Andy Blunden January 2005

Fear, Anxiety and the Cult of Safety

A teenager is killed by an express train after forcing her way through a closed safety gate (the pedestrian underpass was closed due to crime fears) and her parents demand an end to express trains through the Bentleigh crossing; when a young man dives into shallow water in the Murray River rendering himself a quadriplegic, Berrigan Council is ordered to pay $5.6m being responsible for the log he had jumped from, and respond by fencing off swimming holes; as parents chauffeur their increasingly unfit and obese kids to school rather than expose them to the dangers of our suburban streets, the resulting traffic hazard leads some truly innovative schools to introduce the “walking school bus.”

Stories like these, in which people respond to relatively far-fetched dangers with exaggerated demands for safety, are characteristic of our times, and a determining feature of social and political life. They are also grist for the mill of works like Frank Furedi’s “Culture of Fear” or Robert Hughes’ “Culture of Complaint,” which ridicule “victim claims.” However, it is impossible to draw a line between the above problematic responses and the recent struggle of asbestos victims’ groups to hold James Hardy to account or even the efforts of the “stolen generation” to gain recognition and compensation, struggles which have challenged existing power elites just as did the great liberation struggles of the post World War Two period, if not rising to the same magnificent heights.

However, an underlying anxiety, expressed in the cult of safety, is more often expressed today in a vulnerability to irrational fears, rather than in emancipatory social movements.

The politics of fear dominates today’s landscape, but it is hardly new: fear was a political weapon in Ancient Rome, just as it was in the days when “witchhunt” was not a metaphor. We do live in a period of heightened generalised anxiety, but such periods have covered much of human history. What is peculiar about today is not fear and the political use of fear, but the kind of things which people are afraid of, who they blame, and how they respond. It is the peculiar pattern of evil, responsibility and remedy which constitutes an ethos or Zeitgeist.

Perhaps some light could be shed on the character of modern-day fears and the cult of safety by contrasting it with the scares of the recent past.

The late-40s/1950s, were very “communitarian” years, it was the period in which the welfare state and great public enterprises were built, the rise of the national liberation movements, leading to the beginnings of the peace movement and the civil rights movement.

The great scare campaign of these years was MacCarthyism. MacCarthyism identified a threat to the whole community, a threat to the institutions which kept people safe; it’s effect was to reinforce conformism. The national liberation and nuclear disarmament movements also tried to minimise, on the one hand, national divisions, on the other, political differences, with Communists marching shoulder-to-shoulder with churchpeople. Thus, in the struggle over the direction of public enterprise, the dominant objects of fear were threats to the whole community, fears which reinforced conformity.

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s, was a period of sharp divisions in which the women’s liberation and other social movements grew out of the victorious national liberation and civil rights movements. People knew who their enemies were: bureaucrats, racists, men, on one side, and radicals, blacks, feminists on the other, renegotiating hegemonic power relations, some times knowingly at great personal risk.

The fears of the late ‘70s and ‘80s were messianic fears — the great environmental disasters highlighted originally by the Club of Rome, and later by the Green movement or the economic disasters of an uncontrolled union movement, currency or welfare state. These were the fears over which macro-economic policy was contested, eventually leading to the abandonment of regulation and macro-economic policy, and massively accelerated economic growth and environmental destruction. These bogeys hardened divisions, but actually functioned to consolidate voluntary associations.

Despite everything that Ulrich Beck wrote about these fears, the prospect of global catastrophe never generated the kind of generalised, unfocussed anxiety we see today. What did arise out of this period was the conception that nothing was outside human intervention. The British Medical Journal expressed it well in its June 2001 issue: there is no such thing as an accident, only “preventable injury.”

There is plenty of room for argument in how I have sketched this periodisation, but the point I want to make is just this: not only are fears expressive of the ethos of the time, but the attribution and response is such as to reinforce that ethos. It is to this cycle of fear, attribution and remedy, which may unwittingly reinforce the very ground of the anxiety itself, to which our attention must be directed.

The first point about today’s fears is that they are threats to us individually — to our bodies, our children and personal security. Just like the paedophiles and drug-peddlers stalking suburban streets, terrorists (“the free-marketeers of war” — Arundhati Roy) threaten to strike randomly, against even the most innocent family. The occupation of Iraq of course only makes it worse.

The source of anxiety and the target of blame are not the same thing though. Our responses to fear accentuate the very fragmentation and retreat from sociability which underlies this anxiety.

Just as it is people who have least contact with foreigners who are the most xenophobic, it is for example, children who play indoors are most vulnerable to malevolent strangers, people who are ignorant of foreign affairs who are most afraid of terrorism, people who commit themselves to huge mortgages who feel most financially insecure.

Experts qualified in the field know that the dangers threatening the children of suburbia cannot be met by isolating kids. Children who are self-confident, assertive and worldly are safe against sexual predators, just as children who are trained to be responsible and pay attention to adult directions are the least likely to jump safety fences or jay-walk. These are not the typical responses however. The response to the dangers of the outdoors which characterise our times is to isolate children and rely less and less on the child’s own awareness and sense of responsibility. This makes the problems worse.

The question is: what is underlying cause of today’s heightened generalised anxiety? I think it is above all else, the insecurity of employment and career. This insecurity at work originates in the micro-economic reform and global restructuring of capitalism beginning in the late 1980s, involving privatisation, out-sourcing, casual employment, deregulation and in short, the commodification of all human relations, economic, domestic and political, including the conception of government as a kind of business. It is commodification which is the prime source of anxiety and key to understanding the ethos of this period, affecting every aspect of life without exception, even though it is rarely the target of fear, and is frequently the chosen remedy!

These processes have undermined or destroyed the safety nets which protected people in the post-war decades, the fabric which people saw as threatened by the bogeys of that time. Increasingly, the only safety net a person has is their own bank account.

This can be illustrated with the reaction to the introduction of University fees. Students tend to believe that if they have paid their fees, then they ought to be given their degree. The idea that passing their exams is their own responsibility is increasingly unacceptable to students. If they are failed, then they have been swindled.

Commodification of a relation pushes responsibility out to the supplier. When you buy a service, then you absolve yourself of personal responsibility for it. The process of corporatisation, out-sourcing and privatisation acts in exactly this way. Likewise, deregulation makes it “worth your while” to act in a certain way, rather than criminal to act otherwise.

Further, we live in a period when authorities and institutions in general are not trusted. Institutions know they will be the targets of blame by people who are injured or otherwise suffer through their dealings with the institution; but they do not have the option of “closing ranks” as no scandal is more readily believed than a “cover-up.” Consequently, all institutions now devolve responsibility outwards and downwards. Base-level supervisors are responsible for the health and safety of employees, teachers are responsible for the health and safety of students, etc..

Likewise, professionals tend to be blamed for less than satisfactory outcomes of their services: paediatricians are held responsible for birth-defects, and so on. Knowing that you will not be supported by the institution, the only rational response is to take out insurance. The cost of insurance is calculated mathematically and passed on to the customer in the price of the service.

Through these and similar processes, safety has been privatised, accumulated and distributed according to the laws of political economy, and social consciousness aligns itself to this new terrain. However, no bond other than that of mutual manipulation binds the buyer and seller; each is vulnerable to the calculation of the other. The decline in full-time employment and “standard hours” is a typical manifestation of the extension of the commodity relation and increased uncertainty and vulnerability results, even as wealth and convenience are increased.

Frank Furedi’s books (see ridicule the weakness of subjectivity manifested in this culture of fear, the vacuum of personal responsibility or any sense of self-determination. The great emancipation movements of the past have given way to claims for compensation by self-help groups of invalids and drug-dependants. Furedi fails to distinguish, however, subjects struggling as best they can under adverse conditions, from “victim” claims which reinforce existing forms of domination.

The vulnerability to scare-campaigns is exasperating, but subjectivity can only emerge by drawing on the concepts of suffering which are legitimated by the dominant culture. The emancipatory claims of yesteryear are just as ineffective as out-dated scare campaigns.

The archetypal form of suffering today is to be swindled. A swindle is the failure of the customer-service provider relation; as more and more all relations are structured and understood in this way, people become vulnerable to this kind of everyday, actual suffering. In response, the victim takes out insurance, or sues the service provider, extending the commodification process, reinforcing the commercial ethos which is the root cause of the anxiety. Any scapegoat may be seized upon, however, to relieve this anxiety — the target of blame is frequently selected by displaced feelings of shame rather than any rational analysis.

Commodification can solve social problems, but only by moving them into the domain of capital, with the consequent atrophy of subjectivity, and the adoption of forms of subjectivity which reinforce the domination of capital.

The problem with commodification is that it reduces self-reliance and the sense of responsibility in the subject. Ferudi says: “The process of individuation and the weakening of relations of trust contribute to an intense sense of isolation. The attempts by society to artificially compensate for this isolation by self-help groups, help-lines and professional counselling does little to resolve the problem. Such initiatives seek to reconcile people to their experience of estrangement. They represent an accommodation to powerlessness.” But this is like denouncing trade unions for not abolishing the wages system. What accommodation is achieved is a measure of the success of the emergent subject. Today’s self-help group may be tomorrow’s social movement.

The threats people fear today are generally real, and very often the blaming response is effective in dealing with specific threats — fewer children will be hit by express trains or injured in swimming holes. The overall effect though, is to heighten vulnerability and reinforce existing forms of subordination.

The chief thing is to find responses to these dangers which increase social solidarity and challenge existing forms of subordination, rather than responses which extend the process of commodification, erode social solidarity and reinforce existing forms of domination.