(Robin 2004) Fear

Robin, Corey. Fear: the history of a political idea. Oxford University Press; 2004.

Robin documents, and opposes, a pervasive tendency in political theory to valorize fear as a useful motivator toward constructive political action. He explores this favorable view of fear through the writings of four prominent political theorists from four successive centuries:

    • Hobbes (17th century), who saw the fear of death as a spur to social cooperation and a deterrent to antisocial adventurism;
    • Montesquieu (18th century), who used the specter of despotic terror to motivate a tolerant, pluralistic liberalism;
    • Tocqueville (19th century), for whom the free-floating, anomic anxieties of the masses were the driving force behind politics;
    • Arendt (20th century), who in The Origins of Totalitarianism attempted to base a new moral theory of politics on her analysis of the “total terror” of authoritarian mass movements.

Robin also expounds Arendt’s later theory of the “banality of evil”, set forth in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is more concordant with Robin’s alternative theory of political fear than with her own earlier theory. The later Arendt sees fear not as an incentive to constructive action but as an instrument of repression, making genocide possible when direct force alone could not have accomplished it. She also demystifies political fear, tracing it to specific actions taken by those in positions of power, for specific motives, usually careerist ambition.

In the second half of the book, Robin extends Arendt’s later theory to a general analysis of political fear as an instrument of repression, operative first and foremost through the private-sector workplace, that maintains hierarchical social structures of privilege, authority, and inequality. He cautions against any expectation that the specter of fear will act as a motivator for constructive action; for that, a positive vision of social justice is needed. Robin also warns that liberal political institutions (limited and separated governmental powers, social pluralism) cannot be relied upon to protect against political fear, and may even enhance it, a theme emphasized in the article “Fragmented state, pluralist society: how liberal institutions promote fear” (adapted from this book).



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