Harnessing Politics of Fear to Transform Today’s Market Economy

Ben Johnson observes, “Fear is implanted in us as a preservation from evil; but its duty, like that of other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it. It should not be suffered to tyrannize in the imagination, to raise phantoms of horror, or to beset life in supernumerary distresses.” We fear new because of the uncertainty it brings – we might lose what is associated with change. Our aversion to loss can even cause logic to fly out the window. Fear cannot be characterized solely as a socially constructed phenomenon, nor as the instinctual response to personally felt traumas. The growth and nature of fear must be studied as a process that develops under its own inertia, feeding off its antecedent past, and as a phenomenon that is shaped by and in turn shapes its institutional setting. Fear should be understood as both structurally determined and socially transformative.

Neoliberalism is an ideology of fear and insecurity that enslaves us all. In the 21st century the myth of the market hinges on the illusion of a supposedly natural order in the economic realm. Neoliberalism constructed a system that not only benefits the upper class but also effectively justifies this outcome – the political and social domination of the upper class are presented as normal outcomes of the functioning of the free market. To ensure the policy of minimal taxes and regulations remains unchanged, the oligarchs control what you think through proxies who control the information and communication supporting deregulation of the government and the environment, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. Through this mechanism they perpetuate the fear of change – if taxes are raised on the rich unemployment will rise and existing jobs will disappear.

Fearing strong state regulation that would be needed to address global warming, Big Oil and neoliberal think-tanks joined forces in the 1990s to peddle disinformation on the science of climate change. The fossil fuel industry in the US peddles fear of a weakening economy if environment regulations and responsibility are enforced. The plutocrats manipulate the media and control the politicians (in the present) to ensure messaging that creates fear of change to such ideas as turning to a system with emphasis on stability, social conscience and regulation. While the politicians remain silent on a solution, the corporations work overtime through proxies to defend trickle-down economics, claiming that without minimal government and less regulations, people should fear the ability of the system to create jobs and expand the economy. It falls to the general public to be the agents of change.

The problem is that the lens of fear distorts what you see. It focuses primarily on the negative, exaggerates the potentially threatening, filters out alternative views, and causes you to compromise your core values out of the urgent need to survive. Another notable difference today is that many people feel that they may have to confront threats on their own. As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding, less willing to take risks. These days, the measurable loss of faith in government combined with the difficulty of fighting terrorism has given the public less confidence that they will be kept safe. The narrative of fear presents a vision of a shrinking future, not a better one. This fear of losing what they already have is a source of stress. 

By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. Rising inequality has become the defining challenge of the century; it has profound implications for the health and resilience of democracies everywhere. Inequality – and the fears of social decline and exclusion it generates – feeds social polarization and the shrinking of a vital moderate center. Inequality is usually associated to an unequal distribution of resources and, therefore, it is related to the gap between the rich and the poor. It also relates to an unequal access to opportunities or benefits from economic activity. Inequality can lead to social tensions, discrimination, poverty traps, erosion of social capital, regional imbalances, and an unfair access to justice.

The neoliberal agenda is to undermine all these social goods in order to lower costs (that is, lower wages, benefits, and taxes) and to increase profits by pitting one country against another in a race to the bottom of the social ladder. Moreover, creating anxiety and uncertainty among employees, even ones at the highest level, is actually the point. Such anxiety and uncertainty hinder them from taking risks in participating fully in society as political actors. The same logic would apply to environmental, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers, consumers and the population at large. If you want your country to be competitive, it is best to keep such regulations to a minimum. The power of debt in neoliberalism represents a highly efficient mechanism of control and capture, more efficient than the modes of resistance put in place by the workers’ movement.

It is necessary to dismantle TINA (There Is No Alternative) – the main feature of neoliberalism enterprise – to undermine and displace the overwhelming ideology enabling the political power of the economic elite. This ideology is used to direct public policy (not only in the US but around the world) under the illusion it creates opportunities and frees individuals from control of the state. We now known this to be a sham. Neoliberalism must be replaced by social movements pressing for support of the working classes. The consequence of the structural domination of capital is alienation, loneliness, anxiety and isolation. We must recognize that neoliberal policies structure the interests of capital, not the people, and the state is necessary to establish and enforce rules by which markets operate. It is necessary to limit this powerlessness by acting in solidarity through unions, social movements and election campaigns.1

Populist economic policy claims to design policies for people who fear losing status in society, and those who believe they have been abandoned by the political establishment. The populist economic agenda focuses on single and salient political issues, over emphasizes negative aspects of international economic exchange and immigration, and/or blames foreigners or international institutions for economic difficulties. Populists exploit racist myths and stereotypes to instill fear in working-class who have genuine economic problems. Donald Trump was elected on a wave of anti-establishment fervor in the wake of increasing inequality, the anger he could exploit and deflect toward the easiest and most vulnerable target: immigrants. Trump’s agenda has intensified the neoliberal dismantling of the remnants of social democracy. By sabotaging federal agencies, the ongoing deregulation of the economy, further privatization, and the further enrichment of the power elite, Trump is teaching us the value of institutions, and has unwittingly mobilized broad sectors of the population into resistance.

Last time it was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump. However, each election cycle offers an opportunity to turn back the neoliberal project. Some of the 2020 Democratic candidates can be part of this solution. The reason why Bernie Sanders is so threatening to neoliberalism is that he has articulated a conception of the state, civil society, and the self that is not founded in the efficacy and rationality of the market. Kamala Harris has been critical of the Trump economy, saying that while unemployment is low, there are still many American families struggling to stay afloat and that the economy “is not working for working people.” Elizabeth Warren actually has ideas: a plan for housing affordability, for child care affordability, and for student debt; a plan to end the scandal of highly profitable corporations paying no federal taxes, and pay for changes with tax on the top 0.1%.

It is necessary to harness the politics of fear to create transformation. Transformation is an internal fundamental change in your beliefs of why you perform certain actions. It modifies values and desires. We need to replace individualism of neoliberalism with a new common sense based in a sense of we, with its understanding of our interdependence and collective agenda. Transformation is an assertion that our actions today create our future tomorrow. The future is about closing the common goods gap that will be realized by freeing ourselves from constraints of the neoliberal project. The new system is about not being afraid to implement an agenda that spells the end of neoliberal dominance. In the US this means enacting policies that support access to health care for everyone, subsidizing the college system, and ousting the private-prison industry from the justice system. A butterfly is a transformation, not a better caterpillar.

1 Kurt Cobb. (15 Jan 2017) Neoliberals know the price of everything and the value of nothing. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-01-15/neoliberals-know-the-price-of-everything-and-the-value-of-nothing/

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