From Anomie to Zozobra: Words That Explain Our Dystopia

“Give sorrow words.” —MacBeth

Posted Nov 24, 2020

The prospect of 2020 in our rear-view mirror is greatly anticipated by many of us. And yet much detritus from 2020 will linger on into 2021.  Socially, politically, and psychologically, the new normal (whenever that comes) probably will not compare well with the old normal. 

If the events of 2020 have felt both unreal and hyper-real to you, then you know what it’s like to be cognitively unmoored and adrift. Understanding this farrago of fiascos requires having words and ideas to express what you’re thinking and feeling about what is happening—both to you and all around you. Below I provide a few terms that may help. 


Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), credited as the founder of sociology, originated the term anomie. He maintained that humans contain two conflicting natures, the individual nature which seeks to satisfy personal wants and needs, and the social nature which must conform sufficiently to society or prevailing culture in order to survive.  

The individual nature, as Durkheim envisioned it, is very similar to Freud’s id. It is limitless and irrational in its wants and desires. Too much is never enough. Therefore, the individual must constantly act against his or her innate drives to get along in society. This leads to a “breakdown of moral guidance,” which precipitates “rising rates of deviance, social unrest, unhappiness, and stress.”

This is a very basic and simplistic description of anomie, but it conveys the essential definition. Durkheim theorized that “division of labor” and “rapid social change” set up the preconditions for anomie.


Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, predicted widespread social unrest in 2020. He made that prognostication ten years ago, and he had the data and methodology to back up his forecast. Even so, as Yogi Berra observed, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So what sorcery enabled Turchin’s prescience?

It was the dark forces of math and science that Turchin summoned to unveil the future. Cliodynamics is a term he originated to describe the new “transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

Based on Turchin’s model, 2020 should be just the beginning of five to 15 years of social turmoil.  Cliodynamics should not be confused with generational cycles of history (“fourth turning”) as theorized by Strauss and Howe.


A Spanish word, zozobra translates as anxiety.  According to Francisco Gallegos, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, it has come to mean “that wobbling, groundless feeling that a person can have when the whole world has this uncertainty and unreliability.”

Alvin Toffler in his 1970 bestseller, Future Shock, essentially forecast an age of zozobra. With amazing foresight, Toffler predicted “the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities ‘swiftly fabricated and ruthlessly destroyed,’ and the end of blue-collar” jobs in favor of “knowledge workers.” And that was 50 years ago! 


I am a strong believer in the Stockdale paradox, which states that “you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” For insight on how to manage this, read Refuse to Be Resilient.

“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.” —Helen Keller