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“Fear is the deadliest assassin; it does not kill but it keeps you from living.” So goes an old French saying that resonates strongly in a world that’s ravaged by war and insecurity, protracted economic crises, and ecological calamity.
Pervasive fear threatens our most precious capacities: our ability to be social, to express solidarity and empathy, to think, to struggle for autonomy and justice, and to be willing to act and change the world and ourselves along with it. Fear is associated with silencing and inducing a sense of helplessness, with pacification as well as encouraging cruelty and justifying all manner of oppression and violence.
As political theorists from Spinoza to Arendt to the Zapatistas have explored at length, pervasive fear is a threat to our very aliveness. Why is that? Because—while fleeting experiences of fear may make our palms go wet and cold, our voices shake, our eyes fill with tears and our throats unleash a scream—it is prolonged, systemic fear that engulfs much of the world today. This kind of fear is often experienced as a blunting of the senses at both the personal and the societal levels. Cumulatively, fear creates a deadening effect where everyone is afraid to think or express themselves differently.
Fear is intended to distract us, to make money from us, to fool us with false promises and fill us with enmity. Fear ignites irrational passions like racism and the endless designation of new and ever more sinister enemies. Fear causes people to turn inwards, to pay attention and dispense love and care in only the most privatized and politically corrosive ways. So what’s to be done?
I’ve spent the last decade thinking and talking about that question with activists, scholars and artists across the world. One of the most courageous responses came from Guatemalan feminist activist Sandra Moran, whose organization, El Sector de Mujeres (The Women's Sector) has been at the forefront of the movement to confront impunity and gender violence in the aftermath of Guatemala's brutal civil war.
“Resisting fear involves both individual decisions and collective action,” she told me, recounting a visit from the late feminist anti-violence activist Ester Chavez who came from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. “Chavez has been a central figure in the anti-femicide movement in that city. She came to Guatemala City to share strategies on stopping the femicide, the impunity that fuels it, and the fear that envelops the lives of the inhabitants of both places.
That night somebody broke into our office. The only thing they took was our extremely modest security system: a machine that records the numbers of those who call us. Taking this machine was a clear message. We pulled back.
Two weeks later I called a meeting and said that this isn’t the way to go. They want us to collapse so that we don’t push the issue in the street. They wanted us to be quiet and we’d given it right to them. This isn’t a strategy. So we decided that that was enough. We then returned to our previous strategy of talking publicly, doing interviews in the media and shouting in the streets, because for me the public arena was security.”
Moran's experience exemplifies an everyday reality in which intimidation and fear are used to block resistance. The careful use of fear is deliberate and effective, designed to force activists to step back and stop being openly disobedient. But as with Chavez and El Sector de Mujeres, people know that they shouldn't be manipulated by a culture of fear, whether it’s created by political entrepreneurs in government, the corporate world, the security industries, or the commercial media. Our impulse must be to overcome fear, to be courageous, and to harness whatever internal forces we can muster so that we can continue to act and create and resist—but how?
Looking closely at people’s struggles with fear is instructive. As I found in my research, the struggle against social fear is an affirmation, a moving beyond what makes us afraid.
Marcus Rediker, for example, is a historian of globalization ‘from below’ who focuses on the hidden histories of rebellion and resistance to extreme violence and oppression among the slaves, sailors and pirates of maritime capitalism.
“In the eighteenth century,” he told me, “all punishments were meant to be exemplary. Public hangings, for instance, were big spectacles meant to teach lessons about private property, about power, class, staying in one's place. A special and revealing theatre of fear was enacted out at the gallows. Those many who attended public hangings drew on a long and powerful tradition of cursing the authorities, of ‘dying game,’ refusing to give in, declining to show fear.
Pirates faced execution before big crowds, which usually included the richest people of the colony. In Virginia in 1720, condemned pirates were given a glass of wine before their execution, and one of them stepped forward to toast ‘damnation to the governor and confusion to the colony.’ Some would probably come to watch the condemned curse the powerful as part of the drama. The people facing death demonstrated power by refusing to show penitence and deference.
The gallows was a stage for fearlessness, where people said, ‘Even in death, we are not afraid of you.’”
This kind of radical courage in the face of terror is admirable, and clearly something to be emulated in defiance of arbitrary power. Yet as the history of domination demonstrates, political fear is a tool deployed specifically to induce feelings of helplessness.
However, when I spoke to the influential Marxist-feminist philosopher Silvia Federici, she explained why fear needn’t be paralyzing in this way. Federici speaks from deep experience, since her life and work include not only her own exposure to fear under fascism in Italy but also an alternative account of one of history's most brutal campaigns of homicidal terror: the witch hunts of Europe and its colonies.
“I was a small child growing up in Italy during the Second World War,” she told me. “Movements in World War Two against fascism, racism and Nazism were formative to my understanding of politics, movement building, and solidarity. Ultimately the power of movements allowed people in them to overcome their fear of being part of a struggle. They formed a collective identity, a history that went beyond them.
This meant that the always-looming possibility of their destruction was not devastating or paralyzing in the sense that one may think it would be. In a sense, even the sacrifice of life would not be the end of their individual history either, because in that struggle against fascism people are part of a collective self. They were part of something that transcended the temporal limits of their life and which made death, the ever-present possibility of death, bearable.”
Is there a conclusion to be drawn from these conversations? I think it’s this: people shouldn't focus on overcoming fear per se, but on coming together to struggle against the sources of fear—against the daily reproduction of the kind of social order that makes fear an effective tool of domination and separation.
When we look closely, this is what anti-systemic social movements are doing every day, all across the world: from ordinary people in Greece who are developing networks of mutual aid in the face of wrenching austerity and the rising appeal of fascist politics, to the multitudes who gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to repeatedly declare that ‘the wall of fear came down,’ to the millions of other people whose actions repudiate the dominant message that the ‘Other’ is an object of fear. By contrast, all of these exemplars respond to protracted global crises, to war and dispossession, with solidarity and friendship.
Any conversation is energized with a sense of possibility, clarification, and discovery. Talking, engagement and collective action help us to work through problems and think anew. They are habitually cited as tonics for loneliness, anxiety, depression and despair. Fear may not disappear in the process, but it shouldn’t ‘keep us from living’ as that old French saying puts it.
Instead we can devote our abundant emotional and social energies to creating the kind of world in which fear is rendered ineffective as a technology of power and control. Effective resistance to systemic fear cannot happen simply by declaring that we as individuals will be courageous. It will only be possible when we come together to imagine and produce a social infrastructure of mutuality and solidarity that prioritizes refusal of fear as a way of life.
Fiona Jeffries’ book, Nothing to Lose but Our Fear, is published by Between the Lines in Toronto and Zed Books in London.