What should we be afraid of?

« …] it happens to man that he would rather wallow in fear than face the anguish of being himself(1).  »

Cioran, 1957.

For a long time I have been interested in the notion of theheuristic of fear proposed by Hans Jonas: with an effort of imagination, man can foresee the future catastrophic consequences of his techno-scientific power on himself and on nature. This forward-looking fear, mingled with guilt, is in turn a motor for action to avoid chaos or apocalypse. It was a question, said Jonas, of maintaining the possibilities of biological life for distant generations, taking the form of a new categorical imperative adapted to present and future times. In recent years, as a Jonasian, I have passed harsh judgment on my contemporaries for their irresponsible carelessness, their defiant indifference, their apolitical nonchalance, their inappropriate skepticism («  On the reality of global warming, not all scientists agree, you know  »), their cynicism («  Let’s take advantage of everything while it’s still possible  ») and even their chic nihilism. Those middle-class individuals who think they are dandies, I have urged them, usually to no avail, to feel a salutary fear. No more effect among my comrades in struggle:  » Fear paralyses action, it is therefore to be avoided « . No, it stimulates it, and moreover it is supposed to lead us to « lucid reason », I retorted, thinking again of Karl Jaspers, as well as of the philosopher Chantal Guillaume, who speaks of ecological fear or responsible fear(2).

This is all part of the old days. There are moments in history when things change quickly. It was already astonishing to see how the neoliberal doxa had been able to contaminate the consciences in record time, in the course of the 1980s, adult consciences which had been brought up in the Marxist (politically speaking), Sixties (societally speaking) and post-Sixties (ecologically speaking) promises(3). With the epidemic of coronavirus, the phenomenon of acceleration was much more fulgurating: in six months hardly, the whole of the social body was converted to the fear, finding itself in a state of stupefaction, of existential distress for some, subjected to the pressure of the group and to the liberticide decisions as much as incoherent and absurd of the Belgian and French governments. We are witnessing a « moral experiment », as analyzed by the sociologist Erving Goffman:  » The subject adapts to his environment, is influenced by it, creates a new identity, transforms himself, all this in relation to forms of power that are deployed around him(4) « . Had I finally succeeded? Not at all! Because this fear is not the tasty fruit of the use of reason applied to events, it is the rotten fruit of the medical-political-media propaganda. So, a bad advisor. Behind their masks, the voters-consumers are afraid(5). Their reasoning, their words, their gestures, sometimes their weary gait and lowered head express the fear of the coronavirus. Therein lies the crux: the object of their fear.  » True courage knows what it must fear(6), » writes Cynthia Fleury. Wouldn’t it be wiser, more courageous and better advised to worry about the authoritarian and biopolitical drift of governments, or even more globally the totalitarian evolution of the West(7)? However, this does not seem to bother the majority of the population, which is in urgent need of security, protection, survival or « naked » life, i.e. reduced to the simple fact of an organism being alive, even more than health. The fear of the virus conjures up the fear that we should feel in the face of the worrying deterioration of both what remains of democracy in our institutions and the ecosystems on which we depend. Because « the rest » has obviously not disappeared. To take just three examples, megafires have just resumed on the West Coast of the United States and in the Amazon, even though we are only at the beginning of the dry season; plastic pollution has increased dramatically over the past six months(8) Like the population, our nuclear power plants continue to age and also show « co-morbidity ». But there is less of a rush to their bedside!

Have governments and the media stopped being « reassuring » on the occasion of this epidemic? Here too we perceive a change. Until now, the political and media power avoided to frighten unnecessarily the individuals so that they continue their life of voters-consumers. He assured them that there was no need to panic, since technoscience and its experts would find the solutions to all the problems. But now, with Covid-19, he has been sounding the alarm for months, listing daily the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Fear, anxiety and even terror on all levels! In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes already noted that the fear of death and the taste for comfort were the main passions that best disposed men to obey. This has not changed three and a half centuries later. For comfort, no problem, the life under the bell of the confinement (or semi-confinement) is very favorable since it will soon remain only « that » to console itself. Digital entertainment and online sales platforms will provide this. The fear of death also plays its full part in this time where the projects of transhumanism seem to seduce (reduce?) more and more people. With Olivier Rey, we can ask ourselves the question:  » On what freedoms [en effet] are the populations not willing to compromise, what subjection are they not ready to accept, in order to flee from this terror [editor’s note: death], with which no rite allows us to deal?(9) « . But fear is a variable geometry. When voters-consumers fly to (more or less) distant tourist destinations, they are still not afraid of accelerating climate disruption; when they participate in plastic waste, they are still not afraid of transforming the ocean into a garbage can; when, gullible, they obey the government and the experts, they are strangely not afraid of falling into a new version 2.0 version of society made of systematic mistrust of the other’s body, of the ideology of « no contact », of ubiquitous surveillance (from the power towards the citizens and the citizens between them), of evaporation of the collective life other than that of work and of the consumerist communion in big stores. Strangely enough, they are not afraid of this perspective of simple survival controlled by the algorithmic machinery of a State with an increasingly heavy regal right hand(10). And here we find again the salutary role of a rational and well advised fear. But let’s not limit ourselves to it, let’s also be the oasis in the desert of the hygienic society(11).

Notes et références
  1. Emil Cioran, Histoire et utopie, Folio, 1960, p. 67.
  2. Cf. Entropia, n° 10, « Aux sources de la décroissance », Parangon, printemps 2011.
  3. Certes, une partie de ces promesses n’avaient pas été tenues, mais était-ce une raison suffisante pour épouser le projet néolibéral ? La déception doit-elle tout justifier ?
  4. Bernard E. Harcourt, La société d’exposition. Désir et désobéissance à l’ère numérique, Seuil, 2020, p. 190. Nous assistons aussi à l’expérience de Milgram — i. e. la soumission à l’autorité — à grande échelle.
  5. Remarquons en outre que nombre d’individus en viennent couramment à dénier leur propre peur par orgueil (« Je n’ai pas peur, je prends simplement des précautions », me répond-on). Dans une société individualiste-narcissique, il est malvenu et honteux de se dire malheureux ou apeuré.
  6. Cynthia Fleury, La fin du courage, Fayard, 2010, p. 18.
  7. Cf. Marc Weinstein, L’évolution totalitaire de l’Occident. Sacralité politique, I, Hermann, 2015.
  8. Les conséquences écologiques du Covid-19 pourraient faire l’objet d’une étude séparée.
  9. Olivier Rey, L’idolâtrie de la vie, Gallimard, 2020, p. 44.
  10. De nos jours, il y a deux façons de se retrouver enfermé : dans la nasse numérique ou dans la traditionnelle prison de béton et d’acier, l’un n’empêchant pas l’autre.
  11. Je paraphrase ici Serge Latouche : « Ainsi sommes-nous l’oasis dans le désert de la société de marché » (in Entropia, n° 10, op. cit., p. 35). Par ailleurs, on pourrait parler d’hyper-société à propos de ce qui se (re)met insidieusement en place, un pouvoir totalitaire où la liberté individuelle et collective se réduit progressivement à peau de chagrin. Cf. Jacques Généreux, La dissociété, Seuil, 2006.

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