Revisiting Revolution

I recently posted the ten items on a list of features Jerry Stark suggested best describe the ressentiment felt by a great many people in this country at the present time — as reflected in their continued support of an incompetent president. In doing so I may have suggested that this was the dominant thinking of a majority of people in this country. Jerry recently posted a comment in which he tells us such is almost certainly not the case. He guesses this is about one-third of the people: there are other forces at work in our troubled country at this time, some of which must give us hope.

Thus it behooves me to quote a portion of the comment Jerry himself made to that post, expanding on this theme. What he said in his comment is worth pondering, though he reminds us his ideas are still germinating. And you may notice that he has added to his comment if you check the above link. In any event,  he suggests that there is at least one other element in this country that is learning to find its voice and this voice may indeed have the last word. That voice exhibits:

(1) An appreciation, not merely a tolerance, of cultural diversity.

(2) A skepticism about how well traditional institutions and traditional institutional leaders serve the public– corporations, religions, governments, schools, etc.

(3) The traditional gender stereotypes of males and females are widely questioned, to the point where they are regarded as irrelevant or harmful.

(4) Acceptance of political and economic ideas once considered “communist / socialist” by large percentages of the American populace, especially the young, under the general terms of “progressivism”, “fairness”, and “public safety”. (Think health care, education funding, and gun control, for example.)

(5) A greater commitment to political engagement and increased support for candidates who challenge traditional party platforms and candidates.

(6) A high regard for science and technology, and a subsequent acceptance of the reality and critical importance of climate change.

This list is broadly stated. It leaves much room for specifics and nuances, to be sure.
The [previously posted] list of emergent moral standards [that appear to be dominant at the present time] is depressing. No question about that. Equally depressing is that it represents the thinking of almost a third of the adults in this country. That is also frightening, but bear in mind that this sector of the population tends to be older, Evangelical, Republican, disproportionately rural, male, and white.

This category of the public will not last long, as a simple matter of demographics; further, this sector is shrinking politically. One of the reasons the support for Trump appears to be rising among his base of Republicans [percentage-wise] is precisely because the number of people who call themselves such is steadily diminishing. This leaves the harder-core supporters representing a larger percentage of Republicans without an increase in their actual numbers. The same holds true for Evangelicals, whom I hesitate to refer to as Christians.

The sector of the population likely to express opposition to the emergent morality listed in [the earlier] post also appears at this point to be about a third of the populace. Crucially, however, it is younger and growing. It is increasingly non-white, it includes a wider variety of religious and non-religious views, it has little faith in the so-called “free market,” it is more urban and suburban, and it strongly values economic and social fairness.

Whatever the attitudes this sector of the population bring to the table, one important point is unavoidable: these people will be around for a long time. Republicans have known this for decades and have been working to take over state and local governments, to undermine labor, to defund the public sector, to rig elections, to pack the courts, and even to pursue amending the Constitution to maintain the power of wealth and whiteness in this country. To a remarkable degree, they have succeeded.

The ultimate measure of the success conservatives have enjoyed in the past forty years will depend largely upon whether this emerging third of the population does, indeed, develop and act upon a conscious ressentiment of its own. An inflection point where this country could go one way or the other appears close at hand.

I would only question the depth of the commitment of the young to the political process [#5 above], since that commitment seems a bit whimsical.  But when the voice of the young is heard it can be effective, to be sure. And I do wonder what will happen if and when the remaining third of the population of this country, if it is not thoroughly “pro-establishment,” wakes up and becomes politically active.

In any event, Jerry suggests that his ideas are still aborning.  So I urge those of you who are interested to revisit his latest comment to the post mentioned above. What he has provided us with is an insight into the darkness of our current cultural ethos, and I thank him for that. That’s what this blog is for: to stir up the mud a bit and get us to think.It is anything but simple, but it demands that we take notice since, however we slice it, we are in the midst of a cultural revolution — for better or worse.

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Is This It?

I recently finished re-reading George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical. It’s an amazing book and once again proves Eliot’s mastery of her craft. She was a wise woman in addition to being an exceptional writer. In this novel she is addressing the complex question of the extension of suffrage in England in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a thorny issue, as it involved the willingness of the wealthy and privileged to allow the poor to vote and help determine political events.

We no longer deal with this particular issue, but we do need to think about the central issue of whether or not everyone should be allowed to determine who holds the reins of power. In this regard, we have recently been made aware that something has been rotting in the political cellar for many years: there are those who feel they have been excluded from the political process and they have risen up and spoken out loud and clear in voting for a man who is clearly unqualified for the job but who, they think, speaks for them. I have tried again and again to fathom how this could have happened and nothing ago posted a guest essay by Jerry Stark who was nice enough to comment at length on my suggestion that the revolution we are living through is an expression of what the French call “ressentiment.” I think the discussion that followed that post helped to clear up some of the problem; but in reading Felix Holt I came across a passage that may help even more.

In the novel the hero is a bright and well-educated man who chooses to become an “ordinary” craftsman, a watchmaker as it happens. He is also dedicated to teaching and helping the poor become eligible to vote. Eliot was clearly influenced by Thomas Carlyle whom she greatly admired and who spent much of his life trying to make room for the poor in the political arena. He, in turn, was motivated by the fear that England would suffer a violent revolution much like the French and there would be chaos. Eliot, however, insisted, in the words of her hero, that the key was not the extension of suffrage to all and sundry, but education for all in the hope that as suffrage was extended the voters would make wise choices.

In the brief passage mentioned above she has another speaker voicing his ressentiment in making an impassioned plea for universal suffrage on the part of the disenfranchised who, he insists, have been held down by those with great wealth and position far too long:

“. . .these are the men who tell us we’re to let politics alone; they’ll govern us better without our knowing anything about it. We must mind our business; we are ignorant; we’ve no time to study great questions. But I tell them this: the greatest question in the world is how to give every man a man’s share in what goes on in life –.”

This brief passage, along with some comments made to the guest post I mentioned above, have helped me to understand a bit better the frustration many in this country have felt for years because they have been displaced by those they regard with suspicion: those with wealth, education, and status who have refused them a place at the political table. They identify this group as “liberals.” In a democracy, no matter how flawed it night be, it is everyone’s right to have a place at the table. But as Eliot insists, and I couldn’t agree more, those who take their place must understand what’s involved. Again, education is the key.

Because we have failed to recognize this important truth we now find ourselves in the midst of a moral revolution, as Jerry Stark suggests, in which black is white, right is wrong, and truth is falsity. We are led by a man blinded by his own self-interest and sense of self-importance coupled with a twisted view of the world because a great many people in this country who do not feel themselves a part of “what goes on in life” have spoken up in angry self-righteous indignation. And, unfortunately, those with legitimate complaints have brought with them the lunatic fringe who wallow in fear and hatred.  It is important that the disenfranchised have a voice. But it is also important that they have the capacity to grasp the “great questions” a capacity that is only possible with an education that involves both civics and history — at the very least. Otherwise, as Eliot would have it, we shall be governed by “men [and women] whose mental state is a mere medley of appetites and confused impressions.”

As Felix says in a lengthy speech to a gathered throng at a political rally:

“. . . all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam — the force that works those engines — must come out of human nature. . . . Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends [on the wisdom of the voters]; and if we have false expectations about men’s characters [whom we vote for], we are very much like the idiot who thinks he can carry milk in a can with no bottom. In my opinion, the notions about what mere voting will do are very much of that sort.”

In a democracy no one should be excluded from the seats of power, but all who take their place must know what they are about.

Guest Blog Post

The following comment by Jerry Stark expanded and improved upon my attempt to explain the notion of ressentment. It is extremely well done and helps us understand the mind-set of those who follow our sitting president and worship at his shrine. I post it here with Jerry’s permission.

The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied to our current circumstance.

Nietzsche’s (pre-postmodern) claim was that morality is defined and established by the powerful and inflicted upon those whom they dominate. He further argues that new moral regimes can emerge out of a process of ressentiment, wherein those who are viewed as social inferiors by the powerful, and who have come to view themselves as socially inferior, develop a resentful hatred against those they view as elites — their “betters”. Ressentiment is not about class consciousness; it is about the revenge of the unworthy.

Ressentiment is characterized, in part, by a thoroughgoing refusal to accept conventional definitions of good, bad, and evil. Further, according to Nietzsche, ressentiment bears within it, implicitly at first, a new definition of good, bad, and evil. As ressentiment spreads throughout the populace, a populist revaluation becomes more explicit, more refined, and more powerful. If the morality of the extant elites is displaced, then a new moral order emerges to reflect the new social order that gives rise to it.

Nietzsche does not claim that the new moral order will be better or more virtuous than the pre-existing order, only that it will be chronologically newer. . . .

Though I seldom turn to Nietzsche for philosophical insight, what intrigues me about the notion of ressentiment are (1) the parallels between Nietzsche’s concept and our current political situation and (2) the possible morality that might emerge from it. I offer four points to this discussion.

First, the self-perception of disempowerment and cultural displacement, not economic insecurity, are driving forces behind support for Trump’s campaign and his presidency. This takes several forms, often overlapping: (1) White ressentiment at being culturally displaced by non-whites; (2) Male fear of being politically and economically displaced by women or of falsely being accused of sexually insulting or assaulting women; (3) Christian evangelical fear of being culturally displaced by non-Christians and non-believers.

The way Trump has manipulated and magnified these fears has been nothing short of masterful. It matters little that this reveals less about his mastery of politics than it does about his own pathological narcissism. What matters is that he has turned ressentiment into a political weapon, a political strategy, and a form of political governance – all at the same time.

Second, an emergent morality comprehensively dismissive of previous norms of moral conduct emerges out of this populist ressentiment, guided, of course, by those who stoke the fires of fear and who dismiss conventional notions of good, bad, evil – and even truth. It does little good to appeal to so-called “common morality” in response to the anti-morality, anti-truth dispositions of populist ressentiment. Any attempt at reasoning, be it logical or moral, will be dismissed. Any attempt to counter unfounded claims will be disregarded as false, a priori [italics added].

The parallel between Nietzsche’s conception of populist ressentiment and Trump’s dismissal of any truth, fact, or morality other than his own could not be clearer.

Third, a key element of the replacement of the old moral order is the extent to which significant portions of the existing elite accommodate to the values that emerge from popular ressentiment. What appears clear is that the wealthy and powerful, for the most part, are willing to accept Trump-guided ressentiment as a political framework if they get what they want: power and money. Every successful fascist regime has made peace with the wealthy and the powerful. They are useful.

Some members of this country’s elite will feel they can moderate and manipulate Trump. Others will accommodate to Trump in the pursuit of specific policies consistent with their interests, all the while holding their noses. Some will actively support and endorse Trumpism. Finally, some will actively oppose it. The relative balance of these different segments of the political and economic elite can be of decisive importance to the consolidation of the new regime of Trumpian anti-morality and anti-truth.

Thus far, the wealthy and the powerful have received more than they could have hoped for: a rubber-stamp Republican Party; a president who wants, to a pathetically obvious degree, to be accepted by them; a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that are increasingly pro-corporate at every turn; an insanely expensive and profitable permanent war economy; a decreasingly problematic (for them) regulatory system; a government increasingly insulated from the policy risks of potentially democratic influences upon government decision-making, legislation and regulation.

Fourth, the outlines of a new morality become clear. The morality of Trumpism is based upon a number of premises that counter traditional morality and knowledge:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

The extent to which Nietzsche would agree with these anti-moral premises is not the issue (though it is likely he would agree with several). What matters here is whether Nietzsche’s concept of “ressentiment” is relevant to an understanding of the current situation in this country.

Sadly, I agree with Professor Curtler that it is.

Even more sadly, we have heard this all before.