Review- Robin, “Fear”

Corey Robin, “Fear: The History of a Political Idea” (2006) – Corey Robin is most renowned (and controversial) for his work on conservatism, but his first book largely deals with fear and liberals. Emerging from the post-9/11 gestalt where pro-war/pro-security-state liberalism ala Chris Hitchens was the big new intellectual thing, “Fear” comes to grip with both the history and the contemporary practice of political fear. As it turns out, it’s liberals — Robin specifically focuses on Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, as well as the less categorizable Thomas Hobbes — rather than reactionaries that have most defined our relationship to fear as a political factor. The… fear factor, if you will.

Hobbes stood at an inflection point in the understanding of political fear, Robin argues, as he did so many other concepts. Ancient and medieval political writers understood fear as having a moral/political object. So, too, did Hobbes- the fear of death in the state of nature impelled men to create society, with rules and a sovereign. But he also predicated later writers who would come to place fear outside of the political, as a force on its own that short-circuits political thought and action, an emotion to be indulged in just so much as to fend off the larger fear a given writer projects. So you have Montesquieu with his concept of despotic terror coming, essentially, from the personality of the despot, or Tocqueville with his anxieties stemming from the deracination of the new mass man of the nineteenth century. Both of these types of fear were meant to be feared themselves, and acted against, through the usual liberal prescriptions of intervening institutions, civil society, divided powers, etc. Arendt, for her part, both took this depoliticized fear to its apotheosis — her concept of total terror even went so far as to depoliticize Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags — but she turned against this conception, in Robin’s telling, with “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” where she brings the political (and personal responsibility) back in.

I’ve read all these thinkers but am no expert on any of them. Robin’s accounts seem reasonably illuminating and they hold together well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if experts on any of the four, and more likely the further from the present you get, would have quibbles. Robin makes no secret of his agenda- an intervention in the post-9/11 climate of political fear and discourse over political fear. This comes out more clearly in the second half of the book, “Fear: American Style,” where he discusses mostly McCarthyism and the discourse around 9/11. American domestic political repression has, at least as targeted against those thought of as part of the polity (Native Americans, Filipinos, and others received altogether different treatment), less bloody than other examples from the twentieth century. But this isn’t because liberalism isn’t repressive, Robin argues- but that American liberalism has refined its particular tools to such a pitch that it need not be so sanguine. These tools map neatly, in Robin’s telling, to the things that are supposed to make liberalism immune from repression: division of powers (which enabled things like the congressional committees that hounded supposed subversives during McCarthyism), civil society (with its inclusions and, more to the point, exclusions), the primacy of the free market (and the power this gives employers). Any tool is a weapon, potentially- any tool of power is potentially oppressive. This, along with his rejection of fear as a potential political unifier (a prominent post-9/11 theme), is his great apostrophe to the readership.

All of this is argued passionately and persuasively. One weird thing is that he doesn’t define what he means by “liberalism.” Maybe this is only irksome to someone who’s been following his project for the better part of a decade now. He shows no such hesitation in defining conservatism or reaction- indeed, he’s gone a long way to defining it for a whole generation of critics as the ideology of the defense of power and privilege. His history, like Arno Mayer’s, resembles a constant back and forth between those who would distribute power downward along social hierarchies and those who would distribute it ever more upward- he roundly rejects the (frankly asinine) linguistic argument that conservatives are particularly interested in “conserving.” Where do liberals fit into all this? Robin doesn’t explicitly say. I once suggested on his facebook that liberalism represents the idea of a harmony of interest that either harmonizes or neutralizes the struggle between redistribution of power and retrenchment. He dismissed it out of hand, if memory serves. Fine by me, I’m just some guy with a blog. I’d like to go forward with a schema for including liberalism in Robin’s system, though, as I think Robin’s ideas will be important for political work and our understanding of modern history going forward. ****’

Review- Robin, “Fear”

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