The Uses of Fear

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.


A march against austerity does you good

There is a certain breed of cynic on the left who will tell you there’s no point in demonstrations, that marches, protests etc are managed spectacles through which an authoritarian political system projects an illusion of democratic participation and offers a safety valve to release potentially dangerous and destabilising pressures.   Such pessimism is not entirely unfounded, but it can lead to positions whose consequences do the left no favours whatsoever.

I have often heard this argument in connection with the great Iraq war demos.   Look what happened, some people will tell you with a knowing shake of the head, more than a million people marched and they couldn’t stop the war.     Well no we couldn’t, but people who make this argument rarely have any concrete suggestion to make as to what could have stopped it, beyond vague exhortations to ‘direct action’ that were not politically possible at the time and which had no more guarantee of success.

One historical response to the ‘if demonstrations would achieve anything, the system wouldn’t allow them’ argument is to adopt an ultra radical ‘realist’ position, in which nothing remains but to bash the rich and establish a revolutionary underground and start bombing and shooting NOW.   After all, if managed political protest is only intended to disguise the reality of class war then let the war begin, right?   This is the position that the Red Army Fraktion once adopted back in the sixties and seventies, when it set out to expose the ‘contradictions’ of the ‘raspberry Reich’, and we know how well that went.

Another ‘realist’ response to the pointlessness of demonstrations is apathy and passivity, because if demonstrations don’t change the world then the world won’t change, so why bother doing anything?

A more useful way of looking at demonstrations is to see them as part of a process, an extension of politics by other means that not only enables a movement of opposition to make itself visible to the wider society and also to itself. Because it is actually very important for individuals who dream of a different kind of society than the one we have to become part of a crowd from time to time and make their   physical presence felt, to celebrate their activism and share the same same space with each other, and take heart from the fact that there are – contrary to appearances – many people around the country with very similar goals.

It is also necessary to send a signal to politicians, to the government, and the wider society, that there is a movement out there that does not accept the status quo and that has not surrendered to the bleak philosophy of TINA – there is no alternative.

All these objectives were met in yesterday’s terrific demonstration against austerity in in Parliament Square.       Many of us who went on that march needed a filip after the massive defeat on election night.     We needed to remind each other and ourselves that we were still here, and we did that.   I was surprised to hear that 250,000 people attended – it seemed like less than that to me, but there was no doubt that there were a lot of people there:


They came from different professions and communities across the country to oppose the disastrous cuts proposed by a cruel and reactionary government, and the even more savage cuts that are beling planned:


Shelley once described a country governed by rulers like Castlereagh ‘who neither see, nor feel, nor know.’   Yesterday’s demonstrators might have said the same about his descendants, but some of them expressed it visually instead:










All of them were there to let the government know that winning an election does not give it a carte blanche to transform British society into a neoliberal corporate pastureland, and that its attempts to do so will be opposed:


And the defiance wasn’t just limited to them.     As one woman put it succinctly, walking along smiling with her two young kids in tow, sometimes there is only one thing you can say:


A message that most of us who were in Parliament Square heartily agreed with.   So no, yesterday’s demonstration didn’t change the world.     Maybe ‘the system’ allowed it to happen, but I was glad to be there, and happy to be reminded that a movement of opposition was still out there beyond the sour, gimlet-eyed bigots of Ukip, and in spite of the pathetic excuse for an opposition that helped bring about the disaster on election night.

Many of the speakers made the point that this was only the beginning.     And many of the demonstrators who went home at the end of the afternoon took that message home with them and hopefully felt, as I did, that whatever happens in the future, we still exist and Lord Snooty and His Pals still have a fight on their hands.

In the kingdom of TINA

One of the most depressing things about the grotesque and brutal fraud known as ‘austerity’ has been the ability of its proponents to convince so many people to accept its basic assumptions.     Once you begin to believe in There Is No Alternative (TINA), so many things that might otherwise have seemed cruel, immoral, sadistic, corrupt, and inhuman begin to seem logical and inevitable.

In the kingdom of TINA it appears totally   normal that people in Spain who were once encouraged by banks to take out mortgages that were only barely within their reach in better times should be put on the street as a result of the crisis; that Greek pensioners should be rooting around in dustbins for their next meal; that millions of young people across the continent cannot find work and millions of unemployed men and women in their fifties will never work again; that those in work have their salaries cut back till they find themselves in poverty; that thousands of men and women in Britain should be dependent on handouts from food banks.

Once you enter TINA you don’t really question these things, because you are expected to leave your conscience at the altar of the bleak and arid economic rationalism that insists that all this was necessary.     The most you are expected to do is shake your head at the endless misery that has been inflicted on so many people who didn’t deserve it, but you are also expected to accept that all of this was necessary.

Because the politicians and the newspapers and television and the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are all agreed that There Is No Alternative if there is to be growth and prosperity again, if the Eurozone is to be saved, if capitalism is to be made well again.

Some of them talk about sacrifices and hard work, and tell us we are all working together towards the same goal.   They   promise us that our efforts will be rewarded, but even when those rewards don’t come, or come too late to save the people whose lives and futures have already been destroyed, or when they only seem to go to those who are already wealthy and have never felt any pain at all,     we are constantly reminded that There Is No Alternative.

In this way the system corrupts so many people.   It convinces its victims that they should accept their victimhood and their servitude. It convinces those who are not victims to blame or despise those who are.     It convinces us that Greeks and Spaniards are lazy and wanted something for nothing,   that it was their quaint southern European customs that have brought them into debt.     It convinces us that that debt must be repaid, even if entire societies are ripped to shreds in the process, even when fascism once again begins to cast its shadow across the European Promised Land.   It convinces us that the poor are feckless and must be punished for their fecklessness, that cruelty is kindness, that amorality is moral.

When immigrants drown by the hundreds in the Mediterranean we are taught that in a way it’s their fault too, because they should not have come to take resources that were needed for ‘our own people’ in a time of austerity.   We believe this to the point when few people even question the British government’s decision not to participate in search-and-rescue operations because it says that such efforts will only encourage more people to come.

Such indifference is essential to There Is No Alternative.       And now Greece has kicked open the door and provided us with a glimpse of another possibility that we were not expected to think about, and which the powers-that-be had clearly not expected, and the joyous faces in Athens last night are a testament to the revitalized political aspirations that have burst from under the moral ruins of the past five years, and which now offer at least the possibility of a different kind of Greece and a different kind of Europe.

Of course I know that it could all go wrong – though people who utter such warnings should remember that for millions of Greeks things couldn’t have got much worse than they were already.       Syriza has an enormous task on its hands, its enemies are powerful and determined to restore TINA’s dominance.

But for now I congratulate the Greek people for taking this giant leap into the unknown and voting in the first government in Europe with an explicitly anti-austerity agenda.   I wish them well, and I hope that what they have done will encourage other countries to leave the dismal world of TINA   and remember not just what it was like to be radical, but what it was like to be human before we were taught to act and feel like heartless automatons.

Rich and Getting Richer

For the last five years we have heard a great detail of rhetoric from British politicians about the ‘tough choices’ that the financial crisis has imposed upon the nation.   Again and again we heard that this crisis affected everyone equally, and that all of us were rowing together, like it says in the Eton boating song, to put it right and share out the burden and the hardship.

Most of this came from the government, but not all.   Though the Labour opposition fretted about ‘unfairness’, and the ‘squeezed middle’ or the ‘cost of living crisis’, it also promised that it would not reverse any Coaltion cuts if it won the next election and would in fact continue to oversee the process of ‘austerity.’

Naturally there were cynics among us who suspected that austerity was in fact a lie and a fraud being perpetuated on a supine and credulous nation.     And yesterday the Sunday Times provided fairly unequivocal evidence that this was indeed the case, when it published its annual ‘rich list‘.   It found that   the UK’s 1000 richest individuals have doubled their wealth in the last five years, from £249 billion in 209 to a current combined total of £519 billion between them.

They include the Queen, who now has a current fortune of £330 million, up £10 million from last year.     And Philip Green, who lives most of the year in Monaco and has evaded £285 million in taxes by channelling dividend payouts through a number of offshore accounts, including his wife’s – the same Philip Green who was appointed by Cameron as special advisor on how to cut public spending by avoiding ‘waste’.

Though Green chooses to spend most of his time abroad, 104 billionaires have honoured us with their presence in the UK, with a combined wealth of £301 billion between them.

According to Philip Beresford, who compiles the list: ‘While some may criticise them, many of these people are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth for the country.’

Some do indeed criticize them, though such critics are generally absent from the national press and the country’s political class.   Apart from a few rhetorical raised eyebrows, none of the papers that commented on the ‘rich list’ story yesterday appears to have found anything particularly untoward about the fact that those who have the most have actually increased their wealth during a time of (supposedly) general crisis, while ever-more stringent cuts have been imposed on the national wealth available to the rest of the population, particularly those at the bottom of the pile.

In January this year, the Labour-led Derbyshire County Council, where I live, announced proposals make £157 million worth of cuts from its budget by 2018, including 36.7m in 2014-15.   These include:

  • A £9 million cut in the funding of housing-related support services which help vulnerable people such as drug addicts and alcoholics set up and maintain a home where they can live safely and well, by helping them to manage finances, pay bills, or   manage their health.
  •   Raising the eligibility threshold at which the elderlyqualify for council care from a ‘higher moderate’ level of need to a ‘substantial’ level of need, so that only those in the latter category would qualify to receive council care
  • Charging the 1,100 people who use council services for their transport to day care centres
  • Cutting the number of mobile libraries (essential in rural areas) and the number of library opening hours.
  • Cutting the Community Safety Project Fund, which attempts to tackle anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and re-offending rates

Every county and every city will have its own list, and there are some that are experiencing an even harsher cuts regime.   But the general pattern is the same everywhere: that the state is inexorably abandoning its responsibilities to the poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable people in society – responsibilities that ought to be the hallmarks of a humane and civilized society.

And while the share of the nation’s wealth wealth that ought to be devoted to the common good has been relentlessly drained and siphoned away,     men and women with more wealth than most of us would need even if we lived five lifetimes have been acquiring even more of it.

None of this was inevitable.       It was allowed to happen and made to happen because of political and moral choices that were made, and created divisions of wealth that would make Louix XIV seem like a Social Democrat.     And whatever the likes of Philip Beresford may believe,   I see little reason to celebrate these developments.