Is a government of fear still the aim of politics or is fear governing our days? Answering this question is one of the most important issues for contemporary political theory. The spectre of fear and the need of a broader security to fight this spectre is dominating public debate and policies in many western countries nowadays. This situation is suggesting that we are living in democracies of fear rather than in democracies of freedom. Do we really have to choose between freedom and security? Is this the image of our present? I believe not.
Today, fear has become an increasingly key issue during these early years of the new millennium. How it is perceived, how it is employed and the responses it elicits (responses based upon security, immunity or community responses of a political, social, religious or economic nature), dominated public and academic debate during the latter half of the 20th century. We know that language is also a form of action, rather than just a vehicle for the transmission of information.
By speaking, we are performing an act, and our language can influence individual and social behaviour. This is exactly what happens when, in both public debate and private conversation, we pronounce the word “fear“. Speaking of fear in an obsessive manner, continually claiming that today's major problem is one of security, and asserting that the question of fear, risk and security is neither the prerogative of the political left or right are all speech acts.
These speech acts permeate the policies of all governments: and as such, they elicit a paranoid vision of modern-day society, where reality is perceived almost exclusively in terms of fear and security. Moreover, talk of fear generates fear itself, constituting a vicious circle. Talk of fear renders fear real. Fear induced in this manner moulds society. Politics has no choice but to face the new challenge that the present imposes upon it. So at the beginning of the 21st century, 350 years after Thomas Hobbes' original reflections on the concept of fear (which were to mark the advent of modern politics), we find ourselves having to deal with the question of governing fear.
The Radicalisation of the Political Debate
We are currently witnessing a shift in the nature of the question itself. Fear as the raison d'être for government, is a form of fear that has not been excluded and neutralised by the political order, as promised by modern political ideology. In fact, it has come to dominate that same political order completely. The end of the “post-1989“ period and of the illusion of a peaceful world was marked by the victory of the world's liberal democracies and by the magnificently progressive outcome of capitalism and a market economy. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, these developments were deemed capable of guaranteeing the prosperity, and even the happiness, of all.
New laws restricting civil rights in western democracies were implemented on security grounds. To these were added a multiplicity of new laws and regulations governing security in cities and in the workplace. Political debate (both theoretical debate and debate about actual national or international public policy) was radicalised. Issues were presented as two opposing viewpoints - national/local identity vs. multiculturalism, secularisation vs. fundamentalism, the clash of civilisations vs. crossover and contamination of civilisations, freedom vs. security. All of this helped create an atmosphere of insecurity.
Thinking Beyond that Spiral of Fear
This, in turn, destabilises the present, as the representative construct underlying our politics is seen for what it really is, an artifice, a political curtain concealing dark emptiness, fear and death. A climate of fear appears to be encroaching on all areas of our lives. This new “age of fear“ could be even worse than the state of nature from which Man fled during Modernity. It is more impalpable and anonymous, and less easily circumscribable and localisable.
For example, the global fears produced by terrorism, the disorientation produced by globalisation's compression of both space and time, or the fear of viral epidemics or climate change are all phenomena without any clearly defined place in which they manifest themselves. Such fear is more difficult to control and could well be the harbinger of anxious insecurity. How can we attempt to think and act beyond this spiral of fear? How can we get away from this manner of thinking based upon the fear-security axiom which grips our every day existence and hinders our ability to act within the shared political space we inhabit?
We could try to follow Hannah Arendt's indications and begin to demonstrate and enjoy that specific passion that Tocqueville called “the passion of freedom“. This freedom is a clearly political expression. It is the freedom exercised in the relational, public sphere. It is an expression of the individual's will, which is not enclosed within the purely private sphere, to remain paralysed therein. But it is submitted for the approval, or otherwise, of others in the public sphere, and, as such, calls for the responsibility of individuals, given their own vulnerability and that of their world.