The troubling relationship between self-care and capitalism

Self-care is a reasonable response to one main issue: stress. And everybody today seems stressed out of their minds.

“We’re supposed to be walking powerhouses of productivity, using every minute of our time to its best effect,” wrote Aisling McCrea in a recent Current Affairs article. “In an economic environment where careers are precarious and competitive, young people are increasingly pressured to give up their free time to take on extracurriculars and unpaid projects ‘for their resume,’ produce creative content ‘for exposure,’ learn skills such as coding, scout for jobs on LinkedIn, write self-promoting posts about their personal qualities, and perhaps worst of all, attend godawful networking events, some of which don’t even have free canapés.”

People work themselves like machines. So it’s no wonder mental health seems to be getting worse. Thirty-nine percent of American adults were more stressed in 2018 than in 2017. Eighteen percent of American adults have an anxiety disorder.

Regular people are posting about self-care all the time. But it’s not just regular people. Advertisements urging people to take mental health seriously abound — and in this era, taking mental health seriously apparently means shutting out the world and shelling out cash for therapy, pills and spa days. Or as McCrea put it:

“Self-care slots in neatly with capitalism, treating mental ill-health as an individual problem divorced from material and political context, to be solved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and maybe spending a little money on the way. We are invited to draw inwards, shut our curtains; pull ourselves into movies and food and warm water and blankets as a means of escaping our problems without solving them.

Not that taking a break and doing what you like is bad. Now and then, it’s a healthy response to a chaotic world. But the movement puts the blame for all this stress on the individual being stressed.

“What is concerning is the way that this advice appears to be perfectly designed to fit in with a society that appears to be the cause of so much of the depression, anxiety, and insecurities,” said McCrea.

So what’s the alternative? Instead of encouraging individuals to buy more stuff and “care” for themselves just enough to be able to keep going to work and feeding fuel to the economic powerhouse, how about examining the cause of all this stress in the first place? Could it have something to do with the stressful schools and jobs where people spend most of their waking hours?