Anger is a natural part of being human and can arise because people feel they have been badly treated, a personal boundary has been crossed or they have been denied something. It is also part of collective behavior that can regulate or amplify stress.
We’re part of an integrated globalised society hitting financial and ecological limits and this is starting to challenge peoples’ habituated expectations. There’s been a clear emergence of tensions and anger in many parts of the world since the global financial crisis began. The effects of the crisis, and responses to it have made people angry at the financial sector, governments, the “One Percent”, international institutions or capitalism itself. Ecological constraints are being reflected in record food and oil prices. Food prices have always been a trigger of social unrest, in France in 1789 and the year of revolutions in 1848. More recently Yaneer Bar-Yam and colleagues show a strong correlation between the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) food price index and outbreaks of social unrest. This has forced simmering but contained antagonisms to the surface as happened in the Arab Spring.
But we need to be clear, the large-scale predicament and the emergent socio-economic stresses that we are beginning to experience has very little to with fraud, corruption and the greed of a tiny few. It has a lot to do with our human civilization running into limits. As socio-economic stress deepens and uncertainty rises we can expect anger spreading in severity and scale in the coming years. Uncomprehending rage turned outwards and inwards, fantasies of catharsis through revolution, extremism and authoritarianism, aggressive power/productive asset accumulation and scapegoating are just some of destructive behaviors we’re likely to see.
The stakes involved in such transitions mean that it’s important to interrogate our anger, and question its foundations. That’s why I’d argue that in the rich part of the world there has been a huge amount of self-righteous finger-pointing that is not only delusional but may well be detrimental to how we deal with the collective challenges ahead. None of this means, for example, that fairness and inequality (especially in-group) are not hugely (and innately) important for people, and that societies who fail to engage with it in the difficult years ahead are greatly adding to the risk of catastrophic social fractures that will do nobody any good.
Posted on Thursday, April 17th 2014