[CHECK]Emerging more or less guiltily from the positivist tradition, the social sciences have always kept a distance from human emotions, considered impulses impossible to rationalise or quantify.[/CHECK]
However, departing from the idea that subjectivity can be the collective expression of individual states – shared experiences from which political identities are derived – there has been an “emotional turn” in sociology, history, and economies in recent years. And this has led to an increasing number of studies investigating happiness, frustration, and of course fear.
Arguably the most powerful and destructive human emotion – certainly the one that has generated more catastrophes throughout history – fear is experienced differently among members of a single community. For example: a hijab-wearing muslim in the US probably fears the FBI more than terrorism, just as a young boy on the fringes of Greater Buenos Aires is likely more concerned about the local police than crime. That is why fear, a collective feeling, is not a psychological issues of the masses but politics.
All types of political domination involve fear. Just as Hobbes wrote that a politician’s great intelligence consists of channelling the fear of an external threat to annihilate an internal enemy, and Machiavelli later recommended that a prince be feared before being loved, fear is inherent in power. Without fear there is no political authority because to be fearful is, in a way, preparing to obey.
In ‘Fear: The History of a Political Idea’, French historian Patrick Boucheron analysed the fresco “The Good Government” painted seven centuries ago by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. He called in an allegory of the threat that looms over a peaceful city, the fear that the collective harmony will turn back to RIGUROSO SENORIO. Boucheron’s studies, though based on 14th Century Siena and the Catholic Church, an institution that has built its authority on fear for the longest time, are surprisingly relevant today.
What is ISIS if not a unit of fear? Its digital activism, which belies the idea that it is just an archaic organisation, includes not only HD videos of decapitations in dramatic desert settings but also alarmingly sophisticated marketing campaigns. In June 2014, using the hastag #AllEyesOnIsis, the terrorist group called on its followers to take a photo of the city they were in, with thousands of threatening responses from Rome to Beirut, Paris to London.
The triumph of Donald Trump in the Republican Primaries is also a symptom of how fear influences voter preferences via targeting outsiders. Trump’s immigration programme, based on building a 3,131km wall along the border with Mexico, and his rustic warmongering over the Middle East show how immigration and terrorism have replaced communism as the omnipresent fears in the US. And this despite data from the State Department showing that in 2015 fewer US citizens died in terrorist attacks (19) than those hit by lightening (27).
The real problem, however, is found on the other side of the Atlantic. Spiralling into its biggest crisis in half a century, Europe is shifting to the political right – and far right – via opportunistic leaders savvy in the art of channelling fear. It’s always important to try and understand before criticising: the region’s transformation, marked by the waves of immigrants, terrorist threats, and unemployment, is shaking up things considered certain and destabilising human psychology. This context can bring out the worst of people. Several elements of the essential post-WWII European identity – peace, use of public space, and search for equality – are now being questioned by European societies that now oscillate between apathetic nihilism, explosive activism, and voting for the radical right.
However, certain answers show that the Old Continent still holds the antidote. After the Paris attacks in November 2015 nearly 3m people and a dozen heads of states from all over the world joined the biggest march since the city’s liberation from the Nazis. The same night of the attacks, President Francois Hollande visited the Bataclan theatre in spite of the threat of another attack targeting him. Hollandes fear was evident, even physically visible, but this time up to the task, the French president overcame it. Sometimes to govern, a politician must first govern their own fears.
Fear increases when the lights go out. Everyone hides their own – from death, unemployment, boredom. But among the most powerful fear is uncertainty: the testimonies of those who have experienced torture converge on the idea that the worst thing was the unknown, the panic of not knowing what would come next. And with this is mind it is curious that there is a long line of films, books, and TV series about the end of the world – be it via an epidemic, a nuclear war, or a tsunami – but few works about the end of capitalism. It’s a though it is easier to imagine the planet exploding than a fundamental shift in productive relations.
Every era has its ghosts and pathologies. South Korean author and philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that the great fear of bacteria – eliminated in the 1940s with the use of antibiotics – was followed by a period dominated by a fear of viruses, which reached its peak with the spread of HIV in the 1980s and is now being conquered by new medicinal advances. For Han, the dominant pathology of the current era is neuronal, with diseases such as depression, attention deficit syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, and work fatigue syndrome. He claims they are the product of a ***CHECK TRANSLATION***”performance society”, and are actually caused by an excess of positivity. According to Han: “The ‘disciplined society’ is governed by ‘no’, with that negativity creating crazy people and criminals. The performance society, on the other hand, produces depressives and failures.”
Returning to politics. As discussed, fear is not something exclusive to tyrants but an essential part of any type of dominance, even in a democracy. If they are good, leaders know that they must manage the fear of those they rule over – they must regulate that fear. And if at first glance it seems this is used to lead absurd wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria the name of liberal democracy and Western values, a more detailed study will show that fear does not necessarily lead to destruction and chaos. The can be a democratic, effective use of fear that can even lead to solidarity.
The Welfare State, that great concept of the post-WWII era now in danger of crumbling, is essentially a mechanism to reduce risks, and in turn you could say a way of fighting fear. It’s key components – insurance against accidents, sick and maternity leave, unemployment benefits, and public pensions – are basically ways of reducing the uncertainty that people face in their lives. The way in which each country adopts them can define its social values and interactions.
For example, you can compare the US, with its highly flexible labour market, minimal social rights and limited state support even in health, with Germany, where the basic needs of all citizens are guaranteed by the state. It is clear that the dependency relationship between workers and business owners is different in the US and Germany, two highly productive and developed states, as are the respective societies and political systems. In short, two different systems of administering fear alter the capital-labour balance.
Before concluding, it’s worth highlighting the central point. Though experienced in different ways by each person of any society, fear can be articulated and used as a political resource from the top-down. In today’s Argentina, it is evident that public policies will not be the same if the prevailing fear is over inflation, or unemployment, crime, or the role of the military. The PRO government, with its faith in freeing up productive forces and banking on the individual, and the market, is dismantling some of Argentina’s unstable welfare state. At times it does this with a chainsaw, on other occasions it uses the cautious scalpel of a good politician.
I still think the PRO leaders learned from the neoliberal era under Carlos Menem in the 1990s. President Mauricio Macri will not shut down railways like Menem did: perhaps because he think it unnecessary, because society will not tolerate it, or (less likely) because he read Machiavelli, who defined the democratic republic as the only form of government possible when the masses can spread fear among those who lead them.