The politics of fear

Tazreena Sajjad

Published in New Age (18 September 2007) 

Today, as a nation, are we afraid? The response is a resounding ‘yes’… Our fears reflect the concerns of our own physical safety and our desperate attempts not to lose the status quo that gives us protection. We fear death, torture, being disappeared, being silenced. We fear the loss of hope. These fears accentuate our powerlessness, and in their extreme form can lead to the erosion of any form of social solidarity, writes the author.

‘Come to the edge,’ he said. They said, ‘We are afraid.’ ‘Come to the edge,’ he said. They came. He pushed them… and they flew.
–– Guillaume Apollinaire
‘There is no other passion whatever, wrote Montaigne, which carries our judgement away sooner from its proper seat.’ He further explains that sometimes [fear] gives ‘wings to our feet…sometimes it nails down and fetters our feet.’ Fear, like love and hate, is a universal emotion for all that is living, bringing about the instinctive need to protect, to escape, and sometimes to confront. It is our survival mechanism with the potential to destroy by rendering us helpless, and hopeless. Fear’s potential to subdue one’s own and one’s opposition has been perhaps one of the most potent discoveries in politics and in the understanding of power.
Fear, and the psychology behind it, has always been one of the most effective means of social control. Governance by fear that takes the shape of mass hysteria, of collective apprehension of threats, known and unknown, has been the strategy of politics, of religion, of any form of authority. This rubric of fear, and the power that it accords, have been one of the concerns of political thought. After all, a certain amount of trepidation and concern breeds the critical respect for a ruler. Machiavelli would certainly agree. But fear thrives on its multifaceted nature. It not only inspires terror, diminishes aspirations and paralyses action, it can also breed a false show of respect to hide censure, loathing, rejection which may be understood to be too dangerous to be put in public view. Invoking Machiavelli then:
‘Nevertheless, a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated….’
Essentially, fear is the playground of realpolitik interests, and ruling by fear ensures subordination of the meekest kind. Among various types of political fears, the ones that can be listed include: (a) consternation of inhabitants of democracies in times of crisis, for the fragility of the quos of their socials contract even as the quids become harder to pay; (b) fear of being insufficiently protected both by the agents of social order from individuals and organisations and from those very agents themselves; (c) fear of each other since fear itself breeds distrust, and distrust creates deep faultlines in communities.
In nations at the brink of civil strife, the level of collective fear is at its highest. While creating desperation about the absence of control over an emotion that is both rational and irrational, fear also leads to social disengagement for many. For others, it creates grounds for some form of movement, an opposition which aims to not only challenge fear, but also to dissipate it in the struggle for change.
No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain…indeed terror is, in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. (Edmund Burke)
Today, as a nation, are we afraid? The response is a resounding ‘yes’.
Our fear is laced with uncertainty about motivations and ambitions of those who we choose to believe and those we confide in, of those around us, about whom we are uncertain whether we can trust, of instability in the economic infrastructure, of the future of politics and indeed that of democratic norms we have idealised but have not yet attained.
Our fears reflect the concerns of our own physical safety and our desperate attempts not to lose the status quo that gives us protection. We fear death, torture, being disappeared, being silenced. We fear the loss of hope. These fears accentuate our powerlessness, and in their extreme form can lead to the erosion of any form of social solidarity.
Our fear is of engagement at the same time of disengagement over politics that we understand only in fragments and in the whispers of rumours that circulate so efficiently through the grapevines. The recent riots which summoned the wrath of the administration demonstrated the extent to which absolute control can and may be exerted to ensure compliance and ensure stability. The success of the strategies employed simultaneously worked to establish the parameters of the rule by fear, and guarantee the success of administration by uncertainty.
Yet it is important to consider that all sides become, in the game of politics, the subjects on which fear feeds upon. Reactions to opposition movements stem from fear—fear of takeover, fear of losing ground, fear of losing power and legitimacy, and, most of all, fear of fear itself.
The truth is, fear is a political tool and it lends itself to being manipulated and manoeuvred. It is not fear itself, but the instrumentalisation of it — its political use — that makes it effective. Harnessing the manifestations of authority in every form with the purpose of sustaining fear ensures that opposition is, if not dissipated, effectively constrained.
And in reality, no state is innocent of such charges; history is replete with examples of the deliberate use of fear to subjugate the masses and ensure the sustenance of an existing status quo. Simultaneously, history is also replete with examples of counter currents that have worked with, and conquered, fear that served as the instrument of political subjugation. Chile’s Pinochet, Peru’s Fujimori, Pakistan’s Musharraf—all effectively played the game of fear with the trump cards in their hands. Dangerous parallels, admittedly, but the bottom line for these leaders and those before bear remarkable similarities—institutionalising the psyche of fear in stage one, only (sometimes) to be overturned in stage two when fear turns to rage and rage fuels the masses to take control through both violent and non-violent means to reclaim what was lost. The battle is for freedom from fear.
Upon this a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children as is said above when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. (Machiavelli)
In politics, as in life, most fears are grounded on our own experiences or facilitated by our lack thereof. In our inability to protect and prevent the worst of which our imaginations allow, or what reality dictates, we look to fear to guide us toward silence and toward complacence. While fear itself is a healthy reaction, the manipulation of it makes it even more frightening and perpetuates an anti-democratic ethos in which we have high stakes for risks taken and little promise of any return.
And that is the success of the culture of fear—to create an environment where the risk of loss stultifies any possibilities of gain. Its success lies in the destruction of hope, and hope is the nemesis of those who attempt to challenge fear to bring about change. While fear disempowers those in the receiving end, however, it does not promise permanent fortification to those who exercise its hold over it. To employ terror is to allow some of it to seep in into one’s own armour and the actions that follow to consolidate power only serve to institutionalise fear within one’s own ranks. This is no premonition, nor a prediction. It is, bluntly stated, the dynamics of the politics of fear in action.


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