Phantom Monsters: Nationalism, Paranoia, and Political Control

The deeper I delved, the more it appeared that this panic was, to some extent, kept alive by the governments of the day. I also became aware of the degree to which the presumed need to safeguard the political and social order facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression.”

– Adam Zamoyski, Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848

The Study of Political Paranoia is inevitable in our time, and reading Adam Zamoyski’s work brings us back to another moment when a convergence of nationalism, paranoia, and panic seemed to pervade every aspect of social life of the elite and power brokers who waged war against any and all who threatened their status and power. Watching the stagecraft of current U.S. media-blitz polarity in which panic and terror of both Trump and Russian invasive strategies, along with the internal Deep State paranoia surrounding much of the history of U.S. secrecy, etc. promotes panic in the common world of the masses, stirs up political unrest and secures a sort of ongoing insecurity that allows the powers to enforce oppression and control while distilling a grand narrative to invent a new order. More interesting as Zamoyski’s study shows is that this has all happened before under other skies and other nations:

“The reordering of the Continent by those who triumphed over Napoleon in 1815 was intended to reverse all this. The return to a social order based on throne and altar was meant to restore the old Christian values. The Concert of Europe, a mutual pact between the rulers of the major powers, was designed to ensure that such things could never happen again.

Yet the decades that followed were dominated by the fear that the Revolution lived on, and could break out once more at any moment. Letters and diaries of the day abound in imagery of volcanic eruption engulfing the entire social and political order, and express an almost pathological dread that dark forces were at work undermining the moral fabric on which that order rested. This struck me as curious, and I began to investigate. The deeper I delved, the more it appeared that this panic was, to some extent, kept alive by the governments of the day. I also became aware of the degree to which the presumed need to safeguard the political and social order facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression. I was reminded of more recent instances where the generation of fear in the population – of capitalists, Bolsheviks, Jews, fascists, Islamists – has proved useful to those in power, and has led to restrictions on the freedom of the individual by measures meant to protect him from the supposed threat.

A desire to satisfy my curiosity about what I thought was a historic cultural phenomenon gradually took on a more serious purpose, as I realised that the subject held enormous relevance to the present. I have nevertheless refrained from drawing attention to this in the text, resisting the temptation, strong at times, to suggest parallels between Prince Metternich and Tony Blair, or George W. Bush and the Russian tsars. Leaving aside the bathos this would have involved, I felt readers would derive more fun from drawing their own.”

And, so we shall, for we live in an age between ages, a time of the in-between, a moment between acts in a grand farce in which the very structure and dynamism of our temporal order in moving into chaos by way of personal and social paranoia and revolutionary politics. Discovering parallels between the dark worlds of Nineteenth century political and social distress, panic, and terror and our own would be an interesting task but one that I’ll not try to pursue in this post, rather I’ll seek to bring together some of the extreme aspect of the paranoid mind-set as its shadows fall across our singular age of political and social breakdown.

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