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Living in a Society of Fear

Dawin Meckel

There are so many things you can do wrong.

By Heinz Bude
Sociologist and author

In all western societies, the post-war period was characterised by an unprecedented promise of integration into modern society. The expectation was that anyone who made an effort, invested in their own education and exhibited certain capabilities would find a suitable place for themselves in society. Social placement was no longer predetermined by one’s origins, skin colour, region or gender; instead, it could be influenced by will, energy and a commitment to one’s own dreams and desires. The fact that chance played a much greater role for most people than goals and intentions was acceptable, because it was thought that, despite everything, you would end up in a position that, in hindsight, you could feel you had earned and deserved.

Who actually still believes this?

There are so many things you can do wrong. You can choose the wrong elementary school, the wrong secondary school, the wrong university, the wrong specialisation, the wrong trips abroad, the wrong networks, the wrong partner or the wrong place to live. This implies that a process of selection takes place at each of these transitional points, where some get through but many fall by the wayside. The process starts early and never seems to end. You need a good nose, the necessary cooperative skills, a sober sense of relationships and a feel for timing. Because the corridors ahead are always wider than those behind you, because the social capital from relationships and contacts is growing ever cheaper for the majority but more expensive for a minority, and because relationship markets are becoming more homogeneous and thus more competitive, an individual’s fate is increasingly the expression of his or her good or bad life choices.

This change can be summed up by saying that our mode of social integration is shifting from the promise of advancement to the threat of exclusion. We are no longer motivated to keep striving by positive messages, only by negative ones. This prompts us to worry whether our will is strong enough, our skills are right, our appearance is convincing. Our fears have changed along with the costs. If, at every fork in the road, we face the prospect of ending up with those who are left behind waiting for a ‘second chance’ – because life no longer allows for long hauls, only short hops – then anxiety really is, as Kierkegaard says, “freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility”.

Anxiety springs from the knowledge that everything is open but nothing is meaningless. Our entire lives seem to be on the line at every single moment. We can take detours, take breaks or shift our focus, but these attempts must make sense and contribute to the fulfilment of our life’s purpose. The fear of simply drifting through life is hard to bear. The stress of anxiety is the stress of meaning.

Sales are booming for self-help books about availability, emotion and risk based on findings from cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory and the physiology of the brain. And the message is always the same: you have to keep your options open, think in scenarios and seize ‘good opportunities’. You should be wary of overestimating yourself, but you should also avoid indecisiveness. And, in general, learning about the two halves of the brain should take away your fear of fear. We have an intuitive system that is responsible for fast thinking and a controlling system that works slowly, gradually and hierarchically. By switching organically between the two, you can survive in a bewildering life with uncertainties. But if you stand still, stop learning and fail to find a balance, you will quickly become a welfare case. And if, in the end, you can even die well or die poorly, then the fear of fear itself becomes a hidden motif in our popular doctrines of what comprises a ‘good life’. And the threat of exclusion – as gently as it is brought home to us, and as wise as it may sound – never ends.

It is not the fear of being humiliated and forgotten as a group or collective, but rather of tripping up as an individual, losing one’s balance and free-falling, without an anchor in a sustaining life-world or a traditional ‘loser culture’, to initially disappear into social nothingness.


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