Our Economy Thrives on Bad Feelings

Since 2020, the richest 1 percent has captured nearly two-thirds of all new wealth globally — almost twice as much money as the rest of the world’s population. At the beginning of last year, it was estimated that 10 billionaire men possessed six times more wealth than the poorest three billion people on earth. In the United States, the richest 10 percent of households own more than 70 percent of the country’s assets.

Such statistics are appalling. They have also become familiar. Since it was catapulted onto the national stage more than a decade ago by Occupy Wall Street, “inequality” has been a frequent topic of conversation in American political life. It helped animate Bernie Sanders’s influential campaigns, reshaped academic scholarship, shifted public policy, and continues to galvanize protest. And yet, however important focusing on the inequality crisis has been, it has also proven insufficient.

If we want to understand contemporary economic life, we need a more expansive framework. We need to think about insecurity. Where inequality encourages us to look up and down, to note extremes of indigence and opulence, insecurity encourages us to look sideways and recognize potentially powerful commonalities.

If inequality can be captured in statistics, insecurity requires talking about feelings: It is, to borrow a phrase from feminism, personal as well as political. Economic issues, I’ve come to realize, are also emotional ones: the spike of shame when a bill collector calls, the adrenaline when the rent or mortgage is due, the foreboding when you think about retirement.

And unlike inequality, insecurity is more than a binary of haves and have-nots. Its universality reveals the degree to which unnecessary suffering is widespread — even among those who appear to be doing well. We are all, to varying degrees, overwhelmed and apprehensive, fearful of what the future might have in store. We are on guard, anxious, incomplete and exposed to risk. To cope, we scramble and strive, shoring ourselves up against potential threats. We work hard, shop hard, hustle, get credentialed, scrimp and save, invest, diet, self-medicate, meditate, exercise, exfoliate.

And yet security, for the most part, eludes us. That’s because the main mechanisms by which we are told to gain security for ourselves — making money, buying property, earning degrees, saving for retirement — often involve being invested in systems that rarely provide the stability we crave. The stock in our 401(k), if we are lucky enough to have one, all too often supports industries that poison the planet; the tech company we work for undermines democracy; the rising price of the home we own makes it harder for others to stay housed.

Of course, living with uncertainty and risk is nothing new. How should mortal creatures who have spent our long evolution struggling to survive feel but insecure? The precarious and unpredictable nature of life is what helped inspire the ancient Stoics to counsel equanimity and Buddhist thinkers to develop the concept of Zen. A kind of existential insecurity is indelible to being human. It stems from being dependent on others for survival; from being vulnerable to physical and psychological illness and wounding and the looming fact of death. It is a kind of insecurity we can never wholly escape or armor ourselves against, try as we might.

But existential insecurity is not my focus here. The ways we structure our societies could make us more secure; the way we structure it now makes us less so. I call this “manufactured insecurity.” Where existential insecurity is an inherent feature of our being — and something I believe we need to accept and learn from — manufactured insecurity facilitates exploitation and profit by waging a near constant assault on our self-esteem and well-being. In different ways, political philosophers, economists and advertising executives have pointed out how our economic system capitalizes on the insecurities it produces, which it then prods and perpetuates, making us all insecure by design. Only by reckoning with how deep manufactured insecurity runs will it become possible to envision something different.

Manufactured insecurity is far from inevitable, and yet it is intensifying. The same developments that have supercharged inequality in recent decades — including the deregulation of finance and business and the decline of the welfare state — have heightened insecurity and left no one, wealthy or working-class, unscathed. While the relatively privileged seek ways to shield themselves from risk — and even turn periodic shocks to their advantage — the fact is they’ve rigged a game that can’t be won, one that keeps them stressed and scrambling, and breathing the same smoke-tinged air as the rest of us. Which means they, too, have much to gain from rewriting its rules, including reimagining what new forms of security might entail.

For most of my life, it had never occurred to me to fret over the fat in my cheeks. I’d hardly heard the words “buccal fat,” much less thought of it as something that I could or should worry about, until I saw buccal fat described in The Guardianas a “fresh source of insecurity to carry into the new year.” Maybe you read the same article — or maybe you discovered that you were supposed to be insecure about something else: the way you part your hair; the fit of your jeans; the make of your car; the size of your home or the way it is decorated.

As the British political theorist Mark Neocleous has noted, the modern word “insecurity”entered the English lexicon in the 17th century, just as our market-driven society was coming into being. Capitalism thrives on bad feelings. Discontented people buy more stuff — an insight the old American trade magazine “Printers’ Ink”stated bluntly in 1930: “Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.” It’s hard to imagine any advertising or marketing department telling us that we’re actually OK, and that it is the world, not us, that needs changing. All the while, manufactured insecurity encourages us to amass money and objects as surrogates for the kinds of security that cannot actually be commodified — connection, meaning, purpose, contentment, safety, self-esteem, dignity and respect — but which can only truly be found in community with others.

Part of the insidious and overwhelming power of insecurity is that, unlike inequality, it is subjective. Sentiments, or how real people actually feel, rarely map rationally onto statistics; You do not have to be at rock bottom to feel insecure, because insecurity results as much from expectation as from deprivation. Unlike inequality, which offers a snapshot of the distribution of wealth at a certain moment in time, insecurity spans the present and future, anticipating what may come next.

This is why insecurity affects people on every rung of the economic ladder, even if its harshest edge is predictably reserved for those at the bottom. Recent years have produced an abundance of scholarship demonstrating the negative effects of inequality on health and happiness across the board. Rising inequality, and the insecurity it causes, correlates with higher rates of physical illness, depression, anxiety, drug abuse and addiction. Living in a highly competitive, consumerist society makes everyone more status-conscious, stressed out and sick.

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote about the “fear of losing” and how wealth itself becomes a source of worry. Assets must be guarded and grown, after all, lest fortunes be diminished or lost. “When insecurity reaches a certain point, the fear of losing prevents us from enjoying what we possess already. The care of preserving condemns us to a thousand sad and painful precautions, which yet are always liable to fail of their end,” he wrote in “Theory of Legislation,” published in 1802.

Bentham was referring to money and objects, which can be ported away by thieves, but he could also have been talking about status, which is impossible to steal yet is never secure. In a world of economic extremes, even the most prosperous are afraid of losing rank, of falling in both net worth and self-worth. It is this insecurity that keeps them grasping ever upward.

These people are suffering from what economists call “fractal inequality.” But to those trapped inside the fractal’s vertiginous snare, the overwhelming sensation is one of insecurity. The person who is in debt looks to the person with zero dollars, who looks to the person who has $50,000, who looks to the person who has six figures, who looks to the person who has half a million dollars, who looks to the person who has a million dollars in the bank, who looks to the person with twice as many assets. And on and on.

The dysphoria of feeling you don’t have enough, even when you objectively have a lot, is not simply a spontaneous reaction to seeing others with more, a kind of lizard-brained lust, but rather the consequence of living in an insecure and risk-filled world in which there are no upper or lower limits on wealth and poverty. Left unchecked — or, rather, untaxed — the fractal’s spiral never ends, as Silicon Valley’s parade of billionaires jockeying for fame and dominance makes clear.

A few years ago, my sister was working at a hip Brooklyn cafe. The place has a vintage and vaguely Parisian aesthetic, retro and low-tech. There were, of course, regulars, including a medievalist who liked to chat. On a slow day, a barista on duty was exchanging pleasantries with the medievalist when her phone rang: The owner was watching the security camera from his laptop and told her to stop being so talkative. When I asked my sister how many cameras were installed in the small space, she identified at least eight, and said there might be more. The charming cafe was, in fact, a panopticon — the boss able to tune in any time from anywhere and see from nearly every angle. Even when all they wanted to do was show a bit of kindness and community to a local eccentric, the workers were perpetually worried about being fired. The security cameras hadn’t been installed to make the staff safer; they were there to make them feel insecure about holding on to their jobs.

It’s not just baristas. From “pickers” at Amazon warehouses to grocery store clerks to radiologists to well-paid software engineers, workers are increasingly surveilled, tracked, and ranked — and made to feel like the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment.

This manufactured insecurity reflects a cynical theory of human motivation, one that says people will work only under the threat of duress, not from an intrinsic desire to create, collaborate, and care for one another. What the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “the nerve-racking problem of insecurity” is, he argued, a feature inherent to our competitive economic system, one that takes the form of “episodic unemployment for the worker” on the one side, and “occasional insolvency for the farmer or businessman” on the other. “Along with the carrot of pecuniary reward,” he wrote, “must go the stick of personal economic disaster.”

The mere fear of job loss causes ill health, and losing your job or experiencing unwanted unemployment, scholars have shown, increases the risk of death. Here the problem is not necessarily poverty in absolute terms, but the insecurity that comes from instability and the threat of downward mobility and loss of status, a threat now omnipresent.

Today, people might have the same blue- or white-collar jobs their parents or grandparents had before them — academic, office clerk, factory worker, janitor, driver, delivery person — but they are so often now adjuncts, gig workers, or temps employed by a private contractor, with few prospects for promotion or improvement in their job benefits, should they have any.

But even if you manage to ascend the professional ranks, you cannot afford to rest. In the United States today, all it takes is a devastating enough crisis to reduce the once fortunate to a state of precarity or poverty: business could suddenly drop; a job could be automated or offshored; the stock in a retirement account could crash; home values could plummet; a family member could be diagnosed with a serious illness (something that, in the United States, can eviscerate the economic security of a middle-class household overnight); a storm could wreak havoc; another, more deadly pandemic could hit. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 1989 study of the psychology of the middle class, dubbed the condition “fear of falling.” But today, the middle feels more precarious than ever, and everyone is afraid of what lies below.

These stresses don’t excuse behavior like spying on employees, but they can help us understand what propels it. Constant insecurity helps keep us in line, while the conventional methods of achieving security fail us.

History, including recent history, shows that hard times, or even the mere anticipation of them — the feeling of being economically insecure and anticipating the worst, whether or not those fears are objectively justified — can increase the appeal of racism and xenophobia.

Across the world, the far right has gained ground by speaking directly to atomized and isolated people’s anxieties, and by offering scapegoats: immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Black people, trans people, women seeking abortions. Too often, insecurity fuels the embrace of social hierarchy and domination. What more tempting solution to a discomfiting sense of insecurity than donning a mask of superiority and invincibility? Thus some people denounce “snowflakes” who need “safe spaces” while taking shelter behind bigotry, puffing themselves up by mocking fragility and denying their own vulnerability. In these cases, it’s not enough to point out that such individuals are often more privileged or better off than others — to emphasize inequality. Insecurity is about feelings as much as facts.

Instead we need to seek to channel insecurity in constructive ways. Indignation at the way our current system manufactures and exploits our fears and anxieties can help strengthen existing movements and coalesce new ones, uniting powerful — and expanding — coalitions that can fight for collective forms of security based in care and concern rather than desperation and distress.

My own experience as a co-founder of the Debt Collective, a union of debtors, showed me how economic insecurity can inspire people to organize for redistributive policies and an expanded welfare state. Inspired by the feminist consciousness-raising circles of the 1970s, we often host what we call debtors’ assemblies: forums where people share their financial woes. Without fail, some people cry. They also find life-changing strength and camaraderie. In these sessions, insecurity becomes a gateway, how participants understand themselves and the wider world.

Under such conditions, economic insecurity can become a motor for renewing and improving our society. That’s what happened in the wake of the Great Depression, when trade unionists, unemployed people, socialists, liberal reformers and visionary politicians highlighted insecurity as a central component of laissez-faire capitalism and mobilized to remedy it. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced insecurity as “one of the most fearsome evils of our economic system” and invoked “security” as the justification for the New Deal that would form the foundation of the American welfare state.

For the last 50 years, this web of security-enhancing social policies has been shrinking. Then came Covid-19. As a result of a sudden increase in federal income support, millions of people — my sister among them — were materially secure enough to leave jobs where they had felt disrespected, abused, unhappy, bored, underpaid, or unable to advance, leading to a historic “quit rate.” For a time, the insecurity induced by the threat of job loss was greatly diminished. Some central banks stepped in to raise interest rates, which weakened the bargaining position of labor, ostensibly so the banks could target inflation, while politicians shut down the pandemic assistance programs — some cited cost, but it seemed the real reason was that the programs gave workers too much power. The material security they provided was a threat to our insecurity-dependent status quo.

Rather than something to pathologize, I want us to see insecurity as an opportunity. We all need protection from life’s hazards, natural or human-made. The simple acceptance of our mutual vulnerability — of the fact that we all need and deserve care throughout our lives — has potentially transformative implications. When we spur people on with insecurity because we expect the worst from them, we create a vicious cycle that stokes desperation and division while facilitating the kind of cutthroat competition and consumption that has brought our fragile planet to a catastrophic brink. When we extend trust and support to others, we improve everyone’s security — including our own.

Not only would reweaving the social safety net go a long way toward reducing the stress and strain that ails so many of us today, but also, a baseline of material security might enable us to face our existential insecurity with compassion and even curiosity.

Insecurity, after all, is what makes us human, and it is also what allows us to connect and change. “Nothing in Nature ‘becomes itself’ without being vulnerable,” writes the physician Gabor Maté in “The Myth of Normal.” “The mightiest tree’s growth requires soft and supple shoots, just as the hardest-shelled crustacean must first molt and become soft.” There is no growth, he observes, without emotional vulnerability.

The same also applies to societies. Recognizing our shared existential insecurity, and understanding how it is currently used against us, can be a first step toward forging solidarity. Solidarity, in the end, is one of the most important forms of security we can possess — the security of confronting our shared predicament as humans on this planet in crisis, together.

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Astra Taylor is an organizer, filmmaker and the author of the forthcoming book “The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart,” from which this essay is adapted. She is the 2023 CBC Massey Lecturer.

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