[Paleopsych] spiked-essays: The market in fear
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Sat Oct 15 01:14:04 UTC 2005
The market in fear
[Before you read this, which I have not done, recall that "The whole aim of
practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be
led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them
imaginary" (H.L. Mencken, _In Defence of Women_).]
Politics has become a contest between different brands of
by Frank Furedi
Fear is fast becoming a caricature of itself. It is no longer simply
an emotion or a response to the perception of threat. It has become a
cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of unease about our
place in the world.
Popular culture encourages an expansive, alarmist imagination through
providing the public with a steady diet of fearful programmes about
impending calamities - man-made and natural. Now even so-called high
culture cannot resist the temptation of promoting fear: a new
exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York has the theme of
'The perils of modern living'. Fear is also the theme that dominates
the Eighth Contemporary Art Biennial of Lyon. Natasha Edwards writes
about the 'art of fear' that haunts this important exhibition of
contemporary European art.
But the more we cultivate a twenty-first century sensibility of
anxiety, the more we can lose sight of the fact that fear today is
very different to the experience of the past.
Throughout history human beings have had to deal with the emotion of
fear. But the way we fear and what we fear changes all the time.
During the past 2,000 years we mainly feared supernatural forces. In
medieval times volcanic eruptions and solar eclipses were a special
focus of fear since they were interpreted as symptoms of divine
retribution. In Victorian times many people's fears were focused on
Today, however, we appear to fear just about everything. One reason
why we fear so much is because life is dominated by competing groups
of fear entrepreneurs who promote their cause, stake their claims, or
sell their products through fear. Politicians, the media, businesses,
environmental organisations, public health officials and advocacy
groups are continually warning us about something new to fear.
The activities of these fear entrepreneurs serves to transform our
anxieties about life into tangible fears. Every major event becomes
the focus for competing claims about what you need to fear. Take the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is not bad enough that we have to
worry about the destructive consequence of this terrible catastrophe:
according to some fear entrepreneurs, there is more to come. They
claim that global warming will turn disasters like Katrina into normal
events. Free-market ideologues blame 'Big Bureaucracy' for the
mismanagement of the rescue operation. Critics of President George W
Bush point the finger at the war in Iraq. And Bush blames local
government. In the meantime, some contend that New Orleans represents
God's punishment for human sin, while others suggest that the whole
event is driven by a hidden conspiracy against the black race.
The fierce competition between alarmist fear entrepreneurs helps
consolidate a climate of intense mistrust. Is it any surprise that
many African Americans believe that the Bush administration sought to
save New Orleans' white districts by flooding black neighbourhoods,
through deliberately engineering the levee breaks?
The catastrophe that wreaked havoc in Louisiana was also a test of our
humanity. But sadly we were encouraged to interpret the event in the
worst possible terms. Most of the stories about rape, looting, gang
killings and other forms of anti-social behaviour turned out to be
just that - stories. But for a while we became distracted from
empathising with our fellow human beings as we feared for the
breakdown of civilisation.
It is not simply the big events like Katrina that are subjected to
competing claims on the fear market. Imagine that you are a parent.
For years you have been told that sunshine represents a mortal danger
to your child, and that you must protect them from skin cancer by
minimising their exposure to the sun. Then, this summer, a report is
published that raises concerns about the rise of vitamin E deficiency
among children who have been far too protected from the sun. So what
do you do? The fact is that a growing range of human experience - from
natural disasters to children's lives in the outdoors - is now
interpreted through competing claims about fear.
Our misanthropic reaction to the catastrophe in New Orleans is
reproduced daily in response to far more mundane events. That is why
society cannot discuss a problem facing children without going into
panic mode. Research shows that when viewers see an image of a child
on a TV news item, they automatically anticipate a negative story. So
a majority of people who were asked to give their interpretation of a
photo of a man cuddling a child responded by stating that this was a
picture of a paedophile instead of an act of a loving father.
A brief history of fear
In one sense, competing claims about what to fear is not a phenomenon
unique to current times. During the Cold War, ideological conflicts
were often conducted through the medium of fear. While some
politicians argued for expanding arms expenditure by raising alarm
about the threat of communism, others demanded disarmament and
appealed to the public's fear of nuclear weapons. However, the
promotion of competing alarmist claims is very different to the
situation in the past.
Fear has lost its relationship to experience. When confronted with a
specific threat such as the plague or an act of war, fear can serve as
an emotion that guides us in a sensible direction. However, when fear
is promoted as promiscuously as it is today, it breeds an unfocused
sense of anxiety that can attach itself to anything. In such
circumstances fear can disorient and distract us from our very own
experiences. That is why fear has acquired connotations that are
It is worth recalling that, historically, fear did not always have
negative connotations. The sixteenth-century English philosopher
Thomas Hobbes regarded fear as essential for the realisation of the
individual and of a civilised society. For Hobbes and others, fear
constituted a dimension of a reasonable response to new events. Nor
does fear always signify a negative emotional response. As late as the
nineteenth century, the sentiment of fear was frequently associated
with an expression of 'respect' and 'reverence' or 'veneration'. From
this standpoint, the act of 'fearing the Lord' could have connotations
that were culturally valued and affirmed. Today, by contrast, the act
of fearing God is far less consistent with cultural norms. One
important reason for this shift is that fearing has tended to become
disassociated from any positive attributes.
One of the distinguishing features of fear today is that it appears to
have an independent existence. It is frequently cited as a problem
that exists in its own right, disassociated from any specific object.
Classically, societies associate fear with a clearly formulated threat
- the fear of plague or the fear of hunger. In such formulations, the
threat was defined as the object of such fears: the problem was death,
illness or hunger. Today, we frequently represent the act of fearing
as a threat itself. A striking illustration of this development is the
fear of crime. Today, fear of crime is conceptualised as a serious
problem that is to some extent distinct from the problem of crime.
That is why politicians and police forces often appear to be more
concerned about reducing the public's fear of crime than reducing
Yet the emergence of the fear of crime as a problem in its own right
cannot be understood as simply a response to the breakdown of law and
order. It is important to note that fear as a discrete stand-alone
problem is not confined to the problem of crime. The fear of terrorism
is also treated as a problem that is independent of, and distinct
from, the actual physical threat faced by people in society. That is
why so many of the measures undertaken in the name of fighting
terrorism are actually oriented towards managing the public's fear of
The generalised fear about the health effects of mobile phones has
been interpreted as a risk in itself. In Britain, the Independent
Expert Group on Mobile Phones, which was set up in 1999 by the then
health minister Tessa Jowell, concluded that public anxiety itself
could lead to ill health. The report of this committee noted that such
anxieties 'can in themselves affect' the public's wellbeing. In the
same way, anxiety about health risks is now considered to be a
material consideration in determining planning application. Fear is
treated as an independent variable by public bodies.
The legal system has also internalised this trend. In the USA, there
is a discernible tendency on the part of courts to compensate fear,
even in the absence of a perceptible physical threat. This marks an
important departure from the practices of the past, when 'fright' - a
reaction to an actual event - was compensated. Now, the fear that
something negative could happen is also seen as grounds for making a
claim. For example, it has been argued that people who feel anxious
about their health because an incinerator is to be sited near their
homes ought to be compensated.
A market in fear
Political debate is often reduced to competing claims about what to
fear. Claims about the threat of terrorism or child obesity or asylum
seekers compete for the attention of the public. In this way, our
anxieties become politicised and turned into a politics of fear.
Health activists, environmentalists and advocacy groups are no less
involved in using scare stories to pursue their agenda than
politicians devoted to getting the public's attention through inciting
anxieties about crime and law and order.
The narrative of fear has become so widely assimilated that it is now
self-consciously expressed in a personalised and privatised way. In
previous eras where the politics of fear had a powerful grasp - in
Latin American dictatorships, fascist Italy or Stalin's Soviet Union -
people rarely saw fear as an issue in its own right. Rather, they were
frightened that what happened to a friend or a neighbour might also
happen to them. Today, however, public fears are rarely expressed in
response to any specific event. Rather, the politics of fear captures
a sensibility towards life in general. The statement 'I am frightened'
tends to express a diffuse sense of powerlessness.
Fears are often expressed in the form of a complaint about an
individual, such as 'Bush really scares me' or 'he's a scary
president'. Ironically, in the very act of denouncing Bush's politics
of fear, the complainant advances his own version of the same
perspective by pointing out how terrifying the president apparently
And yet, the politics of fear could not flourish if it did not
resonate so powerfully with today's cultural climate. Politicians
cannot simply create fear from thin air. Nor do they monopolise the
deployment of fear: panics about health or security can just as easily
begin on the internet or through the efforts of an advocacy group as
from the efforts of government spindoctors. Paradoxically, governments
spend as much time trying to contain the effects of spontaneously
generated scare stories as they do pursuing their own fear campaigns.
The reason why the politics of fear has such a powerful resonance is
because of the way that personhood has been redefined in mental health
terms. Increasingly, people are presented as individuals who lack the
emotional resources to cope with the challenges of life.
Take the recent report on the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. You
have to read this three-volume, 600-page report very carefully to
discover the good news that the number of deaths caused by the
accident at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl is under 50. Despite
claims that thousands will eventually die and that even more could
suffer terrible physical pain, the news is reassuring. The study found
no evidence of decreased fertility among the affected population, nor
an increase in congenital malformations. However, in line with the
temper of our times the report concluded that the big problem posed by
Chernobyl is the mental health of the affected people. The belief that
people are unable to cope with misfortune and pain underpins our
perception of the problems we face.
There is nothing novel about claim-making activities based on fear.
Throughout history claim-makers have sought to focus people's anxiety
towards what they perceived to be the problem. However, the activities
of fear entrepreneurs today do not represent simply a quantitative
increase over the past. In the absence of a consensus over meaning,
competitive claims-making intrudes into all aspects of life.
In the private sector, numerous industries have become devoted to
promoting their business through the fear market. In some cases,
entrepreneurs seek to scare the public into purchasing their products.
Appeals to personal security constitute the point of departure for the
marketing strategy of the insurance, personal security and health
industries. Fear is used by the IT industry and its army of
consultants to sell goods and services.
In certain instances it is difficult to clearly delineate the line
that divides the fear economy from the promotion of anxiety and the
anticipation of a disaster. It is worth recalling that for a
considerable period of time the Y2K problem, also known as the
millennium bug, was regarded as the harbinger of a major disaster. The
scale of this major internationally coordinated effort and the massive
expenditure of billions of dollars to deal with possible
technologically induced crisis was unprecedented. Only a tiny minority
of IT experts was prepared to question those devoted to constructing
the 'millennium bug problem'.
Even social scientists, who usually make an effort to interrogate
claims about an impending disaster, failed to raise any questions
about the threat. One IT industry commentator, Larry Seltzer, noted
that 'looking back on the scale of the exaggeration, I have to think
that there was a lot of deception going on'. He added that the
'motivation - mostly consulting fees - was all too obvious'. But
nevertheless it was not simply about money. Seltzer believes that
there were also 'a lot of experienced people with no financial
interest who deeply believed it was a real problem'.
Despite the growth of the fear economy, the exploitation of anxieties
about potential catastrophes, the promotion of fear is primarily
driven by cultural concerns rather than financial expediency. One of
the unfortunate consequences of the culture of fear is that any
problem or new challenge is liable to be transformed into an issue of
survival. So instead of representing the need to overhaul and update
our computer systems as a technical problem, contemporary culture
preferred to revel in scaring itself about various doomsday scenarios.
The millennium bug was the product of human imagination that
symbolised society's formidable capacity to scare itself. But who
needs a millennium bug when you have global warming? Today global
warming provides the drama for the fear-script. Virtually every
unexpected natural phenomenon can be recast as a warning signal for
the impending ecological catastrophe. Nothing less than a complete
reorganisation of economic and social life can, we are led to believe,
save the human species from extinction.
Contemporary language reflects the tendency to transform problems and
adverse events into questions of human survival. Terms like 'plague',
'epidemic' or 'syndrome' are used promiscuously to underline the
precarious character of human existence. The word plague has acquired
everyday usage. The adoption of an apocalyptic vocabulary helps turn
exceptional events into a normal risk. This process can be seen in the
way that the occurrence of child abduction, which is fortunately very
rare, has been transformed into a routine risk facing all children. In
the same way, threats to human survival are increasingly represented
as normal. As the sociologist Krishnan Kumar argues, the apocalyptic
imagination has become almost banal and transmits a sense of
'millennial belief without a sense of the future'.
The fear market thrives in an environment where society has
internalised the belief that since people are too powerless to cope
with the risks they face, we are continually confronted with the
problem of survival. This mood of powerlessness has encouraged a
market where different fears compete with one another in order to
capture the public imagination. Since September 2001, claim-makers
have sought to use the public's fear of terrorism to promote their own
interests. Politicians, businesses, advocacy organisations and special
interest groups have sought to further their selfish agendas by
manipulating public anxiety about terror.
All seem to take the view that they are more likely to gain a hearing
if they pursue their arguments or claims through the prism of
security. Businesses have systematically used concern with homeland
security to win public subsidies and handouts. And paradoxically, the
critics of big business use similar tactics - many environmental
activists have started linking their traditional alarmist campaigns to
the public's fear of terror attacks.
The politicisation of fear
Although the politics of fear reflects a wider cultural mood, it did
not emerge spontaneously. Fear has been consciously politicised.
Throughout history fear has been deployed as a political weapon by the
ruling elites. Machiavelli's advice to rulers that they will find
'greater security in being feared than in being loved' has been heeded
by successive generations of authoritarian governments. Fear can be
employed to coerce and terrorise and to maintain public order. Through
provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat it can also provide
focus for gaining consensus and unity.
Today, the objective of the politics of fear is to gain consensus and
to forge a measure of unity around an otherwise disconnected elite.
But whatever the intentions of its authors, its main effect is to
enforce the idea that there is no alternative.
The promotion of fear is not confined to right-wing hawks banging on
the war drums. Fear has turned into a perspective that citizens share
across the political divide. Indeed, the main distinguishing feature
of different parties and movements is what they fear the most: the
degradation of the environment, irresponsible corporations,
immigrants, paedophiles, crimes, global warming, or weapons of mass
In contemporary times, fear migrates freely from one problem to the
next without there being a necessity for causal or logical connection.
When the Southern Baptist leader Reverend Jerry Vines in June 2002
declared that Mohammed was a 'demon-possessed paedophile' and that
Allah leads Muslim to terrorism, he was simply taking advantage of the
logical leaps permitted by the free-floating character of our fear
narratives. This arbitrary association of terrorism and paedophilia
can have the effect of amplifying the fear of both. The same outcome
is achieved when every unexpected climatic event or natural disaster
is associated with global warming. Politics seems to only come alive
in the caricatured form of a panic.
In one sense, the term politics of fear is a misnomer. Although
promoted by parties and advocacy groups, it expresses the renunciation
of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian
regimes and dictatorships, today's politics of fear has no clearly
focused objective other than to express claims in a language that
enjoys a wider cultural resonance. The distinct feature of our time is
not the cultivation of fear but the cultivation of our sense of
vulnerability. While it lacks a clearly formulated objective, the
cumulative impact of the politics of fear is to reinforce society's
consciousness of vulnerability. And the more powerless we feel the
more we are likely to find it difficult to resist the siren call of
The precondition for effectively countering the politics of fear is to
challenge the association of personhood with the state of
vulnerability. Anxieties about uncertainty become magnified and
overwhelm us when we regard ourselves as essentially vulnerable. Yet
the human imagination possesses a formidable capacity to engage and
learn from the risks it faces. Throughout history humanity has learned
from its setbacks and losses and has developed ways of systematically
identifying, evaluating, selecting and implementing options for
There is always an alternative. Whether or not we are aware of the
choices confronting us depends upon whether we regard ourselves as
defined by our vulnerability or by our capacity to be resilient.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His
new book, The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, is published by
Continuum. He is speaking at the free public debate 'Reflections on
the Future: Thinking Politically in the Twenty-First Century' at the
CUNY Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue in New York, at 6.30pm this
Friday, 30 September 2005, alongside Russell Jacoby and Richard
Sennett. For more information on the debate, visit the New York Salon
website here or email info at nysalon.org.
3. mailto:info at nysalon.org
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