A summer of ‘negative’ affect?

Last week the British media treated us to a swathe of coverage [Guardian, BBC, Telegraph] of the Metropolitan police force’s apparent fear of a ‘summer of rage‘, set to take place this year, 2009, as a result of increasing disenchantment with the economic state of affairs. One might argue, dismissively, this was either a cynical or ill-thought statement by the Superintendent in charge of the ‘public order’ branch. On the other hand we might see this in the context of a somewhat seedy and calculated suspicion of guilt applied to the general public in advance. The nebulous claim of a ‘summer of rage’ would in this way becomes a tool, both to ask for more resources and to set the grounds for requesting more ‘special’ powers.

The fear or threat of some kind of widespread civil disobedience and/or violence can only remain a threat if it remains indeterminate. As Brian Massumi suggests of the Bush administration’s ‘terror threat spectrum’ [online article (pdf)] – the future looming of a threat casts a shadow in the present and that shadow is fear. The device of investing a potential power to act in some indeterminate ‘other’ is, of course, not a new one, whether supernatural like ‘the devil‘ or human such as ‘al-Qaeda‘. By asserting the threat and assigning it to a named ‘other’, however vague – the ‘evil-doers‘ for example, the threat is qualified. This allows those who announce the threat and name some mellifluous third-party to implement a strategy to pre-empt the apparent danger. Each time the threat is reiterated and the impetus for fear multiplied, the strategy of pre-emption is accordingly asserted, as former President George W. Bush insisted:

If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path to action.

Governments and elites can, in this way, practice pre-emptive measures as means of controlling populations by asserting vague threats that produce fear, thereby qualifying the threat and valorising a need for action. Social theorist Brian Massumi calls this mechanism an affective fact – ‘threat triggers fear. The fear is of disruption. The fear is a disruption’ [online article (pdf)]. The threats and fears can in this way become self-proliferating. The ‘summer of rage’ threat is associated with unspecific members of our society, but the Metropolitan Police don’t have to be specific – we fill in the gaps through imagination. The ‘known activists’ the Met Superintendent speaks of can easily be rendered as ‘undesirables’ that ‘honest’ middle class people cross the road to avoid. These threats are used to justify and cultivate a need for draconian measures that we are told mitigate the threat of ‘terrorist outrages’ (for an excellent and humorous exploration of this see the film: ‘Taking Liberties‘). Given recent media coverage this defence must now be also against (apparently) widespread ‘potential threat to public order’ by mass demonstrations.

As Massumi argued in 2005 of the Bush administration terror-alert spectrum:

‘the outcome is anything but certain. All that is certain is that fear itself will continue becoming-the way of life. The grounding and surrounding fear that the system helps develop tends toward an autonomy that makes it a [self-proliferating reality] to be reckoned with. That reckoning must include the self-propelling mode of fear-based collective individuation we call fascism. Although there is nothing the content of any thought that explains why it should arise, the passage to a society of that kind is a potential that cannot be excluded’.

I trust that we are some way away from such dire straits, and I take heart in events like the recent ‘convention on modern liberty‘ and campaigning organisations such as Liberty and JUSTICE.

Ultimately, alongside many others I believe, it is a false economy that it is possible to trade liberties for security. How much can or should we give up to be ‘twice’ as secure? is a nonsense question. If we gave up all of our liberties to be ‘completely’ secure we would have lost the very form of life we wished to secure in the first place. Perhaps in the end we need to take inspiration from that extraordinary human peculiarity of reckless optimism and throw our heads back and laugh vigorously in the face of (apparent) fear.

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