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Politics of fear: a frightened left

Nobody has raised real debates in national or supranational parliaments to discuss the excesses of the securitarian discourse. Quite the opposite: the left has adopted the security discourse wholesale as its own and entered into a kind of auction with the right.
Josep Ramoneda
11 May 2011

Firstly, the phenomenology of fear

The discourse of fear breeds fear. It is contagious, in two directions: it increases the panic of the targeted citizen and causes repetition effects among political parties. The greater the fear, the freer is the path the power has to develop its natural tendency towards expansion. Fear benefits those in command.

Vulnerability is a distinctive feature of the human species. Reason and freedom, these two oddities that distinguish man from the rest of the universe, ensure that man becomes aware of its precariousness. Hence, that man becomes fearful. This forlorn being feels particularly threatened when s/he has achieved a certain level of welfare - afraid of losing it. Any increased risk provokes this panic. What is an increased risk? An increase in uncertainty. 

Man has always lived in uncertainty. The sciences of life tell us that progress consists precisely in reducing uncertainty. And since the industrial revolution uncertainty has indeed been reduced. Increased life expectancy is there to certify to this. Thus, modernity has been considered the time of progress. The novelty is that nowadays traditional risks with no attributable authorship – i.e. attributable to nature or to the gods – have been exceeded by the enormous risks posed by men themselves.

Power systems created by human societies have always had recourse to fear as an instrument of social control. Often the fear stemmed from the fear of God and the fear of those in power. The modern strategy of terror, both in the form of large totalitarian bureaucracies, as in the form of terrorism, whether state-sponsored or revolutionary, dressed in any of the multiple religious or secular fundamentalisms, also has as its main objective the terrorizing of populations, i.e., to cripple their capacity to react.

With technological development and the successive changes of scale that have shaped economic systems in the process towards their current global dimension, the uncertainty factors not attributable to destiny have soared. At the same time, discourses that offered psychological consolation and security to forsaken citizens have been seriously eroded: religious beliefs, ethnic and national identities, ideologies of promise, with their offers for redemption either in heaven or on earth.

When the conditions that frame individual biographies on the basis of work – a vocation, a company, some friends, trade unions, neighbourhood, customs, a whole way of life - when confidence in the true God is diluted in a highly competitive religious market; when the harmony between nation, sovereignty and state is blurred; when politics loses its authority and autonomy vis-à-vis economic power, how is the voluntary servitude of citizens that power longs for to be ensured? Power speculates with uncertainty. And looks for scapegoats on which to offload the responsibility for the anxieties experienced by citizens.

The first culprit to be found is the Other, the being who can provoke the worst passions in any public in at least three ways: he is different, he is an outcast, he threatens our well-being. The old dream of homogeneous societies remains embedded in the frames of the human brain: fear towards the Other is ancestral. A fear easily stirred by a single tweak to the tiger’s tail. Pariah status is represented as an offense: “Here comes a miserable being to dispute your job”, a trite but still effective demagogic trick to awaken and feed both the everyday sadism of weak citizens against the weakest ones, and to increase the feeling of insecurity. The immigrant comes to rob us of our work as a threat to the maintenance of the welfare state, even against all the evidence. (One example: In Spain, one of the engines of economic growth before the crisis was the dramatic increase in an immigrant population that was to generate up to more than fifteen percent of domestic demand).

The origin of the politics of fear is uncertainty, i.e. a perception of insecurity. Hence, the politics of fear is always accompanied by strengthening security policies that privilege theatrical displays ahead of any concern for democratic freedoms and even of effective security measures. It is fear that allows these deployments, because a citizenry gripped by fear accedes to everything. It accedes, because of terrorism, to forms of control that violate any principle of privacy. It allows illegal detentions on the sole grounds of race or status. It permits the restriction of basic freedoms with the massive use of cameras and electronic control devices, etc. And it tolerates the legitimation of one of the most heinous crimes, torture, as did Bush in August 2002, with barely any resistance. 

But the dual combination of security-fear also ensures a limitless escalation. For security itself feeds fear. Or is there any doubt that the primary mission of heavily controlled access to aircraft is to constantly remind us of the great threat that hovers over us and the state's efforts to fight it?

Bush's conservative revolution marks a high point in the politics of fear. The main idea is clear: ‘the West’ is the only thing we care about; we couldn’t care less for the fate of the rest of the world; everything is permitted in order to preserve a certain idea of ​​‘the West’ – his idea. 

Such was the state of things until this revolution crashed into the Iraq war. But then came the financial crisis and, confronted by the abyss of unemployment and loss of property, fear has grown and grown. The result is the spectacle of astonished mobs, paralysed in front of ghostly financial powers that have come to believe that anything is possible.

Next, the left and security

No one contested the legitimation of torture in the US, and many of its allies were complicit in it, assisting and servicing the death flights. Nobody has raised real debates in national or supranational parliaments to discuss the excesses of the securitarian discourse. Quite the opposite: the left has adopted the security discourse wholesale as its own and entered into a kind of auction with the right. Was not Tony Blair the mainstay of the American conservative revolution in Europe?

What has happened? Reality has run quicker than ideas and the left has got lost in the process, with no consistent discourse to address the profound changes in society – from the economic, ideological, political and moral bankruptcy of Soviet-type regimes, to the fragmentation of the working class or the massive fall of middle classes into a mortgaged way of life in the western world. And with it, it has surrendered all its core emblematic stances to the political right. For instance, it has waived the defence of the welfare state, assuming the conservative principle that it is economically unsustainable and that we must reduce it to make it sustainable. 

But then, how can we explain that after World War II, welfare state policies were viable in countries like France or Germany with a GDP per capita well below that current today and that this same is no longer viable now? For political reasons, of course, because there is currently no threat to counter like the communist threat was then. The left would rather accept the economic argument. Similarly, the left has also waived equality as a regulatory principle, assuming instead the mantle of the systematic offensive by the political right against redistributive taxation, and legitimising it with the odd argument that, "cutting taxes is a leftist option" (Zapatero). In so doing, it has contributed to a deregulation of the economy that has led to the disasters of the current crisis and the consecration of the privileges of the powerful. The result: a social climate marked by economist discourses, according to which crises correspond to the natural and inevitable course of the economy, denying any possibility to transform society, and sacralising money as the sole measure of all things. The moral climate that this implies is perfectly well described as an "Inside Job."

If the economy is everything, the main role of government is security. The axis of all politics of fear is twofold: to identify the culprits of crimes and to display its heavy hand against them. The left has assumed both responsibilities, with a discourse at best ambiguous about immigration, and a sustained cultivation of paranoia among our hypochondriacal first world societies. It was a leftist government, the Spanish socialist government, which upgraded the fences of Ceuta and Melilla into almost impregnable barriers preventing access to Europe from Morocco, imposing a terrible toll on those identified as the pariahs of the world: on the one hand, more dead than ever washed up at sea, because immigrants keep trying to reach the privileged continent; on the other, a heavy economic toll, because the trafficking gangs have increased their rates. But the new, reinforced fences of Ceuta and Melilla remain intact, to calm the anxieties of the frightened citizens of the first world. Day after day, without so much as a blush, the left continues to contribute to the restrictions of freedoms that are imposed in the name of security. The left lacks, in sum, its own discourse on the three issues crucial for the deployment of populism and xenophobia: the crisis, immigration and security.

With regard to the crisis, the left has surrendered itself unconditionally to market guidelines, forcing their policies to bend in painful contortions, as Zapatero has been doing in Spain since May 2010. Not one sign of any serious attempt to put financial power under control. The left accepts that there is no alternative. As it also accepts policies of discrimination and repatriation of immigrants, without the least pedagogical effort to recognise the needs of people from different origins and traditions in learning to live together. 

In this context, the politics of fear emerges by default. By denying any possibility of curbing the abuses of market power, it is inevitable that the gaze of citizenry must be turned towards the security theatre, there to identify and eventually sacrifice some scapegoats – that is, immigrants – as compensation for the growing social distress. 

In doing so, the discourse of the political left meets that of the right and the far right, but without the legitimacy of those who have not changed their minds. At the end of the day, this opportunistic move on the part of the left is useless, because scared citizens will always end up preferring the original model to any copy. 

The left needs to reinvent itself.

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