The Ecology of Fear (and possibility)

Fear has taken many forms during the pandemic. In the last post, I wrote about how fear of the virus itself has had – and continues to have – big effects on people’s behavior. Whether it is disinfecting sidewalks or wearing gloves, there is no shortage of things people do that have little basis in anything else but irrational fear. 

Fear acts in an affective ecosystem, but by its very nature is a domineering feeling; it tends to drown everything else out. It can therefore easily outlive its usefulness (jolting us awake), an become a hindrance (blurring out the obvious). In this post, I want to think further about the role of fear in undermining the radical potential for political change that the pandemic has opened up. Many have pointed out that this particular moment has revealed deep fractures in the dominant systems of labor, production, and consumption, and that we are therefore in a unique historical moment to do something about it. In other words, this is the time to resist returning to ‘normal’, and instead push for alternatives. 

I couldn’t agree more. This is why I am one of the thousands of signatories to the Democratizing Work article published two weeks ago in dozens of international media outlets (you can read it, and all about it, here). Though I am far from being in full agreement on the prescriptive part (for example, I think the right to not work is more important than full employment), I am entirely supportive of the general discussion of alternatives, as well as the diagnosis. Instead of repeating the leftist sin of infighting and nitpicking, I fully support anything that will move the conversation away from a ‘natural’ return to growth-fueled capitalism. 

At the same time, it is also becoming clear just what an uphill battle the push for alternatives will be. The overwhelming majority of elite, managerial action directed at the pandemic worldwide has been designed to ensure a return to growth and absurd levels of consumption. And almost everywhere, the political management of the pandemic has treated people like children that need to be told what to do, backed by an (intentional or not, it doesn’t really matter) campaign of disseminating fear. My thesis is that this fear may outlive the current moment, and pose grave dangers to radical political alternatives. 

There are two main ways in which the largely irrational paranoia* of the present moment can have deleterious effects into the future. 

[* I feel like I need to explain myself here, largely because of how hegemonic the emergency discourse around covid 19 has become. What I mean by largely irrational paranoia is that, outside of a few basic rules of hygiene and social behavior, we simply do not know what may or may not prevent the transmission of the virus. However, doubt itself is seen as a form of not caring, as if acknowledging ignorance is the same as preaching inaction. Instead of a humble attitude that sticks to the few known facts, what we have is a media-driven culture of daily death counts and images of masked emergency personnel. The image of what is happening is mostly way out of synch with what is actually happening, and this itself has deleterious effects, such as people no longer seeking medical treatment for ongoing conditions, though they both should and could (general practitioners, for example, are not swamped with covid cases). Overall then, I would argue that there is a lot of paranoia and irrationality around a kernel of truth. The effect of this is largely what I explore in the rest of the post.]

Number one: fear takes the ecology out of the crisis. Many, including I, have written about the ways in which the appearance of SARS-COV-2 is best explained through an anthropogenic lens. In other words, this new coronavirus, like so many other pathogens before it, can only really be accounted for by taking stock of all the different ways in which the dominant forms of social organization make habitats for viral disruption. Put in the simplest terms, this is what happens when great numbers of people slaughter even greater numbers of animals and destroy unimaginable amounts of habitat in the process. For an excellent summary of this kind of accounting for the virus, this report should do. 

Though there has been no shortage of writing about this, there has definitely been shortage of openly talking about it. The official discourse everywhere is that the virus was a matter of bad luck; the only thing governments could have done better, the argument goes, is to have had better contingency plans in place. But the reason why contingency plans were even necessary is the incredibly destructive ways in which societies interact with the natural world. By omitting this part, the only part that has any kind of explanatory power for the current moment, people are encouraged to act as if some evil eye has struck. Fear of the magical power of nature to throw wrenches into our wheels is not what we need in order to drastically reform the ways in which the natural world is metabolized in human societies. 

Following the logic of bad luck hitting unassuming victims, the societies that are the greatest offenders in terms of environmental harm, and therefore tightly tied to the genesis of this kind of threat, have acted as if lockdown measures and a vaccine will deliver us to normality. But no amount of wishful thinking will deliver societies based on current levels of consumption to a future free of pandemic threats (or any number of ‘environmental threats’). The current measures can only work in the short term. The only contingency plan should really be changing, fundamentally, the way in which nature is consumed. 

Fear and the irrationality that it breeds leads to reluctance on the part of the majority to support radical transformation, while emboldening the cynicism of those that are already padding their luxury bunkers with soft silk cushions. Most importantly, fear concentrates the mind on the immediate threat while dissolving the larger contextual characteristics without which we are in the dark. 

Number two: fear emboldens fascist-like politics. In the name of fighting an unexpected threat, harsh lockdowns have been imposed on vast numbers of people. As even establishment-bolstering publications have started to point out (for example, The Economist), the cost of harsh lockdown in the medium and long term far exceeds the benefits. This is not an argument for doing nothing (nor is it an argument for just thinking of ‘the economy’). In fact, it is an argument for doing a lot more! In particular, it is an argument for openly reckoning with the tragic choices before us, and for having absolute clarity as to what forces have pushed us into such tragic choices.

The lack of such reckoning (connected to the ecological point above) is also helped along by fear. By employing war metaphors, for example, short-term survivalist thinking is emboldened, and this only increases the long-term costs. This kind of short-termism is likely to end up playing against more moderate political forces (themselves inept on the ecological question) and into the hands of right-wing extremists. The general liberal consensus seems to currently be that the virus is what will finally topple the Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s of the world. But far from this being obvious, I claim that it is likely that the response to the virus, based as it has been on panic and short-term thinking, will end up strengthening them. How?

As the costs of the pandemic will increasingly be felt, it will be all too easy to blame it on the liberal mainstream. In the name of ‘restarting the economy’, more and more people will be willing to accept policies of cruelty, in proportion to the number of people that will be suffering from the collateral effects of the pandemic. Outside of a mainstream reckoning with the cruelty of the socio-political arrangements that have relegated us to perpetual crisis (pandemic included), it is the demagogues that are best placed to reap the benefits of suffering. 

It is hard to look at the present moment and not feel like we are on the edge, about to topple at any moment. The vertigo that this induces can be actively fought, and we can do that by positing alternatives that refuse the terms in which the pandemic is framed. This is neither about ‘the economy’, nor about an emergency that has befallen us. This – crisis in perpetuity – is what awaits an increasing number of people if we collectively continue to support the psychopathic politics of increased production and consumption. Though fear is a great jolt to the system, it is a poor companion for thinking. Let us try to be fearless. Previously invisible possibilities might finally become obvious.

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