Ressentiment

 

{One of my blog buddies, Lisa Palmer, made the following comments in response to something I said on her blog. It rang a small bell and inspired me to go back to find a previous post where I addressed her concerns; it expands the brief response I made to her comment, which I thought well worth thinking about and hope my response is appropriate and helpful.}

Most of the Trump supporters I have actually had conversations with (not anonymous internet interactions, which are rarely productive) honestly seem to believe he is a savior of sorts. They all seem to buy into this elaborate conspiracy theory where Trump (sometimes working with a hidden military shadow government) is trying to take down the elite. When confronted with the actual wrongs he has done that affect them negatively, they respond with certainty that “it’s all part of the plan!” Any day now, arrests are going to start occurring and all of the corrupted evil-doers in government and business (including all of the liberals and democrats who are the worst offenders) will be taken down. Once his “job” is accomplished, Trump will resign, and the hidden military shadow government will take over, dismantling the Federal Reserve and the banking system, and resetting things in favor of the middle class…

The story is sadly consistent. When I try to discuss specific wrongs he has/is doing, I am told immediately that none of it is true; it’s all part of the liberal press’ agenda to villianize Trump because the elite are so afraid of him. When I ask why no progress appears to be being made, as the “soon” they discuss has never wavered, they tell me that the liberal fascists keep fighting him, but he’s almost got everything ready.

Most of them agree he is a terrible person, “but he’s the only one who could get the job done!” And the saddest/scariest part for me, is that the number of Trump supporters (those who believe some version of this tale) are growing, or at least growing more vocal…

Despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggest that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism* that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentiment,” which we loosely translate as “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to lord it over those who are not in their privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who ignore them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it while at the same time increasing their own wealth. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him. He is their savior.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful, though certainly possible, that a revolution will be the alternative; the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch (though the embers smolder there), but there will be continued attacks on liberals, the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

 

*[the ideology which at that time sought the establishment of a true Republic as opposed to an Aristocracy] 

 

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Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.