“There is neither hope without fear, nor fear without hope.”
“Anything whatever can be the accidental cause of hope or fear.”
- Spinoza, Ethics III
Emotions are contagious. Because everyone feels this, everyone knows this. When philosophers refer to humans as social animals, part of what they mean is that there is an irrepressible mimetic aspect to our psychic and physical existence (of course, as Aristotle observed, this is true of many animals). We cannot but imitate others, transmit feelings to others and undergo their feelings. This is how we learn, love, and grow. Whether we are affected by others, or whether we affect them escapes our control. This makes possible circuits of care and knowledge, as well as circuits of abuse and illusion.
This communicability of affect is often a cause for concern, however, especially in the domain of politics. We worry that people can be made to feel anything by a successful manipulator. Media are blamed for rendering “us” both increasingly afraid and increasingly inured to violence. It is not the case, however, that charismatic figures or the “media” simply implant the feelings they intend into masses of people. Artists, teachers, orators, commanders, and politicians aspire to move masses in certain ways, but the masses – that is, we – are only sometimes and unpredictably responsive. Of course, seats of power and widely circulating representations matter, but the general public is not the passive effect of them. Who and what gets uptake depends upon the incalculably diverse passions and actions of a vast multitude.
The current election prompts acute attention to the emotional medium of politics. Candidate Donald Trump stokes the fears of audience, such that fear and xenophobia are now synonymous with official Republican party platform. In contrast, Hillary Clinton heralds a message of hope, elaborating Barack Obama’s branding of himself and the Democratic party as forces of steady progress and optimism. We are told that the political “choice” is between fear and hope. But feeling is not something we select in a ballot box. Emotions are not objects in circulation that we might pick up or put down. And, as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) once remarked, “there is neither hope without fear, nor fear without hope.”
The political polarity of hope and fear is traditional. Spinoza is among the many political thinkers of the renaissance and early modern period to reflect upon political emotions and government, as well as upon the government of political emotions. Like Hobbes and Machiavelli, he picks out fear as an especially salient collective feeling to which those in government must be acutely sensitive. Those engaged in the arts of government – ideological as well as repressive – must be aware of how they galvanize fears, such as the fear of punishment. A State depends for its existence upon fear of its “sword.” States by necessity strive to move their own subjects toward obedience and other peoples toward alliance or submission. No party or candidate can govern without operationalizing fear.
Yet the fears at play in the government are not only those of its subjects. Governments exist only as long as subjects are, as Spinoza says, “attached” to them, admiring their constitution, laws, and leaders. Governors must fear the dissolution of popular support. The various institutions of government stoke and mobilize fears, but also feel and respond to their own fears. Thus, as we watch the election unfold, which is, in essence, a series of calls for popular support, we ought to be reminded not just of the power of aspirant leaders to shape our future, but of how our hopes and fears can be a source of leverage against government. So when increasingly many subjects fear law enforcement as executors of arbitrary violence, detention, and deprivation, the admiration for the law upon which the State depends is threatened. This fear can be a source of power. It should not simply be replaced with the hope, however audacious, that moderates will rise to power and restrain the repressive state apparatus. We should not assuage the government’s fears and nor should we relax our fear of government agents.
This is not a call for fear. Nor is it in any way a defense of “the party of fear” – indeed, there is no one party of fear. It is an observation – or rather, a Spinoza-guided conviction – that political life is structured necessarily by a complex dynamic of affective communication, in which fear and hope play key roles. Let us discuss the dynamic of affective communication, while recognizing that we cannot hope to be freed from fear from above. So, at least as much as we talk about how our aspirant leaders make us feel, we should be talking about how we want to make them feel. The question is not about choosing between hope or fear. And it is not only about what we ought to hope for or what we ought to fear. Let’s ask, while they’re paying attention and every day afterward, what kinds of hopes and fears we want to inspire in our governors.