The State of Paranoia

Fear has long been considered a reliable way for a government to control a populace. Since the days of Machiavelli, rulers have leveraged the fear of state power in their populace. In the past century, the American empire has perfected the tactic. Fear, it has discovered, is most potent when not attached to a direct threat but as part of a ubiquitous campaign of paranoia. The threat is outside of the state, constantly obsessed over but also cloaked in mystery so that any societal ill can be ultimately attributed to the Great Evil. The fear has ebbed and flowed but it has reached a frantic crescendo at two points in the last century- during the Cold War, and in the wake of 9/11. While the intensity of the societal paranoia in these cases in comparable, there is something different in the core of these two instances.

Cold War fear and “War on Terrorism” fear have much in common. Both have a single enemy- Soviet Communism and Radical Islam, respectively. While both should be easily defined, it is often unclear what, exactly, they are threatening to do (just that it is horrible and constitutes a fundamental threat to our way of life). Conversely, any threat no matter how seemingly unrelated can be attributed to the designated enemy. They have also been enforced in similar ways, not just through overt propaganda, but by worming their way into the base of our culture. They are the enemies in our movies, the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories. They’re propagated, perhaps above all else, by the safety procedures that are ostensibly established to protect us from them. A desk will not protect you from a nuclear bomb, but children taught to duck and cover will be deeply indoctrinated to fear the USSR. Airport security is security theater (and notoriously ineffective) designed to remind us that the threat of terrorism looms.

While the enforcement mechanisms are almost eerily similar, the true fear at the core of both of these panics is different. I believe that, ultimately, Cold War fear was that the would would be destroyed while modern fear is that the world has already been destroyed.

The epitome of Cold War fear was the threat of the nuclear bomb, the most potent symbol of destruction imaginable. The height of the red scare was also the height of patriotic idealism. The entire country was a shining monument to American achievement, our ability to produce and thrive and propagate ourselves across a rich landscape. The threat was that this would be snatched away from us by an enemy that resented us for… whatever reasons seemed most convenient at any given time. While we hated the Soviet Union, we also felt the drive to compete with it, t was implicit that the strength of the United States lay, at least partially in what it had to offer its citizens.

Today, the idea that the United States is a decaying empire spans the political spectrum, whether everyone admits it or not. The idea that America can accomplish whatever it pleases has been killed and then set on fire for good measure. The idea that the country is past its prime is implicit even in the most fawning patriotism. To make America Great Again, America must no longer be great at all. We do not fear being defeated by an opponent but being submerged in the vast ocean of chaos that surrounds us. Defeat would not be a single cataclysmic event by a slow succumbing to a decay that has already begun to take hold. America, destroyed by terror is not a crater but a sterile society where nothing of value can be produced, where violence is constant but banal, without an obvious way forward, and we suspect this may be what it already is.

This can be explained partially by the lack of a real ideological alternative. Radical Islam is an ideology, but is defined by a state of perpetual sectarian conflict. The so called Islamic State calls itself a caliphate but claims only a small swath of constantly shrinking territory. Vaguely democratic neoliberalism is the status quo of virtually the entire world, and its only enemy is mirror distortions of itself.

More importantly, however, is the creeping knowledge that industrial capitalism will ultimately be hoist by its own petard. The greatest threat facing the world today is the inevitable environmental disaster. The “point of no return” level of climate emissions has allegedly already been reached, our resources are depleted with no sign of renewal. Despite the increasingly barren state of the world, industrial capitalism demands we consume more, wringing every last drop out of the planet. Despite the best efforts of “green capitalism” to convince us otherwise, the premise of the ideology is endless, suicidal consumption. We fear that we are living after the end times, because it is not entirely impossible that we are.

This kind of fear is so dangerous because it is a much more potent justification for authoritarianism. In these conditions, the state does not have to do anything good at all to demand your loyalty. It does not have to prove that it is better than a rival empire, just better than complete and utter chaos. It also puts a built in limit on the edges of the political imagination- to be too ambitious risks bringing the entire precarious structure tumbling down. Performative patriotism does not conceal the fundamental lack of faith in our state when fear is the guiding principle of all geopolitics.