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12 January 2015

Anxiety society: we need politics to reverse our cultural condition of stress

Insecurity is pervasive in our society; we need big politics – not tinkering around the edges – to combat this.

By Michael Orton

As the size of household unsecured debt reaches record levels and the fear of interest rates rises becomes ever more real it is now clear that chronic social and economic insecurity is now the hallmark of our times. But this isn’t a problem for the few. The effects run right through our socio-economic system and all bar a tiny disconnected elite are left unaffected. The rest of us suffer consequences from daily struggle, and even destitution, to squeezed living standards, fears for the next generation and time pressures. Insecurity is now commonplace for the majority and no longer an ignorable condition for the minority. As the election hoves fully into view – will any of these deep-seated social, economic and emotional challenges be addressed by the political class? 

The full extent and impact of insecurity is revealed in a new report Something’s not right: insecurity and an anxious nation – with some eye-catching, and eye-watering, findings. Three quarters of middle and lower income families are unable to afford the mortgage on a local three bedroom home. Stress and anxiety have become a cultural condition with mental health problems costing the economy a staggering £105bn per year. Being in paid employment and on an average income is no guarantee of being financially secure given the unprecedented fall in real wages and rising cost of living. Zero hours contracts are the tip of the insecure employment iceberg with middle-class employment becoming increasingly like conditions long experienced by the working class.

Beyond the statistics, insecurity erodes our sense of community and shared responsibility. As Zygmunt Bauman warned in the Seventies, the superficial attractions of a consumption based, individualist existence deny the basic human need for belonging and bring with it uncertainty, loneliness and the future as the site of fear instead of hope. Fragmentation and discontinuity create a sense of flux rather than solidity and our lives become disjointed and inconsequential rather than flourishing and fulfilled. We are left as individual pieces of flotsam in a shifting world and when misfortune strikes, like redundancy, ill-health, disability or relationship breakdown, we are very much on our own as collective responsibility for shared fates is lost and it is insecurity that dominates.

The insidious impact of insecurity has further effects because if people are insufficiently secure and certain, the ground is laid for a politics of fear, division and accepting others as scapegoats. This is very evident in the appeal of Ukip’s message that our problems are caused by migrants and the solution is to stop immigration. Similarly, those most likely to have negative views of benefit claimants are most likely to feel insecure themselves.

The good news is that creating a more secure society lies within the power of UK government. Neither separately nor combined do globalisation, technological advancement or a multitude of other forms of change mean increasing insecurity is inevitable; nor does the need for wise management of the public finances. Key policy levers to redress insecurity are already in place.

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To take just one example, housing today is marked by unaffordability, insecure private tenancies and an ever increasing Housing Benefit bill. With the main political parties floundering it is to civil society we must look for solutions. Shelter and Friends of the Earth have both set out detailed plans showing how public money needs to be used to fund bricks and mortar house building not subsidies to landlords through housing benefit. The way to do this is by lifting the borrowing cap on councils and also bringing vacant properties into use. Introducing more secure tenancies and fair rent controls requires legislation but is cost free. Rather than the current viscous circle of unaffordability, rising Housing Benefit and so on, a virtuous cycle can be created of more housing, reduced cost of living, and greater security for private tenants to plan their lives.

Compared to the complexities of so many problems faced by government, from climate change to conflict in the Middle East, policies to redress insecurity are obvious, often simple and certainly achievable. The impediment is not lack of policy ideas but the shackles of narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, conformism to an excessively free-market approach for which – using the example of housing – meaningful devolution of financial powers to councils, balancing rights between landlords and tenants, and challenging the right of property owners to leave buildings unused, are anathema. As with housing, plans have been developed within civil society covering policy domains from the New Economics Foundation’s Five steps to a more effective social security system to the Smith Institute’s Making work better: an agenda for government, all identifying detailed, feasible and affordable policy options.

Policies to redress insecurity are often simple and achievable but the challenge is one of political will and courage. Policy tinkering, or trying to make things a little less bad, will not redress insecurity. This is about big politics not policy minutiae. What is needed is a vision of a genuine system of security for every citizen achieved through progressive and positive policy development across the full range of government activity. Only by doing so will we move beyond an Own Your Own approach to a collective and shared responsibility that provides the lasting basis for lives that are free because they are secure.

Dr Michael Orton is currently on a career break from his job as a researcher at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. He is working on a major Compass project on social security and is now identifying solutions to socio-economic insecurity, within the context of building a Good Society.  Michael tweets as @MichaelOrton9

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