The History of Fear, Part 1

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2013

With this post, I’d like to kick off a five-part series on the intellectual history of fear.

Long before I was writing or thinking about conservatism and the right, I was writing and thinking about politics and fear. I began working on this topic with a dissertation in the early 1990s. I concluded that work with my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which was published in 2004.

When I embarked upon the project, not many people in the academy were interested in fear. By the time I concluded it, everyone, it seemed, was. What had happened in the intervening years, of course, was 9/11.

To some degree, I think 9/11 has short-circuited our thinking about fear. Not in the obvious ways—frightened people are not in much of a position to think about anything, or so the argument goes—but in a more subtle way.

Where the canonical texts offered a great many ways of thinking about politics and fear, and located fear in a number  of different political forms, 9/11 seemed (I stress that “seemed”) to conform to an all-too-typical scenario: A calm and peaceful nation is suddenly jolted out of its everydayness by crazed fanatics from afar; it overreacts, responding hysterically to its enemies because that’s what fear does, that’s how it works (the amygdala and all that); the result is a dramatic shutdown of liberty.

Fear tries to offer a different way of thinking about political fear (for a more immediate application of some of its theses to the post-9/11 era, see this piece I did for Jacobin.) But more important, by showing us that there is a history to fear, and that that history is in part a history of ideas, it tries to dis-enthrall us from the present and its ways of thinking about the problem.

Fear is divided into two parts: the first is an intellectual history of fear, examining how theorists from Thomas Hobbes through Judith Shklar have thought about the problem; the second offers my own analysis of fear, drawing on everything from McCarthyism to Stalinism, from the Dirty Wars to the American workplace.

Because the second part of the book—especially its analysis of the workplace—has gotten more attention in the last few years, particularly on this blog, I wanted to highlight the first part here. In particular, I wanted to give readers a sense of how various our ideas about political fear have been, how innovative (and sometimes misleading) our modern conceptions of fear are, and how interesting Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt (the main protagonists of my history) can be.

So with this post, as I said, I’m going to inaugurate a series on this blog, in which I post excerpts from each of the five chapters of my intellectual history of fear. Part 1, today’s post, will look at Hobbes’s account of rational fear; Part 2 will look at Montesquieu’s account of despotic terror; Part 3, at Tocqueville’s account of democratic anxiety; Part 4, at Arendt’s account of total terror; and Part 5, at the theories of fear we’ve seen since the end of Cold War, which I divide into two categories: the liberalism of anxiety (communitarianism) and the liberalism of terror (what is often called political liberalism).

I hope you find some of this of interest.  And, um, you know, ahem, cough cough, feel free to buy the book.

• • • • •

“No matter how important weapons may be, it is not in them, gentlemen the judges, that great power resides. No! Not the ability of the masses to kill others, but their great readiness themselves to die, this secures in the last instance the victory of the popular uprising.”

—Leon Trotsky

It was on April 5, 1588, the eve of the Spanish Armada’s invasion of Britain, that Thomas Hobbes was born. Rumors of war had been circulating throughout the English countryside for months. Learned theologians pored over the book of Revelation, convinced that Spain was the Antichrist and the end of days near. So widespread was the fear of the coming onslaught it may well have sent Hobbes’s mother into premature labor. “My mother was filled with such fear,” Hobbes would write, “that she bore twins, me and together with me fear.” It was a joke Hobbes and his admirers were fond of repeating: Fear and the author of Leviathan and Behemoth—Job-like titles meant to invoke, if not arouse, the terrors of political life—were born twins together.

Thomas Hobbes

It wasn’t exactly true. Though fear may have precipitated Hobbes’s birth, the emotion had long been a subject of enquiry. Everyone from Thucydides to Machiavelli had written about it, and Hobbes’s analysis was not quite as original as he claimed. But neither did he wholly exaggerate. Despite his debts to classical thinkers and to contemporaries like the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius, Hobbes did give fear special pride of place. While Thucydides and Machiavelli had identified fear as a political motivation, only Hobbes was willing to claim that “the original of great and lasting societies consisted not in mutual good will men had toward each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.”

But more than Hobbes’s insistence on fear’s centrality makes his account so pertinent for us, for Hobbes was attuned to a problem we associate with our postmodern age, but which is as old as modernity itself: How can a polity or society survive when its members disagree, often quite radically, about basic moral principles? When they disagree not only about the meaning of good and evil, but also about the ground upon which to make such distinctions? Establishing communion among subscribers to the same political faith is difficult enough; a community of believers, after all, still argues about the meaning of its sacred texts. But what happens when that community no longer reads the same texts, when its members begin from such disparate starting points, pray to such different gods, that they cannot even carry on an argument, much less conclude it?

Hobbes called this condition the “state of nature,” a situation of radical conflict about the meaning of words and morals, producing corrosive distrust and open violence. “In the state of nature,” Hobbes wrote, “every man is his own judge, and differeth from other concerning the names and appellations of things, and from those differences arise quarrels, and breach of peace.” This state of nature was not an extraordinary moment, no sudden storm over an otherwise placid sea. It was endemic to the human condition, constantly threatening a state of war. In fact, wrote Hobbes, it was a state of war.

Hobbes warmed to the fear of death—not just the affective emotion, but the cognitive apprehension of bodily destruction—because he thought it offered a way out of this state of nature. Whatever people deem to be good, Hobbes argued, they should recognize that self-preservation is the precondition for their pursuit of it. They should realize that peace is the prerequisite of their preservation, and that peace is best guaranteed by their agreeing to submit absolutely—that is, by ceding a great deal of the rights that are by nature theirs—to the state, which he called Leviathan. That state would have complete authority to define the rules of political order, and total power to enforce those rules.

Accepting this principle of self-preservation did not require men to give up their underlying faith, at least not in theory: it only asked them to acknowledge that their pursuit of that faith necessitated their being alive. When we act out of fear, Hobbes suggested, when we submit to government for fear of our own lives, we do not forsake our beliefs. We keep faith with them, ensuring that we remain alive so that we can pursue them. Fear does not betray the individual; it is his completion. It is not the antithesis of civilization but its fulfillment. This is Hobbes’s counterintuitive claim about fear, cutting against the grain of later argument, but nevertheless finding an echo in the actual experience of men and women submitting to political power.

We shall consider here three other elements of Hobbes’s treatment of fear, for they also speak to our political condition. First, Hobbes argued that fear had to be created. Fear was not a primitive passion, waiting to be tapped by a weapons-wielding sovereign. It was a rational, moral emotion, taught by influential men in churches and universities. Though the fear of death could be a powerful motivator, men often resisted it for the sake of honor and glory. To counter this tendency, the doctrine of self-preservation and the fear of death had to be propounded by preachers and teachers, and by laws instructing men in the ground of their civic duty. Fear had to be thought of as the touchstone of a people’s commonality, the essence of their associated life. It had to address their needs and desires, and be perceived as defending the most precious achievements of civilization. Otherwise, it would never create the genuine civitas Hobbes believed it was meant to create.

Second, though Hobbes understood fear to be a reaction to real danger in the world, he also appreciated its theatrical qualities. Political fear depended upon illusion, where danger was magnified, even exaggerated, by the state. Because the dangers of life were many and various, because the subjects of the state did not naturally fear those dangers the state deemed worth fearing, the state had to choose people’s objects of fear. It had to persuade people, through a necessary but subtle distortion, to fear certain objects over others. This gave the state considerable leeway to define, however it saw fit, the objects of fear that would dominate public concern.

Finally, Hobbes marshaled his arguments about fear not only to overcome the impasse of moral conflict, but also to defeat the revolutionary legions contending at the time against the British monarchy. The English Revolution broke out in 1643 between royalist forces allied with Charles I and Puritan armies marching on behalf of Parliament. It concluded in 1660 with the restoration of Charles’s son to the throne. Between those years, Britain witnessed the war-related death of some 180,000 men and women, the beheading of Charles I, and the decade-long rule of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans.

Scholars have long debated whether this bloody struggle was a modern revolution or the last in a long line of religious conflicts unleashed by the Reformation. To be sure, Cromwell’s forces did not seek a great leap forward: they hoped to return England to God’s rule, conceiving themselves as restorative rather than progressive agents. Nevertheless, there was a revolutionary and democratic dimension to their actions, which Hobbes perceived and believed had to be countered. “By their harangues in the Parliament,” he complained of the revolutionary leaders, “and by their discourses and communication with people in the country,” the revolutionaries made ordinary people “in love with democracy.” Hobbes’s arguments about fear were in no small measure directed at the revolutionary ethos of these Puritan warriors. And this lends his account a decidedly repressive, even counterrevolutionary character, the ramifications of which we shall see in the work of later theorists like Tocqueville and contemporary intellectuals writing today, as well as in the actual practice of political fear.

What Hobbes’s arguments add up to is an acute analysis, never quite seen before or since, of fear’s moral and political dimensions. Though Hobbes owed much to his predecessors, his appreciation of moral pluralism and conflict drove him to a new, and distinctly modern, conception of the relationship between fear and morality. Previous writers like Aristotle and Augustine believed that fear grew out of society’s shared moral ethos, with the objects of a people’s fear reflecting that ethos. Convinced that such an ethos no longer existed, Hobbes argued that it had to be created. Fear would serve as its constituent element, establishing a negative moral foundation upon which men could live together in peace. Thus, where previous writers treated fear as an emanation of a shared morality, Hobbes conceived of it as the catalyst of that morality. And though Hobbes was indebted to his contemporaries’ analysis of self-preservation, he knew that the men of his age—tangled in revolution, indifferent to their own death—were not likely to accept it. This inspired some of his deepest reflections about how the fear of death could be generated and sustained by the sovereign and his allies throughout civil society.

While Hobbes’s analysis of fear owes more to classical and contemporary sources than we might think, his imagined orchestration of fear is more prophecy than reiteration, envisioning how modern elites will wield fear in order to rule, and how modern intellectuals will rely on fear, even as they distance themselves from Hobbes, to create a sense of common purpose.


But Hobbes’s doctrine evokes another side of modern politics—not the inaugural moment of counterinsurgent fear, when the forces of activist reform are defeated, but the succeeding era of quiet complacence and sober regard for family, business, locality, and self. After the demobilization of any popular movement, men and women tend to their own affairs, worrying about the everyday business of survival and success, forgoing larger visions of collective transformation. In her account of Pinochet’s Chile, for example, journalist Tina Rosenberg writes of Jaime Pérez, a socialist student leader during Salvador Allende’s last year in power. After the 1973 military coup, which ended 150 years of Chilean democracy, Pérez fled from public life. He did not protest, he “slept.” He traded his old car for a new one—every year—and bought three color TVs. Explaining his silence, Pérez says, “All I knew was that life was good,” and in certain respects, it was.

The Scream

The United States has also seen such moments—most famously in the wake of the McCarthy-era purges. Once the tumult of repressive politics died down, men and women retreated to the goods of family life and getting ahead. Critics lambasted the social types of the 1950s as conformists, coining phrases like “the man in the gray flannel suit,” “the lonely crowd,” and “status anxiety.” But these were terms of moralistic accusation that evaded or sublimated the reality of McCarthyism. People were frightened during the 1950s, and they were frightened because of political repression. Their fear bore none of fear’s obvious marks; they did not resemble the terrorized face in Edvard Münch’s famous portrait The Scream. They looked instead like Hobbesian man—reasonable, purposive, and careful never to take a step in the wrong direction. Fear didn’t destroy Cold War America: it tamed it. It secured for men and women some measure of what they deemed to be their own good. American citizens didn’t betray their former principles: under the weight of intense coercion, their principles changed. Or they opted to forgo certain principles—political solidarity—for the sake of others—familial obligation, careerism, personal security. However they justified their decisions, their choices reveal the influence of Hobbesian fear. And if it sounds strange to contemporary ears to call it fear, that is only a testament to Hobbes’s success.

In this regard, I can think of no more representative figure linking Hobbes’s vision to the twentieth century than Galileo. According to his most celebrated biographer, Hobbes “extremely venerated and magnified” Galileo, whose influence is evident throughout Hobbes’s work. In the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht revived the story of Galileo as a twentieth-century parable of revolutionary courage and counterrevolutionary fear. Brecht turned Galileo into the improbable hero of a new proletarian science, a revolutionary slayer of medieval dragons. By threatening the church’s authority, Brecht suggested, Galileo’s teachings promised a world where “no altar boy will serve the mass/No servant girl will make the bed.” But when “shown the instruments” of torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted his revolutionary scientific theories.

Charles Laughton as Galileo
Charles Laughton as Galileo

At the end of Brecht’s play, Galileo confesses to shame and remorse over his capitulation. “Even the Church will teach you that to be weak is not human,” he spits out. “It is just evil.” Though he managed after his recantation to pursue a clandestine science, the very solitariness of the pursuit—its separation from a larger project of collective, radical transformation—betrayed the scientific enterprise, which demands publicity, solidarity, and above all, courage. “Even a man who sells wool, however good he is at buying wool cheap and selling it dear, must be concerned with the standing of the wool trade. The practice of science would seem to call for valor.” Most damning of all, Galileo realizes that he never was in as much danger from the Inquisition as he believed. Like the subjects of Leviathan, whose fear turns a mere spitfrog into a terrifying giant, Galileo magnified his own weakness and the strength of his opponents. “At that particular time, had one man put up a fight, it could have had wide repercussions. I have come to believe that I was never in real danger; for some years I was as strong as the authorities,” he says. “I sold out,” he wanly concludes.

Whether Galileo is a coward or a realist (and in good Brechtian fashion, the playwright suggests there might not be much difference between the two), one thing is clear: Galileo’s fear of death is connected to the goods he valued in life. As much as he speaks on behalf of a larger political vision of science, so does he subscribe to a more domestic conception of himself and his ends. Brecht’s Galileo is a bon vivant, a lover of the finer things—good food, good wine, leisure. His science, he believes, depends upon his stomach. “I don’t think well unless I eat well. Can I help it if I get my best ideas over a good meal and a bottle of wine?” He adds, “I have no patience with a man who doesn’t use his brains to fill his belly.” He hopes to use the proceeds from his science to secure a good dowry for his daughter, to buy books, to acquire the necessary free time to pursue pure research. Thus, when he chooses to abide by the dictates of the Inquisition and pursue his research on the sly, he acts in accordance with a principle that has been his all along: science depends first and foremost on personal comfort.

In choosing silence over solidarity, comfort over comradeship, Galileo swaps one truth for another. It is not that fear silences his true self, that self-interest gets the better of his moral code. It is that the only way he can imagine fulfilling his ends is to capitulate to fear. That is how fear works in a repressive state. The state changes the calculus of individual action, making fear seem the better instrument of selfhood. The emblematic gesture of the fearful is thus not flight but exchange, its metaphorical backdrop not the rack but the market. “Blessed be our bargaining, whitewashing, death-fearing community,” Galileo howls. And in the distance, one can see Hobbes nodding in silent agreement, without the slightest hint of irony.



SusanC 10.01.13 at 6:18 pm

An alterative reading of the post 9/11 history is that our political system had become dependant on fear during the Cold War: the fear that nearly everyone would be killed in global nuclear war. And this fear was deliberately stoken up by the polticians and the defense contractors, for it was what justified their existence. And then the Soviet Union ended, taking away the source of fear that had become the foundation for our entire political system. So a new fear had to be found, to keep the system in place. And terrorism fit the bill, although this was a much less rational fear than the fear of nuclear war. (The probability that you will be killed by terrorists, if you are in the UK or the US, is extremely small).

And then the fear of terrorism wore off too, as it became evident that the terrorist threat was not very great.

A strange observation: the citizens of the UK and the US are currently subject to a number of other fears (e.g. that they will become unemployed, that their pensions will not be paid, that the whole economic system will collapse). And often enough, these other fears are strong enough to transform into something like clinical anxiety disorders. And yet, this fear is not so easily marshalled as a cause to political action (Ok, ok, there is Occupy…)


bianca steele 10.01.13 at 6:25 pm

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I liked Daniel Boorstin’s account of Galileo in “The Discoverers,” and what I remember of it is the reverse of Brecht’s argument: that Galileo may have believed himself (and the scientific community) to be strong enough to persuade the hierarchy (even without overt support from any of his colleagues), and stunned by their refusal to recognize the truth in the evidence.


mud man 10.01.13 at 8:13 pm

stunned by their refusal to recognize the truth in the evidence.

Everything old is new again.


Hattip 10.01.13 at 8:18 pm

You are repeating the thoroughly debunked myths about Galileo.–and shame on you for presenting a Communist propagandist such Brecht as some sort of reasonable voice.

This is 2013, not 1935. We well now know what people like Brecht were up to, and it is most clearly mischief.

Also, it is complete left-wing hogwash that “fear” was “stoked up” by “defense contractors”–that is a laughable misunderstanding of the times and the defense industry.

If in fact anyone “stoked up fear” at the time, it was JFK, and it was done so for political reasons. JFK’S posturing about the Cold war during his election cycles have been willfully suppress by the left for far too long. If indeed there was a sense of urgency about the cold war in those how past through that time, it is almost entirely the result of the the cynical electioneering of the Kennedy Cabal.

But in the end, there was substantial ground for concern at the time.

This old hobby horse of the left about “false fear” during the Cold War is getting extremely tiresome: You are just trying to cover for the USSR. We know well how vile that regime was, and how equally vile its fellow travelers in the West were (and evidently are today).

SusanneC, you are merely regurgitating lies, and they where no doubt old lies long before you were born. Same on the both of you.


SoU 10.01.13 at 8:58 pm

@ Hattip, #4

so wait…. were the fears during the Cold War merely the product of JFK’s ‘posturing’ and ‘cynical electioneering,’ created for ‘political reasons’? Or was there in actuality ‘substantial ground for concern at the time’ and thus these fears were entirely justified.

Sometime between the 9th and 10th time you called everyone here a liar, I think you forgot to, y’know, make an argument.

@ OP – This was an enjoyable read and I very much look forward to the subsequent posts.


Omega Centauri 10.02.13 at 2:19 am

Susan C, I (and I suspect many here), grew up in the duck-and-cover generation. I remember a lot of my contempraries dropping out (becoming unserious about securing their persoanl future), bacuse of the nihilism. Why strive to make something of oneself, -when it will all be destroyed. Heck, seeing the destruction coming will probably be less painful if we at least knew we were right not to struggle for greatness.

Another thing that happened more or less coincidently with 9-11, was the dotcom bubble bursting. And with it the attitude that rapidly advancing technology would make everyone who counted effortlessly rich. That was also detroyed at roughly the same time -indeed 9-11 deepened the ongoing recession.

But 9-11 introduced (or amplified from a level small enough to ignore) another fear. The fear, not of the direct effect of another attack, but rather of the political consequences. Another round of witch-hunting, looking for those whose crimes of ommission or commision could be linked to the attack. And a fear of what sort of society we would become if this cycle were allowed to play out.


LFC 10.02.13 at 3:24 am

I’ll await the Tocqueville excerpt in particular with interest; Ive been reading Leo Damrosch’s Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, which is, among other things, a good refresher course on Democracy in America.

What T. says in Democracy about the majority’s ‘tyranny’ over thought might well have some bearing on the ’50s in the U.S, or at least the McCarthy era. Though based on what the OP says about the 50s, I’m not sure CR would agree. (Nuclear fear was also a factor in the 50s, as SusanC points out; it was partly manufactured, but only partly.)


PJW 10.02.13 at 3:41 am

The site of an underground missile silo here in Iowa that used to creep me out as a kid when we’d drive by it in the 1960s is now used by an education agency. I always pictured that missile I knew was in there shooting out of the ground and heading toward the Soviet Union. Detente.


peter thom 10.02.13 at 3:45 am

As someone who grew up in Canada, I was fascinated with the films of US students engaging in duck and cover drills, and with the fallout shelters, the public ones identified by that yellow and black icon featuring an array of triangles. In Canada we laughed at this; how did anyone believe that ducking and covering would offer protection after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? we wondered. And remember that the flight path for ICBMs and counter ICBMs would have been over our heads. So we also had as much reason to fear as Americans did on a rational basis. The point is not whether the fear was false or not. That’s a red herring. The Canadian government, and other governments as well, though invested in NATO and its role in the Cold War, never bothered to institutionalize the fear of Russia the way the US government did. Perhaps Germany was an exception, but it was after all, partly occupied by Russia. There was some minor fallout from McCarthyism in Canada, but there was never a reds under the bed politic-cultural climate there. There’s no question in my mind that the inculcation of fear in the US population was very purposeful propaganda. Fear was a useful tool for the military to justify holding onto some of the windfall spending that had flowed to it during WWII after demobilization began? And the industry that supplied the military became a dependable source of income for many in the military as demobilization reduced military spending and the size of the armed forces. Thus was created the military-industrial complex that has helped create the drive for several unnecessary wars both during and after the Cold War.


gordon 10.02.13 at 4:41 am

“Fear didn’t destroy Cold War America: it tamed it. It secured for men and women some measure of what they deemed to be their own good. American citizens didn’t betray their former principles: under the weight of intense coercion, their principles changed. Or they opted to forgo certain principles—political solidarity—for the sake of others—familial obligation, careerism, personal security. However they justified their decisions, their choices reveal the influence of Hobbesian fear. And if it sounds strange to contemporary ears to call it fear, that is only a testament to Hobbes’s success”.

You could say the same about Germans under the Nazis.


bad Jim 10.02.13 at 4:47 am

I can’t quite get my mind around the idea that fear is anything but an immediate response to an existential threat – omigod I’m gonna die!

Maybe it’s different for each generation; operations during the American Civil War and WWI do seem to evidence such a disregard for mortality, WWII and the Revolutionary War not so much. Studies conducted afterwards suggested that soldiers not only didn’t want to die, but also weren’t all that keen to kill, which led to changes in training and armament, replacing what were effectively hunting rifles with submachine guns.

The quiescence of the 50s’ strikes me as mostly aftermath of the worst war and the Depression, less a response to the Cold War or the Red Scare than a sense of relaxation: for a change, things didn’t suck so badly. (That’s when I grew up, by the way.) The idea that things were likely to get better for ever was not only appealing but practically self-evident.


gordon 10.02.13 at 5:27 am

I wonder if Corey Robin’s book includes a discussion of what happened in the 1960s, when fear might be regarded at reaching a low point. Such an analysis might reveal a lot by contrast. Mazower’s “Dark Continent” has a section on this, but it’s short and a bit sketchy, and of course fear isn’t a central theme of Mazower’s book.


David M 10.02.13 at 5:33 am

“You could say the same about Germans under the Nazis.”

Yes. Perhaps you might think about that.


jeff 10.02.13 at 6:29 am

Americans may be afraid, but losing a job or pension is not something to justify fear.

When you’ve known people in other countries who’ve been outright assassinated for testifying against police criminality, for instance.

We are just a country of cowards, and it’s nothing to be impressed with. And nowhere is it more acute than in academia. We all know that’s true.


John Quiggin 10.02.13 at 6:41 am

When I read your estimate of the death toll from the wars of 1643-1660, it seemed too high. I thought in terms of battles like Edgehill and Naseby with maybe 1000 fatalities apiece. On checking though, the estimate of 180 000 deaths in Britain is actually far below estimates for Ireland alone.


Belle Waring 10.02.13 at 7:55 am

Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall I was a student at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. (My family moved around a lot, partly my parents traveling around as hippies, then getting divorced, partly my step-father being a shiftless man whom our mom needed to support, so that we bounced to my grandmother’s house in Georgetown (D.C.) and then to Georgetown, S.C., and back again, and on and on.) The National Cathedral was supposed to be Ground Zero. It was the highest elevation for quite some ways around, D.C. being a swamp and all. I used to be afraid about it, total nuclear destruction. I laid awake in bed worrying about it, looking out the window at the pink sky. (A combination of cloudiness, tons of surface level lighting, and some meteorological mystery means that the sky at night in Washington is often a low, uniform salmon-color, particularly in the summer when it’s dead-still and hot.) I was glad we would all die instantly, since that seemed the better option, but I was scared because I knew we would have like 20 minutes warning before everything dissolved into its constituent atoms. I was afraid that it would happen during the day and I wouldn’t be able to call my mom at her work because all the phone lines would be busy. I felt like I could find my brother OK, he went to the brother all-boys school, and we had a meet-up spot, but I knew even if we ran the whole way we would never make it to my sister’s day-care at Dupont Circle in time. I didn’t mind that we would all die but I was afraid that we would die alone, without each other, even though we were so nearby. It wasn’t the government telling me to be afraid of that. I read a lot about nuclear warheads and the improvements made since the early bombs. Those facts are objectively scary.

Honestly, I’m still the most afraid of that even now. The chances that we will make our planet incapable of supporting human civilization of the kind we have now seems fairly certain, but I don’t think all humans will die because of global climate change. Many, many, and maybe even most of us, but not all. But how long can the gun hang on the wall in the first act and nobody ever fires by the end of the play? How good are our odds that we won’t just nuke everyone and everything sometime in the next 500 years? Have humans ever made weapons before that they didn’t use? (I know we have used nuclear weapons twice, obviously, but those were primitive compared even to a suitcase nuke now, and were in a way evil ‘proof of concept’ bombings.) A genetically-engineered super-Ebola would be worse, of course, because slower. And yet there’s something so gun-like about nukes. People just fuck up with guns all the time. Cops shoot themselves when talking to children about drugs, in elementary-school classrooms. People shoot themselves in the ass when they keep a gun tucked behind their back and aren’t careful. People get drunk and do dumb shit. I don’t know. Isn’t a fucking total nut going to end up with his finger on the button sometime? Just kind of, bound to?


bad Jim 10.02.13 at 8:31 am

No, Belle, we’re not going to destroy the world in a moment of masculine exuberance. Instead we’ll destroy the world with decades of masculine negligence.

Not cleaning up after ourselves will do us in, most likely. In a way it would be nice to blow the world up – oops , sorry – in a sin of commission, but that doesn’t seem to be the way we’re going.

The same nihilist instinct seems to be at work at present: shut down the government because otherwise undeserving people might get health care! What will ultimately do us in is everything else we don’t do to clean up our act, not just the carbon cycle but the nitrogen cycle and all the rest of the atoms we’re made of.

The thing is, we want to get better. We re-elected a nigger president and also voted in gay marriage and more marijuana. We may need to adjust our priorities, but there is definitely a sentiment in favor of improvement.


bad Jim 10.02.13 at 9:01 am

Instance Iran. The theocrats in charge have always foresworn nuclear weapons for religious reasons, which has reassured no one. For that matter, it’s not obvious that we’d be worse off if they had the same lousy nukes as India and Pakistan and Israel.

As regards the general issue, Richard Thompson, as usual, puts it better than I can:

Sweat is the name of this town
It’s an ugly old, dirty old disgrace
And now that the steel’s shut down
It’s fear puts the sweat in a man’s face


SusanC 10.02.13 at 11:18 am

@bad Jim. We might use the word “fear” both for immediate fight-or-flight responses to immediate danger, and for the feeling we have about e.g. terrorism, nuclear war, etc. But are they even the same emotion? In the former case, there’s something to be done right now, whether it’s running away or killing the person you see as a threat. In the latter cases, the dangerous event is in the future, arguably unlikely to ever happen to you personally, and in any case mostly not under your control. So adreneline responses are not much help.

In the case of terrorism, people seem to be even enjoying it as a television spectacle. The people who actually get blown up or shot have a different experience from the vicarious television viewer, of course. But the television viewers are by far the majority .. which could be the cause of the problem. I can’t help but think of the Roman gladiators.


Belle Waring 10.02.13 at 1:03 pm

I agree that there is a lot of voyeuristic satisfaction in terrorism. But there is an actual element of fear, however. I was trying to arrange a family vacation in Bali, and I found a great villa in Canggu that had a number of separate buildings inside a walled compound (like a traditional Balinese home but with waaaaayyyy more infinity pools). I had family living in New York who were nervous about coming because of the Bali bombings (in nightclubs in Denpasar). I tried to point out that my uncle was still working in his corner office near Wall St. in New York City, the windows of which had all been shattered in the 9/11 attacks, and the whole office filled with ash and the endless, endless papers fluttering down, and that he himself had been one of those people running uptown in front of a horrible white cloud. And that we’d be just sitting in a villa! Nope. Bali sounded dangerous.


Anderson 10.02.13 at 1:45 pm

“Americans may be afraid, but losing a job or pension is not something to justify fear.”

What an assholish remark. Yes, worse things happen. So I shouldn’t fear bad things? Sounds like the comment of someone who’s never lost a job and had to tell his family they’re moving because the bank is taking their house.


Walt 10.02.13 at 2:04 pm

While I grew up during the Cold War, I never worried about nuclear war, unlike most of my peers. I think the reason was that I grew up as poor as shit, and that while a nuclear war had many downsides, one upside would be that it would topple a hierarchy that had me at the bottom. I also thought it would never happen, because for that very reason the people in charge on both sides had more to lose than anyone.

I think faced with risks like crime and disaster, there’s a strong psychological element making sure that if it happens it’s “not your fault”. If you live in New York and you get attacked, it’s not your fault because you already live in New York. But if you go to Bali, then you have nobody to blame but yourself. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s seems to be something people do.


Luke 10.02.13 at 4:05 pm

I think Corey is using ‘fear’ here in the sense that Hobbes meant it. Not paralysing existential angst so much as smaller, rational fears on which people can act. Cf. ‘terror’, which is more nebulous.

BTW, I’ve read the book and it’s excellent.


Omega Centauri 10.02.13 at 4:30 pm

peter thom @9:
Actually being under some sort of shelter makes a lot of difference -depending upon how close to ground zero one is. The true tragedy of the planning for Hiroshima was a false assumption that people would mostly be in bomb shelters -so civilian casualties were expected to be much much lower than actually happened. Seems other attack planners were very concerned about the vulnerability of the bomb carrying aircraft, and hit on the tactic of conditioning the Japanese to not fear flights of two or three B-29’s (they were just weather planes, spotters etc.). So in a horrible way, the citizens were tricked into not going into bomb shelters.

There is also a difference between fear, and caution. A lot of low level risks can be mitigated if one uses a bit of caution (wearing a seat belt for instance). Likewise I don’t lose sleep fearing that I’ll be arrested, but the possibilty of it happening should I seriously violate various norms makes me much less likely to violate them.


William Timberman 10.02.13 at 4:42 pm

Belle Waring @ 16

There’s plenty to fear, alright, but life goes on — until it doesn’t, I suppose. When I was learning German many years ago, I remember watching Der Blaue Engel, and giggling at the embroidered motto above the head of Professor Unrat’s bed. Tue Recht, und scheue Niemand, it went, which I recognized, correctly, I think, as a distillation of everything that constipated adult authorities had used to frighten me and my generation. Ja, perfekt! I thought to myself, and look what’s happened to them, for all of that. They should be so lucky as to share Professor Unrat’s fate.

I’ve since learned that the full version of the motto goes Furchte God, tue Recht, und scheue Niemand. Now that I’m an old guy myself, this seems like pretty good advice — correctly understood, suitably nuanced, and applied with a bit of compassion for human frailty. It is, in other words, something you might strive to adhere to yourself, without necessarily requiring it of others. When did I began to look upon this as good advice? I can’t quite remember. Sometime in my thirties? After a divorce long in the offing? Who knows?

Anyway, no matter what we do, we don’t as individuals survive the experience of living. The world, on the other hand, is not so easy to extinguish. If we understood that principle correctly, I doubt we’d waste as much energy on fear as we do.


William Timberman 10.02.13 at 4:45 pm

Make that Fürchte Gott… My neurons got caught momentarily between universes. It happens a lot these days….


Mao Cheng Ji 10.02.13 at 4:52 pm

“Likewise I don’t lose sleep fearing that I’ll be arrested, but the possibility of it happening should I seriously violate various norms makes me much less likely to violate them.”

Ah, you believe in the orderly nature of the universe. Others say “jail is never too far”.


Bruce Wilder 10.02.13 at 7:52 pm

There does seem to be a reflexive relation between social conformity and political fear.

Hobbes lived thru a period in which religious conformity was the foundational issue: could the state survive religious pluralism and toleration? McCarthyism owed something to the country’s anxieties over relaxing the conformity imposed in the course of the efforts of WWII. Is the desire to pursue private, not to say domestic, interests and purposes not a core issue in itself — not just an expression of cowardice, but the rebel’s original goal? Hobbes, himself, was one of those dissenters, pursued after the Restoration by Parliamentarians sure he was a blasphemer in his philosophy; Hobbes feared those attempts, though he was protected by Charles II. One of the major issues in the red scares of the 1950s was sexual deviance — most of those hounded from government employment were not accused commies, but accused homosexuals. If the rebel’s original interest is a private one, and the threat engendering fear is aimed at inducing public conformity, are we entirely fair to complain of a victory for privacy and private pursuits, achieved by alternative means? McCarthy was barely dead, when the Supreme Court was lifting the ban on Tropic of Cancer. Hobbes’ rationalization of the English Civil War paved the way for a government policy guided by mercantilist interest, rather than fanciful religious convictions.


Peter T 10.03.13 at 12:23 pm

Hobbes’ insight that fear of personal death is, if i understand you correctly, not innate is subtle and true. It seems, historically, not all that hard for people to accept that they will die if they follow some course, but go on regardless.

Perhaps a second point is that, being conditioned, particular fears gradually lose their potency, and either resignation or, more interestingly, nihilism creep in. The right wing seems prone to this last – a nihilistic acceptance that a great war would almost certainly end the political order which they dominated (and themselves with it), but was desired anyway was widely on display in the decade or so before 1914. I wonder if a similar sentiment has seized the US right at the moment?


Bruce Wilder 10.03.13 at 3:45 pm

Peter T: I wonder if a similar sentiment has seized the US right at the moment?

Yes, a sentiment in favor of ending the existing order has seized at least the American right-wing, but they think they, and their ideas and values, will dominate the new order in ways that they do not dominate the existing order.

If there’s something ironical in this state of affairs, it turns on the faultlines between the ideological, conservative libertarian Right and the corrupt, pragmatic neoliberal centrists, over the classic problem of having your cake and eating it, too. The profit in dismantling the New Deal and the international order was always in the dismantling, i.e. in the entropy, not in the end-state of its collapse and disappearance. The game was to have another Great Depression, but preserve the plutocracy, and extend American military hegemony on its behalf, putting all the costs onto the mass of losers. Allies in the dismantling to date, they differ with regard to how much effort should be devoted to keeping the shell of the old order shambling along, zombie-like. The centrists never really thought the issue through to the end-game — their plan has always been to preserve the old order indefinitely as something to feed upon, never quite confronting the issue of what happens when the old order is no longer strong enough — many of them probably think its life can be extended indefinitely. The ideological Right has always imagined the end-state as a kind of utopia, a desirable ideal — they’re completely delusional in this idealization, but realistic enough about the present that they don’t much like the actual, emergent reality of a weakening political economy and institutions.

Both are promoting a rigid authoritarianism — the centrists thinking, I guess, that you can cure the zombie with leg braces and crazy glue, while the Right thinks putting the zombie in the grave will finally allow their fantasy utopia to emerge, despite its logical impossibility.


Peter T 10.04.13 at 3:48 am

CR’s post made me think more about the flavours of fear, how prolonged fear is unsustainable, and the mass political reactions to prolonged fear.

BW @ 30 may be right – I am not disagreeing with him – but an analysis that stops at what people plan or want or think does not cover all the ground. It’s more about what they feel. I would not push the historical analogy too far, but the pre-1914 experience has some clues. Two key groups of people were very fearful, although in different ways. The traditional upper classes felt threatened by “socialism” (rising lower class power), but also by the trend to managerialism, which devalued the grounds on which their status rested. After a few decades of fear-driven struggle, a good number of them were prepared to jump into a great war just to escape. Many lower class people (agricultural labourers, clerks) lived in fear of illness, old age, insecurity – all the usual – but also felt increasingly caged and driven as administrative/economic machines re-sculpted the human fabrics of their lives. So they too were prepared to jump into war, as an adventurous escape. Since Europe was a very military place at the time, the outlet was military.

The feeling is captured in a Soviet joke about Brezhnev communism – it resembles an Ilyushin airliner: everyone wants to be sick but no-one can get out.

It is increasingly clear that we are all on Spaceship Earth, and life on spaceships is an affair of close and careful management, checklists, no sudden moves, all the passengers doing just what they are told. The left offers a more comfy seatbelt and a bigger sick bag. The right is in fear of the whole prospect – just as managerialism devalued gentility, so spaceship management has no room for lords and peasants or, indeed for generic “management” divorced from expertise. And, as in 1914, there are whole classes of people whose identity is challenged by the ever-closer caging and control (there is little room for guns on spaceships). So there is fear at the top and several kinds of fear at the bottom, and a lot of apathetic resignation all around (except for those who think close monitoring of life support systems is cool). The frame is economic rather than military, but the temptation to break the machine rather than live within it is the same.


bad Jim 10.04.13 at 4:36 am

The left is always going to be impatient with those of us who have accommodated ourselves to living with the vicious beast which is America. My family used to have a difficult German Shepherd who would sometimes escape and menace a neighbor’s dog, and a couple of times I got her back by prizing her jaws from the other’s neck. I loved that dog, and was responsible for her to the extent that I was best able to handle a given situation.

Being the president of the country that sports the most powerful military force this planet has ever seen is kind of a strange position. Rwanda and Haiti demonstrated the downside of doing nothing; pretty much everything since has demonstrated the futility of doing anything else. It’s been a long time since any president avoided doing something awful. Maybe it’s unavoidable.

Carter has made a spectacle of himself since losing to Reagan. I thought he was trying for a Nobel prize. He got one, and he’s hardly slowed down. Perhaps the Swedes lobbed one at Obama as a pre-emptive strike. It didn’t seem to work at first, but lately, who knows? Maybe he can take “Yes” as an answer. Bush used war to steamroller the Democrats. Obama, with a compelling casus belli in Syria and an unruly opposition in the House, didn’t do the easy thing.


Phil 10.07.13 at 9:51 am

Or they opted to forgo certain principles—political solidarity—for the sake of others—familial obligation, careerism, personal security. However they justified their decisions, their choices reveal the influence of Hobbesian fear.

I think this is acute, and I want to re-read Vineland now – and to revisit my own musings (scroll down) on the influence of Hobbes over New Labour communitarianism. (And to read more Hobbes, obv.)

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