Fear: The History of a Political Idea

Overview

"For many commentators, September 11 inaugurated a new era of fear. But as Corey Robin shows in his unsettling tour of the Western imagination - the first intellectual history of its kind - fear has shaped our politics and culture since time immemorial." From the Garden of Eden to the Gulag Archipelago to today's headlines, Robin traces our growing fascination with political danger and disaster. As our faith in positive political principles recedes, he argues, we turn to fear as the justifying language of public life. We may not know the good, ...
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Overview

"For many commentators, September 11 inaugurated a new era of fear. But as Corey Robin shows in his unsettling tour of the Western imagination - the first intellectual history of its kind - fear has shaped our politics and culture since time immemorial." From the Garden of Eden to the Gulag Archipelago to today's headlines, Robin traces our growing fascination with political danger and disaster. As our faith in positive political principles recedes, he argues, we turn to fear as the justifying language of public life. We may not know the good, but we do know the bad. So we cling to fear, abandoning the quest for justice, equality, and freedom. But as fear becomes our intimate, we understand it less. In a reexamination of fear's greatest modern interpreters - Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt - Robin finds that writers since the eighteenth century have systematically obscured fear's political dimensions, diverting attention from the public and private authorities who sponsor and benefit from it.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Given daily terror alerts and news reports of violence, Robin, professor of political science and contributor to the New York Times Magazine, offers a sober analysis of fear's Janus-faced potential as catalyst for economic progress and the raison d' tre of repressive regimes. A brilliant synthesis of historical perspective and the critically revealing story of "Fear, American Style," the account explores the classics of political thought by Hobbes, Montesquieu and Tocqueville and the portrayal of evil by Arendt in order to locate fear as the decisive underpinning of contemporary liberal theory. In doing so, Robin argues for the groundlessness of, on one hand, a "liberalism of anxiety" that perceives society as a debate over communities of identity and difference with low emphasis on social cohesion, while on the other hand a "liberalism of terror" that turns to abject evil as the summum malum grounding for morality. For Robin, both of these descriptions of political realities ignore the subtle threats fear wages in our everyday lives, most notably in the workplace. The closing chapters document how the Constitution and federalism's factionalist orientation aid that everyday fear. Conceived of before 9/11, but inclusive of its results, Robin's analysis predicts that when the war on terror does end, "we will find ourselves still living in fear." (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
This talented young political scientist examines fear as a "political tool, an instrument of elite rule or insurgent advance, created and sustained by political leaders or activists who stand to gain something from it, either because fear helps them pursue a specific political goal, or because it reflects or lends support to their moral and political beliefs-or both." He examines the role of fear in the work of thinkers from Hobbes and Montesquieu to Tocqueville and Arendt, warning us throughout against the limitations of liberalism in combating it. The last part of the book turns to "fear, American style"-how "a little bit of coercion" can "produce a great deal of fear." Both during the Cold War and after September 11, 2001, elites organized coalitions of fear with the help of collaborators.

In all, this book is a thoughtful, often brilliant, radical polemic against the insufficiencies and pitfalls of liberalism. And yet, in his very brief conclusion, it is to "the egalitarian and libertarian principles of Rawls and Dworkin and to the emancipatory strains of American liberalism more generally" that Robin appeals, despite doubts about their viability. Let us hope that in his next work he will try to construct a defense against political fear as spirited as this provocative and discouraging dissection of its multiple forms.

Library Journal
In this original and fascinating work, Robin (Brooklyn Coll., CUNY) examines how fear represses, rather than unites, a nation. The first half of the book dissects fear as discussed by philosophers Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt over the last few centuries. As the fear of death and loss of self-preservation in Hobbes's view gives way to the total terror of Arendt's careerist elites, Robin shows that fear is also at the forefront of life as we know it today. The second half discusses what Robin calls "Fear, American Style," which includes the actions of collaborators, bystanders, victims, and fear in the workplace. In his view, elites control by fear by selecting what we see or don't see and influencing how we are perceived by our neighbors and co-workers. Robin ends his account stressing the need to change our current view and replace fear with freedom and equality as a basis of politics. As this work is quite complex and heavily noted, it is recommended for academic and large public libraries only.-Maria C. Bagshaw, Lake Erie Coll., Painesville, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself-and the uses to which the powers that be are putting that fear. States and rulers have traded on fear since time immemorial; it has proven useful to them to have a body of subjects that is afraid of external enemies, the elements, and the rulers and states themselves. But there's fear and then there's fear, and Robin (Political Science/Brooklyn College) usefully distinguishes the collective fear of faraway danger from the fears "arising from the vertical conflicts and cleavages endemic to a society," the "inequities of wealth, status, and power." In other words, one can be afraid of the international communist conspiracy, say, while also being afraid of unemployment and poverty. Such fears, Robin writes, are very real, and he traces the views of classical political philosophers on such issues. He finds the work of Thomas Hobbes particularly germane to the discussion, for Hobbes's Leviathan evokes a world of disorder, revolution, turmoil, and constant fear, succeeded by "quiet complacence and sober regard for family, business, locality, and self" once order is restored. As for the history of fear in our own country, Robin notes that what distinguished the 1950s from other times was not necessarily the fear of nuclear annihilation, though that was certainly a novelty, but the fear that resulted from an unprecedented level of political repression. "Fear," he writes, didn't destroy Cold War America: it tamed it," only to dissolve into Hobbesean chaos with the '60s. Provocatively, Robin examines the events surrounding 9/11 in light of the fear of both the terrorists and their targets: the Islamicists, he writes, were made anxious by "the loss ofpremodernity, the ruined solidarity of dead or dying traditions, the unscripted free-for-all of individualism." And, of course, their actions raised new levels of fear. Robin foresees that more fear will follow: "not of radical Islam, but of the domestic rulers that fear has left behind."A worthy, if gloomy, contribution to the political-philosophical literature.
From the Publisher
"Robin's account of the place of fear in American life is refreshingly clear—and timely."—Tony Judt, New York Review of Books

"Nuanced and skillful...Robin's book suggests that the politics of fear and the long shadows cast by Guantanamo Bay detention camps and the Patriot Act's scope are not simply the result of a government that is out of control or a president who thinks that he's Gary Cooper in 'High Noon.'.... It arises out of liberalism's own paradoxical nature and attests to the deep ambivalence that we...exhibit in confronting fear."—Benjamin Barber, Los Angeles Times

"By means of an innovative rereading of four influential political theorists—Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt—Corey Robin offers a fascinating analysis of how we have formed many of our ideas about the role of fear in society."—New Statesman

"A thoughtful, often brilliant, radical polemic against the insufficiencies and pitfalls of liberalism.... Let us hope that in his next work he will try to construct a defense against political fear as spirited as this provocative and discouraging dissection of its multiple forms."—Stanley Hoffman, Foreign Affairs

"His book is an appeal for social democracy which American intellectuals and the political elite have abandoned since the New Deal.... With great lucidity, Robin identifies many disturbing excesses in thought and travesties in deed, all of which are bound up in some way with fear." —Michael Kimmage, New York Times Book Review

"A compelling book, an antidote to the present-day intellectual and political discourse. Important reading for political theorists, journalists, college students, and intelligent political leaders.... Highly recommended."—Choice

"What's most troubling about Robin's analysis of the emotional landscape of the American workplace is the implication that it conditions Americans to see sadism as a natural characteristic of politics. With increasing support for the death penalty, widespread tolerance of the abuse inflicted on prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib, and the Patriot Act's curtailing of civil rights, the publication of Fear: The History of a Political Idea could not be more relevant or timely."—Jane Credland, Tikkun

"Learned and original, Robin argues that whereas Hobbes and Arendt appreciated the political dimensions of fear, Montesquieu and Tocqueville relegated the idea to the realm of the psychological—a view of fear that has endured, blinding us to the self-serving ways elites deploy fear for political ends. Along the way, Robin delivers trenchant and original critiques of writers who deal with fear. The journalists Michael Ignatieff, Philip Gourevitch and their ilk, who have made a cottage industry of condemning genocide, come under withering criticism for implicitly romanticizing the mass killings they deplore.... When...Robin takes on a congealed conventional wisdom, he is at his best."—Newsday

"Given daily terror alerts and news reports of violence, Robin, professor of political science and contributor to New York Times Magazine, offers a sober analysis of fear's Janus-faced potential as a catalyst for economic progress and the raison d'être of repressive regimes. A brilliant synthesis of historical perspective and the critically revealing story of 'Fear, American Style,' the account explores the classics of political thought by Hobbes, Montesquieu and Tocqueville and the portrayal of evil by Arendt."—Publishers Weekly

"Brilliant.... What he does in Fear is show us, by carefully plotting the progress of modern fear politics from the Enlightenment to present day, that we are as dependent on fear as a political vehicle, if not more so, as we are the charades of left/right/middle factionalism."—National Post

"Liberalism, he insists, sends working men and women unprotected into battle against the forces of privilege, a battle they are bound to lose. Defeating fear, US-style, requires a new politics that actively confronts power rather than the current apologetic, ameliorative American liberalism. He may not be right that only a strong state can protect its citizens from fear (which is what, with Hobbes, he ends up arguing), but he makes a strong case that the job is too important to be left to the market."—Financial Times

"Fear is a central, but little investigated, concept in modern political thought. In a deft and well-written analysis of this crucial concept and its political implications, Corey Robin not only gives us a masterful survey of its history but also of its abuse by the Bush administration. Passionate, erudite, and partisan, this book is an original contribution to our political vocabulary."—Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Yale University

"In the wake of 9/11, no emotion is more central to our politics and none is more misunderstood than fear. Corey Robin manages to strip bare the role fear plays in our political lives. His historical analysis is fresh, provocative and absolutely gripping. For all struggling to live as thinking people in the Age of Terror, he has written an essential text." —Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War

"I have several disagreements with Robin's learned book, but it is so brilliantly provocative that it should be widely read and debated."—John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

"In this timely and provocative work, Corey Robin provides an acute and sustained analysis of the very idea of fear, of the role of fear as an instrument of political rule and of its unacknowledged prevalence within our liberal democratic institutions. He makes a powerful case against those who defend a 'liberalism of fear' and contend that fear can be a source of moral and political regeneration." —Steven Lukes, Professor of Sociology, New York University

"A truly significant and highly original contribution to the understanding of the politics of fear, its consequences and ramifications, intended and unintended. What emerges is a complex picture of collaboration between various levels of government, civil society groups, manipulators and victims, governing elites and ordinary citizens, popular culture, management and workers. It provides, as no other work I know, a context for grappling with the post-9/11 world." —Sheldon S. Wolin, Professor of Politics Emeritus, Princeton University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195189124
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/31/2005
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,067,491
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Raritan, Dissent, The Times Literary Supplement and American Political Science Review.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 History of an idea 27
1 Fear 31
2 Terror 51
3 Anxiety 73
4 Total terror 95
5 Remains of the day 131
Pt. 2 Fear, American style 161
6 Sentimental educations 167
7 Divisions of labor 199
8 Upstairs, downstairs 227
Conclusion : liberalism agonistes 249
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