The Strongmen and the Anxious Class
Zygmunt Bauman 10 January 2017

A spectre is haunting the lands of democracy: the spectre of Strongman (or Woman). As Robert Reich suggests in “Donald Trump And The Revolt Of The Anxious Class”[1], that spectre (in this particular case dressed as Trump, though known to be wearing many and varied local-folk, national-outfits) – was born (in the style of Aphrodite emerging from the frothy tides of Aegean sea) of the anxiety overwhelming “the great American middle class”, now affected by the “frighteningly high” odds “of falling into poverty”.

Two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Most could lose their jobs at any time. Many are part of a burgeoning ‘on demand’ workforce – employed as needed, paid whatever they can get whenever they can get it. Yet if they don’t keep up with rent or mortgage payments, or can’t pay for groceries or utilities, they’ll lose their footing.

Those “two thirds of Americans” had been forced, we may say, to walk on a sea as clobbered and buffeted by crosswinds and no less turbulent than was the Sea of Galilee of St.Mathew’s Gospel. According to that Gospel, walking on that sea was a matter of keeping faith – but in whom can Reich’s “anxious class” invest their trust? “Safety nets are full of holes. Most people who lose their jobs don’t even qualify for unemployment insurance. Government won’t protect their jobs from being outsourced to Asia or being taken by a worker here illegally”. As Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, quoted by Reich, found out in 1,799 resolutions of the Congress they scrutinized, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”. No wonder that more and more members of once “great”, now “anxious” American middle class “view government as not so much incompetent as not giving a damn. It’s working for the big guys and fat cats.” And so no wonder either that

they’d support a strongman who’d promise to protect them from all the chaos. Who’d save jobs from being shipped abroad, slam Wall Street, stick it to China, get rid of people here illegally, and block terrorists from getting into America. A strongman who’d make America great again – which really means make average working people safe again.

Trusting a strongman’s omnipotence, Reich points out, is “a pipe dream”, and gaining such trust by Trump is a “conjurer’s trick”. Reich’s dismissal of both is, of course, correct. All the same, the rallying of the “anxious class” around a conjurer, who tricks them into dreaming the pipe dreams he spins out, is not necessarily predetermined and inevitable. The answer to the question posited recently by Joseph M.Schwartz, professor of political science at Temple University [2] – “Will downwardly mobile, white, middle- and working-class people follow the nativist, racist politics of Trump and Tea Partiers (who espouse the myth that the game is rigged in favor of undeserving poor people of color), or lead a charge against the corporate elites responsible for the devastation of working-class communities?” – is all but a foregone conclusion. As Schwartz suggests, a New York Times/CBS News survey “taken shortly before [senator Bernie] Sanders’ 19 November 2015 Georgetown University speech on democratic socialism” [3] that found 56 percent of Democratic primary voters feeling  positively about socialism versus only 29 percent who felt negatively, allows us to suppose that “most of those polled (…) associate capitalism with inequality, massive student debt and a stagnant labor market. They envision socialism to be a more egalitarian and just society”. From the present plight of the “anxious class” (or to deploy the concept coined by Guy Standing, of the fast swelling, on both sides of the Atlantic, ranks of the “precariat”), more than one policy choice derives. One policy counts on strong man; the other on strong people. Though the odds seem at present far from even – and that for a number of reasons.


In the terminology of great Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, all earthly powers feed and thrive on recasting “cosmic fear”, inborn and endemic to humans – that is, the fear in the face of the immeasurably great and immeasurably powerful; in the face of the starry heavens, the material mass of the mountains, the sea, and the fear of cosmic upheavals and elemental disasters in ancient mythologies, worldviews, systems of images, in languages themselves and the forms of thinking bound up with them… This cosmic fear, fundamentally not mystical in the strict sense (being a fear in the face of the materially great and materially indefinable power), is used by all religious systems for the suppression of the person and his consciousness [4] – into its contrived, artful “official” variety. That recasting obviously serves the vested interest of powers that be; but it wouldn’t do it, were it not for making simultaneously a step towards mitigating slightly the would-be insufferable horror – and thereby rendering mundane human life a bit less unliveable; it does so through “cutting the infinite and the timeless” down to the measure of human finite mental and pragmatic faculties. In my study In Search of Politics (Polity Press 1999, pp.58-9) I commented on Bakhtin’s view that the cosmic fear was “the prototype of mundane, earthly power, which, however, remoulded its primeval prototype into official fear, the fear of the human yet not fully human power, man-made but exceeding human capacity to resist”:



 (U)nlike its cosmic prototype, the official fear had to be, and indeed was, manufactured – designed, “made to measure” … In the laws which Moses brought to the people of Israel, the echoes of thunders high up at the top of Mount Sinai reverberated. But the laws spelled out light and clear what the thunders only darkly [and thus confusingly, terrifyingly, and ultimately disabingly insinuated. The laws offered answers, so that questions might cease to be asked.

Out of the unmanageable because infinitely distant and impenetrable threat, a feasible and by comparison deceptively easy demand to obey the legibly spelled-out commandments had been conjured. Brought to earth, powers that be re-forged primeval fear into the horror of deviation from the rule; a superhuman cosmic tragedy into a mundane, human, all-too-human task and duty; and the fear and trembling caused by the unfathomable enigma of God’s will into the commandment to follow the intelligible, clearly spelled out proscriptions and prescriptions collated and codified by His plenipotentiaries – His anointed spokesmen walking on earth.

In his study of the complex relationship between the earthly managers of “official fear” and those on the receiving side of their management, and resorting to the help of Trial and Castle, Franz Kafka’s two novels, Roberto Calasso shows that the issue is more complicated than this; making the “official fear” work is not so straightforward a task. [5] “Were the villagers to see the exegetes of The Castle talking long- windedly of deities and of God and how they interfere in their lives, they would probably act indignantly” – Calasso suggest. They would resent all learned attempts to compare the occupants of the Castle to God, and other divine beings known to them from religious lessons. “How simple it would be to have dealings” with the insiders of the Castle, if – as in the case of God – “it would be enough to study a little theology and to rely upon the heart’s devotion – they would think. But the Castle officials are rather more complicated. No science or discipline can help in dealing with them”.

Indeed, the religious systems – according to Bakhtin the first arrangements to attempt and achieve the recycling of the “cosmic” into an “official” fear (or, rather, to fabricate the “official fear” after the pattern of the “cosmic”, while capitalizing on the groundwork already done by the fear’s prime, original sources) – tended to secure the submission and obedience of their subjects by promising (and delivering, even if in quality and quantity falling well short of the promised) the foolproof recipes for currying the God’s grace and favours and for placating His wrath in case the efforts to follow His commandments to the letter would have proved in practice too tough and onerous a task. Losing nothing of his fearsomeness, God might be – unlike the numb and dumb sources of the cosmic fear – talked to: prayed, begged, beseeched, implored, through words and deeds, to forgive sins and reward virtues; and unlike the blind and deaf Nature, God might listen, hear, and oblige the repentant, conscience-stricken and contrite penitents. Churches, God’s self-proclaimed earthly plenipotentiaries, spelled out meticulously and in profuse detail the code of conduct bound to induce him, equipped simultaneously with powers of blessing and curse, to do just that. Smarting under the blows of fate, the victims of God’s wrath knew exactly what they had to do in order to earn redemption. In case the redemption was slow in coming, they believed that they must have been doing it not zealously enough – being therefore guilty of a principally leave correctable misdemeanour.

But this is precisely the kind of arrangement that the modern edition of official fear, conscripted and redeployed by secular political powers, rejects in its practice – even if hardly ever neglecting to perform a lip service to its precepts. In a blatant violation of the modern intention and promise to replace the blind games of fate (that is, the annoyingly confusing disconnection of human doings from their consequences for the doers and others around them) by a coherent, relatively unambiguous order of things guided by moral principles of justice and responsibility – assuring thereby a strict correspondence between the plight of humans and their behavioural choices – humans are nowadays finding themselves exposed to a society overfilled with risks yet void of certainties and guarantees. Two novel circumstances call to rethink – and if not revise, then at least supplement Bakhtin’s model.

The first is the  leave far-reaching “individualization” – a codename for the powers that be standing for the imagined totality of “society” insistence to “subsidiarize” (in simpler terms offloading, or yet more to the point dumping) the task of tackling the problems generated by existential uncertainty to the eminently inadequate resources commanded to individuals on their own; as the late Ulrich Beck put it, it is now the individuals who are charged with the all but un-fulfillable task of finding, individually, solutions to socially produced problems.
Devoured by that diffuse, dissipated and scattered fear that infiltrates and penetrates the whole of the life setting and the totality of life-pursuits as capillary vessels do the totality of the living body, humans are abandoned to their own resources – puny and miserably flimsy assets by comparison with the grandiosity of existential liabilities. As Byung-Chul Han suggests [6], Kafka himself supplied the key to his heroes’ condition in his concise aphorism containing a new interpretation of the Prometheus legend [7]: “Gods are tired, vultures are tired, liver closed up tired” – adding that in the present time the semiotics  leave (exact medical term!) of the liver pain is that of fatigue: weariness, exhaustion, incapacitation; and that it is we, the denizens and actors-by-behest of the present-day “society of performance”, now deputizing for the old-fashioned “society of discipline” while replacing the Freudian watchword devoir with pouvoir in the office of its mot d’ordre, leave who are manoeuvred into the function of vultures causing that fatigue (pp.7-9). Holding to leave Byung-Chul Han’s metaphorics, we need to conclude that as long as our mots d’ordre are no longer obedience, law and obligations to be met, but liberty, desires and penchant for their satisfaction to enjoy (p.12) – our plight is a DIY version of Promethean drama. We are the liver torn apart, and we are the vultures tearing is apart. Taking a leaf from Alain Ehrenberg’s La Fatigue d’être soi (Odile Jacob 2008), Byung-Chul Han proposes that depression, the staple ailment in a society of performers, is not caused by the excess of responsibilities and duties, but by the “imperative of performance, the novel rule of the society of post-modern labour” (p.55).

How is this happening? This time over, in a way starkly different from that remembered from the “society of discipline” (in my terms the “solid modern” society) immortalized by Franz Kafka or Michel Foucault; a society used to sediment and expurgate criminals as Joseph K. from Kafka’s Trial and/or lunatics as in Foucault’s doctoral dissertation Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. As Byung-Chul Han suggests, our “society of performance” specializes for a change in the manufacture and purge of “depressives and misfits” (p.52). Failing to reach the standards and volumes of performance which the denizens of the “society of performance” are expected to attain and must attain in order to survive (often bodily, but always socially), both above named categories fall victims of self-exploitation, self-tormenting and self-exhaustion. They both are simultaneously victims and culprits of their failure and of the depression that at the sane time causes it and follows (comp. p.56). It is their own shameful inadequacy, stripping them of whatever has remained of their self-esteem that they blame for their misfortune and humiliation.

“Society of performance” is first and foremost a society of the individual performance, and of a “culture of sink-or-swim individualism” – in which “daily live becomes precarious”, forcing the individual into a “state of constant readiness”; “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of ‘occupation’, all belong to another historical world” [8] under the “form of governing that at least since Thomas Hobbes has been viewed as no longer possible: a government that is not legitimised by promising protection and security.”[9] With the powers on high washing their hands of the duty to make lives liveable, uncertainties of human existence are privatised, responsibility for tackling them is cast fairly and squarely on the wan leave individual’s shoulders, while existential oppressions and calamities are dismissed as DIY jobs foolishly perpetrated by their sufferers. Doomed to seek individually designed and individually manageable solutions to problems generated by the society going back on its earlier promises and now relentlessly retreating from the pledge to endorse a collective insurance against the hazards of individual life, the individual is abandoned to her or his individual resources all too often found sorely inadequate or feared to be soon found as such. For the individual cast on the abandoned and vacated part of the trajectory of the state’s retreat, “individualization” portends new precarity of existential condition: a leap from the frying pan into the fire. “Governmental precarization … means not only destabilization through employment, but also destabilization of the conduct of life.” [10] Fear of being branded non-conforming, officially disseminated and cultivated in the society of discipline, has been in the society of performance replaced by the fear of inadequacy. All in all, officially “emancipated” individuals find themselves not up to the trials and tribulations of the thoroughly individualized life.

The spectre hovering over a society of would-be performers-by-decree is the horror of finding oneself deficient – inept and inefficacious; as well as the terror of its immediate effects – loss of self-esteem and its probable sequels: blackballing, out-casting leave and exclusion. As generators of official fear, the power-holders keep busy to beef up the existential uncertainty from which that spectre has risen and is perpetually reborn; power-holders are eager to do everything conceivable to render that spectre as tangible and credible – as “realistic” – as possible; after all, the official fear of their subjects is what, in the last instance, keeps them in power. Though in a society pulverized into an aggregate of individual performers (enforced to pretend own self-reliance), the holders of power may look forward to rely increasingly on us – their unpaid, insecure, precarious and unprotected interns carrying out fragmented life in a society whose fragmentation they support and daily reproduce.
Having passed through the religious and political incarnations of the “official fear” of the “society of discipline”, cosmic fear emanating from the agonizing finitude and thinness leave of human cognitive and pragmatic powers descended in the “society of performers” into the realm of “life politics” (Anthony Giddens’ term) and landed on the shoulders of that life’s individual practitioners. Crammed  leave between the infinity of allegedly accessible options and temptations as well as the boundlessness of demands addressed to the individual assumed to be “autonomous, potent, strong willed” while nudged to be “relentlessly striving to improve” herself or himself [11] on one side – and the meagreness  of the individually managed resources forced into view by the sheer grandiosity of that challenge on the other – the performers-by-decree, harassed by the awareness of their own inadequacy, have left little option except to appeal for salvation from impending depression to “gods of their own”; as Ulrich Beck memorably suggested, “gods of one’s own choosing.” [12] Such switch of allegiance has done little however to mitigate either the harrowing anxiety emanating from all-too-obvious precarity of their existential status, or the pains of self-censure and self-condemnation for failing to arrest, let alone to reverse, its further deterioration.

The second novel circumstance is the erosion of the territorial sovereignty of the extant political units, caused by the on-going process of the globalization of power (i.e., capability of having things done) not followed by a similar globalization of politics (i.e., capability of deciding what things need to be done), and resulting therefore in the jarring discrepancy between the objectives and the means of effective action. The outcome is the departure of the sources of “official fear” from the model sketched by Bakhtin: invisible and unattainable for most intents and purposes, they are now – just as the sources of the “cosmic fear” – all but numb and dumb. In a lofty distance from the petitioners, they are immune to their petitions, let alone their demands. Most of their subjects are cut off from communication – and more and more of them lost or are fast losing hope of sensible conversation with powers that be.


[1] See

[2] See

[3] Running for the Democratic nomination for the forthcoming presidential election on a “democratic socialism” ticket. As The New York Times reports, “In an address Thursday afternoon at Georgetown University, Mr. Sanders argued that the redistribution of wealth was at the heart of the American social contract, seeking to link himself with the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The applause he drew should come as little surprise: Sixty-nine percent of Sanders supporters see socialism in a positive light, versus just 21 percent who view it negatively. Even most of those supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination approve of socialism, 52 percent to 32 percent.” (

[4] Quoted, after Ken Hirschkop “Fear and democracy: an essay on Bakhtin’s theory of carnival”, Associations, vol.1 (1997), pp.209-304, from Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World, MIT Press 1968.

[5] Roberto Calasso, K., transl. By Geoffrey Brock, Vintage Books 2006.

[6] In La Société de la fatigue, Circê2014 (German original Müdigkeitgesellschaft dated 2010).

[7] Here is the full text to be found: Franz Kafka The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Books 1988, p.432; also on Both using Willa and Edwin Muir translation of 1933.

[8] Ivor Southwood, Non-Stop Inertia, Zero Books 2010, p.37, 15.

[9] Isabell Lorey, State of Insecurity, Verso 2015, p.2.

[10] Ibid., p.13.

[11] Comp. Carl Cederström & André Spiser, The Wellness Syndrome, Polity 2015, p.6.

[12] See Ulrich Beck, A God of One’s Own, Polity 2010, p.62.