In the public realm, it’s commonly accepted that conventions of polite discourse have had their day. Simply put, they are patently not up to the challenge of stemming the tide of misinformation and paranoia now sweeping the west. The liberal orthodoxy, with its unshakeable belief in the power of open debate and rational discourse winning through, has proved hopelessly inadequate in seizing the narrative. Commentators – from journalists, to politicians, to experts in every field – have found themselves trapped in an endless race to correct misinformation, to reset the balance of public debates, constantly playing catch up to fact-check a story they had no hand in writing. They continue to subscribe to by now archaic rules of fair play and self-correcting equilibriums, regulated by checks and balances; artefacts of a system that is crumbling before our eyes. Every false claim, every act of misconduct from politicians, common understandings of dangerous language and beliefs, pseudo science; there is no longer any guarantee that the divine light of truth will win the day if we simply shine the light of rational discourse over such things.
Of the many reasons for this, lets pull out two of particular relevance here. Augmented by the instant dissemination of false, incomplete, or obfuscated information afforded by the internet, a new age is taking shape. Our relationship with truth is shifting towards a pre-modern dynamic. Common understandings of macro events are rooted more in hearsay and gossip than received wisdom. Atomised interpretations of reality morph into what are for all intents and purposes superstitions. Secondly, the assumption that a common understanding of ‘truth’ (economic, scientific, historical) will lead to ideological consensus is deeply flawed. The liberal worldview – one where an open an honest dissection of ideas will inevitably lead to courses of action guided by human centred pragmaticism – is being ripped to shreds. And ultimately, this is a worldview that pertained to have special access to ‘truth’ and the most effective way to plot courses of action in the light of discovering certain facts. But this is merely a sleight of hand, used to cloak ideologies just as deeply prejudiced and worthy of examination as any other. The Kantian notion that universal principles can be discovered by all humans if only they are guided equally by rational faculties is to deeply misunderstand human nature.
With much of the populace now caught up in these new superstitions, one that unites anti-vaxxers, crystal skull enthusiasts, alt-right bloggers, disaster capitalists, and authoritarian politicians, only the most committed to the liberal ideal would prescribe more of the same. In America, the Democratic Party are pitting ghostly skeletons of the old order as their best hope against Trump, the figurehead of this new age. This could easily be framed as a last gasp of the old order; regardless of the result of the 2020 election, the damage is done, there is no going back. A centrist sticking plaster will do little to stem the tide of history, one driven by technology as much as it is a shift in ideology. But the question remains: if those who would tear down our common understanding of truth, rational exchanges of ideas, proper political conduct and acceptable language in the public sphere have all but won, why do they still act like the losers?
Much could be made of this question. For the last thirty years, the post Cold War liberal consensus on both sides of Atlantic ruled with a newfound faith in scientific rationality, economic orthodoxy, and a complete intolerance for even well-meaning descent in the potential for these things to create our promised utopia. It ruled with a sense of entitlement bordering on divine right, an unwavering conviction in the virtues of stability and order defined by iron-clad notions of rational decision making. One cannot help but look at the thwarting of such arrogance with a small degree of satisfaction. Equally, the new status quo rising to replace it relies on the opposite, namely disorder, an absence of a status quo itself. It grew from feeding on a state of crisis, and is sustained by maintaining this state as the norm. In retaining the infrastructure of consumer capitalism, ensuring people have at least one form of solace via consumption (a sphere now designed for individual expressions of value and self-worth as much as economic activity), everything else becomes destabilised, uncertain, under threat. But our typical understanding of such moments of flux is that they are temporary. What is the psychological cost of maintain this individual and collective anxiety for an extended period of time?
One key to understanding this can be found in Nietzsche’s account of ‘ressentiment’ in his book ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’. Ressentiment, or resentment, is a defining feature of slave morality, namely Christianity. Nobility, independence of mind and spirit, the quest for higher truths, all are equated with evil in Christian morality. Through lack of strength, ambition, and impulse, the herd are unable to attain the happiness that the noble spirit achieves as their natural state, and as a result turn to resentment. This takes the form of inverting every value of the master morality into something ‘evil’. They scheme, plot, and look to overthrow master morality as an outlet for their resentment. In doing so they celebrate the mediocre, they become suspicious of the new and novel, they supress urges both animalistic and intellectual for the sake of a herd mentality. They make virtues out of self-limitation.
In applying this all too brief framework of Nietzsche’s account of resentment to our modern context, we see so-called right-wing strongmen as mere lightning rods for resentment. These are no supermen destined to lead us into a new golden era, but merely magicians that invert every value of pure inquiry and strength in the face of the unknown. This goes beyond simply stirring up resentment and directing it at ‘the other’. At a deeper level than base fear of immigrants, we are told to detest every circumstance of our life beyond the right to consume and work in ever more precarious conditions. Resentment moves from being a verb, directed externally towards specific groups or authority figures, and becomes a noun denoting a way of being. The groundwork was already laid by Christianity with its inbuilt resentment of the powerful, the free minded, the curious. These psychological impulses, deeply ingrained by religious anxiety, were merely temporarily repressed by the enlightenment and faith in the scientific method. But for all the untold human benefits brought on by technological innovation, in addressing the restless energy of the human spirit and the complex of despairs and euphoria this engenders, the scientific world view has proved woefully inadequate compared to the psychology of organised religion.
Beneath the modern veneer of rational progress, the soil was already fertile for the seeds of resentment to grow once more. It becomes a way of understanding the world, through which all new knowledge and experience is filtered. In the language of Nietzsche, this is slave morality in action. It cuts away ambition, it removes the tendency for risk taking, it rewards the mediocre, it is fundamentally anti-human.
In our present context it means crisis becomes the norm, reality is understood by the strength of values as they are expressed, rather than rational enquiry. This new slave morality too, is in a constant state of impotent revolt. Superstition, paranoia, and fear return as the true gatekeepers of knowledge. But just as Nietzsche railed against enlightenment thinkers and their dogmatic commitment to science and rationality as the only medicines required to cure the human condition, so we could say that a return to the orthodoxy of the last thirty years is demonstrably not the answer to redressing this balance. Nietzsche would prescribe an inversion of all values, a reassessment of the moral status quos, guided by the real needs of the human condition and our true potential to one day ‘become who we are’. Whilst such an analysis is not as fanciful as so many misguided critics would have you believe; the prophecy of the coming superman is a project vulnerable to all manner of pretenders to the throne. The inversion of values however, or rather the creation of counter values, has the potential to cut through the white noise, precisely because the battle ground is ideological. The stakes are rooted not in determining what humanity is, but what it could and should be.
Challenging the current politics of resentment is an underdog’s game from the get-go. We live in an age where the internet distils and amplifies all manner of stories and ideas which – from the individual’s perspective – appear atomised and divorced from any coherent macro-narrative. Knitting these together into a story about how we are manipulated into a premodern religious psychosis becomes an up-hill battle. Redressing this battle with facts and statistics, the context of which have to be backfilled into explanations, invariably places one on the back foot, always chasing and correcting the narrative, never determining it. Further, a common understanding of ‘the truth’ is no guarantee of consensus on the right course of action once this elusive ‘truth’ has been pinned down. The battle is an ideological and not a factual one. But by inverting and disseminating counter values, with a rhetorical power and relatability strong enough to resonate on a more universal level; there is a chance to redress the balance of history, and save humanity from the paranoid, superstitious mediocrity that is threatening to engulf it. If those in the old liberal order do not come to terms with their own failures, they will (as many liberals have already done) blame others. They will blame others for not fully grasping the facts. They will blame others for not effectively communicating the facts, or for deliberately distorting them. They will blame anything accept the soil from which these pathologies grew. They will, in short, turn to the very same resentment they are desperately trying to combat.