Paul Klee, Vorführung des Wunders, 1916 (detail)

Fear itself

All around us, the optimisation craze keeps getting stronger, with little regard to our emotional integrity. Fear of missing out has become the main driver of contemporary society. By Jenni Roth.

Translated from NZZ, Feuilleton. Gesellschaft. 31 May 2016. All references to Germany and Switzerland were edited out of the article.

To be human is to experience fear. This realisation has always been true and occurs very early in life. As a child, one fears darkness, being interrogated by teachers or going to the doctor to get vaccinated. Our forefathers feared thunderstorms, or the perspective of a fruitless hunt. They were afraid of making mistakes, of failing. There is the fear of death, the fear of living, the fear of fear itself. Fear is strong, invincible. Fear even ignores social boundaries.

It is perhaps the feeling that causes us the most distress among all. In his book “Society of Fear”, Heinz Bude thought of fear as a social-psychological phenomenon that was located at the core of the contemporary societies of the 2oth century. He saw fear as “perhaps the only constant of modern societies, a concept around which all members of society are able to agree. When the subject is fear, a Muslim will be able to talk to a secularist, and even the most cynical of liberals will relate to the ravings of a human rights activist.” It’s already been 30 years since the sociologist Niklas Luhmann described fear as the hidden super-system of a society so obsessed with functionality that it started bordering on brokenness and confusion. Fear is scientifically irrefutable and remains outside the reach of the law; it is eternal, and it adapts to the spirit of the times. Each society therefore has its very own alphabet of fear: Unemployment. Banking crisis. Chemical waste. Jihadism. Ebola. Refugees. Food scandals. IS. Cancer. But where does all this fear come from, especially in a time where we are comparatively doing very well for ourselves, better even than ever before?

Ownership creates dependence

Studies by renowned banks consistently show that citizens who live in countries with almost full employment fear losing their jobs the most. And it is true: comparatively, we have never been so well-off, well provided for and well-insured as we are today. Franklin Roosevelt set a milestone in western social policies when, during his inaugural speech, he consecrated fear as a a principle and as the main point of reference of the welfare state: “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” Social policies should therefore not only target unemployment and old-age poverty, but must exemplify a broader principle: those who trip will be put back on their feet. To this day, this idea continues to drive social change; however, this has not prevented a few sociologists to describe fear as the most“fundamental feeling” of our times.

One reason for this continued pervasiveness of fear is obvious: ownership rarely makes people more independent. The more successful a society, the higher its fear of loss: of its own prosperity, status, freedom or identity. When things are going well, even a small additional improvement in quality of life becomes less likely. “And as the conditions of life start to harmonise across social strata, fears of loss, cutbacks and unfair treatment will grow accordingly”, according to Bude.

Francisco de Goya, Saturn devouring his son, 1918–1923 (detail)

A mental tinnitus

This results in a diffuse fear that our whole world could collapse any minute: our hard-earned security “is constantly put into question by new external factors”, according to René Rhinow, president of a Red Cross division. What seemed like limited financial damage to Lehman Brothers turned out to be a global financial crisis. Even the most powerful armed forces cannot seem to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place on our soil. Or, even more relevantly, the refugee crisis. “Who would have thought that there would be so many of them?”, says Rhinow. “What does it mean for me? Does it mean I will lose my house to refugees?” Up until now, opinion leaders came predominantly from the post-war generation, which thought it had put the worst behind it. The following generations are starting to ask themselves: what if the worst still lies ahead?

“Fear occupies a predominant place in our society”, says Rhinow. “And because it is diffuse, especially in our age where we are all flooded with information, we are not really sure how to handle it.” This helplessness might explain why acute fear of others and foreigners is strongest when there is no concrete argument for it: “studies have shown that it was the places hosting the smallest immigrant communities that exhibited the strongest xenophobic opinions.”

The same phenomenon applies to the recent xenophobic demonstrations by the German Pegida movement, which were mostly organised in cities with low migrant counts. It is possible that such movements are the remnant of a time when humans lived in tribes, and when the “togetherness against others” (i.e. xenophobia) was a competitive advantage for survival. Inner security seems to decline as external security increases. Our fear doesn’t have to be triggered by particular events or a concrete danger anymore. It is always present, like a mental tinnitus.

The fault lies also in our freedom, which constantly opens up possibilities to us — and confronts us with an ever more diverse set of rights and expectations. “The hypothetical freedom to do absolutely anything we want is also a burden”, says Rhinow. “Am I doing the right thing? Could this have been done better?” “Yes, we can” has become “Only blame yourself if you fail”. We have freed ourselves of external control but have internalised outside expectations, which results in constant self-terrorising — a mechanism Michel Foucault called the “technology of the self”. From this, it seems the traditional welfare state has relinquished the responsibility of care to the forces of the market.

The promise of social integration has become a looming threat of social exclusion. The fear of losing one’s economic and social position has once again become a familiar personal concern, notes Bude. Options turn into threats, the private becomes public, or worse, political.

Delusions and longing

“We think that, at each moment, our entire life is available for us to use as we please”, according to Bude. This means unlimited possibilities of self-realisation, both professionally and personally. Hence, it is not enough to merely pursue one’s career or to build a family. Leisure, friends, hobbies, relationships, all of that ends up being another item on our to-do list — together with the fear of having missed anything out. We use others as a constant point of reference, asking ourselves the eternal question: can we keep up? And with social networks offering a worldwide comparison platform, we are able to do that more easily than ever before.

Georges de la Tour, La diseuse de bonne aventure, ca. 1635 (detail)

The “Zero Failure Generation” and the pressure to success

Those who are subjected to these thinking patterns often belong to the prototype of the “Zero Failure Generation”: 35–40 years old, hard-working and extremely unrelaxed. Any failure turns them into losers, the kind they themselves would better avoid. An example lies in the classical image of the “power-woman”: the professionally successful, but childless woman is dismissed as being nothing but a sad, tragic figure.

This optimisation craze completely ignores our own emotional states, since, in our self-optimised society, emotions are rare goods that you must be able to afford. Despite all that, Bude thinks that we are all secretly longing for permanent, longstanding relationships that would be based on love alone. But then, isn’t any relationship based on the freedom of the partner to leave whenever they please?

Optimising children

A relationship of this kind also causes fear, because it means that one’s own freedom is dependent on that of another. And since all relationships are interchangeable (particularly in our age of online dating, where a better choice of partner might always be just around the corner), the only constant remaining is the parent-child relationship. It is irrevocable and doesn’t care about any like-buttons, looks and appearances, or on whether or not you are sitting on some company’s board. Still: children, too, can be optimised, and so-called helicopter parents are a direct consequence of that mode of thinking.

Where are the rules?

Whether or not a child is present in the equation, Bude sees these changes as “an landmark transformation in the way we shape our own behaviours”: internalised values and norms are no longer the key determinants; expectations — our own as well as others’ — have taken up that role. Hence the relatively harmless idea of self-optimisation turns into self-exploitation and depression. And because we don’t trust either others or ourselves, we start developing a kind of permanently defensive, cautious attitude. However, this kind of escapism is incompatible with progress, instead it leads to stagnation. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw fear as “man’s fundamental façon d’être” — because it forces us to constantly reinvent ourselves. Kierkegaard sought security through faith.

However little faith and belief actually protect against fear does not matter, they are at the center of the concept of self-optimisation. “Our increasingly frightened western societies are calling for more and more new rules to enhance their own security”, says Rhinow. But by demanding these new rules and norms, they endanger the very principle of responsibility — just as they do their own freedom.

But since we cannot vote laws against fear, the only remaining thing to do is to cope with it. Since that’s not the easiest thing to do, many people are try and choose which fear they will suffer from: some people suddenly decide to fear lactose and glucose in food products, others bungee-jump from a height of 100 meters into the void, or come up with ever newer awe-inducing risk sports. This kind of fear is concrete and can be controlled. And it also breaks away from its usual diffuseness, since it provides, for a moment, a fleeting illusion of security.

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