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Those attracted to the politics of ressentiment often have some basis for their feeling of victimhood; they have experienced oppression, do not feel they fit in with mainstream society, and therefore politics. They perceive a gap between the world in how they experience it, and how it is popularly represented. As Max Scheler said, ressentiment is “strongest in a society like ours, where approximately equal rights…publicly recognized, go hand in hand with wide factual differences in power, property, and education”. People search for an explanation for this gap which, along with conspiratorial thinking, leads to a politics of ressentiment. The concept of ressentiment has come under attack for undermining social movements, but the point of ressentiment is that it is necessarily divorced from any concrete struggle. For those who engage in the politics of ressentiment want only to affirm their victimhood, not to consequently overcome it, because they obtain their power from this very victimhood. Scheler explains it is peculiar to “ressentiment criticism that it does not seriously desire that its demands be fulfilled. It does not want to cure the evil. The evil is merely the pretext for the criticism.” Thus ressentiment is a revolt that demands only the recognition of the “weak as weak”, and therefore virtuous.
The rejection of left ressentiment fuels the alt-right in their smirking dismissal of US campus politics which they manipulatively use as a pretext to reject liberatory politics. But this ressentiment is also viewed within fascism – the ‘feeling’ of being oppressed by immigrants, women and people of colour, this crisis of masculinity, the incel phenomenon and the wretched men’s rights movement. They must be aware of the fragility, of the subjective nature of these ‘feelings’ because they demand continual validation and enforcement, while they do not truly want their demands met. Incels do not actually attempt to get out and date women, but stay online, telling each other how unattractive they are, validating each others’ sense of rejection and oppression.
Similarly this is what the Tories do not understand about the fascism which lies behind the drive for a ‘hard’ Brexit. Even if the Tories adopt a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it will not satisfy fascists but bolster them. Their existence depends on a feeling of oppression which does not exist but needs validation, which is why they crave disasters. The ’sado-populism’ that Timothy Snyder discusses is not a technique used leaders to con the people but is one that is actively embraced by their supporters. For the harm which fascists know which will likely result from far-right policies – to themselves as well as others – will at least provide an objective validation for their feeling of crisis. The far-right are fully aware of the disastrous ramifications a no deal Brexit, but they do not care, for even fascists need an excuse to turn to violence – a white genocide, a war, a crusade, oppression by an imperialist EU. Thus while Nazis and fascists have adopted Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘overman’, which describes a being who overcomes ressentiment, this does not apply to fascists. For fascism is built on the demonisation of others and claim of victimhood, indicative of the pathetic impotence of the far right. Look at Trump: emblematic of toxic masculinity, best parodied as a wailing infant.
And parts of the left are keen to appease this fascist ressentiment, as they insist we need to listen to how the (allegedly working class) white men ‘feel’ over the actual material experiences of oppression. Perhaps this is because the left feel the same way; they ‘feel oppressed’, despite evidence of objective privilege. Look at the discourse of Corbynism centered on victimhood, on enemies, on progressive (Blairite) MPs conspiring against the incorruptible leader. The small but highly influential Brexit contingent of Corbynism, has laid bare its parochial nature underneath the thin veneer of internationalist cosmopolitanism that lent the party limited electoral success in 2017. A resentful nostalgia is lurking in parts of the English left, longing for the time where men bonded with each other in unions and pubs, and were able to make enough salary to keep the child-baring wife at home. Immigration was a neoliberal conspiracy to lower men’s wages and undermine solidarity between homogenous populations (echoing old arguments made against feminism). Welfare, disproportionately helping independent mothers, is a neoliberal conspiracy to lower wages, so nationalisation and economic restructuring become a priority instead. They feel oppressed by progress, and our actually-existing modernity; a ‘feeling’, that they claim through reference to a parodic idea of the working class, and demand validation for their feelings which in turn gives them power. While some pay lip service to anti-racist struggles and dabble in deranged accelerationism – namely state socialism with robots doing men’s work – the essence of Lexit is necessarily just as myopic, macho and racist as Brexit.
The left resenters especially dislike groups who have a claim to oppression and claim it or act on it in a way that they do not approve of – women, Syrian revolutionaries, Jews, Ukrainians, Muslims who reject an idiotic ‘anti-imperialism’. They approve the oppression of others only if it fits their ideals; a Jew whose political identity centres on Cable Street and excludes Jerusalem, a Muslim whose idea of resistance is exemplified in Gaza, but not in Idlib. For the identarian ethos adopted by the so-called new Left is a ruse. If a people have a claim to oppression but their narrative does not validate the left’s own sense of ressentiment, they will reject them as genuinely oppressed, and further still will resort to racist tropes; Syrian rebels are terrorists, Zionists are controlling the world. Indeed resenters will focus on those who may have competing claims to oppression over the far right, in order to protect their own status as uniquely oppressed. Perhaps, along with residues of the Stalinist ‘social fascism’ concept, this a cause of the particular demonisation of liberal women and people of color (Hilary Clinton is a warmonger, Kamala Harris is a Cop) obscuring actual white supremacy.
Ressentiment was often originally often used in reference to nineteenth century left politics, but it continues into the new left, interpolated by vulgar interpretations of aspects of post-structuralist theory. Whereas democratic political struggle would often traditionally in the name of collectives, aiming to influence law and policy, post-structuralism challenged the norms and categories that such struggles are based on. It rightly examines the diffuse nature of oppression, and power that continues to assert itself through bio-politics and the enforcement of norms. Therefore it goes beyond state focused ideas of resistance, to examine a more micro level of opposition, for example the idea that one can resist by engaging in personal practices in ways which subvert dominant norms of sexuality and gender. However this is often very easily co-opted, as criticisms of Pride have pointed out. For divorced from any tangible or achievable demands, an idea of a transgressive identity is easily subsumed into the hegemonic due to its superficiality and repetition of the same.
But more troublingly, this logic also cultivates an ambivalence over legal changes which would actually limit oppression, as Judith Butler implies in her book ‘excitable bodies’ where she critiques Catherine Mackinnon’s critical view of pornography. In Butler’s framework one may enact some kind of resistance through inhabiting, performing and subverting the position of the oppressed, and legal changes with regards to pornography for example would proscribe that – it’s a politics of ressentiment with a vitalist vibe. As Martha Nussbaum says, Butler ‘is now willing to say that even where legal change is possible, even where it has already happened, we should wish it away, so as to preserve the space within which the oppressed may enact their sadomasochistic rituals of parody.’ Now there have always been important and complex debates among feminists over pornography and sex work, about censorship, state power, and what policies would best protect women, including sex workers. But Butler goes beyond these often pragmatic concerns to argue for the potential transgressive nature of the sex industries’ outputs, possible in scenes of sexual domination for example. As Nussbaum concludes: “for Butler, the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better. What a bore equality is!”
Therefore Butler moves away from traditional identity politics aiming towards tangible change to the idea that resistance can lie in a the performance of an identity which subverts norms by parodying them, thus demonstrating their failure. Perhaps the widespread acceptance of gender theory is attractive and has become hegemonic as it skewers the actual continuing structural oppression of women, and – therefore in the mindset of ressentiment – undermines the source of women’s power, and eases the guilt of male ‘privilege’. For popular interpretations (ie bad readings) of Butler – who seemed so edgy in the nineties – have now become as ubiquitous as the “scenes of domination” that she said we should see more of. Has this given us a deeper understanding of women’s oppression? I don’t think so. There is little about such scenes which capture the true sense of an even of women’s oppression, it is simply a representation of it, a bare repetition, mockingly referencing the objectification of women. A re-expression of such an event would attempt to capture its sense, overcome it, connecting such oppression to others, through both difference and commonalities, creating possibilities for new connections; a mark of good art, thought and praxis which requires some thought and effort.
With little claim to oppression or victimhood and therefore power, the need for an enemy becomes even more pronounced for the man of ressentiment “needs others to be evil in order to be able to consider himself good”. Thus the politics of anti-Zionism in the west – a concept I previously argued for and now repudiate – is fuelled with a politics of ressentiment. Why do parts of the western left hate Israel as viciously as they do when they have no connection to the conflict? Why has anti-Zionism become symbol of the virtuous and marginalised left – a marker for Corbynism? Perhaps it is because they have an opportunity to use troupes surrounding colonialism and imperialism that would otherwise largely be considered defunct in a post-colonial world; an opportunity to resurrect dead tropes that many Palestinians themselves abandoned in the 70s. Furthermore, Jewish Israelis do not share an ethnicity with Anglo anti-Zionists who can therefore speak the language of anti-imperialism without, for once, implicating themselves. It eases the paralysing white guilt of Europeans’ whose ancestors may have been complicit in imperialism or, as Howard Jacobsen says, the holocaust.
This is why activists have little wish to positively advocate for Palestinian self-determination and statehood which they care little about, but rather focuses on the illegitimacy of the Israeli state. The politics of ressentiment must entirely deny the existence of the Other’s claim to oppression, so the reasons behind the emergence of Zionism and the Israeli state are not dealt with; the history of anti-Semitism and the holocaust is marginalised, in turn nurturing anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. And while Palestinians are desperately trying to defend their right to a state and a normal life, westerners feel validated about the fading prospects of a two state solution, which is the only viable solution in its recognition of the duel claims of self-determination. Parts of the left can sometimes seem quite excited when Palestinians are killed in Gaza, because it confirms their narrative – cements the victimhood of the Palestinians, and by extension those solidarity activists, for they share the same ‘enemy’ Israel, which in the latter’s case is entirely removed from reality. In a roundabout way it is similar to Butler’s logic; as long as overt oppression continues, you can continue to claim victimhood from which you gain power.
And of course, it is this dominating view that influences many western anti-Zionist’s view of geopolitics, leading them to defend a fascist regime in Syria, the imperialism of Russia and Iran. This Stalinist world view also allows them to further demonise their own governments, to further become victims, to further gain power, to advocate for a theological ideal of revolution which will never come and which they don’t really want. This has meant rejecting actual democratic revolutions (see Syria, Libya) which challenged the third world populist rhetoric of their regimes, which used a politics of ressentiment to legitimise their rule; America and the Zionists are bad, therefore we are good, despite the murder, rape and torture.
For ressentiment sees traps and reformism everywhere, lurking in human rights and welfare legislation, every multilateral peace process, every sign of progress – its all simply symptomatic of a hostile world which ressentiment needs in order to justify its existence in the first place. Thus it continually evolves, twists, to escape co-option by liberals, history, powers, norms, morals and hypocrisy until it resonates in the One that cannot be co-opted because it finds its power only in reference to itself; that is how ressentiment can eventually reform into the essence of fascism. This is how, by indulging in ressentiment, you wake up one day and realise you are adhering to logics of prejudice, racism, fascism and Stalinism. If this type of politics defines you and your life, you will struggle to be happy, because this alone will challenge ressentiment. Thus ressentiment does not just hurt the object of your hate and envy, it hurts yourself, and you learn to like it.
Judith Butler explains that she does not want to regulate desire and fantasy which can be so productive, yet the problem which has occupied a number of theorists since fascism is the question: how to we come to desire our own oppression; the destruction of ourselves and others? What blocks desire and re-diverts it to ‘interests which are not its own’ as Deleuze and Guattari asked? What drives the will to ressentiment in the first place? This is not a matter for psychoanalysis, explained by some inherent death drive, but a crisis of thought, where people continue to operate and think along the lines of opposition and contradiction, of power and lack. If neoliberalism has played a role in this re-emergence of destructive politics, it is not by financial crises, but, as Nathan Widder says, by its cultivation of ‘thoughtlessness’; boredom that leads to longing for affective sensation, easily satisfied by the construction of enemies, which characterises all varieties populism and ressentiment.
Some on the left who criticize the identarian ethos of the ‘new left’ advocate a return to class essentialism, lost forms of Marxism and anarchism. But the very problem with the new left is that they have not been able to shed the dialectical logic behind these old political theologies which forecloses difference into pre-constructed binaries, and deteriorates into populism and ressentiment. There is absolutely no problem with identity politics, as long its power is not defined soley by victimhood and constructed enemies. Progressive movements for self-determination, for the invocation of a group identity in order to describe grievances, form demands and nurture solidarity. And there are absolutely occasions which it is necessary for such groups to be exclusionary, draw lines and demand space. But this does not mean any group, and especially an individual within that group, is inherently good, radical or potentially revolutionary purely by virtue of its essential identity.
Furthermore, oppression is multifaceted, occurring at the cultural level, which filters through to society and micro politics, and of course we must continue to critique all depictions and manifestations of racism and sexism in order to better articulate oppression and therefore overcome it. Yet critique in order to affirm oppression is not on its own adequate enough to challenge hegemony and its refection in counter-hegemony. In a democratic context, any kind of liberatory politics will be based on a combination of liberal demands for political and corporate representation, legal rights and protections, radical demands for social and economic justice, and critique which is coupled with creation; expressing the possibility for alternative connections and futures.
By Imogen Lambert
One thought on “Age of Anger: Notes on the new politics of ressentiment”
Very strong article! Gave me a lot to think about.