Andy Blunden January 2005

Why the Anxiety?

Following the disastrous fires on the Eyre Peninsula, a group of residents are considering suing the Country Fire Service for failing to save their properties. The residents would have the support of the editors of the British Medical Journal who ruled in their June 2001 issue that there is no such thing as an accident, only “preventable injury.”

The increasingly common practice of finding someone to sue for every misfortune points not only to a disbelief in Nature or bad luck, but also the conviction that in cases of “human error” it is always someone else that is to blame.

But more disturbing even than how people respond to misfortune is the action people take to avoid misfortune. There is no evidence that our suburban streets are stalked by sexual predators any more today than they were 50 years ago. In all likelihood, despite everything, our streets are no more dangerous than before. And yet so many parents are driving their children to and from school, that some schools have set up “walking school buses” to mitigate the dangerous traffic jams outside the school gates. A wonderful initiative, because many children are so protected from the outside world, that an early death from obesity is the real danger they are facing.[NB]

Absurd claims to be compensated for our own misadventure, unrealistic demands on government to protect us from unforeseeable dangers and a worrying vulnerability to scare campaigns — these are troubling features of our times. Voluntary groups are withdrawing from activity due to unsustainable public liability insurance costs, anaesthetists and paediatricians are driven out of their profession by the dangers of litigation, the demands of safety are forcing schools to isolate themselves from the local community, while primary school teaching has become too dangerous a profession for males.

And yet life expectancy is so high that aged-care promises to be the growth industry of the next decade. If the world is so dangerous, how come we are all living so long? In fact, this “cult of safety” is found not in countries racked by war, malaria, poverty and natural disaster, or even in poor neighbourhoods, but mostly in the better-off suburbs of wealthy countries.

To understand this problem, we must first distinguish between fear and anxiety. When someone is confronted with a real and known danger, they are energised and respond to defend themselves and overcome the danger. If, on the other hand, they can see no specific threat on which to focus, but for some reason, they feel vulnerable and not in control of their situation, then they become anxious. As soon as an identifiable threat appears, their anxiety becomes focused, and this is a relief. Consequently, anxiety leads to a readiness to seize upon even spurious threats, in order to relieve anxiety and focus our defensive action; the anxious person actively seeks for a threat and someone to blame.

It is not fear, but generalised anxiety, which is our problem.

This widespread anxiety is connected to the tendency to blame someone else, rather than accept personal responsibility or ascribe misfortune to bad luck.

Let me take one example. Anyone who has worked in higher education over the past couple of decades will be aware of the increasing expectations of students 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.

But isn’t the introduction of user-pays and the winding back of the “nanny state” supposed to engender self-reliance?

Let’s look at a very different example: the health service. As bureaucratised and elitist as the public health system may be, it operates on a limited budget; the doctor in a public hospital is motivated to make her patients feel healthy. On the other hand, it is in the interests of private medicine to convince people that they need medical help. This actually engenders anxiety about health.

When you buy something (such as your health and education), rather than producing it for yourself, then you shift the responsibility for delivery to the supplier. If the supplier fails to deliver, then you have been swindled. The result is a weakening of social bonds and a feeling of vulnerability.

In my view, the cult of safety and the growth of generalised anxiety dates from the period of global restructuring in the 1980s, when neo-liberal leaders brought about privatisation, out-sourcing, corporatisation, user-pays along with part-time and casual working, widespread redundancies, degradation of award wage and conditions and endemic job-insecurity. Economic efficiency and flexibility were bought at the cost of widespread stress and anxiety.

The entire social safety-net which kept people secure in the past has been eroded; the only security people feel they have nowadays is their bank account, and given career and job insecurity, nothing less than a six-figure number offers very much security.

The point is this: the commercial ethos means that people respond to threats by further commercialising relationships; the associated individualistic ethos leads people to respond to threats by further isolating themselves and increasing fragmentation. As a result, the immediate threat is dealt with, but the underlying cause of the anxiety is actually exacerbated. Commercialisation actually erodes self-reliance and increases vulnerability.

The weakness of social bonds, the lack of state or even extended family and neighbourhood safety-nets, is the reason for the anxiety. The classic responses to the kind of threats which are focused on, lead to further weakening of these social bonds.

Insurance and litigation are part of this process. Suffering is translated into monetary terms, and factored into the budget. Instead of being collaborators, customer and service-provider become potential litigants. Medical specialists take out insurance and pass the cost on to patients in the cost of their service. In this way safety is privatised, and is accumulated and distributed according to the laws of economics. The safe get safer and the vulnerable get more vulnerable.

Ordinary people can contribute to this process as well. Very often, the unintended side-effects of the defensive action people take, make matters worse rather than better.

Withdrawing from public spaces makes them less safe.

Rather than keeping their children off the streets, children would be safer if they were taught to be assertive and encouraged to use the neighbourhood streets and get to know the adults in their area.

Using private cars to escape the inner city pollution and traffic, only creates more traffic, pollution and further isolates people from each other. But more freeways and more transport police, while railway stations are left unstaffed is the wrong solution.

Schools are frustrated in their attempts to involve local communities by the expectations of parents that the children will be isolated from strangers while they are at school. Government must make serious efforts to overcome the barriers to the participation of parents and others as volunteers in schools. And instead of pulling their children out of troubled public schools, parents need to take the initiative in helping schools overcome problems, and retain the best students in the public system.

When people feel that there is no-one to keep them safe other than themselves, they try to buy security (and happiness); but their attempts to buy happiness and security both exacerbate the conditions which give rise to their fears (social fragmentation and the erosion of public institutions) and, contradictorily, lead to an erosion of self-reliance.

Having paid for the service, people look to service-providers to make them happy and secure. But safety and well-being are something that human beings can only produce collaboratively. As the saying goes: the best things in life are free.

The former system of state provision was not irreproachable. The post-war welfare state fell into a crisis mainly, I believe, because people did not see the state as their state; the services and benefits it provided seemed to come “from above,” rather than being seen as functions of the community.

In part, it was the failure of this system which opened the door to neo-liberalism. We need to find a response to the “cult of safety,” the fascination with litigation and the readiness to blame others. Such a response has to avoid accentuating fragmentation and commercialisation without returning to the elitism and bureaucratism of the past.

Governments are not blameless in this matter. Governments of both persuasions have eagerly joined the downsizing/out-sourcing/deregulating bonanza.

There are a few things that governments could do at this point.

One of these is to establish a public, no-fault public liability insurance scheme. Such a scheme would provide an opening to unwind the cycle of blame and anxiety. It is outrageous that governments have allowed a situation where public leisure activities are now almost impossible without the participation of “sponsors.” The corporate sector has grabbed for itself such a share of the national wealth, that community activities have to be paid for out of corporate advertising budgets. A no-fault public liability insurance scheme would be a small step in the right direction.

Secondly, the universal character of our health, education and social security systems must be restored. Two-tier health and education services, with better-off people buying health and education on the market, erodes the social fabric and fosters insecurity.

Finally, the kind of measures proposed by Tony Vinson and others, to begin to repair “social cohesion” need to be implemented. The majority of households are “making it on their own” and the result is insecurity and growing alienation.

The “walking school bus” is one very creative solution to a cycle of anxiety which is making matters worse for schools, by dealing with the anxieties in a way which fostered self-help and collaboration. But initiatives like this are swimming against the stream. The underlying cause of insecurity — erosion of the social fabric — has to be addressed at a national level.

Dealing with the source of the anxiety, is quite a different project from dealing with the million-and-one threats which are seized upon by the media and an anxious population. Governments seem all too willing to respond to and even promote scare campaigns, but are doing nothing to stem the erosion of basic networks of mutual aid and support.

Submitted to Eureka Street in January 2005
Andy Blunden is a Melbourne-based writer, whose For Ethical Politics was published by Heidelberg Press in October 2003.

NB As of May 2005, the “walking school bus” is still working in schools in more than 30 local council areas, but is under severe pressure due to the costs involved with Public Liability insurance, mandatory police checks and “training” for the parents who volunteer to walk the kids to school. Without more government funding, the children and volunteers will not be able to legally walk to school together. At the same time, the government is adopting a surplus budget, competing with the corporate sector in seeing how much they can suck out of the community without putting anything back.