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How Capitalism Created Doomscrolling

The combination of boredom and anxiety that produces 'doomscrolling' isn't some generational quirk – it's intimately linked to an economy where greater numbers of people work unfulfilling and precarious jobs.

One year and three lockdowns into Covid-19, there’s a palpable sense of optimism around society reopening this summer and the prospect of leaving lockdown boredom behind.

Yet the boredom we’ve collectively experienced during lockdown has differed radically from that of previous generations. Once experienced as an all-consuming emptiness caused by lack of activity, boredom today arises from being overstimulated and perpetually distracted: the ennui of mindless scrolling, the tedium of compulsive swiping, the impulse to relieve any potential lulls by reflexively reaching for our phone and bodily prosthetic.

This feeling of boredom may have evolved with the development of new technologies, but it’s driven by changing social and economic conditions. A 2014 article by the Institute of Precarious Consciousness argued that each phase of capitalist development produces its own ‘dominant reactive affect’ – an emotion or disposition widely experienced which corresponds with prevailing conditions of production.

While post-war Keynesianism was characterised by mass consumption, high employment and generous welfare provision, the relative affluence of the period also gave rise to widespread social inertia, which generated its own oppositional politics.

This was an era which saw the boredom of bourgeois domesticity medically diagnosed as ‘housewife syndrome’, giving birth to second wave feminism through works like Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, a classic which dared to articulate ‘the problem that has no name’. The uprisings of 1968 are also understood as an insurrection against what the sociologist Michael E. Gardiner called the ‘stultifying and repetitive labor, and facile consumerism’ of state-managed capitalism. In short – a revolt against boredom.

The cultural theorist Mark Fisher saw the failure of the organised left in this period as partly bound up with its inability to mount a critique of boredom, leaving a vacuum for insurgent free-marketers to exploit by equating the stability of post-war social democracy with stifling monotony and bureaucracy. In its place, the neoliberals offered excitement and erraticism, enacted through market deregulation and financialisation.

Now, boredom has been displaced by anxiety as an increasingly dominant mood among a generation’s youth. This isn’t surprising: in advanced capitalist countries, the erosion of hard-won protections since the onslaught of neoliberalism four decades ago has seen the re-normalisation of working people’s fundamental disposability. Approximately one in ten British adults and a quarter of American workers now languish in the gig economy, staying afloat financially through piecemeal and non-standard forms of employment.

One way of naturalising this new state of affairs has been to extend the logic of work to all social spheres, including human subjectivity. The individual is cast as an entrepreneur, enhancing their human capital through self-branding and self-promotion, embracing the freedom and flexibility afforded by fluid economic conditions.

Yet this has produced a pervasive sense of hopelessness, particularly among those young people whose future prospects were already dire prior to the pandemic. Anxiety rates among British 18-24 year olds have trebled since 2008, while prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication reached an all-time high during the pandemic.

One of the most palpable manifestations of precarity-induced anxiety is compulsive social media use. Fisher coined the phrase depressive hedonia to describe a seemingly paradoxical state in which teenagers attempt to cope with the emotional distress of life—low self-esteem, loneliness, exhaustion—by constantly seeking pleasure as a form of distraction. This disturbing trend is affirmed by recent studies showing young people increasingly turning to smartphone usage to compensate for feelings of depression and anxiety.

There’s a circulatory logic to all this—referred to by author Marcus Gilroy-Ware as ‘filling the void’—in that social media platforms attempt to remedy the very anxiety and alienation they help generate through their pursuit of profit. Late night doom-scrolling and swiping may temporarily ameliorate boredom, but it ultimately exacerbates the anxiety and alienation produced by underlying social conditions.

Being forced to endure more traditional boredom without the cacophony of digital stimuli shattering our attention would undoubtedly be a good thing. It might spur the kind of creativity and self-reflection necessary for healthier political engagement – the type that avoids burnout or unnecessary bitterness on Twitter. At the same time, a politics predicated on nostalgia for boredom of the pre-digital age remains implausible. The internet is here to stay, and along with its considerable harms, there are also benefits ranging from friendship and dating to education and political organising.

Ways must be sought to politicise anxiety and distraction – firstly, by eschewing the neoliberal tendency to treat these affective disorders as individual ills with individualised solutions. Any socialist approach should recognise compulsive social media use as a symptom of pervasive anxiety – simultaneously a place to cultivate a personal brand for commercial appeal in response to the stark feelings of loneliness and helplessness generated by neoliberalism, and as an (ultimately hopeless) means of escape from those conditions.

It would involve moving beyond the behavioural metaphor of addiction—now advocated by remorseful Silicon Valley executives—towards an understanding of what Gilroy-Ware calls ‘hedonic media consumption’ as something that stems not from a lack of self-discipline, but from the absence of collective power required to enforce change.

In the short term, there is reason to hope the anxious boredom which ballooned during lockdown may recede as restrictions lift and we’re able to once again embrace each other ‘IRL’. As the screens lose some of their allure to the summer sun, we may catch a glimpse of a more emancipated future – one that demands we collectively dismantle the structures behind our present malaise.