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The argument presented in this chapter asserts that the negative emotions conjured up by living in market societies, as well as being turned inwards as existential anxiety and depression, also present as a creeping undercurrent of incipient rage and growing unreason, as discussed in relation to the biosocial concept of primalization. In conditions of inherent insecurity and existential angst, people are less measured and reflective – prone to distrust, exploit and direct anger towards others as a means of attempting to make sense of their own negative feelings while giving vent to their emotional discomfort. Together with our innate tendency to favour in groups over out groups, leading to reduced empathy and increased hostility to those identified as ‘other’, the greater the angst among a population, the more likely this scenario is to arise and, crucially, the more readily it can be cultivated, exploited and channelled by political actors and amplified via social media. Overall, a critical issue addressed here relates to how our unmet fundamental needs have created conditions for the emergence of an increasingly febrile and divisive political culture, where the insecurities and inequities of our economic system have nurtured an anti-democratic resurgence of authoritarian populism.

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The Great Decline is an ambitious work offering a wholly fresh take on the multiple crises we face, both individually and collectively, in the 21st century. The central argument is that, after a period of qualified social progress in the mid-20th century, recent decades have resurrected social and economic arrangements that are toxic in terms of our fundamental needs, undermining the social and political stability of our societies as well as our individual mental and physical health in ways that have been poorly understood and which have now reached a crisis point. Across numerous established democracies, including the UK and the US, the neoliberal consensus principally advanced in the 1980s continues to tear apart the social fabric and destroy countless individual lives amid a growing climate of fear, anger and uncertainty. Amongst a range of consequences, we have witnessed the rise of populist politicians exploiting and further sowing social distress and division, while the ensuing polarization and undermining of established democracies has left us ill-equipped to deal with the huge challenges being presented by climate breakdown and rapid advances in digital technologies. While addressing these troubles of the present, this is also approached from a broad historical and to an extent evolutionary context advancing an original biosocial perspective, the social map, drawing on social science, political economy, neuroscience and epigenetics to present a radical reframing of where we are, how we understand our relationship to the social, economic and political environment, and how we relate to each other.

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This chapter engages with some the key historical stages in the development of Western societies from the ancient world to the end of the medieval era and the roots of the modern era, as a starting point for providing context for the arguments presented in later chapters. The main theoretical ideas are applied here to re-evaluate how we might understand these key stages and to provide further insight into the way in which our social development is better understood via an approach that engages with both the biological and social, as opposed to the one-sided wholly social explanations that tend to currently prevail. Specifically, the way in which our evolutionary derived cognitive and emotional capacities have shaped social arrangements, and vice versa, is addressed. Principally, the argument is presented that a strong current in human history can be understood with reference to an emotionally driven need to make sense of, simplify and establish a sense of order and control our experience. This drive is what motivates us to establish and manage the regular and routine aspects of everyday living and is reflected in our wider social organization and culture. The issue of competition between competing visions of the form of order that should be imposed and sustained is also addressed as an evident central feature of individual and collective social life.

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This chapter, drawing on both the biosocial model outlined here and the broad logic of C. Wright Mills’ depiction of ‘personal troubles’, argues that the structural arrangements, insecurities, inequalities and demands discussed in previous chapters can clearly be seen to be associated with a rise in social problems generally and mental health issues in particular. It is argued here that much of this has been personalized and, consistent with the logic of neoliberal ideology, the negative effects of wider economic, political and social arrangements have been depicted as problems of individual ‘biology’ and genetics. This has led to the widespread medicalization of what are largely problems generated by social and economic circumstances, while also spawning a huge industry from mainstream psychiatry and psychology to self-help punditry and the ‘happiness’ movement that, as will be argued here, may in many instances be exacerbating the very conditions they are assumed to alleviate, in part by pathologizing emotions that, for growing numbers, can be regarded as natural and understandable responses to current conditions.

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From the Era of Hope and Progress to the Age of Fear and Rage
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It seems clear that many formerly stable societies in wealthy developed countries appear to be falling into an apparent state of ‘permacrises’, accompanied by an increasingly angry and irrational social and political culture that is undermining the peace and stability of our societies and democratic institutions, from the local to the global.

Applying an original biosocial approach (the social map), and drawing on ideas and evidence from sociology, history and political economy to psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics, John Bone argues that conditions in our turbo-capitalist and increasingly estranged, media dominated societies have created a toxic environment, deeply damaging to our mental and physical health. As well as shedding new light on our current troubles, Bone also outlines why this leaves us ill prepared to deal with two of the greatest challenges confronting humanity: the rise of AI and automation and how we deal with climate change.

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This chapter addresses the fact that the current era has been one marred by ever-widening inequality, where increasing poverty and destitution have surged amid burgeoning opulence and wealth. The latter has been marked by the revival of an ultraprivileged economic elite inhabiting an exclusive social sphere beyond the reach of an increasingly insecure and moribund mainstream society. Thomas Piketty’s thesis is referred to here in relation to the fact that the yawning gap between rich and poor now threatens to become unbridgeable as inherited wealth accumulates across generations further stifling social mobility, a scenario highly evident in the US, the UK and other nations that have embraced neoliberalism. The manner in which this scenario has been sustained ideologically and politically is addressed in relation to a discussion of historical attitudes towards economic injustice and treatment of the poor. However, while briefly flagging up these well-documented trends, this chapter also presents an argument, referring to the key theoretical themes, as to why high levels of inequality as well as insecurity appear to have such corrosive individual and collective effects, with specific reference to the emotions that arise where people’s internalized notions of how the world should work conflict significantly with their experience.

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Access to suitable, affordable housing has also evidently reached a crisis point within neoliberal societies, becoming a source of financial and personal stress rather than security, as housing has been restored as a vehicle for financial speculation and profit generation as well as a conduit for debt-fuelled growth. This contrasts starkly with the mid-20th century view of decent, secure housing as a bedrock of family life, complementing the ‘job for life’ as twin pillars of security and stability. This generational shift has allowed some to benefit greatly from unearned property wealth at the expense of imposing high costs and chronic insecurity on the growing legions of housing ‘poor’, further fuelling already-widening inequalities and leaving many in overcrowded, squalid and overly expensive accommodation. This scenario is also having an impact on demographics as young people can no longer readily access family homes and, hence, many defer or abandon the notion of having children altogether. Moreover, shedding new light as to why increasingly insecure housing tenure appears so problematic, some of the underexplored neurological and epigenetic ramifications of insecurity in the private rented sector are specifically addressed.

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This second scene-setting chapter continues where the previous one left off, charting some of the main features of the emergence of modern Western society from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, industrialization and urbanization to the present. The difficulties in adapting to the increasing demands and complexities of modern societies associated with increasing population density, complexity, technological and cultural advancement are engaged with. Here the ‘growing pains’ of modern society and the often violent and conflictual competition to impose order and control both within societies and across the globe is discussed. The development of capitalism is central here as a system of both development and highly unequal exploitation, leading us towards the present where our divided societies are beginning to fracture as more and more benefits are captured by the few and risks are imposed on an expanding majority. The chapter ends by discussing how pressure from below, together with the shared experience of the Great Depression and war, provided a window for the emergence of the qualified and short-lived progressive postwar era where some of the inequities and injustices of the past were beginning to be confronted, and a greater sense of order, wellbeing and hope for the future emerged.

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This chapter considers the potential impact of climate change and environmental degradation on the economy and society, as well as how this is perceived by the public. A key argument here rests on the perceived incompatibility between the current global neoliberal economic growth model and environmental sustainability. Of particular interest is the growing gulf between those preoccupied by and active on environmental issues, and the large constituencies who appear to either deny that there is an issue or that it is particularly relevant to their everyday lives. Questions on the influence of the fossil fuel industry, neoliberal politicians, and the wide range of commercial and financial interests that have employed a range of strategies to forestall climate action, putting profit before people and the planet, are addressed. This includes a discussion of the way in which the neoliberal right has established climate concerns as a wedge issue in the so-called ‘culture wars’. Finally, there is a focus on the broader question as to how we might respond to substantial shifts in climatic conditions over the longer term, including potential echoes of pre-Holocene patterns of forced migration in a world where rising nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment is a growing phenomenon.

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This introduction provides an overview of the key themes of the book addressing the conditions and challenges that currently confront the citizens of established democracies, particularly in the UK and the US as the nations that originally adopted and exported the neoliberal ideas and arrangements that became the global social, economic and political ‘common sense’. Here it is argued that it is precisely the arrangements established by the adoption of this model and their intensification of late that are responsible for generating a state of ‘permacrises’ permeating numerous aspects of contemporary life, from individual health and wellbeing to the civility, security and political stability of our societies, while leaving us vulnerable in terms of the growing challenges posed by climate change and artificial intelligence.

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