Moving beyond the politics of pain and fear

  • March 9, 2021

Authority & Abolition

Pain and fear have multiple political possibilities. They can drag people down, or they can catalyze much-needed change, ultimately improving the world.

Troops at the White House during the George Floyd uprising. June 2, 2020. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud /


ear is the mind-killer.” So goes a famous quote from the science fiction classic Dune. Psychologically speaking, there is a good deal of truth to this. We live in a world besieged by fear, a world confronting a surge of authoritarianism, a modern-day plague, an epidemic of economic inequality and insecurity and a cascade of climate catastrophe. We need our minds now more than ever.

Fear and pain are among the most reliable tools in an aspiring autocrat’s arsenal. They are shock troops which quell unrest, dispelling all but the most determined opponents’ objections. To take full advantage of the end of the Trump administration and the opportunity we now have to disarm autocracy, we have to examine the inner psychic mechanisms of the politics of fear. This will allow us to demystify and de-weaponize fascist fearmongering, and to better understand how to take the widespread pain people are experiencing during the pandemic and convert it into a politics of empathy capable of finally satisfying the unfulfilled promise of genuine democracy.

The Psychology of Fear

Fear turns us into suspicion-riddled introverts. It narrows our focus. It directs attention inwards and elevates our levels of self-consciousness. Fears may be highly socially motivated: fear of dishonor, embarrassment, mockery, ostracism and disappointing our loved ones and friends all rely on the way others see us, as do our fears of losing what we have, falling behind, being victimized and missing out. Despite the apparently social nature of these fears, they place us in a position where we are highly self-aware and regard other people primarily as threats, potential sources of humiliation or worse.

The fear we feel towards the prospect of physical pain is not socially motivated, even if we are encouraged to view others as possible sources of danger or harm. Instead, it is primally biological, hypersensitizing us to our fragile bodies. Much of politics rests on questions of psychology, and in the domain of psychology, perception reigns supreme. Whether threats are genuine or merely perceived is immaterial. The perception of a threat triggers a fight or flight response; it pits people against one another and spurs a search for enemies.

Carl Schmitt, the Nazi whose thought still enjoys a certain vogue in Anglo-American political science departments, believed the fundamental political distinction is the division between “friend” and “enemy.” Schmitt’s Nazism was no coincidence. An us-versus-them, friend-enemy mentality is a form of catastrophic thinking, and fascists — old and new — crave catastrophe.

In the early days of the United States’ war on terrorism, George W. Bush, following Schmitt’s playbook to a tee, declared, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” In a similar fashion, the Trump administration sought to demonize China and used an us-versus-them mentality to pit the denizens of their imaginary “silent majority” of Middle Americans against the mainstream media and urban liberals. In much of Europe, nationalists agitate against immigrants and try to stir up Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments.

Tribalism constricts one’s vision, encouraging summary, binary judgments which discard new possibilities and rule out useful alternatives. It flattens one’s perception of reality, simplifying one’s thoughts, deadening the power of analysis. This thought-deadening capacity is all too visible on social media and in mainstream media’s coverage of politics — as if the only conceivable political identities are Democratic or Republican (or whatever the major political parties are in the country in question). Expectations and labels condition social reality. Branding someone untrustworthy or an enemy makes them more inclined to be hostile. Suspicion begets suspicion. Distrust is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, hastening enmity and calamity.

In situations where we are manipulated into regarding our fellow citizens as threats, as the Trump administration did for four years with immigrants, Latinos, Muslims and leftists, people are easy prey for dictators. Once stoked, fears spawn mistrust, which destroys everyday kindness and solidarity. This increases loneliness. The destabilizing experience of loneliness coupled with the fear of rejection can decrease people’s willingness to cross barriers and befriend others, creating a vicious cycle of declining social trust and rising anomie. Loneliness and isolation derange the mind, dissolving our sense of reasonableness and engendering an urge to find communion wherever it may be, even if it is in fascists’ distorted, false promise of community premised on xenophobic, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attempts to define “us.” The January 6 putsch demonstrated this resoundingly, as has the rising popularity of QAnon, anti-vaxxer conspiracies and conspiracy thinking more generally.

The Yearning for Control

Under authoritarian regimes or in countries tending in an authoritarian direction, self-preservation often means not rocking the boat. Preventing retribution against oneself or one’s family generally means withdrawing from the public sphere and avoiding undue attention from the authorities. According to terror management theory, reminders of mortality tend to make people more right-wing. Fear puts people in a primal state of mind where they are willing to entertain previously unthinkable notions.

In a moment of deep fear — fear of the future, uncertainty, or failure — we tend to project our discomfort onto every future moment we contemplate, locking ourselves into a self-defeating, self-jeopardizing mindset which leaves us vulnerable to the blandishments of authoritarians bearing promises of safety, order and reclaimed agency in a dangerous world.

The history of political thought confirms that authoritarianism becomes attractive under circumstances where we experience a loss of control. Thomas Hobbes, Han Feizi and Niccolò Machiavelli all lived or grew up in tumultuous times, and each man advocated harshly authoritarian, fear-based methods of social discipline: Hobbes with the tyrannical Leviathan, Han Feizi with strict legalist methods of punishment and a powerful emperor, and Machiavelli with his infamous wisdom that “it is better to be feared than loved.”

Thucydides and Aristotle did not champion authoritarianism, but Thucydides’ History and Aristotle’s Politics show that tyrannies arise during politically and economically troubled times. As we have seen today with Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, Narendra Modi in India, the Golden Dawn in Greece, Marine Le Pen in France, Donald Trump in the United States and Erdoğan in Turkey, among others, conflict and instability propel authoritarians to power: competition dovetails neatly with a martial paradigm that privileges strength, war and masculinity. Instability inflames racial, religious, cultural and sexual divisions within a population, allowing a “divide and conquer” strategy to succeed.

From Vulnerability to Unity

But pain and fear can also galvanize positive politics that unite us. People often suffer in silence, languishing in isolation and self-recrimination. They blame themselves for their anguish. Although pain appears to be among the most profoundly personal phenomena there is, it can be articulated. We can imagine the pain of others, especially if it is acute and easily relatable because the bearer of the pain resembles us.

Our capacity to empathize is imperfect, but it is fundamental: mirror neurons are biological symbols of just how deep empathy is embedded. When people tell poignant stories, we empathize more easily. And the experiences of pain and fear are universal. The struggle for self-preservation can also motivate mutual aid efforts, as we have seen in the United States and around the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we see regularly with the outpourings of support from ordinary people which arise after any natural disaster.

Leftist consciousness-raising takes advantage of these truths. In the process of communicating their pain publicly, sharing their daily stresses and sorrows in groups, people come to the realization that their troubles are not isolated instances of personal failure that merit feelings of shame and guilt. Instead, they are events that happen systematically to large swathes of the population. They are not accidents; they are the inevitable products of unjust systems.

This realization frees people from feelings of inadequacy and shame. In the short term, it inspires them to build communities to assuage each other’s pain through friendship, camaraderie and mutual aid. Ideally, in the longer term, it motivates people to unite to eliminate their economic and social distress completely.

One of the most inspirational aspects of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns was the way he encouraged people to share their personal stories. The most electric moments at his massive rallies were when ordinary people would, often tearfully, take the microphone and tell their stories. The crowds of thousands listened sympathetically. And the charge that filled the air was the electricity of solidarity, the silence of rally attendees recognizing the details and realizing that they were in the same situation as the speaker who was recounting their woes. Giving people’s stories pride of place was an intentional strategy of Bernie’s, especially in the 2020 campaign. By having people share their trials and tribulations and realize that they all had similar stories, Bernie was trying to catalyze the formation of a new working-class consciousness, one unburdened by self-flagellation and the bitter pride which blocks people from seeking help and joining together.

Bill Clinton famously built a campaign on the quip “I feel your pain.” His vaunted empathy did not translate into good policy, but the idea that good politics is built on sympathy is well-founded. Pain and sorrow can broaden our horizons, expanding our empathetic and imaginative gifts, teaching us to extend clemency and leniency to everybody we meet. They can motivate us to view strangers as potential allies, partners and friends, empowering us to mobilize for political changes which will make life less tragic and painful.

Activism in the Face of Tragedy

In the 1790s and early 1800s, groups of Haitian slaves used the pain and suffering they had endured at the hands of brutal masters as fuel for the Haitian Revolution, winning liberation and establishing the first postcolonial state ruled by formerly enslaved people. In the United States, despite the totalitarian brutality of the Southern slavery regime, over 250 rebellions with more than ten participants took place, including Nat Turner’s famed rebellion. In early 20th century New York and the US, the tragedy of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire sparked public outcry and organizing efforts that resulted in major labor law reforms.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, casualties in the face of the state and corporate violence unleashed against union organizing spurred renewed determination to build trade unions in the US and around the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement took the immense suffering of African-Americans under Jim Crow and, thanks to the concerted, sustained efforts of steadfast members of the movement, forced desegregation, civil rights protections and voting rights protections into existence against rabid opposition and public skepticism.

In 1977, during the darkest days of the Argentine military dictatorship’s Dirty War, a group of 14 brave mothers who had lost their children to the regime’s frequent “disappearances” of college students and political opponents, started marching in front of the presidential palace to demand answers from the government. Despite the danger of being disappeared and killed themselves (a fate some of the group’s leaders indeed suffered), Las Madres de La Plaza de Mayo kept struggling for justice. They took their agony and turned it into a powerful demand for accountability. Their numbers grew, public support turned in their favor, and after more than 2,000 marches, 1,000 members of the military dictatorship have been tried and 700 convicted. In El Salvador and Mexico, similar mothers’ groups have formed, including the Madres Activistas de Xalapa, who are active today in the Mexican state of Veracruz demanding justice for their children, who have been swallowed up by an unresponsive judicial bureaucracy, and more sweeping judicial reforms.

In India today, hard-pressed farmers who have borne the brunt of climate change and economic inequality are fighting courageously against corporate domination of agriculture and the proto-fascist Modi regime’s attempts to privatize much of India’s economy. Thus far, they have mobilized hundreds of thousands — and a jaw-dropping 250 million people for a one-day solidarity strike on November 26, 2020 — and have won partial concessions. These protests, which have now stretched on for months, offer us an inspiring example of how suffering can catalyze liberatory politics.

Creating a New “Normal”: Tragedy-Free Societies

Human history offers innumerable examples of people banding together, channeling their suffering into a potent force for emancipation. Tragedy and solidarity do not necessarily go together: it is possible that deep trauma walls someone up, immuring them in their private life, where they nurse their suffering until it curdles. The deciding factor is the political and economic climate: where people feel powerless, hopeless, voiceless, lonely and fearful of economic ruin, authoritarianism soon follows. Under “normal” conditions, capitalist modernity — whether in the US, much of Europe or the developing world — excludes most people from meaningfully participating in politics, provides few opportunities for experiencing genuine community, and forces workers to compete under penalty of penury just to survive.

We must therefore create a new “normal”: societies which foster warm, egalitarian communities that shelter people from economic distress and psychic rootlessness. Such societies would eliminate the gnawing fear of poverty or eviction or hunger or bankruptcy or illness, the stomach-knotting terror of being punished for speaking one’s mind on the job or advocating for better working conditions, the agonizing loneliness of treating the people around you as competitors or threats, the sadness of feeling politically voiceless, the pain of enduring deprivation and choking debt in the midst of plenty.

Such societies would establish healthcare, housing, higher education, union membership and employment as basic human rights, or renew their commitments to these public goods if they already are recognized as such. Such societies would pass rafts of electoral reforms to revitalize decrepit political systems. Such societies would enact debt jubilees, freeing tens of millions of people from crushing debts. Such societies would wrest control of the economy from the hands of a handful of oligarchs and establish democratic, publicly accountable planning over key sectors like energy, finance, telecommunications and internet, food and utilities, ensuring that everyone’s needs are met and that no one person attains enough economic or political power to tyrannize over the rest of society.

Another World is Possible—And Vital

All of this is possible. After all, the architects of today’s welfare states around the world — even the United States’ woefully incomplete one — were working-class men and women who organized themselves and successfully overcame ferocious elite opposition in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Today, since many people still think of themselves as isolated individuals and are not organized into mass organizations like political parties or trade unions, this would mean that the left would use Bernie’s technique of amplifying the voices of ordinary people and uplifting their stories at every opportunity possible: in discussions within national legislatures, on TV media and social media, at rallies and events and when organizers go door to door in election season.

The more that people arrive at the realization that no one need suffer misfortune or the threat of misfortune alone, the more they will unite. And soon, a new assertiveness and new working-class political consciousness will arise, a confidence in our ability to act together to transform the systems which generate so many unhappy stories.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt chillingly warned in 1950 in her classic analysis The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” To inoculate our world against the specter of fascism and render the politics of fear an artifact of the past, a second political and economic revolution — one which uses the working class’ rediscovered sense of agency to revitalize democracy for the 21st century, put a stop to runaway climate change and secure a dignified standard of living for all — is our only hope.

Scott Remer

Scott Remer received an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge and has published at venues like In These Times, OpenDemocracyCounterPunch, Africa Is a Country and CommonDreams.

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