The recent senatorial supreme court confirmation sickened virtually everyone, regardless of political persuasion. A divided nation was torn even further asunder. Some viewed the majority party as scheming to maintain control. Others thought the minority party tried to wrest it from them. At stake was power, for such is the essence of politics. Politics is the art and science of governing the polis, the city-state. Cities and states are not so much about territory, buildings, or roadways as they are about people who occupy, inhabit, and use them. In short, politics is about power over people, the masses. Ironically, it is exercised by people, authorities.
All sorts of authorities use power, and may do so both legitimately and helpfully. Parents must exercise power over their children to protect them from danger or malnourishment. Police officers are vested with power to keep roadways safe for motorists. Coaches are granted power to motivate athletes to reach beyond their grasp. Power is good, except when it is achieved by illegitimate means. In that case, authorities, and government in general, bring mistrust upon themselves.
There are many angles on the Kavanaugh hearings, most subsumed under Democrat or Republican goals. Of the former, Vox reporter, Claire Fallon, called the process “a celebration of male anger―the power of anger to bring men together, to reinforce their certainty about what is owed to them as men and, of course, to sweep women’s anger and pain to the side.” She accused Republicans of wielding power illegitimately, the politics of anger, a currency of control.
There are, however, other currencies of control, perhaps less overt. One of them gives rise to the politics of resentment, the origins of which may be traced to a complex psychological phenomenon identified by Friedrich Nietzsche, ressentiment. Ressentiment is animated by a will-to-power to assuage the pain of suffering and consequent anger over limitations intrinsic to human existence, all while feeling impotent to bring about change of fortune.
Ressentiment concerns one’s own sense of threat, weakness, limitation, restriction, or other disadvantage that is suppressed or blocked from outward expression. It entails a strategy of settled yet repressed enmity in response to injury, real or perceived. It sets up an imbalance of power, and those who are disadvantaged objectify their predicament in the form of an external enemy worthy of blame. It creates an adversary, real or perceived, and plots revenge on them to reverse the asymmetry through subterfuge.
Nietzsche described the whole thing as the revaluation of values, a turning of the world upside-down. The new state of affairs results in the former victims justifying themselves as possessors of new power and controllers of the new relationship. Ultimately, ressentiment strives for power. Its conscious motive is the desire to alleviate suffering and achieve happiness—both tantamount to attaining control, and notably for our purposes, deserving it. Ressentiment-achieved power is self-legitimizing.
James Davison Hunter, who coined the American concept of “culture war,” acknowledges the extent of Nietzsche’s legacy in our upside-down world. Democracy historically diffused power in the governed in the hope of forming a more perfect union. It has recently, however, promoted “the loss of common culture and, in turn, the competition among factions to dominate others on their own terms.” The resulting pluralistic broil is “not much more than a veneer over a will to power.” This becomes “a fundamental and perhaps permanent feature of the contemporary social order, both … in America and in the world.” He holds ressentiment to be the culprit. It is the key cultural weapon wielded by those groups who are “injured” through marginalisation or mistreatment, real or imagined.
Resentment is insidious for its modus operandi. Whereas anger flashes brightly and presents obvious threat, resentment smolders inconspicuously and hides danger. The former may be combatted openly, but the latter burns the unwitting. It promotes a process that ambushes victims by, ironically, claiming victimhood.
Victim-identity builds a narrative of oppression. It cultivates a further fear of injury, “generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing [it] to action.” Perceived injury motivates them to
accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.
The installation of Brett Kavanaugh to the highest court in the land should have been a celebration ofnational unity and constitutional legitimacy. Instead, the politics of resentment framed it as one more black eye on the face of Lady Justice and another chapter in the abuse of political power.
This is the second article in a multi-part series. For the previous article, see “Our Upside-down World”.
Claire Fallon,“Brett Kavanaugh’s Testimony Was A Spectacle Of Angry Male Bonding,”posted hereat HuffPost, accessed September 28, 2018.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Vol. 8, §3.15. trans. Adrian Del Caro. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1stedition. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014).
I consider resentment to be a component of ressentiment. Therefore, the latter is different from and larger than the former. This being said, due to the obvious similarity between the two terms, and because the former is familiar to English-speakers, the term resentment will be used in place of ressentimentin the balance of this article, except when used by other authors.