Existentialist thinkers have described the 20th century as the age of anxiety and despair. The existential crisis that leads the individual to question whether life has meaning, purpose or value as priests and theologians insist did not emerge out of the blue because middle class European intellectuals were bored and felt a sense of void in their life, but in a historical context owing to developments in society and where it was headed.
The study of existentialist anxiety and despair appeared largely because the Enlightenment-based rationalist order on which Western civilization was based collapsed after the First World War. What followed the rest of the century, from the Great Depression to WWII, Vietnam and Cold War proved very destructive in history. Literature and poetry, art and sculpture, philosophy and psychology reflect this existentialist theme of the 20th century that lingers into the 21st century, but at more intense levels owing to the globalization of a culture of fear that the political, religious, social, cultural, and economic elites cultivate.
Some scholars have characterized the first two decades of our century as the age of paranoia rooted in fear of just about everything from street crime to fear of immigrants that neo-Nazis and right wing xenophobes target throughout the Western World because they need a scapegoat for complex problems confronting society. Not just in the 21st century, but throughout history in different societies under various regimes through secular and religious institutions the culture of fear was a tool that the secular and religious elites and government used to maintain social conformity and loyalty of the masses.
In our contemporary times, partly because of the 9/11 tragedy, partly because shock-oriented media and entertainment have conditioned the public, the result is inordinate fear on a mass scale. This has become a cultural phenomenon and part of the value system that has spread beyond the US and influenced other parts of the world, some reacting in sympathy others against, all with the culture of fear at the core. The culture of fear is especially strong in the US after Truman launched the Cold War in 1947 (Truman Doctrine). After the fall of the Communist bloc, the US replaced the Cold War with “war on terror”, constantly reinforcing it with new militarist adventures without ever addressing the roots causes of Islamic militancy.
Besides the US, the UK, continental Europe, Australia, and other developed and developing countries that follow in the path of “anti-terror politics” fall into a similar pattern as American society and with surprisingly similar results. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski candidly acknowledged that the US “war on terror” was deliberately chosen to reinforce a culture of fear because "it obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue". This is an interesting observation from the man responsible for influencing US foreign policy toward a more hawkish orientation after the Iran and Nicaraguan revolutions of 1979. Nevertheless to say, because such analysis does not come from the Kremlin but from a former NSA official, it carries a great deal of weight.
The US-led global anti-terror campaign created “Islamophobia” at the core of the culture of fear now globalized with all its consequences of instability in the Middle East and Africa. In 2014, we have proliferation among militant Islamists who see unconventional war until death the way to fight the evil conventional forces of Western governments and their Middle East allies. If the war on terror had actually reduced instead of increased both the number of jihadists while lessening the culture of fear, then one could argue that it was worth the sacrifice of human rights and civil rights, of democracy and social justice. However, the war on terror has actually strengthened jihadists, while heightening Islamophobia and the culture of fear, leading to the conclusion that this was the goal after all.
At the same time, the ratings-hungry corporate-owned media in the US and throughout the world reinforces the culture of fear and places fear-mongering front and center in headlines. The eight years of the Bush administration are at the root of the new culture of fear that has intensified according to public opinion polls rather than diminished. When Obama became president there was the promise and hope of a new orientation away from fear mongering for political purposes. Progressive American voters and people throughout the world cheered that the Bush decade of fear was over and at last a president committed to put an end to military solutions to political problems.
However, it became clear that Obama pursued a multilateral foreign policy at a very superficial public relations level. The institutional structure – Homeland Security, “war on terror” unilateral foreign policy, and police-state methods that override all civil rights and human rights – remain in place in a country that calls itself a ‘democracy’ and committed to spreading its values, rather than its imperialism throughout the world.
While one expect a culture of fear in North Korea and a sociopolitical climate of tolerance and openness in the US and the US, fear is becoming stronger in the Western countries that pride themselves for promoting freedom and democracy. Americans and Europeans are more afraid today than they were right after 9/11. According to one poll, only 20-40% of Americans were immersed in fear one year after 9/11, while in 2014 the fear factor ranges from 47% -65%. It is ironic that the wealthiest country in the world is terrified by a culture of fear that the media, both conservative and liberal, reinforces. This is largely because the elites have succeeded conditioning the majority of population and the end result is an inward-looking population afraid to question the existing social order and political regime.
Rooted in fear of Communism during the Cold War and more recently in Islamophobia, US foreign policy reverberates across society and the world by inadvertently promoting intolerance toward those of different race and ethnicity and political, ideological, religious and cultural orientations. While the mass psychology of fear may appear counterproductive to those advocating pluralism, democracy, equality, social justice and creativity as core values in society, as far as the political, social and economic elites are concerned the culture of fear helps to engender conformity at all levels and helps to maintain loyalty to the existing social order and political economy that strengthens the hierarchical structure.
There have always been epochs characterized by inordinate societal fear imbedded in the dominant culture that the political, military, socioeconomic and religious elites used to exert greater control. This was certainly during the Holy Inquisition that began in the 12th century and it went through the era of the Black Death (14th and 15th century). The Inquisition and Black Death accounted for dictatorial rule, reinforcing the culture of fear which both the upper clergy and the nobility exploited to amass a great deal of property and wealth.
For one thousand years in the Middle Ages the Lords and Bishops used the fear of God to keep the serfs and peasants in conformity with a tyrannical system. Clearly, religion offered a reward of securing a place in Paradise for those devoted solely to a spiritual life and did not defy Church or state. When religious dogma did not work, there was the secular mechanism – local courts influenced by the church – and the Holy Inquisitions after the Crusades, and later the madness of witch hunts, all driving the fear of spiritual and earthly authority into the hearts and minds of the faithful.
The French Revolution, which itself produced fear of radical elements under the “Reign of Terror” (Sept./1793-July/1794), was the major political movement to question the foundations of a civilization where the culture of fear in church and state was a catalyst. There was certainly enormous fear on the part of Europeans after the Great War because the foundations of their civilization along with their economies were collapsing. As if the fear of the decline of the West as Oswald Spengler called it was not enough, the Great Depression dealt an economic, social and political blow.
After the Second World War that devastated Europe completely and represented the ultimate form of fear and anxiety, it was followed by the political-ideological Cold War rooted in the US-Soviet confrontation and competition for global influence. In the West, the saying was “better dead than Red”, while in the East, people feared and dreaded the imperialist, militaristic and decadent West. In short, the first half of the 20th century was nothing but reinforcement of a culture of fear that political regimes and socioeconomic elites had created, as much in the West as in the East.
The eminent scholar Geoffrey Barraclough speculated that the revolt by the East against the West would define the second half of the 20th century. This was a logical observation, considering that the West had imposed imperialism on the East since the Commercial Revolution, and considering that the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions were shaking the foundations of the Western imperialist order that found itself in internal contradictions as the two global wars revealed.
Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order) had an updated version of Barraclough’s theme with a Muslim centered focus in the 1990s. In the last years of his career, Huntington became increasingly aware that the West was fundamentally caught in the contradictions imperialism. As far as the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America were concerned, the West was not a force of world stability but instability and disorder. Like many before and after him, Huntington recognized the inherent contradiction of democracy and imperialism and this is one reason that some of his positions were immersed in ambiguity.
It is unambiguous, however, to maintain democratic institutions at home on the basis of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, namely, supporting authoritarianism around the world because it maintains the imperial status quo. Not only does American “democracy” have no resemblance with the progressive social democracy of Norway, but the quasi-police state society of today does not resemble Jefferson’s democracy or FDR’s for that matter. While we do know how the US will evolve politically by the middle or end of the 21st century when China will be the preeminent economic power, we can speculate from the current trends that the orientation is toward more consumerist pluralism accompanied by greater direction toward police state methods intended to engender social conformity.
The US-led “war on terror” which replaced the Cold War has inflamed the passions of the East against the West, even among those who have nothing to do with radical Islam but who see US “war on terror” as a pretext to continue the same hegemonic policies of the Cold War. Using the ideological veils of anti-Communist and anti-Jihadist campaigns on a global basis entails that there are domestic consequences which include conformity not just to a foreign policy regime, but institutional conformity across the board.
Many are amazed that the middle class and many workers in the West not just tolerate, but support enthusiastically a world order rooted in veiled imperialism with domestic reverberations.
Although the Cold War and the anti-terror campaign backfire economically because of the diversion of funds from the civilian economy to the defense/intelligence sectors, the culture of fear keeps the masses docile if not loyal to the institutional system. People forget how the Red Scare, the blacklisting of creative people ruined not just the lives and families of those involved but deprived society of the potential creative contributions of such people. All of this was carried out so that the culture of fear may prevail by demonizing the political enemy and sanctifying the enemy’s enemy. This was a new crusade and a struggle between good and evil, Armageddon of biblical proportions rather than a confrontation between different political, ideological, and socioeconomic systems.
Naturally, there was a cost associated with the Cold War as there is with the war on terror. Combined with a shift from social welfare and labor protection to a regime of corporate welfare, the cost of the war on terror has been the erosion of privileges the middle class once enjoyed not just loss of upward mobility for their children, but erosion in every respect including democracy. How do the middle and working classes of the West keep to loyal to a global order rooted in imperialism and a domestic political economy oblivious to the needs of all people and to social justice?
Governed largely by irrational tendencies yield to fear, human beings yield to fear. This is exactly what the state and other institutions, especially religious, have used for centuries and they continue to do so, focusing mostly on determinism, if not fatalism on the part of the majority that benefit marginally or not all from the institutional structure. In all religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam included, there is a sense of fatalism at the core because man cannot possibly comprehend God’s grand plan of which man is but a small part. It is this unscientific mode of thinking that the state and institutions use to keep the masses in conformity.
How do people conform to the institutional structure, even under conditions when the status quo is overwhelmingly working against their best interests, and in some cases detrimental? It is very difficult to have people accept their own exploitation and it takes a great deal of work and skill on the part of the political, religious, and socioeconomic elites. It is not easy convincing people that it is for their own good to have low wages and fewer benefits, unaffordable health care, unaffordable college for their children, unaffordable elderly care, and constant raising of the age of retirement and work hours. It is not easy to convince people that poverty is a blessing of the Lord for the masses, but a status symbol for the top ten percent of the stockholder-citizens for whose benefit the state exists. It is not easy convincing people that it is “fair and just” to transfer income from the lower and middle classes through the fiscal system for the benefit of the top income earners.
It is amazingly difficult to convince people that it is good for them to have institutionally-induced inequality created to make a small percentage privileged and the majority lesser citizens. Why do people accept that if a regime rooted in social justice comes to power it would be monstrous, while the existing elitist one has God’s blessing? To achieve the goal of brainwashing the public, the state and the institutional structure, from media to educational institutions, must perpetually keep the population conditioned that there is no alternative to the status quo, that the enemy is out there waiting to destroy like Satan lurking to snatch your soul, that societal institutions must remain static because only then can there be safety and security.
People instinctively realize that life itself is not static but dynamic, that change is natural as the laws of physics dictate. The contradiction arises because of the realization that change is part of the laws of physics, while the political and socioeconomic elites do not permit change in society. While some argue that it is possible to apply scientific laws in society as they exist in nature, the majority immersed in the culture of fear are looking for scapegoats, for enemies to hate and destroy. There is a sense of emotional satisfaction that a segment of the population derives by knowing there are enemies out there to combat and destroy; as sociopathic and even psychotic as it may sound that people, especially elites are in perpetual search of enemies to eliminate.
During the Age of Reason or Enlightenment there was optimism that a better society was possible for the benefit of all people and not just a small minority. Because human beings are basically rational, according to John Locke and those who promoted rationalism in the 18th century, they conform realizing the rewards of living in an organized society where the state is like management of a company and citizens the stockholders. This sounds great, except that in society as in a corporation, not everyone is a stockholder to derive the benefits of a constitutional, legal and political system set up for them. Influenced by 17th century Dutch capitalism, Locke had in mind owners of property when he argued that the “people” must make the laws.
If the state is the representative of stockholder-citizens, this necessarily means that the non-stockholders are the subjects of exploitation by those for whose benefit the state has been established. Regardless of what rhetoric promises, the non-stockholder citizens experience on a daily basis the absence of social justice. The exploited non-stockholder citizenry have always done everything to survive within the existing unjust system. A segment of the population breaks the laws established to protect life and property of the stockholders. Another segment dreams of rebelling to bring a new system that would include those outside the mainstream. The state makes certain that those defying the system are punished. The state does not rely only on punishment but also on mass psychology of fear that becomes an integral part of the culture and thus accepted as “natural” and people have been conditioned into docile mode to defy it.
From the end of WWII until the present, the state has used everything from traditional institutions like religion, schools, police, and courts to engender conformity to the existing system serving primarily but not exclusively the interests of the socioeconomic and political elites that are a mere minority in society. However, because the use of force is expensive and not always very effective inculcating mass conformity into the public, modern propaganda through the use of the media, and recently social media, as well as civil society organizations have become the new tools of imposing conformity.
Is the culture of fear and persistence of the status quo consistent with a dynamic pluralistic society, one that claims to be democratic? Can such a society flourish and best serve its citizens, make a contribution to the world, or does it hinder the progress of the majority so it can continue catering to the small percentage of the wealthy and at a great cost to the larger world community? If this is the case, then what does it reveal about human nature that there such wide acceptance of such a system? It is true that legitimacy and social acceptance comes from authority and people accept the culture of fear as part of the institutional system as though it were their own rooted in their beliefs, although it is manufactured by and for the elites.
According to Erich Fromm, conformity is the result of people unconsciously embracing societal beliefs and modes of thinking as their own, thus deluding themselves that they are thinking for themselves when in fact they avoid doing so largely because of the anxiety-provoking elements in free thought. One could also argue that people are in fact intellectually lazy and yield to authority because they believe it is more comfortable and safe to conform than to question. Moreover, the individual’s identity with a larger entity, such as church, nation, political party, place of employment, favorite ball club, etc. affords a sense of timelessness and community lacking in the age of mass politics and alienation.
Because the individual internalizes the culture of fear as her/his own, the institutional structure can claim that if the individual has a problem with fear it is a psychological problem to be treated with therapy and medication. In the age of atomism, in the age of “selfies” that corporations have commercialized to sell everything from cell phones to insurance policies, the individual is conditioned to accept the societal culture of fear as her/his personal culture. This actually serves the purpose of distancing the individual from any sense of collectivist mindset, or even communitarian outside the framework of specific loyalty to nation-state and religious affiliation. Atomism is constantly what the mainstream institutions, secular and religious cultivate thus suppressing any collectivist tendencies of the individual with a sense of responsibility to all of humanity.
Fear mongering and reinforcement of the culture of fear retards and distorts community solidarity and class consciousness so that the elites remain safe and secure in their privileged positions. Considering that those who are part of the privileged political, economic and social elites are eager to retain their privileges in society, they use any political, legal, and other means at their disposal including mass propaganda that the existing order is “natural” and must be maintained without any changes for it would disturb the balance in society. This implied psychological warfare unleashed on the masses works for the vast majority who are motivated by fear and want to preserve whatever little role they have in their private universe. Preserving the status quo then becomes a top-down process where the masses that have everything to lose and nothing to gain by advocating conservatism find themselves defending the establishment benefiting the elites. In the absence of opportunistic and careerist journalist, intellectuals, lawyers, consultants, clergy, and a host of others that personally make a career advocating anything and everything surrounding the preservation of the status quo, it would not be possible to accomplish the goal of mass indoctrination.
We have known or a number of years that fear is also a determining factor in political and ideological orientation. Based on brain detection research, conservatives are much more prone to fear and lower cognitive ability than liberals and progressives. The propensity toward a defensive, status quo mode of thought is actually in part biologically based, as we have evidence that the lower IQ of conservatives follows a pattern of fear-based behavior, while the higher IQ of progressives is more accepting of risk and change and absence of fear arising from new circumstances in the environment.
American and European scientists have confirmed that the brain of conservatives loathes cognitive complexity. It is not surprising that conservatives and extreme right wingers prefer simplistic stereotypical explanations of complex issues ranging from foreign affairs and immigration policy to fiscal and social policy. One reason for this is the emotional satisfaction they derive vilifying the other, “having an enemy to hate” rather than trying to deal with ambiguities that present themselves in various issues.
Commercializing fear for political reasons works to the advantage of a political system that projects the image of equal representation for all people when in essence it represents the political economy of corporate welfare capitalism that benefits the owners of capital with derivative benefits for the professional and managerial class. The odd thing is that government, media, businesses, schools, and social institutions present the status quo as “natural” as the law of gravity. We ought not to be surprised by this because the Confucian Chinese intelligentsia for two thousand years believed the status quo was natural. In the 19th century, the British believed the Empire was natural. In the 20th century, the South African whites believed apartheid was natural.
Psychologists maintain that there is a link between fear and aggression, though the former does not necessarily lead to the latter and the degree of both fear and aggression make a difference as much in the individual as within the cultural milieu. At the same time, researchers confirm that those with inordinate fear or living in a culture of fear have a propensity toward intolerance and dogmatism as well as aversion to risk and uncertainty. Therefore, conservatism best serves their psychological needs, no matter how they may justify their positions ideologically and/or politically.
Because most people have been conditioned into the dichotomy of good and evil, forces eternally opposed to each other, the culture of fear plays into this ethical framework already established in the minds of the masses. Fear of terrorism, economic recessions, crime, nuclear accidents, regional wars, epidemics, xenophobia, lawsuits, loss of job and/or income, loss of home, physical and mental capacity, and status in community are some of the phobias that overwhelm people, many of them on medication for such phobias. What does all of this reveal about the overmedicated culture of fear in Western civilization and whose interest does this serve?
People are so ‘over-lawyered up’ and over-insured because of fear of just about everything. The culture of fear helps to keep the insurance companies and lawyers happy but it keeps society on edge. In a culture of fear that the political regime, businesses, entertainment (movies and video games), and media promote it is difficult to escape fear as a societal phenomenon and even more difficult to be free of fear of everyone in authority to the innocuous neighbor. Because fear becomes part of everyday life, the individual is no longer free to think for herself/himself but prefers robotic submissiveness to keep any possible harm away.
Robotic submissiveness is exactly what the guardians of the status quo want rather than free thinking individuals with a will of their own. Once we have a lock on robotic submissiveness in mass politics we no longer have democracy but a form of authoritarianism trying very hard to present itself as democracy. Just as tragic, the culture of fear intended to keep the masses docile results in stifling of creativity, allowing creative expression only within the existing commercial framework and nothing outside it or against it, no different than a totalitarian society of the 1930s. Therefore, the victims of the culture of fear are not just the individuals whose creative potential is stifled, but the open democratic society as representative of all people and not just the political and socioeconomic elites.
Right wing populism that is highly organized and commercialized in the US and a number of European and other countries has contributed to the culture of fear. One of the many studies on this topic, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right by Arthur Goldwag analyzes fear mongering by the populist right wing in the US. The situation is not very different in Europe where neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi parties have been gaining strength, largely because democratic institutions promise to serve the middle class and workers but in reality serve the socioeconomic elites.
However, there is not much distance between the extreme right wing one the hand, and the conservatives and neoliberals are on the other. To promote their brand of political economy that caters to a small percentage of the rich, the conservatives and neoliberals use the culture of fear as ruthlessly as neo-Nazis, warning the masses that there is no alternative to a political economy that widens the gap between rich and poor, leaves behind minorities and ignores social justice. The convergence of elitist views between the traditional conservatives and neoliberals on one side, and the far right wing fear mongering has strengthened the culture of fear to keep the elites safely in power.
As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, it is highly likely that elites will always be a part of society. This means that there will never be a utopian society where equality and social justice prevail. However, this does not mean that human beings must necessarily yield to fatalism and stop struggling for social justice. Taking office amid the Great Depression, FDR in his first inaugural address said to the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Coming from a wealthy family, FDR knew very well that market distortions and excesses created the economic depression. It would take a series of bold political decisions to undo the disaster of the political economy.
He could have argued that the depression was natural and people must wait until the economy recovers based on the forces of the same market that created the deep contraction. Setting aside fatalism and the powerful business and political forces of conservatism that warned of FDR leading the country toward Communism, he pressed ahead to save the system that fear mongers had crippled. FDR fought against the culture of fear that Republicans and large businesses had been cultivating in order to save capitalism not to destroy it as critics charged.
The persistence of the Age of Anxiety that started in the interwar era and has evolved in a culture of fear and paranoia best serves the ideology of the status quo that develops inherent contradictions leading to its decline and ultimate destruction. In the absence of the culture of fear, there could not have been a strong military-industrial complex in the US or a military-based economy in the USSR. Although exorbitant defense spending led to the fall of the Soviet Union, and it has contributed to the burgeoning US public debt, there is a large percentage rooted in the culture of fear that supports the continued militarization, even if it means ultimate economic ruin. That same percentage of people backing militarization, support rigid law enforcement targeting minorities and the poor, they are adamantly opposition to immigration from non-white areas of the world, and support gun ownership despite the violence generated.
Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia, and varieties of military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the last once hundred years have ruled with the culture of fear at the core of their societies. With the advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the culture of fear became internationalized. Similarly, in the early 21st century, the US has globalized the culture of fear based on Islamophobia. Not only does this retard progress and the human potential for creative endeavors and freedom to live in harmony and social justice at home, but the entire world is infected by the virus of this culture whose goal is exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.
The cost for such conditions is and will be social instability, contributing to existing fears and paranoia on the part of majority indoctrinated into this culture that personalize an external situation. All of this is justified because progress is defined by the invention of new devices such as cell phones, I-pads, laptops, videogames, and techno devices that have substituted direct contact with human beings and human compassion that goes with it. As long as there is progress in technology, science and industry, the political economic and social elites justify maintaining the status quo because they define progress on the basis of such progress rather than on the basis of social justice. Atomistic tendencies go hand in hand with the age of materialism in which the individual consumer is valued far above the citizen, the billionaire valued far above the humanitarian doctor working with the poor in sub-Sahara Africa, the famous movie star far above the soup kitchen volunteer. These values are constantly reinforced in everything from mass media to schools, popular books, and motions pictures that make up the dominant culture.
Is there a solution to the culture of fear that has been imposed top down and it is perpetually forced on the masses from politicians, generals, defense lobbyists, journalists, consultants, and corporations? The first step is to research and understand what forces produce the culture of fear and for what reasons. The second step is to accept that solutions cannot possibly be imposed by the elites to the masses, but can come from the grassroots level. This means that people must reject the internalization of this culture that is externally imposed to maintain a docile population conforming to an institutional structure catering to the elites while the rest of humanity pays the price.
Self-awareness is important but so is collective action from the neighborhood up because society changes from the bottom up. The use of the web and various social networks make it possible to communicate with people across the street and across the world to pass on the message about fighting against the culture of fear that accounts for the absence of social justice. Nothing is going to change overnight, probably not in a century or more because the culture of fear has been with the human race for many centuries. However, if people begin to take steps for themselves this would be a form of defiance to the culture of fear that works to the detriment of the individual and society. As much as I agree with those who feel there will probably always be elites, fatalism, resignation, postponing action for rewards in afterlife, etc. are reasons for the success of the culture of fear.