Project Fear Management

By Sigismundis Freud

Note: These pages come from the Freud Papers. They were discovered on the desk of Sigismundis Freud by Ira Straus, who has leaked them to the Federal Trust. We note with concern Dr. Freud’s characteristic infractions against political and religious correctness, but publish his words as written.

by Ira Straus

Chair, Centre for War-Peace Studies

22nd July 2019

Mature people evaluate their fears rationally. Infantile people traffick in wish fulfillment and denial of fear, as if sleepwalking.  We are observing an upsurge in this practice in the course of the Brexit debate.

Fear and the Reality Principle

All my life I’ve been trying to teach people to manage their fears and hopes intelligently. I leave no stone unturned in helping them get past the mental blocks against thinking about what they in fact hope and fear. This means overcoming a particular kind of fear: the fear of facing one’s own fears.

When I left Vienna for London in 1938, I escaped a land of burgeoning Nazi mental blocks against intelligent thinking in political life. I was fortunate to come to a relatively healthy land. Yet today I see British politicians talking like faith-healers, busily constructing new mental blocks, erecting structures of fear against facing actual fears, accusing their opponents of the sin of fear, presenting themselves as the party of hope.

One party dismisses the other’s concerns as “project fear”. The other dismisses the first’s concerns as “playing upon fear”. Both encourage internal mental fears and blocks against facing fears of external, life-level matter. Both treat fear itself as a mortal sin. Both promote the one truly sinful fear: the fear of thinking about real fears.

The Government has carried this out in a particular form that combines the mental blocks of both sides. It has erected an array of Red lines — unpassable moats — against an entire series of thoughts.

Erecting mental blocks against thinking: this is traditionally the specialty of tyrannies. Yet this is happening in Britain of all places! Britain, a country with a reputation for relatively few mental blocks in its political discussion. A country that is not only a representative democracy, but one whose last revolution, the one that established its constitutional settlement, was not a grand bloody revolution but a mild corrective one. The Glorious Revolution was gloriously free of the line of blood that defines the winning side of the line as the bearer of all good and prohibits thinking on the other side of the line —  the proverbial line of blood that turns into an albatross around the neck of revolutionary countries, dividing the world into revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, erecting mental blocks against deviations on an entire series of issues, proclaiming itself and its doctrines the realm of hope, condemning everything contrary as fear and sin.

Fear and doubt per se, far from being a sin, are the bearers of the reality principle. They bring people to stop deluding themselves with wish-fulfillment. That is what maturing means.

Run into a tiger and you will experience the fear that brings you to the reality principle. You will shove aside anyone who tells you, “be ye not afraid”.

Mental blocks are a form of meta-fear. They are fears constructed mentally, to insulate people from facing other, feared shaming that might ensue were they to admit their primary-level hopes and fears. When hopes and fears cannot be admitted consciously, they also cannot be formulated clearly, or evaluated responsibly. Yet they do inevitably get formulated and evaluated anyway, in a distorting — projected or sublimated — form. Mature people try to put aside the social pressures and the internalized ideologies that maintain mental blocks. They stop suppressing their real-life-level fears. They try to evaluate their prospects and dangers — their hopes and fears — realistically.

Symptoms of a revival of political religion around Brexit

I need not rehearse here my well-known views on religion as wish-fulfillment and projection of the father figure. The modern Western world has mostly learned to limit religion to a personal affair. But religion always risks breaking out of its private cocoon and reentering the public square in the form of political religion.

Politicians begin declaiming like preachers, calling themselves the party of hope; and attack the other party for yielding to fear. I remember this happening all too vividly in the totalitarian era. I had to flee Vienna and relocate in London. Now, eighty years after feigning my death in this wonderful city, I see something like it happening before my eyes here too.

Concerns about a break-up of the UK, or about Brexit economic damage, are dismissed as “project fear”. Warnings from Scotland and Ireland, and from professional economic forecasters — used by corporations and governments for making their business plans, were there are important intrusions of the reality principle — are swept determinedly under the mental rug. But evidence for these concerns keeps worming its way into the mind. The denial — the refusal to allow fear — is maintained by a shift in tack; majorities of Brexiters begin avowing that loss of Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with economic losses, would be alright as long as Brexit were obtained. Costs no matter how high are both denied and subliminally accepted. Salvational hopes come to be invested in Brexit in order to outweigh the mounting subliminal cost perceptions.  

From the opposite end, concerns about migration — that migrants might again be welcomed in record numbers, with careless disregard for stability and concrete societal norms — are dismissed as “appealing to fear”. It is both denied that such things could conceivably happen, that such consequences could conceivably ensue, and subliminally acknowledged that governments did welcome migrants in unprecedented numbers and EU destabilization did ensue. Reports of sexual molestation are denied and dismissed as racist fears; they become too frequent and rise like a flood over the mental blocks. Destabilization of the EU continues; Brexit itself is a part of it.

I am not of the view that these fears are equivalent, or equally relevant to Brexit. The summary conclusion of my analysis below is as follows:

The Remainer fears about Brexiting are rational, as they are fears of consequences that Brexit could likely have. The Brexiter fears about Remaining are less rational, as they are fears of things that Brexit would not cure, and that are in any case unlikely to happen. In these latter matters, Brexit would not help prevent nor spare Britain from them; and the main practical danger from them is to the EU itself as an institution, not to its Britain or to society at large. The actual dangers, in other words, subsist on different levels; only one of them, the dangers pointed to by the Remainers, are relevant to deciding on Brexit.

It is normal for fears to be exaggerated; this is part of the alerting mechanism. If some fears are being exaggerated beyond a reasonable range, or proposed solutions misdirected, it is only by analysis that this can be shown, not by labeling them “fear” as if that were a pejorative.

No party is a party of hope; none is a party of fear. Each is simply the party of its own specific set of hopes and fears. The business of public discussion is to sift through the hopes and fears of the various parties.

Ask not “Who proclaims hope more fearlessly?” Ask, “Who sees hopes and fears more accurately, prioritizes among them more wisely, and proposes more effective responses to them?”