Security, rights and politics in a time of fear
Roberto Toscano 20 November 2017

In a book published in 2011 that quickly became a bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker formulated, and substantiated on the basis of an impressive array of data, the thesis that our time is the least murderous, the least ferocious, of human history.  It is a thesis that certainly has the great merit of putting to rest the idealized and mythical notions of a more humane past, but we should also resist the implications that this, to quote Pangloss, the character in Voltaire’s Candide, is the best of all possible worlds. In the first place, Pinker has it too easy if he compares the beginning of the XXI century and the second half of the XX with the period 1914-1945, with the horrors of two world wars and the Shoah.  But the main objection is the fact that in human history quantitative data have a limited value in explaining social trends and in particular perceptions that lie at the root of both cultural and political phenomena.

The question that we must face is the following: How come, if Pinker is right, we have never been so convinced that our security is under threat?

Why is fear, in our time, such an overwhelming, pervasive, obsessive sentiment? What are the causes, and especially the consequences of this predicament?

Of course, psychology, sociology and political science – including international relations – can help us in disentangling this contradiction, but when the stakes are so high and the situation is so complex, perhaps it is literature, great literature, that can supply us with invaluable insights.

I am referring here to Franz Kafka, and to his short story “The Burrow.”

Kafka describes a mole-like creature living underground in a network of tunnels it has systematically dug in order to create a safe habitat (I would be tempted to call it a safe space, but that is another story).  The mole hoped to live in peace and security, but there are disturbing noises that arouse the fear that some predators are digging relentlessly trying to break into its sanctuary.  The result is unbearable obsession: “I live in peace inside my home and in the meanwhile, slowly and silently, coming  who knows from where, the adversary is advancing.”

I found this story particularly relevant because the nature of the perceived threat is not related to what we call war.  No one is threatening to obliterate the fearful creature by unleashing a devastating war which would also affect other creatures and entire regions and countries.  The creature does not know what is going on in the wider world, and does not really care.

Kafka thus describes a kind of perceived individual insecurity that helps us understand why today people are more obsessed by the possibility of being run over by a car or stabbed in the street by a terrorist than by the danger of nuclear war.  We cannot however stop at the mere psychology, or perhaps psycho-pathology, and we should rather take this magnificent peace of literature as a starting point toward an examination of both causes and consequences.  I will try a daring leap from Kafka to Isaiah Berlin. The creature was not forced into the burrow, but lives there as a choice based on a preference for what Berlin calls “negative liberty”, i.e. the enjoyment of a sphere of total self-determination, an area that is not subject to any external rule, any infringement of individual sovereignty. In Berlin’s own words, “A right to act without unreasonable external constraint or interference according to one’s own purposes.”

As the (very British) saying goes, “An Englishman’s home is his castle” or, in this case, “The mole’s burrow is its castle.”

Positive liberty, instead, addresses the area of institutions and rules which can supply the means through which individual goals, starting from security, are attained.  Who are the predators? Where do they come from? What do they want? How threatening are they? Why are they threatening? What should have been done, and what can still be done to address their potential threat?

There is no doubt that Berlin, a quintessential Englishman, had a soft spot for negative liberty, which he even explicitly ties to privacy, but he was also aware of its possible pitfalls: “I wish to be master of my kingdom, but my frontiers are log and insecure, therefore I contract them in order to eliminate the vulnerable area.”  A strategic retreat into an inner citadel is perhaps a path to wisdom, from the Stoics to Voltaire’s conclusion at the end of Candide: “il faut cultiver son jardin.” But spaces of individual sovereignty and self-determination are not necessarily gardens. They can be holes where phobic beings live in constant fear of intrusion.

If we transpose Kafka’s intuition to the contemporary world, we must introduce some significant variations. In the first place, today the creature is not really isolated, but has both a TV set and a computer.   Theoretically, information should be a precious tool facilitating an understanding of the nature of the threat and of possible options to increase our security, but actually they are operating in a less positive, less helpful way.

In the first place, instead of analyzing the source of insecurity, they just tend to amplify it, heightening the mole’s obsession to an unbearable level. The American sociologist Robert Putnam once wrote about a very interesting experiment. Citizens belonging to two different groups – TV watchers and TV non-watchers (yes, the latter do exist in the US) – were asked how many murders had taken place in their county during the past year.  It turned out that those who did not watch TV got pretty close to the real figure, whereas the TV watchers gave a wildly overblown assessment of the murder rate.  But today, especially for the younger generations, not only the newspapers but also TV are sort of passé and the computer has become for many the main source of information.  The mole is big on social media, with its concomitant phenomena of both fake news and wild conspiracy theories that, as a result, further raise the level of fear and obsession.  Security thus becomes an overpowering, overwhelming concern, confining all other dimensions, including – paradoxically – those related to the sources of insecurity, to a marginal if not irrelevant status. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his Liquid Fear, “Fear is the name we give to our uncertainty, to our ignorance about the threat and about what has to be done.”

Actually, we do know what has to be done. Not by ourselves, but about organized power, the State. Indeed the contemporary mole, the fearful individual of the developed world, while being passive, often explicitly defining itself as a-political, demands that something be done in order to protect against frightening predators the defensive walls enclosing the space of its burrow. Negative liberty, today, is no longer the liberal utopia of the past, but rather like a sort of gated community whose borders are patrolled by a security state.

We are back to Hobbes’s view of the Sovereign, whose power is recognized and instituted so that individuals will not live in constant fear of being killed.  Killed, one must add, or also “invaded.”  The fear of terrorism is in fact combined with that of the uncontrolled, massive entry into our territory of people who are alien by ethnicity, culture, religion and who perhaps will not try to kill us (though some are trying to establish a link between migrations and terrorism), but certainly will challenge our values and transform our society.

It is certainly not so mysterious if in so many countries the lack of political participation is combined with the growing success of movements, parties and leaders offering security against the Other threatening to kill us and/or to invade us and gradually destroy our identity.

Nothing inevitable, of course. If the mole did not cower in its burrow, maybe it would have a say and an impact on the environment from which threats can originate, since it is only by exercising positive liberty that a secure space for the individual can be guaranteed not in rhetoric but in reality.  As Amartya Sen has written in purely “Berlinian” terms: “Lack of positive freedom makes individuals vulnerable as to their negative freedom.”

Our time is definitely a time of fear and also a time of contradictions.  The most glaring, the most puzzling contradiction is the one between the great vistas of globalization and the shrinking of our political and moral horizons. Technological progress is advancing at an ever more accelerated, more astounding pace, affecting communication, industrial processes, medicine.  Change is constantly transforming our daily lives, raising life expectancy and reducing absolute poverty. Yet we have never been so collectively pessimistic, never has a negative view of the world and of human destiny been so prevalent. Why?

It would be most superficial, and not very convincing, to interpret all this in terms of mere psychology, of a sort of deep malaise that has only to do with a crisis of values, a vacuum created by the weakening of religious and in general spiritual references.  What is at work, here, is indeed a combination of very concrete, very material factors.

Let us start with the first contradiction. Science and technology have dramatically increased human capacity to act upon nature in order to extract resources and to raise human well-being. The trouble is that nature is dramatically reminding us of limits that we had obtusely ignored.  Climate change – with the concomitant phenomena of droughts, rising sea levels, increased recurrence of extreme weather phenomena, forest fires – is not a myth spread by the Chinese, as the current US President has said. What is true is that it is affecting the quality of our lives on the planet and also the confidence in our capacity to raise to a challenge that is really civilizational.

But the real contradiction is not environmental, but political.  The threats and challenges that confront us both collectively and individually are global:  climate change, certainly, but also terrorism, economic crises, epidemic diseases, massive population movements.   Yet the institutional and political tools that we have at our disposal are still the traditional ones, those of the nation-state. Supra-national governance is still tentative, fragile, often ineffective. This is true even in the case of the most advanced attempt at displacing governance to a supra-national level: the European Union.  The promising talk of a simultaneous widening and deepening of the Union has turned out to be a wishful mantra, and the reality – as revealed for instance by the behavior of the Visegrad countries, rejecting burden-sharing in the area of refugee flows – is that of a renewed self-centered national-interest approach. Euro-skeptic and often xenophobic parties and leaders are thriving and scoring electoral successes all over Europe. And if this happens in the West, things are certainly not better in the Rest, where, though democracy continues to be ostensibly adhered to as an unbeatable brand name, the reality is one of political systems ranging from illiberal democracy to outright repressive authoritarianism.

But what does this have to do with globalization?  The fact is that the achievements of globalization are real, sometimes spectacular, but that they unfold without any regulatory mechanism of governance, generating the (justified) fear that the open spaces it creates entail a loss of control and of agency.  Things are decided in an unidentifiable “elsewhere” by faceless and not necessarily benevolent, and in any case self-serving, forces.  Growth is real, but the sharing of its benefits arbitrary and unequal. The game is fascinating, perhaps, but one fears that winners and losers are not determined by fair competition. True, in these fears there is also an element of paranoia but, as Woodly Allen says, even paranoids have real enemies.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that this sort of agoraphobia, the fear of the open spaces of globalization, can result in a strengthening of the nation-state, the only real framework for exercising political agency.

The fact is that, though nationalism is alive and well, the withdrawal into more familiar, more manageable framework, does not stop there.  The question is not just one of political control, but of identity, of familiarity, of homogeneity. The problem is the fact that the material features of the contemporary world (the economy, travel, communications) have increased the proximity of difference, but not the capacity to deal with it.

A disconnect that is perceived as unbearable (to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, l’enfer c’est les autres, hell is the Other). This leads to the transformation of politics into identity politics. A rush to the comfort of smaller, more  homogeneous spaces. Kafka’s burrow, again.

It is a trend that goes in the direction of separating, of building walls, of keeping out the alien. As Roger Cohen wrote recently, “The Volk is back”, and not only in Germany. Putting it differently, the foundation of democracy is shifting from demos to ethnos. In case one should be still tempted by the economicist interpretation – not only of the Marxist persuasion but, even more radical, of the neoliberal one – it would be enough to consider the recent phenomenon of the Catalan independent movement.  The origins of Barcelona’s grievances used to be economic (the fact that Catalans, and in particular the Catalan bourgeoisie, demanded full fiscal autonomy), but now if about half of the population is in favor of independence it is in spite of economic considerations. The cost of independence would be very high, as shown by the rush of many companies to shift their headquarters out of Catalonia as a reaction to the mere possibility of a secession. The Catalan bourgeoisie, once the leading “Catalanist” force, is definitely having second thoughts. The same for labor unions. Besides, it is clear that Catalonia would automatically exit from the EU, while its admission as a new country (requiring a unanimous vote of all member states) would be made difficult by the likely opposition of Spain.

No, it is not “it’s the economy, stupid”, but the politics and in particular the politics of identity. One is reminded of Raymond Aron’s sentence: “If you think people are willing to sacrifice their passions for their interests, you are wrong.”

Rather than being characterized by a revival of nationalism, our time is marked by something that can only be defined as “tribalism,” in the sense that what is growing, and producing deep political consequences, is the shrinking of allegiances to areas of homogeneity. Areas that can be defined by the nation, but also by religion or ethnicity. As a matter of fact, even a soccer team will do.

In each and every instance, identity and belonging are presented as objective dimensions while being actually subjective constructs raised to a non-negotiable status. It is a phenomenon that can be defined as idolatric insofar as idolatry is not the worship of a false god, but the workship of anything as if it was the one and only god. As both Amin Maalouf and Amartya Sen have stressed, only plural identities are both real and compatible with human coexistence and solidarity.

Separatism, for instance, claims historical roots grounded in sentimental attachment rather than serious historiography.  The same, of course, can be said of centralist nationalist ideology.   The fact that all nations are, to quote Benedict Anderson, “imagined communities” is recognized only by a minority of non-partisan intellectuals who tend to be extremely unpopular and are considered deviants and traitors to the dominant dogma.

The consequences of the hegemony of identity politics are deep and disturbing, especially since tribalism, in all its possible variants, is incompatible with an ethic which does not restrict moral obligation only within the circle of shared belonging.  The problem of partial ethics is certainly not new, but what we see now is the shrinking of those circles of recognition of common humanity and of solidarity that, though not without contradictions and backsliding, had been historically widened as an effect of the precepts of religious faith and the spreading of a humanist consensus. Today one has the disturbing feeling that within each community Huntington’s civilizational “fault lines” – imaginary but politically powerful – are being drawn by authentic entrepreneurs of fear.  The unequivocal demonstration that this is indeed the case is supplied by the fact that now anti-humanist, xenophobic, sectarian and even racist views are no longer hidden as secret vices, but flounted as a sign of a sincerity that has finally broken free from political correctness.  This reminds me of a newspaper article written several years ago by an eminent Italian writer, Piero Citati. He told the story of an encounter with someone who was traveling in his train compartment, and who opened a conversation by saying: “Dear Sir, I don’t know what you believe, but me – I am a racist.”  At the time the writer was in shock and felt he had to give an alarm for what has turned out to be a major cultural and ethical shift, so much so that no one today would consider it worthy of a newspaper article. Some welcome the end of hypocrisy, but we should not forget the brilliant definition by Larochefoucauld, a XVII century French author of memoirs and maxims: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”  Eliminating that homage means discarding all inhibitions, all limits and, what is worse, espousing and spreading a conventional wisdom that consists in a legitimation and an advertising for unethical behavior. The worst of all is when such a message of perverse sincerity is transmitted from a high political pulpit, be in in Italy or in the United States.

The present time is not only characterized by a shrinking of spaces of shared identity and shared community, but also by an unprecedented reversal as far as time is concerned. Human civilization, though grounded in the heritage of past generations, in traditions, in history, was always moved by a yearning for change, for improvement. The future was always a project, but sometimes, when the dismal conditions of the present made it extremely difficult to envisage how to implement those projects – how to go from here to there – it took the form of utopias.  The yearning for a totally new future reversing all the injustices and the shortcomings of the present.   Dreams that, however, frequently turned into nightmares since, when reality, and especially concrete human beings, proved unwilling or unable to join in introducing the advent of the utopian future, revolutionaries shifted from preaching to violence.  A tragic and recurrent pattern, particularly central and particularly murderous as far as the XX century is concerned.

Utopias have been cast into the dustbin of history, and at the same time the present looks most unpromising because of all the uncertainties, threats and dangers that underlie a generalized, endemic fear.  The present is an uncomfortable home, and the path to a better future is no longer a convincing option. We are thus only left with the past. Not the historical past, too problematic and contradictory both politically and morally, but an idealized past as the privileged kingdom of justice, power, cohesive communities.  Zygmunt Bauman last book bears the title Retrotopia, and indeed, we are witnessing an across-the-board flourishing of reactionary utopias, from the Califate to “make America great again” to the great times when we Europeans were living among themselves, with the same religion, the same traditions, and also the same history. As an English gentleman told me in London to explain his vote in favor of Brexit,

“We have to go back to the Magna Charta”.

All false, of course, something that satisfies a psychological need but has no support in reality.  But just as imagined communities generate real events, “retrotopias” are capable of exerting a real and powerful impact on the contemporary world.

But what is the contemporary world like and in particular, how can we describe contemporary international relations?

This is the text of a lectio inauguralis delivered by Roberto Toscano at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa on November 13, 2017 

Credit: Handout / NASA / AFP