucrats fail to ask themselves whether emotion management really was the best path to solving problems. Instead, they become more pessimistic about humanity. And they become more zealous in their pressure to penetrate deeper, to exert more control.

The underlying propulsion toward bureaucratic control extends to the use of mental health as a governing strategy at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, however, it was called “mental hygiene”. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, those in power had found themselves frustratingly bound by the willingness of the lower orders to work or not work and their reluctance to fit into the new world of round the clock production. Mental hygiene was intimately and unabashedly tied up with control of populations, treating their unruly behaviours like diseases infecting the healthy social body. Expanding the purview of emotion management to the healthy, it promised to cure social ills through education, adjustment of self, life and work, and “breeding out defectives”.

Mental hygienists adopted the view that emotions were central to all behaviour and personality development. This new class of bureaucratic servants pioneered large-scale survey instruments that promised to quantify the emotional reactions of populations. Once expressed in a measurable format, emotions, like a lack of worker or soldier morale, could now be pinpointed as the source of problems and “rehabilitated” accordingly. For instance, the phenomenon of soldiers losing the will to fight had long been an issue for those waging wars. New forms of emotional surveillance allowed them to identify and label these potentially destabilising elements and offered up new scripts that contained their distress. The horror of what these individuals had been through and their unwillingness to endure any more could now be safely identified, given a destigmatising medical label, quarantined from infecting the remainder of the military body, and honourably discharged.

This may sound well and good. But mental hygiene had a darker side. Its two-pronged focus on maintaining as well as preventing mental ill-health meant that eugenics had been an integral part of the movement from early on. While vociferous proponents of eugenics for the promotion of national mental hygiene, such as the German psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin, initially emphasised voluntary measures, they would eventually oversee the forced sterilisation and murder of psychiatric patients during the Second World War.

This isn’t a Reductio ad Hitlerum. The point is that underlying both the kind and extreme versions of mental hygiene was a strong belief that, if only people could be made to feel, think and behave in the “right” ways, business could proceed as usual. Some were simply more hopelessly resistant to intervention than others. From this perspective, you can’t be trusted to have an inner world that is all your own because it is that inner world that is pivotal for business, social and economic success. And if any of those things are threatened, so too is your freedom to think and feel freely and, above all, privately.

Tarnished by this dark history, the term “mental hygiene” fell out of favour during the Forties. However, many mental hygiene organisations simply rebranded themselves with a concern for “mental health”. This more recent concern is obviously charted much more humanely than the bleak path its forebear travelled. Yet its fundamental understanding of the role played by unruly emotions remains just as intact as it is mistaken.

It is tempting to believe that all of this is going somewhere. But it is precisely because society has given up on having any kind of goals at all that such an outlook can flourish. Today, the path to freedom is no longer located in the outside world, in grand projects of societal transformation, but instead in the heads of individuals. Big ideas have shown themselves capable only of leading humanity to ruin. And so the modern individual has learned to understand freedom and emancipation as a kind of “self-care”.

In this world, expanding the regulation of everyday life, subjecting it to rules and increasing its predictability become ends in themselves. If those in power cannot solve social problems, they can at least teach fragile subjects to be “resilient” to a world beyond their control. As Christopher Lasch wrote back in the Seventies, modern people don’t seek religious transcendence nor even worldly success so much as “mental health” as the “modern equivalent of salvation”. And as a result, we are being sold our own bureaucratic iron cage as a kind of freedom.

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