What Are You Afraid Of?

Values Quadrants 1
Joe Bageant makes the point in Deer Hunting With Jesus that the working class of the US (and perhaps of the world) are largely driven by fear. In explaining how and what they think he makes clear what it is they are afraid of:

Fears of the Working/Poor/Uneducated Class:

  • Unemployment: Not having, or losing, a job; not having enough; losing their home — When you live close to the edge, destitution is never far away.
  • Authority: When the authorities (the boss, the government, the police) treat you like you’re nothing, you learn not to trust them.
  • Illness: When you can’t afford to be sick, and can’t afford to look after loved ones if they’re sick, and you know what it’s like to be uninsured or trapped in a crappy long-term care or nursing home, the thought of illness is chilling.
  • ‘Evil’ People: Evangelical preachers teach you that people are either good or evil, and that foreigners and liberals (who never give you the time of day) and people without ‘family values’ and people who aren’t ‘like’ you are satan’s pawns, and must be vanquished.
  • Being Ripped Off: The uneducated are prey for scam artists, and know how people can use money, coercion and influence to take advantage of them.
  • Crime: Most of the victims of crime are in poor areas, because that’s where the people desperate enough to be criminals are, and where law enforcement is most lax.
  • Losing Hope: When you’re constantly struggling, you can’t lose hope; when your country is mired in a hopeless war and the news is all about layoffs and crime, it’s easy to do so.

In Lakoff’s terms, these fears explain the conservative worldview pretty well. If you’re driven by fear, and these are things you fear, the ‘strict father’ approach to living, to raising a family, and to voting that Lakoff describes makes a lot of sense:

  • Promoting strict-father morality in general (good vs evil, rules to be obeyed, strict rules on right vs wrong)
  • Promoting the virtues of self-discipline, responsibility for one’s own actions and success, and self-reliance
  • Upholding the morality of reward and punishment (including preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people, promoting punishment to uphold authority, and ensuring punishment for lack of self-discipline)
  • Protecting moral people from external evils and upholding the moral order (legitimate authority)

That got me thinking about the rest of us. If we’re not part of the working/poor/uneducated class, what class do we belong to?

Joe defines “working class” as those people who have no power/control over their jobs: what they do, when they do it, at what price, and how vulnerable they are to layoffs not connected to their work performance. The rest of us, other than the tiny elite of super-rich and super-powerful, he calls the “catering” class — because they cater/pander to the elite in return for a higher level of wealth and control than the “working” class receives.

So I guess that means that I (and I suspect the majority of readers of this blog) are members of the catering/affluent/educated class, most of whom, in Lakoff terms, are liberal-progressives with the ‘nurturing parent’ approach to living, to raising a family, and to voting that Lakoff describes:

    • Empathetic behaviour and promoting fairness
    • Helping those who cannot help themselves
    • Protecting those who cannot protect themselves
    • Promoting the virtue of fulfillment in life
    • Nurturing and strengthening oneself

Are we, too, driven to this worldview and these approaches to living by our fears? I’d like to believe we are less driven by fear than those in the working/poor/uneducated class, but I’m not so sure. In one sense, we have more control over our lives and more assets to protect ourselves with, and more marketable talents. But perhaps because we have more, we have more to lose, so we are equally driven by fears. What are those fears?

Having not done the kind of research that Joe has, I can only speak for myself, but I have a sense that my fears are pretty common among those I know. My recent period of self-reflection has made me a bit more aware of what my fears are, and they are:

Fears of the Catering/Affluent/Educated Class:

  • Recession: Because we own more, we are more vulnerable to declines in value of our assets, and because our work is so tied up in the modern global interrelated economy, a recession that makes our skills less valuable and basic survival skills more valuable threatens us more.
  • Responsibility: By virtue of having more control and say in our world, more authority, we also have more responsibility. But, although this is a controversial thing to say, I think we’re afraid of this responsibility, afraid of not being able to discharge it well, of letting people down. We long, many of us, for a simple, responsibility-free life. The idea that this is civilization’s final century is horrific not only because of the loss and suffering, but because of the guilt of what we might have done to prevent it.
  • Living in the Real World: Affluence allows us to cut ourselves off from the real world, to live in communities (and cars) where we are cut off from the rest of the world, to live inside our own heads, where it’s safe and secure. A brutal ‘real’ world where the majority love to hunt, accept cruelty and violence as normal, hate others, and are enthralled by movies and YouTube videos that show torture, rape and murder is terrifying to us.
  • Intimacy: This is probably a consequence of the fear above. Intimacy involves emotional vulnerability, and those of us who have been cocooned emotionally most of our lives and who have experienced, at least once, the anguish of being emotionally hurt when we have opened ourselves up, quickly become afraid to repeat the experience.
  • War: We know war never solves anything, never has a winner, and always makes things worse. Yet we see it everywhere, becoming bloodier all the time. Machetes used to kill neighbours in Rwanda, torture, rape, burning of villages, massive theft by gangs and enslavement of children in Darfur — we find these things unfathomable and unbearable, contrary to our notion of humanity.
  • Letting Go: I think educated people find it harder to just accept, to abandon themselves and their ideas, to let go of what control they have. We are inherently more anal than those who live close to the edge, by their wits. Contrary to all logic, Colombians are more happy than Americans, perhaps because they don’t worry about things they have no control over.

Those are the things I am afraid of, anyway. I suspect my fellow educated liberal-progressives will protest that they don’t fear most of these things, but my observations suggest most of us do. Or maybe I’m just judging my peers by myself. What do you think?

Joe talks about the “class war” that’s brewing in the US and, perhaps, everywhere. I think these different fears explain much of the basis for this “war”. It’s not so much we hate each other, as much as that we don’t know each other, we fear (and are driven by) completely different things (and each class to some extent epitomizes the things the other fears), and hence we can’t communicate with each other. And we don’t socialize between these classes enough to begin to understand the divide and start to bridge the gap.

The chart above, that I explained in my Fire & Ice article, shows (in bold) the qualities that are increasingly prevalent among Americans, especially the young (who are, mostly, children of the growing working class). My sense is that working class fears drive the propensities in the right quadrants, while the catering class fears drive the propensities in the left quadrants. What’s more, I think the disappearance of the US middle class (and consequent growth of the working class) explains why the ‘median’ profile of Americans is now in the lower right quadrant, and moving lower and further right, while the ‘median’ profile of Europeans, where the middle ‘catering’ class is faring somewhat better, is still in the centre-left.

And, for those who, in wondering why with all my new-found self-knowledge and opportunity to do anything I want to do, what’s holding me back, whatI’m afraid of — now you know.

Category: Our Culture
This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to What Are You Afraid Of?

  1. mattbg says:

    I think many in the middle class have at least these fears:- the recognition that many middle-class relationships are actually leg-up networks rather than friendships, and are dependent on their networking value to other people. When you fall from the middle class, you lose many of your “friends”.- fear of becoming “working class” because of fears about what the working class constitutes (as in your post), whether these fears are justified or notOne of the problems with being middle-class is that you have so many options open to you about what you can do with your life. Each path not taken is a lost opportunity. You might well be happier by having fewer choices and having a life somewhat pre-ordained. If you choose the wrong path, or are forced into choosing a path that’s not you, it requires a huge amount of financial and psychological maintenance to sustain when you know that the decision was yours and that you could have made a different decision. If you’d had no choice, you might feel better about it.

  2. Ben says:

    The more you have, the more you have to lose, right? I think those without power are afraid of power, and those with power are afraid of losing that power.Also, it’s true that much of the world is driven by fear, but I think it’s just as important to identify those moments when people overcome their fears and create change based on more positive emotions.

  3. When I had a real job I was frightened about my status at the bank – where was I in the volcanic furnace at the top – so I was also scared about losing my job too because I had a very leveraged existence that depended on having a very high income.Not living in the right part of town, my kids being in the wrong schools – not taking the trips that their friends took etc – I could lose it all.My Status was me. It would have been terrible to lose my “Place” It was like being at a medieval court – what freed me up was to leave that life completely and also to reduce my need for money.I replaced my positional status with reputation for thinking and character – I can hold onto that much better than in the lottery of the executive suite of a bank. My running costs are also very low so it is hard to lose that material things I have.What I fear the most now is not being useful. I am very close to nature. Heat with wood. Have dogs. Look after a big property. I live in a small community where I am a known person. I have more friends than I have had since university and my family is well functioning and close.I am 2 years older than my dad when he died. Robin is 5 years into cancer – I am fat and in advanced middle age. I know that I will lose everyone and everything and in the end me too.I am fine with that too now – so there is not much to fear other than I don’t want to be helpless or a burden – maybe I will get to be ok with that tooDave – this is so provoking – please moreYour pal Rob

  4. mattbg says:

    Rob, forgive me, but as someone in a generation behind the boomers, it’s often a bit annoying to hear about people that got in, made their money at the expense of both the environment and social/family cohesion (both of which were destroyed during the boomer tenure), and then bailed out for a righteous, rejigged lifestyle in their golden years.It’s not uncommon to now hear some renovated boomers going on about “I don’t drive my car very much anymore.. it’s better for the planet”… after they’ve RETIRED!That’s not a nice thing to say… but it’s an honest comment :)

  5. I appreciate where your heart is at, Mr. Pollard. However, I think that for a poor district of a city to see a way forward for itself…. it’s important to recognize to define some new concepts. “Competition,” for instance, is really not an appropriate word to describe both wooing the affection of customers, and an animal taking for itself all of what it can get of the foodstuffin the woods and leaving nothing for the next animal. These are two opposite concepts. And there ought to honestly bedifferent words to embody them. Is that a good springboard for a discussion?

  6. Jon Husband says:

    It’s not uncommon to now hear some renovated boomers going on about “I don’t drive my car very much anymore.. it’s better for the planet”… after they’ve RETIRED!Some of us boomers have never driven cars much, and have had extended periods of not owning one, and have never “lived large”.I rented from the age of 17 until 47 … never acquired much, and yes, started scaling down even more at around age 47.But I have never gotten along easily with the mainstream, started “fighting” against it’s conspicuous and unconscious consumption and competition through unpopular jobs starting in the 80’s. I’ve gotten burned out from / by that fight several times over the years, mainly because it seems to me that the system and the herds it manages are so big that things can’t and won’t change.Today I still live simply, don’t drive nor consume much, and you know what ? I can’t help it at all if someone 20 years younger than me doesn’t like me because my hair is gray and because they think that I got mine more easily than they may feel is valid in comparison to their efforts. It (the relative “ease” of my life today) didn’t come easily or without a fight, and it required making deep changes in my ambition, self-image, habits and choices.

  7. mattbg says:

    Jon,I know that there are some of you out there — my parents are some of them, too, and get frustrated with my generalizations (although I don’t include them, nor would I include you, in the group just because of your age). To be honest, I think my own generation will be worse at handling things. And I think it’ll get progressively worse. What I have a problem with is the constant effort to revise what has happened with the boomer generation.I suppose everyone does it, to some degree. There are plenty of people on my own generation the get righteous about their low-maintenance lifestyles when, in truth, it’s all they can afford and they’d probably aspire higher if they saw a way to make it work without too much effort.Many in my generation, too, have far more of a leg up than did your generation. But, on the other hand, the expenses involved in getting to a middle class position (education, etc) nowadays outweigh the leg up, I think. Worse, that education only seems to give you a little bit more than high school did in your days, as the whole system has been watered down. But, society seems to think it’s worth something…

  8. Jon Husband says:

    Hey, mattbg … Yes, I too think things generally will get progressively worse.I feel .. deeply .. for many in your generation who are bright, well-informed, care about their futures and see and know enough to understand that the challenges are daunting.At the same time (and at the risk of pulling out the old canard of “back in the olden days, I walked 3 miles to school and home, uphill each way in the snow with no shoes”) .. when I went to university in the early ’70’s oit was extremely rare to see anyone under say 30 driving a new car .. today many 30-year olds still live at home, and got their first new car using credit right after they scored their first new job.And their best friend probably has a degree, lots of energy and ambition and can’t find a decent job, has to pay $800 or more per month in rent for a poor “replica” of a home.And their friend just went to work for Google, at a pretty significant salary for a 23-yr.old.In Vancouver where I live, the real estate market has just appreciated more than 100% over the past five years. Heh .. and I thought it was expensive before the appreciatioon really statrted, complaining opften enough to my 90 year old father that there was appreciation in the real estate markets from the mid-70’s through to 2000 such that it was impossible for me to afford a detached home or townhouse and only barely afford a small 900 sq. foot condominium.So yes, the costs of getting to what we used to call middle class are daunting .. but don’t forget, hte last 25 years or so (ever since reagan and then Greenspan) have by and large been built with continuously easing credit conditions to the point where people don’t consider using credit as out of the ordinary. This is very different than almost all of history.Education today is more about credentials than anything else, a threshold measure that will allow someone to apply for a job … most jobs. Don’t get me wrong, education is not a bad thing … but it too by and large has been watered down, consumerized and welded into place in service to the corporatist agenda (at least here in North America).I don’t hold out much (if any) hope for the future and so can clearly appreciate the acrimony with which Boomers are viewed by younger generations. I share that acrimonious POV, as I think most of my generation have sold out, either knowingly or meekly, the whole “lead lives of quiet desperation” thing. Making it all seem grander with bigger houses, platinum AmEx cards and shiny imported cars, has been a masterful manipulation of the marketers.Erich Fromm saw all this coming 60+ years ago .. read Escape From Freedom, which I consider his masterpiece.Anyway, I think we are in the process of violent agreement. I don’t fault generations so much as I fault those who accept that business and marketing are the purpose of life (homo economicus), laziness and the inability or lack of desire to question authority, and so on.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Mattbg … below, from karl Denninger’s Market Ticker blog, just one of many many data poitns thatget overlooked all too often:First, we’ll look at the credit card issue, since The Fed proposed new rules today to “curb abuses.” From that report we find the following nuggets:”The Consumer Federation of America estimates that credit card debt held by consumers is about $850 billion, some four times what it was in 1990. The group says the average debt for those 58 percent of card-holding households that do not pay their balance in full every month is about $17,000.”We also know from a study done by Fitch that 30% of all credit cards are exhibiting patterns of use and payment that show high risk of default. Since we can assume that none of the 42% of the people who pay off monthly are at risk of default (for obvious reasons) this means that about half of the people carrying balances are currently at high risk of default on their credit card bills.This, over the last few years, has been dealt with by cash-out refinancing the money from one’s house, paying off the card, thereby freeing it to be used again. Many people refinanced “serially” in this fashion over the last few years. In fact there is roughly $1 trillion of this debt outstanding between 2nd lines and HELOCs.How is it performing?Well, today we find out that S&P will no longer rate 2nd line debt, citing “anomalous” behavior. What is that “anomalous” behavior? Specifically, people walking away. And the performance of that debt is rather simple:”The downgrades last month left all of the securities with ratings of BBB or lower, compared with 20 percent before the action. BBB is S&P’s second-lowest investment grade. About 96 percent dropped to non-investment-grade, or junk, assessments.’The problem with seconds is it’s either good, or it’s zero,” said Brad Golding, a managing director at Christofferson Rob & Co., a New York-based money manager.”There’s no middle ground, and S&P can’t figure out which is which . That puts a nail in the coffin formed in the belief that you can simply look at FICOs or other forms of consumer “behavior” to figure out who’s going to default and who’s not.Did ‘ya read that underlined part? Go back and make sure you do. All of this debt is rated BBB of worse – 96% of it worse. BBB, you see, is the lowest “investment grade.”Most of these bonds were originally rated “AAA”, “AA” or “A”.

  10. I think I fear openess most.The whole concept of being open to others, to change, to loss …being open and willing to embrace what open might mean offline and on is what I fear most.We are taught fear, closed.We need to find ways to unlearn closed.

  11. beth says:

    Mattbg, good points; I too resist generalizations about “my” generation of boomers but won’t dispute the fact that we had an easier time of getting into good schools, getting jobs we wanted, and making money than young people now. However, some of us sold out and some have resisted rampant capitalism and war and the industrial machine all our lives. I am one of the latter; I’ve profited from my education and certain opportunities, and now, at midlife, am downsizing even more and gave up a lot to move out of the US to Canada. But I’m not going to crow about it, for the reasons you mention.Dave, thanks for the Fire&Ice chart and for the link to your original article; I’ve been fascinated by Adams’ work and think he nailed the trends exactly. What am I afraid of? Illness, disability, inability to keep working, creating, contributing; afraid of the isolation and loneliness that could come with advancing years. Afraid of the loss of mental function. Afraid I won’t be able to shed enough of the persistent remains of my ego to stop being afraid of these same things.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Matt: Your initial comments are very perceptive: Too many ‘friendships’ of affluent people are relationships of convenience, perhaps because they are less essential to survival than is the case for the working poor. As for the abundance of choices, my sense is that these are largely illusory, not real choices at all. Our overcrowded hierarchical society needs us to behave, to be obedient, and to conform, so I think it gives us false choices (e.g. between brands) to reduce our instinctive revulsion to being part of a machine. We can be anything we want to be, but we can only want what we know and imagine, and most of us today don’t know very much and can’t imagine very well. And I have to agree with your comments to Rob (they actually apply more to me than to him — he dropped out early before he’d accumulated enough to retire), though I don’t think at the time we knew any better, so if we are slow coming to this realization it’s more because of ignorance than greed. Nevertheless, you’re absolutely right to resent the ‘got mine’ boomers, who are, more than any other generation, responsible for the desolation of our world, the outrageous disparity of quality of life, and the culture of consumerism, irresponsibility, debt and ignorance that has been foisted on the generations to follow.Ben: Agreed, but what’s an example of change created by positive emotion?Rob: I sympathize with the fear of loss of status you felt when you were younger. But isn’t reputation just the New Status? Maybe it’s more earned and less inherited but it’s still vulnerable to unfair judgements, and there’s no question that money and power can ‘buy’ the attention that helps establish a reputation, without which your reputation is likely limited to a very small and close circle. I like the idea of my biggest fear being ‘not being useful’ but I don’t think I can honestly say I’m there yet, because being useful generally requires accepting a great and perhaps lifelong responsibility, and I confessI think I’m more afraid of responsibility than not being useful. Guess I have some maturing to do :-)

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Christopher: On Competition: A key difference is that today’s overcrowded human societies live in a culture of scarcity, where one person’s greed causes direct suffering to others; in the cultures of wild creatures, cultures of abundance, there is always an excess, always more — I’ve watched squirrels and raccoons hoard all the seed I put out for the birds, but the birds have other sources of food they can draw on, so I’m convinced they don’t get stressed or harmed by it. Nature always leaves lots of room for error, including variances in the available supplies of food. If she didn’t, the entire ecosystem would suffer, and she would quickly ‘learn’.Jon: You’ve certainly been a model for living a Radically Simple lifestyle (except perhaps for your air travel). I kind of pooh-poohed the whole importance of education issue until I read Joe Bageant’s book and realized that education is not so much about schooling and diplomas as it is about learning how the world works, and how an inability to learn is probably the greatest disability you can have. I agree (as Joe also explains) that the increase in apparent affluence (larger houses, cars etc.) hides the reality of crushing debt loads behind those assets, the reality that net worth in real terms for most has been falling for nearly 40 years, and that all those assets are really just stuff on loan from the bank, soon to be taken back as the consequences of reckless lending come home to roost.Alexander: That’s very honest, and I sense it’s a very widespread fear. Vulnerability is frightening, especially in a world where so much and so many are unknown, and where we live in such an interconnected world we have little or no control over our lives and livelihoods.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Beth: Isn’t it interesting that while previous generations feared death (and what would come after if they didn’t behave), the generations alive today mostly fear incapacity in old age. This fear is going to explode as the inability of health systems everywhere to cope with the massive cost and labour needed to look after the boomer bulge becomes clear over the next 20 years. I said in a post a few months ago that the Right to Die is going to be one of the biggest issues of the next couple of decades. My sense is that, just as birth control went from nearly anathema to being socially responsible behaviour in one decade, the right to choose one’s own time to die will have a similar journey in the next decade. But it won’t be an easy struggle. Even that won’t solve the health care crisis looming, however — that will take a cultural revolution that will add to all the other crises we will have to face in the years to come.

  15. Dear Mr. Pollard,Those are some wonderful thoughts about scarcity versus abundance. The problem though, is that scarcity really exists. And you can’t ignore it, if you are experiencing it.I have lived most of my life with the short end of the stick in my hand, Mr. Pollard. And I have to take exception to the way you characterize the poor’s attitudes and problems. Self pity, and complaint, and requests for help can all converge to create this narrative which you have laid out there. Never again will I make the same mistake I made in my 20s. I will make certain I always have enough money for myself, and for my family, which I hope to have someday. But I don’t aspire to be rich. There are certain ways in which I want to live my life… and certain experiences I want to have frequently; and those things which I value don’t require money. They have to do with friendships.I think there’s one key difference between the two groups of people you discuss, if we were to step back in time 150 years. It’s nice to get some perspective on things by stepping out of the situation which one is steeped in so thoroughly. The one things aristocrats of the 1800s had, which the poor did not have in that era was TIME. Time is the stuff of life. If a person works her or his fingers to the bone for years on end to gather large sums of money… but that person has no time to experience those things in life she wants to… what has that person gained? It’s all in vain, isn’t it? This is an interesting fun, and informal examination of Bill Gates’ last day at Microsoft. It’s interesting that he has so many aspirations which he’s not been able to pursue. There are so many skills he was never able to focus on and learn.And to return to the idea of competition:I had some further thoughts about the idea of competition in economics after I wrote that hastily and awkwardly worded note to you. I’d like to sharethese with you. I realized that businesses are not in competition with eachother. It is consumers who are in competition with eachother. And the thing that money has done for our human society is to effectively moderate the consumption of resources. There are a few problems in our modern society which go back to societies of animals – seals and wolves, and mountain sheep, etcetera; it’s ironic that we haven’t solved these yet. But one that we have solved, at least within our species, is competition for resources. I remember a report I did on boom and bust population cycles for one of my favorite teachers in highschool. It’s very common for members of one species to overpopulate, and deplete their resources, and go into a population bust (the most commonly known phenomenon of this is with lemmings). We humans are still walking this course on an interspecies level… but not on an intraspecies level. There was a day where new monarchies would overthrow old monarchies because the new folks wanted access to all the best fruits of the land – and all the fruits of people’s labor. Those days are gone. Now entrepreneurs can achieve more material wealth than governing officials can – but they have to do it through working to benefit others. There are still those who want to rule the roost for selfish reasons (another malady going back in time to the social customs of other animals), but now that the wealth enticement is off the table, it will be probably easier to solve that problem.

  16. mattbg says:

    “…until I read Joe Bageant’s book and realized that education is not so much about schooling and diplomas as it is about learning how the world works, and how an inability to learn is probably the greatest disability you can have.”Dave: I agree completely. There are so many people that graduate with diplomas and degrees without having a clue about how the world works, and they fall into the same traps as everyone else (the credit card companies do great business on Canadian campuses handing out boxes of cereal in exchange for signups). I’m reading Joe Bageant’s book now (I picked it up after reading your post on the book) and it has put a number of things into perspective for me, one of which is the realization that Hillary and Obama will never have any sway with the people he talks about in the book. But I can see why Bill Clinton did. And I can see why McCain will. Fred Thompson would have, too.A lot of middle class people buy into the idea that, if you look like you’re wealthy, then somehow it’ll become self-fulfilling. I can only assume they’ve seen their well-heeled friends pull this off, without realizing that it’s the connections at the Rotary Club and community organizations that really made the difference and that, without those, you won’t find your way into the inner circle. Still, they try. I have had people like this try to explain to me the rational reason for why they should spend a specific percentage of their income on their new car.I saw an excellent documentary called “The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream of Freedom” providing one thesis for why things are the way they are and when they started to go wrong:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0979263/I wonder when the point will be reached that people don’t see this as a system worth saving or fighting for anymore.

Comments are closed.