By Prof. Manlio Graziano and Prof. Fabio James Petani
We should not really complain. Let’s be honest, if we wanted something to fear, some real, gripping threat to wrap (and lose?) our minds and hearts around (as it really seems to be the case), we must admit that nowadays we are really spoilt for choice.
As two teachers of geopolitics living in France, we really would not know where to start. Shall we say international terrorism of the gruesome sort that sees young immigrants beheading high school professors of history & geography, or random church-going ladies? And terrorism is neither a novelty nor a specifically French business. This paper does not want to make a lot out of recent events. It invites instead a long durée perspective, one in which we can, and we argue we should, recognize that fear has been growing for decades now. We clearly observe that fear is escalating despite data suggesting that the rational evidence-based reasons for those fears do not match such escalation.
Let’s take other sources of concern: immigration or crime. The thirst for security of citizens may be inexhaustible (targeting an ideal world without crime), but if politicians should fuel this fear with statistics, they would have a very hard time to ignite and maintain fears on significantly decreasing phenomena. Immigrants commit less crimes than indigenous people, who are also committing less crimes as a general trend. Of course, not everywhere and not in the same way, but in Europe, in the US, this has been the case in the last twenty years, and has now a scarcely remarked long history (Tonry, 2014).
We are not advocating a naïve, blind reading of reality, which just focuses on figures. We know that some terrorist events have a spectacular nature and leave a historical and symbolically significant trace in people’s minds. We remember the emotions following 9/11, and it would be absurd to downplay them. We are just attempting a geopolitical explanation of a general, globally observable trend: the raise of fear. And we are not saying that it is all the work of fake news, or of a new world order kept by a few people controlling the whole world population, as many conspiracy theories lead a lot of people to believe (and dread). If anything, we are trying to explain also the success of those very conspiracy theories as a signal that the world is hungry for simple explanations to their growing (and increasingly unknown) fears.
If we wanted to simplify in turn – which we don’t, but one needs to use blunt tools to drive home some impressions – we could say that in a year terrorism kills less people than the bathtub (Mueller & Stewart, 2018).
Come on, get real and measure the progress of humanity: the world global population is six times more likely to die of suicide than war. Even ignoring the death toll of car crashes and lung cancer, for the year 2015, statistics opposed 800.000 suicides against 120.000 war-related casualties (see Harari 2017, 17; cp. World Health Organization 2018). Obesity does far more casualties than hunger. These data could be seen, if not reassuring, at least as relatively positive signs: that humanity is less dying of war or famine reflects some historical progress. As Yuval Harari puts it (2017), sugar is more likely to kill you than gunpowder.
Although we deliberately did not start with it, because we do not want especially to foreground it at the cost of a broader argument, just look at how the reaction to pandemics has recently changed. Who remembers the pandemics of the late 50s and 60s, or the dramatic influenza pandemic of 1918-1919? They were not less frightingly life-threatening, and remained largely unknown until fairly recently (Nickol & Kindrachuk, 2019). Look at how we are dealing with it now. Global lockdowns, unheard of economic sacrifices, and...a still mounting escalation of fear, whether well founded or not. This global war on Covid, as most politicians have framed it to be for better or worse, has greatly scared people. The prospect of war generally does that: “When people are scared of death ... they co-operate”, as remarked by President Macron shortly after the arrival of the virus in France (Khalaf & Mallet, 2020). Of course, the fear of death is not the only one to trouble people and analysts relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of us understandably worry about how national debts also went viral in financing this war, and what costs will be involved in the long run (Graziano, 2020). It is not that the level of uncertainty is new, but certainly people are worried sick about it. Worse still, people get sick and die, through known and unknown fears that get out of control. As we write, with roughly a month yet to go by in 2020, Japan reveals that suicide has put away more people in the month of October alone, than Covid in all the rest of 2020, with women being impacted the most (Wang, et al., 2020). A lot of today’s global fear in developed countries has to do with security and uncertainty of economic wealth.
Prospect theory has well argued that humans are more risk averse than they are attracted by probable gains (Kahneman & Tversky, 2013). We proportionally fear more what we can lose, than we value what we stand in to win, or, to be more accurate, we prefer a smaller riskless gain, to a probable (but uncertain) larger one. Simply put, humans prefer certainty, and especially they want to be sure not to be running any risk of losing something they already have.
So what is this fear escalation a case of? How can geopolitics contribute to the comprehension of this process? We claim this is the case of a historical shift of global economic power: started in the 1970s, developed with the end of a bipolar cold war order, and due to the simultaneous rise of Asian economies, this shift culminated in the great international disorder, which the financial crisis of 2007/2008 embodies so well. This is a case of old western powers fearing they may lose the competitive advantages (including welfare and social protection unknown to the rest of the world), which they accumulated over time. Geopolitics allows to analyze such macro tendencies in social and political terms. In social terms, when the future is seen as worse than the present, for instance, a geopolitical trend, which recurs across time, space and declining civilizations (Tainter, 1988), is the demographic drop in fertility rates: people feel the urge to consume all they have quickly, leaving nothing to next generations. After all, as a nice book on death and the anger of the terminal patient compellingly argues (Kübler-Ross, 1997, pp. 64-65):
‘Maybe we too would be angry if all our life activities were interrupted so prematurely… if we had put some hard-earned money aside to enjoy a few years of rest and enjoyment, only to be confronted with the fact that “this is not for me”. What else would we do with our anger, but let it out on the people who are most likely to enjoy all these things? [...] This anger is displaced in all directions and projected onto the environment at times almost at random [...and] has originally nothing or little to do with the people who become the target of the anger’
In political terms, it clarifies why it pays so much to reject everything that is seen as a threat (independently of whether such perceptions are rationally well founded or not). In concluding this short piece, we just like to warn that the complexity of the world often raises the demand of overly simplified or simplistic explanations. In the current situation, we can see conspiracy theories, which not only refuse statistical data, and its abstract constructed realities, but also fabricate fake truths or news that will emotionally stir people. No matter how false news are, people are paradoxically been told that the role of politicians should be taken over by other leaders, who pride themselves in not having any political experience (we are sadly spoilt for examples in this area too). The new leaders have a kind of miraculous, messianic emotional grip with voters, because they share and master the TV and web-based vocabularies, consumer cultures and everyday life experiences of ‘normal’ people and workers.
A geopolitics of fear indicates that all that contributes to this emotion is usually a key asset in the political arena of declining civilizations. It has been over ten years ago that a ‘territory of fear’ was sketched as inhabited by those “who are apprehensive about the present and expect the future to become even more dangerous” (Moïsi, 2009, p. 5). Now academics are often criticized, and sometimes even self-criticize themselves (Petani, 2019) for engaging in theoretical abstractions that either have no grip with reality, or prove of no practical value.
We wish we could have a panacea recipe about how to manage your fears, online and offline, how to make your real and imagined everyday experiences less scared, more informed and feeling somewhat more confident. We do not have this magic formula, but hope that building awareness about fear may contribute critical thought (and perhaps some resilience against its undesirable effects). Fear is here to stay with us for a while. We encourage readers to measure how emotions distort representations of national and international identity, relations or an ideological sense of belonging. In a world, with already so many environmental and real ‘virtual threats’ (to truth, to privacy, etc.) we invite the readers of International Affairs to reckon that politicians of all colors have realized how much fear sells, and have adapted their marketing strategies accordingly. Do not buy blindly into a fearful world. It is hardly thrilling.
Manlio Graziano, PhD, teaches Geopolitics and Geopolitics of Religions at Sciences Po Paris, at la Sorbonne, and at the Geneva Institute of Geopolitics. He collaborates with the Corriere della Sera and with the geopolitical journals Limes and Gnosis. He published several books in the US, with Stanford UP, Columbia UP and Palgrave. His more recent Fearful New World: How Fear Steers International Politics is forthcoming.
Fabio James Petani is assistant professor in the department of Management and HR at INSEEC Grande Ecole and researcher in the chair on Digital Innovation, Data Science & Artificial Intelligence at INSEEC’s campus in Lyon (France), where he teaches Geopolitics, Business Ethics and CSR. He holds a PhD from the University of Lugano (Switzerland).
Graziano, M. (2020). Viral debt. Who will pay for the war against Covid, and until when? Limes, see: https://www.limesonline.com/en/viral-debt-who-will-pay-for-the-war-against-covid-and-until-when
Harari, Y.N. (2017). Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Vintage
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Petani, F. J. (2019). Confessions of an organizational space writer. Organization 26(6), 961-971.
Tainter, J.A. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Tonry, M. (2014). Why crime rates are falling throughout the Western world. Crime and Justice, 43(1), 1-63.
Wang, S., Wright, R. and Y. Wakatsuki. (2020). In Japan, more people died from suicide last month than from Covid in all of 2020. And women have been impacted most. Published by CNN online on the 29th of November. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/28/asia/japan-suicide-women-covid-dst-intl-hnk/index.html
World Health Organization (2018). Mental Health. Suicide data. Last checked online the 6 of March 2020 at https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/