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10 October 2018updated 12 Sep 2021 10:01am

How fear and feeling took over modern politics

Exploring the role played by negative emotions in recent history. 

By Leo Robson

A number of years ago, I started noticing that accounts of the financial crisis offered in bookshop windows and trailers before Match of the Day promised only to tell me what had occurred but never why. Robert Peston’s probing of “deeper causes” in The Party’s Over: How the West Went Bust entailed going a little further back in time than the average current-affairs documentary – past the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall and the 1986 Big Bang, all the way to the late 1970s and supposedly forgotten turning points such as Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of James Callaghan. Even John Lanchester’s Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay was really engaged in unfolding a story about swaps, derivatives and toxic debt.

Why have things been so different, the explanatory urge so much stronger, with the recent populist uprisings? You might contrast the murkiness of financial capitalism – “how” was enough – with the familiarity of electoral surprises. Another factor is surely that while a narrative of greedy bankers, freed by corrupt or cynical deregulation policies to engage in a pissing contest, seems persuasive as well as comforting, we are far less eager to construct a straw army out of, say, the disenfranchised post-industrial poor. The desire to protest the status quo demands a context of understanding that protecting it seems not to.

In The Monarchy of Fear, an account of the role played by negative emotions in recent history, the American philosopher Martha C Nussbaum recalls that the anguish she felt during election night 2016 soon gave way to the feeling that she was “part of the problem I worried about”. That problem wasn’t racial intolerance or misogyny or climate-change denial or the isolationist insistence on putting America First or making her Great Again, but excessive fear.

Before Nussbaum’s first paragraph is over, indignation has given way to self-questioning, and she has aligned herself with the Trump supporter, who is defined not as virulent but vulnerable.

Nussbaum’s tone can be a little teacherly – the idea that “group hatred” has its origins in shame will not strike many readers as news. But that is partly down to Nussbaum herself, whose writing over 30 years has done so much to bring human impulses into the realm of political discourse. When she argues that we can reduce social envy by increasing what is constituted as a universal “right” – certain kinds of welfare provision, for instance – or connects Nelson Mandela’s magnanimous treatment of his enemies to his freedom from bodily disgust (on Robben Island, he volunteered to dispose of wastes), it’s clear that she has given more thought to such processes than virtually anyone else alive.

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William Davies also wants to connect the individual to the collective, mind to body, and a lot else besides, in Nervous States. The book’s “how” title is of the expansive kind – not “how Trump and Brexit swept all before them” but how the ground was prepared over the course of centuries, with the main “underlying” driver being the loss of faith in experts. A political economist of rare gifts, justly praised for a series of articles on neoliberalism, Davies seems less well-suited to the task, as he describes his intention here, of bringing “the history of ideas to bear on our bewildering present”. The result is by turns truistic and under-argued, as odd in its emphases as in its omissions. (“No account of our political moment could fail to dwell on the politics of gender,” Nussbaum writes, but Davies proves her wrong.)

Flaws in the central thesis yield problems on almost every page. Where Nussbaum shows that the polemical is always personal while emphasising the cognitive power of feeling, Davies builds a wall between reason and emotion, disputing, for example, whether scientists should engage in protests, as if the display of outrage would swamp the facts being defended. The distinction impairs Davies’s efforts as an intellectual historian, his role for most of the book. He suggests that the French Revolution, being hot-blooded, was therefore anti-Enlightenment, while his persistent talk of “the 17th century”, with its “science”, its “project”, its “ideal of truth”, of “apolitical facts”, “scientific progress”, “knowledge”, “expertise” and “expert knowledge” seems to mark a return, in a book about contemporary schisms, to the old “world-picture” version of the past, with entire epochs nodding in unison. (Ironically, the greatest contributions to our understanding of past ideological fractures have come from historians of the Renaissance.)

But Davies’s dealings with the present day can be just as problematic. He seems to have his own definition of political correctness (the belief that “how one speaks in public should be different to how one does so in private”) and confuses the singularity (the moment when machines outpace human intelligence) with digital ascension (the “fantasy” that “an entire human mind could perhaps be uploaded to a computer”).  And when he says that calling Brexit an act of self-harm obscures that people “deem certain things worth suffering for”, he implies that Brexit voters would accept that description in the first place. (At one point, he rivals Nussbaum in offering the most extreme metropolitan elite picture of the public consciousness – where she claims that most Americans “have no idea of the difference between Sunni and Shiite”, he writes that ordinary people are no longer convinced by GDP figures or feel “represented” by statisticians.)

Examples are often stretched to fit the theme. Writing about the phantom terror incident last year at Selfridges  – when the department store was evacuated on reports of shots being fired – Davies maintains that the challenge for “anyone wanting a society based around reason” is how to “prevent this triggering of physical alarm”. Then, in one of many bridge-less leaps, he declares: “Bodily impulses and threats have to be kept out of politics.” Shouldn’t that say “shopping trips”? A similar manoeuvre occurs in a section on post-traumatic stress disorder when, having pointed to the significance of unconventionally “traumatic” experiences such as a parent overprotecting a child or a girl being judged by her appearance, he suddenly announces that these are among the ways that “economic inequality” and “political marginalisation” become “imprinted upon the body”.

This conceptual fuzziness sometimes leaves Davies with egg on his face, as when he chides Donald Rumsfeld for excluding “unknown knowns”, defined as things that somebody knows but we do not know, such as the whereabouts of WMDs, from his famous taxonomy – a job adequately performed by Rumsfeld’s use of “known unknowns”: things we know we do not know. But what’s most sorely missing from Davies’s account is direction or selection, the necessary wrangling of facts and figures.

Instead, the reader is made a sort of trans-historical Forrest Gump, present at every conceptual breakthrough of the last half-millennium, pelted with “landmark” or “influential” studies, given a front-row seat for the dawn or rise of – among many other things – “the ‘radical statistics’ movement… in the 1970s”, “nuclear weapons during the 1940s”, “‘positive psychology’ in the 1960s”, “mass literacy towards the end of the 19th century”, and “information theory during the Second World War”. Then there are the second- or third-wave occurrences such as the “renewed commitment to social and economic progress that followed 1945”, the “renewed respect for enterprise and free markets” promised by the victories of Reagan and Thatcher, and the “renewed political emphasis on the ability to bring large numbers of people together in public spaces” accomplished by figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and the leader of Greece’s Syriza, Alexis Tsipras.

Amid the turbulence of these criss-crossing trajectories, the promise of causality never comes close to being fulfilled. By the end, there has been little sense of paradigm shift, just a parade of phenomena at infinitesimally different stages in a process of rise, renewal and fall. 

The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis
Martha C Nussbaum
Oxford University Press, 250pp, £18.99

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World
William Davies
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain