History is the career of a frightened animal who has to deaden himself against life in order to live.Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil
There are only two possible responses to the inevitability of death: terror, and acceptance. Human activity, including politics, is rooted in this dichotomy.* Understood from this perspective (Death: Terror, vs. Acceptance of), the news of the world is far easier to grasp.
All human beings are going to die, even the ultrarich, who are getting themselves all plumped up with longevity treatments and squirrelling away real property in New Zealand, which consequently promises to be a real hellhole, should the apocalypse come anytime soon. Now that the rich are no longer required to pay taxes, death has become the sole universal human predicament.
Given the total inevitability part, every human being faces only two options:
(a) To resent, fear and attempt to deny the looming end, which will result in deep anxiety, followed by a resolve to grab and consume as much and as fast as possible before it comes;
(b) To leave the mystery where it is, and consider the billions who came before you, and all who will come after, as a spur to leave the world and everything in it in a better condition than the one in which you found it.
It almost goes without saying that the latter position is superior, because the former is doomed. Fight it as frantically as you like—sooner or later, a state of acceptance is coming for you. This sounds depressing but in fact it is a point of departure and presents possibilities of hope and productivity and fulfillment that are closed off to the fearful death-deniers.
Death-terror causes people to seize everything they can, as quickly as they can. They won’t be there to see the wreckage anyway, so it doesn’t matter how much of a mess they make. The greed is a flight response, a complex sublimation of fear into animal nature: it’s a flight from blind terror into blinding, blurring sensuality, whether through food, sex, drinking, drugs, the acquisition of power over others, fine threads, massages and mud facials, whatever will drown the panic out in ever more intense, more rarefied sensations.
Becker says that placing yourself above other people is a way of convincing yourself that you are immortal, that death is literally not coming; there is a psychological moment to that theory that is undeniably compelling, especially with respect to politics, plus his arguments are supremely elegant and sound. But to my mind fear degrades the mind so deeply that even the “immortality project” is commonly kind of sludged out of the way in favor of blindly stuffing your terrified face one way or another, as the current inhabitant of the White House appears to demonstrate every day.
There’s a lot of fiction about voluptuaries, power, fear and sin, from The Picture of Dorian Gray and Doktor Faustus to Vathek to I don’t know, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Mortal fear is temporarily alleviated or at least occluded, tamped down by an intense focus on consumption, whether of things or of people. The trouble being that once the consumption is over the terror comes back, owing to the inevitability thing, which is why the very richest and most powerful never have enough and seem the most panicked of all, it is because they are, they are terrified, and their runway of More and More is running out fast.
Extrapolate personal terror and greed into politics and business, and you can see very easily why unchecked power tends irrevocably to corruption and abuse. Few systems are equipped to resist the bedrock human motivation of naked terror—perhaps because it goes unnamed as the root cause.
If one lives according to “social Darwinist” principles like those of Ayn Rand or modern Republicanism, the goal is for each being to suck up as much pleasure and things and money and feeling as possible before death (and anyone who is sufficiently panicked will believe this). It then follows that the sole meaningful use of power is to grab; it doesn’t matter from where, from whom or at what cost. There will never be enough because the fear goes all the way down and there is no reasoning with it.
Fear-motivated leaders are obsessed with being perceived as strong exactly because they are pissing themselves with fear every second. Their people are slaves who are not allowed to travel freely. Walls, travel bans, restrictions on freedom to marry or reproduce, all are a testament to the fear slicing away at the hearts of those in power. At bottom, what they fear most springs from one central source: it’s not so much that they’re afraid to be poor, or afraid of obscurity, or of aging or irrelevance as that they’re afraid to die.
Too bad for them! They’re going to anyway.
It’s no accident that one of the world’s scaredest men, Jeff Bezos, calls his inamorata “alive girl.”
The scareder they are, the more harm such people try to inflict. The limit being that if they have the power to remove life from others and yet are still alive themselves, then that sublimates their own fear in the baldest way: this one is dead, and I am not. But it may get to where just one or two or five or ten or a hundred deaths isn’t enough. An unchecked tyrant will kill millions if he can, just to slake his own fear for a while.
Whatever! They are still gonna die.
Politicians and monopolists and business titans who are afflicted in this way are very easily identified. Most of them do their grabbing in broad daylight and make all kinds of excuses about how really they are the good guy. They are not.
Death panic inevitably produces a corrupt and regressive politics, and the philosophical attitude produces a tolerant and healthy politics. But we’re suffering globally from a wave of death panic, with the walls and shutdowns and racism and rising authoritarianism, all exacerbated by the fear of climate change, droughts, famine, rising seas. This is no accident, it’s the fear of things running out. And maybe they will! But we don’t have to panic or hurt each other; death is inevitable, but fear isn’t.
Renouncing one’s own greed, understanding oneself as one small participant in the long conga line of history, is reassuring, as is the idea that you can contribute to the well-being of those who will survive you. In fact it’s the only real (by which I mean, lasting) balm for the fear that is the inevitable companion of life.
A rough test of whether a government is inclined to take or give is to consider its citizens’ freedoms of movement and of speech. Sick, fearful societies restrict movement, spy on their citizens and oppress their journalists; the more people are allowed to live, speak and travel unimpeded, as they wish, the healthier the society.
This is all that matters, and only politicians who center their efforts on the well-being of ordinary people, and who have a proven record of this concern, should be considered for any high office. This isn’t a matter of personality or of individualism but of demonstrated actions; not personal character or probity but mere fidelity to the truth that anyone can demonstrate, or not.
Hannes Grasseger’s recent piece in BuzzFeed regarding the late Arthur Finkelstein, one of the weirdest villains the United States has yet produced, delineates this theory in very exact and simple terms.
Though I must say I find the headline here misleading in the extreme. The terrible and fascinating thing about Arthur Finkelstein (American, Jewish, gay, grandfather shot by Nazis, close associate of Ayn Rand, an idiot and, also, evil incarnate) is that he is directly responsible for, and was paid to achieve, the elections of the following cast of death-cult fiends, among others: Nixon, Reagan, Netanyahu, Orbán, Trump.
Finkelstein’s goal was to polarize the electorate as much as possible, to pitch each side against the other. The fuel: fear. “The danger has to be presented as coming from the Left,” a 25-year-old Finkelstein advised Nixon.
Whoever doesn’t attack first will be beaten, he argued. And Finkelstein made things personal. Every campaign needs an enemy to defeat. He developed negative campaigning into a technique he called “rejectionist voting” — to demonize the enemy so much that even the laziest of voters would want to get out and vote, just to reject them.
Good going, Finkelstein, stoke the fear, turn people into unreasoning grabbing animals! Steal from them their dignity, intelligence and courage—their freedom! Great idea. Hey, someone is coming to take yours!! You have to grab it from them first! You have to attack first or you die, well guess what, you are going to die anyway, attacking will not help, so maybe figure out a less panicky view of the world so you can live, instead, for the time we have. And we can, we can do this.
*This is an insanely curt response to Ernest Becker, the greatest sociologist ever (with the possible exception of the Fields sisters), so please read Denial of Death and Escape from Evil for the full scoop.