Fear has always been a dominant element of human existence, across all human societies, but has our attitude to it changed? It might be argued that our concern with threats has become more pronounced. Is the twenty-first century an especially fearful period in human history?

At the heart of Frank Furedi’s book is the striking assertion that the concept of ‘fear’ is key to understanding our current socio-historical condition: his claim is that we are caught in a ‘culture of fear’. According to Furedi, the idea of a culture of fear provides genuine insight into our current predicament, that is, what is to be regretted about the present.

In recent times, allegations that the general population is being deliberately manipulated by misplaced fears have become commonplace in political life. Such allegations are typically raised with the aim of debunking the arguments of one’s opponents, casting them as forms of ‘moral panic’. An obvious case in point here would be the debates held in the United Kingdom in 2016 over whether Britain should leave the European Union, in which both sides attacked their respective opponents for engaging in scare campaigns. Such debunking is a major theme of the book.

The central socio-historical claim in the book is that we live in a world in which the ‘black arts’ of the politics of fear have undue influence upon our public policymakers. Ours is a world where fearmongers are more rampant than ever before. Furedi’s prime examples of fearmongering are concerns with what are often regarded as key issues of the environmental left, such as climate change, skin cancer, Frankenfoods, and the stigmatisation of those who feed their infants formula (though, interestingly, not the berating in the developing world of those who breastfeed). He argues that in all cases we are inflating the nature and range of threats faced by society; at one point he even suggests that ‘[n]ot since the Dark Ages has there been so much concern about the malevolent passions that afflict humanity’.

Furedi argues that we spend an unprecedented degree of emotional and rhetorical resources talking about fear; this rhetoric of fear is fuelled by a coterie of ‘professional fear entrepreneurs’ who spread what he refers to as the ‘teleology of doom’. Their rhetoric encourages the growth of a negative attitude towards future uncertainty and is underpinned by both excessively fatalistic views about human agency and exaggerated views of human fragility. It is worth noting here that Furedi is also opposed to drawing distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of fearmongering – he regards it all as part of the ‘teleology of doom’. According to Furedi, the most distinctive feature of this culture of fear is the obsession with safety and with the minimisation of risk. He refers to this as the ‘safety imperative’ and claims that over the past forty years we have witnessed the transformation of safety into a fund-amental social value as well as the emergence of fear as a mental health issue.

What might be the ultimate cause of Western society’s alleged ‘cultural script of fear’? Furedi suggests it is the loss of faith in science and of Enlightenment values. We need to return to an Enlightenment perspective that is confident of humanity’s ‘ability to know, understand and ultimately control the future’.

The aim of the book, then, is to explain how the culture of fear works and, more significantly, how our culture might be transformed into one in which the general public is motivated by what humankind might achieve, and in this way avoid the fatalistic influence of the culture of fear. However, his arguments, in general, are not at all convincing. In particular, it not clear that our age is unique with respect to the fear of potential threats. Indeed, much of his own discussion – of, for instance, moral panics in the 1930s or witch-hunts in the fifteenth century – undermines his thesis that fear is a distinctive feature of the twenty-first century and thus key to understanding who we are. To be sure, we fear different things from our predecessors, but it is hard to see that we are noticeably more fearful than they were. If this is the case, then it seems unlikely that the concept of fear furnishes us with a genuinely insightful category for understanding our social world.

Secondly, his unwillingness to distinguish explicitly between well-founded and baseless fears is odd. Surely there are potential threats, such as climate change, about which we should be seriously concerned. It is also odd – especially given his praise for the Enlightenment and scientific reasoning – that Furedi should be sceptical about the findings of climate scientists. Admittedly, there are those in the environmental movement who are prone to anti-science romanticism, but that charge can hardly be levelled at the majority of scientists studying climate.

What does ring true in the book is his claim that our public institutions appear to be overly obsessed with safety. Why might this be so? While human beings have always been prone to misplaced fears, why has that anxiety expressed itself in the particular way that it has? This is the interesting socio-historical question. Unfortunately, on this subject, Furedi’s book leaves us none the wiser.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews How Fear Works: Culture of fear in the twenty-first century by Frank Furedi
  • Contents Category Society
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Fear has always been a dominant element of human existence, across all human societies, but has our attitude to it changed? It might be argued that our concern with threats has become more pronounced. Is the twenty-first century an especially fearful period in human history ...

  • Book Title How Fear Works
  • Book Author Frank Furedi
  • Book Subtitle Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury, $39.99 hb, 306 pp, 9781472947727

To what extent does the social practice of inheritance undermine social justice? Indeed, if inheritance does further inequality, should we, in order to ensure a fairer society, restrict the right to bequeath?

A mainstay of political philosophy since the late seventeenth century, questions such as these were still vigorously debated in the public sphere in the early twentieth century. However, one hundred years later one rarely hears the topic raised in public debate, despite the fact that, as anthropologist David Graeber and many others have argued, inequality is once again on the rise, and demonstrably so.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'The Inheritance of Wealth: Justice, equality, and the right to bequeath' by Daniel Halliday
  • Contents Category Philosophy
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    To what extent does the social practice of inheritance undermine social justice? Indeed, if inheritance does further inequality, should we, in order to ensure a fairer society, restrict the right to bequeath? A mainstay of political philosophy since the late seventeenth century, questions such as ...

  • Book Title The Inheritance of Wealth
  • Book Author Daniel Halliday
  • Book Subtitle Justice, equality, and the right to bequeath
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $61.95 hb, 235 pp, 9780198803355

What is money, how do we create it, and how politically significant is its production? In The Production of Money, political economist Ann Pettifor makes the striking claim that the way we currently produce money gives rise to one of the most substantial challenges facing Western democracy. But how could this be so? Money is produced by printing presses and there we have the end of it. What threat could it represent for democracy?

At present, the Western democratic institutions that have remained fundamentally unchanged since the settlements at the end of World War II are under considerable threat. Most notably – and this has been much discussed by various political pundits – there are powerful political groups who reject ideals such as the separation of powers and limits upon executive authority and who have used the economic upheavals and social dislocations resulting from the global financial crisis to pursue what are fundamentally anti-democratic agendas.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'The Production of Money: How to break the power of bankers' by Ann Pettifor
  • Contents Category Economics
  • Book Title The Production of Money
  • Book Author Ann Pettifor
  • Book Subtitle How to break the power of bankers
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Verso, $26.99 hb, 192 pp, 9781786631343

The casual visitor to Oslo, with little or no knowledge of Norway’s recent history, could be forgiven for being unaware that per capita this is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. With its predominantly nineteenth-century streetscapes and the absence of large or monumental buildings, there is in fact little evidence, except for the recently built opera house on the harbour, that Oslo is the capital of a nation with the world’s largest future fund. The latter, with assets worth 185 per cent of the country’s GDP, was built on rates of taxes on petroleum resources, that in some instances, were as high as eighty-five per cent. The Norwegians have managed to avoid the euphoria that often accompanies mineral riches and resource booms, and have invested their petroleum riches so as to become one of the world’s biggest creditors.

This, then, is the puzzle that is Norway. A seafaring nation with poor soils but a great deal of mineral wealth has been able to create a sovereign wealth fund that is their ‘trillion dollar baby’. How was Norway able to extract so much in economic rent from multinational oil companies?

Paul Cleary’s interest in Norway’s success is motivated by his experiences with the current Australian minerals boom. An Australian journalist who worked in East Timor and has written on the oil industry in the Timor Gap, Cleary was astonished to discover the control the Norwegian state had over the development of mineral resources. This book is the outcome of that astonishment. As he notes in the afterword, his goal was to understand why Norway was able to amass a Future Fund worth US$760 billion, while Australia, after the biggest and longest minerals boom since the 1850s gold rush, finds itself more than $1 trillion in debt. At the heart of the book are fundamental questions of public policy.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'Trillion Dollar Baby: How Norway Beat the Oil Giants and Won a Lasting Fortune' by Paul Cleary
  • Contents Category Norway
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    The casual visitor to Oslo, with little or no knowledge of Norway’s recent history, could be forgiven for being unaware that per capita this is one of the wealthiest ...

  • Book Title Trillion Dollar Baby
  • Book Author Paul Cleary
  • Book Subtitle How Norway Beat the Oil Giants and Won a Lasting Fortune
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Black Inc. $27.99 pb, 235 pp, 9781863958961

Jason Stanley argues in his new book that propaganda is more prevalent within liberal democracies – and is of far greater concern – than is typically assumed. Indeed, Stanley suggests that the very idea that propaganda only proliferates within authoritarian regimes, which have ministries set aside for its production, is a central tenet of the propaganda of the West. Stanley's aim in this book is to outline the distinctive features of propaganda within a liberal democracy (he is particularly focused on the United States). On his account, the 'flawed ideology' of vested and powerful interest groups undermines the genuinely valuable ideals at the heart of the democratic project; this is what he refers to as 'demagogic propaganda'. Although I am highly sceptical of the argumentative strategies Stanley employs, the book raises significant issues about the extent to which public debates in countries like the United States and Australia involve distorted conceptions of what democratic principles properly entail.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'How Propaganda Works' by Jason Stanley
  • Contents Category Media
  • Book Title How Propaganda Works
  • Book Author Jason Stanley
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Princeton University Press (Footprint), $56.95 hb, 373 pp, 9780691164427

Consider the following dilemma. If it is possible to identify the cause of a person's action and beliefs – causes that are outside the agent's own conscious reasoning – in what sense can we say that the person chooses what she does or she thinks? If the person did not consciously choose, then it is reasonable to ask whether she should be held morally responsible for any of the subsequent consequences of her actions. This is the general territory of the puzzle that Neil Levy's thoughtful and elegantly written new book addresses. He explores what scientific advances in the study of consciousness might tell us about our capacity for choice and, hence, our responsibility for those choices.

In recent times, cognitive scientists have in fact shown ways in which a great deal of our decision-making is driven by factors of which we are unaware. For instance, our judgements of the 'social proximity' of others will differ depending on whether we have a cold or hot drink in our hands: the warmer cup makes for more positive assessments of our relationship with other people. Perhaps of greater concern are Implicit Association Tests that show that even those with explicit non-discriminatory ideals will often more quickly associate a woman with a family than with a career or a black face with criminality. Here, the underlying attitudes are often diametrically opposed to the sincerely held explicit beliefs and attitudes of experimental subjects. There is a large amount of such experimental evidence, all of which undermines the thought that our morally significant choices are always consciously determined.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'Consciousness and Moral Responsibility' by Neil Levy
  • Contents Category Philosophy
  • Book Title Consciousness and Moral Responsibility
  • Book Author Neil Levy
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $117 hb, 176 pp, 978019870638

It is now more than six years since the Global Financial Crisis threatened to topple the banking systems of the Western world. Although a complete breakdown in the financial system was ultimately avoided, one consequence of the events of 2008 has been the biggest slump in economic activity since the Great Depression. Australia was, in the main, spared the economic damage that ravaged large parts of Europe, and there has been little discussion in these parts of the causes and social effects of what the authors refer to as the ‘Great Recession’. Somewhat surprisingly, on the evidence presented in this book (and despite both the United States and the United Kingdom being severely affected) it would seem that the Anglosphere at large is guilty of what the authors call the ‘veil of complacency’. The book asserts that in those countries there is little concern for either the financial consequences or the victims of the crisis. Why should this be the case? Perhaps the Great Recession was not as bad as the headlines have suggested.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'Hard Times' by Tom Clark and Adrian Heath
  • Contents Category Economics
  • Book Title HARD TIMES: THE DIVISIVE TOLL OF THE ECONOMIC SLUMP
  • Book Author by Tom Clark and Anthony Heath
  • Biblio Yale University Press (Footprint), $30 hb, 310 pp, 9780300203776

Albert O. Hirschman (1915–2012) was a development economist and political theorist whose work is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how economic life figures in the political worlds we inhabit and the ways in which we give meaning to our lives in market-based societies. Perhaps best known for the distinction between ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, Hirschman was a prolific theorist who wrote about the role individual moral virtue and individual self-interest should play in economic activity, how economic growth in the developing world might best be achieved, and the reactionary rhetoric of neo-conservative politicians in the late 1980s, to list but some of the areas he covered. Hirschman’s writing was elegant; further, he understood the importance of the well-chosen word. He was, as this new biography by Jeremy Adelman shows, an economist for whom the essays of Montaigne were as important as the writings of Ricardo and Smith.

Hirschman, it must be said, led a remarkable life, as even the most cursory reading of this biography will attest. Many devoted readers of his work in the social sciences would, I imagine, be completely unaware of the extent to which this writer of scholarly tomes was politically and culturally engaged with some of the most significant historical events and movements of the twentieth century.

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  • Custom Article Title Adrian Walsh reviews 'The Essential Hirschman' and his biography
  • Contents Category Economics
  • Book Title Worldly Philosopher
  • Book Author Jeremy Adelman
  • Book Subtitle The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Princeton University Press (Footprint Books), $74 hb, 754 pp, 9780691155678
  • Book Title 2 The Essential Hirschman
  • Book Author 2 Jeremy Adelman
  • Biblio 2 Princeton University Press (Footprint Books), $47.95 hb, 401 pp, 9780691159904
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Tuesday, 25 March 2014 16:04

The perils of austerity

Mark Blyth’s Austerity:The History of a Dangerous Idea is at heart a morality tale, or, more accurately, an account of two competing and diametrically opposed morality tales jostling to explain both the recent Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that engulfed much of Europe in 2008 and the austerity policies that were implemented by most governments in that region in its aftermath. According to proponents of austerity, economic growth can only be achieved through reductions in state spending. Blyth argues with great passion and intelligence that the austerity policies, which have involved severe cuts to government services and higher tax rates for average wage-earners, have not only caused great misery but are, in the end, economically counter-productive.

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  • Custom Article Title Mark Blyth on the Dangers of Austerity
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    Should state spending on government be more restricted, or is it private financial institutions that should pay? Adrian Walsh writes about fresh controversies over international austerity programs.

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  • Book Title Austerity
  • Book Author Mark Blyth
  • Book Subtitle The History of a Dangerous Idea
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  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $29.95 hb, 288 pp, 9780199828302

Canon members

Adrian Walsh

 

A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand
edited by Graham Oppy et al.
Monash University Publishing, $59.95 pb, 734 pp, 9780980651201

 

 

Early in Murray Bail’s novel The Pages (2008), we find the following commentary on the very idea of philosophical research being undertaken in Australia:

How anyone can believe that Sydney could produce in its own backyard a philosopher of world significance or even minor significance shows how little understanding there is of the conditions required for philosophical thought.

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  • Contents Category Philosophy