Andy Blunden November 2004
Draft for a Talk to Rural Australians for Refugees

The Politics of Fear

Recently, election wins for the conservative side of politics in the US and Australia have focused our attention on this problem. The scare campaign is one of the most powerful weapons of modern politics. From the yellow peril to McCarthyism, law-and-order and interest rates, the right-wing has always used the politics of fear to great effect.

However, identifying and mobilising against threats is by no means the exclusive property of the Right. The real problem to be addressed is why certain scares, at certain times resonate more than others and what to do about it.

Can I point to two opposite characterisations of the politics of fear.

Barry Glassner titled his catalogue of recent scare campaigns in the US The Culture of Fear. Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things, pointing to the fact that it is not fear itself which characterises support for oppressive political regimes, but fear of the wrong things. For example, instead of being afraid of growing inequality and social exclusion, we get afraid of catching an exotic disease or feel threatened by outsiders. What determines what we choose to see as a threat and who we blame?

On the other hand, Democrats John Kerry and Bill Clinton urged us to choose hope over fear. This suggests that optimism is an inherently progressive attitude, and pessimism inherently conservative or reactionary. But where does the disposition towards optimism or pessimism come from?

There is an element of truth in both approaches, and both leave important questions unanswered. Consider the following questions.

Who causes the greatest danger to our children on their way to school: men who download pornography from the internet or traffic jams caused by parents chauffering their kids to and from school? Who creates the greater risk of terrorist infiltration: refugees in leaky boats or well-dressed businessmen arriving by plane? Who creates litter in our streets: manufacturers of fast food or undisciplined youth? Which poses the greater risk to the health of our children: smallpox vaccination or smallpox? Who caused the AIDS epidemic: promiscuous homosexuals or scientists experimenting with monkey blood products in Africa? Who poses the greatest danger: outpatients of the mental health service or trigger-happy police?

Could I suggest that reflection on statistics and calculation of risk has little to do with how you answer these questions. Your answers more likely reflect an ethical position, responding according to moral outrage, distrust, disgust or empathy. Which is not to deny that cool and rational reflection on the facts is not an integral part of debunking scare campaigns, but what makes such rational deliberation difficult, or even impossible, is the readiness of people to believe in threats which reinforce their moral prejudices or function subconsciously in relieving insecurity or managing feelings of guilt.

Politics is essentially about promoting and realising your vision of what is good. In this sense, your conception of what is disgusting and threatening is just as much a part of politics as your idea of the good. Different sections of the population have different interests, and therefore conflicting conceptions of what is good and what is threatening. You rarely hear wealthy people warning about the decline of public education and health services, do you?

The ethical content of politics is hidden nowadays though. The ruling elite promotes the idea that government is a technical task, like managing a business, and this tends to make it difficult for ordinary people to formulate critical opinions about politics. The ethics has been taken out of politics, and this excludes ordinary people.

Also, it has been said that nowadays, people find it much easier to imagine a global catastrophe than even the smallest step towards socialism; we live in very pessimistic times. So, drawing people’s attention to threats is going to be easier than mobilising people around a vision of a better world.

Now, I want to look at what it is about today that makes people particularly vulnerable to fear, what it is about today that makes people open to certain kinds of threat and not others, and what disposes people to apportion blame in the way they do. After that we'll look at the technology of running scare campaigns, and how to fight them, and what distinguishes an emancipatory mobilisation against threats, from right-wing scare campaigns which reinforce existing forms of subordination.

What makes us especially vulnerable to fear campaigns today?

Firstly, there is what is referred to as “generalised anxiety.” There are different ideas about the origins of this generalised anxiety, and it’s not something unique to the present day, but I think the most compelling explanation is the anxiety coming from the radical uncertainty of modern life, the lack of any job security, uncertainty about what is right, how we should relate to the opposite sex, lack of confidence that other people hold to the same set of values as we do because of multiculturalism, the fact that no school-child knows what job they will do when they leave school and no-one can look forward to working at their job until they retire. So all these uncertainties make us anxious, but we have no specific threat to focus on, we are just generally anxious. In this situation, it is actually a relief when we identify some threat which we can focus on, and we tend to latch on to it when we see it.

Despite the threat of nuclear war and accidents, global warming, AIDS and so forth, the fact is that the current generation of decision-makers in the West have never known real fear, as a generation, compared to the economic catastrophes, world wars and mass migrations that previous generations lived through. This brings us to a second point. It’s the uncertainty of everyday life that is the main source of modern anxiety.

If you lived in a black ghetto in 1950s America, or under French colonial rule in Vietnam, or whatever, then not only did your enemy confront you in the face, but it was not difficult to think how your situation could be improved, and campaigns to remove the sources of oppression received support, without people worrying too much about the terrible consequences of the fight they were entering into. Today, people see on their televisions a continual stream of images about how their situation could be a lot worse than it is.

Think about this: poker machines are located in poor suburbs, insurance is sold in the wealthy suburbs. It is quite rational for poor people to take a gamble, while rich people insure themselves against loss.

And yet the dangers which really threaten our relative security are not those which feature in scare campaigns, are they?

What kinds of threats are effective nowadays?

When we talk about insecurity today, then this insecurity is particularly tied up with the decline of all sorts of safety net apart from a bank account. Family, the welfare state and other voluntary organisations such as churches and trade unions, used to provide a kind of security which is no longer there. With some good reason, people feel that the only security they have, as an individual, is the security that they can buy.

This is somewhat different from, for example, the post-war decades, when welfare systems, family, unions and churches were there to catch you if you fell over. The other side of this “communitarianism” was a somewhat oppressive atmosphere of conformism. Accordingly, in the 1950s the kind of threats which the Right wing mobilised around — MacCarthyism for example — were presented as threats to the entire community. People relied on the community for their support and threats to it (however spurious) were cause for outrage. The effect of such scare campaigns was to reinforce this conformism.

During the 70s and 80s, most of the scare campaigns were centred around industrialism, the end of the post-war boom and newly growing economic instability. People took opposite positions on this new situation, some mobilising against the threats posed by industrialism, some mobilising against threats to on-going economic growth and expansion.

Today people tend to get alarmed about threats to them personally, or their children. People get afraid of new diseases, food additives, violent attacks by foreigners, sexual predators, and so on, while the very fabric of society which could keep them safe is being withered away. These individualised threats have the effect of further accentuating the isolation and fragmentation of society, reinforcing the very forces which generate this kind of anxiety. This is a general rule. Just like a society’s vision of the good reinforces the kind of society that it is, a society’s perception of what is dangerous is not only normative (people who do not respond to the same threats in the same way are seen as deviant), but act to reinforce the dominant ethos and sustain existing forms of domination.

Why do people apportion blame the way they do?

This leads to a peculiar and rampant tendency in the way we apportion blame, manifested in the craze for litigation. Apportioning blame is always an ethical question. Whatever the causality of a threat, how we answer the question as to who is responsible for protecting us from it is essentially an ethical question about the distribution of responsibility.

Those of you who work in Universities will already be aware of the tendency of students to believe that if they have paid their fees, then they ought to be given their degree. The idea that passing their exams is their own responsibility is increasingly unacceptable to students. If they are failed, then the University has defaulted on its promise to deliver the qualification that has been paid for.

This is increasingly the case everywhere: people believe that security, longevity and happiness can be purchased and if they have earned an income and paid their taxes, then if they do not enjoy happy eternal life then someone is responsible; they have obviously been swindled.

This is because of the modern gutting of the concept of virtue; nowadays, virtue is restricted to what are really the external rewards of a practice, rather than a virtuous practice in itself. If you are well-paid, then ipso facto, you are a virtuous person. So people who have earned a good living believe they are entitled to whatever they want. If they trip over, the council is responsible, if they get stressed out, their employer is responsible, if they get drunk, the publican is responsible.

In former times, people were willing to ascribe ill fortune to bad luck or Nature, but nowadays, we don’t believe in Nature or even accidents; someone is always responsible.

Also, we no longer believe in authority. Authorities are not to be trusted. We are very ready to believe in a cover-up. So when they are under attack, bureaucracies and authorities cannot close ranks and defend their members — liability is devolved down to the individual. Faced with the risk of being blamed for anything that goes wrong, individual professionals resort to insurance. Lacking any confidence that they will enjoy solidarity from their colleagues, professionals like doctors buy security from blame.

Justice and security has therefore been privatised, purchased and sold on the market like everything else. This marketisation of risk and security is both very unequal and very isolating in its effect. All human relationships become a matter of calculation of vulnerability and trustworthiness, and as people become more and more isolated within themselves, the capacity to trust anyone else becomes less and less. People feel very anxious.

What this shows is that it is going to be very easy to launch a scare campaign if it is one which reinforces the existing power structure, reinforces existing moral prejudices and offers relief to anxious people looking to fix the blame for their problems on a socially accepted scapegoat.

Why do people respond to a far-flung threat?

People advertise to a threat, even a far flung threat, as an expression of moral outrage. Sometimes this moral outrage is a simple expression of self-interest, mobilising against a threat to their own life-style, like celebrities that complain about invasion of privacy while publishers complain about threats to freedom of speech. Less obviously, people claim something or someone to be a threat because really, they find the person or their lifestyle disgusting and morally reprehensible — and therefore dangerous. We heap shame on to the targets of our attack by painting them as threatening. But sometimes the reason for the moral outrage is more convoluted. People get angry as a cover for their own feelings of guilt.

So for example, we have a scare about the mistreatment of old people in nursing homes. But really, it is not the laziness of the staff in these homes, but our own neglect of our old people which is driving us, but we displace these feelings of shame on to someone else. It’s these displaced forms of blame which are the most irrational and infuriating; sometimes the guilt runs very deep.

How to launch a scare campaign

If you're going to launch a scare campaign, then to start with it has to align with a moral sentiment. The reality is we are all over-intrepid; we only respond to scares which line up with our moral sentiments.

Secondly, you need a human face, ideally the sympathetic face of a victim, someone with whom we all can and want to identify, or it could be the image of a villain, looking just like someone we all know and hate. But it needs to be an individual person, not some vague notion or generality.

Thirdly, you need an expert, a respected authority, which will put a name on the scare and validate it as socially truthful and rational.

Fourthly, you need to have people putting their hand up all over the place and saying “This happened to me.” If you don’t have much to go on, there’s always “the tip of the iceberg” or “a growing new trend” to help things along. If you can bring these three elements (human face, authority and instances) together in a way which lines up with a moral prejudice and therefore can function to relieve anxiety and guilt, then you have a scare campaign very quickly and easily. The interplay between political leaders, experts, the media and the arts, each feeding off the other, can build up a phenomenon from an unsubstantiated allegation to a socially accepted and commonplace truth by stitching the idea into the social imagination, through a combination of fact and fiction.

Myths and Archetypes

Scare campaigns are not invented anew every week. The villain in the scenario is probably a well-known character because these villains are cast in the role of archetypes, well-known mythological figures, some of them national creations, some of them as old as time itself. Myths are not fairy-tales, and invariably have some basis in reality, but that reality is not necessarily just as we imagine it.

The wayward son and the ungrateful daughter, and their associates, the violent youth and the immoral woman — these are ancient archetypes which reappear in every family and down the ages. Along with these ancient bogeys are the infidel and the dangerous stranger. But we seem to discover them anew, in the supposedly “rising” tide of youth violence and teenage pregnancy, not to mention the fanatical terrorist and the invading refugees.

But there are also national archetypal bogeys: in Australia the main one is the foreigners arriving by boat and taking over the country. The obviousness of the fact that this bogey is a displacement of our own guilt in relation to the Australian Aborigines is amusing really, but it continues to generate irrational anger. In the US, the “government cover-up” and the “foreign zealot” connect with longstanding national problems, while in Britain, the “conspiracy” is a favourite theme.

Because these archetypes have haunted the national imagination for so long, they are thoroughly integrated into both official history and folklore, and they are the easiest possible vehicle for scare campaigns.

How to debunk scare campaigns

What we have said about the perception of threats expressing moral outrage and irrational fears, rather than a sober evaluation of risks, should not be taken to mean that scare campaigns cannot be debunked. They can, and a sober critique of the facts of the case by a recognised authority is indispensable.

Conversely, the scaremonger’s experts have to be debunked as well, and preferably you need to show their vested interest and ideally demonstrate that they were engaged in a cover-up of the real dangers, since these are accusations which have the most ready traction today.

If the scare has been launched with a human face, then that human face needs to be shown in a different light, like the Kuwaiti nurse, who turned out to be the daughter of the Ambassador to the United States and was not even there. And again, ideally, you will have a human face which demonstrates the harm done to the victims of the scare campaign, the wrongly accused son, the soldier’s grieving mother, and so on.

The implicit moral message contained in the scare campaign has to be made explicit — “Mary, who has worked in such and such a nursing home for 20 years, caring for old people, has aged parents of her own, living in her granny flat ...” and replaced by an alternative moral reading of the phenomenon: “The government refuses to admit that it has cut grants to nursing homes at a time when the growing aged population is straining the efforts of nursing staff. ...”

The supposed proliferation of reports of the phenomenon has to be either debunked or given an alternative reading. In this regard, the technique of “relocating” myths is worthy of attention. The facts underlying a myth may be valid; for example, there may be a lot of street crime. But what there is not is a rising tide of street crime. Young people have been rebellious and troublesome since time immemorial and concerns about the misbehaviour of wayward youth needs to evaluated in the light of the falling incidence of serious crime, ... and so on.

Likewise, Gulf War Syndrome is real, but it needs to relocated out of AIDS and Watergate into “battle fatigue” and “shell-shock” — the inevitable psychological and medical harm done to people by warfare.

So, respecting the vulnerability that people feel as a result of the loss of social supports and the anxiety people feel about the whole meaning of their lives, and their tendency to feel that someone else is to blame for their misfortune, look for the moral message in a scare campaign and the archetype it is drawing upon and use these techniques to fight it.

But remember: turning around perceptions of threats which express the ethos of today’s society and the generalised anxiety people feel requires more than a good argument and good communication; it needs a change in the way people live. The farmers who found jobs for Afghan refugees in country Victoria, did something that no amount of argument and debate could ever achieve, by bringing people into a real, productive relationship with each other.

It is also necessary to find an alternative set of ethical principles to those which are dominant today. It’s a kind of chicken-and-egg situation. Before people are going to be afraid of the right things (like the danger of authoritarian government, racism, growing inequality, the collapse of public health and education and social disintegration) they are going to have to start living in a different way. The struggle over what is good and what is bad is a part of the struggle to change the way people live and the way they see the world.

Let’s look at a couple of recent scare campaigns.

The Children Overboard scare campaign

Since 1788 outcasts from Europe have been arriving in Australia by boat and settling on land stolen form the Australian Aborigines. Until we make our peace with the Australian Aborigines and acknowledge their ownership of the land we will go on displacing this guilt on to someone else.

The man who refuses to say “Sorry” understands this very well. The fake photographs and video footage of mothers supposedly throwing their own children overboard in order gain entry to Australia connected instantly with this archetypal fear in the Australian settler community. That such people would throw their own children overboard is believable only to the frightened settler haunted by this nightmare.

Howard was of course quickly shown to be a liar, but to our dismay, this did not cause those who chose to believe this lie not to vote for him. Howard had demonstrated that he was prepared even to lie to protect them from this threat, so his lying was transformed into a virtue, in the eyes of those who shared this fear. Howard would not bow to the diktats of international treaty obligations and precepts of justice which held that these invaders were human beings like us. If necessary he would lie to protect us.

Howard’s lies justified a policy of abandoning refugees from Afghanistan (which we were bombing at the time) and Iraq (which we were blockading at the time), and even letting them drown, which was the fate of the next group that tried. Truth in government wasn’t the issue unfortunately.

The Interest Rate scare campaign

The assertion that an ALP government would see interest rates rise also drew on age-old Australian national prejudices. Nothing in the actual economic record of the ALP would justify the assertion of course, but the ALP still retains the vestiges of its history as the party of the trade unions. Both sides support the idea that government is a kind of business. All that was necessary was to run frequent advertisements depicting Latham as the Labor Mayor of Liverpool, and contrast this with running “Australia’s $8 billion economy” to draw on the deep-running prejudice that managers should manage and workers should work, and keep their fingers out of the affairs of management. If you accept the idea that a government is just like a big business, then of course you would want businessmen to run the government. The whole idea of electing the government by popular suffrage would be absurd actually, but at least you would be inclined to vote for the incumbent conservatives, and certainly not vote to turn the national business over to the workers.

How does radical mobilisation differ from a scare campaign?

I said at the outset that mobilising against threats is not the exclusive property of the right — in fact, it is difficult to imagine how any social movement could be built without mobilising against threats or actually existing evils, or any way of confronting a social danger other than by raising a social movement. And I have pointed out that what people fear and who they blame is not just a factual question, but very much an ethical question.

This does not mean however that there is some kind of moral equivalence between scare campaigns (like Howard’s children overboard scandal) and mobilisation against threats like polluting or noisy factories, workplace hazards, monopolisation of the media, US threats to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Australian content in TV, etc..

In any society, at any given time, there is both a dominant ethos, with its conception of the good as well as what is threatening and risky, and counter-cultures which challenge the dominant ethos. A scare campaign either reinforces existing forms of domination and problematic forms of practice, or challenges them; they make statements about what is disgusting and threatening and what is worth protecting; about what are good risks and justified exposure to risk, and what are bad risks and unjustified or exploitative exposure to risk.

“Scare campaigns” therefore have to be evaluated in their historical context. I would say that today, any scare campaign which accentuates social isolation, intolerance and inequality, which sustains the idea that the good things in life are not free but available for purchase, is a reactionary scare campaign, which is supporting existing forms of subordination and hindering people’s capacity to be architects of their own lives. Any campaign which challenges those things which inhibit people’s capacity to collaborate for the common good is worth supporting.

Whatever the issue though, it never helps if people are moved by irrational and subconscious motives like transferred guilt or mislocated myths, or by false information, bogus theories or scapegoats, and patient exposure of all these ruses is a social obligation.