Sunday, 13 February 2011


What are some of the all-consuming fears (concerns about a tangible and specific threat) and anxieties (concerns about intangible threats) of post-Cold War civilization? German theologian and philosopher Paul Tilich argued that Western civilization has gone through the 'ontic anxiety' in the classical world, to the moral anxiety in the Medieval times, and finally to spiritual anxiety that produces emptiness and meaninglessness in the 20th century.
Unlike ontological anxiety that is rooted in the fear of non-being, ontic anxiety is based on fear of inability to survive and improve as a human being - ontological and phenomenological conditions converging in the mind as conditioned by societal institutions that give it identity and meaning. For example, while the threat of a specific act of political violence (terrorism) that threatens my life at a specific instance produces fear for me alone, the manner by which governments project to the public the vague threat of 'terrorism' produces mass anxiety.

I would agree with Tilich and psychologist Carl Rogers, but only if we are referring to Plato and Cicero, and perhaps even a segment of the aristocracy, suffering from 'ontic anxiety'. However, it is difficult for me to conceive of a slave working in the mines in ancient Athens or Rome not having a preoccupation with more mundane issues like daily work and treatment by the master, suffering from tangible fears, rather than suffering from ontic anxieties that presume a state of leisure if not luxury lifestyle. Similarly, I am not certain the degree to which a Medieval serf suffered from moral anxiety as he/she suffered from fear based on superstitious beliefs that Christian culture produced and reinforced. Moreover, given the asymmetrical gender relationships, moral anxiety may have been the domain of noble males and clergy. Women I would assume suffered mortified fear and an all-consuming anxiety, simply because they were born with the seeds of Eve (evil) as far as theocentric (God the Father) society was concerned.

As far as 20th century existential anxiety of emptiness is concerned, I would agree with Tilich and Rogers that society imposed this modern disease on the middle class, but I am not sure that a coal miner or a worker was ever infected by it, as he/she was infected by tangible fears of surviving another day at work and home where several people are waiting to be supported. The question for the 21st century is the degree to which the middle class continues to suffer from anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness amid new waves of uncertainty about the changing social structure owing to a market economy that concentrates wealth and leaves less and less room for upward social mobility, thereby exposing liberal bourgeois democracy as a facade for finance capitalism.
Have such mass anxieties turned into tangible fears with identifiable objects, namely government and business? What is certain is that with globalization of the economy (the more thorough integration of the capitalist system geographically and its concentration toward fewer people), with the advent of instant mass communications, combined with the global campaign on 'terrorism', the new culture of fear and anxiety replaced by the Cold War and nuclear holocaust prospect, has taken hold.

Do more people today around the world fear the future more than they did in decades or centuries past? Is fear of the unknown scarier today because there is greater awareness owing to modern communications systems, better educated people living in an urban, secular, and less superstitious world with more varieties of views instead of a single truth by nobility, church, or state? Do we have reasons to fear the future more today than our ancestors did? After all, we do not live in the age of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, we do not live in the age of the Great Depression followed by a global war, nor do we live with the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) nuclear doctrine where the possibility of blowing up the planet is real. 
Yet, there are very scary trends that include uncertainty about the economy and opportunities for upward socioeconomic mobility, even retaining socioeconomic status so that there is less loss of personal dignity, self-respect, and pride. The situation of the evolution in social discontinuity is not the case just in Ireland, southern Europe suffering from chronic public debt and economic contraction problems, nor across North Africa and the Middle East where popular uprisings are bringing down regimes. This is a global phenomenon that includes the richest nations where the middle class and workers fear for their future and that of their children; and this is not vague existentialist anxiety, but fear that has an object as the enemy, fear that knows that societal institutions are working against furthering the progress of society for the middle class and workers.

Another mass fear is about losing national status and prestige. A public opinion poll in Japan shows that a staggering 95% of the population fears losing its preeminent status to China and other nations. To many Westerners this may not mean much, but it does to Japan that came close to being reduced to a Western sphere of influence in the late 19th century, but then regrouped politically and rapidly developed economically to become Asia's hegemonic commercial and military power in the first half of the 20th century. Fear of losing national status and prestige is shared by many Americans who believe that China's phenomenal economic progress and its future prospects of overtaking the US in a few decades poses a threat to American preeminence and by extension to the American Dream. Such fears necessarily entail sociopolitical polarization as we witness with the rise of the Tea Party.

Another fear by Americans and people throughout the world is the possibility of more wars, social unrest and revolts, and 'terrorism' (unconventional military warfare that includes targeting civilians). As the gap between the few rich people and the few rich nations and the many poor people and poor nations widens, as the contradictions become apparent that despite advances in science and technology, despite an abundance in food and medicine, extreme deprivation continues, there is both fear and anxiety of the sociopolitical implications of such developments. 
An auto worker in Detroit, a computer systems manager in Mexico City, an engineer in Singapore understand equally well the fears of people all over the world about downsized social services, inability to afford quality health care, lower social security benefits and working longer to afford retirement. This too is a global phenomenon and universally shared experience.

Another universally-shared experience is fear of environmental degradation, global warming, extinction of species, deforestation, all in the name of progress, despite the 'green economy' political, business and corporate media rhetoric. Finally, one of the most significant fears is that contemporary bureaucratized techno-society is increasingly depriving people of their free will, as they must submit to surveillance cameras, government control and business commercialization of all aspects of peoples' lives, lack of privacy and thus individuality in the age of mass culture, mass politics, mass consumerism. This fear of 'Big Brother' (both government and business) is primarily middle class, and it is part of the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness as Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Tilich and others defined it. This distinctly Western middle class fear and anxiety appears to be transformed into tangible fears as the 'bread and butter' concerns of the waning middle class are taking precedence.

Where does hope for humanity's future rest, where is there relief from fear and anxiety? Government, mainstream institutions, the mass media, and especially pharmaceutical companies would have people believe that fear and anxiety is a problem of the individual who ought to find the answer in a pill made by one of the giant pharmaceutical companies. Some believe that solutions rest in business, others in politics, the more mystical in religion, the superstitious in astrology, the practically minded in science, the idealists in people collectively empowering themselves to determine their own destiny and rid themselves of fears and anxieties. Where is the answer?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The answer might not seem apparent until you review a segment in time analogous of factors today: The 1840's and the Opium Wars.

It effected peoples concentrically across a large swath of global regions.

Evidence can be seen in literature such as Charles Dicken's The Christmas Carol and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In addition, it resulted in Modern Chinese thought and literature.