Histories Of Fear

histories of fear, the politics of fear

This essay on the politics of fear is a review of Fear: An Alternative History of the World by Robert Peckham and Freedom from Fear: An Incomplete History of Liberalism by Alan S. Kahan.

It was originally published in the first issue of The Vital Center’s journal, which can be read here.

It is precisely in response to the recent surge of authoritarian and populist movements across the globe that Peckham and Kahan seek to historicize the politics of fear, so as to comprehend its implications for today.

Since the 1970s, psychologists have defended a theory of what they call “basic emotions,” according to which certain emotions are universally experienced because they have helped human beings to cope with the perennial tasks of life over the course of our evolutionary past. It suggests, for instance, that the emotion of fear has better enabled our ancestors to respond to immediate dangers and to motivate the achievement of their goals, thereby improving life chances. As Thomas Dixon explains, this theory thus posits “a universalist view of emotions as hardwired mental states, which originally evolved for specific purposes in ancestral humans.”

Historians of emotions including Dixon have largely rejected such a universalist conception. Instead, they have long recognized that our emotional experiences are significantly informed by prevailing cultural and intellectual circumstances and that these experiences have fundamentally changed throughout human history. As Joanna Bourke has demonstrated, the objects of our fears as well as the nature of how these fears are felt have shifted dramatically even within the last two centuries alone. In his 2004 work, Fear: The History of a Political Idea, Corey Robin has also drawn attention to the political dimension of fear and the changes in how this emotion has been interpreted. According to him, while pre-modern thinkers such as Hobbes regarded fear as an expression of our moral beliefs that is actively cultivated through one’s political education, laws, and institutions, we now see it as neither a reflection of our moral judgments nor the result of politics. Rather, we tend to believe, with the “basic emotions” theorists, that fear is merely a primal reaction to impending threats or situations of uncertainty such as war or social revolution.

Writing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the declaration of the “War on Terror,” Robin has observed that this depoliticized understanding of fear has led many to argue that fear is “a source of political vitality” insofar as it inculcates in us all the value of institutions such as the rule of law and liberal democracy for warding off dangers. In his view, political theorists and philosophers such as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty adopted this position when they affirmed liberal principles on the basis of the avoidance of fear (of cruelty), since they believed that fear “possessed an easy intelligibility which made for quick and universal agreement about principles.” For Robin, however, Shklar and Rorty’s “liberalism of fear” not only obscured the politics of fear and hence the contested nature of liberalism, but it also failed to recognize that political freedom cannot be founded on negative experiences of fear. Following Michael Walzer, he has insisted that politics first requires “some answering vision of positive justice, some ideologically grounded hope for radical change,” which “enjoin[s] us to envision and strive for a life with less fear.”

The recent works by Robert Peckham and Alan S. Kahan challenge Robin’s assumption that fear could not be foundational to political life. In his wide-ranging survey of historical episodes of fear, beginning with the Black Death of the fourteenth century and concluding with the COVID-19 pandemic, Peckham shows that fear, in all of its various forms, has helped to disrupt the status quo and force emancipatory social change as much as it has been appropriated by authoritarian political regimes to maintain power. Indeed, he contends that fear has played “a crucial role in securing modern freedoms, given that it has been central to ‘the creation of political rights and liberties.’” While therefore agreeing with Robin’s emphasis on its deeply political nature, Peckham argues, against the former, that “fear isn’t always inimical to freedom but may be its corollary, an integral facet of empowerment,” and that the fear of loss in particular “is inseparable from the hope that must drive any commitment to social justice.” Accordingly, as Peckham says of Thomas More’s Utopia, a utopian social order is not established through a state of fearlessness but instead “relies on the right sort of fear being balanced with the right kind of fearlessness.”

“Hope and fear represent two sides of the same coin. Both emphasize that the experience of fear is not purely negative but intimately connected with the hope for a better world.”

Like Peckham, Kahan denies that politics cannot be grounded on the experience of fear, for he contends that the identification of fears is in fact the chief motivator of the liberal tradition. This is illustrated by his historical account of liberalism, according to which the latter emerged in the nineteenth century out of a fear of revolution, before second-wave liberals prioritized debates over the fear of poverty. Following the First World War, a third wave of liberalism developed that focused on the fear of totalitarianism; finally, in our present century, “Liberalism 4.0” is chiefly confronted with the fear of populism. In short, “Each new form of liberalism is the result of a new fear that has called for a new response.” Yet Kahan also departs from Peckham in claiming that political freedom is incompatible with fear. Indeed, the former argues that at the heart of the liberal project is the attempt to secure a society that enjoys “the most basic freedom,” namely, “freedom from fear.” For Kahan, it is this hope of “a world without fear” that has always animated liberalism—a hope that remains “utopian” because liberal fears are unlikely to be dispelled without generating additional sources of fear. It was for this reason that the liberalism of fear “limited its utopianism to the seemingly modest aim of limiting cruelty,” as opposed to committing itself to the impossible task of eliminating cruelty altogether. Still, in Kahan’s view, this limitation serves only to underline the utopian character of liberal aspirations.

When faced with contemporary fears or anxieties, historians have often looked to the past to understand what exactly it is that they are experiencing, and in this respect Peckham and Kahan are no exceptions. It is precisely in response to the recent surge of authoritarian and populist movements across the globe that they seek to historicize the politics of fear, so as to comprehend its implications for today. For Peckham and Kahan, hope and fear represent two sides of the same coin. Both emphasize that the experience of fear is not purely negative but intimately connected with the hope for a better world, and hence that it harbors a utopian impulse that we can recover. Their works thus represent important historical correctives to the assumption that fear is an emotion that is politically empty for liberal democracy.

At the same time, however, what is at risk of being lost in Peckham and Kahan’s respective narratives is the initial historiographical insight that emotions are not reducible to their adaptive value for coping with existential problems. Although Peckham acknowledges that fear has a “social and cultural dimension” that is historically contingent and recognizes that the emotion is not merely a pre-reflective mental state but also a cognitive product of how our brains categorize our past experiences, he nevertheless defines it trans-historically as “a survival mechanism” that “shield[s] us from harm.” Similarly, while Kahan argues that the principal object of our fears has changed over the centuries, he assumes that our inclination to avoid that of which we are afraid has always informed liberal theory and practice, enabling individuals to identify and attempt to secure the conditions necessary for social and political freedom. Yet, regardless of whether it is conceived in primordial terms or as a form of politics, surely there is more to the history of fear than a teleological account of how it has served human purposes.

For Shklar, at least, the significance of fear rested on not so much the notion that it could act as an effective means of motivating political change or an uncontroversial guiding principle of liberalism as the fact that it made political life more difficult, not less. While she acknowledged that it was precisely a fear of concentrated political power that informed the theory of constitutional government elaborated by Montesquieu and subsequently the American Founding Fathers, Shklar also rejected the Machiavellian attempt to instrumentalize fear for political ends, sympathizing with Montaigne’s claim that “politics were far too chaotic and uncertain to be managed according to any plan.” Shklar insisted, moreover, that prioritizing the fear of cruelty as the basis of liberal politics “makes political action difficult beyond endurance, may cloud our judgment, and may reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy.” To this extent, the liberalism she defended could succeed only in spite of the political and psychological costs of fear.

For more content like this, check out our recent podcast discussing doomerism in today’s discourse by clicking here.

Learn more about our grassroots movement.