The Politics of Mass Anxiety
Today is November 11, and is called “Remembrance Day” here in Canada — (although the whole point of it, actually, is to forget… which is why it’s called “Remembrance” Day). Now that the state and the political classes have taken full ownership of the commemoration, the glorification of “sacrifice” is the theme, while the ineptitude, incompetencies, delusions, and imbecilities of the state and of the political bunglers of past and present who largely brought about the wars (and then failed to win the peace) are carefully tucked away and hidden from scrupulous and inquiring eyes.
It is not just gaudily made-up aging street-walkers and painted ladies — or clowns — that layer on the cosmetics (what is formally called “perception management”). Our leading politicians are real masters of cosmetology and the art of make-up — the red poppy and the sad-eyed, tragic demeanour that is hauled out and dusted off annually for the event, even as their agitated minds behind the dissembling mien dance to the drumbeat of war and incubate their own twisted fantasies of nation-state glory and grandeur.
You only have to compare the “official” poem recited on Remembrance Day, John McCrae’s In Flander’s Fields, with the brutally frank unofficial poem by Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est. The former poet blindly glorifies, merely as an end in itself, what the latter poet bluntly calls “the old Lie” — the “duty” of self-sacrifice. If Remembrance Day and the red poppy had any integrity at all, both poems might be officially recited on the occasion. But no. Forgetfulness and even obliviousness, not remembrance, is what this occasion now calls for.
(I’m all for honestly remembering. I’m just not that into mythologising. Yet, what the state provides is the myth — maybe it is even a merciful and redeeming myth for old soldiers and veterans, so that the meaninglessness and pointlessness of the waste, violence, and destruction isn’t so painfully and despairingly self-evident).
Even on this day the servants of Moloch continue to pound the war drums and once more are busy stoking the fires of mass anxiety and paranoia. Canada’s Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper — with oftentimes considerable assistance from the mass media — likes to remind us all that “a sea of troubles is lapping at our shores“, most of which are total fabrications designed to agitate and arouse public anxiety — immigrants, terrorism, criminality, banking crisis, Iranian nukes, rampaging rhino rogue states, fictional incursions by Russian bombers into Canadian airspace necessitating an answering arms build-up. It’s either guns or butter once again. (But those things that we really should be concerned with — such as climate change, species eradication and depletion, social health — never count as a “trouble” in Mr. Harper’s fantasy list of national existential threats because Mr. Harper, like his followers, does not think in truly global terms at all… characteristic, in the present historical context, of the reactionary).
The cynical arousing and exploitation of mass anxiety for political purposes and advantage is a devious and dangerous game that is likely to end in an authoritarian state as the herd, aroused, now seeks a “strong man” — a Mussolini-type (and some have compared Harper’s style with Mussolini’s) — who will “make the trains run on time” by disciplining labour, suppression of opposition or dissent, instituting coercive “law & order” regimes that justify broader and ubiquitous powers of state surveillance — the Disciplinary State or Security State. All these state activities, however, only serve to inflame mass anxiety still further as their very activity seems to suggest an ongoing “clear and present danger” or existential threat become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Build it, and the threats will come. It induces a constant sense of insecurity, paranoia, and anxiety that no amount of new weapons, prisons, or appropriated or usurped additional state powers will ever belay or allay.
Are we in for a spell of post-democratic, post-Enlightenment neo-fascism (or what I’ve called “the Big Ugly”)? My sense is that we are, and that it’s being brought to you courtesy the same wonderfully cynical people who loudly and shrilly claim to be “saving Western values,” virtues, and cultural identity. Anders Breivik claimed as much. I’ve kept an eye open for this possibility ever since I first read Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism (1980). What then, in my university days, seemed very unlikely, has now become the topic of even serious mainstream pundits and media outlets. In the last few years (and even the last few days), terms like “post-democratic” or “democratic deficit” or even “neo-fascism” have been used to describe the direction in which we appear to be collectively heading. Writing in The Ottawa Citizen a mere two days ago, columnist David Warren wrote in all seriousness (if not too astutely or insightfully),
“(Which means, watch out for charisma on the Right. My own paradoxical fear at the moment is the emergence of politicians who can articulate a neo-fascist agenda, inviting people to turn to government for centralized discipline and regulatory order, by scapegoating “the moneylenders” and other easily demonized targets, plus picking on minorities; thus preying on the same insecurities and envies the Left preyed upon to extend the Nanny State.)”
Even the Nazis could seriously describe fascism as “true democracy” and be believed by many. It all depends on how you frame and adjust the meaning of the word demos.
The politics of inflamed mass anxiety, such as characterised the turbulent interlude between the World Wars, is recognised in a number of traits, all of which are once more much in evidence today: the politics of reactionary ressentiment, paranoia (conspiracy theories of left and right), hypocrisy, scapegoating (manufactured existential threats), a survivalism or escapism that approaches the panic state of “every man for himself”, mass delusion (Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds), groupthink, but also disillusionment (disorientation), nihilism, and a sense of impotent insecurity that also incites a compensatory exaggerated, hyperbolic concern with power-seeking or “winning”, and even violence (a cathartic violence that approaches human sacrifice, as in the case of the Norwegian neo-fascist terrorist Anders Breivik).
Much of this mass response, deficient as it is, has been brought about by an inevitable and inescapable fact — globalisation in all its forms.
Such expressions of mass anxiety are common to ages in transition. Just look at the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance period — the paranoia and anxiety of the time giving vent to scapegoating, witch-hunt, torture, Inquisition, human sacrifice, forced conversions, and the demonic hunt for “heretics” of all kinds deemed to be the cause of the troubles — the search for enemies and traitors within and without. It was a psychotic age. It was an age of extremes because it was also an age of transition between the Age of Faith (become faithless) and the Age of Reason (Modern Era, now become unreasonable).
Those who were immune to the mass psychosis then were those who were aware of it for what it was — such as the admirable English priest and poet John Donne who felt himself as though “crucified” on the times between Faith and Reason, past and future. Ours is also an age of transition — from the Modern Era to the Planetary Era. The Planetary Era is not a continuation of the Modern Era into the future or a developmental or evolutionary stage upon that era. It is a transformation and a mutation. Immunity to our contemporary psychosis and mental breakdown is granted to those who are aware of that.
And isn’t it somewhat revealingly ironic that the most widespread malady in this Age of Reason is now… mental illness? Reflect on the suggestive implications of that.
Our own times are characterised by a superabundance of two things: greed and anxiety, both of which become highly destructive psychic forces when unleashed (or “deregulated” in the neo-liberal euphemism of the day).
This morning, I turned to the writings of historian Jean Gebser for further clarification about the significance of “anxiety” as a mass mood. The word “anxiety” is related, of course, to “angle”. It implies a narrowing or a constriction, which is quite appropriate. A narrowing or constriction of the arteries or respiratory passages is also known to induce states of high anxiety. On page 133 of his Ever-Present Origin, I located this interesting passage about anxiety and those who deliberately and exploitatively “foment this anxiety”.
“In the wake of their agitations, these individuals — if they come to a realization of what has occurred — are amazed whenever their non-conscious deeds (inevitably magic) menacingly turn back upon them, making them victims of their own actions. Incapable of withstanding the powers they have unleashed alone, they are now the hunted who dispense Urangst and feign leadership, if only the leadership of the herd.
Anxiety, whether in the life of the individual, the clan, the nation, or of humanity itself, inevitably comes about where the lack of alternative becomes consciously or unconsciously evident in a particular attitude or stance where it reflects the impotence rather than the potency of the particular attitude. Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to an end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is always synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver….
The orgies of anxiety, the doomsday phantasmagoria, and the mass psychoses of our own day may well be phenomena that parallel those of the Renaissance.” (pp. 133-4)
The “mutation” of which Gebser speaks is a mutation of the structure of consciousness (today, in his terms, from the mental-rational or “modern” to the integral structure or “planetary”). The “liberation” of the new potencies of the mutating consciousness structure is what we call a “social revolution” in historical terms. The passage highlights another aspect of anxiety as “narrowing” — the passage through the birth canal and the expulsion from the womb (a bubble world, also). The feeling of being ejected from an Age (such as the Modern Era and its time horizon) and hurled into an unknown one with indeterminate, as yet unfixed, horizons may also make for high anxiety. For some, it is much like being expelled from the Garden of Eden, from an age or era that shaped their identities and loyalties and self-understanding. Resentment against the ejection, and anxiety at being driven upon unknown seas and towards unknown shores is what the mass anxiety of the day is about — a birthing.
No politician, presently, has the stature to serve as midwife to this transition. They are virtually all exploiting the anxiety for the purposes of narcissistic self-aggrandisement, or for what they call “stability”, or are simply representatives of the same fearful, resentful, and anxiety-ridden types who put them into positions of political power at all. It is owing to the absence of such foresightful leadership that others have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. Hence, the global Occupy movement, which is an attempt at mid-wifery.
Sad state of affairs, really.