Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Power of Fear

I think it would be safe to make the generalization that within the vast majority of sovereign nations in the world, it is the powerful that rule. This holds true regardless of the political philosophy that is espoused and practiced i.e. whether it be democratic, socialist, communist etc. The source of this power is essentially economic in nature. Furthermore, the ruling class is represented by a small minority of any given population by virtue of the wealth that it holds and maintains.

In order for the powerful minority, usually operating within and through government, to exert control of the lives of everyone else, it has a number of tools at its disposal. The most obvious of these is provided by access to sheer and brutish military might and the security bureaucracy and apparatus through which sophisticated methods can be deployed. Another means is through the so-called rule of law, where the laws are often crafted by those most likely to gain by their enforcement. During times of social harmony, the population at large may not be aware of this kind of power. Whenever social stability is at risk from within the State, however, the full force of coercive power is usually put into play, usually in the name of law and order and preserving the peace. There are numerous examples of this reality from around the world.

Within the United States, an excellent representation of this is the state of martial law, deployment of the National Guard and citizen curfews imposed during the massive rioting and looting that occurred following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. That rioting represented the frustration and despair felt by the essentially powerless black minority in the United States. The chaos it engendered was seen as a substantial threat to the established order and, therefore, could not be tolerated. At such times the real nature of power becomes evident. The crass use of power in this way may be effective in the short term but can have long term consequences.

A far more desirable method for the control of the general population is through the use of fear. This fear can take many forms and have many guises. The most widely used method is to play upon the fear of being physically threatened from forces within or external to a society. Another is to exploit the fear of losing one’s livelihood or social standing, of becoming homeless or destitute. In order for the ruling class to continue to impose its will, it must create the impression that it always acts with the public interest as its primary motivation and that any concerns the people may have do not come as a direct result of its own policies.

Within an atmosphere of fear, the cohesion within the society breaks down and individuals are distracted from recognizing the real nature of their problems and the solutions available to them. The distrust that is the inevitable by-product of fear is an impediment to the social harmony that is a prerequisite to effective community action. Fear essentially undermines rational thought and, as a result, thwarts real human progress.

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