an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, January - June 2012, ISSN 1552-5112



      Breaking the Spiral of Fear


James Block


Anglo-American liberalism, the precursor to global neoliberalism, has long evaded its origins in fear.  To be sure, as one of the primary world-views propelling modernization in Euro-America, it carved out a novel and empowering institutional role for the individual as well as far greater scope for self-direction in the shaping of personal and private lives.  But this dramatically enhanced individuality came at a significant cost:  the profound anxieties attending civil orderliness and normative cohesion within a society of self-pronounced individuals (or what we now routinely call ‘individualism), sometimes referred to as ‘the herding of cats,’ was only possible for early liberals by ensuring that citizens – despite the rhetoric of liberty – acted consistently in predictable ways.


Absent the high road of a universal transcendent faith, undermined by the Reformation which made modern liberalism possible (hence precluding all subsequent talk of the high road or moral consensus), the successful accomplishment of this project left only the low road of fear.  Beginning with Hobbes, the founder of liberalism, fear was understood as necessary to motivate the unification of individuality and social compliance.  As he powerfully recognized, actions undertaken out of fear can be considered for the self-interest of the subject – so long as there is no visible force perpetrating that fear for the purpose of manipulation. 


For liberal society, then, fear can – indeed, must – be promoted as the motive for adaptation, as long as society’s own role as source of that fear is hidden or disguised.  To the extent the individual is led to regard the threat to arise from natural dangers or internal anxieties, the processes of social control are let off the hook as bystanders, or in the best case even viewed as protector against that threat.  Think of hurricanes, but also of the security state’s exuberant defense against the ‘outsiders’ it has identified and whose policies it has created as it establishes beachheads for safety in the cities, on the borders, around the globe.  Thus, when political observers suggest that “the brain we use to grapple with financial risks is the same brain we use to decide which threats to life and limb are worth worrying about,” the message is that the widespread insecurity caused by fiscal bubbles and meltdowns and forces that control the economy generally cannot be challenged as a strategy for generating a docile and reactionary citizenry but should be accepted as beyond human control.[1]


Hobbes’ genius in his social contract theory was to identify the threat in the modern world as the very emergence of individualism itself, and the liberal polity as the guarantor of order and security.  As individuals claimed the right to forge their own meaning and authority, they were undermining the traditional social, economic, political, religious and domestic order beyond restoration.  By identifying the new individualism as both inevitable and dangerous, individuals were to turn their fear of modernity toward their own threat.  In this way, Hobbes conscripted the liberal citizen to save society from unregulated individualism, that is, from him or her self.  The mechanisms of collective coercion would no longer be visible, but rather embedded in society’s new role as guide and tutor assisting the individual in the control and repression of its own internal dangers to the society.  By orienting the citizen through the socialization process to the presence and intensity of his or her own rebellious and deviant wishes, individuals could be taught that their primary responsibility to social order was in shaping oneself as an orderly liberal citizen capable of subduing their own errant natures. 


This strategic shaping of the liberal citizen was brilliantly carried forward by subsequent liberals.  Locke identified the mechanisms for implementing the lessons of self-control through his detailed advice on child rearing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  Employing terror to generate the expectations of social compliance within the vulnerable young, Locke was about to convince them that social adaptation was their own choice and individuality the capacity to direct one’s own social integration.  In this way, Locke noted, the freedom of choosing one’s own path and social propriety are easily reconciled.  Adam Smith completed the shaping process by rooting maturation with the internalization of what he called the ‘internal spectator.’  By emphasizing the fear of social isolation and marginalization, individuals shall willingly taken into themselves the social judgments of value and meaning, and exercise those values as if their own.  Constantly observed and judged by this internal super-ego presence, the inclination toward compliance and conformity would be entirely attributable to one’s own wish to comply. 


These demands for internalizing and enacting the demands for self-repressive adaptation were discursively veiled by the liberal rhetoric of natural sociability, natural exchange, and political stability through natural consent, that is, individuals who naturally wanted to be obedient citizens.  Taught that their deepest urge was toward voluntary integration, individuals learned that they would willingly participate in the social, economic, and normative processes of liberal society unless suffering from an internal breakdown in their own moral will.  Hidden would be the early child rearing through which consent was extracted from the individual’s fear of exercising a genuine individuality, judgment, or autonomy which would identify them as deviants inclined to social disorder and rebellion.  As individualism was at once celebrated (who else could provide the self-control) and precluded, liberal society achieved a firm foundation in the psychic lives of its citizens.


The fullest realization to date of a liberal polity has been in the United States, formed by a social contract premised – if mythically – on the individual consent of its members.  Choosing to imagine this contractual founding of the first liberal republic as a creation rising on the high road of freedom and individual rights, Americans have averted their attention from the less conscious sources of social cohesion, beginning with the drafter of their own Constitution – James Madison – whose inspiration for the new political order was precisely fear, and explicitly the enduring fear of the dangers of the people, the majority of citizens, in an individualistic society.


The deepest insight into the sources of American social cohesion lies in the observations and analysis of the French aristocratic visitor to the early republic, Alexis de Tocqueville.  Initially bedazzled by the rampant individualism, mobility, and self-directedness of citizens in this unprecedentedly fluid new society, he came to recognize a shocking similarity of thinking and repetitiveness of activity.  In investigating the sources of this standardization, he came in time to uncover deep fears of isolation, powerlessness, and failure that drove such pandemic conformity.  Tocqueville’s insights, supported by the independent observations of Emerson and Thoreau, was followed in the twentieth century by the analysis of the greatest American liberal thinker, John Dewey.  Dewey particularly in his work on education candidly acknowledged that individualism could only be appropriately contained and directed by threatening, in his language, informing, the young from the earliest age that social exclusion, marginalization, and rejection were the price of a non-conformist refusal to engage in group norms and practices.


Despite these warnings, echoed by virtually the entire national literature from Melville to Cheever and the vast writings on liberal child rearing and education, Americans through the 1950s continued to imagine themselves on the high road to the perfected liberal consensus and the end of ideological disputes approaching the ultimate voluntary and self-realizing society.  Then, all of a sudden the youth and student movements of the 1960s – witnessing from their own lives in buttoned-down suburbs – pointed out that this was a delusion, the product of a disempowering and dehumanizing – ultimately de-individualizing – child rearing for group conformity and mass compliance in the family, schools, media, advertising and marketing, church and neighborhood, meant to produce standardization in the corporate and organizational society.  Expressing what seemed obvious and incontrovertible but for that fact that no one had looked, the veils portraying this ideal world fell away almost instantly.  A world of fear, the terror of marginalization and disapproval – or worse:  McCarthyism and racism – had been exposed as the odorless and colorless glue applied early in the psyches of the young that held the liberal enterprise together.


The paradoxical result of this exposure, however, has been not a decrease in the exploitation of fear but a vast increase.  For what the sixties triggered by revealing the faux-individualism and demanding a more genuine autonomy was precisely the terror of individualism and the truly free society that had motivated the original liberal project of internalized compliance and self-repression.  Without the illusion of universal voluntarism to mobilize compliance and obscure the coercive social mechanisms, many people began exploring the possibility of real choice and full self-direction and self-realization, swiftly eroding the accommodations which had held liberal society together.  Those who feared that individualism was equivalent to anarchy now had some worrisome manifestations to point to.


Americans throughout the political spectrum rushed forward to put Humpty together again.  Conservatives turned toward an explicitly repressive society and an overt politics of fear.  No longer hindered by the ideology of the free society, they could explicitly seek to impose a uniform will through deference to economic elites, repressive social norms, and displays of naked power both internally and internationally.  Liberals and progressives, for the most part equally terrified by the growing vacuum opened with the crisis of liberal internalization, accepted that fear was necessary to restore social orderliness.  Taking a less moralistic tack, they imposed the social will on the young through more indirect forms of coercion – meritocratic pressures for grades, college admission, and corporate and organizational jobs; social pressures for family togetherness, i.e. compliance, and peer group conformity and popularity; marketing pressures for consumer addiction and status; and social pressure by spiriting them away into uniform gated communities, boxes where deviance and alternatives would never be known.  Added to this was a mainstream Hollywood and media campaign directed to undermining the youthful search for individuality and independence, characterizing them as helpless, inadequate, lost, and perverse, that is, incapable of striving for anything beside a safe and secure role in the social hierarchy.  The result was a virtual consensus for restoring the role of fear as the foundation of liberalism.


What no one was prepared to face was that the cultural challenge of the 1960s arose because a younger generation in its complacent, affluent, peaceful and increasingly youth oriented culture of post-World War II America had intuited the possibility of a world beyond the fearfulness, both of oneself and for one’s future, that liberalism had always believed to be necessary.  Fear was relied upon, they argued, because individuals since the great mobilization toward modernity beginning in the seventeenth century had been released from traditional hierarchy and submission without the psychological capacities and social resources to manage genuine individualism and self-direction.  Released into a society proclaiming freedom such as the United States without the capacity for managing individuality and independence only produced what the great psychoanalyst and cultural critic Erich Fromm called ‘the fear of freedom,’ citizens now unconnected to a fixed social and normative order yet still rooted in traditional needs for structure and obedience.  Conformity was for Fromm, as for Tocqueville before, the inevitable result, for it offered the illusion of apparent choice and self-determination on the surface while providing adaptation and compliance to mitigate and ward off the feelings of aloneness and difference with the security of belonging to the group.  Believing that the fears were all from one’s own incapacity and inadequacy, the modern conformist citizen was only too happy to relinquish the unreachable goal of autonomy for relief from the pain of genuine freedom.


The real issue for a politics beyond fear, then, is the fear of one’s own individuality, self-mastery and exercise of empowerment, the sense modern citizens have of being unprepared for the demands and stresses of autonomous decision-making and life shaping, with the ability to speak for and advocate for one’s self and one’s values while participating in the complexities of democratic collaboration and non-hierarchical community life.  What the sixties had insisted upon was that the psychological vulnerability to conformity, materialism, the efficiencies of compliance and passivity tailored to the smooth operation of the machine age and organizational imperatives would without a cultivation of internal strengths produce individuals in the image of those machines, what writer Alan Lightman in The Diagnosis identifies as perfect ‘information processors,’ supremely functional appendages of the technological matrix but dead, emotionally and morally, inside.


Without such preparation, individuals are too easily manipulated, their wills and spirits rendered submissive, their fear of freedom enflamed to the point that an authoritarian society is now ever more likely in the United States.  As Corey Robin writes, “Convinced that we lack moral or political principles to bind us together, we savor the experience of being afraid” believing that “only fear” can “turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”[2]  That is, rather than embrace the challenge to the psychology of fear instilled by pedagogies of fear by pursuing alternative developmental paths to a sustainable individualism, Americans became – ironically – afraid to let go of fear!


The overriding question of the next age posed by the 1960s was left unanswered:  whether a society inhabited by citizens achieving in the words of sociologist Kenneth Keniston “new developmental stages” characterized by “more autonomous positions vis-à-vis their societies,” what noted psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called the ‘postconventional’ moral stage, along with more evolved “new forms of social organization,” are possible.[3]  To reverse the spiral of fear, and undertake what those participating in the 60s were unprepared for, we must begin to imagine and create new pedagogies rooted in internal moral growth and psychological empowerment, that help the young address and overcome their vulnerability to fear, hierarchy, intimidation, marketing seductions, and appropriation as mechanisms of subordination and compliance.


Such strength-based practices rooted in internal security and mutual trust promise the possibility of a life unscripted by others, without the walls and boxes of containment, which enable the true spirit of the liberated child, its wishes and desires, its ego efficiencies and capacities, its vision of an ideal self-identity and a sustaining community, to shine forth.  Such a pedagogy and child rearing, developed first by Rousseau in his Second Discourse and particularly Emile, has been expanded in recent times by Marcuse, Fromm, A.S. Neill, Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, Paulo Freire and others.  The contemporary culture war over education, dominated now by a determination to clamp down on the lives, spirits and independence of the young with narrow testing and rigid expectations, identifies the primary site for reversing the reinscription of classic liberal compliance – or worse – and positing/nurturing new forms of selfhood and citizenship. 


This is a crucial subject for our further discussion, but I would like to close by suggesting that a more immediate issue:  the fate of those generations who will either make possible or preclude such a transformation in the young.  For the young require space for self-development and moral growth from those who come before.  And yet those coming before, us, are now members of a society infused by the fear of selfhood at every level of our lives.  This “preoccupation with fear” now pervades the very construction of our built worlds as “apparent in home design, security systems, gated communities, semi-public spaces, zoning regulations, and cyberspace.”[4]  We have been well trained.  On my desk as I write are only the most recent examples of this culture:  books entitled Fear:  The History of a Political Idea, Architecture of Fear, The Merchants of Fear:  Why They Want Us to Be Afraid, The Science of Fear:  How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain, The Terror Dream:  Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/ll America.  What these books tell us is that the lingering specter of 9/11 and of a terrorist world fueled by the ‘axis of evil’ along with a declining economic situation and unraveling political system clog our cultural airwaves with the relentless subliminal message to retreat.   We are being told the only way to cope with this world of the Road Warrior is to forego all social experimentation and life risks and return inside the safety of the city walls, to the security of traditional institutions and roles, political and psychological defensiveness and aggressive counterstrikes.


How is the terror of the new, of any deviation from the politics of fear and reaction, to be overcome under such conditions?  Conferences like this one are a good place to start by making the mechanisms of manipulation visible and reaction explicit, helping us to understand “how businesses use fear to sell products; how the media foments fear to improve ratings and profits; and how government appeals to fear” to stimulate society to meet threats posed by enemies” and “ratify political actions.”[5]  We must identify how we are being propelled into a Matrix-like trap, losing sight in our unwillingness to peer beyond our own defenses of global initiatives for peace, community building, and social justice occurring everywhere.  Beyond that, we must recover the sense – as so many in the sixties understood and the fear of which now propels this current reaction – of being on the frontier of a revolution in human consciousness.  The reaction has gained such strength because the potentialities opening up for new forms of selfhood and community are so transforming as to unsettle much of what we have taken for granted in the liberal world, including the indispensability of fear. 


In consonance with and furtherance of these long-term developments, we must each work toward our own post-conventional self-realization.  We must question our need to conform and comply, to accept what we are told and the expectations internalized, challenging our complacency and willingness to settle for far less from ourselves.  We must learn in the words of the great American cultural radical Randolph Bourne to do a better job of “dodging” the “pressures,” to “steer clear of the forces that would warp and conventionalize and harden the personality and its own free choices and bents,” as they “lie waiting” to “fetter and enslave [one] the moment he [or she] steps unwarily over the wall out of the free open road of his [or her] own individuality.”[6]  These pressures come in many forms, the most debilitating of which he noted was the reward tendered for successful compliance, the gold stars, honors programs, elite designations and statuses, and extra zeroes in the salary, whose only price is quiet and efficiency.  We will be hard pressed to teach these skills if we do not first possess them in some measure.


Above all, perhaps, the greatest challenge is to retain an ever abiding faith that a world for the not-socially designed and constructed can flourish, spaces of meaning and moral integrity within which to pursue one’s own journey.  Bourne called this living the “experimental life.”  We all feel, he wrote, “a vague desire to expand, to get out of our cage, and liberate our dimly felt powers.”  The way to achieve that is to turn our lives into a “laboratory where its possibilities for the enhancement of happiness and the realization of ideals are to be tested and observed” continually.[7]  We must dare to dream and to take risks, to master the fears of individuality, becoming alive to unscripted spaces and authentic impulses lurking everywhere beneath the mechanisms of repression in our lives.  We must continually ask ourselves what these mean – and how we can make them real. 


Such a profound journey of self-education beyond the paralyzing restraints of fear is depicted in Groundhog Day, through the mazes of deception and self-deception, despair and idle fantasy all internalized through fear of self, to the shores of self-illumination and connection.  Much is asked of us, that those who come after do not come of age in a world that has ceased to believe in what we can and could be, that is content to ‘hold the fort’ and thus live in ‘the fort.’  Such is the challenge of our time.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, January - June 2012, ISSN 1552-5112


[1] Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear (New York, 2009), p. 306.

[2] Corey Robin, Fear:  The History of a Political Idea (Oxford, 2004), p. 3.

[3] Kenneth Keniston, “Youth,” in Keniston, p. 21

[4] Nan Ellin, editor, Architecture of Fear (New York, 1997) (liner notes). 

[5] Christopher Catherwood and Joe DiVanna, The Merchants of Fear:  Why They Want Us to Be Afraid (Guilford, Ct., 2008)

[6] Randolph Bourne, “The Dodging of Pressures,” in Randolph Bourne, Youth and Life (New York, 1971), p. 249.

[7] Randolph Bourne, “The Experimental Life,” in Bourne, Youth and Life, p. 233.