Andy Blunden November 2004

The politics of fear

“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” Tacitus


The scare campaign is one of the most powerful weapons of modern politics. From the yellow peril and anti-Semitism to McCarthyism, law-and-order and interest rates, the right-wing has always been able to use the politics of fear to great effect. Why are people so vulnerable to this kind of politics at the moment, and why do certain scares at certain times resonate more than others, seemingly indifferent to questions of probability?

Identifying and mobilising against threats is by no means the exclusive preserve of the Right however. While the left identifies dangers in the existing forms of subordination and mobilises against them, the Right uses the politics of fear to reinforce existing forms of subordination and accentuate feelings of vulnerability. At the moment, the politics of fear is in the ascendancy.

A response to the politics of fear has to flow from an understanding of the ethical terrain and generalised anxiety pattern of any given society.

There are a thousand-and-one dangers facing people every day, and anyone who tried to respond to them all would be paralysed. Human beings are, if anything, somewhat over-intrepid — we drive cars, eat fatty food, marry and have children — all very risky activities. In general people accept with equanimity those risks which constitute an integral part of their normal, chosen life-style; people also normally ignore far-flung risks like Ross River Fever or meteor impacts. The threats to which people pay attention and which stimulate them to political action and blaming, depends above all on their ethical standpoint and related moral sentiments and interests. Of course, the likelihood of a threat and its impact are subject to calculation, but how we evaluate unusual threats has little to do with probabilities. Understanding how public figures connect with these fears requires a kind of political-ethical semiology.

To say that a person’s conception of the Good constitutes their ethics is a tautology; a person’s conception of risk is nothing but the inverse side of their conception of the Good. Risk therefore, like the Good, raises all the questions of justice, freedom, recognition and the meaning of life. Mobilising around justified fears is just as central to the building of a social movement as is mobilising around a positive ideal. It is hard to imagine how the Left could mobilise without warning against certain dangers, such as the loss of job security, the run-down of public education, and so on.

In the same way that visions of Utopia function as regulative ideals in the here and now, prophecies of catastrophe or dystopia also communicate most forcefully ethical standpoints that actually bear little relation to how imminent they may be. Likewise, an outcry about some far-flung danger signals moral outrage, expressing a moral sentiment in the same way that the celebration of some unlikely opportunity or rare achievement communicates a vision of the good life. Some scares turn out to be unfounded while others prove to be real, just as many threats go unremarked until it is too late — the point is: what makes people take a threat seriously?

With this preamble, let us begin with a review of some of the basics of the ethics of risk and harm.

Justice and the distribution of risk

Equality, in the Jacobin sense of the word, as the radical demand of distributive justice which characterises the primitive cry of the oppressed in times of revolutionary upheaval, is not a demand which has a lot of purchase in the West, in countries like Australia, today. But the demand for equality of opportunity still has however considerable resonance. Consequently, the idea that no-one should be unduly exposed to risk, just as the idea that everyone should have the same life-opportunity, constitutes a basic demand which people take to be fair. However, equality of opportunity and equality of exposure to harm remain fairly abstract demands just so long as the community maintains a “safety net” ensuring that no section of society is subjected to such a degree of harm that their capacity to participate in social life is disabled.

So for example, in Australia it is widely agreed that all people should have access to hospital emergency wards and that road safety and factory pollutant standards should be applied globally, and not discriminately. In a society where there is little exposure to risk, exposure to excessive risk appears as an injustice in the same way as poverty appears as injustice in a society of generalised affluence.

Nevertheless, people are exposed to risk unequally, and this does not always generate claims of injustice and moral outrage. Building workers, soldiers, police and many other occupational groups, young people, males, women of child-bearing age, are all exposed to higher risks than others, but do not as a result generally claim that they are victims of injustice. Still, risk can be unfairly distributed. Three factors determine exposure to risk as unjust: desert, participation and exploitation.

A group of people will object to exposure to a risk as unjust where they perceive that they have done nothing to deserve it or because those who do deserve it escape exposure. So for example, people living in the outback accept with equanimity the risks associated with being remote from medical assistance and other services, but if they are chosen as the site for a chemical dump, they rightly object to this as an injustice even if they are told that the risks of contamination are low.

Secondly, a group of people will object to exposure to a risk as unjust where they have not participated in deciding on the risk, or because those who have made the risky decision, are escaping exposure. Building workers expect their employers to follow safety procedures and certainly not to economise on safety, but they do not expect to work in as safe an environment as their colleagues in the drawing office. They have after all chosen to work on scaffolding with heavy machinery.

Finally, a risk is particularly objectionable if it is imposed by someone who profits by exposing others to the risk — exploitation.

Ultimately, the principle axis of injustice in the distribution of risk is the question of having a voice in the distribution of risk in society. People are tolerant of risks they choose themselves on the basis of reasonable information, but risks imposed on them without consultation are an injustice.

Those without an equal voice in society will be exposed to excessive, unwanted and exploitative harm and risk however. Justice demands not so much the elimination of risk or its equal distribution, as the capacity of subjects to choose their own level of exposure to risk by equal participation in the social determination of risk allocation.

It should be noted also that risk and harm are not only factors in distributive justice, but also a component of the politics of recognition. Images of heroic diggers at Gallipoli, brave pioneers taming the outback, disabled people and gays overcoming prejudice and adversity, firefighters and risk-taking entrepreneurs — all these images testify to the fact that the claim to have taken risks and overcome harm are integral components of emergent subjectivity and claims for recognition.

Further, it should be noted that the level of risk-seeking and risk-aversion is normative — the lifestyle of dominant cultural groups sets a standard for others whose lifestyle would normally be associated with a different level of risk-taking.

Those who expose themselves to too much risk are urged to play safe or be dubbed social deviants, while those who are exposed to manifestly less risk than the social norm could seek more risk, exaggerate the relative riskiness of their own life-style, or adopt a stance of moral superiority. Agreement about what is risky and what is not, is also normative and regulatory, and essential for social integration and cooperation.

Finally, a sharp divide between rich and poor creates a divide in attitude to risk: it is rational for the poor to be interested in low-probability/high-reward practices and relatively indifferent to risks; the better off are rational to be averse to low-probability disasters and relatively uninterested in gambles. While poker machines are placed in the Western suburbs, insurance salesmen ply their trade in the leafy suburbs.

Ulrich Beck described the situation for an affluent society thus:

“the social positions and conflicts of a ‘wealth-distributing’ society begin to be joined by those of a ‘risk-distributing’ society.” [Risk Society, 1986]

None of these considerations tell us anything however, about which risks people will pay attention to and who they will blame, let alone how contemporary society differs from that of earlier generations in what we blame.

The Semiotics of Anxiety

As noted above, what a person or an institution perceives as a threat, and moreover one that needs to be politically responded to, is an expression of their ethical standpoint. Advertising a threat is usually an expression of moral outrage. That the danger in question is remote is really neither here nor there. Of course a threat can be exaggerated, even invented entirely. The danger of any one of us dying from a terrorist attack is minute by comparison with the danger of dying as a result of malaria, a far greater problem on a world scale, and one as amenable to human intervention as terrorism. Yet it is terrorism which mobilises people’s anxieties, is the subject of intense political debate and makes people change their travel arrangements. And while many of us on the Left are prepared to minimise the danger of terrorism, aren’t we quick to point out the increased danger generated by George Bush and John Howard’s war in Iraq?

This writer could identify aspects of my own life-style more dangerous to my longevity than the collapse of capitalism, Howard’s support for the US War in Iraq, the over-prescription of antibiotics or the use of 4-wheel drive vehicles, but I will confess to having warned of the dangers of the latter four practices while continuing to tolerate much greater risks. Why? Because I find the latter practices either morally outrageous or at least repugnant to my own values and ethics.

In broadcasting the dangers of this or that practice we say “You shouldn’t do that!” and we make the point as forcefully as we can by underlining the way in which a given activity threatens us. Not only that, we are antipathetic to all the practices of a group of people or institution which we abhor, we are disgusted by them and we fear them.

When you choose your institutions and social practices, you choose your goods and your choose your harms and risks. Those risks which are associated with the good life are in that sense “good risks.” If we go to war in a just cause, we do not complain of the threat from enemy retaliation, we minimise it in fact. On the other hand, for the Nature-lover everything symbolic of urban modernity is ugly and dangerous.

Over and above the considerations of justice mentioned above (equality, deserts, participation and exploitation), the factors which predispose us towards belief in the threat posed by an activity or group are self-interest, self-justification, stigmatisation and transferred shame.

Self-interest (frequent-flyers who agitate for improvement to airlines safety while ignoring highway-safety) and self-justification (newspapers who complain of dangers to free speech but are indifferent to dangers to privacy) speak for themselves, and these motives are often transparent in a world where self-interest and self-justification are taken as given. It is stigmatisation and transferred shame which are less obvious and more powerful.

Who causes the greatest danger to our children on their way to school: men who download pornography from the internet or traffic jams caused by parents chauffering their kids to and from school? Who creates the greater risk of terrorist infiltration: refugees in leaky boats or well-dressed businessmen arriving by plane? Who creates litter in our streets: manufacturers of fast food or undisciplined youth? Which poses the greater risk to the health of our children: smallpox vaccination or smallpox? Who caused the AIDS epidemic: promiscuous homosexuals or scientists experimenting with monkey blood products in Africa? Who poses the greatest danger: outpatients of the mental health service or trigger-happy police?

The answers to all these questions are not calculations of statistical probability but expressions of moral disapproval. A scare is launched as an expression of moral outrage, and contested on an ethical basis, in just the same way as a vision of a conflict-free community or an economic rationalist economy are counterposed as expressions, not of economic efficiency, but of ethical conviction. The most powerful form of such expressions is the stigmatisation of a hated group and their lifestyle. It attempts to accentuate the shame attached to the activity under attack and cause people to withdraw from it. (Pride is the negative of shame and the fostering of pride is the most direct response of a stigmatised group.)

Barry Glassner points to the alternative moral scenario, which, if it can be sustained, is a powerful descriptor of the scare-as-moral-outrage: transferred shame. According to Glassner. a group or institution may exaggerate a threat to cover up or substitute for a wrong it has itself done to someone, implicating others in the misery affecting victims of their own action or neglect.

In this scenario, the decline of the public school system is put down, not to the steady transfer of funds from public education into the private system, but rather to parental neglect, disruptive pupils or lazy and politically motivated teachers. Likewise, problem gambling, alcohol abuse, “welfare addiction,” trade unionism, and a host of other sins of poverty are the preferred scapegoats for poverty, rather than excessive capital accumulation.

Under this approach, outrages about poor treatment of residents by nursing-home staff resonate with people who may be feeling the pangs of guilt about having abandoned their own aged parents.

Once again, the underlying emotion which is motivating politics here is shame, but now in the form of displaced shame about one’s own neglect or selfishness. Thomas Scheff, the US pragmatist social psychologist, has claimed that shame is the social emotion par excellence. He says that shame is a primary emotion signalling danger to a social bond, causing us to avoid behaviours which endanger social ties in just the way fear causes us to avoid behaviours which endanger the body. Though such emotions as shame and fear normally operate only for a brief interval, he describes a “shame/anger trap” in which shame and anger alternately trigger one another so as to maintain an intensity of emotion over a protracted period of time. These observations lend weight to Glassner’s speculation about the role of shame in scare campaigns.

How To ...

In Culture of Fear. Why Americans are Afraid of the wrong things, Barry Glassner uses newspaper and video cuttings collected over the past two decades to describe scare campaigns mounted in the US. Drawing on Glassner’s observations we can say that a scare campaign will succeed if it is presented to the public with dramatic skill and is:

If it is not possible to actually give the scare a human face, an image of the relevant activity connecting as closely as possible with personal experience is used. The most powerful image possible combines all the above with both the threatening activity and its result in a single visual field, and if possible the image needs to be intrinsically dramatic.

In her history of hysteria, Elaine Showalter shows how a syndrome is developed by collaboration between a genuinely suffering patient and a caring therapist; eventually, the experiences the patient describes fit into a pattern that the doctor can put a name to; this may include the doctor inducing symptoms in the patient.

Initially, a charismatic and authoritative specialist presents a sympathetic and impressive patient who becomes a prototype for the illness. The specialist puts a name to the “disease” and specifies its causes, drawing on the range of admissible explanations that the culture provides at the time, explanations which cast the prototype patient as a victim of a socially-recognised cause.

This story is then reproduced and propagated by the medical profession, picked up by the media, playwrights, novelists, journalists, etc., and the image of the prototype patient and their story is brought before the imagination of masses of people. People suffering some form of distress then recognise themselves in the prototype, who shows them that after all there is a legitimate explanation for their suffering and are “recruited,” and present themselves to the local doctor with the prototypical symptoms, and an epidemic is under way.

Showalter thus identifies the following elements required for a new epidemic:

It should be noted that the above elements are equally valid for a genuine new disease (like AIDS) as for a bogus condition (like recovered memory), and in either case, the suffering is very real; what marks the epidemic, is the concentration of generalised anxiety and possibly diverse forms of suffering around a single syndrome and a single, socially validated cause.

These same elements can be expressed in the terms of C.S. Peirce’s semiotics: the prototype patient is referred to as an icon; the name of the syndrome, “replicated” (to use Peirce’s term) by the expert authority, is called a symbol; the numbers of people identified as sufferers are called an index. According to Peirce:

“The value of an icon consists in its exhibiting the features of a state of things regarded as if it were purely imaginary. The value of an index is that it assures us of positive fact. The value of a symbol is that it serves to make thought and conduct rational and enables us to predict the future. ... the most perfect of signs are those in which the iconic, indicative, and symbolic characters are blended as equally as possible.” [Collected Papers of CS Peirce, §4.448]

The Finnish psychologist, Anja Koski-Jännes, has used this idea to understand how people can are cured of addiction by cathartic experiences which achieve this coincidence of icon, symbol and index. It seems that this idea encapsulates the process whereby radically new ideas and behaviours can enter the psyche.

This is the semiology of fear. If the message is not properly decoded, the effectiveness of a well-constructed scare campaign can be bewildering: “How can people believe that!?” The willing recipient may believe it, but they are also very “attached” to that belief.

Scares can be dispelled by sufficiently sustained, skilful and resolute action however. The sceptic who wants to debunk a scare campaign has to pay attention to the following:

While the trajectory of fear-epidemics that we have described is relevant to public discourse, it should be remembered that expert discourse is subject to rules of evidence and criteria of objectivity. Of course, expert discourses are also arenas of struggle, and are also tied up in culturally determined paradigms (like the current fad for viral or genetic causes for everything); a scare may or not be plausible, and that battle has to be fought out within the expert discourse.

Mythology and Archetypes

What is also crucial is what Mary Douglas calls “availability” and Showalter calls “intertextuality,” to refer to the collaborative production of prototypes and legitimate explanations for evil, by the whole culture.

To be successful a scare campaign must draw on a repertoire of mythological archetypes, some national, some primal. National myths frequently allude to stories of national guilt: in America, the young black man and the government cover-up; in Britain, the Conspiracy; in Australia, strangers arriving by boat. And everywhere and eternally, the violent youth, the ungrateful daughter and the dangerous foreigner.

Literature and art collaborate with expert discourse to dress these archetypes in modern clothing, and the ancient bogeys are now joined by the invisible poisons and viruses produced by modern industry and sexual predators, the archetypes of modern mythology.

Geoffrey Pearson draws on Gilbert Ryle’s aphorism that “a myth is ... the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.” The law-and-order scare, he says, wrongly locates lawlessness within a mistaken idiom of moral decay, whereas it ought to be located within an idiom of continuity. Likewise, Gulf War Syndrome would be placed alongside “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” rather than AIDS and Watergate. This puts the alarming phenomena in a new perspective.

However, the most difficult problem is always the underlying moral sentiments and interests which predispose people to believe certain kinds of scares which align with their moral sentiments and specific insecurities. This can only be dealt with by changing social practices and the whole ethos.

Risk and Blame

The above considerations help to explain why people single out one thing rather than another as a focus of fear and anger, but who or what will they blame? Attribution of blame reflects the distribution of social responsibility which is nothing but ethical; alternatively, responsibility can be removed from humanity altogether and located under the heading of nature or luck.

The attribution of natural and personal disasters to human misbehaviour is as old as the human species, and invariably expresses moral disapproval of the blamed behaviour, ascribing bushfires to “green tape” or floods to agribusiness.

On the other hand, when we are pre-disposed to minimise a threat, we look to natural causes, accidents and victim-blaming. Who gets blamed for malformed babies: genetics, bad luck, the mother’s smoking habit, pollution or the paediatrician?

As remarked above, ascribing harms to Nature or chance is a declaration that there is no-one to blame. Very often, victim-blaming, saying that someone’s misfortune was a result of their own misadventure, has the same effect. Especially the first of these attitudes is not socially approved nowadays. The nature/culture divide has been moved back a long way, and even while genetics and biochemistry are being increasingly ascribed as the cause of every kind of misfortune or deviance, this is far from meaning that the problem concerned is beyond human intervention; on the contrary, the identification of a biochemical cause is a step in the “medicalisation” of the problem, and its subsumption under pharmaceutical description. Generally speaking, in modernity, we don’t believe in accidents. The British Medical Journal of June 2001 declared “accident” to be unscientific. If something happened, someone is responsible.

Refusal to believe in accidents of nature — blaming paediatric doctors for sick babies, governments for not anticipating a natural disaster — can be traced to several sources.

People have always believed that misfortune was the wages of sin. Nowadays, virtue is earning enough to buy what you want on the market, so it is hard for someone who has earnt an honest living, paid their taxes and purchased professional services to believe that their misfortune is not some kind of swindle, in just the same way that university students now increasingly believe that having paid for their degree they ought to be given it, whatever their exam results.

This trend underlies the move towards the privatisation of public responsibility and the increasingly litigious nature of public life. Institutions have two possible approaches to protect their agents and decision-makers from blame:

The latter response is normal in Australia and the US today, although Britain has a long tradition of secrecy and institutional solidarity. With individuals finding themselves exposed to risk without institutional support, they must increasingly defend themselves by purchasing insurance, thus further exacerbating fragmentation and the move to privatisation of risk.

Deregulation has the same effect: lacking sanctions to enforce compliance, institutions increasingly rely on market mechanisms, thereby divesting themselves of direct responsibility. Risk thereby becomes commodified and every risk has a price. Someone is always responsible, preferably a corporate body with insurance.

The Media

Every scare campaign comes to us through the media. It is very tempting therefore to blame the media, especially television, for the culture of fear we live in. Barry Glassner argues that although the means of public communication have a great role to play in transmitting scare campaigns, they are equally instrumental in debunking scares. The media is an arena of struggle over risk as much as any other institution or any other part of society. Consequently it would be wrong to single out the media (as a whole) in blame for scare campaigns — different social forces are at work within it. Of course, through professional self-interest and that of their owners, certain media aid certain scare campaigns and not others, but this is true of all the institutions of modern society. Every lobby group promotes own scare campaign.

In his analysis of modern American life, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam ascribes 30% of the loss of sociability over the past 40 years to the ubiquity of television. He shows that people who have access to the world only through the TV (or otherwise through a restricted channel), are more likely to be afraid of something than are people who are practically exposed to the relevant risk and are consequently familiar with it.

Society is overall much more tolerant of difference than a generation ago, in large part due to the proliferation of mass media, but some people have little exposure to some other kinds of people, other than through TV, and consequently are vulnerable to scare campaigns about issues which actually rarely affect them.

Before attempting to summarise the politics of fear as we see it today, we need to review the development of public enmity and the frightened subject over the recent past.

The Modern History of Fear

In For Ethical Politics (Heidelberg Press, 2003), I traced the evolution of the radical subject; here I want to briefly sketch the evolution of the dark side of modern subjectivity, our bogeys.

After the Nazi witch-hunts of the 1930s, the most extensive and oppressive scare campaign of our times was the anti-communist witch-hunt of the decade or two after the end of the Second World War. The War and the period of reconstruction which followed had created among other things a social environment strongly communitarian and conformist in character. McCarthyism operated within that environment and its bogey was cast as a threat to the whole community, a communist takeover; this scare campaign had a powerful effect of reinforcing conformity.

On the other side, the major campaign of the Left was the Peace Movement, whose principle objects were the prospect of nuclear war, particularly a war launched by the US on the Soviet Union, and later on Cuba and Vietnam. Nothing I have learnt since causes me to doubt that the Left was fully justified in warning of the danger of nuclear war, but it is notable that we chose to mobilise support for our cause by raising the danger of annihilation. The Communists within the Peace Movement operated under deep cover, often indistinguishable from church groups. Despite the intensity with which the two great blocs fought one another, internal conflict was discouraged on both sides, each holding up the leading figures and icons of the other side as threats to the entire community.

Neither anti-communism nor the threat of nuclear war have much purchase today, though I doubt that the danger of communist take-over is any less today than it was in 1951, nor the real danger of nuclear holocaust any less.

Once the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement got going, these bogeys receded; the period of conformism passed over to an increasing celebration of diversity, but also increased intensity of interpersonal conflict. This was a very optimistic period, and one dedicated to the unmasking of age-old fears, changing the practices of everyday life at an unprecedented rate. Neither side needed bogeys when the enemy confronted them every day.

The Environmental Movement which began after the post-war boom had ended warned of a range of global catastrophes, while the ultra-left socialist groups of the period warned of the economic collapse of capitalism. Two of the writers whose work I have drawn on here — Ulrich Beck and Mary Douglas — wrote from the standpoint of this period, each taking opposite subject positions: Beck seeking to rationalise the new prominence of the prospect of global disaster as a new stage in the development of capitalism, the other assisting industry in responding to the success of the environmental movement in shutting down the nuclear power industry in the U.S..

According to Douglas, the prospect of catastrophe is the characteristic threat treasured by voluntary organisations. The image of the factory as polluter expresses, in her view, the ethic of those who are disgusted by industrialisation. One does not have to go any of the way with Douglas in her conclusions to accept the basic premise that the long list of environmental catastrophes raised by the Green movement (in my view fully justified whether exaggerated or not) express an ethos which finds industrial capitalism disgusting. For the socialist sects and the environmental movement, transformation of the world was the condition for personal liberation. Defending the environment not only held voluntary movements together, but facilitated participation in a movement far greater than anyone’s mailing list. The great recruiting power of the Green movement, is that allows people to connect the danger to the natural environment with hum-drum practices like recycling, selective eating, cycling, etc., etc. Nature is the “Big Other” which shows us how we must live in order to protect her.

“Reflexive society” and “Risk society”

Ulrich Beck and Mary Douglas initiated the modern literature on risk.

Beck highlighted the threat of catastrophe posed by human activity, the impact of private activity on the public, scepticism in relation to science. What Anthony Giddens calls “manufactured risk” and the consciousness of incalculable riskiness in every avenue of human activity, marks a new stage in the development of capitalism, “reflexive society” or “risk society.”

Douglas said that the prominence of social movements created an ethical conflict over the management of risk. In a way, these two writers expressed the two sides in a conflict which has now been surpassed. The risks identified by the social movements have largely been institutionalised, despite being still far from resolved.

Despite Douglas’s subject position in that debate, in support of the polluters, her observations about the ethical and moral content of disputes over risks stand today as an important contribution.

Fear and Pessimism

The stagflation of the early 1970s, the US defeat in Vietnam and Watergate marked the end of this period of optimism. Optimism (according to Eric Uslaner) is the underlining prerequisite for trust and the disposition towards sociability. On this analysis, this period marked the transition to a different ethic marked by a turn away from collective notions of security.

The deeply pessimistic ethos of the current times is the major barrier to rolling back the culture of fear.

We live in a society where children are chauffeurred to and from school where they may be monitored on CCTV, where every can of food carries warning labels and every evening current affairs program gives consumers new dangers to avoid. While the medical, paedophilia and crime scares of recent times are not new inventions, (even the practice of inventing new diseases for the purpose of marketing pharmaceutical products has a history) these are bogeys of a different kind.

We live in a society in which social ties have been reduced to the minimum, the average household size is about 2.5 persons, and almost all personal and collective relationships have been replaced by relations of purchase and sale. We are an atomised and fragmented society and the threats we fear are threats to the individual and close-family. What is more, the dangers we fear further weaken social ties, as we prefer to buy something to protect us rather than live with risk or lead healthier lives, stay indoors rather than venture out, even working from home to avoid workplace stress, commute from outer suburbs in one-person vehicles rather than live where we work. All our responses to the fears, magnified by our isolation and loneliness actually increase our isolation and fragmentation. They reinforce and justify the ethos of which they are a part.

Generalised Anxiety

While Giddens and Beck make no claim that the world is more dangerous today, a claim which would be unsustainable, there is widespread agreement that we live in a period of heightened “generalised anxiety.”

The outstanding question in relation to Beck’s work is whether the changes he points to are the cause of “generalised anxiety.” Does the changed structure of risk identified by Beck make the citizens of the “reflexive society” more prone to uncertainty about everything; does growing up under the threat of nuclear war and global warming make us inclined to see danger at every turn? Frederic Jameson is credited with observing that “it has now become easier to imagine the end of the earth and of nature than the end of capitalism,” and this rings true. However, it seems to me that this more to do with past disappointments and the triumph of individualism than the fear of future catastrophes. I know of no evidence for insecurity to become generalised in the mind as a result of uncertainty about the planet.

You are suffering from a variety of troubling symptoms of unknown cause; you visit the doctor and he gives you a name for the condition; even before medicine is prescribed you are feeling relieved, and the placebo the doctor gives may effect a cure. For the person suffering from anxiety, the naming of a fear is a relief.

We do live in a period of generalised anxiety. That generation of decision-makers in the West, professional people born after the end of the War, have never known real fear, as a generation. The older generation experienced fascism, depression and war; there were the mass migrations, especially after the war, but today’s 40-50 year olds have never faced such substantial threats.

However, young people growing up today face a different kind of uncertainty: they have to “write their own biography.” Uncertainty prevails not only over job security but what kind of a job is possible, not only over whether one’s family will survive intact, but what is a family. It is at this level of everyday life that we find the basis for “ontological anxiety.”

The period of “micro-economic reform” and globalisation which followed the Reagan-Thatcher years has seen the integration of risk into the market. Life is no more “dangerous” than in the past, but the fragmentation of personal relationships and privatisation of risk has indeed generated cause for anxiety.

It is this ubiquitous commodification, under the neo-liberal agenda which grew out of the period of “micro-economic reform” which is driving the growth of generalised anxiety, and is in turn reinforced by this same generalised anxiety.

Geoffrey Pearson, in his history of law-and-order scares, claims that it has been the periods in which the process of democratisation has taken big steps forward that anxiety has infected the “respectable people.” Uncertainty about personal relationships, ethical and moral norms, the continuity of family and employment has increased, alongside scepticism towards science and all forms of authority.

The problem with Beck’s concept of “risk society” as the underlying basis for this anxiety is two-fold: firstly, it fails to identify the kinds of threat dominate the consciousness of people today; and secondly, if Beck is right, then things can only get worse, as society becomes more and more “reflexive.” However, if we accept that it is the lack of an ethical alternative to the destruction by the market of traditional relations and social responsibility, then it is possible to see that the society of generalised anxiety can be overcome.

John Howard, scaremonger extraordinaire

Despite the lack of any national vision, John Howard has just won his fourth Australian federal election, an achievement mainly due to his being a master electoral tactician. The phrase “wedge politics” was invented especially for him, he plays the “dog whistle” like an maestro, and he is scaremonger extraordinaire.

Children overboard

In the wake of 9/11 and his refusal of entry to refugees rescued by the Tampa, John Howard was well-placed to wipe out the ALP lead in the polls. On the 6th of October 2001, 223 refugees aboard a leaky boat entered Australian waters. The Australian Navy fired cannon and machine guns across its bows and began to tow it back towards Indonesia. On 8th October, the boat sank, and Howard dissolved Parliament for an election to be held on 10 November, claiming at the same time that refugees had thrown their own children overboard in order to force the Australian Navy to pick them up, and people who threw their children overboard in order to gain entry to Australia were not welcome in this country. This was eventually proven to be a simple lie. The photograph purporting to show a child abandoned in the water was a fake and blurry video purporting to show them being thrown overboard showed nothing of the kind.

That is the story. From the day it was released, the ALP had lost the election; their only choice was to retreat or take the moral high ground; they chose the former and lost the election, disgraced before their own supporters.

Who would believe that a mother would throw their own children into the sea as a gambit to get rescued? Well, it turned out that either many people were disposed to believe it, or even if they did not really believe it, they were prepared to tell themselves that it was true, because it justified a policy of abandoning refugees from Afghanistan (which we were bombing at the time) and Iraq (which we were blockading at the time), and even letting them drown, which was the fate of the next group that tried.

These moves sent a message to people that Howard understood people’s fears about their economic future and their safety and was prepared to dump dirty foreigners in the sea and then lie about it to protect them. Nothing the Labor Party could say could do anything but reinforce people in the belief that it was Howard who really put their interests first. Howard would even lie for them. The image of Asiatics arriving on Australian shores by boat and swamping us is a very old one; the big black arrow on the map coming “down” from China was used by Menzies in the 1960s for example. It is a primordial, white-settler fear, combining the guilt about ourselves arriving by boat and stealing the land from the Australian Aborigines with the fear that there are more of those Asians than us.

Howard only had to press the button, and the picture of a child in a life-jacket and the blurry video was enough to set off the shame/anger trap.

Dog whistles

A dog whistle sounds above the range of human hearing, but dogs can hear it. The term refers to the ability to avoid non-PC language, while sending a very non-PC signal to the bigoted listener. Howard is very good at it. The dog whistle is very much to do with the use of moral and ethical sentiments which connect up with beliefs which cannot be sustained by rational argument. Every time a conservative politician talks about “the family,” everyone knows they are talking about promiscuous sex and homosexuality.

Interest rates

The central tactic of Howard in the 2004 election was to claim that if Labor were elected, then interest rates would go up. This was refuted the very next day, not only by every economic commentator, even the conservative ones, but even the Governor of the Reserve Bank went on record refuting it, and interestingly many of Howard’s constituency, such as retirees, actually benefit from high interest rates. This allegation was backed up by TV ads about Latham’s time as Mayor of Liverpool, implementing City Beautiful town planning and micro-economic reform in accordance with the fashions of the time. This job was contrasted with managing “Australia’s $8b economy.”

Nothing the ALP could do seemed to shake this criticism, enough “swinging voters” hung on to the idea that Labor could not manage the economy to keep the nails firmly in the ALP coffin. This prejudice, that the Labour Party cannot run an economy, allied with the idea that the national economy is “just like a business” rests on longstanding conceptions of the Labor Party as the party of the trade unions (something Latham plans to change) and therefore of base level employees. Conventional wisdom holds that workers should work and managers should manage the business. The image of the bumbling Labor Councillor compared with the suave CEO, connected up with personal experience and convinced many that the workers should not be running the national business. Interest rates are of course going to go up — the fear is justified, and household debt is at an all-time high. It was only necessary to connect up this justified fear with deep social prejudices to lay it on the Labor Party.


The key point to be grasped about scare campaigns is that they are either self-serving, or an expression of moral outrage or a shame/anger trap. They cannot be taken at face value.

Nothing that we have said above about the social construction of threats, and the ethical basis for the perception of threats, takes away from the fact that a threat may be objectively real or not, with a potentially greater or lesser impact on people’s lives. Most of the threats we have discussed above are real. But, to use Barry Glassner’s phrase, on the whole, people are afraid of the wrong things; the politics of fear is reinforcing the existing power structure and aggravating the feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness which are the major blockage to progressive politics today. The politics of fear is itself building up the greatest threats to the majority of people’s lives. It is a danger that the Left must mobilise against.

If social movements need an external threat, it is equally true that external threats call for a social movement. How else can people be alerted to new, real dangers? The point is whether or not people pay attention to a threat and change their activity accordingly, and where they place blame. Unless there is some social predisposition to believe in a threat it is unlikely to generate a response. What disgusts and frightens us depends, and depends above all, on our moral and ethical beliefs. These ethical beliefs are not as subject to change as opinions about matters of fact or theory, but they are subject to change. The moral prejudices underlying vulnerability to scare campaigns are challenged when we set abut debunking scare campaigns, even though they are the last the change.

Scare campaigns can be debunked, even if, as Anthony Giddens has said, there is never any way, in advance, of avoiding the charge of scaremongering or cover-up — other than, we must add, building a society in which people are genuinely architects of their own destiny. Each scare campaign can be met one-at-a-time with rational and objective critique and vigorous counter-measures; but the underlying conditions of anxiety and vulnerability require an ethical response.

The Left has to develop a rival ethics to that of the market, a guide as to how people should lead their lives, a way of understanding the meaning in their lives and what deserves to be feared and what does not. Crucial to this is the building of social solidarity.

To the extent that people see themselves, together with others, as architects of their own destiny, risk comes in the same package as gain and is not a matter of injustice. This means that the Left has to develop and popularise an emancipatory ethical practice by means of which people can define themselves, irrespective of the punishments and rewards offered by the market, and distinguish real from imagined enemies.


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