This fantastic piece by Astra Taylor, whose book The Age of Insecurity is on my to-read list, is sadly behind a paywall. I managed to bypass it, which is why I’m excerpting so much in this post.
What I like is the separation of inequality from insecurity and the difference between existential insecurity from ‘manufactured’ insecurity. Being published in The New York Times, the context is the American economy which largely exists without a social safety net.
The situation is better in the UK/Europe, but we still live in a much more economically precarious world than our parents and grandparents did. And perhaps that’s why everyone’s anxious all of the time.
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 as much wealth as 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.
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.
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.