Guide Fear: The History of a Political Idea

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For many commentators, September 11 inaugurated a new era of fear. But as Corey Robin shows in his unsettling tour of the Western imagination―the first.
Table of contents

Clearly all four were concerned with the place of fear in liberal ideology, but there was more to them all than that. This approach finds most success with Hobbes, whom Robin depicts as championing fear on purely rational grounds: only by inculcating fear in every subject would the sovereign be able to prevent them from engaging in the sort of self-destructive behavior that nearly ruined England; and which, should they destroy themselves, would cost them all the things which made life worth living. With the other three he is less successful because he never establishes that fear was a primary object of their thinking.

In the second half the book completely falls apart. Robin's premise is just, namely, that fear is mechanism used to allocate power and resources in American society But his historical analysis of this reality undermines his argument. Robin conveys the impression that fear only came into being with the Cold War, ignoring the fact that fear has been rife in American culture since the time of the Revolution, which was animated by fears of British conspiracies to snuff out American liberty, and was subsequently followed by fears of immigrants an ongoing concern , abolitionists, the permanence of the Union the Civil War, hello , communists in the early part of the twentieth century, and so on.

Fear is not exceptional, but then nothing innate to the human mind could be so considered. Liberalism has no special purchase, or even a leasehold, on fear. Robin ignores this, and the second half goes down the drain with him. Take, for example, his chapter on fear in the workplace. He characterizes labor relations as defined by the autocracy of hierarchy. He adduces plenty of evidence in the form of egregious abuses of workers by their supervisors to claim that workers live in a constant state of fear of losing their jobs, or worse.

Yet historically the modern corporation is a paradise compared to the labor relations which prevailed in early modern times. Besides reading for the most part like warmed over union propaganda, Robin compounds his difficulties by discussing the means employers use to thwart unionization without once mentioning the right-to-work laws which prevent unionization in many states, especially those of the South. Such a glaring omission makes it hard to take anything else he says on the matter seriously.

There are times, too, it seems Robin has never read a novel in which the hero or heroine seeks to escape the insular, closed-minded, repressive surveillance of rural or small town society. There was a time when the anonymity of the big city and its big workplaces was considered a boon to personal autonomy. That promise has not always been fulfilled, but Robin's pretense that it never existed confirms his historical blinders. By far the greatest flaw in the book is Robin's treatment of McCarthyism, which he treats as the categorical manifestation of what he styles "fear, American style.

If fear is as pervasive in modern American society as he says it is, then McCarthyism cannot be regarded as a particularly revealing episode, and therefore does not deserve especial attention. If, on the other hand, McCarthyism is exceptional, then its very nature vitiates its potential to be generalized. That is, it cannot speak to the broader culture because it is unique. Either way, McCarthyism ruins Robin's argument.

With McCarthyism the structural and substantive defects of Robin's analysis combine. He cannot identify a particular mode of fear in liberal thought, he can only analyze it through its historical manifestations.


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The problem is that the history he offers is poor. He is surely correct that fear is a powerful source in American politics, and he offers some compelling insights about how liberalism perpetuates that fear. Namely, that in the absence of any positive conception of justice, right, or some other good around which it can coalesce, liberalism requires fear to maintain its moral and intellectual force. That argument deserves to be taken seriously; whether one finds it persuasive or not is another matter. But Robin presents this as a historical account, and there it fails, because he attends to matters that do little to support his argument while overlooking so many that would.

This is history as committed by political science: incoherent, inconsistent, and illogical.

But it won't be until it's the title of a different one. Nov 21, Conor rated it liked it Shelves: holding-forth , non-fiction , politics. I began following Corey Robin on Facebook a few years ago, and at some point I made some snarky comment to him. Apparently he is one of these public personalities who engages with his followers, and he really let me have it.

Corey Robin

At first he just made a snide remark about my comment being Spiro Agnew-esque, and I rolled my eyes and snarked back. We got into a pretty heated back-and-forth, and I don't think it was either of our best sides on display. But, although I still don't love his Facebook comme I began following Corey Robin on Facebook a few years ago, and at some point I made some snarky comment to him.

But, although I still don't love his Facebook comments, I have always admired how prolific and articulate and challenging his articles are.

More about this book

I recommend him to you! So I decided to look into his two books. I had read some negative reviews of this one, but I wanted to pick it up anyway. It's true that the first part is prettttty dry. There's a lot of very esoteric discussion of Hobbes and Montesquieu that I'm not sure I really absorbed or was what I came to this book for. But toward the end there is some provocative discussion of the workings of American government and pluralism and the negative aspects of things like separation of powers and civic society that I found interesting after a lifetime of having de Tocqueville crammed down my throat.

I'll be reading his more recent book, "The Reactionary Mind," but more for what I've read in his shorter-form writing than this work. Sep 03, Nils rated it liked it Shelves: intellectual-history. A somewhat bizarre book. The first half offers a solid history-of-ideas focused on the political idea of fear in a leading theorist from the 17th century Hobbes, who was concerned with the use of fear in establishing the modern state , 18th century Montesquieu, who saw fear as what made political liberalism necessary , 19th century Tocqueville, who regarded anxiety as the natural condition of egalitarian democracy , and 20th century Arendt, who theorized the relationship between state and ma A somewhat bizarre book.

The first half offers a solid history-of-ideas focused on the political idea of fear in a leading theorist from the 17th century Hobbes, who was concerned with the use of fear in establishing the modern state , 18th century Montesquieu, who saw fear as what made political liberalism necessary , 19th century Tocqueville, who regarded anxiety as the natural condition of egalitarian democracy , and 20th century Arendt, who theorized the relationship between state and mass under totalitarian conditions not once, but twice.

He rightly points out that there are two types of political fear: fear of the government, and fear of the people. The second half of the book then delves into the use and abuse of political fear in contemporary America, and becomes an almost stream-of-association set of things-that-concern-Corey, like the racism of anti-terrorism, or the need for unions to enforce labor democracy — things only tangentially related to the types of political fear that his theorists in the scholarly part of the book were concerned with.

Corey Robin - Wikiquote

Indeed, by the end, he seems to have forgotten entirely about the intellectual history he began with, and is concerned only with grinding his activist axe. Jul 13, James rated it really liked it. Both an intellectual history and an intervention into current political and theoretical debates. This is very worth reading, at least the first half.

What Robin does seems obvious now that I've read it, but I never would have thought of it: he traces the role of "fear" and, to a lesser extent, "anxiety" in modern political thinkers, notably Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Arendt. Since Hobbes, fear has been seen as that which might weld together a polity in the absence of animating ideals justice, equality.

This shows up all the time in contemporary political argument: everyone who defends liberalism by showing us the horror of non-liberal societies Judith Shklar most obviously, but he also has interesting readings of Philip Gourevitch, Richard Rorty, Arendt, and a whole bevy of more popular commentators is guilty of some version of this argument. At this point, I would add Paul Berman. This is always rooted in a lack of a positive vision and a distrust in mass society, for right or wrong.

All of that is very interesting, but the second half of the book falls apart: he makes obvious points about McCarthyism, etc. His chapter on how our political institutions federalism, separation of powers, etc. Jun 29, Foppe rated it it was amazing. This book consists of two parts. As Robin points out, even though the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon were certainly terrible, there is nothing natural or necessary about the political and societal consequences of the attacks, and the fear and confusion they caused.

The other thing Hobbes premiered was the thought that morality especially insofar as guaranteed by the state, but also in the broader sense could be founded on fear. The next person to make this move does so coming out of the experience of WWII: starting with Judith Shklar, many 20th-century liberals e. Walzer, Rorty have started from some variation on the argument that since experiences of suffering physical and psychological are 'easily recognizable' by anyone regardless of culture, we should just justify our behavior by reference to a perceived duty or desire to stop and prevent it.

Worried that people would no longer experience sufficient pushback in their formative years, many liberals believed that people should be discouraged from engaging in political activism, and be encouraged to engage instead in civil activity which tends to not disturb the institutional and political status quo. Meanwhile, any excess political fervor should be channeled towards foreign human rights abuses, while experimentation with democracy should similarly happen abroad.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea

The problem with this is obvious: without a yardstick against which to check whether the experience of suffering is reasonable, you may well end up supporting people whose suffering is caused by their no longer being allowed to beat their wives, keep slaves, or to emotionally abuse and fire their employees whenever they feel like it. A second line of argument worth mentioning here concerns the interaction between fear, social status and economic security.

Appropriately, he starts this part with an analysis of McCarthyism, in which he looks at the role played by political especially interesting here are his discussions of how separation of powers, the rule of law, and federalism can be put to work in order to distribute state repression, with the added advantage — from the perspective of repressors — that the distributed model makes organizing a defense against the repression more difficult and civil institutions. In all, I found this a very interesting book, one which I will certainly return to a few more times in the near future.

Complicated, uneven, and probably the most important book I've read in a long time. The book can be thought of as made up of three sections. In the first, we're given a tour of the treatment of political fear by several major political thinkers with particular emphasis on Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt. The second is a close look at McCarthyism and how, contrary to what is usually assumed, the very liberal institutions meant to protect freedom can be used with startling success a Complicated, uneven, and probably the most important book I've read in a long time.

The second is a close look at McCarthyism and how, contrary to what is usually assumed, the very liberal institutions meant to protect freedom can be used with startling success at creating an atmosphere of anxiety. And in the last section, it is argued that the particular way fear has been thought of as directed towards an apolitical threat has kept us from examining closely more mundane, but just as important, sources of fear such as the now comprehensively monitored workplace where people can be fired and ostracised on whim especially now that Unions have been decimated.

As the description above indicates, it's not a book with a simple thesis. But it's a challenging argument, and if the thesis from the third section is right, it should have major consequences for how we should be thinking about politics and justice. Ahh, no. May 23, david-baptiste rated it it was amazing. View 2 comments. Jan 30, Rj rated it really liked it. The book is one of those increasingly rare, well-written and argued geneaologies of an idea, tracing the concept of political fear through Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt.

The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years waiting to be read and as I had no other reading from the library I found myself scouring my shelves for something to read Ironically enough I finished a last night Corey Robin's Fear: The History of a Political Idea New York: Cambridge, The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years waiting to be read and as I had no other reading from the library I found myself scouring my shelves for something to read.

After coming out of the hospital I began collecting books for my next hospital visit so I would have a collection of books to keep my mind occupied. On my last visit, reading turned out to be one of the magic keys that allowed me access to a world outside of myself and outside of the confines of my hospital bed. Not only does the book introduce the ideas of these important political theorists and analyze their concepts of political fear but Robin succeeds in placing the idea of political in a broader historical context for understanding the ongoing tension that exists between repression, political fear, power and liberty that have defined twentieth-century America.

Robin never shies away from questioning the use of political fear in America not just as an abstract concept but as a process of power that operates along class lines. The work is a refreshing take on how fear is used in a society that privileges its own sense of moral superiority and questions American obsessions with wealth, acquisition, consumption and careerism and how these help to foster climates of political fear. Long after Trump is gone, we'll still be fighting him. In this digest of the week, Corey Robin lists some of the ways Trump will live on — even if the conservative movement dies.

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Fear: The History of a Political Idea

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