Where do our irrational fears come from?
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  • Where do our irrational fears come from?

The more intelligent members of our society never lose an opportunity to point out on their blogs, social network accounts, and TV shows how irrational it is for the citizens of this country to expend so much panic on things like Ebola or the ISIS, when, statistically, a much greater killer of Americans are weak laws on guns and violence related to misogyny. A tweet by NYT columnist Nick Bilton: "There are more experts on CNN right now talking about Ebola in America than people with Ebola in America." Also, PI writer Joel Connelly on his Facebook feed:
The shootings Friday at Marysville Pilchuck High School caused more deaths than U.S. has seen from Ebola, and more injuries than Ebola cases. All told, USA has experienced 87 school shootings since assassinations at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
However, this kind of good thinking, which is not isolated but can be found at every level of public discourse (from the underground to the mainstream), will never get us to the bottom of the irrational behavior it recognizes and denounces. Why do people fear Ebola more than the NRA, when the latter is far more dangerous to them than the former? Can we attribute this failure in logic to the success of NRA marketing, its extensive social engineering network and political power? I have said before that the economic sector that supports the NRA is actually very small. It could vanish from the main economy with the blink of a GNP eye. Yet it is still around, and guns are still available, and we are still waiting for the next mass shooting, which has to be as big as Newtown to grab the kind of headlines that Ebola and the ISIS do.

You will not get to the bottom of this irrational fear if you fail to understand the kind of society we live in: a capitalist nation-state. What is this about? Three social forms working as one: capitalism, the state, and the nation. Each of these forms has a deep history. Capitalism comes from European mercantilism; the state from the European absolutist monarchy; and the nation from European peasantry. The essential figure in each is money, the king, and the tribe. The modern European state came into formation in the 16th century by first the alliance of merchants (the city) and the king (the castle). These two were soon joined with the tribe (the village) to become what we still have today: capitalist nation-state.

To modernize, each formation challenged and defeated its past. Democracy challenged the absolutist monarchy (beheading the king); classical political economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo) challenged the core obsession of mercantilism, which was money, bullionism; and cosmopolitanism (tolerance) challenged "rural idiocy." But when there is a crisis, the modernized forms (capitalism, the state, nationalism) revert to their original, pre-modern condition. And each formation has its essential crisis: for the state, it is war; for the market, it is an economic crash or bust; for the nation, it is the appearance of the stranger. When war happens, we get a king. When when a crash occurs, we get a run on the bank, a panic to go liquid, a primal mercantilist obsession with money (bullionism). When a stranger appears, we get the tribe.

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Because Ebola is a stranger (an African stranger—the strangest of all strangers to Americans), it reverts the nation into a state of tribalism, and tribal feelings are very deep and powerful. This is why the nation only panics when a gun is fired by an Arab or some other person it perceives as a stranger. If one of its own kills a few its own, the nation cannot access those deep and powerful village feelings. As for the ISIS, we have some overlap—the state and the nation, the king and the tribe, the war and the stranger.

The thinking in this post is mostly drawn and remixed from two books by the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani. The books are: Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, and The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange.