Fears and anxieties in politics

Neoliberalism does not seek to convince or persuade the voter, but rather to seduce a consumer who is helpless in the face of a sprawling crisis whose more or less apparent modalities largely escape him. He relies on grandmother’s stories renamed « story-telling » or, even more simply, on the strategy of the scapegoat, a Muslim for the occasion.

In order to convince, it is necessary to expose the real reasons why a political renewal is urgent. The current crisis is not simply economic, energy or ecological; it is a terminal crisis. The neoliberal system — the « market democracy » — will not survive, it will metamorphose into a form of totalitarianism whose outline is clearly visible in the Atlantic countries(1). The human species itself could become extinct: if we are to believe the expertise of biologists who seek to understand the impact of global warming on the evolution of human habitat, we would indeed be barely fifteen years away from the final collapse (2). Even if scientists can be wrong, which is often the case, a new application of Pascal’s wager is necessary: either, as everything suggests, the most optimistic forecasts indicate that we must act now or never; or, as we cannot help hoping, the climate will stabilize and all the actions undertaken in the emergency to overcome the Anthropocene will only have accelerated a political change that was necessary for a thousand other reasons.

In order to persuade, any new political movement — whether it is a change in individual posture or the creation of a mainstream party — must (i) acknowledge the cold rationality of the terminal crisis, (ii) to dismantle the neoliberal logic, (iii) propose a real reconstruction policy.

A courageous stand is therefore necessary. At this point in human history, it is unfortunately no longer true that fear is a bad advisor. In any case, the fundamental clinical difference between anxiety and fear must be put into perspective. Anxiety arises when the real threat is not identified or is the product of intrapsychic processes and no way out seems possible; it leads to stupor, paralysis and death. Fear, on the other hand, is a positive feeling related to the identification of the threat and the feasibility of the outcome, typically flight or fight(3).

In fact, fin de siècle neoliberalism fills its ideological gaps with anxiety. We no longer govern with the enthusiasm of a mobilizing project or even by managing crises with some concern for transparency, even if it means further infantilizing the voters. We govern by terror, by anguish, by doublethink (Orwell).

The political world, if it were to rise from the ashes, could not avoid making clear and distinct the threats to which we are collectively subject and the measures to be taken to extinguish them — especially if they are painful.

From this point of view, it is particularly useful to ask the mirror question of the nature of the fears and anxieties of the oligarchy. The ninth edition of the World Economic Forum’s Davos report, Global Risks 2014(4), can shed some light on this. This kind of study, written for the « happy few » but intended to be disseminated, is always presented in the same way: « investors » abhor risk; for them it is crucial to estimate the probability of all events that could alter, or on the contrary improve, the profitability of their virtuous company. Since investors and their lieutenants are very well informed (the real, true, is economic), reading such a report gives an idea of what the system itself recognizes as bankrupt and what the experts believe (rightly or wrongly) to be under threat. That’s why it’s more beneficial to read the Financial Times thanHumanity, Chomsky hasn’t said anything else for fifty years.

The first thing to do, however, is to reconsider this official risk aversion. Only the very small economic players are really worried about the risks they are taking and even more about the risks they might take; the very large investors only see economic turbulence as an opportunity to be seized. We know the miracle of free enterprise, which, when faced with adversity, can react quickly and create even more wealth. Speculators, on the other hand, make uncertainty their business and they are not likely to complain about it.

However, it is true that the general business climate is a key decision factor in the orientation of investment policies and policies in general. If a permanent collapse of the banking system is to be expected, as it is, the management of assets must be doubly prudent. If commodity prices, and especially energy prices, become extremely volatile, some investments are more appropriate than others. If climate change were to prove to be permanently uncontrollable, clear geopolitical priorities could be deduced, and so on.

Curiously, the report gives the appearance of a « hard » scientific study, when in fact it is only the clever formatting of the results of a sophisticated opinion survey (« Global Risks Perception Survey ») carried out among the members of the Davos network (72.3pc men; 78.2pc of the respondents are older than 30 years old, …). The survey focuses on overall risks, not current trends or vulnerabilities: risk, as defined here, is only a possible future while a trend is already well entrenched in the system. The interest of the study (which in fact breaks down this definitional divide) lies precisely in the discovery of the mood of the oligarchy. Of course, this mood is atmospheric: on the one hand, the concrete circumstances of the moment influence it; on the other hand, the beliefs themselves determine the possible futures.

The report does not make forecasts as such, but offers an analysis (which is intended to be exhaustive) of global systemic risks, each of which is assigned a probability of occurring in the short term (ten years). Readers in a hurry can simply ponder the highlighted graphs and read the « Executive Summary ». The worst that could happen would be a deep fiscal crisis in the first world countries (« Fiscal crises in key economies »), a crisis that is inseparable from the level of unemployment, which is reminiscent of that of the 1930s (« Structurally high unemployment / underemployment »). To put it plainly: several states, already threatened with bankruptcy, could default. The 2013 report(5) was more assertive: the worst that could happen would be a banking crash (« Major systemic financial failure ») and its high probability (4.04/5), even if underestimated, should give pause for thought. The most likely risk (4.22/5), but not the most serious, would be the failure to rebalance public finances (« Chronic fiscal imbalances ») and the widening gap between rich and poor (« Severe income disparity »). Unless I am mistaken, the estimate of these risks has been stable since the 2011 edition (which worked with the same 10-year margin).

No matter how much detail and quantification is involved, it does not allow for a real debate of ideas. Let us note however that the manipulation of probabilities and statistics (itself largely subjective as soon as one leaves the hard sciences) is open to many interpretations. The first one being undoubtedly this one: when specialists establish, for example, that the probability of a core meltdown in a given nuclear reactor is one occurrence every 30,000 years(6)In the case of the event, everyone understands, and the media repeat in chorus, sometimes even explicitly, that this means that we should be quiet for 29999 years — whereas the event could very well take place tomorrow morning, as early as dawn, without this in any way calling into question the theoretical model and therefore the expertise of the expert…

More interesting is the difference that can be made here also between fears and anxieties. The fears of the oligarchs are, as in any scene of predation, the driving force behind the action. None of the probabilities that are manipulated are really fatal in the sense that, let us repeat, whatever the magnitude of the catastrophe, the one who gets away with it will emerge more powerful than ever (while the common good will necessarily follow).

Clearly, the oligarchy has no difficulty in thinking of the global systemic crisis in terms of resilience, but it cannot conceive of a terminal crisis. The anguish of the « elites », as we have unfortunately become accustomed to calling them, corresponds well to what the clinic of neuroses teaches us: the subject is (temporarily) paralyzed by a diffuse threat which is sensed but not perceived, which is palpable but not identifiable. Something appears in the fog: is it a bus? a bear? a hungry unionist? The report pays lip service to this: the imminence of serious social unrest and the « generation lost » syndrome affecting all those young people who, whether they have a degree or not, can find no paid employment and even no opportunity to exercise their talents more or less voluntarily. There is simply no more work(7) and therefore no hope of living a dignified life.

The possibility of social unrest is distressing because it is insistent while remaining largely invisible in the first world (it should be written: in the first world of the first world). The cup has been full for a long time but it still seems to accept the percolation of additional drops of gall. However, everyone knows that this will not last much longer. Uncertainty is deaf, insistent, disabling, and nothing can be done, in the current ideological framework, to alleviate it. Even the return of the guillotine is already haunting a certain popular imagination(8). In such a context, it is to be feared that « business as usual » no longer means anything at all.

How is this possibility conceptualized here? It would not be strictly speaking a revolutionary movement, inconceivable in an environment that works at the conjunction of Huxley’s and Orwell’s dystopias, but a movement of panic, totally unjustified if not by popular stupidity. Although panic attacks (in which anxiety is expressed somatically) are more or less easily recognized, we generally do not know what to do. In economics, the treatment is more direct: « shopping as usual » (as Bush said after 9/11).

As long as the people have confidence in the institutions, political change is absent. Let this confidence disappear and everything becomes possible. In hindsight, we can identify the steps, the increments, the red lines that should not have been crossed. The only thing that is certain is that the change occurs abruptly, unexpectedly, without even being intended. But when everything turns upside down, if the people do not have a great more or less utopian narrative to direct their energies, nothing prevents the violence of the reaction and all the gains are lost(9). This is the tragedy of May 68.

In conclusion, the political task is twofold: to convince the voter of the particular gravity of the present moment and to persuade him of the viability of a century-old humanist utopia that only needs to be refreshed in order to be operational. Above all, we must not forget that real change happens before we understand each other. Psychotherapists worthy of the name have known this for a long time; it remains to be hoped that politicians will realize this as soon as possible:

« The proposed experiment is strange because it would be said in absurd expressions: « To take a path that you do not know to end up in a place that you do not know to do something that you are unable to do. (10)  »

Michel Weber

Philosopher; most recently published: De quelle révolution avons-nous besoin? Paris, Éditions Sang de la Terre, 2013. chromatika.academia.edu/MichelWeber

Notes et références
  1. Jean-Claude Paye, La fin de l’État de droit. La lutte antiterroriste : de l’état d’exception à la dictature, Paris, Éditions La Dispute, 2004.
  2. Guy R. McPherson, Walking Away from Empire: A Personal Journey, Baltimore, Maryland, PublishAmerica, 2011. Cf. https://www.academia.edu/5419144/_Le_changement_climatique_est_politique_2013_.
  3. On trouve chez Jacques Lacan quelques belles pages sur l’angoisse (Le Séminaire. Livre X, L’angoisse (1962–1963), p. 53 ; cf. pp. 91 sq.) mais rien ne remplace la simplicité du dispositif expérimental de Laborit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD7lMDXDvt8).
  4. Global Risks 2014. Ninth Edition, World Economic Forum in collaboration with: Marsh & McLennan Companies, Swiss Re, Zurich Insurance Group, National University of Singapore, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, University of Pennsylvania.
  5. Lee Howell (World Economic Forum, Editor in Chief), Global Risks 2013. Eighth Edition. An Initiative of the Risk Response Network, World Economic Forum, in collaboration with: Marsh & McLennan Companies, National University of Singapore, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Swiss Reinsurance Company, Wharton Center for Risk Management, University of Pennsylvania.
  6. Deutsche Risikostudie Kernkraftwerke. Fachband 5. Untersuchung von Kernschmelzunfällen, TÜV Rheinland, 1980.
  7. Paul Jorion, « Pourquoi le travail et l’emploi vont disparaître », Le Figaro, 15/01/2014 ; http://www.lefigaro.fr/emploi/2014/01/15/09005–20140115ARTFIG00399-pourquoi-le-travail-et-l-emploi-vont-disparaitre.php. Ou encore : Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, « Will the 2nd Great Machine Age be a frightening jobless dystopia? », The Telegraph, 25 01 2014 ; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/10596788/Will-the-2nd-Great-Machine-Age-be-a-frightening-jobless-dystopia.html.
  8. Un millionnaire us-américain préfère agiter l’épouvantail d’une Kristallnacht dirigée contre les nantis : « This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now? » (Tom Perkins, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2014)
  9. Chris Hedges (« Our Invisible Revolution », Truthdig, Dec. 2013 ; http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/our_invisible_revolution_20131028/), se référant à un essai de Alexander (Sasha) Berkman (1870–1936), « The idea is the thing ». Cf. https://www.academia.edu/3581198/De_quelle_revolution_avons-nous_besoin_.
  10. François Roustang, Savoir attendre pour que la vie change, Paris, Éditions Odile Jacob, 2006, p. 67.

Espace membre

Member area