Today, almost all politics are a politics of fear, and almost all policies are defended and excused through some notion of ‘security’. Fear-therefore-security is the dominant political dynamic of our time. This week I take a look at these concepts, exploring whether all politics is a politics of fear, and offering examples of when this can work well and when it can work very badly. I focus in on the recent general election in the UK, showing how every candidate, even those offering some degree of real opposition, are all engaged in a politics of fear and security.
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Today I wanted to look at the politics of fear because to my mind, these days almost all politics are a politics of fear. Whether it is terrorism or climate change or economic collapse or overpopulation – everything is presented as an imminent or looming crisis and that the number 1 thing our political institutions should be concerned with is responding to these crises. Whatever you think about how real and how scary these things are, I’m sure you recognise that this is the character of our politics today.
Now, you might argue all politics since the dawn of time are like this – the whole notion of the city-state, the original form of government as far as I see it, is about having a secure base in which to accumulate wealth, develop your society and you use the surrounding land for agriculture because it makes bringing the harvest to market a lot easier and also protecting your livestock against wild animals and bandits a lot easier.
All of these things are about security, about protecting the things necessary for a society to flourish. And one might argue it made a lot of sense, that back in the days when we had bows and arrows and swords and axes and we were up against gangs of bandits who were armed with the same weapons, we had to seek refuge within walls. Just as now, if you live in a lot of parts of a lot of countries there are people out there with guns and who have little if any compunction about breaking into people’s houses and molesting their children or whatever. So I understand people in those areas of those countries owning guns for self-protection. Fear is sometimes quite rational and some sort of ‘politics of fear’ or ‘politics of security’ can be a perfectly sensible and proportional response to that.
That is particularly so when it is done on a small scale like in the examples I just offered – a city state, or even smaller, a personal or family home. When politics is done on a small scale it means the people involved in making the decisions actually have to live with the consequences. In the modern state, when you’ve got people who aren’t even living in this country making decisions, they don’t have to live with the consequences. Indeed, the beauty, if you like, of the modern state is that no one is in charge, not for very long anyway, so no one is wholly responsible for anything. That’s why the politics of fear, the politics of security, has got so ridiculously out of hand. People who travel in private jets telling us we’ve got to submit to involuntary groping and dick pics in airports all because one confused Nigerian boy who was probably being handled by the CIA tried to set fire to his underpants on one plane, once.
All politics is basically about drawing lines. How much of this. How little of that. This much, increasing to this much. That much, decreasing to that much in five years time. How straight should bananas be? How many sheep should we pay subsidies to farmers to breed this year? How much brutality and neurotic voyeurism do we think the public will tolerate from the security state over the next 10 years? This much, rising to this much.
When the people drawing the lines do not have to abide by them, and therefore don’t have to live with the consequences of them (at least not personally and directly) then we simply cannot expect them to have any sense of proportionality. Even without the ideology of the modern war on terror, even without 9/11, I think we would still see a lot of this insanity that characterises the modern politics of fear. The person with the most horrible nightmare vision of the future gets the most attention, and therefore the response is tailored to suit that nightmare, rather than the reality.
Whereas, by contrast, when a family is deciding when to keep a gun in the house for self-protection, they are the ones who have to live with the consequences, and so you generally find they behave a lot more responsibly and proportionally and realistically. It isn’t perfect, horrible stuff still happens – kids accidentally shooting their siblings – but it’s vastly preferable and vastly superior to letting a bunch of people who have never even been in that town, let alone in that neighbourhood or that house making that call.
On top of the problem of the people drawing the lines having no sense of proportion because they don’t have to live with the consequences, we also have ideological nonsense like the war on terror, and obviously some of the people pushing that stuff really believe it, i.e. are seriously mentally unwell, and some are pushing it for political gain, for political capital, and some more are pushing it because of groupthink, because of the rule of going along to get along.
This really hit home with me recently when I was watching one of the televised election debates that we had here in Britain. To be honest I enjoyed the debates a lot more than I enjoyed the election itself, where for some stupid reason 11.3 million people voted for the Tory party and because of an even stupider reason that is the British electoral system, that somehow gave them a majority government in a country of 64 million people. On the other hand, the debates were at least quite entertaining.
However, they are a bunch of professional bullshitters, status seeking flim flam artists of the highest order. This was particularly well highlighted in the BBC’s election debate, where the leaders of the five opposition parties scrapped it out. These five people were meant to represent the opposition to the government, the alternative to it, and in some small ways they all did, but of course it was only in small ways. Even on the central issue of all elections in recent years – the economy – you basically have the pro-austerity politics of fear which says that if we don’t keep cutting public services in order to bail out banks then the economy will collapse. So instead of making the City of London poorer they make 75% of the country poorer, in order to avoid the nightmare scenario of economic obliteration. However, the anti-austerity parties also presented a politics of fear, in which any attempt to shrink the size of the government, particularly the welfare state, is seen as a catastrophe. Now of course, when you cut public services to bail out banks, that is stupid and vicious and a way of enhancing the gap between rich and poor, and that is exactly what has happened in this country in recent years. But the gap between rich and poor was pretty big even when we were chucking money at the welfare state under Tony Blair and New Labour.
What none of the anti-austerity parties would say is that fundamental corruption in the financial system, both central banking and corporate cartel banking, is the core problem, and that it is a criminal problem, not an economic one. So while I do have a lot more sympathy for the anti-austerity policies than for the ‘cut public services and give the money to the bankers’ policy, I think it is important to recognise both as a politics of fear, and both as a politics that avoids the key problem.
On the one issue that I actually thought was worthy of a televised national discussion there was actually some substantial difference in policies. That was the question of Trident, Britain’s nuclear defence system. Or should I say the nuclear defence system controlled by a multinational consortium contracted by the Ministry of Defence. The idea of replacing this system, which we have never used, with a more expensive system that we will never use, at a time when we keep being told how short of money we are, is absolutely crazy to me. And it does please me that some of the opposition parties are in favour of scrapping the nuclear deterrent and that this is at least being talked about in the public, mainstream media domain.
Given that the four problems most commonly cited in this country are terrorism, climate change, the economy and immigration, and given that nuclear weapons aren’t a viable response to any of those things, what is the point in them? Aside from the screwed up but seemingly effective logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, they just seem like a gigantic and dangerous waste of resources to me.
But what particularly interested me when this came up in the televised debate was the way the question was framed and thus how it was answered. I’m going to play you a clip, about 5 minutes long which is the question and the initial answers from the five opposition party leaders.
(question begins at 39:55 )
I’m sure quite a number of you will have spotted straightaway the manipulative nature of the phrasing of the question: ‘with increasing instability on the world stage, can we really give up trident and allow defence spending to fall below 2% of GDP?’
There are three elements to this manipulation:
1) The idea that the world is increasingly unstable
2) The idea that trident makes us safer
3) The idea that spending more on defence makes the world more stable, not less
While three of the candidates were opposed to trident, and two of them questioned whether defence spending makes the world more safe and stable, not a single person out of the five opposition party leaders questioned the fundamental premise of the question, that the world is really unstable. They all played up to this idea of the big scary world out there that we need to protect ourselves from. That is the political myth hardly anyone will dare talk about, because it’s just too useful, and is too fundamental a part of the fabric of the state itself, for professional politicians to question.
So we shouldn’t expect them to. So let me question it. I think, in reality, if you live in the Western world, you are incredibly safe and live in a very stable society. Simple things like running water and constant electricity supply. These remain unaffected, at least so far, by massive population expansion, globalisation, immigration, war, financial crashes, changes of government. This is not true for an awful lot of the world, and for a majority of the world’s population. I’m not saying we should feel guilty or that we should take these things for granted, I’m saying we should recognise the advantages we have and not be so damn scared of everything.
In short, the politics of fear is the politics of security. Fear-therefore-security is the dominant political dynamic of our day, overriding any other at almost every turn. So many of our fears are mythical and so many of our security policies are radically disproportional to the reality of the threats and challenges in front of us. We have to come to terms with why this is, politically, philosophically, psychologically, or the politics of fear will come to dominate all politics, subsuming everything else. That is the real threat we face, above all others.