Fear and the Fiscal Cliff

As I’m sure you know, we are hurtling toward a fiscal cliff. The imagery is vivid and provocative: when we land at the bottom of the cliff, we’ll be an economic wreck.

I’m also sure you know that this imagery is very deliberate. It’s intended to cause fear and create panic. That’s a very useful thing for the people who are driving us toward the fiscal cliff because fear narrows our focus so that we see some things very clearly and many things not at all.

This strategic use of fear is common in many social environments. In addition to being a regular tool used by governments, it’s rampant in medical institutions where urgency and panic are used to motivate patients into doing what institutional actors such as doctors and nurses think ought to be done. It’s also used by employers to keep workers in line, with threats of layoffs or closings if workers become unionized.

In other words, hierarchical social environments use fear to maintain the social order as conceived by those at the top of the hierarchy.

Regarding the fiscal cliff, what we’re told to fear is a financial catastrophe, destruction of the social safety net, increased taxes, and much, much more. Avoiding the cliff, we’re assured, avoids all these calamitous events. Yet there’s wreckage in that direction as well, a direction filled with what are called sensible increases in revenue and sensible reductions in so-called entitlements, a direction in which everyone shares the sacrifice and everyone pays their fair share.

This is complete non-sense, as I’m sure you know. Those sensible measures are as devastating as the wreckage at the bottom of the fiscal cliff and equally worthy of our fear because these sensible measures are a continuation of the assault on the working class that’s been underway in the United States over the past 40 years.

In other words, the fiscal cliff and its avoidance are both mechanisms that will further immiserate the working class—who continue to be referred to mistakenly as the middle class. Most of us are not shopkeepers or self-employed professionals. The vast majority of us work for someone else.

In polite circles, immiseration is referred to as declining socioeconomic status. People whose socioeconomic status declines are at greater risk of sickness and ill-health—again, in polite circles referred to as negative health impacts. Recall that the fiscal cliff is to be averted by imposing cuts on Medicare and Medicaid—programs that provide medical care disproportionately to those whose health is going over a cliff of its own. So the immiseration is compounded.

People whose socioeconomic status declines are more easily frightened. It’s a psychological effect of a biological process. They’re frightened because the world, in fact, has been made more frightening. And it has been made more frightening by the people who created the fiscal cliff in the first place—who turn out to be the same people who are going to keep us from going over the cliff with sensible budget measures.

How convenient. You’d almost think it was an intentional strategy to do what illusionists do: distract us so we miss the sleight-of-hand. In fact, it is intentional. They really do want to savage Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.

So that you don’t think I’m dewy about Medicare and Medicaid, these programs simply provide better access to medical institutions that are not at all above using fear as a tool to prevent social disruption among patients—meaning that it is possible for people to have control over the medical process and not the other way round.

To bring this full circle, then, causing fear by fabricating a fiscal cliff and its avoidance becomes a self-replicating system because either path results in an objectively more frightening world. That’s because it’s not about balancing budgets and all that claptrap. It’s about pounding the working class further into the dirt so that the capitalist class can increase its control over the social product.

From both our own experience and the scientific literature we know that fear affects the decisions we make—as do our other emotions. Fear has its effect by focusing our attention on the object that frightens us. Research on what’s called fear extinction talks about chemicals buzzing around in our brain. Research on what’s called fear attenuation talks about mindfulness and a host of other psychological practices at the service of frightened individuals.

These are therapeutic, not collective solutions.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Occupy Sandy emerged. People created solutions to that frightening event.

Although natural disasters aren’t good for your health, being creative and resilient in the face of them is. The same is true for disasters concocted by humans in positions of power.