Editor’s Choice May 2021: COVID-19 and the Politics of Fear

Matthew Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Lancaster University (m.johnson@lancaster.ac.uk), Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield (m.flinders@sheffield.ac.uk) and Dan Degerman, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, University of Bristol (dan.degerman@bristol.ac.uk)

This Editor’s Choice features contributions examining the (mis-)management of the pandemic. A year ago, we (Flinders, Degerman and Johnson) came together out of shared concern for the place of emotions in politics and shared belief that many orthodoxies on fear as an instrument of public administration were just wrong. As the pandemic worked its way through communities and countries across the globe, it became increasingly clear that long-standing rejections of fear as a negative or pre-political emotion failed to grasp not just its adaptive evolutionary value, but the vital role it can play in enabling societies to deal with crises. We set out the ways in which key frames of analysis had been rendered inadequate by the pandemic. Our conclusion was that, as a consequence, there was space for new scholarship on the politics of fear. This issue is the most substantive iteration of that work.

While this issue provides new, original and innovative analyses of the pandemic, COVID-19 has reminded us of a truth apparent since our emergence as a species: we are animals vulnerable to communicable disease. In that context, it seems not just arrogant, but ridiculous, for human beings to have dismissed as pathological an evolutionary adaptation so vital for dealing with threats to existence. Fear stems from perception of threat and serves as a stimulus for action. It is not just a trigger of fight or flight. It can be much less pervasive than critics suggest and can permit considered development of strategies for dealing with threat (see Mobbs 2015).

That so many thinkers have pathologized fear can be explained by numerous factors. We, in industrialized countries, have experienced decades of peace, decades of rising life expectancies and almost a century without pandemic. It is increasingly clear that luck has played a significant role in that and that we may simply be experiencing regression to the mean. Those fortunate circumstances have abstracted us from the visceral basis of our being. It has also served to grant us misleading accounts of human agency. Whether in Arendt’s belief that fear is anti-political or Nussbaum’s belief that fear is irrational and antithetical to doing and being well, there is a sense that fear is utterly incompatible with ‘truly’ human behaviour. This is unhelpful. On the one hand, it undermines our willingness to listen to an emotion that can often serve us well in identifying threat and thereby in ourselves. On the other, it fosters misconceived analyses of the nature of our circumstances and the ability function while denying a fundamental element of our emotional spectrum. If we are to be free of fear, and to be able to flourish, we need to be free of threat, not just blind to it.

The three selections for Editor’s Choice reflect the range of contributions, examining discourse and public administration, the source and articulation of fear and the relationship between fear and trust.

Ruth Wodak begins by deploying discourse analysis to examine four frames used within EU countries to ‘mitigate the “dread of death” and counter the “denial of death”: a “religious frame”, a “dialogic frame”, a frame emphasizing “trust”, and a frame of “leading a war”’. The result is a comprehensive analysis of divergent and often dysfunctional national approaches and conclusion that ‘defeating the virus and the pandemic in general implies confronting (and not denying) facts, defeating the illness and thus, the fear of death’.

Peter Jones’ reply to Elias Moser examines the implications of Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia for lockdown provisions. Jones differentiates between the emotion of fear and recognition of risk. He argues that Nozick might find reason to ‘justify lockdowns even though their purpose was not, for the most part, to forestall rights-violations’, concluding that it ‘would be a strange state of affairs if, in a pandemic, the respect that a society was duty-bound to accord its citizens’ rights could not but redound to its citizens’ disadvantage’.

Finally, in reply to Paul Faulkner’s examination of the moral implications of Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown, Philip Pettit explores the relationship between communal interests, communal standards and predictability of behaviour in mediating public trust in government guidance.

These contributions each advance understanding of key elements of governance at a time of global crisis.

Further reading

David Bartram: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Didier Bigo, Elspeth Guild and Elif Mendos Kuşkonmaz: Obedience in times of COVID-19 pandemics: politics of protection, politics of fear and governmentality of unease

Dan Degerman, Matthew Flinders & Matthew Johnson: Understanding the politics of fear: COVID, crises and democracy

Paul Faulkner: Lockdown and a Case Study in How to Lose Trust

Pablo Fernández Velasco, Bastien Perroy, and Roberto Casati: The collective disorientation of the COVID-19 crisis

Frank Furedi: Reply to reviews of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Peter Jones: The Pandemic, Freedom and Fear: A Reply to Moser

John A. Hall: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Leland Harper: Confronting COVID-19: Rational and Unique Fear in Black America

Isabela Kalil, Weslei Pinheiro, Alex Kalil, Sofia Silveira-Florek, João Vicente Pereira, Wiverson Azarias, & Ana Beatriz Amparo: Politics of fear in Brazil: Far-right conspiracy theories on COVID-19

Ned Lebow: Fear, pathogens and political order

Claudia Leeb: The Fear of Covid: a Psychoanalytic Critical Theory Perspective

Noëlle McAfee: A reply to Castration Anxiety, COVID-19, and the Extremist Right by Claudia Leeb

Elias Moser: Nozick on Fear and the Covid-19 Lockdown Policy

Philip Pettit: Lockdown and breakdown: a reply to Faulkner

Matthew Ratcliffe: A reply to Fernández Velasco, Perroy and Casati

Marcella Schmidt di Friedberg: A reply to Fernández Velasco, Perroy and Casati

Férdia Stone-Davis: Review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

Kaspar Villadsen: What is the New Governmentality of the COVID-19 Pandemic? A Reply to Didier Bigo, Elspeth Guild and Elif Mendos Kuşkonmaz     

Ruth Wodak: Crisis-Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Politics of Fear and Hope

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