How ‘Black September’ will redraw the contours of fear

After an era of pick’n’mix scares, from obesity to eco-doom, will the economic crisis encourage more collective forms of fearing?

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

Today, fears are often promoted as truly global threats. We have global terrorism, global warming, the global obesity epidemic, and now, of course, a global economic crisis.

It is not hope that excites and shapes the cultural imagination in the early twenty-first century; it is fear. Terms like ‘politics of fear’ and ‘culture of fear’ have become everyday phrases through which we communicate a sense of unease about our place in the world. It is therefore not surprising that the current economic crisis is frequently discussed through the prism of fear.

Headlines report that ‘fear grips the market’ or that ‘banks act on meltdown fear’. This simplistic diagnosis of global fear usually serves as a prelude to warnings that people might panic, as they unthinkingly follow their herd instincts. Of course, our current addiction to the rhetoric of fear should not be taken as proof that people are necessarily more scared than in previous times. Rather, it shows that fear serves as an influential cultural device through which society makes sense of experience.

Since the first global threat of this century – the Millennium Bug – the world has been exposed to a succession of apocalyptic ‘fear appeals’. Often one fear appeal builds on another. ‘It is like a combination of global warming and HIV/AIDS’, said Dr David Nabarro, a UN health official, in 2005, talking about a potential worldwide bird flu pandemic. He said up to 150million people could be killed.

In March 2006, Richard Carmona, the US surgeon general, described obesity as a greater danger to national security than terrorism. He said that unless something was done about obesity, ‘the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempt’. The steady promotion of dramatic warnings about human survival indicates that whatever the problems facing the financial sector today, the market of fear continues to prosper. But how does the dramatisation of global threats impact upon our lives?

Research carried out for the recent World Social Summit (WSS) suggests that, at least until recently, most people perceived the problem of everyday survival as far more threatening than the big global fears. Moreover, threats are experienced very differently across the continents. The WSS report, titled Fear in the Mega-Cities, attempts to capture the experience of fear in 10 major cities across the world. Based on a survey carried out in July 2008, it provides important insights into the way that the public perceives and feels about threats in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, São Paulo and Cairo.

Anxious but not panicking

In popular culture, the dramatisation of fear encourages the belief that when confronted with a crisis or a threat, people panic and become irrational. Fortunately, this ‘Towering Inferno’ model of human behaviour is contradicted by the WSS survey. The study suggests that while a large majority of the respondents (90.2 per cent) acknowledge that they have day-to-day worries or serious anxieties (42.4 per cent) about an important area of their lives, only a minority (11.9 per cent) claim to feel overwhelmed by a sense of fear. The majority say they have a positive attitude towards life (55.3 per cent), and almost a quarter (24.3 per cent) defined themselves as optimistic.

Within an urban community, people’s position in the social hierarchy appears to be the most significant factor influencing the way they fear. The WSS study indicates that the intensity of fearing increases with the level of poverty and social insecurity. Almost a quarter of those who come from poorer families (22.5 per cent) named fear as their dominant emotion, compared with only eight per cent of those from better-off circumstances. Also, those who are economically insecure are more likely than the well-to-do to report that their personal fears have intensified in recent years. As expected, the elderly are more likely than young people to perceive themselves as fearful.

One of the most interesting points to emerge from the study is the decisive influence that local urban culture has on the experience of fearing. In all the cities surveyed, people said they had experienced a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. However, in some urban centres – Tokyo, São Paulo, Cairo – uncertainty often mutates into fear. Around a quarter of the people surveyed from these cities said fear was a dominant factor in their lives. Of all the cities surveyed in the study, Tokyo is the one where personal fears have increased the most during the past decade, followed by São Paulo.

Of the Western cities, Rome turned out to be the least optimistic and confident. One surprising finding is that people in London are relatively confident and optimistic about their futures. Of all the Western cities studied, in London fears have increased the least over the past decade. However, it is in the two Asian urban centres – Beijing and Mumbai – where fear has had the least impact. The economic dynamism of these cities appears to have had a significant impact on people’s outlook. In Mumbai, 83.3 per cent assert that they are either optimistic or confident about the future. In Beijing, 65.4 per cent of the population have a positive view of life. Beijing is the only city where the number of those who said their fears have decreased in recent years (38.4 per cent) significantly outweighed those who say they have increased (15.4 per cent).

Global threats are not globally feared

The evidence provided by this study suggests that it is not the big global threats that prey on people’s fears; most people focus on local and individual problems that directly touch on their lives. Traditional anxieties about death, losing a loved one and physical and mental suffering top the list of fears. Even before the recent meltdown of the banking system, anxieties about unemployment, economic security and the fear of ‘falling behind’ preoccupied most of those interviewed.

Apprehension about becoming a victim of violence or anti-social behaviour was also an important source of insecurity. Concerns about individual security far outweigh public concern about high-profile threats such as terrorism. As one would expect, the anxiety about the threat of terrorism was most pronounced in New York, where 16.6 per cent said it was their top fear. Yet even in New York, more people were concerned about not being able to maintain their quality of life in the future (17.2 per cent).

Overall the respondents were more worried about losing their homes (10 per cent) or their jobs (9.7 per cent) or being a victim of crime (11.7 per cent) than they were about a terrorist attack (8.2 per cent). Of the big dramatic threats, natural disasters were feared the most (8.5 per cent). The intensity of this fear is linked, it seems, to previous experiences of natural disasters: so anxieties about such disasters were most apparent in Mumbai (22 per cent) and Beijing (15.4 per cent).

One of the most interesting findings is the fairly minor role that collective fears play in the lives of the urban public. For example, relatively few people appeared to be worried about the threat of war or international conflict (6.7 per cent). Overall, the WSS survey highlights the highly personalised and individuated way that fear is experienced. This trend is particularly striking in large European centres. In contrast, what the report calls ‘collective fears’ remain quite important in Asian cities. In Tokyo, the fear of an earthquake and other natural disasters tops the list.

After Black September

Many of the findings of the study resonate with previous global surveys. Although dramatic global threats grab the headlines, most people’s anxieties are focused on the mundane and ordinary problems of existence. This fact transcends different societies and cultures. People in Mumbai and Sao Paulo may fear differently than people in Paris and London, but in all these places it is highly individualised, even privatised fears that dominate people’s thoughts.

The fact that the most distinctive feature of fear in the twenty-first century is its atomised and individual character stands in sharp contrast to previous historical experiences. Throughout history, communities tended to live and experience their fears in common. In the twentieth century, people living through the interwar era feared unemployment and the precarious existence associated with old age. In the 1950s, it was the fear of nuclear war that exercised the public’s imagination. In all of these cases, people feared a common threat; in some sense, the anxiety of the age often defined communities and bound them together.

There is no single fear that defines our era. One day we are told to worry about global terrorism, the next we are warned about a flu epidemic. By the time the average week is over, we have heard about the risk of catching a super-bug in a hospital and about the imminent collapse of the eco-system. These threats, as dramatic as they appear, rarely turn into a focus for society-wide solidarity. Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, the threat of terrorism – despite the insistences of the Bush administration – failed to become the defining fear of our times. As the WSS study indicates, we continue to fear ‘on our own’.

The research for Fear in the Mega-Cities was carried in July 2008. That was a time when the term ‘credit crunch’ had entered into the public’s consciousness but before massive upheavals overwhelmed the banking system in September. So what do recent economic events mean for the way that we fear? It appears that what we now have is a global threat that directly resonates with the pre-existing social and economic insecurities highlighted in the WSS report. What is fascinating about the response to the economic crisis is the emergence of a genuine global language of fear. This is a threat that has captured the imagination of the public from Russia to China, and from Australia to Europe. Such a fearful reaction is evident even in societies in Asia, where the economies appear relatively robust. Given the findings of Fear in the Mega-Cities, this global-wide reaction is not surprising. The very individuated and existential culture of fearing has acquired a more society-wide form in a world where everyone is confronted with economic insecurity.

It is likely that the global economic meltdown will not be experienced merely as a threat to the individual but as a disaster that affects the entire community. No doubt perceptions of this crisis will be subject to cultural variations, but it seems that we are also gradually developing a common vocabulary for expressing our fears. That at least may hold out the prospect that we need not simply suffer our fears in isolation, but can confront them as a community.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is speaking in the session Capitalism – what is it good for? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November. Visit Furedi’s website here. A shorter version of this article was published in the New Statesman on 17 October.

The state won’t be the saviour of the economy, by Frank Furedi

I don’t predict a riot, by Mick hume

This Marxist isn’t laughing, by Brendan O’Neill

Against austerity, by Brendan O’Neill

There Is (still) No Alternative, by Mick Hume

Congress bales out, by Brendan O’Neill

Scapegoating the spivs, by Tim Black

It’s the politics, stupid, by Phil Mullan

Lehman Brothers: when confidence runs out, by Rob Lyons

Five myths about the Wall Street crisis, by Daniel Ben-Ami

Read more at spiked issue: Financial Crisis.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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