market in fear
Politics has become a contest between different brands of
Fear is fast becoming a caricature of itself. It is no longer simply
an emotion or a response to the perception of threat. It has become
a cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of unease about
our place in the world.
Popular culture encourages an expansive, alarmist imagination
through providing the public with a steady diet of fearful programmes
about impending calamities - man-made and natural. Now even so-called
high culture cannot resist the temptation of promoting fear: a new
exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York has the theme
of 'The perils of modern living'. Fear is also the theme that dominates
the Eighth Contemporary Art Biennial of Lyon. Natasha Edwards writes
about the 'art of fear' that haunts this important exhibition of
contemporary European art.
But the more we cultivate a twenty-first century sensibility of
anxiety, the more we can lose sight of the fact that fear today
is very different to the experience of the past.
Throughout history human beings have had to deal with the emotion
of fear. But the way we fear and what we fear changes all the time.
During the past 2,000 years we mainly feared supernatural forces.
In medieval times volcanic eruptions and solar eclipses were a special
focus of fear since they were interpreted as symptoms of divine
retribution. In Victorian times many people's fears were focused
Today, however, we appear to fear just about everything. One reason
why we fear so much is because life is dominated by competing groups
of fear entrepreneurs who promote their cause, stake their claims,
or sell their products through fear. Politicians, the media, businesses,
environmental organisations, public health officials and advocacy
groups are continually warning us about something new to fear.
The activities of these fear entrepreneurs serves to transform
our anxieties about life into tangible fears. Every major event
becomes the focus for competing claims about what you need to fear.
Take the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is not bad enough that
we have to worry about the destructive consequence of this terrible
catastrophe: according to some fear entrepreneurs, there is more
to come. They claim that global warming will turn disasters like
Katrina into normal events. Free-market ideologues blame 'Big Bureaucracy'
for the mismanagement of the rescue operation. Critics of President
George W Bush point the finger at the war in Iraq. And Bush blames
local government. In the meantime, some contend that New Orleans
represents God's punishment for human sin, while others suggest
that the whole event is driven by a hidden conspiracy against the
The fierce competition between alarmist fear entrepreneurs helps
consolidate a climate of intense mistrust. Is it any surprise that
many African Americans believe that the Bush administration sought
to save New Orleans' white districts by flooding black neighbourhoods,
through deliberately engineering the levee breaks?
The catastrophe that wreaked havoc in Louisiana was also a test
of our humanity. But sadly we were encouraged to interpret the event
in the worst possible terms. Most of the stories about rape, looting,
gang killings and other forms of anti-social behaviour turned out
to be just that - stories. But for a while we became distracted
from empathising with our fellow human beings as we feared for the
breakdown of civilisation.
It is not simply the big events like Katrina that are subjected
to competing claims on the fear market. Imagine that you are a parent.
For years you have been told that sunshine represents a mortal danger
to your child, and that you must protect them from skin cancer by
minimising their exposure to the sun. Then, this summer, a report
is published that raises concerns about the rise of vitamin E deficiency
among children who have been far too protected from the sun. So
what do you do? The fact is that a growing range of human experience
- from natural disasters to children's lives in the outdoors - is
now interpreted through competing claims about fear.
Our misanthropic reaction to the catastrophe in New Orleans is reproduced
daily in response to far more mundane events. That is why society
cannot discuss a problem facing children without going into panic
mode. Research shows that when viewers see an image of a child on
a TV news item, they automatically anticipate a negative story.
So a majority of people who were asked to give their interpretation
of a photo of a man cuddling a child responded by stating that this
was a picture of a paedophile instead of an act of a loving father.
A brief history of fear
In one sense, competing claims about what to fear is not a phenomenon
unique to current times. During the Cold War, ideological conflicts
were often conducted through the medium of fear. While some politicians
argued for expanding arms expenditure by raising alarm about the
threat of communism, others demanded disarmament and appealed to
the public's fear of nuclear weapons. However, the promotion of
competing alarmist claims is very different to the situation in
Fear has lost its relationship to experience. When confronted with
a specific threat such as the plague or an act of war, fear can
serve as an emotion that guides us in a sensible direction. However,
when fear is promoted as promiscuously as it is today, it breeds
an unfocused sense of anxiety that can attach itself to anything.
In such circumstances fear can disorient and distract us from our
very own experiences. That is why fear has acquired connotations
that are entirely negative.
It is worth recalling that, historically, fear did not always have
negative connotations. The sixteenth-century English philosopher
Thomas Hobbes regarded fear as essential for the realisation of
the individual and of a civilised society. For Hobbes and others,
fear constituted a dimension of a reasonable response to new events.
Nor does fear always signify a negative emotional response. As late
as the nineteenth century, the sentiment of fear was frequently
associated with an expression of 'respect' and 'reverence' or 'veneration'.
From this standpoint, the act of 'fearing the Lord' could have connotations
that were culturally valued and affirmed. Today, by contrast, the
act of fearing God is far less consistent with cultural norms. One
important reason for this shift is that fearing has tended to become
disassociated from any positive attributes.
One of the distinguishing features of fear today is that it appears
to have an independent existence. It is frequently cited as a problem
that exists in its own right, disassociated from any specific object.
Classically, societies associate fear with a clearly formulated
threat - the fear of plague or the fear of hunger. In such formulations,
the threat was defined as the object of such fears: the problem
was death, illness or hunger. Today, we frequently represent the
act of fearing as a threat itself. A striking illustration of this
development is the fear of crime. Today, fear of crime is conceptualised
as a serious problem that is to some extent distinct from the problem
of crime. That is why politicians and police forces often appear
to be more concerned about reducing the public's fear of crime than
reducing crime itself.
Yet the emergence of the fear of crime as a problem in its own right
cannot be understood as simply a response to the breakdown of law
and order. It is important to note that fear as a discrete stand-alone
problem is not confined to the problem of crime. The fear of terrorism
is also treated as a problem that is independent of, and distinct
from, the actual physical threat faced by people in society. That
is why so many of the measures undertaken in the name of fighting
terrorism are actually oriented towards managing the public's fear
of this phenomenon.
The generalised fear about the health effects of mobile phones has
been interpreted as a risk in itself. In Britain, the Independent
Expert Group on Mobile Phones, which was set up in 1999 by the then
health minister Tessa Jowell, concluded that public anxiety itself
could lead to ill health. The report of this committee noted that
such anxieties 'can in themselves affect' the public's wellbeing.
In the same way, anxiety about health risks is now considered to
be a material consideration in determining planning application.
Fear is treated as an independent variable by public bodies.
The legal system has also internalised this trend. In the USA, there
is a discernible tendency on the part of courts to compensate fear,
even in the absence of a perceptible physical threat. This marks
an important departure from the practices of the past, when 'fright'
- a reaction to an actual event - was compensated. Now, the fear
that something negative could happen is also seen as grounds for
making a claim. For example, it has been argued that people who
feel anxious about their health because an incinerator is to be
sited near their homes ought to be compensated.
A market in fear
Political debate is often reduced to competing claims about what
to fear. Claims about the threat of terrorism or child obesity or
asylum seekers compete for the attention of the public. In this
way, our anxieties become politicised and turned into a politics
of fear. Health activists, environmentalists and advocacy groups
are no less involved in using scare stories to pursue their agenda
than politicians devoted to getting the public's attention through
inciting anxieties about crime and law and order.
The narrative of fear has become so widely assimilated that it is
now self-consciously expressed in a personalised and privatised
way. In previous eras where the politics of fear had a powerful
grasp - in Latin American dictatorships, fascist Italy or Stalin's
Soviet Union - people rarely saw fear as an issue in its own right.
Rather, they were frightened that what happened to a friend or a
neighbour might also happen to them. Today, however, public fears
are rarely expressed in response to any specific event. Rather,
the politics of fear captures a sensibility towards life in general.
The statement 'I am frightened' tends to express a diffuse sense
Fears are often expressed in the form of a complaint about an individual,
such as 'Bush really scares me' or 'he's a scary president'. Ironically,
in the very act of denouncing Bush's politics of fear, the complainant
advances his own version of the same perspective by pointing out
how terrifying the president apparently is.
And yet, the politics of fear could not flourish if it did not resonate
so powerfully with today's cultural climate. Politicians cannot
simply create fear from thin air. Nor do they monopolise the deployment
of fear: panics about health or security can just as easily begin
on the internet or through the efforts of an advocacy group as from
the efforts of government spindoctors. Paradoxically, governments
spend as much time trying to contain the effects of spontaneously
generated scare stories as they do pursuing their own fear campaigns.
The reason why the politics of fear has such a powerful resonance
is because of the way that personhood has been redefined in mental
health terms. Increasingly, people are presented as individuals
who lack the emotional resources to cope with the challenges of
Take the recent report on the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster.
You have to read this three-volume, 600-page report very carefully
to discover the good news that the number of deaths caused by the
accident at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl is under 50. Despite
claims that thousands will eventually die and that even more could
suffer terrible physical pain, the news is reassuring. The study
found no evidence of decreased fertility among the affected population,
nor an increase in congenital malformations. However, in line with
the temper of our times the report concluded that the big problem
posed by Chernobyl is the mental health of the affected people.
The belief that people are unable to cope with misfortune and pain
underpins our perception of the problems we face.
There is nothing novel about claim-making activities based on fear.
Throughout history claim-makers have sought to focus people's anxiety
towards what they perceived to be the problem. However, the activities
of fear entrepreneurs today do not represent simply a quantitative
increase over the past. In the absence of a consensus over meaning,
competitive claims-making intrudes into all aspects of life.
In the private sector, numerous industries have become devoted to
promoting their business through the fear market. In some cases,
entrepreneurs seek to scare the public into purchasing their products.
Appeals to personal security constitute the point of departure for
the marketing strategy of the insurance, personal security and health
industries. Fear is used by the IT industry and its army of consultants
to sell goods and services.
In certain instances it is difficult to clearly delineate the line
that divides the fear economy from the promotion of anxiety and
the anticipation of a disaster. It is worth recalling that for a
considerable period of time the Y2K problem, also known as the millennium
bug, was regarded as the harbinger of a major disaster. The scale
of this major internationally coordinated effort and the massive
expenditure of billions of dollars to deal with possible technologically
induced crisis was unprecedented. Only a tiny minority of IT experts
was prepared to question those devoted to constructing the 'millennium
Even social scientists, who usually make an effort to interrogate
claims about an impending disaster, failed to raise any questions
about the threat. One IT industry commentator, Larry Seltzer, noted
that 'looking back on the scale of the exaggeration, I have to think
that there was a lot of deception going on'. He added that the 'motivation
- mostly consulting fees - was all too obvious'. But nevertheless
it was not simply about money. Seltzer believes that there were
also 'a lot of experienced people with no financial interest who
deeply believed it was a real problem'.
Despite the growth of the fear economy, the exploitation of anxieties
about potential catastrophes, the promotion of fear is primarily
driven by cultural concerns rather than financial expediency. One
of the unfortunate consequences of the culture of fear is that any
problem or new challenge is liable to be transformed into an issue
of survival. So instead of representing the need to overhaul and
update our computer systems as a technical problem, contemporary
culture preferred to revel in scaring itself about various doomsday
The millennium bug was the product of human imagination that symbolised
society's formidable capacity to scare itself. But who needs a millennium
bug when you have global warming? Today global warming provides
the drama for the fear-script. Virtually every unexpected natural
phenomenon can be recast as a warning signal for the impending ecological
catastrophe. Nothing less than a complete reorganisation of economic
and social life can, we are led to believe, save the human species
Contemporary language reflects the tendency to transform problems
and adverse events into questions of human survival. Terms like
'plague', 'epidemic' or 'syndrome' are used promiscuously to underline
the precarious character of human existence. The word plague has
acquired everyday usage. The adoption of an apocalyptic vocabulary
helps turn exceptional events into a normal risk. This process can
be seen in the way that the occurrence of child abduction, which
is fortunately very rare, has been transformed into a routine risk
facing all children. In the same way, threats to human survival
are increasingly represented as normal. As the sociologist Krishnan
Kumar argues, the apocalyptic imagination has become almost banal
and transmits a sense of 'millennial belief without a sense of the
The fear market thrives in an environment where society has internalised
the belief that since people are too powerless to cope with the
risks they face, we are continually confronted with the problem
of survival. This mood of powerlessness has encouraged a market
where different fears compete with one another in order to capture
the public imagination. Since September 2001, claim-makers have
sought to use the public's fear of terrorism to promote their own
interests. Politicians, businesses, advocacy organisations and special
interest groups have sought to further their selfish agendas by
manipulating public anxiety about terror.
All seem to take the view that they are more likely to gain a hearing
if they pursue their arguments or claims through the prism of security.
Businesses have systematically used concern with homeland security
to win public subsidies and handouts. And paradoxically, the critics
of big business use similar tactics - many environmental activists
have started linking their traditional alarmist campaigns to the
public's fear of terror attacks.
The politicisation of fear
Although the politics of fear reflects a wider cultural mood, it
did not emerge spontaneously. Fear has been consciously politicised.
Throughout history fear has been deployed as a political weapon
by the ruling elites. Machiavelli's advice to rulers that they will
find 'greater security in being feared than in being loved' has
been heeded by successive generations of authoritarian governments.
Fear can be employed to coerce and terrorise and to maintain public
order. Through provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat
it can also provide focus for gaining consensus and unity.
Today, the objective of the politics of fear is to gain consensus
and to forge a measure of unity around an otherwise disconnected
elite. But whatever the intentions of its authors, its main effect
is to enforce the idea that there is no alternative.
The promotion of fear is not confined to right-wing hawks banging
on the war drums. Fear has turned into a perspective that citizens
share across the political divide. Indeed, the main distinguishing
feature of different parties and movements is what they fear the
most: the degradation of the environment, irresponsible corporations,
immigrants, paedophiles, crimes, global warming, or weapons of mass
In contemporary times, fear migrates freely from one problem to
the next without there being a necessity for causal or logical connection.
When the Southern Baptist leader Reverend Jerry Vines in June 2002
declared that Mohammed was a 'demon-possessed paedophile' and that
Allah leads Muslim to terrorism, he was simply taking advantage
of the logical leaps permitted by the free-floating character of
our fear narratives. This arbitrary association of terrorism and
paedophilia can have the effect of amplifying the fear of both.
The same outcome is achieved when every unexpected climatic event
or natural disaster is associated with global warming. Politics
seems to only come alive in the caricatured form of a panic.
In one sense, the term politics of fear is a misnomer. Although
promoted by parties and advocacy groups, it expresses the renunciation
of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian
regimes and dictatorships, today's politics of fear has no clearly
focused objective other than to express claims in a language that
enjoys a wider cultural resonance. The distinct feature of our time
is not the cultivation of fear but the cultivation of our sense
of vulnerability. While it lacks a clearly formulated objective,
the cumulative impact of the politics of fear is to reinforce society's
consciousness of vulnerability. And the more powerless we feel the
more we are likely to find it difficult to resist the siren call
The precondition for effectively countering the politics of fear
is to challenge the association of personhood with the state of
vulnerability. Anxieties about uncertainty become magnified and
overwhelm us when we regard ourselves as essentially vulnerable.
Yet the human imagination possesses a formidable capacity to engage
and learn from the risks it faces. Throughout history humanity has
learned from its setbacks and losses and has developed ways of systematically
identifying, evaluating, selecting and implementing options for
There is always an alternative. Whether or not we are aware of
the choices confronting us depends upon whether we regard ourselves
as defined by our vulnerability or by our capacity to be resilient.
published in spiked, 26 September 2005