Social Fear and the Commodification of Terrorism
Issue #59, February 2002
Don't Worry, Keep Rolling!
The post-September 11 economy of the United States has become a fear-infested and sober landscape. National security and security-related corporations are providing the major visible economic growth. Corporate sectors without any discernable claim on security products nonetheless work to integrate a national security consciousness into their corporate images. Grim, determined, and upbeat patriotism is being used to sell any product that needs selling.
Ad campaigns experiment on how to function within this economic sobriety, as evidenced in those quite successful "Keep America Rolling" auto ads that General Motors rolled out. George Bush tells the country "Let's roll!" and revoices the words of an airline passenger who fought back, while at the same time echoing a General Motors logo. National security fears and durable goods, statesmanship and salesmanship, have been woven together by a fluid consumption-oriented language. To be behind the wheel is to control national fate in the face of international terrorism.
Corporations with central positions in the U.S. economy, like the airlines, have dealt with the situation by lining up for billions in federal support and stuffing "free market — no government interference" rhetorical claims in their back pockets. Since the function of capitalism is to protect capital, not labor, unemployed workers do not get generous Congressional handouts. Social expenditures go to alleviate corporate fears, but the fears of private citizens remain private business.
This fear-intensive economy elides a central truth of economic life: social fears are a constant source of profit. Without fear and insecurity, capitalism would not have the economic sanctions that make it profitable. Progressive politics since the nineteenth century have undertaken the task of alleviating social insecurity and replacing fear with social security, either with or absent first-letter capitalization. Post-'60s normative Western capitalism has continued to pursue the basic intellectual outline of Friedmanian economics, which emphasizes the market utility of holding down social expenditures and imposing sanctions on labor. A "liberalizing" IMF-oriented economy, as with those in eastern Europe and other regions, cuts back on pre-existing social protections in the name of economic efficiency and competition, thus raising the prevalence of social fear.
Yet if economic fear is a persuasive mode of social coercion, it can also function as a mode of consumption. Preventative consumption is a fear response that seeks to avoid the consequences of unpreparedness or inaction. Consumption itself becomes a defense against fears, rational or irrational. Since September 11, the spectre of Islamic terrorism has generated a market for products that can locate themselves within this conceptual framework of preventative consumption. A product's precise relation to the political phenomenon is irrelevant. Rather, marketability in the fear market relies on associative links. Risk, ever-present in the economic calculus, suddenly has an attributable face. Preventative consumption takes those social risks caused by foreign, alien hatreds, and reduces them into the manageable features of known products.
Fear itself has become a consumption item, and fear-dependent corporations feed off a public paranoia created by terror attacks. From health insurance to financial services ads that emphasize "security," the media has filled with appeals to prevent what is almost impossible to prevent and to do so through product consumption. Islamic terrorism has become an invisible brand name that joins disparate products anew. The fear of Allah-bonded men with death wishes and distant mullahs is the covert unmentionable that enables insurance companies and Florsheim Shoes to employ the Statue of Liberty as their new-old advertising flack, or Ralph Lauren to merge Polo shirts with the flag. All reaffirm freedom as consumer freedom. Images of American shrines and commercial invocations of "E Pluribus Unum" nationalize consumer purchasing power. To buy American is to meet the enemy.
As we buy on, we roll on.
Entrepreneurship of Fear
It is the small-time profiteers of fear who speak messages that more socially restrained and polite major corporate advertising cannot voice directly. These are not the predictable Internet fraudsters who are hawking multivitamins against anthrax. Rather, outside the world of brand-name privilege and close to populist political roots, an entrepreneurship of fear has emerged to calm and consolidate fear as socially useful consumption activity. The small-time contractors who built backyard fallout shelters fifty years ago have their contemporary followers in bio-war rubber suit suppliers and survival school instructors.
Still, these are opportunists with a product or service, not ideological articulations in their own right. For that deeper level, the expensive and glossy Terrorism Survival Guide is a magazine that suits the times like the Whole Earth Catalog suited the '60s. Stocked with Ruger ads and shooting school addresses, it is the second number of an Operation Enduring Freedom series being published by Pantheon International. The cover features a crowd of subtitles, ranging from the informative "The Common Sense Guide to Staying Safe" to the alarming "Dangers We Face Now! What You Can Do to Meet the Threats!"
It is a home-front magazine, with men in white rubber suits and another subtitle reading "Anthrax and Bio-Terror: Facts vs. Fear! Reality vs. Rumor!" Beautiful Homes and Gardens goes to bio-war. The Terrorism Survival Guide reformulates economic activity as motivated survival; its pages map out how to consume to survive. Homeland security and household security have merged into one.
The Terrorism Survival Guide testifies eloquently to how fear, in itself, is a domestic commodity. Its extensive guns and survival book advertising rely on reader fear of social threats and general social chaos to promote sales. These are home safety products that render home as a place impregnable against fear of terrorism. In a couple of photographs, a middle-aged blonde woman displays home defense techniques. In one photograph of the new suburban hospitality, this well-prepared matron crouches to open the front door holding a pistol at the ready for any unexpected guest. Another posed photo has the same woman peering off a second-floor balcony, showing how to cover the front driveway with a sniper rifle. An article on post-September 11 child psychology features the graphic accompaniment of a full-page photo of a toothy little girl in a clear plastic gas mask with face mike, carrying a Barbie doll dressed up with another gas mask. The essays identify sources of fear, and the advertising provides home-front solutions.
If the home is a prime target that must be rendered defensible, the neighborhood is equally a vulnerable target. In this world of fresh domestic threat, explains one writer, the local infrastructure is a prime target. "For example, before all this craziness, you may not have noticed that vehicle parked inappropriately near the county electric station. Make note of it now and report it. Before September 11 you might not have thought twice about people acting strangely around the local reservoir. You had better think twice now." George Bush made these same sentiments sound presidential when he asked citizens to watch for people "acting suspiciously" around chemical plants.
Because the sources of supply into homes are at risk, homeowners need to prepare their regional lines of defense. There is an emphatic demand for explanation of the unknown, together with suspicion of those outside the norm or those who ask questions about the world. "Beware of anyone asking untoward questions regarding schedules, conveyance methods, social gatherings," advises Basic Anti-Terrorism Tip #3, followed by Tip #5's caution, "Be wary of individuals whose movements and actions are not logically motivated." Discrepant cultural logics, according to this hometown anti-terrorism philosophy, require fear, investigation, and action.
According to every essay and ad in this journal, the answer to these insecurities is: buy a gun! Although a gun will be useless in the face of the chemical, biological, and nuclear threats that the Terrorism Survival Guide details, poor logic never seems to burden the magazine editors. Rather, a firearm becomes a palpable defense even if it offers no protection. Buying a gun is simply the opposite of submission. The journal's editor, Michael Bane, frames this as a moral choice. "Like many Americans, I reached a moral and ethical crossroads after The Attack. I believe that although, in the real world, there are times when we must submit, as a culture and a nation, we have come to see submission as the preferred option."
In the Guide, a refusal to acknowledge a need to own personal weapons equates with capitulation and an acceptance of victimization. The notion that other means of self-defense may be more appropriate and effective never arises in this journal. Like so much else that passes for anti-terrorism self-defense here, personal firearms ownership represents no more than symbolic purchasing. That need for a physical symbol of resistance, a new Remington stashed under the bed as a defense against inchoate foreign threats, is the same operative social mechanism that moves consumers who buy durable goods as a response to terrorism. Panic buying is a crisis response to violence, a means of managing excess social fear. Social fear never lacks for profit opportunities.
Since ideology provides the conditions of consumption, the articles of the Terrorism Survival Guide establish an ideology that redirects readers into security-oriented consumption. Michael Bane provides an article entitled "Ten Ways Our Lives Have Changed" that posits a new sense of American national connectedness. The purpose of this new social interconnection, he suggests, lies in a national rediscovery of the American warrior self. The anti-gun lobby has led those who adopted a defeatist embrace of submission that swept the country in recent decades. Bravery and honor are emerging from a broad popular rejection of submission, and the nation now takes its bearings from a new social compass based on absolute virtues. "We bury our dead with the sure and certain knowledge that great good, and great evil, do, in fact, exist, and that our measure as individuals and as a people will be where we stand in that epic battle."
To fine words like these, Jack London once answered, "[T]he magic of your phrases leads you to believe that you are patriotic. Your desire for profits, which is sheer selfishness, you metamorphose into altruistic solicitude for suffering humanity."
In this New America, which wakes each morning full of renewed patriotism, moral absolutism has disposed of relativism and self-questioning in a distant and dishonorable grave. What has triumphed is a national unity where social problems are no more than minor family problems, like a scramble for an extra piece of dessert. Deep-rooted historical social differences disappear in such an ideological scenario; instead, these differences are no more than an exuberant individualism that all share. In the end, "We are the warrior tribe who did the impossible — create an enduring government that celebrated, and continues to celebrate, our very contentious individualism."
This is the classic delusion of nationalism, the belief that a mystical nation-tribe has gathered its spirits to rise. In this delusion, racial, gender and class divisions happen only "occasionally," fairly ignoring the contradiction of Bane's simultaneous argument that the divisions created by submission have prevailed for years. So history-writing serves to mythify and unite, not to document, analyze, and explain. The function of the nation-state is to translate the warrior-spirit into an operations plan. Yet what Bane provides is a classic marketing device: make consumers feel happy about what you suggest they are becoming. Here is resurgent America, a nation-product worth fighting for — and here too are the tools with which to fight and partake of the warrior-spirit. This is a call to a revived faith in tribalism, one where a sharing of warrior-kin replaces petty social in-fighting. Or, as one writer phrases the necessary change, "We need to adopt the Israeli mindset that everyone is a partner in protecting the country."
Fear operates both as obstacle and enabler in this ideological scheme. Bane provided several articles for the Terrorism Survival Guide, and one of them addresses fear. He presents fear as another tactical tool, as an emotion whose correct management produces continuous situation evaluation reports and fluid responses. To qualify as fear, there must be a specific and immediately identifiable stimulus; a "formless" fear is mere intuition, he argues, forgetting the logic of inference. There has been a cultural over-use of fear and its language, Bane asserts, leading to an inability to distinguish real warning signals and detracting from threat-readiness.
The proliferation of fears, however, is endemic to a well-functioning capitalist economy. Fear is the marketing device for goods and services, and then at a social level, for the nation-product. The greatest fear and best marketing device is an assault on the American collectivity itself.
Towards Unlearning Fear
In 1927, in the context of the Whitney free-speech case, Louis Brandeis wrote "Those who won our independence [knew] that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable governmenté" What Brandeis distinguishes is the social cycle that the spread of public fear initiates, a cycle where oppressive government and violent opposition boil together in the same pot. Brandeis voices the classic Enlightenment fear of a state gone wrong, of government illiberality giving rise to hatred and street riots. Civil liberties were thus a venting mechanism, a means of ensuring that repression did not metamorphose into much worse consequences.
John Ashcroft's illiberality and vitiation of civil liberties, however, will create no street riots. Like the worst attorney general in U.S. history, A. Mitchell Palmer, Ashcroft emerges from a narrow-minded fear of the world's variety, a McGuffy-esque provincialism of neat picket fences and nineteenth-century American virtues. Although the mentalities of Palmer's Red Scare and Ashcroft's Moslem Scare are similar, the political landscape of the intervening eighty years has been revolutionized through the mass media and a global visual culture. Unlike the early twentieth century, where fears might inform state policy or market products, in late modernity fear has become a streamlined public-private commodity. What government announces, television news anchors interpret and expostulate.
In this media-driven economic regime, the consequences of social fear no longer lie primarily in an assault on civil liberties. The commodification and marketing of fear, fear-products, and nation-products has far outstripped the creation and defense of civil rights. America consumes its civil liberties, and consumption is its leading civil liberty.
An insidious ideology lies within this marketing and consumption of social fear, one that arises from a xenophobic variant of national identity politics. In this paranoia of threat-belief, all manifestations of difference become sources of risk. A world turns inward, into its fears, and shelters behind the luxurious walls of the U.S. economy, weapons pointed outward. Foreign policy has become a defense of this triumphal hegemonic identity and a demand for other nations to manifest their allegiance to such U.S. global primacy. An identity of national self-preservation emerges, one whose economic existence becomes preoccupied with hunting down existential threats and affixing "Wanted Dead or Alive" to threat sources. Ethnic identity politics goes onto a national war footing, one where the available identities have been stripped down to visible good and invisible evil. American self-identification with prosperity is the only good identity, and the only one that counts.
Walter Benn Michaels argues that capitalism supplies both objects of fear and desire, and the subjects to consume either. He writes "the logic of capitalism produces objects of desire only insofar as it produces subjects, since what makes the objects desirable is only the constitutive trace of subjectivity those objects bear." Today that American subjectivity characterizes itself through fear, and the objects of desire are those that purchase protection against fear. The Terrorism Survival Guide represents a stark synthesis of this transformation of fear into a simultaneous commodity and subjectivity, a synthesis whose ideological features are more easily visible for the magazine's extremism, which masquerades as commonsense self-defense. Such manichean extremism in the putative defense of freedom requires an over-the-horizon evil, one that resists critical thought and remains an irreducible evil that needs no explanation. Commodifications of fear ultimately rely on manipulation through nostrums and ignorance.
There is, though, a real front-line of homeland defense: teachers who refuse to mouth official dichotomies of good and evil, students who refuse to accept an uncritical perspective, and parents who refuse to barricade their homes against foreign ideas and people. A radical rejection of social alienage is at the heart of this homeland defense. It is an expanded concept of homeland defense which recognizes that contemporary American social fear derives ultimately from fear of the global poor and dispossessed, those with causes for anger. Western economies have privileged capital over labor, and have exported the social fears of capitalism — unemployment, impoverishment, inadequate health care and education — to obtain Western prosperity.
A homeland defense that refuses to recognize global fears and anger is no defense at all. Fear neither begins nor ends at the U.S. national borders: it was globalized long ago.
Joe Lockard is a Bad Subjects Collective editor and teaches English at University of California — Davis. He thanks Joel Schalit, Aaron Shuman, and Jonathan Sterne for comments.