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 café where her sister worked until recently. On a quiet day, one of the baristas was talking with a regular customer, a specialist in medieval history, when her phone rang. It was her boss. He ordered the barista to stop chatting with the customer. There were at least eight security cameras placed throughout the small café, and the boss had been watching a livestream from his laptop.
The security cameras were there, at least in part, to make the workers feel insecure about holding on to their jobs, Taylor writes. “Even when all they wanted to do was show a bit of kindness and community to a local eccentric, the workers were perpetually worried about being fired.”
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Taylor doesn’t end the story there. She also tries to understand what might be propelling the boss of the café to be so vigilant in the first place. She lists some of the consequences of owning a failing business: potentially owing thousands in employee benefits, and being unable to make good on your contractual promise. She writes that bosses “aren’t acting in a vacuum.” 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. In 2014, she co-founded the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, which has become among the most influential groups pushing for 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?
Astra Taylor: I think there is existential insecurity. We’re insecure creatures. 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?
AT: People are encouraged to hide their vulnerability, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I’ve learned from organizing that economic issues are always emotional issues, and politics issues are always psychological. Today, the right wing is really speaking to people’s insecurities but not in a way that’s honest or makes them feel solidarity with other people who are vulnerable. Instead, it does so in a way that makes people want to push even more vulnerable people to the margins. Authoritarian politics is all about denying vulnerability.
AN: How would being more honest about our own vulnerabilities help?
AT: I wrote in the book that all sorts of bad things can happen to us. You can get cancer. There could be another pandemic. I was speaking abstractly at the time. And then the next thing I know, my husband got cancer. That experience just drove home the whole theme of the book, which is that we’re vulnerable. You never know when you’re going to be the one needing a hand. And so are we going to structure society to bail each other out when tough times come? 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?
AT: He’s doing fine now. He got two CT scans and he’s clear. Luckily, we had health insurance. Working with the Debt Collective, I see how lucky we were that we didn’t have to take on a lot of medical debt. It was a classic American situation at the hospital. They told us, “You can pay in cash now and get a 20% discount.”
AN: I’m really glad to hear he’s OK. Whenever I do a story about people getting debt forgiveness, I’ll get comments from people who are upset or angry that others got that relief. Why do you think this is?
AT: I love that question, and it’s kind of what motivated this book. I was wondering why there is this constant sense of scarcity. There’s something about the current political and economic climate that just makes people have this scarcity mindset. We’re so afraid of becoming more insecure. We’re all so worried about the future, that we’re just tending to our own little corner. And when we see other people get ahead, we assume it means 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?
AT: 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. But those retirement accounts are not the guaranteed pensions of the past. They’re pegged to the market, and the market is incredibly unstable. And there are terrible things we’re investing in. For example, investments in fossil fuels are undermining the planet’s health. Investments in tech companies can undermine labor rights. 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?
AT: We invite people to talk honestly about their financial struggles, their hardship and their shame. And we actually process our emotions collectively, and realize we’re all in this boat together. We’re all in this insecure and sinking boat! What if we banded together? What if we tried to bail each other out? What if we demanded policies that made us more secure? And what if we understood our insecurity as strength?