by Patrick Hassan
It would be uncontroversial to observe that political and social divides have become increasingly polarized over the last ten years in much of Europe and the United States. Trump’s 2016 election campaign; the crusade for Brexit; the prominence of right-wing parties in Italy and Hungary: each were characterized by an inflated rhetoric of “us vs. them” and an air of desperation that appears unprecedented in the modern era. Instead of slowing down, this trend appears to be accelerating.
The political spectrum has become increasingly black and white, with people forced into one binary category or the other based on which boxes they tick concerning what are considered (rightly or wrongly) to be the fundamental issues of the time (e.g. immigration, identity politics, abortion, etc). How might we identify the causal mechanism behind this polarizing trend? I suggest that we would do well to consider the thought of 19th century German philosopher and iconoclast Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the small town of Röcken, Germany, the son of a Lutheran minister. He attained a professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel at the young age of 24, and was a close friend and devotee of Richard Wagner, in whose work Nietzsche saw the cultural vitality that was so desperately needed in Germany. In the mid-late 1870’s, Nietzsche became disillusioned with Wagner’s work and (what he saw as) its life-denying worldview, and their relationship soured. Not long afterward in 1879, Nietzsche was forced to permanently leave his academic post due to poor health that continued to plague him throughout his life.
Nietzsche is best known for his unwavering criticisms of contemporary cherished values and beliefs. He sought to attack and expose European morality, religion, as well as political and philosophical ideas, as infected with tendentious presuppositions which possibly prevent the highest human potential. His criticisms of such ideas often took the form of psychological diagnoses about our sub-conscious, and how false consciousness — i.e. being systematically mistaken about what is in fact the case or what is in one’s best interests — lies at the heart of contemporary thought and culture. Accordingly, he has been considered a “master of suspicion,” alongside Sigmund Freud (who is indebted to Nietzsche in many respects) and Karl Marx.
In 1887, Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals (GM), which was an attempt to provide a genuine history of European morality. It had three broad goals: (a) what are the origins of our most cherished values and beliefs?; (b) what sustains them?; (c) are they conducive to human flourishing? This was not a new task: Mill and the Utilitarians sought the same end; Darwin too; Hume offered his own genealogies of morality and religious belief before that; and even earlier, Hobbes, who did so with respect to political institutions. An important influence on Nietzsche here was his once friend Paul Rée, whose The Origin of the Moral Sensations (1877) Nietzsche commended in its naturalistic methodology, despite rejecting its conclusions as lacking “the historical spirit [historische Geist].” (GM, I: §2) According to Nietzsche these previous attempts at a genuine history of morality were infected with moral prejudices (particularly concerning the capacity for and primacy of “altruism”), thus their projects needed to be hardened “by the hammer-blow of historical knowledge.” (HH, §37; cf. §2)
While Rée et. al’s genealogies were vindicatory in nature (i.e they sought to justify contemporary moral values, beliefs and practices), Nietzsche’s own project was informed by deep suspicion, and, after careful consideration of the mechanism by which it evolved, a desire to undermine key aspects of contemporary morality (at least in the eyes of certain types of people). To this end, one of Nietzsche’s tasks in GM was to bring attention to how values and ideology can be shaped by the phenomenon of ressentiment.
Ressentiment is a French word which Nietzsche uses to refer to the feeling of hatred and envy towards a perceived cause of harm (i.e. an appropriate object of blame), but which is suppressed insofar as one’s weakness or inferiority relative to that cause denies it a direct outlet in the form of reprisal. Nietzsche believed that this kind of bottled-up hatred, if left to fester for too long, “becomes creative” and “gives birth to values.” (GM, I: §10) What Nietzsche has in mind is that ressentiment can lead those who feel it to sub-consciously construct a system of values that aims to undermine and denounce the source of one’s perceived harm, while simultaneously justifying and vindicating one’s weaknesses. This mechanism of value-creation has the function of providing a defence mechanism to shield the agent from confronting their inferiority.
To take an oversimplified example, imagine a man, A, who greatly desires to achieve success and fame as a musician but nonetheless knows he does not have the required ability, and simply isn’t cut out for music. A watches other musicians rise to fame with envy. Instead of admitting his inadequacies in this domain, A instead comes to believe that being famous is a waste of time anyway and is only for “sellouts” who don’t care about real art. In this way, A preserves his ego by denigrating a value that he desires but cannot achieve — fame — and at the same time valorizes his own inability to achieve it as a kind of “authenticity” or “integrity.”
It is precisely this psychological mechanism of ressentiment which Nietzsche, in the first essay of his On the Genealogy of Morals, identifies in the rise of Judeo-Christian values. For Nietzsche, the social conditions and relations of power in Roman-occupied Judea were such that its inhabitants perceived themselves to be oppressed by their Roman rulers. Unsurprisingly, this downtrodden group began to develop a vengeful disdain towards their aristocratic oppressors. Being the feebler of the two classes, the oppressed were unable to discharge these feelings by openly striking back with force, creating the feeling of ressentiment among them. In this case, the values that came to be cherished in the oppressed class were a literal inversion of the values of their oppressors. The new evaluative framework that emerged as a result — the Judeo-Christian tradition — valorized those who were previously considered bad, vulgar, and wretched as manifesting everything actually good, while the “nobles” and their associated qualities — strength, pride, joy, wealth, power, and physical prowess — were designated as being evil. This had the effect of legitimizing the inadequacies of the downtrodden: their “impotence” becomes “goodness of heart”; their “anxious lowliness” becomes “humility”; their “inoffensiveness” becomes “patience”; their “inability for revenge” becomes “forgiveness”; their hatred of their enemy becomes a “hatred of injustice.” (GM, I: §14). By way of reinterpreting the existing social power relations, the weak “compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge.” (GM, I: §10) As a paradigmatic expression of this colossal shift in values, consider the words of Paul the Apostle:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (Corinthians, 12:9)
Whether or not one finds this a convincing account of the birth of Judaism and Christianity, Nietzsche’s account of the psychological potency of ressentiment may prove fruitful in offering the conceptual tools to diagnose a partial cause of our current socio-political climate and in particular, the increasing prominence of the far-Right.
Findings from the British Social Attitudes survey, collated by the National Centre for Social Research in 2017, showed a strong correlation between those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, and those who were most concerned about the issue of immigration numbers to the UK. But this concern does not occur in a vacuum — the issue of immigration is nothing new (even taking into consideration the “migrant crisis” resulting from civil and imperialist wars in the Middle East and North Africa). What has led to this issue sparking such division is that (a) “Leave” voters influenced by it felt that their concerns were ignored or not taken seriously, and (b) a sense of loss of English identity and/or sovereignty stoked hostility towards the EU. Again, this may be a genuine concern, but large portions of the country were left feeling ignored, breeding ressentiment that was bound to manifest in the way that it has: an ideological dividing line so sharp that it is unique in British history.
In the U.S., a similar set of circumstances is observable. Significant portions of the population increasingly feel as if their values are being left behind and replaced with new, “radical liberal” values without involving them in the discussion. A feeling of ressentiment and suspicion towards those identified as “liberal university elites” pervades entire communities, angry at the idea that others are trying to determine what they ought to think and value.
It was this ressentiment that the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage were able to identify and capitalize on in order to gain their respective political victories. Their rhetoric and outbursts reassure those who feel as if they have been harmed that they have in fact been harmed, something that is emboldened when these sentiments are rationalized by political commentators, particularly those perceived as being intellectuals, like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
What Nietzsche attempted to show was how our values can be shaped by sub-conscious psychological forces unbeknownst to us. Before one can understand how these values emerge, one must engage in a careful history, tracking the relevant explananda which often are manifold. The vulnerability of human beings to experience ressentiment, I suggest, has much explanatory power concerning the rise of far-Right evaluative frameworks.
What this thesis would additionally serve to reveal is that there have been major failures on the Left in overlooking the real reasons for far-Right expansion (not to mention how ressentiment may also explain certain features of new Leftist ideologies). In failing to address the underlying ressentiment of these ideologies and what creates it, the Left has often magnified it. If the people that voted for Trump and Brexit did so partly because they felt alienated from social and political discourse, no-platforming, and talk shows such as the Colbert Report or The Daily Show — while certainly funny — have made things worse in terms of the distance between political and social factions. The latter’s use of ridicule has forged the perception of the Left not as those concerned with emphasizing common struggles in the interest of human emancipation, but as sarcastic and smug, looking down upon the common man as naive and misguided. This only serves to intensify undiagnosed feelings of ressentiment.
A second failing is that the Left must realize that the obsession with Trump is a red herring: voting him out will not end the problem of a politically and socially divided America, no more than voting out Brexiteers will heal a divided Britain. These figures are merely symptoms of a deeper problem, and not root causes. Pretending otherwise serves to mask part of what is really driving people apart, and it is to this that our efforts and counters must be directed.
Ressentiment is the defining feature of 21st century politics in Europe and North America. The attitudes and policies derived from it won’t change unless we first understand this complex and subtle psychological mechanism which gives rise to, and sustains, them. Nietzsche, as a master of revealing ugly truths by way of a subtle genealogy of morals, has never been more relevant.
Patrick Hassan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo.
(1) Henderson, Ailsa, Charlie Jeffery, Dan Wincott, and Richard Wyn Jones. “How Brexit Was Made in England.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19, no. 4 (November 2017): 631–646. doi:10.1177/1369148117730542.