top of page

Our age of anxiety

“We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilisation, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the failing dusk.” When, inspired by W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety (1947), the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made this observation, in The Vital Center: The politics of freedom (1949), he was writing in the tense period as the aftermath of the Second World War gave way to conceivable nuclear apocalypse, when weariness with the arc of human history made positive political commitments difficult to come by, and even more difficult to sustain. In this respect, the passage easily works for our own times.

Since the financial crash of 2008, across Europe and in the United States, there has been (to borrow a phrase from Frank Kermode) a “sense of an ending”. Liberal orthodoxies have fallen into radical doubt. Populist movements are arrayed against the political and economic order that has stood in place for the past fifty years. Electorates have leaped into unknown futures. The grounds of civilization won’t break up under our feet so much as recede under melting ice caps and rising seas, while the indices of progress – life expectancy, equality, happiness and trust in political institutions – have gone into reverse in many parts of the world. Recent headlines sum up the mood: “Happiness is on the wane in the US, UN global report finds”, the Guardian, March 2017; “Trust is collapsing in America”, the Atlantic, January 2018; “Life expectancy in America has declined for two years in a row”, the Economist, January 2018; “Is inequality rising or falling?”, the Economist, again, March 2018, bolstered by the “World Inequality Report: Executive Summary, 2018” by Thomas Piketty et al. The World Bank has also reported that while fewer people are living in extreme poverty around the world, the decline in poverty rates has slowed. This narrative of decline and fall exists alongside more positive assessments of humankind’s peaceful and enlightened trajectory, such as those advanced by Steven Pinker. But the optimists have seemed less persuasive, generally unable to nullify the vogue for Apocalypticism.

Not that any of these alarmist narratives should come as too much of a shock. As recently as the 1990s, a chorus of intellectuals and commentators began to sound the alarm (albeit muffled by a triumphant American hegemony) about future tempests. Some, such as the political scientist John Mearsheimer, feared the return of national rivalries long suppressed by the bipolar configuration of the Cold War. Others, including the historian Paul Kennedy, reheated Malthusian horrors of “demographic imbalances throughout the world”. The former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, similarly forecast a mass of planetary dangers, warning that “global change is out of control”, as humanity sped towards “political disorder and philosophical confusion”. The philosopher John Gray, the political consultant Edward Luttwak, and the billionaire investor George Soros emphasized – from different angles, and in different registers – the deleterious effects of the free market. While blasting the vanity fair of American capitalism from the Right, the journalist Robert Kaplan prophesied what he called “The Coming Anarchy” (the Atlantic, 1994), a Mad Max-like world of raging criminality and ecological destruction.

The most disturbing, if least understood, warning, however, was issued by Francis Fukuyama, whose essay “The End of History?”, published in the National Interest in 1989 (and expanded into a book in 1992, when the question mark was emphatically dropped), became the ur-text of the post-Cold War age. Fukuyama’s thesis – that liberal democracy was the terminus of our ideological evolution – is ordinarily read as the apologia for rampant capitalism and Anglo-American interventions in the Middle East. Yet little redemption is to be found in his liberal end-state. Indeed, the post-historical future, he thought, risked becoming a “life of masterless slavery”, a world of civic putrefaction and cultural torpor, exfoliated of all contingency and complication. “The last men” would be reduced to Homo economicus, guided solely by the rituals of consumption, and shorn of the animating virtues and heroic drives that propelled history forward. He warned that people would either accept this state of affairs, or, more likely, revolt against the tedium of their own existence. “I can feel myself, and see in others around me”, he wrote, “a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed… Perhaps the very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

Modern America was already showing signs of the idle vassalage Fukuyama lamented, and other states, including Britain, soon followed. The decline of ideologies on the Left and Right from the 1970s had reached its nadir by the 90s. Mainstream politics was less interested in questions about the distribution of power and resources, or the struggle for equality (these fell to more marginal groups) – its focus was on administration, and technical adjustments from the center. In a rare episode of rhetorical precision, Slavoj Žižek wrote in The Ticklish Subject: The absent centre of political ontology (1999) that “the conflict of global ideological visions embodied in different parties which compete for power” had been “replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists . . . ) and liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation of interests, a compromise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus”. Tony Blair’s notion of the “Radical Centre” was, Žižek said, a perfect illustration of this shift.

As the political antagonisms, master narratives of history, and labels of Left and Right, evaporated, so too did the bold declaration of virtues and values that inspired citizens. Society soon seemed devoid of its Sittlichkeit, the moral and spiritual order that provided a focus for unity and political commitment. As Frank Furedi argues in How Fear Works: Culture of fear in the 21st century, the primacy of fear in our lives is intimately linked to this “motivational crisis that stems from the feeble status of moral authority”. An absence of positive political ideals, such as courage, duty, hope, ideology, love and solidarity, has produced “a fear-based negative conception of authority”. (It was, of course, this gap that the presidential campaign of Barack Obama identified in 2008.)

Furedi’s lament follows a familiar line. In a previous book, Culture of Fear: Risk taking and the morality of low expectation (1997), he argued that societies, “which not so long ago celebrated their triumph over the Soviet Union”, had become “deeply affected by a pervasive sense of social malaise”. Everywhere was “gripped by an ever-expanding preoccupation with risk”, as safety became “the main virtue of society”, colouring every facet of life, from how we behave towards new technologies, to how we behave around each other. Returning to this theme again, Furedi’s maintains a faintly exasperated tone, as if he is irritated by how frightened and enfeebled societies have become. But the confused and fragile moral world he depicts (the one that Fukuyama foretold) explains why a sense of fear “is everywhere”, driven by the world-ending threats of climate change and nuclear war, to the anxieties surrounding debts, diets, parenting and paedophilia. Furedi diagnoses and historicizes the sources of this fear, showing that while, in the classical world, and up until the interwar period, fear was seen as a moral issue based on notions of good and evil and countermanded through virtues like courage, the intellectual dominance of psychology from the 1920s on has not only led to “the de-moralization of fear”, but also “assisted the construction of a narrative that depicted fear as an uncontrollable, autonomous and paralysing force”. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural presidential speech in 1933, in which he stated that “the only thing we have to fear . . . is fear itself”, consciously adhered to this interpretation by referring to fear as “unreasoning and unjustified terror that paralysed people”.

Indeed, “fear itself” was once seen as a constitutive agent of political life. From Sallust’s theorem that fear of enemies promotes social unity, to Machiavelli’s advice to draw republics back to their beginnings and expose them to external threats; through to Hobbes’s notion of fear as the original passion of the state, and into the twentieth-century philosophies of Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau and Judith Shklar – fear has been conceptualized as a source of political vitality, or, as John Locke put it, “the chief, if not only spur to human industry”. Today, however, the politics of fear is less about establishing a negative moral foundation on which people live together in peace, as about a growing dependence on national seducers who promise to make us safe. Donald Trump’s assertion in January 2017 that “safety will be restored” and that “we will make America safe again”, is only one manifestation of how safety remains the foundational value of political life.

But the original notion that fear, rather than hope or assurance, impels people to act has been embraced in certain quarters, perhaps especially by many climate experts and activists. David Wallace-Wells’s epic article in New York magazine on “The Uninhabitable Earth” (July 2017), which describes what could happen to the planet by the end of this century – famines, economic collapse, plagues and boiling temperatures – is emblematic of the doomster mode of climate activism that aims to frighten people into ecological consciousness and change. An important debate among climate experts is not over science so much as it is over rhetorical style, between those like Wallace-Wells and Guy McPherson (whom the New York Times described as an “apocalyptic ecologist”) and those like Michael Mann who argue that there is “a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem [of climate change] as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness”. Furedi agrees, pointing to ecological catastrophism and other end-of-the-world narratives as evidence of how the Enlightenment’s “optimistic belief in humankind’s ability to subdue the unknown has given way to a belief that it is powerless to deal with the perils that confront it”.

How many of our fears are generated by the media? Not as many as is commonly assumed, argues Furedi. The link between the media and fear isn’t a new one. In the nineteenth century, commentators held the mass circulation of newspapers, penny dreadfuls, tabloids and serialized novels responsible for eruptions of collective dreads and hysteria. People who condemn the media for manufacturing moral panics through scare stories often do so in the same alarmist rhetoric that they criticize in others, transforming the media into yet another malevolent force to fear. Furedi doesn’t doubt that media and social media appeal to people’s anxieties as a way of capturing their attention. But he thinks pointing the finger of blame is simplistic. For one thing, such an approach would not take into account the direct experiences, personal circumstances and specific social conditions that influence how and what each of us fears. “Social and cultural variables”, Furedi argues, “lead to a differentiated response to the threats depicted by the media”, with studies indicating that age, gender, social class and education shape peoples’ response to threats such as climate change and crime. There are, of course, tabloid-confected panics. But for Furedi, the media doesn’t create fear so much as reinforce – and capitalize on – pre-existing moods of fatalism. Its central role, Furedi writes, is in “normalising a language and a system of symbols and meaning for interpreting society’s experience”. He points to the escalation of anxieties regarding paedophilia as an example in which the media did not cause the fears, but “has played an important role in creating the symbols and images that haunt our imagination”.

Furedi also highlights the critical interplay of word and image, since feelings of imminent danger and despair derive from rhetorical devices and metaphors such as ticking time bombs and Pandora’s boxes. These convey warnings about uncertain futures, “encouraging society not only to fear, but to fear the worst”. The time bomb metaphor, above all, like the Doomsday clock started the year Auden’s poem appeared, illustrates our preference for worst-case thinking. It not only suggests impending detonation, but offers an image of time inexorably ticking towards an explosive future. Life seems to be a race to do something before it’s too late. Sky News, for example, displays a “Brexit Deadline” clock during its broadcasts (53 days, 5 hours, 34 minutes, and 24 seconds, as this goes to press), and New Yorkers can gaze up at the National Debt Clock in Manhattan to see the state of their country’s economic (ill) health. Furedi calls this perception of time a “teleology of doom”, an apt description for how we think about the relationship between the present and the future.

The culture of fear is perpetuated through a kind of reflexive guilt-tripping, with those who don’t heed the warnings of experts being chastized for their recklessness and even immorality. Wrapping the authority of science in the righteous idioms of good and evil, society scolds people for smoking, sunbathing, boozing, using formula milk, eating poorly and not exercising. Furedi’s point is not to endorse the tired refrain of “health and safety gone mad”, but rather, to suggest that the substantive point is that this moral superiority aims to frighten and morally condemn, turning the banal or quotidian experiences of life – the use of plastics and disposable coffee cups is another recent example – into practices that are constantly scrutinized for the risks they pose to people and the planet.

By identifying fear as a kind of negative truth from which politics derives its raison d’être and appealing to virtues such as “courage, imagination, and idealism” as a way of reviving a more positive vision of the good life, Furedi’s sociological work overlaps with Martha Nussbaum’s more concise philosophical treatise. Like Furedi, Nussbaum is returning to familiar pastures – her central preoccupation over the past few years has been with the emotions, and an attempt to resurrect a Stoicism that bridges the division between thought and feeling – with a renewed sense of purpose. The Monarchy of Fear: A philosopher looks at our political crisis was conceived in the wake of Trump’s election, as Nussbaum realized that “fear was the issue, a nebulous and multiform fear suffusing society”. The book thus provides Nussbaum with the chance to reckon with some of her earlier work, especially on the nature of anger, which, she admits, “hadn’t gone deep enough”. Drawing on the theories of the ancients, especially the philosopher-poet Lucretius, Nussbaum’s central claim is that fear is also the cradle and accomplice of those emotional toxins – anger, hatred and envy – once thought to have been drained from the body politics of the West. “Fear”, she writes, following a similar path to Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger (TLS, June 7, 2017), “often hijacks the sense of outrage and protest, turning it into a toxic desire for payback. And fear infuses disgust’s aversion to mortality and embodiment, producing strategies that exclude and subordinate.” Fear is also at the root of envy: “the fear of not having what one desperately needs to have”.

Nussbaum’s style is characteristically cool and detached, adhering to her own injunction that we need to step back and “take a deep breath . . . using that moment of detachment to figure out where fear and related emotions come from and where they are leading us”. She draws on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as lodestars of moral action, heroic ideals of fraternity who condemned their tormentors without resorting to hate. None of which is to suggest that Nussbaum ignores the specifics of our own political moment, but there is a lacklustre quality here; her prose, and even ideas, seeming mismatched to the urgency of it. Nussbaum’s point about the socializing “experiences of art”, for example, “when people come together to sing or dance, or to act a play together, or even to sing along with the CD of Hamilton”, may be nice in a sappy way, but it is hardly serious – especially since Nussbaum doesn’t really explain how the arts could bridge the gulf between people who, in the US at least, regularly denigrate each other as either “fascists” on the one hand or “cultural Marxists” on the other.

She does rightly point to protest movements and grassroots organizations – such as Black Lives Matter – as the incubators of a more hopeful politics, in which notions of the common good may be restored and emboldened, and where feelings of individual helplessness are transcended by collective power. And she does not avoid moving away from her poetic vision of politics based on love, hope and faith to detail a theory of justice for the liberal-democratic state based on the opportunities all citizens must have – life, bodily health, affiliation, play, control over one’s environment, and so on – for a society to count as even minimally just. Most radical, perhaps, is her proposal for a mandatory three-year national service programme, where young people would be sent across America to engage in good works – elder care, child care, infrastructure projects – to create a sense of solidarity and the common good (incidentally, Fukuyama also suggests this in his new book, Identity: Contemporary identity politics and the demand for recognition). Nussbaum’s argument that in “an era of shrinking government, we simply lack the manpower to perform many essential services”, may make her proposal sound like David Cameron’s “Big Society” writ large, but the idea of national service sits in a long tradition of public philosophy, from Locke’s and Rousseau’s more military-inflected theories, and William James’s conception of a “moral equivalent to war”, to John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative.

The question Nussbaum avoids, however, is how to ensure that feelings of solidarity don’t dissipate once a person finishes their service and returns to the impersonal realm of the capitalist economy. How do we stop citizens being re-atomized by the primacy of individualism and utilitarian calculus that defines the liberal state? In the end, Nussbaum’s proposals for counteracting the politics of fear amount to a philosophy of good intentions, and merely confirm what most reasonable people are expected to believe – that love is better than fear, that a politics of hope sounds better than one based on hate, and that Martin Luther King is an obvious role model. As such, the book sits within an emerging trend (exemplified most popularly by airport-lit gurus, such as Yuval Noah Harari) that prioritizes “knowing thyself”, and stratagems of self-examination that are more like lone coping strategies than a politics of solidarity and collective struggle. It is all too reminiscent of the post-political zeitgeist of the 1990s, and what the journalist Alexander Cockburn called the “gestural sentimentality” that reached its zenith during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and which now seems like flight from the political moment.

Writing in Slate magazine in the late 1990s, Arthur Schlesinger attacked Clinton for abusing his phrase, “the vital center”:

‘When I named the book I wrote in 1949 The Vital Center, the “center” I referred to was liberal democracy, as against its mortal international enemies – fascism to the right, communism to the left. I used the phrase in a global context.’

President Clinton is using the phrase in a domestic context. What does he mean by it? His [Democratic Leadership Council] fans probably hope that he means “middle of the road”, which they would locate somewhere closer to Ronald Reagan than to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In my view, as I have said elsewhere, that middle of the road is definitely not the vital center. It is the dead center.

Twenty-one years on, the dead centre still seems unable to come to life. Nussbaum’s book, for all of its impressive philosophical skill, and kindly ethic, represents a kind of zombie liberalism, one devoid of fresh, or even practicable, political thinking that reckons with the inequalities and material agonies – wage stagnation, unaffordable housing, precarious jobs, and cuts to public services, for example – bearing down on the 99 per cent. And while statements like “build a wall!”, “repeal Obamacare!”, “£350 million a week”, “Take back control!” are absurd, dishonest or abhorrent, they are . . . something, and, electorally, something always beats nothing.

Nor has there been any attempt to face up to the fact that over the past few years it has been liberals, as well as demagogues on the Right, that have relied on the politics of fear, if only because, as the political thinker Corey Robin pointed out in Fear: The history of a political idea (2004), fear, like terror, “possess[es] an easy intelligibility”, requiring “no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad”. But if, as the recent flurry of books have argued, democracy is facing its doomsday, it won’t do to presume that with a bit more emotional tinkering here and there we may return to some prelapsarian time before populism shook everything up. Rather, liberals must confront the tougher questions of why people should care about liberal democracy at all, why virtues such as love, and norms of civility and equality, are supposedly inviolable, and why, in the words of John Milton, we should prefer “Hard liberty before the easy yoke / Of servile pomp”.

Published by TLS


bottom of page