Whatever happened to the war on terror? As recently as the 2004 election, it was considered political disaster for a candidate to question its premises. Now, attacking the war on terror and “the politics of fear” has become a liberal cause. Zbigniew Brzezinski, sage of liberal diplomacy, tells us in the Washington Post that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Barack Obama calls for “a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear.” John Edwards has become the only front-running Democratic presidential candidate explicitly to call for an end to the war on terror. He has leveled the now commonplace charge that the war on terror is just a “political frame and political rhetoric,” which the President and his people use “to justify everything they do.”
Of course, these critics do not wish to overturn every aspect of the past seven years. No politician can forget the apparent purpose and unity that the war on terror seemed to offer in its earliest days. From Obama to Brzezinski, that Bush “squandered” that early unity is a recurring topos of the war on terror’s critics. Liberal hawks and conservatives alike were drawn to the possibility that uniting against an existential threat could be a source of political renewal. George Packer wrote of the general state of alertness that “what I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek.”
What (temporarily) yanked Americans out of their passivity was, of course, not political conviction but fear, not argument but the sheer force of necessity. One might think it odd that on the left, too, there is a nostalgia for a period marked by such fear and anxiety. Yet in conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.
Thus, even if the declining fortunes of the war on terror give the appearance that the politics of fear itself is on the wane, another campaign may be reviving it. While Democrats have become increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-democratic consequences of the hard power of the war on terror, they seem more comfortable with a “soft power” politics of fear: environmentalism.
Environmentalism is one of the few movements on the left that presents itself in the same totalizing political terms that the war on terror does on the right, and its influence only seems to grow as the war on terror’s influence declines. The New York Times’ bellwether of elite opinion, Thomas Friedman, recently swung around to the new framework. His solution for overcoming the “trauma and divisiveness of the Bush years” is “a new green ideology, [which] properly defined, has the power to mobilize liberals and conservatives, evangelicals, and atheists, big business and environmentalists around an agenda that can both pull us together and propel us forward.”
The congenitally unoriginal Friedman channels the hopes of others. Most prominently, it has been Al Gore who has championed the idea that environmentalism should replace the war on terror. He has long reminded us “global warming is a threat greater than terrorism.” This could have been simply a pragmatic judgment, but Gore is interested in more than technical risk-analysis. His framework is also inspiring and existential:
[T]here are dire warnings that the worst catastrophe in the history of human civilization is bearing down on us, gathering strength as it comes… This crisis is bringing us an opportunity to experience what few generations in history ever have the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise.
In the attempt to rekindle hope and collective aspiration, however, Gore has summarized the way in which environmentalism reinvents the politics of fear. The belief that a threat to human life, especially one as global and overwhelming as eco-apocalypse, can transcend normal politics and create a sense of unique moral purpose is the differentia specifica of the politics of fear.
The global warming argument can be as morally coercive as the infamous ticking time-bomb torture scenario, even if the clock ticks slower. It’s not just that we should unite; we are, as Gore puts it, “forced by circumstance” to act. In the face of real political opportunities, there is always an element of freedom. One chooses between two alternatives, picks a principle, and commits to it. Imagining ecological collapse as an overweening crisis demanding immediate action and collective sacrifice, with emergency decisions overriding citizens’ normal wants and wishes, is not really a politics at all, but the suspension of politics—there is no political choice, no constituencies to balance, nothing to deliberate. There is no free activity, just do or die. It seems we will have traded one state of emergency for another.
While many have of course accused environmentalists of using scare tactics, the new environmentalism surrounding global warming is a politics of fear in a deeper sense. The fast and easy use of the slogan “politics of fear” has not contributed very much to our understanding of it. As various analysts have pointed out, the politics of fear is better understood in relation to what we might call the security paradigm, rather than mere hysteria and manipulation. A widely circulated essay by Kanishka Jayasuriya, posted on the Social Science Research Council website, warned not long after 9/11 that the “most serious danger” of the war on terror was that “under the appealing cloak of ‘security’, a debilitating form of ‘anti politics’ that marginalizes the constructive conflicts…debate and discussion” would emerge. Jayasuriya did not make the pundit’s point that the cloak of security is anti-political because it recasts opposition as unpatriotic. Rather, his concern was that, as over the longer span, “The language of security . . . permeates every sphere of life – ranging from finance to the environment,” the consequence of “securitization” is to displace controversial and expansive democratic discussions of “power and redistribution,” and make purely symbolic their real grounding principles of liberty and equality.
The claim that universal risks—especially environmental ones—transcend conflicts of national, religious and class interest, is now part of mainstream political sociology. The paradigmatic “supra-national and non-class-specific global hazards“ that the popular German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, identified as defining features of our time in his book Risk Society are the unintended environmental effects of industrialization-like pollution. Moreover, with Friedman and Gore, Beck believes these global hazards promise “a new type of social and political dynamism” that transcends all social differences.
This global, environmental risk-consciousness is an innovation in the politics of fear because it differs in important ways from the security concerns of other recent periods of fear-laden politics, the 1930s and 1950s, in Depression and Cold War. Security in these periods was mainly institutional-associated with economic crisis, war, and anti-state subversion. As the historian Ernest May has suggested, “national security” has meant “preserving the United States as a free nation, with its fundamental institutions and values intact.”
The referent of security today is importantly different-the relevant object to be secured is not the “fundamental institutions and values” of society but physical or biological existence. In the analysis of Giorgio Agamben [see “Apocalypse Deferred,” n+1 No. 3], the defining question of politics has become “which form of organization would be best suited to the task of assuring the care, control, and use of bare life.” By bare life he means the life of the individual conceived as a natural, physical creature with needs, wants and desires that can be known through the human sciences and administered by the state. This stands in opposition to the citizen who can exercise his self-determining capacities and assert his rights only within a specific institutional framework.
In Agamben’s words: “The declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.” Rather than occasionally suspending the constitution to save the state from war, depression and revolution, we have a recurring, bureaucratic politics aimed at taming any kind of uncertainty that might threaten the individual’s health and safety.
Rather than a departure from this securitized existence of the body, environmentalism is its clearest extension to all that surrounds us. We hear of the “health of the planet” as well as the species, in a further extension of life-politics into a kind of global hygiene.
Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overweening threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” Threats to the very conditions of life, rather than social controversies over power and distribution, come to motivate political engagement—an engagement that presumes setting to one side inequality and unfreedom as the central categories of political contestation. As Slavoj Zizek says, “popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature’ … it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production.” In the Bush years we have seen that security is an unstable foundation for institutions—the separation of powers, constitutionalism, federalism, civil society—that liberals have recently sought to rehabilitate. It is a principle that can only constrain and limit politics, not renew our political imagination. No social change is possible without a great deal of uncertainty, and even the production of insecurity. No truly democratic choice comes with a guarantee of success, and always produces unintended outcomes. Democracy must embrace an experimental attitude toward society. While it may seem odd to take aim at environmentalism while the uglier war on terror still presides, it is because we wish to move past the politics of fear that we should subject all the alternatives to rigorous scrutiny. As critics of the war on terror struggle to find a new legitimating principle, it appears they face a risk of renovating and reviving the same obsession with security and survival.