Ministries of Fear

James Butler

Fear of a Corbyn government stalks the Tory leadership race. Each candidate has claimed he alone possesses the necessary quality to defeat the red menace: Gove points to his gyrating denunciations at the despatch box; Johnson’s proxies emphasise his anti-politician charisma. The closer a candidate comes to elimination, the more obvious the recourse to fear and the more outlandish the claims made in its service: Sajid Javid, now out of the race, said on Monday that a Corbyn government would put Tories and journalists ‘against the wall’. There is some strategic wisdom to this, since a recent YouGov poll suggests that Corbynphobia is the only animating passion equal to Brexitphilia among Tory party members. A majority would accept the disintegration of both the UK and the Conservative Party for the sake of leaving the EU, but would tolerate remaining in Europe as a way to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

Fear can rally the faithful and suppress internal splits, as it once did for conservative parties in Europe faced with a communist threat. ‘No socialist system can be established without a political police,’ Churchill thundered before the 1945 election; a Labour government ‘would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo’. But it can also backfire: Churchill’s defeat suggests that fear as an electoral tactic has to be vaguely plausible; no one really believed that Attlee had a cupboard full of jackboots. Attempts to show Corbyn in a totalitarian light have usually crumbled on contact with the allotment-tending, jam-making reality.

The left, too, has tried to co-opt the rhetoric of fear, with mixed results. ‘If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday,’ Neil Kinnock said in 1983, ‘I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old.’ Thatcher won by a landslide.

The Remain campaign in 2016 was dismissed by its opponents as ‘Project Fear’; but it was the Leavers who appealed to voters’ basest fears, not least in Ukip’s infamous anti-immigration poster that showed a queue of brown faces and, in blaring red capital letters, the words ‘breaking point’.

Marilynne Robinson trained her Calvinist lens on America’s political body in 2015 and found it shot through with fear, contradicting the country’s loudly proclaimed Christianity: ‘fear is not a Christian habit of mind,’ she wrote. There have been several other recent studies of fear, and in most of them it plays an epiphenomenal role, nestling alongside rage as a private, psychological or biological outgrowth of political dispossession, economic privation or psychic injury. Though often bolstered by modern neuroscience or psychology, these accounts belong to a long liberal tradition of seeing fear as the antithesis of reason, and therefore of democratic civilisation, mutilating polity and citizen alike.

It’s hard to argue with this position in itself – no one likes being afraid; the roots of fear are often economic; and most of us have occasionally been moved by fear to cling to falsehood or illusion – but it is incomplete. If fear is seen as entering the democratic state through a gap created by unequal distribution, lack of justice, or the rise of an anti-democratic demagogue, then it must come from somewhere outside politics. But Hobbes was closer to the mark when he argued that fear is the force that drives human beings into political association in the first place.

Throughout his work, Hobbes is troubled by the fragility of political institutions: his famous account of the state of nature is not only (as it is sometimes sketched) a suggestion that at some point in the distant past, life was ‘solitary, poor’ etc, but that such a state is latent in our political life and we are always at risk of returning to it.

Hobbes believed that fear is not the cancellation of reason but a form or consequence of thought. Fearful people do not abandon thought in anxious and cringing isolation, but make calculations about their own survival and what they would give up – dreams of equality, for instance, or claims of right, or self-determination – in order to secure it. Fear produces a kind of thinking particularly amenable to social stasis. Anyone who has silently accepted indignity or exploitation at work for fear of losing a wage will be familiar with this kind of calculation.

‘Neither the fear of the gods, nor laws of men, awed any man,’ Hobbes wrote in his translation of Thucydides, describing Athens’ descent into lawlessness in time of plague. The Greek word ἀπεῖργε is more often translated as ‘held back’ or ‘restrained’. But Hobbes’s choice of ‘awed’ is in keeping with his sense of the theatricality of the state. Stupefaction, overwhelming display, spectacle: for Hobbes, these weren’t signs of power’s secret inner weakness, but intrinsic parts of its operation. In our age of permanent connectedness and media saturation, when politics is largely conducted through images, this is more not less true.

A disciple of fear and theorist of absolutism, terrified of civil war and collapse, Hobbes may seem a world away from our comparatively placid politics. In the modern British state, fear is dispersed through the buffers of impersonal departments and agencies. It comes in a brown envelope announcing a new reduction in your benefits or an increase in your rent, or keeps you awake at night working out how many meals you will have to miss yourself this week in order to feed your children. It is low-grade and constant, but Hobbes shows that it is also intentional: fear produces biddable citizens. Any prospect for broader change must somehow dissipate that fear; it must also reckon with Hobbes’s insight that political institutions are more fragile than they seem, though their wreckers are more likely to come from the ranks of the wealthy than the insurgent rabble he feared.

The problems of the 21st century – the death-grip of the hydrocarbon industry, resource scarcity, unprecedented migration, powerful surveillance technologies – can be woven to a Hobbesian pattern. Fearful thinking, deliberately constructed and maintained, is the pillar on which unjust futures will be built. It’s already the justification for the internment camps at the US border and mass drownings in the Mediterranean. Recognising this is a small step towards asserting the possibility that things could be otherwise – but there will be more fear along the way.


  • 20 June 2019 at 5:26pm
    freshborn says:
    "The Remain campaign in 2016 was dismissed by its opponents as ‘Project Fear’; but it was the Leavers who appealed to voters’ basest fears [...]"

    Rather missing the point of that dismissal. It is self-evident that the campaign to leave the EU was negative. The campaign to stay in the EU, one would hope, would be positive and focus on the good parts of the EU, should there be any. The central argument of the campaign, regarding the economy, could easily have been phrased positively, or at least without such hysteria. The arguments about the difficulty of leaving the EU could only inspire abstention. And then the third argument, that everybody who wants out must be racist, ignorant, or deceived.

    You're actually repeating the mistake in this very paragraph: 'Think our arguments are weak and negative? Well theirs are even worse!'

  • 21 June 2019 at 4:52pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Fear of Farage stalks the leadership race, not of Corbyn. Farage is the opposition, not Labour.

  • 25 June 2019 at 12:14am
    Eddie says:
    Good article but of course Kinnock was speaking in 1987 not 1983, when Michael Foot was Labour leader.

  • 25 June 2019 at 2:38pm
    XopherO says:
    Perhaps one of the most depressing and frightening uses of the cultivation of fear has been in Israel. Netanyahu has been a master at this, such that today few Israeli Jews protest the injustices perpetrated on Israeli non-Jews or the horrors inflicted on the Palestinians. And he has some of the nastier demagogues admiring his tactics - walls anyone? And the left is all but dead - scared off. A very thought-provoking blog. I should have taken more interest in Hobbes.