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GNOSIS 3/2009
Indefinite threats and states of fear

Giuseppe ROMA

The state of insecurity generates diffused fear caused by events which are considered potentially dangerous. Furthermore, the great changes tied to globalization make the future of the individual always more difficult to predict.
It is an element which goes hand in hand with a sense of inadequacy before the ever-pressing meritocratic competition, also in function of age: the older one gets, the more the fear increases.
If that is not enough, the end of the blocks has eroded many certainties and, therefore, many secure points of psychological anchorage. While the deluge of news that the media unloads onto the normal man on the street, emphasizing the negative events, increases the state of anxiety and distress of the common citizen.
The Director General of CENSIS, Giuseppe Roma, does not stop at an analysis of the situation, but also offers possible ways out of the problem: from the complementarity between individual choices and political perspectives, to the regulated market, to diffused democracy, to freedom coupled with individual responsibility.
(Photo Ansa)

The state of insecurity, so widespread in our society, as is known, refers not only to the real and present threats, but is strongly influenced by emotional perceptions for events understood as potentially offensive for the single individual.
Fear, in this way, becomes one of the sentiments most widely shared at a planetary level and the instruments to fight it or reduce the disruptive effects, must necessarily start from a major comprehension of the complex mechanisms which spread it among the peoples on the earth, who are different from one another in their culture and traditions.
The factors which contribute to the origins of the present wave of social alarm are, first of all, the great changes brought by globalization, but not only in the economy. The open market of the financial circuits, the exchange of merchandize arriving from all over the globe, the movement of great flows of people – regular or clandestine – the contextual connections of an informative kind have completely changed the approach and scale within which each one of us judge the conditions of security in which we live.
The perception is local, but what surprises us comes from far away. Let us think, for example, of the present financial crisis. As in any great crisis, the negative effects are not circumscribable to the impact that the credit crunch has had on the savers, or on the employees fired from the failed banks, on the investors or on the speculators. It is evident that the passage from an economy of euphoria, in which everything was possible, to an economy of austerity and prudence, finishes by provoking almost more panic among those who are not directly concerned, compared to those who – living within the catastrophe – have, however, the instruments to understand the impacts and eventually implement the countermeasures.
The market economy is, in fact, based on two principal sentiments of a collective character: in that of the euphoria the faith in the future prevails, with the collective conviction of the possibility that the growth is infinite. When the mechanism can no longer feed itself and the vortex of the money jams up, then anxiety intervenes and the taste for risk changes into a feeling of acute distress.
The freedom of the market places its uncertainty and precariousness more in evidence. It is precisely the market which, in the globalization, multiplies its models, loses any standardization and, therefore, becomes unpredictable. In the past, when the economy and the society lived within very limited boundaries,insecurity derived, fundamentally, from the breaking of rules and ignoring consolidated models of conduct; to be outside of the normal conduct, to infringe the regulations, to try to obtain advantages through questionable means, in a word, the deviance of the rules, was held to be the cause of insecure co-existence.
The globalization market does not define an optimal standard good in any situation, so that transgression is no longer a deformity of a static model, insomuch as the model itself is fluid. In the globalization the big offer of opportunity wins, both of the economic kind and of the relational type, released from the limits, protective in a certain way, of the blocked markets.
The same geopolitical order has a strong variability and entrusts to each operator the task of adapting, as they arise, the choices most congruent with the continual changes of the strategic scenario.
It is not by accident, when the world was divided in blocks and the threats were well defined, the problem of the security was manageable by large systems and affected the single individual very little, where loyalty to ones “block” was sufficient to live in reassuring conditions.
The global dimension assigns, therefore, more responsibility to the single individual, on whose shoulders are concentrated tasks and choices, defences which were once mediated by intermediary organizations, by a greater public and state protection, by objective conditions (the big factory, the large office, the cities of small dimensions etc.,) which today, are decidedly weakened. So that the individual is perennially exposed to a sense of inadequacy, due to incomprehension or incapacity to interpret the continual transformation of global logics. And, therefore, the fear of not being up to the challenges of our times, of not knowing how to respond to the meritocratic competition often causes the individual’s reactions to fall into irrationality and into the emotional sphere.
Furthermore, the globalization produces an indirect effect, inasmuch as it induces the States to reduce the level of social protection.
Also in Europe, welfare, on which the most advanced forms of solidarity and social growth are based, is in crisis.
When the defence of the currency and the macro-economic parameters slow the expansion of the public expenditure, it is less possible to respond to the growing demand of a society that lives longer, practices a sophisticated model of consumption, in which scientific progress prompts a continual intervention to preserve and improve the state of health.
The liberalization and the cuts in public expenditure create a major opening to the private sphere, a major individual freedom, but at the same time, uncertainty and risk, which finishes in frightening the large mass of the citizens accustomed to a more static architecture of the social organization.
Therefore, globalization reduces the space for the aggregative and intermediate dimension of the society and directs the weight of choice and responsibility onto the single individual, which until a short time ago was sustained by the public sphere.
It is evident that the strong dynamism of our times results in penalizing the behavioral characteristics of passiveness and low comprehension of events, compensating the cognitive deficits in the escape towards the emotional excesses.
Furthermore, the crumbling of the community spirit and the urban gigantism which, by this time, characterizes the greater part of the advanced Countries, now involves also Italy and risks depriving individuals of those community reference points which, in the past, functioned as a counterweight in the historical passages in which a change of paradigm occurred.
The structural transformations are further amplified by the stream of the news in real time and by the “hypnotic vertigo” provoked by the media, which transmits to the great mass of public opinion, in a repeated and strongly emphasized manner, the events produced by violence and crime, fruit of deviant and unmotivated behavior, or products of a distorted use of anti-democratic power.
The communication, even if not intending to, justifies the panic and climate of uncertainty, inasmuch as it amplifies the negative events and, therefore, projects these events on each one of us, as something that “could happen” and not as something that “has already happened”.
The information does not highlight something terrible in the present moment, but evokes “something horrible” threatened also for the future.
As Hillman wisely said, “Fear projects consequences that could easily happen and yet could, on the contrary, be completely imaginary”.
The considerations put forward must not lead us to think that the insecurities derive from a manipulation of power, the psych or the media. In reality, we know how violent mechanisms are created in the contemporary society. They are, to a great extent, irrational, not tied to specific interests and pollute the civil co-existence.
With regard to security, the state of our cities provokes widespread unease and, above all, does not offer continuative and definitive solutions, even when the Institutions intend, with particular commitment, to implement a remedy.
The cities have changed their structural make-up. Also in Italy, principally, in the richer regions of the Center-North, we are slowly superimposing, over the traditional structure of medium sized cities and small towns, great territorial containers in which the ancient historical identity cannot resist and, instead, there prevails the diffusion without boundaries, without order of the places of residence, and the concentration of new metropolitan polarities in peripheral places, which amass jobs and great flows of consumers.
The new identity of these territorial containers, which encompass great cities, anonymous peripheral residences, old villages, provincial cities and industrial districts, melt together and become the single amalgam of daily flows of commuters, which, in Italy, composes almost half of the employed.
Crowded in these metropolitan containers are great masses of people who have lost identification with places, with values and common traditions.
The metropolises become, therefore, systems of prevalently functional relations and always of less value. In the residents, they induce a feeling of the loss of roots and in the newcomers, a strong sense of disorientation.
The metropolitan insecurity manifests itself, although with a moderate rise of crime, since the presence of the criminality in the urban ambit – especially if organized or Mafioso – is much more damaging to the quality of the coexistence than the effects of victimization.
The metropolis increases its attractiveness extolling its principal characteristics of being the place of the chance encounter, the unexpected, the physical proximity of people, groups, ethnic groups and so forth. The heightened sense of insecurity derives from the change in the world one fears. It is the individual fear that renders even more distressing the perception of the risk resulting from the urban criminality. The anxiety has to be managed alone, while, in the past, the great fears (poverty, unemployment, sickness, nuclear war) were collective.
Security becomes one of the paradigms to organize the daily life of the cities. The livability depends also on the level of non-acceptance of anti-civic acts (gangs, vandalism, dirt, neglect of public spaces, illegal trading), as well as on the presence of social capital (networks and community design relations, and institutional capital (law enforcement) but also a respect for the rules, citizen training, symbolical factors.
The interventions of territorial control by professionals (Forces of Law and Order/ Public Operators) are fundamental and regard:
- territorial protection, in other words, securing the safety of the districts through the protection of the Institutions;
- the extended visibility and the tele-surveillance for distance remote control;
- the redevelopment of public space as permanently reclaiming it as a function of community use.
However, without an active role of the citizens, without a sharing of civic values, without developing solidarity networks, without reciprocal help and a social life of the neighborhood, the metropolises will never have greater security.
In conclusion, it is necessary to ask ourselves, more in general, on the possible ways out towards a more ordinary and peaceful community life. The State must disseminate convictions that overcome the diffuse emotional reactions; it must, ultimately, ‘delegitimize’ the fear. There may be the temptation to maximally exploit these fears in order to present oneself as the only true protector of the citizen. It is no coincidence that a survey of public opinion shows that citizens would willingly accept a limitation of individual freedom in exchange for greater security.
Indeed, such a tendency could turn out to be a boomerang. Since, putting the numerous phenomena that create panic under control, cannot take place without the involvement of the citizens themselves.
As it happened with the great financial crisis, reassurance comes from the capacity to exercise a control on the foundational mechanisms, on the transparency of relations and on the rules of co-existence. Had the States not immediately diffused hope and trust in the possibility of limiting the negative effects of the financial crisis, the risks of an economic catastrophe would have been much greater.
Therefore, each possible way out implies a complementarity between individual choices and political perspectives. A recent global survey in ten cities showed the most frequent personal reactions in overcoming anxieties were to impose upon oneself a positive attitude towards life, turning to one’s faith, but also the search for something pleasant in each day of one’s life.
At the same time, the uncertainty, that reverberates from the great communication system, or that imposed by unjustified violence, can find a positive outlet only by confirming the pillars of democracy and freedom, the regulated market and individual responsibility. The positive values are in opposition to those who, having to face the complexities of the present renounce, through terrorism or suicide, life, with all its risks and challenges that they are not able to substitute with credible hope.