The 21st century is a frightening place, so frightening in fact, that many of us would be forgiven if we just cowered under the blankets all day and never went anywhere. Ebola, SARS, swine flu and bird flu, terrorism, ISIS, people traffickers, migrants, financial implosion and the collapse of the eurozone – whatever face we put upon it, doom is haunting us, it seems, like never before.
Well not quite like never before. Because politically speaking, fear is a powerful and very useful emotion. In the late nineteenth century governments and police forces on both sides of the Atlantic tormented their populations with the spectre of a global anarchist conspiracy intent on the destruction of bourgeois civilisation. Stalin’s malignant show trial prosecutor Andre Vyshinsky delighted in getting his already tortured and tormented victims to describe their involvement in demonic conspiracies that were as evil as they were improbable, in order to justify their death sentences and simultaneously terrify the Soviet population.
Joseph McCarthy played a very similar game with less lethal consequences during the high Cold War. Whatever the particular context, the political instrumentalisation of fear generally has very similar aims: to direct and deflect potential criticism of a particular ruler or political system elsewhere, and to bind the ruled more closely to their rulers and make them more willing to accept policies and decisions that they might otherwise be inclined to question or reject outright.
Politically speaking, fear tends to usher in a whole range of negative states and emotions: passivity, submissiveness, unthinking acceptance of the status quo, hysteria, suspicion and compliance. Fear has been oiling the wheels of 21st century politics ever since the collapse of the twin towers. Again and again, democratic governments have warned their populations that the bad things we are witnessing may herald even worse to come; that organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS aren’t just a threat, but an ‘existential threat’; that the world is now uniquely vulnerable to collapse; that the ‘calculus of risk’ has changed to the point that even if there is a ‘one percent’ possibility that our enemies du jour might have nuclear weapons then that state should be attacked.
And since the global financial crisis erupted in 2007/8, fear has also been used quite cynically and systematically to impose the great con-trick called austerity on populations that might otherwise have raised serious questions regarding how the crisis was caused and what alternatives there might be to the remedies that have been proposed. Again and again Greece has been threatened with the spectre of economic ruin if it didn’t submit to economic ‘reforms’ that will privatize large sections of the Greek economy and keep Greeks in debt for the indefinite future.
Other countries were then told that they should accept a similar model if they didn’t want to ‘end up like Greece.’ Scottish voters were told they would end up bankrupt if they voted yes in the referendum. British voters during the last election were warned that a Labour victory would threaten ‘stability’ and undermine the recovery. Now we are seeing the same politics of fear once again in response to the Corbyn surge, as Labour rightwingers and pundits warn that Corbyn’s proposals are ‘fantasy economics’ that would undermine economic growth and plunge the country into recession and chaos.
These warnings invariably use the prospect of even worse to come to browbeat the population into accepting austerity as the least bad option. Question whether taxpayers should have recapitalized and essentially rewarded banks guilty of malpractice or malfeasance and you are presented with visions of ATM machines running out of cash if we don’t.
Suggest that austerity might be a choice rather than a necessity and spell out another possible way of running the economy, as Corbyn has done, and a posse of Labour ‘big beasts’ and pretty much the entire commentariat from left to right will come after you to describe you and your supporters as hysterics engaging in fantasy politics who are endangering society, economic growth and prosperity, that Labour will never win another election ever etc, etc.
Such warnings has become something of a political reflex in the world of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, whose rulers secretly know that the future they have to offer their electorates is pretty grim, and that they can only maintain support by presenting themselves as the arbiters of the necessary evil. This is how you get people to willingly to inhabit the land of TINA – There Is No Alternative – forever. It’s how you persuade voters to elect a Tory government knowing that its cuts will inflict unprecedented damage on health and education and other things that these same voters care about.
So in these fearful times, it’s worth remembering that society cannot be changed by people who live in a state of fear, but only by those who have the courage to take the risks that are always involved when you challenge the status quo or seek alternatives to the dire prescriptions that seem to be emanating from so many governments.
It’s worth remembering the Greek Oxi vote, despite Syriza’s capitulation, when the Greek population faced down a barrage of threats and terrifying possibilitiesand said no. Like Dennis Hopper, in Wim Wenders’s classic take on the Ripley novels, The American Friend, they recognized that ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’. Elsewhere in Europe, new movements are springing up to challenge the politics of austerity and its brutal consequences, who have reached the same conclusions.
And this summer, as the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn rises to new levels of hysteria and dire warnings of the consequences of a shift to the left in or out of the Labour Party, we should remember that many of these prophets of doom are themselves afraid that one day the people they seek to terrify into submission or grudging acceptance of the unacceptable may decide that austerity is not inevitable or tolerable, and conclude that even a modest step towards a different kind of future might just be a risk worth taking after all.