TMST – Frank Furedi

Extracts from Frank Furedi essay about the politics of fear:

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. They were not preoccupied with fear as a problem in an abstract sense.

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’ is rarely focused on something specific, but tends to express a diffuse sense of powerlessness.

It is really about losing power over other people, the state, nature,…

The defining feature is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence. The line that used to delineate reality from science fiction has become blurred. So government officials have looked into the alleged threat posed by killer asteroids to human survival; some scientists warn that an influenza pandemic is around the corner; others claim that ‘time is running out’ for the human race unless we do something about global warming. ‘The end is nigh’ is no longer a warning issued by religious fanatics; rather, scaremongering is represented as the act of a concerned and responsible citizen.

(scaremongering = Angstmache)

Fear is rarely about anything specific – it is about everything. The culture of fear is underpinned by a profound sense of powerlessness, a diminished sense of agency that leads people to turn themselves into passive subjects who can only complain that ‘we are frightened’.


Politics has internalised the culture of fear. So political disagreements are often over which risk the public should worry about the most.

And his conclusion:

Perhaps the distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation of fear, but the cultivation of vulnerability. In an era where children, women, the elderly, the infirm and the poor – around 80 to 90 per cent of the population of the Western World – are routinely discussed as ‘vulnerable groups’, there is little need for an omnipotent state to remind us of our lack of power. When most forms of human experience come with a health warning, we are continually reminded that we cannot be expected to manage everyday risks. And if vulnerability is the defining feature of the human condition, we are quite entitled to fear everything.

First published on spiked, 28 October 2004


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