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Image Credit: Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

We live in an age of rising inequality, climate emergency, authoritarian regimes, and widespread unhappiness. What do these crises have in common? They all stem from our current economic and political order, which is built on insecurity.

This month, movement leader and intellectual Astra Taylor will be delivering the Massey Lectures, a series of five talks across Canada aired on CBC Radio, on her new book The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart. We sat down for a conversation about how capitalism manufactures insecurity, how it is weaponized against us, and why we must embrace our shared vulnerability to create a safer and better world. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rithika Ramamurthy: You begin this book with an overview of the concept of insecurity and its contradictions. Can you explain how insecurity stems from an existential human problem and how modern capitalism newly manufactures its experience?

Astra Taylor: Insecurity is a feeling that everybody experiences, I’m certainly familiar with it. But I could see the concept striking people as something that doesn’t need much extrapolation. In the book, I distinguish between two types of insecurity to explain why I think it does.

First, there is existential insecurity, a fact of human experience, a kind of beautiful insecurity that comes with being a vulnerable being, an entity that can be wounded physically or psychologically, that is aware of its mortality. It’s just a constitutive feature of human life, but it’s something we cope with in different ways. Often, we don’t want to face our mortality or vulnerability. We want to imagine ourselves as rugged, autonomous individuals, hard-shelled and impermeable.

I contrast existential insecurity with what I call manufactured insecurity. With this, I’m trying to get at the way insecurity is not just exacerbated but generated by our economic and social conditions. At the beginning of the book, I say that manufactured insecurity is a feature of any hierarchical social arrangement, not just capitalism. But we live in capitalist times, so the book focuses on how manufacturing insecurity is essential to capitalism. Political theorist Mark Neocleous points out that the word insecurity arises around the genesis of capitalism in the 17th century, so it’s a distinctly modern concept.

Distinguishing these two ideas of insecurity is important. But embracing existential insecurity and facing it head on is a key to building solidarity, to reforming our social and political conditions. To do that, we need to be able to understand it separately from manufactured insecurity and how the ways we are encouraged to pursue security under our contemporary conditions worsen the problems we are trying to ameliorate.

RR: The book is based on your discovery that everyone’s “economic issues are also emotional ones.” How is suffering at the hand of market forces a ubiquitous but uneven phenomenon?

AT: That’s a great way of putting it, ubiquitous but uneven. As you know, I’m one of the cofounders of the Debt Collective. I spend a lot of my time meeting with debtors and trying to build power. Debtors, by definition, lack wealth, so I’m keenly aware of the problems people face when they are systematically impoverished. I also come out of the Occupy movement, which is famous for putting inequality back into political discourse. Poverty, debt, and inequality are crucial to me.

In my earlier work on democracy, I pay attention to the problem of inequality, to the gulf between the haves and the have nots, and the corrupting effect of inequality on democracy. Intensely concentrated wealth leads to an economic aristocracy that can buy political influence and has an enormous amount of social and political power as a function of their wealth. Paying attention to structural dispossession is critical to understanding the effects of inequality. This book is a supplement to that kind of thinking. It’s not an “or,” it’s an “and.”

“We need to look at capitalism not just as an engine of inequality, but an engine of insecurity.”

Insecurity, as you said, is ubiquitous and uneven. One source of capitalism’s power is that whether people have some or a lot, they don’t feel like they have enough. On the one hand, especially from a debt organizing perspective, it may be hard to take seriously the problems of a wealthy, privileged person. But on the other hand, you can see that in a country without universal healthcare, all it takes is a cancer diagnosis to decimate your wealth. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur with a small business. Most businesses don’t make it! Even the mythic American entrepreneur is subject to a certain kind of precarity.

There’s a feeling that you can’t rest. Let’s say you manage to save money, and you put it in your 401(k) because you don’t have state-provided security in old age. If there’s a downturn in the market, you’re going to be destitute instead of finally being able to take a break and enjoy the last years of your life. Not everybody is desperately indebted or poor, but this economic arrangement is damaging to many. Most people feel it every day, because they can’t count on anything—they worry that if things go wrong, they will be delivering DoorDash in their 70s or older, like many people do. They don’t have economic security.

We’re also living in a moment of intense ecological instability, we’ve just been through a pandemic—there will probably be future pandemics. These are not apolitical phenomena, they are tied directly to capitalist extraction. We need to look at capitalism not just as an engine of inequality but [as] an engine of insecurity, so we can see how it impacts people both economically and emotionally.

Capitalism isn’t working for any of us, and that’s the basis of solidarity. We can recognize the differentials, that insecurity hits those who are marginalized and poorest and most oppressed the hardest. But it’s also present at every rung of the income ladder, and that’s part of capitalism’s grip. It’s why people can’t get off the treadmill and say, “I’ve got enough.” In a society with healthcare, pensions, or other forms of a safety net, you wouldn’t have to be rich to be secure. But the irony of capitalism is that even rich people don’t feel secure!

RR: It was interesting that you included one of the richest men in the world, Elon Musk, in your book. He’s clearly very unhappy—and that’s not to garner empathy for him but to recognize that even the richest man in the world exhibits deep, psychological insecurity that he spends a lot of money trying to overcome.

AT: He could have been a chapter: “Portrait of an Insecure Man.” He spent $44 billion just to be made fun of on a platform he now owns. Typically, we say that the American Dream ideology individualizes and pathologizes poverty. If you don’t have enough, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough; or instead of paying your debts, you bought lattes and avocado toast. But we look at this smaller number of the rich elite and think that they’re just greedy.

But greed also misdirects, it individualizes something that is systemic. It’s hard not to look at Elon Musk and see that there’s something individually wrong with that person. But Musk won’t just wake up, say he has enough, and get out of the rat race. Even if he did, that isn’t how capitalism works. Even Adam Smith, the patron saint of capitalism, says that always having something to chase is why market societies work so well on this one level, to keep the engine going regardless of people’s happiness.

A system that manufactures insecurity means that capitalism is not just about individual greed. The intervention someone like Elon Musk needs is an entirely different economic arrangement. He needs to be dispossessed not just for society’s benefit but for his own mental health and wellbeing.

RR: The flip side of that is capitalism forces the rest of us to wield insecurity against each other. You mentioned the small business owner—the archetype of the American Dream—whose entire goal is to amass capital to own the right to other people’s time and exploit their labor. But you’re saying that not only are people like entrepreneurs “insecuritized” in certain ways but that the economic arrangements we participate in depend on our insecurity. If we don’t have public transit, we take an Uber. The lack of a social safety net urges you to depend on the exploited labor of another person.

AT: You invented a great word, “insecuritized.” I met a man who told me he has four rental properties so he can retire. This man has to ward off the specter of elder poverty by becoming a landlord. There are TikToks and Instagram videos about how great it would be to be a landlord or how you should get a side hustle. But even if you are propping yourself up by other people’s lack of access to secure housing, you’re afraid the housing market will collapse and rents will go down. You shouldn’t have to work a second job to survive. Individual solutions are toxic, and they add fuel to the fire. Social programs would make us safer.

RR: One way that the book approaches insecurity is through “rights.” We might say that the freedom capitalism gives us is “the right to starve,” an unfreedom that gives rise to the authoritarianism fostered by economic insecurity in the 1970s and beyond. How does insecurity take people’s rights away?

AT: To understand the damage done by the neoliberal offensive, which was capital reasserting itself in the 1970s after being beaten back a bit, we really have to go back to the New Deal. After the Great Depression and World War II, President Roosevelt is pushed by organized labor, unemployed movements, and geopolitical urgencies to build the foundation for the welfare state.

The whole New Deal program—including the rights to employment, housing, food, and education, and other necessities—was framed using the word “security.” In his proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights, FDR said: “All of these rights together spell security.” The framework for this agenda was deliberately communicated using security rather than equality, the latter of which is a bit abstract. Equality for what? For your whole life to not be destabilized by Wall Street? For your job to be safe when industries collapse? For you to never have to wait on a bread line? There’s a political lesson here, which is that people want to know that if something terrible happens, they will be okay.

We saw the idea of security resurface with COVID-era welfare policies, which gave people social programs to fall back on during a crisis. It gave workers some bargaining power to feel less exploitable and move on to better opportunities. The capitalist class didn’t like that because they want the ability to maximize their profits and accumulate as much wealth as possible, and they also didn’t like workers being secure. Because the neoliberal agenda is just as much about lowering taxes and prioritizing returns on investment as it is about undermining the security of the labor force. This strategy, embodied by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s, manufactured insecurity at an even greater rate by attacking unions, undermining welfare policies, and defunding social services. But there was also a cultural shift, including a constant drive of competition and consumption that accompanied those economic policies. Without a social safety net and programs guaranteeing security, people began to feel individually responsible for self-improvement. And we’re still living in the consequences of that because the welfare state hasn’t been repaired in any way.

RR: In the third chapter, you say that another consequence of the neoliberal turn is a decline in curiosity. One psychological consequence of insecurity is that you can’t afford to question things, to be curious for curiosity’s sake. What do we not get to think about when we’re insecure?

AT: What does it mean to be human? What is the nature and meaning of life? What could we create if we weren’t just trying to survive? If you’re desperately trying to get ahead or stay afloat, you don’t get to ask these questions.

The point is that insecurity has effects on what we can imagine and what we’re open to. Security carries the connotation of being closed off. There’s empirical evidence that shows that when people are more materially secure, they tend to be more open-minded and tolerant. That doesn’t mean that when people are individually richer they behave this way. But when there is a social sense that everything is not going to collapse tomorrow, it correlates with people being less threatened by others. That’s a good thing for democracy.

RR: You use the phrase “insecure White working class,” which we heard a lot after the Trump election, to describe the racial resentment manufactured after the civil rights movement. During that time, White working class people were told that there would be fewer resources for them because Black people, women, and other minority groups would need more. That history supports your point here, that an openness to difference and diversity might actually be able to exist if manufactured insecurity wasn’t weaponized by conservatives to make it seem like others are the problem.

AT: That’s the tricky thing. I organize with debtors, people who have negative net wealth by definition. We’re trying to build solidarity among people, many of whom are in dire financial straits. Insecurity can foster that solidarity, or it can be weaponized and do the opposite. It can take on that democratic orientation when it’s organized in a way that shows that struggles relate to one another. The right has been doing a different version of that by saying that there’s less to go around, advising people to take their share and pull up the ladder. There’s so much more money and airtime going into their version of how insecurity works.

We have to start organizing and give people other narratives, other ways to express their anxieties, other channels to come together. Because the solutions offered by the right wing only push us further down a damaging path.

RR: The climate crisis is one of our newer forms of insecurity, and it comes from prioritizing the security of profit over the security of the planet. How would a different approach to security allow us to differently approach the complex problems of a warming world?

AT: One point I emphasize in the book is that you can’t be secure on your own. No person is an island, no amount of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will save you. You can try to achieve a false security on your own, but we really need security aimed at creating economic and social arrangements that can sustain everyone.

But is human security enough? Is taking care of the human community and finding security for the human community going to save us in an era of escalating climate catastrophe? I think the answer is no—unless we can expand our circle of inclusion beyond the human world. Right now, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we’ve emitted so much carbon and reached so many climate tipping points that we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of what is already destroyed.

“Compassion is not a limited resource, even if capitalism tries hard to convince us otherwise.”

Climate change is not in the future, it is here. We have had a small window of existence for Homo sapiens, and we messed it up. The blame, of course, is not spread equally. But as we take on the manufacture of climate instability, we have to put the denigration of animals and the environment front and center. We treat the rest of life on this planet as a set of products or objects that don’t have rights. To see humans as somehow separated from those things is just wrong on a biological level. We’re seeing the deadly implications of treating the world as a pile of commodities or a garbage dump. A world that is secure for human beings would be one that is more secure for beavers, trees, water, and fish. We have disrupted complex biological processes, and we’re reaping the consequences.

Capitalism begins with domination over natural resources. To end that, we have to widen the scope of our concern to everything we need to survive. Compassion is not a limited resource, even if capitalism tries hard to convince us otherwise. Caring about others is a kind of self-interest.

RR: The list of questions at the end of that chapter felt really daunting. How do we preserve coral systems and fish when we want to eat seafood? How do we balance protections of forests from fires and logging and also build housing? Your point seems to be that adjudicating and distributing compassion isn’t up to everyone. It’s captured by big agriculture, oil, or gas companies. That’s where the blame for our present conditions really lies. A future in which insecurity was collectively tackled as a set of complex social problems would need to be able to consider them democratically.

AT: Exactly. Capitalism sabotages democracy by taking these decisions off the table in favor of profits. One way we can understand a democratic socialist future is one where we would be able to finally ask better questions because there [are] so many truly thorny issues. There’s the idea in the participatory democracy model that decisions should be made by those who are impacted. But how do you draw that line in a globalized economy when viruses or carbon don’t respect borders? These are questions that are off the table under our current economic and political conditions. I would love to live in a world where we could actually engage that complexity and have the security to be curious about them. That’s my idea of utopia.

RR: The Age of Insecurity is woven through with literary, philosophical, historical, and political examples, as well as personal experiences from your life and long career as an organizer for economic justice. What was your reasoning and process for approaching this concept in such a multifaceted way?

AT: Up until this January, I was working on a more straightforward work of political theory on the history of solidarity. Once I was invited to give the Massey Lectures, which is a huge honor, I had to write this book in three months. I wrote it in this digressive, essayistic style not only because of the time constraints but also because I wanted to show how much this concept has animated almost every aspect of both my political and personal lives. I wanted to talk about what matters to me, but I also wanted to talk about ideas, to say things and not feel pretentious. I also wanted it to work for someone who might hear it on the radio, to think about what they know and invite them to think through it with me.

Before David Graeber died, he called this strategy of making things engaging and accessible “being nice to the reader.” Because this book is a lecture series and broadcast on the radio, I saw a chance to reach people that didn’t immediately consider themselves as part of the conversation.

RR: It’s a hallmark of a good public intellectual to take a simple concept and show how it exists in different spheres. I never expected you to take us from the Magna Carta to debt securitization, but you did. It reads like a culmination of everything you’ve learned to date about insecurity, from being bullied at 12 years old to understanding as an organizer how authoritarianism happens. But it also shows how difficult it is to take on the work of organizing when you see injustice everywhere.

“Being a good organizer will make you feel insecure.”

Organizing for justice is an insecure activity. It depends on recognizing shared insecurities and creating plans and strategies to overcome them together. It can feel hard to do when we think about how something like insecurity has been a cornerstone of our economic system for hundreds of years and how widespread it is today. What would you say to folks organizing for justice who feel overwhelmed by the connecting and intersecting crises you write about in this book?

AT: This is a moment when there are so many objective reasons to despair, and insecurity is becoming more intense on every level. From the climate to housing prices, insecurity can fuel authoritarian reaction, but progressives can try to reorient it. We have to reach people, but we can’t do that with statistics alone. We have to tap into their fears and anxieties, but also their hopes and dreams, their love for family and community. Recognizing insecurity is the first step.

As you said, organizing is an insecure act. Some people are reluctant to organize because there is no guarantee of success. They’re afraid of making people mad or disappointing them. It’s basically like inviting people to a party over and over again, being ready with the chips and dip, holding the door open and risking rejection. It’s hard to be comfortable with failure. Because the things we are up against, movements for economic, political, or environmental justice, are huge industries, entrenched systems, and habits of thought. We’re up against things that are not even obviously evil, they’re just the way things have always been done. It takes a lot to take them on and risk losing. Being a good organizer will make you feel insecure.

The brilliant organizer Jane McAlevey says that being a good organizer is having difficult conversations. It’s about talking to people beyond the choir, people who don’t agree with you, and listening to them. I think that’s why this concept of insecurity spoke to me enough to write this book. Because I do think the emotional component of it all needs to be brought to the fore. Politics isn’t about thinking through the perfect procedures or figuring out a formula. It’s messy.

Capitalism isn’t just an economic system, it’s a system that generates bad feelings. It makes us feel a certain way, dream a certain way, love a certain way, desire a certain way. Those are the facts, so let’s fight fire with fire.

“Do we want to live in a world where one person’s risk is another person’s profit? Or do we want to live in a world where risks are managed collectively…”

RR: So, capitalism produces insecurity. It offers wealth, property, and other individual solutions that undermine security, and it takes away social needs like camaraderie, care, and purpose. How can recognizing shared insecurity spur social change and create a strategy to redefine security?

AT: To redefine security, we need to cultivate an ethic of vulnerability. What would this let us create? We could design social policies to enhance people’s security: Make housing a human right, not a commodity, so that we can live in a space instead of in a speculative asset. Give people healthcare that lets them recover when they are ill, and education that allows them to be curious. Social democracy is not the ultimate horizon [rather a kind of transitional stage], but I do think we should create structures that are socially beneficial. We can create a world in which most people don’t have to live their lives managing risk.

One way of understanding the welfare state is that it is a kind of social risk management. Right now, we live in a world where risk is manufactured, insured, and profitable. Do we want to live in a world where one person’s risk is another person’s profit? Or do we want to live in a world where risks are managed collectively, through social policy and mitigation, through preventing harms before they happen?

Regular people weigh risks every day, whether it’s taking on debt or paying for health insurance. But entire industries analyze, hedge against, and commodify that risk. The capitalist approach to risk ultimately creates more instability in everyday life. There are companies that have trillions of dollars invested in fossil fuels but are supposedly mitigating against climate risk. A democratic approach could treat it not as a chance to make money but as a social crisis.

Capitalism has so overtaken our idea of security that it has come to mean everything except collective care. It’s a security deposit to protect your landlord against your existence as a tenant, or it’s debt securitization which pools debts into tradeable assets. Redefining security has to put our human fragility back into the picture. We are fragile, interdependent beings that need care throughout our lives. We can find forms of security that don’t depend on the continued insecurity and oppression of others.