The History of Fear, Part 5

by Corey Robin on October 17, 2013

I’m back today with part 5 of my intellectual history of fear. After my posts on Hobbes (rational fear), Montesquieu (despotic terror), Tocqueville (democratic anxiety), and Arendt (total terror), we’re ready to turn to more recent theories of fear, which arose in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the conservative backlash against the 1960s and the collapse of communism.

In my book on fear, I divide these recent theories into two broad camps: the liberalism of anxiety and the liberalism of terror. The first camp tracks communitarian liberalism (or liberal communitarianism) as well as some influential arguments about identity and civil society; the second camp tracks what is often called political liberalism or negative liberalism, and it includes treatments of ethnic conflict and violence. The first camp takes it cues from Tocqueville, the second from Montesquieu.

The primary theoreticians of the first camp include Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Will Kymlicka, Amitai Etzioni, David Miller, and to a much lesser degree Seyla Benhabib. The primary theoretician of the second camp is Judith Shklar, but her arguments are echoed by theorists like Avishai Margalit and Richard Rorty and popular writers like Philip Gourevitch and Michael Ignatieff. The work of Samuel Huntington hovers above both camps.

Both camps, I argue, are responses to the failures of the radicalism of the 1960s and to the conservative retreat since then. To that extent, their political and intellectual context mirrors that of Tocqueville writing in the 1830s and Arendt (and other Cold War intellectuals) writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All were grappling with questions of fear in the wake of ruined insurgencies.

Today, I’ll only focus on the liberalism of anxiety; in my next installment, I’ll talk about the liberalism of terror.

• • • • •

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
—Emily Dickinson

Though the liberalism of anxiety borrows from the reaction against the French Revolution, though it takes aim at philosophers like Kant and Descartes, the immediate occasion of its misgiving is the 1960s. Anxious liberals make frequent, unhappy references to gains won and goods lost throughout that decade and its aftermath—entitlements to welfare without corresponding duties, expansive rights “to ‘do our own thing,’” and other smaller liberations. According to Amitai Etzioni, individual freedom and communal life are “out of balance after decades in which self-interest and expressive individualism have prevailed.” That imbalance, adds Jean Bethke Elshtain, is a product of the “new attitude toward rights that has taken hold in the United States during the past several decades.”

The sixties, in this view, is not simply a historical moment, but an ongoing project of individual emancipation, which has not been beaten back in any significant way. At a time when Democrats and Republicans have stripped suspected criminals of procedural protections, when a presidential candidate’s membership in the ACLU suggests membership in the Communist Party, and when there are fewer counties in the United States with abortion providers than there were in 1973, the liberalism of anxiety worries about a “rights-absolutist climate of opinion” that has not dissipated.

While its discontent is plainly addressed to the 1960s, the liberalism of anxiety is no simple antagonist of that decade. In the same way that Tocqueville was ambivalent about the French Revolution so are the liberals of anxiety conflicted about the rights revolutions of forty years ago. Contrary to the claims of their critics, these writers are not entirely hostile to liberalism or its recent achievements. They express no desire to return to a segregated or sexist America. Some, like Michael Walzer, were among the most eloquent voices of the 1960s, and still argue for the elaboration and extension of its achievements. Others, like Etzioni, claim that communities should be fostered and nurtured, but not at the expense of individual rights. Majorities can be tyrannical, Etzioni warns, which is why the Constitution has wisely deemed “some choices” to be “out of bounds for the majority.”

Nor should we return public argument, write Etzioni and Michael Sandel, to premodern canons of natural law or religious authority; instead, we should embrace the irreducible pluralism—and contentious debates—that liberalism at its best insistently honors. Walzer argues that communitarianism, the most prominent version of the liberalism of anxiety, is an “intermittent feature of liberal politics,” which, “like the pleating of trousers,” seeks not to overthrow liberalism but to texture it with sociological and moral depth. And in their effort to incorporate communitarian criticisms into liberal arguments, philosophers like William Galston and Will Kymlicka have proven Walzer correct.

The ambivalence of the liberals of anxiety toward the sixties runs even deeper. Though they often argue for a revival of community and civic virtue by reference to Aristotle or Machiavelli, their vocabulary is often drawn from the very individualist ethos they question.

The anxious liberals care much for the fate of the self, which they believe rights-based liberalism has deprived of full agency and force. They do not praise community and civic culture as goods unto themselves: community is worthy in their eyes because it lends a necessary theater to the self’s appearance.

According to Etzioni, “Individuals who are bonded into comprehensive and stable relationships and into cohesive groups and communities are much more able to make reasoned choices, to render moral judgments, and to be free.” Kymlicka claims, “Cultures are valuable, not in and of themselves, but because it is only through having access to a societal culture that people have access to a range of meaningful options.” Membership in a common culture, particularly a culture of diverse subcultures, helps us make “intelligent judgments about how to lead our lives.” Without close-knit communities, writes Walzer, the individual suffers a radical “decline in ‘the sense of efficacy.’”

Anxious liberals thus do not spurn the individualism of the 1960s: they question its political sociology. For them, social order—which can range from the nation, a common culture, or subculture, to an institution, a voluntary association, or a local community—is the seedbed of the self. It provides the deep grammar of individualism, the nurturing ground upon which the self learns who she is and what she believes. From preestablished moral prescriptions and social ties—that which is given, as opposed to that which she chooses—the individual learns to express herself and her needs in a publicly intelligible language. Once she has internalized these prescriptions and ties, she can think and act for herself. She no longer requires an authoritative structure to direct her every step; she can take her own steps, even steps that contradict or challenge those assigned to her, for a properly pluralist social order offers the individual a variety of scripts—doctor, lawyer, Christian, Muslim, Democrat, Republican, and so on—to perform. It even tolerates her efforts to revise or write new scripts. Like parents and teachers, the agents of social order use their power to guide rather than repress, with the goal of turning the student or child into a rational, autonomous adult.

But the liberalism of anxiety also stows a darker, more subversive account of social order. Recalling an argument made by everyone from Tocqueville to the Frankfurt School to Christopher Lasch, anxious liberals quietly cherish social order as a necessary antagonist of the self. Social order makes demands upon the self, they claim, exacting obedience, asking the individual to abide by its rules. Such constraints often provoke the appearance of a more fractious, defiant self, who knows what she believes and is willing to risk all to pursue it. A Martin Luther or Anna Karenina—those great refusals of history and literature who declare, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In the revolt against constraint, the self defines her own beliefs, articulates her own principles—far more vigorously than she would under the soporific gaze of an excessively tolerant parent.

The prerequisite of such a deeply felt intransigence is a social structure that weighs heavily upon her. Without that structure, rebellions will be shallow and trivial, freedom an empty gesture. “Radical freedom,” Walzer insists, “is thin stuff unless it exists within a world that offers it significant resistance.” He adds, “the easier the easiness” of breaking loose, the less strong the individual will be. Or, as Galston writes, “Rational deliberation among ways of life is far more meaningful (I am tempted to say that it can only be meaningful) if the stakes are meaningful—that is, if the deliberator has strong convictions against which competing claims can be weighed.”

The radical pursuit of freedom, these critics argue, and corresponding decline of social order, breed anxiety, crippling the self. The “vaunting of ‘free individuality,’” writes Kymlicka, “will result not in the confident affirmation and pursuit of worthy courses of action but rather in existential uncertainty and anomie, in doubt about the very value of one’s life and its purposes.” “Self-determination,” he adds, “has generated more doubt about the value of our projects than before.” It destroys the personal intimacy and social proximity we need to become full individuals. The result, writes Walzer, are identities “mostly unearned, without depth.” This observation does not prompt conservative nostalgia. Instead, it asks us to make good on the promise of comprehensive individuality and robust agency that the sixties were supposed to deliver. If we were once again “participants in a common life,” we would witness a true flourishing of human capacities, for men and women “are stronger, more confident, more savvy” when they “are responsible to and for other people.”

In the 1950s, at a comparable moment of political retreat, American intellectuals responded in like fashion to the end of the New Deal and a rampant McCarthyism. Like our contemporary liberalism of anxiety, the Cold War version took its cues from Tocqueville. Intellectuals argued that the average American felt isolated and alienated, that the greatest threat to individual agency was the anxiety of anomie. “A fluid social structure,” wrote David Riesman, “creates anxiety and bewilderment.” The solution was not to return to the past, but to create what Talcott Parsons called an “institutionalized individualism,” to situate the individual within institutions. A “strong emphasis on freedom and responsibility,” Parsons insisted, required “a framework of both normative order and collective organizations.”

The Cold War intellectuals did not see the quiescence of the 1950s or McCarthyism as the product of a resurgent Republican Party in Congress, the overthrow of a dynamic labor movement, or the capitulations of liberal Democrats to red baiting. Instead, they assumed that it was the continuing momentum of liberalism that generated anxiety and crippled individual agency. For liberalism, in the words of Lionel Trilling, was “at this time . . . not only dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States.

Like other reactions to failed emancipations past—one also thinks of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of democracy after the French Revolution, Arendt’s meditations on spent modernity after World War II—the liberalism of anxiety is the voice of a ruined insurgency. It conveys the promise of liberated human capacity, and the disappointment of seeing that promise betrayed.

But what makes the liberalism of anxiety a reaction against the insurgencies of the 1960s—as opposed to a symptom of their decline—is its peculiar understanding of the threats to the self’s agency, an understanding drawn from Tocqueville’s analysis of anxiety. Where Hobbes understood the fearful self as a being of fixed contour, frightened and threatened by forms of external power that thwarted it, the liberalism of anxiety imagines a weak self of almost vaporous indeterminateness. This weak self, rather than external coercion or repression, is the Trojan Horse of unfreedom.

What makes the self so weak and anxious, in this view, is the absence of external structure and order, the absence of coercion and repression. What would make the self strong? A revival and strengthening of integrative institutions like churches and families, which could once again press upon the individual and propel her to be a full self.

The insurgents of the 1960s presumed that the self was an agent who knew, and was passionately committed to, her interests and beliefs. Indeed, it was this knowledge and commitment that hurled her against the barriers of constraint—Jim Crow, the family, the Pentagon—for she believed those barriers prevented her from achieving her aims. If the self did not act, it was because these barriers—or her fear of them—stopped her from doing so. Challenging barriers meant taking risks and making sacrifices, resulting perhaps in the loss of career and opportunity, or, in some cases, life itself. Knowing that danger made men and women afraid, sometimes to the point of not acting. Fear thus required two actors of real presence—a determinate self and the agents of social order.

But the liberalism of anxiety has turned the self’s knowledge of her beliefs and interests into a problem, the agents of social order into an indeterminate ether, and, with that, fear into anxiety. Because anxious liberals believe contemporary America lacks integrative institutions, they imagine the self to be a thin figure of disintegration. Conversely, because the self has grown thin, she cannot participate in integrative institutions. Where there was presence, now there is absence; where there was fear, now there is anxiety.

One of the most telling symptoms of this shift from fear to anxiety is the discussions over the last two decades about the problem of identity. The occasions of these discussions have been various: pitched battles over political correctness, scholarly debates about nationalism and ethnicity, meditations on the politics of recognition versus the politics of distribution. But the underlying vocabulary and assumptions of these arguments have been consistent. The most pressing questions of politics, according to many participants in these debates, concern not the distribution of power and resources or the aggressive contest for equality and expropriation. Politics instead involves those agitated questions of membership and exclusion—of who belongs and who does not, who I am, who you are, and the unrelenting anxiety over borders (of self and society, group and nation) that such questions entail.

In the words of David Miller: “It matters less, it seems, whether the state embraces the free market, or the planned economy, or something in between. It matters more where the boundaries of the state are drawn, who gets included and who gets excluded, what language is used, what religion endorsed, what culture promoted.” “The negotiation of identity/difference,” writes Seyla Benhabib, “is the political problem facing democracies on a global scale.” Unlike “the struggles over wealth, political position, and access that characterized bourgeois and working-class politics throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century,” she claims, today’s struggles are about what Jürgen Habermas calls “the grammar of forms of life.” Or, as Samuel Huntington puts it, “In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

Though oppositional intellectuals during the 1960s were not uninterested in identity, they spoke of it as an instrument of rule. Dominant groups, these earlier thinkers believed, organized differences—of race, class, and gender—vertically, placing one group on top of another, distributing more resources, status, and power to those at the top. As late as 1982, feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon gave voice to this dispensation in a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. Feminists, according to MacKinnon, had little interest in socially generated differences as desirable or undesirable in themselves. They worried about differences that “enforced subordination, limited options,” and generated “social powerlessness.”

This political understanding of difference prompted an interest in fear, rather than anxiety, for fear arose from and reinforced society’s vertical cleavages. Fear was a tool of the powerful against the powerless, and a reaction of the powerful to the possibility that the powerless would one day dispossess them of their privileges.

But contemporary theorists of identity conceive of society horizontally, which is why anxiety is their preferred emotion. We are divided into groups not at the bottom and the top, they argue, but at the centers and the margins. Whether the group is a race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or culture, it is never sure of the coherence or durability of its borders. It worries that its perimeter is too permeable, that foreigners will slip through its porous frontiers and jeopardize its existential character and basic unity. Because men and women are not sure where they begin and end, there is a pressing need to “differentiat[e] oneself from what one is not.”

The struggle for identity, in other words, results from the anxiety over borders, which produces a redoubled effort to guard those borders. Reviving unwittingly an argument from an earlier moment of political retreat, theorists of identity ascribe a nagging political salience, trumping all other conflicts, to anxieties about self and other, in group and out group, nation and enemy.

To be sure, intellectuals did not initiate these arguments over identity in a vacuum: with post–Cold War debates over inclusion and exclusion threatening to dissolve entire societies into chaos, theorists felt legitimately called upon to offer some guiding intelligence. But these theorists have gone further, interpreting identity claims as the political return of the deepest, most elemental disquiet of the human condition.

Huntington writes that “peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we?” Identity, argues Taylor, “designates something like an understanding of who we are.” Those who struggle on its behalf are roused by the sense that “there is a certain way of being human that is my way.” When we refuse to recognize that way of being, we harm the person, imprisoning her “in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” Politics should accommodate men and women who seek to identify themselves with a nation or some other culturing grouping, explains Miller, because “identifying with a nation, feeling yourself inextricably part of it, is a legitimate way of understanding your place in the world.” Or, put more strongly, politics is the effort to define oneself with the nation or some other cultural grouping.

Because the liberalism of anxiety values the expressive self of the 1960s—but worries about its disruptiveness—it seeks a politics that allows for individual expressiveness without its disintegrative consequences. For that reason, anxious liberals prize institutions of civil society that are nonpolitical or antipolitical, and cares and concerns that are social and cultural, but not ideological or partisan. It is these institutions and concerns that combine the virtues of expression and connection, allowing the individual to disclose who she is without provoking disorder and disintegration.

Civil society is valuable, according to Etzioni, because it encourages us to “attend to nonpolitical institutions.” Local communities should be supported, Elsthain suggests, because they are not ideologically maximalist: their “ethos is preserving, not acquiring,” their goal is “to defend and sustain what remains of a way of life.”

Civic associations, writes Taylor, are important because they are “often dedicated to ends which we generally consider nonpolitical.” The ideal form of civil society is a conversation between two people: “A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with—to take a more obvious example—the dance of a group or a couple, or the action of two men sawing a log.” Conversations can range from Mozart to the weather, for “in human terms, we stand on a different footing when we start talking about the weather.” In conversation, we don’t just impart information to a separate self. Instead, we create a shared universe of intimate meaning between ourselves. Conversations model the ideal form of politics, which should be expressive and embedded, collective but not divisive. “What has all this [talk of conversation] to do with republics?” Taylor asks. “It is essential to them,” for “they are animated by a sense of a shared immediate common good.”

This bias against political action and debate is by no means uniform among proponents of the liberalism of anxiety. Some, like Walzer, praise the rough and tumble of democratic politics. But even when Walzer embraces disruptive and redistributive organizations—labor unions, for instance—it is partially their integrative function, their support for “cooperative coping,” that he praises. And when the state supports unions, he adds, it helps men and women overcome their isolation. For Walzer, the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize and join unions without fear of employer retribution, does more than protect workers from intimidation by their employers: it also “counter[s] the dissociative tendencies of liberal society,” protecting “communities of feeling and belief” from the centripetal force of individual mobility.

It is these quietist tendencies within the liberalism of anxiety—the love of intimate conversation, the praise of non-ideological associations, the embrace of integration over conflict—that ultimately render it an inadequate philosophy of politics. The liberalism of anxiety was aroused by remorse over the disappearance of the passionate conviction and crusading movements of the 1960s, and still longs for the individual and political vitality of an earlier age. It seeks a stronger self, a more defiant individual.

But little of that is to be found in the PTAs and Rotary Clubs it so fulsomely praises. Whatever their value as modes of social integration, these organizations are not weapons of social conflict or training grounds of strenuous selfhood. They may be partial to conversation and cocktails, perhaps some cooperative coping, but they eschew antagonism, conflict, and political confrontation. Civil society must thus remain an object of permanent disappointment for its defenders. Because it disappoints, its advocates are driven to embrace an alternative ethos, the liberalism of terror. Formulated by a different group of writers in response to a different set of concerns, the liberalism of terror provides the bracing resolve and militant politics liberals of anxiety seek but cannot find in private associations, civil society, and conversations about the weather.



Alex 10.17.13 at 9:38 pm

Tell me, do people care about Etzioni? I am aware of him as a snack thinker Tony Blair liked because he seemed to say being nasty to refugees could be glossed as social democratic or at least “liberal” in the squashy sense. See also, Walzer, who I know as torture guy but whose previous works seem a bit thin compared to the reputation that had people going “Walzer says GO!” or “Et tu, Walzer?”


Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.17.13 at 10:45 pm

Corey, Perhaps I missed it, but have you discussed Tony Judt’s “The Politics of Fear” material (the fear bred from insecurity) in his Ill Fares the Land (2010) (and first broached in the NYRB)?


Corey Robin 10.17.13 at 11:52 pm

Alex: Walzer is a major figure in contemporary theory. I disagree with him about a bunch of things, but I wouldn’t say his work is thin by any stretch.

Patrick: I didn’t discuss Judt. This is a series of excerpts from my first book which came out long before Judt’s did. But in part 2 of the book I do talk a lot about economic fear.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.18.13 at 12:21 am

Thanks, I should have figured that out! Regarding economic fear (in the states at any rate), David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999) comes to mind (Nick Taylor’s American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA from several years ago is a nice complementary volume).

And for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of Walzer as a “major figure in contemporary theory.” Anyone interested in contemporary just war theory, for instance, should engage his arguments.


John Quiggin 10.18.13 at 2:14 am

I might have missed it, but did you talk at all about La Grande Peur


Jim Buck 10.18.13 at 1:14 pm

Re: Le Grand Peur: interesting that ergotamine intoxication played some small part in both that, and in the social upheavals of the 1960s.


belle le triste 10.18.13 at 1:56 pm

Wasn’t it Walzer who without irony coined the phrase “the Decent Left”?

None more major.


LFC 10.18.13 at 4:40 pm

@belle le triste
Walzer wrote an op-ed piece post-9/11 called “can there be a decent left?” (I believe I’m remembering the title correctly, not bothering to look it up.) I did not much like the title (or the column, iirc).

As Corey already pointed out, whether one agrees or disagrees w someone is separate from the question of whether he/she is a ‘major’ theorist/writer/whatever. Walzer’s first book, The Revolution of the Saints, is good and has continued to be read and debated by people interested in Puritanism and its connection to “the origins of radical politics” (the book’s subtitle). His Just and Unjust Wars is a classic and has sparked a lot of debate and is a standard reference in discussions of its subject. Spheres of Justice is also worth reading. (I disagree w/ aspects of the latter two but, again, that’s a separate issue.) Some of his essays are also widely read and discussed. He also written quite a few other books besides the ones I just mentioned. Btw, books about his work have been published in languages other than English (or at least have been published in French; I just ran across one recently in a bibliography), something that usu. indicates a degree of int’l interest in and recognition of the person’s work. (He also co-edited Dissent for decades.) Whether one agrees w him or not, yes, he is a major figure in pol. theory.


Lawrence Stuart 10.20.13 at 3:55 pm

Two points: With regard to Charles Taylor, consider that much of his thinking is conditioned by the great Canadian national unity issue. The image of the two bûcherons milling away on a log seems politically quiescent until you put it in the context of Quebec politics of the past 50 years or more. Had policies governed by the metaphor of conversation not been pursued by both federalists and separatists, the probability of the hardy woodsmen going at each other with axes, rather than working the double handed saw, is high indeed. The fear of a breakdown in the civility of the national unity debate was justified (e.g., Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act during the October crisis of 1970).

Which brings me to the second point: In Canada at least, the main concern was not the violence of radicals against the state, but the violence of the state against civil society as justified by radical acts. In regard to those radical acts, I would furthermore question what would have been gained by more strident, or even bloody, conflict? By drawing back from the brink of violent confrontation, what we did get was a profound rethinking and rejigging of our national identity (whether ‘Canadian’ or ‘Quebecois’) and a result a more pluralistic and egalitarian society, both in Canada and in Quebec.

Moreover, the horizontal aspect of the conflict itself (across linguistically defined regions) was not a construction of liberal political theory. The antagonism very organically drew on the well of nationalism. The efforts of admittedly anxious liberals within both federalist and separatist camps were able to mediate this by invoking vertical notions such as the rights and responsibilities of minorities and majorities.

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