The subtitle of this blog is: “North Korea, Japan and the Politics of Fear’ but what is the politics of fear?
Fear penetrates society. I may seem dramatic and unnecessarily general to say so, but fear is a, if not the, major moderator of social life. It keeps people in check. It moderates your driving, it conditions your social interactions, and it keeps you alive. Fear, in tandem with an appreciation of risk, is a social force unlike any other. Thus it is unsurprising that we find it thriving in politics.
Political fear fosters subservience. It is polarising, removing the middle ground from debate. Like a stampede of wildebeest, it brings a population’s thoughts into line. The palpable fear (or should that be anger?) of terrorism post-9/11 has created a climate in which, at least initially, populations were willing to cut back their civil liberties in order to make it more difficult for a handful of terrorists to infiltrate and operate within a country. No one would dare risk being a terrorist sympathiser.
Fear, to paraphrase, is the opiate of the masses. Those that can manipulate, or even generate, political fear stand to benefit enormously. A successful attempt to manipulate fear can generate wide-ranging political support that can allow a break from the traditional rules of political action (conceptually similar to Ole Waever’s securitisation theory). The identification of a convincing threat is all that is needed.
The benefits of political fear, to policymakers, can be seen in the rallying effect of war. During wartime, criticism of the broad political project of the war itself (although not necessarily its conduct) becomes taboo. The needs of the state supersede those of the citizenry and opposition is placed within a discourse of internal threat or fifth columnism . War elucidates the ‘other’ in sharp contrast to the ‘self’.
The war rally effect has long been recognised, just look at the Russo-Japanese War, initiated, in part at least, in order to placate and consolidate an uppity populace. Of course, when things go wrong the equation changes, cynicism and resistance take over. See, for instance, the Russian revolution and the anti-war protests of the 1960s/70s.
Cynicism, one might argue, is becoming more prevalent in our own age. We are strained with fear fatigue: the constant fluctuations of the terror alert systems once piqued our emotions, but now, having gone on for 6 years with no sign of reaching lower thresholds, we are comfortably numb.
The modern political party is tailored to the manipulation of fear: PR spin-doctoring makes the best (worst?) use of that most potent instrument of fear, the media, who propagate and editorialise their messages, openly or by stealth, by means designed to grab the attention of the average guy on the street. The days of a discreetly wheelchair-bound Roosevelt communicating by radio are long gone, ever since Nixon got sweaty while debating with Kennedy, the power of the media to make or break a politician has been clear. Today’s politician must have the image-consciousness of a supermodel, a far cry from the days of Churchill (“Madam, you are ugly. In the morning, I shall be sober.”)
Why is this worrying? Fear gives democracy the trappings of autocracy. However, unlike autocracy, the government of a fear-ridden democracy have far less control than the leadership of an autocratic state. A wannabe democratic-despot has to expend a lot of political energy and rhetoric in order to have their way. They must prey on our insecurities and manipulate our psychologies.
This, I argue, is what is under way in Japan. Issues regarding its relations with North Korea are surrounded by an atmosphere of fear (atmosfear?) that conditions political action. With the abduction issue in particular, no-one can seem be against efforts to return the Japanese citizens taken to North Korea (even if the remainder are probably dead), no less that no-one can seem to be for the rights of terrorists. Debate is weakened, and without debate, democracy is weakened allowing ideologies in. Under Abe Shinzo, who was pulling strings behind the issue from 2002, the issue was tacked onto an agenda of new conservatism, the ideology of the LDP’s Young (and not so young) Turks. His fever pitch approach was an abuse of the abduction issue and one of many examples of the (ab)use of fear in the issue that I will endeavour to explore within this forum.