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FEAR by Corey Robin

FEAR

The History of a Political Idea

By Corey Robin

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-515702-8
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—and the uses to which the powers that be are putting that fear.

States and rulers have traded on fear since time immemorial; it has proven useful to them to have a body of subjects that is afraid of external enemies, the elements, and the rulers and states themselves. But there’s fear and then there’s fear, and Robin (Political Science/Brooklyn College) usefully distinguishes the collective fear of faraway danger from the fears “arising from the vertical conflicts and cleavages endemic to a society,” the “inequities of wealth, status, and power.” In other words, one can be afraid of the international communist conspiracy, say, while also being afraid of unemployment and poverty. Such fears, Robin writes, are very real, and he traces the views of classical political philosophers on such issues. He finds the work of Thomas Hobbes particularly germane to the discussion, for Hobbes’s Leviathan evokes a world of disorder, revolution, turmoil, and constant fear, succeeded by “quiet complacence and sober regard for family, business, locality, and self” once order is restored. As for the history of fear in our own country, Robin notes that what distinguished the 1950s from other times was not necessarily the fear of nuclear annihilation, though that was certainly a novelty, but the fear that resulted from an unprecedented level of political repression. “Fear,” he writes, didn’t destroy Cold War America: it tamed it,” only to dissolve into Hobbesean chaos with the ’60s. Provocatively, Robin examines the events surrounding 9/11 in light of the fear of both the terrorists and their targets: the Islamicists, he writes, were made anxious by “the loss of premodernity, the ruined solidarity of dead or dying traditions, the unscripted free-for-all of individualism.” And, of course, their actions raised new levels of fear. Robin foresees that more fear will follow: “not of radical Islam, but of the domestic rulers that fear has left behind.”

A worthy, if gloomy, contribution to the political-philosophical literature.