Courtesy: Astra Taylor
Early on in Astra Taylor’s new book, “The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart,” she tells a story set in the Brooklyn cafe where her sister worked until recently. One of the baristas, who was talking to a regular client, a medieval historian, on a quiet afternoon, heard her phone ring. Her boss called. The barista was ordered to stop talking with the customer. The boss was watching a video stream from his laptop. There were eight cameras in the cafe. The workers were constantly worried about losing their jobs, even when they just wanted to show some kindness to an eccentric local. “
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Taylor doesn’t end the story there. Taylor also tries understand why the owner of the cafe was so alert. She lists the possible consequences of a failing business, including owing thousands of dollars in employee benefits and not being able to fulfill your contractual promises. Her book argues that bosses aren’t just acting out of the blue. This is the topic of her book — the fact that wherever we fall on the economic ladder, we’re all spurred on by insecurity.
“We can see the degree to which unnecessary suffering is widespread even among those who appear to be ‘winning’ according to the logic of the capitalist game,” Taylor writes.
Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker and organizer. She co-founded in 2014 the Debt Collective a union of debtors that has grown to be one of the most influential groups pushing student loan forgiveness. Her latest book began as Massey Lectures, a series of talks aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Former speakers include the author Margaret Atwood and linguist Noam Chomsky.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
‘There is existential insecurity’
Annie Nova: You write that a certain sense of insecurity is intrinsic to being human. But how is the insecurity so much of us feel today not necessary or inevitable?
I think there is existential insecurity. We are insecure beings. We’re vulnerable. What I call “manufactured insecurity” is something that exploits those vulnerabilities.AN: Why do we think it can be so hard for us to talk about or face our insecurities?
People are encouraged to hide their vulnerability, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. From organizing, I have learned that economic issues always involve emotions and political issues always involve psychology. The right wing today is speaking directly to people’s fears, but not in an honest way or in a manner that makes people feel solidarity with others who are vulnerable. It does this in a manner that encourages people to push more vulnerable people out of the mainstream. Authoritarian politics is all about denying vulnerability.Zoom In Icon
Courtesy: Astra Taylor
AN: How would being more honest about our own vulnerabilities help?
I wrote in the book that all sorts of bad things can happen to us. Cancer is a possibility. Another pandemic could occur. At the time, I was talking abstractly. Then, the next thing that I knew, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. This experience brought home the theme of the entire book: that we are vulnerable. You never know if you’re the one who needs a helping hand. Are we going to continue on this path where we leave everyone to sink or swim? Or are we going to continue further on this path where we leave everybody to sink or swim?AN: Do you mind me asking how your husband is doing?
He’s doing fine now. He had two CT scans, and is now clear. We were lucky to have health insurance. As I work with the Debt Collective team, I realize how fortunate we were to not have a large medical debt. The hospital was in a typical American situation. We were told, “You could pay cash and receive a 20% discount. “AN : I am so glad to hear that he is OK. When I write a story on people who have gotten debt relief, I get angry or upset comments from readers. Why do you think this is?
I love that question, and it’s kind of what motivated this book. I wondered why there was this constant feeling of scarcity. The current economic and political climate has a tendency to make people think of scarcity. We are so afraid to become more insecure. We are all so concerned about the future that we only care for our own corner. We assume that when other people succeed, it will mean less for us. But that doesn’t have to be the case.‘Security is all about the future’
AN: You write a lot about how the ways we try to seek financial security can ultimately backfire on us. How so?
You know we’re told that the way to have security in old age is by managing to save money and put it into our retirement accounts. These retirement accounts do not offer the same guaranteed pensions as in the past. The market has become incredibly volatile, so they are tied to it. We’re also investing in some terrible things. Investments in fossil fuels, for example, undermine the health of our planet. Even those who have made it to the middle class or upper middle class feel like they can never rest, because security is all about the future — and many of these systems are inherently unstable. This is why even people who crawl their way to the middle class or upper middle class feel like they can never get a break or rest, because security is all about the future — and many of these systems are inherently unstable.AN: How are people’s insecurities reframed more positively at the Debt Collective?
We invite people to talk honestly about their financial struggles, their hardship and their shame. We invite people to talk honestly about their financial struggles, hardships and shame. We are all in the same sinking and insecure boat. What if we joined forces? What if we banded together? What if policies were demanded that would make us safer? What if our insecurity was actually a strength?