A Banksy mural in Brooklyn, New York (Lizzy Sullivan/www.lizzysullivan.com)

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"True individual freedom,” argued Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, “cannot exist without economic security.” This sounds like pablum, but it’s actually an argument, and a theory. The idea is that people are most free, in the sense of true human flourishing, when their material needs are taken care of. How free can we be, really, if we’re working jobs we hate just to pay for basic needs like housing, health care, and education?

However obvious this might seem, Roosevelt’s idea of security is widely contested. It could be that security makes us lazy, and that it’s only the sting of uncertainty that can goad us toward creativity and innovation. Janet Yellen made this argument explicit in 1997. “Job insecurity,” she claimed, “produces productivity-enhancing changes in workers’ behavior, mitigating the need for alternative controls.” In other words: if workers are anxious about their employment, they’ll work harder and smarter. It’s hard to imagine a sentiment further from Roosevelt’s—and one coming, it must be said, from a fellow Democrat.

The arc of modern history can be interpreted as a struggle between security and insecurity. Should the former be a right, and if so, how ought it to be secured? Or, alternatively, ought we to embrace insecurity as a spur to entrepreneurial living? We don’t always think in those terms. It’s more common, probably, to think about inequality or democracy as the fundamental variables of our shared life. But what happens if we place “security”—its rise, fall, and potential rebirth—at the center of our political and historical understanding?

It’s an interesting experiment because security, more than its competitors, is both a material reality and a subjective state. Insecurity as a gnawing anxiety is something that all of us share. Many millions of Americans are in crushing debt, and have little sense of where their next paycheck is coming from. The psychic toll of this is astounding; it is registered demographically in the famous “deaths of despair” that have overwhelmed downwardly mobile rural communities. But those of us who are relatively privileged experience insecurity, too. It is my personal experience, and one attested to by sociologists, that well-off people are white-hot balls of anxiety, consumed to the point of mania by climate anxiety, retirement anxiety, school districts, and more.

In The Age of Insecurity, the scholar-activist Astra Taylor attempts to map this insecure world that we call home. In her decades of activist experience, she didn’t hear much talk of security, as organizers tended toward more galvanizing concepts like “justice.” Her book, though, argues that security ought to become an important component of analysis and activism, as it was a century ago. After all, what is it that we fundamentally desire, in the end, for ourselves and our families? Most of us do not live our lives, day in and day out, in search of democracy or equality, much as we cherish those things. We seek security—and we seek it because, wherever we are on the economic ladder, we don’t have it. Here is where an analysis, and a politics, might begin.


Astra Taylor is well placed to provide a new analysis of security. She was born in Canada and raised in a countercultural family. She spent her childhood traveling around in her parents’ VW van, exploring the natural world and sorting out a communal existence without grades or bedtimes. Taylor, more than most of us, has actually experienced the dream of personal autonomy that emerged from the 1960s. When she turned eight, though, she had an experience that will be sadly familiar to most readers: she entered fourth grade.

I shudder to think about fourth grade and all its indignities and anxieties. I chalk them up, though, to my own flaws, and some part of me is still in awe of the fourth-grade “cool kids.” Taylor’s experience was similar to mine, but she is more philosophical about it. For her, it was an indoctrination into the world of insecurity she would grow up to chronicle. This was a world of established hierarchies, in which those below the top eschewed solidarity in the name of dog-eat-dog competition. This was a world of artificially scarce resources, in which every child and every family was meant to feel that they were somehow “not enough,” and needed to be working harder and faster.

When she grew up, Taylor remained attentive to how social structures sorted people into winners and losers. One of the primary mechanisms of this sorting is debt. While Taylor’s activism and writing have taken many forms, they all come back to this basic theme: How does it happen that so many millions of people, in search of basic human goods like health care and education, end up with crippling debt obligations that hamper their freedom? And what might be done about it?

Taylor became a debt abolitionist and cofounded the Debt Collective, the first union for debtors. She helped write The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, which is available for free online. It is a remarkable text, combining an insurgent form of social criticism with helpful ideas about how actual people can deal with actual debt. The Debt Collective ran a “Rolling Jubilee Fund,” which erased more than $30 million worth of debt by buying debts on the secondary market, for pennies on the dollar, and canceling them.

Taylor has kept up a steady stream of more intellectual production, as well. She published several books on participatory democracy, and also directed two documentaries. Throughout, she has remained more attentive than many leftist writers to the predicament of the existing working class. Her 2018 documentary, What Is Democracy?, for instance, includes interviews not only with famous intellectuals, but also with everyday people from around the world. The presumption of the documentary is that, to understand what democracy is and could be, it’s necessary to understand both the philosophical tradition and the ideas that emerge from the everyday reality of ordinary people.

People are most free, in the sense of true human flourishing, when their material needs are taken care of.

It is striking, at this moment of democratic crisis, that Taylor has chosen to write a book about security, not democracy. The Age of Insecurity actually has little to say about democracy. Perhaps that word has been repeated so frequently, and has meant so many different things, that it hardly means much at all anymore. If we’re going to think properly about human flourishing in 2023, maybe democracy should be not our starting point, but our end point. And perhaps we should begin, as Maslow’s hierarchy would have it, with something more fundamental.


What is security? The word has many uses: we speak frequently of “retirement security,” “national security,” and so on. Etymologically, these diverse uses hark back to the Latin “sine cure,” meaning something like “without worry” or “freedom from care.” Taylor thinks, though, that there are two fundamentally distinct kinds of security. She calls the first kind “existential,” referring to the philosophical or religious quest to insulate oneself from anxiety about the unavoidable risks and limitations of the human condition. There is nothing wrong with this kind of security, but it is not Taylor’s focus. In many of its guises, there is something apolitical about it. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who made security of this sort his touchstone, was a counselor to Nero, a brutal tyrant. And in the present, too, the apostles of self-care are often indifferent to the work of politics (which we might call “other-care”).

Taylor is more interested in “material security.” She does not define this simply as “protection against violence.” This is how many of us use the word in everyday speech, and the philosophical tradition has used it that way, too. But from her perspective, an overwhelming emphasis on physical security has led to carceral solutions while ignoring the vast infrastructure necessary to provide something like genuine material security. Physical violence is only one of many material harms that we can suffer. We worry about making rent, paying our student loans, and being able to afford a visit to the hospital. We worry about the climate, and we worry about job prospects for our children. All of these are material concerns, and until they are all met, we are not “materially secure.”

She’s interested, too, in a definition of security that makes sense for the twenty-first century. As she knows very well, the ideology of “security” that was ascendant in Roosevelt’s day is in need of updating. That kind of security was mainly for white Americans with stable jobs, and it was premised on a carbon-heavy exploitation of nature. The security we need today will need to include a greater diversity of people and the natural world itself.

Unlike existential security, material security is inherently political: we cannot provide these things ourselves, and the most rigorous routine of self-care and meditation will not matter a jot to our mortgage company. And the political system at its best has oriented itself around material security. The New Deal is the most famous example, but far from the only one. The entire point of the welfare state is to socialize risk. Life is a dangerous thing, and unemployment, sickness, or disability could come for any of us. In a society that has massive resources at its disposal, it seems logical that we should pool some of these resources to help those who succumb to such risks. That is the logic of “social insurance,” which inspired whatever shreds of a welfare state we have in this country.

It’s interesting to think about the past and the present through the lens of security understood in this way. A focus on “democracy” or “inequality” tends, for good or for ill, toward a story of winners and losers. The history of security doesn’t quite look like that. While security is unequally distributed, it is not a fungible resource like money, or even power. Rich people feel insecure, too, and in some ways they are insecure. As we know too well by now, it is the apparently secure but downwardly mobile who are drawn toward fascist politics.

The history of security, therefore, presents us with a real conundrum. Security is something that we all want, but none of us really have. How did this happen? This is the most fundamental question of Taylor’s book. Why has the explosive growth in humanity’s productive potential generated so much insecurity? Premodern societies were insecure, too, of course: plagues and floods and bad harvests were a constant threat. But why was this not resolved?


It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Taylor excavates all sorts of thinkers and activists who longed for security. Many of them, precisely because they don’t fit into a standard narrative about democracy, have been forgotten. Consider, she suggests, the Magna Carta, the 1215 agreement between King John of England and some of his nobles. All of us have heard of this; most of us, myself included, presume that it was an important milestone in the history of democracy. And it was. But it was also a milestone in the history of material security. The document and its companion, the forgotten Charter of the Forest, were concerned with disputing royal rights to the forest, allowing free men to hunt and graze their animals without interference.

If we take the Charter of the Forest, rather than the more political Magna Carta, as our touchstone, a new cast of heroes snaps into focus. In this particular volume, many of those heroes are Canadian. For an American reader, it was wonderful to learn about the Canadian activists, many of them Indigenous, who have sought to protect the commons from exploitation over the centuries. Canada’s contribution to this entire story is greater than one might expect. To take just one example: John Humphrey, the primary drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a Canadian lawyer and socialist.

But why did they lose? The answer, unsurprisingly, is “capitalism.” Perhaps some of you are rolling your eyes right now: Is this book just another broad-brush assault against a vaguely defined capitalism? While parts of the book do read that way, Taylor is also trying to show us something specific about capitalism and its relationship to security. Capitalism relies on insecurity, and could not survive without it. Insecurity is not a bug in the system—it is the ghost in the machine. She calls this “manufactured insecurity,” and she finds the crispest summation of it in a century-old business magazine: “Satisfied customers,” readers learned, “are not as profitable as discontented ones.”

Material security is inherently political: we cannot provide these things ourselves, and the most rigorous routine of self-care and meditation will not matter a jot to our mortgage company.

Capitalism follows an emotional logic just as much as it follows an economic one, argues Taylor. According to the economics textbooks, capitalism is built upon happiness-maximizing consumers. But is that really your experience when you’re trudging through Target or scrolling through Poshmark? Is it really and truly an experience that is bringing you greater happiness than you had before? Or, alternatively, are you anxiously scratching an itch, trying to salve a gnawing sense that other people’s lives are better than yours, or more fun, or more beautiful?

Capitalism, Taylor insists, produces insecurities that it then leverages in order to maximize profit. It does so primarily through advertising and education—and Taylor devotes a bravura chapter to those themes. She shows how we are bombarded, from preschool onward, with the sense that we are somehow insufficient, and that this feeling can be resolved only through ruthless self-improvement (a process, incidentally, that often involves gargantuan amounts of debt for education and housing). The trick, though, is that this feeling cannot be expunged. And the higher we find ourselves on the economic ladder, the more dangerous the feeling becomes. With people, as with animals, the combination of actual power and perceived vulnerability is toxic.

From this perspective, the insurance industry—rather than, say, the petroleum or pharmaceutical industries—becomes the most important sector of the economy. It’s not that the idea of insurance is bad. As Taylor points out in a fascinating chapter on Franz Kafka, who spent his workdays toiling in insurance, it has an almost utopian idea at its core. We can, it promises, be secure, even in a highly complex and uncertain world. And yet, as all readers know, the insurance industry does not, today, function in this way. It is now a for-profit venture, promising security, but only for those wealthy enough to pay for it. And even then, that promise is uncertain: private insurers are discovering that it is not always profitable to assume the risks of climate change.


In some ways, this is all familiar territory: analysts of capitalism have made similar points for a century, and this is a reality that we live every day. Still, I think that Taylor is on to something very important, something that is frequently lost in the current wave of capitalism critique. It has to do with what, in the end, we fundamentally desire. Equality, freedom, and democracy: stirring words, but not always the most energizing, because it’s not always clear how they cash out in the currency of our daily life. Security, though, is something else altogether. We obviously do value security; it is a desire that actually explains behavior. The problem is that we do so in ways that are ultimately counterproductive. Our individual quests for security are bound to fail, insofar as they take place inside a system that relies on insecurity as its animating principle.

Of course, Taylor is far from alone in calling for more material security, and most of us probably already assume that our lives would be greatly enhanced by it. What’s interesting about her approach, though, is that she’s attuned to the ways in which the existential and material questions coincide. In this book, as in her previous writings, the philosophical quest for flourishing is inseparable from a political quest for justice and solidarity. Or, to return to the warring visions that opened this essay: Taylor agrees with Roosevelt that true freedom, and true flourishing, is only possible once material security is guaranteed. “I can’t help but wonder,” she writes, “what things would be like, and how I might live differently, if my material security were guaranteed.”

Her point is that material insecurity impoverishes our lives in all kinds of ways, and not just the obvious ones. Taylor has a philosopher’s spirit, and her earliest documentaries are explicit attempts to bring philosophical giants to the masses. For her, to live a full human life is to grapple with interesting questions, and to answer them creatively with our minds and bodies.

From this perspective, one of the saddest elements of our present situation is that the questions we confront are, to put it baldly, stupid ones. Taylor’s example: “Should a handful of fossil-fuel executives have license to incinerate the planet?” This is, without a doubt, one of the crucial questions of our time, but the answer is so obvious that we are not improved by our attempts to answer it. In a more just world with more security, more interesting and important questions would arise—questions like, “If nature has rights,” which Taylor thinks it should, “should invasive species have equal protections?” Now that is an interesting question, which leads to another one: What would our world be like if our political life was oriented around interesting questions like these? How might our lives, existentially and materially, be enriched?

The Age of Insecurity doesn’t tackle those challenging questions. What it does, instead, is explain why our world hardly allows them to be posed and hardly gives us the breathing space to think about them. It is, yes, a readable and insightful analysis of our present. But we have a lot of those—maybe too many. What makes this book worth the reader’s time is its idiosyncratic blend of the personal and the public, the emotional and the economic. It reads as though it were written from the trenches: from the picket lines and the bread lines, rather than from the seminar room. It is a personal book, interspersing autobiographical vignettes with historical and economic analyses. This is not just a stylistic choice; it’s central to Taylor’s understanding of what intellectual life—what human life—could and ought to be.

The Age of Insecurity
Coming Together as Things Fall Apart 
Astra Taylor
House of Anansi
$24.99 | 352 pp.

James Chappel is the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History at Duke University. He is working on a book about security, anxiety, and old age for Basic Books.

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Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents
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