Posted by: exiwp | December 2, 1988

Panic in America (December 1988)

Panic in America is excerpted from a talk given by Dr. Fred Newman at the Third Annual Lecture of the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy at Hunter College on December 2, 1988. The lectures are part of an ongoing series which addresses the social therapeutic approach to critical social and clinical issues of our time, such as depression, the crisis in the family, and addictions.

“Soren Kierkegaard discovered anxiety in 1844. He announced his discovery in a little book called The Concept of Dread. Translated into English 100 years later, it is a classic of modern existentialism. Obviously anxiety existed before Kierkegaard, and indeed anxiety disorders have been known throughout history . Nevertheless, Kierkegaard is credited with the first description of anxiety as a vague, diffuse uneasiness, different from fear in that no apparent danger is present, and pervasive, allowing no escape.”

-Donald Goodwin, Anxiety

Some may laugh at the claim that anxiety was “discovered” in 1844. Well, I have something even more bizarre to tell you. One reason that anxiety was discovered in 1844 is that it didn’t come into existence until 1843! Kierkegaard was simply quick to notice what had just happened. Anxiety, you see, is a product of modern industrial society. Of course people had anxieties before 1843, but anxiety as a sweeping social experience is a modern phenomenon.

Goodwin says that, unlike fear, there is nothing good to be said about anxiety. Fear has a certain utility, an adaptive function, namely, it keeps us away from those things that could do damage to us. But, says Goodwin, anxiety has no socially redeeming or adaptive characteristics. Some people say that a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful; creative people will sometimes tell you that if they’re not anxious they can’t write or dance or sing and so on. But creative turmoil notwithstanding, according to Goodwin and many others anxiety is not a good thing and whatever we can do to get rid of it is worth doing.

I strongly disagree with Goodwin. Anxiety, I believe, is an adaptive emotion. Historically speaking, it makes its appearance relatively late because it is basically an emotive or attitudinal adaptation to alienation. And alienation comes into the picture at a relatively late date: it comes into the human experience as an historical fact-not merely as a private subjective response-at a certain historical point when the social process of production becomes qualitatively and quantitatively separated to a critical degree from the product produced, i.e., when production for exchange becomes the dominant mode of production.

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, human production was primarily production for use; in the ensuing 50 years there was a profound global industrial transformation. More and more the world became dominated by production not of the things that we need or, more accurately, not based on what we as a species need, but by the production of commodities, production, that is, for sale or exchange. And anxiety emerged as an emotive/attitudinal adaptation to this social-historical phenomenon known as alienation which, in turn, is a social consequence of the total domination of commodity production.

The paradigm of anxiety created by Kierkegaard-and this characterization is carried into the psychiatric textbooks like DSM-lll–is a fear carried to a certain qualitative extreme. Specifically, it is a fear that is ultimately object-less. It is a fear, a trembling, a palpitation, a sweating-whichever language you prefer-connected to something not clearly identifiable or even capable of being identified at all. It’s not the fear of falling off the cliff that you happen to be walking across, nor the fear of the about-to-fall frying pan teetering on the shelf above your head. No, it is not these objective fears of real possibilities. It is an objectless fear.

Put it this way: In a society in which production is fundamentally for use, there is much object-based fear. The pre-industrial, pre-anxiety, pre-commodity age was very frightening-in some ways far more frightening than life under industrial capitalism. The fundamental paradigm for that fear-dominated culture was religious. The fear paradigm depicted the relationship between the individual and God, the quintessential fear in pre-alienated society was that one could be, might be, struck down-instantaneously or ultimately-by the deity. Fear was paradigmatically comprehended as a terrible and terrifying impingement on the individual by an identifiable object.

The gradual transition of society and culture from an anthropomorphized religious/theological world view to a commodification word view brought with it a profound emotional and attitudinal transformation. The “deity” was now more subtly and invisibly located in the very ordinary objects and activities of everyday life. The deity became a fetishized commodity (in Marx’s language), no longer “on high” or radically other than its producer but something we as producers constantly participate in the production of. Feuerbach made plain the contradictions of an ideology in which a priest-produced or priest-created deity is related to as totally separated from-as indeed the creator of-those who in fact produced Him. Marx made plain the contradiction of an ideology (and a society) in which the class of producers continuously creates via their estranged labor a social and ideological force which imprisons them. God himself was no longer merely reified. He became commodified as the nexus of human life more and more became cash and profit.

In such a word, the identifiable source of our difficulties s paradigmatically less apparent than in the pre-capitalist epoch. For all of the pain and terror of pre-alienated society-and no one should ever glorify it-it was at least relatively plain what the source of the fear, the pain, the trembling and dread was. The transformation to industrial capitalism, however, demanded that the source of our emotive and attitudinal reactions, the causes of our fears, be increasingly invisiblized. Moreover, that invisiblized source is the product of our own ongoing social activity-organized and alienated labor. God was not murdered. He was merely stood on his head and continually produced on an assembly line! Anxiety emerges, as I see it, during the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century as an emotive/ attitudinal adaptation to a profound transformation in the organization of human industry. In a world in which the fetishized commodity dominates, it is necessary to have an emotive and attitudinal adaptation to object-less fear. Its name: anxiety.

The Age of Panic

Our present century is many things. Some, like W. H. Auden, have called it the Age of Anxiety. Freudianism, likewise, is many things and, no doubt, helps many people. But from a social-historical point of view, it is, frankly, an apology, a rationalization. For it fails to identify the historical cause of anxiety-not to mention other pathological states. Rather it offers us an ultra-psychic rationalization to account for anxiety disorders. But as the 20th century moves far beyond anxiety, science, including Freudianism, becomes less and less capable of dealing with the emotive, social, and cultural crisis that is brought into being by commodification-gone-mad.

For while anxiety effectively functioned throughout the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century as a social-adaptive mechanism, now fails precisely as the system of commodification and social alienation known as industrial capitalism winds its way down some very frightening roads. In the course of this century, alienation, anxiety, and commodification have turned on themselves-commodification is commodified, alienation is alienated, anxiety is made anxious- and what emerges is pre-fascism, capitalism without progress. Under pre-fascism, explicit or implicit, anxiety is increasingly unable to function adaptively. Why? Because as the extremes of the capitalist mode of production manifests themselves, as pre-fascism or non-progressive capitalism becomes dominant, it is increasingly difficult for anxiety-the object-less fear-to play its adaptive role. It is precisely because the objective and fearful realities of pre-fascism are so transparently the recognizable object of emotive and attitudinal reactions that the mechanism which is socially shaped to help people adapt to an object-less fear is, almost by definition, no longer adaptive.

When capitalism (both as a system of production and as an ideology) gives way to pre-fascism (both as a “capitalistic” system of production and as a reactionary ideology); as our century-once an “Age of Anxiety”-draws to a frightening and panicked conclusion, the pre-capitalist object-fear returns to haunt us, only now at a quantitative and qualitative level unthinkable in feudal times by virtue of the destructive capabilities generated by several hundred progressive years of alienated and anxiety-riddled capitalism. The natural disasters and disorders of the pre-capitalist period are now joined by and, moreover, are overshadowed by a human capacity for producing disaster on a worldwide level unimagined in the God-fearing world of, say, the 12th century. It is not only the possibility of nuclear holocaust that objectively haunts us. Destruction of the earth’s environment, massive and seemingly unchangeable (under the current arrangement) poverty and disease, violence of a pervasive sort primarily perpetrated by those in power but reacted to in violent desperation by masses of people not in power, anti-humanistic values manifest in a drug-dominated international social environment, political corruption and decadence that makes Machiavelli look like Mr. Clean-these and more have sent the once-atheistic Powers That Be (capitalist and communist alike) back to God! Meanwhile, the masses of the earth’s population, unable to adapt to good old capitalism/communism with either the middle class or working class version of anxiety, are more and more panicked!

The middle classes-the helping class, and its vanguard the “helping professionals”-ever out of step with historical class dynamics, ever seeking to rationalize the irrational, seek to update or reform the anxiety paradigm even as anxiety gives way to panic. And the 19th-century-born philosophy and psychology of fear, trembling and anxiety has thereby been transformed here in the 20th century into a theory of hopelessness known as contemporary Existentialism.

Whether the treatment is chemical. ego-psychological, gestalt, bio-energetic, or psychoanalytic or other, the paradigm of orthodox treatment is existential. And it is rooted in the belief that all we can help people to do in contemporary society is make an empty choice to exist. The very concept of cure has faded out of the psychology business much as the concept of cause once faded out of the physics business. The notion that there is something resembling genuine rehabilitation or even the possibility of development for “healthy” people; the possibility of progress, the prospect of a better world and/or a better person-al of those progressive conceptions, 19th and early 20th century to the core, have been dumped in favor of a survivalist, insurance-company-designed existential paradigm. So while Sisyphus might sound a little bizarre, rock rolling is what’s happening when people are treated-as they increasingly are-with drugs for most contemporary psychic disorders. If you think that Sisyphus’s trip up and down the mountain is so profoundly different from the life of the psychiatric client who is permanently drugged, then I think you’re fooling yourself. It is fundamentally an existential model of treatment. The DSM-III-based symptomological categorization psychic distress, and the biochemical treatment wedded to it, is nothing more than the commodification of anxiety, depression, phobias and so on. On that Goodwin and I do agree.

This elimination of essence in favor of existence, together with what I would identify as the illusion of choice, this hopelessness, proves to be in some respects a successful “cure” for extreme post-anxiety syndrome, i.e., panic; it is a response to pre-fascism. You see, we no longer live in the Age of Anxiety; we live in what is rapidly becoming the Age of Panic. What is the social basis of this panic? We are a species now almost totally maladapted to the objective reality of alienation gone mad. Anxiety no longer works. Panic, as opposed to anxiety, is not a subjective adaptation to an alienated, commodified society. Quite the contrary, it is that most painful of human states, namely, not having the capacity to adapt to a system which is objectively dysfunctional relative to the needs of our species. Think of what it means to be living in a world in which the objective conditions are totally incompatible with human development, indeed with human existence, and at the same time having no subjective adaptive mechanisms other than hopelessness (its ultimate form-choosing to exist) to deal with the situation. Result: no more anxiety, and in its place, hopelessness and/or panic.

At the beginning I noted that some people don’t have a good word to say about anxiety. I didn’t go along with that. I would, however, agree that there’s nothing good to be said for panic. Panic has no adaptive function. It is rather the name of that moment in the subjective history of our species when adaptive mechanisms have pretty much completely failed. This is, after all, a very emotionally disturbed world. Michael Dukakis and George Bush notwithstanding, there were issues in 1988, serious and profound issues. But they cannot be reduced to slogans and sound bytes. If we want to talk seriously about crime in America we have to talk concretely about what produces crime- the economic, social, and mass psychological state of America. American society as constructed is a crime-producing society. Hopelessness produces crime.

Treatment Modalities as Social Policy Statements

There is no such thing as a treatment modality which is not an expression of social policy. I don’t care if we have an individual practice; I don’t care if we never read a newspaper; I don’t care if we never look at television-our treatment modalities are expressions of social policy. And the philosophical underpinning of the social policy statement that now dominates orthodox psychotherapeutic treatment is effectively an existential policy of control and survival.

One of the ironies of the varied attempts over the last 20 years to treat people’s drug-related problems is that the rhetoric of these typically drug-dominated programs is filled with the word “choice.” “You can say no,” they say. Well, perhaps Nancy Reagan can say no. (I can think of at least one time when she should have said no and didn’t.) But the option of saying no is not so transparent for the vast majority of the people of this city and this country. It sounds very high-minded to say “Just say no.” But it’s not apparent what it even means or if it’s even possible to “just say no.”

I have no love of essences, philosophically speaking. But I do have a problem nonetheless with the elimination of essence by existentialism in that it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Because in throwing out essence what they basically destroyed was history. You see, the real choice, the empowered or social-therapeutic choice, is not between existence and essence, but between a Sisyphean model of hopelessness and social control, and a model of human empowerment.

What is the social therapeutic approach? People come into therapy and in one way or another they ask us for drugs. Sometimes they don’t say they’re looking for drugs. Sometimes they want drugs without drugs. People say, “Give me a cure. Give me something. I need a fix. I don’t care if it’s verbal or chemical; all I want to do is continue to exist. I choose existence; I choose survival.” The social therapeutic approach refuses to give into that perfectly reasonable request. In fact, what we say is that the way to deal with pre-fascistic-based panic is to create anxiety, a new kind of anxiety. We have to collectively work to create anxiety in order to be able to adapt. Anxiety is adaptive; panic is not adaptive. “Are you saying,” some might ask, “that you want to help people create anxiety so that they can adapt to society?” No! We can’t adapt to contemporary society. Indeed panic is the very subjective indication that anxiety is not adaptive to society because of the current state of society! We help people to create a new anxiety so that they can adapt not to society but to history, and to history directly. Now that raises the issue that living unadapted to a society in which life is no longer sustainable-living in history, that is- is profoundly anxiety producing, and we have to collectively organize that anxiety so that people can adaptively function in the historical setting.

Rx: History

People come into therapy and they say, “Can you help me to adapt? I have palpitations and sweaty palms, so I looked in DSM-III-I have panic disorder! What do you have for panic disorders?”

“We produce anxiety here.”

“You produce anxiety?”

“Yes, we collectively produce anxiety so that people can adapt to that which it is possible to adapt to in contemporary society.”

Don’t think of this abstractly; think of it concretely. Let us go back to a very marvelous statement made by a very marvelous leader.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Today, psychologists have a favorite word, and that word is maladjusted. I shall never be adjusted to lynch mobs, segregation, economic inequalities, the madness of militarism, and self-defeating physical violence. The salvation of the world lies in the maladjusted.”

That is both a morally and scientifically sound position. The option that we now face-and this is a key issue in mental health-means adaptation to a society which we cannot adapt to and, further, adaptation to it would effectively mean taking moral positions which are antithetical to how many of us feel about human life.

So what then is the choice in the face of this extraordinary dilemma? Do we try to adapt or help others to adapt to an utterly rotten and sickened society? (If you don’t believe that’s how society is, that’s another issue and a different debate.) Or do we remain hopelessly panicked and unadapted to anything? Those are roughly our choices. The social therapeutic approach is to help people of different class and racial backgrounds, straight, gay, people of different genders, to create the anxiety necessary for an adaptation to history. To bypass society. By bypass, of course, we do not mean to escape from it. No, not to escape from it! Indeed the issue is that society has escaped, has abandoned, us! No, we are not advocating that we race off to Vermont and collect maple syrup or even elect socialists! Rather, the issue is to understand the extent to which our emotional disorders are rooted in this malfunctioning relationship between our subjective equipment of adaptation and the objective conditions of our culture.

Does this deny the physiological component of mental disorders? No, not at all. Does it deny the behavioral or the psychodynamic? No, not at all. It doesn’t deny any of that. It merely says that all of those features must be located within the socio-cultural facts of human emotionality and human pathology. That all of these other components are effectively ordered and organized by our culture in its current moment.

I want to close by sharing something of great importance to me, a poem by the Guatemalan political activist and poet, Otto Rene Castillo. As I was preparing this talk, this poem came to mind once again. I want to commit an “aesthetic” sacrilege of sorts; I want to change a word in the poem. I don’t think the author, a Guatemalan revolutionary murdered by the fascists in 1967, would object. The title of the poem, as Castillo wrote it, is “Apolitical Intellectuals.” I want to change the name in this reading to “Apolitical Psychologists.” Here’s how it goes:

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire,
small and alone.
No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.
They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simplest men will come.
Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical psychologists
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who mended their clothes,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for Them,

and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out in them?”

Apolitical psychologists
of my sweet country
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence will eat your gut.
Your own misery
will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute
in your shame.

I read this poem not to attack my colleagues in the helping professions, but rather as a way of insisting that there is no neutrality in the pseudoscience or mythology known as psychology. It is moral, political, and social through and through. And in my opinion, a treatment approach which requires denying that fact is not psychology but straight-out social coercion. I shared this poem because it’s so meaningful to me and to many others.

Social Therapy is ultimately not terribly profound. In fact, it’s little more than an organized refusal to leave the oppressive, pre-fascistic social realities of our culture and our society out of the theory and practice of providing help to other human beings. And it’s little more than a relatively small grouping of people who relate to human beings wherever they may be-in hospitals, schools, private offices. Communities-with this same perspective. That’s the “essence” of Social Therapy. More importantly, that’s the history and practice of Social Therapy.

Here’s a concrete example, albeit an extremely hypothetical one: Suppose a society has one week to run. It could be the case. Some societies have at one point in their history had one week left. We could name such societies. For example, seven days before they dumped the Shah, the Shah was doing whatever he was doing in Iran or elsewhere but he actually had only a week to run! He might not have known it-the CIA apparently didn’t-but as a matter of objective fact Iranian society as constructed had only a week to run. Question: Suppose you go to your family in that hypothetical week and say, “Adapt me to this society. I want to be better adapted.” But the society has only a week to run. Well now, that raises a curious question: Is it helpful to adapt to that society?

Now this might seem like the extreme case, but it comes up again and again, particularly in the context of a society which is rapidly destabilizing and deteriorating. As I said before, it’s not obvious that adaptation to such a society is anything that a human being with a certain set of values would want to do, no less could do. But are we ready to live our lives in that “flowing river” which is the historical process? Or are we ready to adapt to the particular design of the beach made by the river’s washing up? We all live, after all, on that shore as well as in that river. Now, again, I don’t think that’s an easy choice, but I think it becomes easier in a situation where adaptation to the society is truly an abomination, a morally and humanly unacceptable alternative, not to mention objectively impossible.

People come to Social Therapy because they’re in pain. They come because they need help. They don’t come because they want to adapt to history any more than people go to psychoanalytic therapists because they want to better understand the interrelationship between egos, ids, and superegos. Yet the treatment approach of Social Therapy-and people rapidly become aware of this-is adaptation directed at our historical identity, our identity not as narrowly organized and comprehended via the institutions of a given moment, but our identity as it relates to a species, a class, a people, to those historical institutions which pre-date and post-date this particular historical/societal moment.

“Where did you learn that? How did you learn that? How did we all learn that?”

Goodwin’s book suggests very strongly that certain basic emotions are constant throughout history and cultures. In my opinion, that is wrong. Now that’s not to deny physiological responses-indeed one of the things proponents of this view typically point to in order to justify their claim are surprise reactions and shock reactions. They say you startle somebody and you get a similar reaction across cultures and throughout history. But the issue is not whether or not you get similar behavioral responses, or even whether you get similar verbal responses. The issue is how emotionality is organized within different cultures. There are different socio-cultural ways in which emotionality is organized, e.g., the very meaning of pain, of shame, of sadness, of humiliation, along with the associated behavior, vary dramatically, as a matter of fact. Emotionality and psychopathology are as organized as anything else.

So we raise the question of that organization, not just didactically but through a therapeutic process of urging that people work to create an environment which strives to give a reorganization to that emotional process. It’s by virtue of this activity that one begins to see the extent to which our psychopathology and emotionality have been organized. It’s by virtue of going through an actual process of what we call rekindling or reigniting social development that people can actually go through the process of creating new emotive and attitudinal environments-new environments not simply relative to the existing institutions-to expose themselves to the actual process of the unalienated (to the extent possible) historical production of emotionality. What happens in these groups is that people literally go through a process of resocializing emotionality. Will you “remember,” some people worry, how to do emotionality “outside” the way you did it before? Sadly, yes, you won’t forget so easily. It is as if someone asked, “If I learn to play the piano will I forget how to chew bubble gum?” No. You can place this new element in your repertoire and you’ll still remember all the pathology-don’t worry, it won’t go away so easily!

Now people become frightened by this: “Will this make me maladapted to society?” “Well, wait a second, you are maladapted to society! What we want to do is help you be adapted to history, creating with that, anxiety.” But you see, the process of creating the anxiety gives us a particular relationship to it that we did not have in the 19th century when anxiety was imposed as an adaptation to commodified reality. Because even though it’s anxiety, it is the creation of our self-conscious activity in an age of panic. We create that anxiety. And I’m not saying it’s good because it’s ours; I’m saying it’s good because we are relatively self-conscious of the process of its production. This gives us a relationship to anxiety as an adaptation to history, which is a synthesis approximating mental health in a very, very sick society. I make no huge claims for Social Therapy, for I don’t know how well you can be in this society.

Q: Why does anxiety have to be created to adapt to history?

A: The notion of relating directly, purely, unmediatedly, to history at this time is a myth. The truth is that our relationship to history has to be mediated through society until such time when out of this complex process we have the capacity to more directly relate to the historic process. I don’t think any one of us is going to see this in our lifetime. To some extent this notion of relating to history is an adaptation, but not one that can be made without the inclusion of society as a mediating vehicle. We have to find some way of relating to society without the dominance of alienation carried to its pre-fascistic extreme. Still, we have to use the mechanisms that are available historically to relate to society, only as part of a triadic relationship, going beyond merely relating to society to relating to history as well.

What I’m saying in effect is that we have to find a way of extracting from a decadent society those institutions which are sufficiently viable for us to use in relating to history. You can’t create in this society- or any other-things that aren’t made up of parts that already exist in the society; you can’t make something out of nothing-you’d be a bad scientist to believe in that. We have to build with the existing tools and results, and those tools and results are society’s. Therefore, our relationship to those tools has to be itself an adaptive tool and that adaptive tool is anxiety relative to alienated commodified society.

So the process is actually a process of saying, “What can we effectively create within the very body of a society which has gone mad? It’s not unlike what has to happen in the process of trying to stimulate the immunological system in such a way as to fight with a system which is totally cancerous. You can’t think that you can simply take the healthy parts and directly use them because they are synthesized within the holistic totality of the body. It’s also true that there are elements of the system which we can use in creating whatever we can create to approximate cure.

So what we actually have is this three-way relationship. I hope that our children’s children’s children will not have to be in the position of having to make this kind of compromise. I hope they will live in a world which is much more nourishing and supportive of people. We happen, however, not to live in such a world. And for me, the existential fact of that is the most overwhelming experience of my life.

I walk down the street, as we all do, and see homeless people. Above and beyond all the sociological and political analysis, there’s the sheer fact of it. And that raises the profound issue, how could it be that we live in a society in which this is possible? It is to me such a shocking outrage and a statement not about the person on the street but about us collectively as a species. How could this be? Yet the fact is that it is so, and we can’t attempt to solve the problem of homelessness by trying to go directly to the solution without mediating it through those elements of society which make it most possible to do something. Dr. Lenora Fulani, a distinguished African American developmental psychologist and activist and recently an independent candidate for President, is here with us tonight. I look at Dr. Fulani and think about her campaign for democracy. If we can make democracy live more, there might be a possibility of doing something about homelessness. We have to find a way to use those elements of an existing social system to deal with the outrage of these problems which directly confront us in history. I think that this experience, at least for me, is close to a direct historical experience. Homelessness is an historic outrage; it is an outrage to us as a collectivity of human beings that a person should be sleeping on the streets of New York. I don’t even experience that as a political polemic. I think it’s more than that. For me it actually feels quasi-spiritual. How could it be? But it is. We can’t deny either of those things-that it is, and that we aren’t in a position to confront it directly. I walk down the street and I feel a very strong pull to say, “Damn it, I’m simply going to do something about homelessness right now. I’m going to take people off the streets and put them in my home, then ring a hundred doorbells and put them in those homes, and so on. We cannot allow this! I feel that every day and every night of the week. But it can’t be done. I don’t say that cynically; I say that sadly.

Q: I wasn’t clear about the distinction you were making in choosing history or choosing existence. It seems that you’re still choosing to exist if you choose history.

A: I don’t think so; I’ll tell you why. You see, the existential model has as its primary social picture the human being in nature. But there’s no such thing, never was, never will be, as human beings in nature. Human beings have always been, from the very outset, in social history. We are fundamentally a social species. That’s not to say that we’re not in nature in the sense that we’re in the world or the universe. But our fundamental location is an historical location, not a natural location. So in setting up this existence and essence thing, what’s really being said by the existentialists is, choose to be in nature alone, forlorn, in dread, in trembling, hopeless, but still asserting your individuality. What I’m saying is that the alternative has to be between that kind of a choice and the more social, collective choice of trying to adapt and relate directly to one’s historic identity.

You see, what they were throwing out in getting rid of essence was history, to the extent that they cared about history in the first place, Existentialism, survivalism, that dominant paradigm as manifest in these various curative models, is very problematic. We have to seek a location in history, not a location in nature such as Sisyphus pushing this rock. No, our identity is fundamentally social, but we have lost that in the process of what’s occurred in the course of this century.

Q: When I see Dan Quayle on TV he always looks anxious and talks like a robot. What’s that about?

A: I don’t think Dan Quayle has much anxiety left any more than the rest of us do. What Dan Quayle has is extreme panic. I think some of that was exposed during the campaign. However, what he also has are endless techniques for dealing with panic. I don’t know whether it’s drink or drugs-probably it’s his conservatism (pre-fascistic conservatism, after all, being one cure for panic)-and I think what he is effectively able to do is hold off the panic. But when you looked at him, as outrageous as he was in his most naked moments, as during the debates, what you saw, it seems to me, was the real core of the man. What you saw was a man in utter panic. This man was on the brink! Now, they kind of got it together and figured out how to give him whatever they had to give him, though it included these dreadful lines that he just kept repeating as he turned off what appeared to be at least half his mind.

But Quayle, for all his reactionary politic, isn’t alone. You and I and many others are profoundly panicked by the state of this society and this world. I don’t think that you can use anxiety to adapt to the threat of nuclear annihilation-it’s unadaptable to. Leon Festinger and cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, you can’t possibly toss it off with, “Oh well, we might all be blown up tomorrow, but what the hell, I’ll adapt to it.” Or, “Oh yes, it might be that the ozone layer is being eaten away and we have a week and a half to go, but what the hell, live and let live.” It doesn’t make sense to speak of adapting to these things-they’re not adaptable to. They are productive of enormous panic. Now, I think we all find ways to deal temporarily with that panic. But it’s also possible to do something systematically, and I’m talking now about social therapeutic approaches-to get beyond panic and take up a new kind of anxiety. But I think we have to develop that anxiety.

Q: But Dan Quayle denies he’s in panic…

A: Oh yes, of course. He also denied that he got his father’s help to keep him out of Vietnam. He denies everything. Denial of panic is one of the ways that people deal with panic. But there’s a difference between not being in panic and denying panic. When I look at some of these leaders throughout the world I see an enormous amount of panic. One can perceive people in panic, not just leaders but people throughout the world. And there’s reason for that panic, namely, that there’s not the slightest capacity to adapt in any way to our current conditions. Again, we’re not talking about the Sierra Club in the 1950s issuing ecological alarms; the realities of what’s happening nowadays throughout this world is nothing less than the possibility of species annihilation. That’s not just rhetoric; that’s a hard fact. I mean I’m not looking to get anyone here panicked, but we could be sitting here just days away from who knows what geophysical or socio-physical disaster. You see it in the streets. When you get three consecutive days of strange weather, people start to get weird looks on their faces as if to say “I think we might be in serious trouble.” And they’re right, we might be! That’s a real, human, emotive experience in contemporary society; it is very profoundly a part of human psychopathology in the world in which we’re living. People are constantly having to deal with the possibility of going right into overt and visible panic!

Part of what we’re working with here is how to deal with that. And by the way, I’m not talking about a process which is separate from the process of dealing with people’s basic pathology. Often people will hear me and say, “Oh I see, you’re concerned with those kinds of problems, not the simple, basic, ordinary grocery-size problems I as a therapist deal with.” But people’s lives are inseparable in this way; people’s basic problems are directly connected to these issues-they are people’s everyday problems. That separation is no longer a viable or a real one. No, people don’t come to see you to deal with worldly problems. They come to see you to deal with their problems. But it turns out that their problems are worldly. That’s the hard fact.

Q: In your description of passing someone living in the street, you didn’t seem anxious, you seemed angry. Is there any connection between anxiety and anger?

A: What I’m saying is that I don’t feel anxious; I feel panicked. And anger and panic are very closely connected. For one thing, anger is often a straight-out accompaniment to the panic reaction. The behavioral-social look of people in panic is sometimes outrage which may look like anger. But I don’t think my response is simply that I’m angry. It’s more the case that the anger grows out of the panic which is directly related to the social frustration. And frustration invariably takes the behavioral form of anger, because the reality is that there’s nothing to be done about it. One can’t in any immediate sense solve this fundamentally inhuman arrangement. I believe that the experience of that is utter frustration, utter panic, utter rage. The issue is to try to find a way of creating anxiety, through this process I was describing of using whatever institutional elements are available, in order to exercise some power, modest though it may be, relative to what otherwise is simply a hopeless situation.

See, I think that if people didn’t drink or take drugs or avert their eyes, or lie, or do a whole bunch of things to deal with their panic, if people simply looked at the hard reality of homelessness in America, of AIDS in America, of racism, sexism, homophobia in America, of the ecological crisis, of poverty-not only in America but throughout the world-the hard realities of an historic process, a mode of production, that had such extraordinary promise and now has demonstrably failed, we would all, if we simply let ourselves go, have a massive nervous breakdown.

The alternative can’t simply be finding more and more ways of holding that off for the moment. Again, an analogy to economics: I think part of the reality of the American economy is that through a whole host of economic devices, it has been bolstered against utter collapse, but it is recognizably always on the brink of collapse. What broke through in the October stock market crash, though to be sure it was repaired, was a kind of nervous breakdown of enormous proportions. I think that we periodically see that happening at a social-psychological level, and then it’s put back together through a whole host of techniques of mass psychology. This is a society that’s very, very clever at developing techniques to keep panic under control. Indeed, the greatest discovery of the past 25 years in the United States of America in my opinion have been techniques for what they call riot control, techniques for panic control. And what does that entail? HOW TO KEEP OUTRAGED PEOPLE FROM EXPRESSING THEIR OUTRAGE!

Castillo, O.R. (1971), Let’s go. (Trans.: M. Randall) Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press.

Goodwin, D.W. (1986), Anxiety. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

King, M.L., as quoted in S. Oates (1982). Let the trumpets sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Mentor.


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