portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary united states

political theory

America the Anxiety Based Society

America is what has been called an "anxiety-based society." The common
political glue that explains most of its politics is some variety of
fear: fear of unemployment, fear of foreigners (whether for taking jobs,
or blowing shit up, or bringing in diseases, or "contaminating the gene
pool" with their foreign languages, spicy foods, and swarthy complexions
-- note for the irony impaired: I'm speaking in jest here -- etc etc),
fear of gays (for allegedly threatening "family values," whatever that
is), fear of women (for getting too "uppity" and demanding equal pay for
equal work), fear of labor unions (also for demanding greater social and
economic equality and threatening to shut shit down if they don't get
it). Etc etc.
America the Anxiety Based Society

America is what has been called an "anxiety-based society." The common
political glue that explains most of its politics is some variety of
fear: fear of unemployment, fear of foreigners (whether for taking jobs,
or blowing shit up, or bringing in diseases, or "contaminating the gene
pool" with their foreign languages, spicy foods, and swarthy complexions
-- note for the irony impaired: I'm speaking in jest here -- etc etc),
fear of gays (for allegedly threatening "family values," whatever that
is), fear of women (for getting too "uppity" and demanding equal pay for
equal work), fear of labor unions (also for demanding greater social and
economic equality and threatening to shut shit down if they don't get
it). Etc etc.

In an anxiety-based society where the main dynamic is fear, politicians
successfully manipulate fear to keep their jobs and advance their
careers. People immersed in anxiety-based society are like fish swimming
in water: they don't see it.

Fear as an irrational operative force is invisible when it is the water
you and practically everyone else swims in -- it ceases to be seen as an
exceptional and independently existing medium and comes to be taken for
granted as being a purely natural and inevitable reality to which no
alternative is even conceivable. People immersed in the anxiety-based
society cannot conceive of an alternative.

I spent a half hour or so chatting it up with a few fellow office
workers in a building I work in in downtown Portland. We had a "building
party" where people in the different companies that all worked in the
same building got together. I, being the radical troublemaker I am,
raised the forbidden issue of "politics" in casual conversation
(everyone knows the saying that, in America, unlike practically anywhere
else, the two subjects you're never supposed to talk about are "politics
and religion"). These were a group of good liberals all -- horrified by
the Bush administration, concerned about civil liberties, etc.

The subject of kiddie porn somehow got raised, and I professed the
belief that it was a typical example of an overhyped fear used for
political ends. Polite agreement, but with some serious reservations
("well, surely you will admit that there ARE some new threats --
children being solicited online, for example", that sort of thing). Fair
enough.

I then proceeded to compare the irrationally hyped fear of kiddie porn
to the dreaded "War on Terrorism." Oh boy, big mistake!!!

Polite agreement with serious reservations quickly turned to polite
disagreement with expressions of mild surprise (and a certain tone of
concern for my apparently quirky but possibly dangerous eccentricity).

In brief, I argued that the much vaunted "threat of terrorism" is
largely a career vehicle for people who don't have lots of other skills
or job opportunities in our economy, or are simply looking for a fast
buck (eg, politicians, journalists, military contractors, certain shitty
software developers, etc). I heard things along the lines of:

"Yes, but surely you will admit that there is a much greater danger now
of goofy people with goofy ideas blowing shit up??!"

or

"Well, I will certainly admit that there is a balance between security
and protecting civil liberties, and we've gone way overboard lately at
the expense of the latter -- but surely you will admit that these
Islamic fanatics are dangerous??!"

or

"Religious fanaticism is a terrible danger, I wish we could convince
these goofy people who believe in this stuff like 70 virgins awaiting
them in heaven after their martyrdom that they were wrong! (And of
course it's not just the Muslims, no! I don't like Christian fanaticism
one whit either! I'm a liberal progressive, you see!)"

Ah, yes, the good American "liberal progressive." But do YOU see that
this good American "liberal progressive" is in fact hopelessly
befuddled? Are you beginning to guess at why Bush, Clinton, Condo Rice,
Giuliani, etc, etc, the entire American political class, have it made,
and keep winning, and why any radical change in America looks pretty
hopeless at the moment?

The "good liberal progressive American" in Portland Oregon is in fact
only a slightly different flavor of the "good American" in general. He
buys into the larger ideology and motivational tactics of fear in this
society. He has no rational materialist analysis of events that puts
them in any really plausible historical context. He is in short a
hopeless case, easy pickings for any of the demagoguery that rules
American political life.

Is there really any hope of explaining to this good gentleman the
seemingly elementary observation that "radical Islam" as an entity on
the political stage was nonexistent 30 years ago? Is it worth the
trouble of reminding him -- and other Americans with their equally
nanosecond attention spans -- that 30 years ago the great political
bogieman in America was "International Communism"? Is it worth bothering
to encourage him to consider what are some commonalities between these
phenomena?

For starters, these (and other radical ideological frameworks of all
sorts) usually vindicate the rights of poor and marginalized people.
Poor people around the world have different interests and unmet needs
than rich people, of course.

Now when "International Communism" was apparently defeated and eclipsed
on the international stage as a viable political force by the collapse
of the explicitly Socialist Bloc countries, what happened to poor
people? Did they simply shrug their shoulders and turn back to their
sweatshops and favelas and contentedly submit to the goonsquads of their
capitalist masters? Uh, sorry, no.

Just like any other group of people, poor people will turn to whatever
ideology is on hand that appears to be vindicating their interests.
Unlike rich people, they may not have internet access and may lack the
dizzying smorgasbord of ideological alternatives available to the
curious rich (I know, "curious rich" sounds like an oxymoron, and
unfortunately mostly is -- they mostly end up being a handful of
eccentric leftist oddballs like me). In some places, what's on tap is
Pentecostalism. In others, it's the Latin Kings and Queens. In still
others, it's radical Islam.

So, we now have the specter of "radical Islamists" blowing shit up in
the name of Palestinian refugees and the much suffering people of Gaza.
Or blowing shit up in the name of freeing occupied Moslem countries like
Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. (And as Ward Churchill very sagely pointed
out, radicals of any stripe need not actually belong to the exact same
group whose rights they are vindicating -- more often they don't, since
many poor people are all too busy just surviving, feeding their families
and eking out a meager living. Extremist militants could just as well or
more likely be well-to-do college students. But it suffices that they
IDENTIFY with the interests of those marginalized people and the
ideological vehicle they've chosen.)

All this seems somewhat obvious to anyone steeped in a materialist
analysis of history and current events. Yet it is anything but obvious
to most Americans. Fear of terrorism and goofy religious fanatics
blowing shit up seems perfectly plausible to anyone who, like most
Americans, lacks any class analysis, particularly if they consume
corporate media in this country.

Naturally, no one including myself wants to get blown up by anyone. But
I do not make the mistake of believing one millisecond that any of the
policies or politics currently vogue in the US will do anything to help
me out in that regard. That is not what they are intended to do.

We do not need an elaborate police state to protect people from
political violence. The immediate threat from such phenomena can be
quite adequately addressed by ordinary, humdrum police work. The larger
threat can only be addressed by dismantling the larger order of
deprivation and fear that it feeds off of.

A politician who really wanted to end the threat of violence from
"radical Islam" or other ideologies of poor and marginalized people
would be cutting off military support to Israel, forcing the Israelis to
negotiate on fair terms with the Palestinians. He or she would be
demanding an end to US imperialism and calling for a new and fairer
"Marshall Plan" for the world's poor people. And -- aboveall -- he or
she would be starting at home by demanding a "Marshall Plan" for
American cities and a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" for America,
to address generations of systemic inequalities, violence, and
atrocities against poor and minority people in the USA.

Consider just one example of such atrocities:

For sixty years, three of the biggest corporations in America -- General
Motors, Dupont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon) colluded to
keep leaded gasoline on the market despite well known public health
risks. Public health experts have testified in Congress that the
resulting atmospheric lead contamination resulted in an estimated 67
million American children over a sixty year period being exposed to
potentially toxic and neurologically damaging lead levels. The harm that
these three corporations did to millions of disproportionately poor and
minority children in America is incalculable. And not one executive of
any of these corporations, let alone shareholders, has had to pay one
red cent in compensatory damages. (See "The Secret History of Lead," by
Jamie Lee Kitman, in The Nation, Mar. 20 2000).

That one example, multiplied by scores of others, is why America needs a
South Africa style Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a
generational commitment to social equality and human advancement for all
in our society.

Unfortunately, well-off Americans like the good burghers of my office
building mostly pay attention to their own interests and anxieties -- an
attribute they share with poor people. And it will take a tidal change
of some sort to wake them up to something new.

crazy conspiracy theories 16.Sep.2007 13:50

you mean they're NOT just incompetent?

A "liberal" in America is somebody who DISAPPROVES of the Forces of Evil while somehow failing to really DISAGREE with them. The liberals' only significant complaint is that they're not the ones performing the Evil Acts, which they would of course do more judiciously and carefully than the actual Evil People. When the Forces change the status quo and the terms of debate to make grosser and more extreme forms of Evil the new norm, the liberals follow along like the mindless power-worshiping sheep they are. Concerned far more with what other people think of them than with the truth, there is no pit of depravity they will not enter in order to keep their feet in the door, waiting for their turn at the trough.

Whole Foods or Nascar branding construct 16.Sep.2007 14:23

quiet sunday

Very nice essay Gudermannian of X.

I feel that you are correct in your observations about the good Portland liberals. While we are lead to believe that mainstream liberalism is an alternative to the 21st century conservatism, I feel that much of that is a kind of marketing branding--"Pepsi or Coke"--constructed idea of difference....Whole Foods vs. Nascar, but all middle, householding, child-rearing, consumer class.

What I've noticed in the past 7 years is that the ideological range of political discourse has been constructed to only the right side of the political spectrum, from moderate left to far right, with the illusion that the moderate left represents a left at all. For example, I've heard the voices from the GOP naming Bill Moyers as representing the "hard, far left."

I think the Patreaus circus last week demonstrated this well--many tedious, apples and oranges dialogues about troop levels, but no voices from outside of this construct saying anything like "End US corpo/military imperialism now!"

response to "incompetent" 16.Sep.2007 15:00

Gudermannian of X

incompetent:
You mean "the liberals" as opposed to all of us righteous radicals tirelessly fighting and risking it all for Truth and Justice?

Man, get off it. I think you've got it all wrong. The typical "good liberal progressive Portlander" that I meet is by no means unfriendly to *some* radical arguments -- provided that they don't induce too much discomfort or require too much demanding sacrifices. And how different is that from anyone else, in this society or any other?

Once again, the key to this society is fear, and for the majority of people there is a very wellfounded fear of poverty backed up by the ever present cautionary tale and moral lesson offered by people sleeping and pushing shopping carts under the Burnside Bridge. People are too busy trying to make sure they can get that raise or promotion, keep their medical benefits, and ensure themselves and their families a comfortable margin above the level of the ever-present homeless to spend a whole lot of time educating themselves about the world around them, much less doing anything daring or heroic about it.

It's not that there is some kind of group of people in our society called "the majority" who are genetically predisposed to Moral Weakness and Selfishness. You are already falling for the reactionary idea of Essentialism if you buy into that kind of petty moralistic Calvinist crap.

Real leftists don't group people into The Evil and The Nice. They have a subtler, materialist analysis of the situation, and understand that economic and social forces strongly influence and often even predetermine people's individual and group decisions.

The reason why in Europe you will find 40,000 people to blockade the nuclear waste shipments in Gorleben and even blow up the railroad trestles (!) to stop them, has everything to do with objective economic and social conditions and little or nothing to do with people's "moral character." How many of those European protesters do you suppose are thinking on their way to the blockade, "Gee, I hope I don't get arrested so I can make it on time to work on Monday! Gee, if I do get arrested and then shitcanned by my boss, how will I pay for little Jenny's tonsilectomy when my medical coverage goes away?!" etc etc? European countries by-and-large have decent social welfare states. They have single payer medical insurance. They have a lot more unemployment than America, but then the consequences of becoming unemployed are a lot less drastic there for the most part.

Here, if you lose your job, you will often shortly also lose your housing as well, if you don't have enough money and don't get another quickly. In Europe, they typically have much more extensive publicly assisted housing. Here, if you lose your job, you will often lose your transportation. In Europe, they have excellent public transportation.

The US is a lot like the old Soviet Union, except with a lot more consumer goods and without the GUM department store lines. In the Soviet Union, the central gov't took care of social control of the population. Here, we don't need "Big Brother," because we have thousands of "Little Brothers" (we call them "bosses") to perform the same functions. Here, we don't need official censors and work camps. We have the ever-present threat of unemployment, homelessness, and humiliation to do the trick of keeping people in conformity with the status quo.

Is there really any hope of explaining to this good gentleman 17.Sep.2007 16:49

of course not, wouldn't be a "good gentleman" if there were

The connection between actions against nuclear waste shipments in Europe and American middle-class faith in the Corporate Media Enemy of the Week escapes me, I'm afraid, but my point was that the "liberals" of the world cannot have the truth "explained" to them because not only are they bombarded like the rest of us with enemy propaganda, but they also cling, as Orwell explained, to evidently absurd propositions even in the face of contradictory evidence when they know that ideological heterodoxy will be punished, as you've mentioned, with a journey as many steps down the socioeconomic ladder as necessary to bring them back into line. Your "dangerous eccentricity" was no danger to their physical safety, for instance, except in that they suddenly realized it might be dangerous to their reputations to continue associating with a "troublemaker" such as yourself. And as someone who's done far more than my share of nights under bridges in my life you'll have to forgive my reflexive feelings of contempt for anyone who offers his exploiter not only his body but also his mind merely to avoid joining me.