What me worry?The Beats, the banks, the bulls and the bears. That the world might suddenly end is not a new anxiety, but an eternally recurring old anxiety that is continually renewed. The testimony of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman-Sachs and four underlings on Tuesday in Washington capped the conclusion of Washington lawmakers dipping their toes into one of the latest rounds of unease; financial armageddon in which the middle-class would lose its title, and the pension system would crumble since the value of investments would have vanished into thin air. We don’t burn books anymore, we just cook them, until no one can understand the financial statements of a Goldman Sachs.
Throughout history, the vast majority has labelled each age, an ”unquiet age” . Social nostalgia for times gone by has become almost obsessive. Does this spring from a growing sense of anxiety, of unease and dislocation? Has the world grown so complex that the mind and the passions shrink in terror and tremble not only at the future, but at the present? It seems apparent that the most complex societies in the history of humankind are also the most neurotic.
The theory most promoted is that an incapacity to control change, or stabilize society, drives more and more people, particualrly the young, into a febrile search for identity and release which leads to experimentation and a rejection of inherited social and personal standards. As the Moloch of post-industrial society goes marching on, the individual becomes weaker, more bewildered and lost; a screaming ball of angst in an urban prison.
But as the lawmakers grills the financial gurus and we hear about systematic risk, too big to fail, the question arises whether humanity has ever found peace in the hear and now, away from anxiety, unease and dislocation. From those far off days in the savanna when the great cats pounced and tore him apart, anxiety as sharp as a toothpick had dogged humankind’s life. Can we even begin to realize the anxiety of an agrarian society that lived on the margin of existence, dependent entirely upon the whims of the weather? One year abundance, the next year failure , with crops shriveled or blackened on the stalk; starvation certain for all and death for the old, the weak and the young. And yet this is how our ancestors lived in western Europe and Africa . The vast majority never knew security in their basic needs.
The average span of life in Elizabethan England was about twenty-six years, less than the hungriest and most famine ridden Indian peasants of the sub-continent today. The distended bellies and protruding eyes of starving children were more a part of the Elizabethan scene than were madrigals. And worry about the harvest bred anxiety, heightened fear and made the peasants hysterical and hagridden with fearsome specters.
The terrors of hell, of Armageddon, of sorcery, of witchcraft, of devilment, everywhere abounded. That the world might suddenly end in not a new anxiety, but old anxieties perennially renewed. A sudden sense that the world’s end was near could grip the mind of the medieval peasant and craftsman with a power that led to manifestations as extravagant as any the world has seen; nudity, mass flagellations, communal love, and pogroms. Often med fled like wild animals caught in a savanna fire. They fled and killed.
The anger of God, as well as the horror of the Beast was a daily, an hourly presence; for the devil and his temptations, together with the horde of demons, monsters and
lins, lurked everywhere; in the milk churn, in the wind, and above all in the minds of men, women and children. Ritual, holy relics, priests, incense and candles might keep the terrors at bay, but they rarely defeated them.Suspicion and fear hung about medieval lives like fog from a swamp, making our own anxiety ridden lives seem serene and sunny by contrast.
After all, finance men like Lloyd Blankfein may annoy, but they can hardly be regarded as witches, warlocks and wizards, responsible for all our ills and ripe for brutal extermination at the stake, though the analogy and aesthetic metaphor for bankers in a ”Justice at Nuremberg” scenario does hold great appeal, particularly for those who have been foreclosed. Nor did the world become much more comfortable as peasant society gave way to commerce and industry. Plague stalked the cities year in and year out as famine had stalked the land. And the puritan ethic was scarcely insouciant. The Devil still roared at large, although his utterances seemed to be more personal, more concerned to capture the individual soul than bring on Armageddon. From day to day one’s immortal soul was in jeopardy; the tortures of hell were no fantasy, but real, gloatingly dwelt on by preacher after preacher.
In the past one hundred fifty years enormous burdens have been lifted off the shoulders of men and women to a degree that they can scarcely appreciate. Infant mortality; the quick hand of death through diptheria, poliomyelitis, meningitis, scarlet fever, and the rest that were commonplace but at the beginning of the twentieth century are not spoken of today. Deadly disease is no longer a lodger in the home but a remote contingency. And better still, the spiritual fears have vanished, though a populist willingness to demonize people personified by Blankfein recalls the spirit of times past. Ultimately, everyone down the food chain wanted that little extra return on their investment and bought into the derivative theory, CDO’s and quants; Blankfein and Goldman Sachs,Fabrice Tourre and the hot shots, are reflection of ourselves to some extent.
The present cracks in the political and economic structure blinds the hearts and minds of people as completely as the fear of the day of doom did in the middle ages. We find the lives and lifestyles of those willed along lines totally different from our own, like Goldman-Sachs employees with their bonuses; curiously menacing yet holding a certain appeal. In the 1960′s, Allen Ginsberg, fakirlike, high on pot, had the same effect on the conventional minded as a medieval heretic on a College of Cardinals, and for similar reasons. He threatened the structure of respectable ritual.
Like Ginsberg, Blankfein epitomizes an unconventional behavior that preaches a similar golden age, a millennium, a paradidisical way of life, that menaces the frail structure of society and makes breaches in it through which anxiety can sluice; so anxiety transmutes into action, which means as ever war, violence, brutality and repression. The first reaction is to kill the system, to neuter and emasculate it with regulation as a form of killing what you fear. That was the lore of he savanna and forest, a lesson that man learned when he first stood upright; a lesson it seems, that he can neither forget nor exorcise.
Anxiety, like sex or hunger, is probably a part of the structure of our instincts; one can only wish that it received the same recognition. Certainly, it has infused all societies through the ages of man and has usually led to cruelty, stupidity, and repression. What ought to disturb us about Blankfein, or Allen Ginsberg types, is the disturbance in ourselves. We should feel more at ease with the Goldman outbursts of eminent access to the vault of Solomon, compared to the millenary rantings of the Christian past, when hordes of hysterical believers worshipping their saints stripped, flogged, and copulated in an orgy of religious ecstasy. The motives were much the same;driven into frenzy by the anxieties of their age, they wanted paradise here and now.