Ressentiment and the battle for hearts and minds

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.

5 thoughts on “Ressentiment and the battle for hearts and minds

  1. This is a really confused (and confusing) endless rant.

    Why would you mix Nietzschean concepts like slave morality (=liberalism, Christianity), revaluation of all values (=completing and surpassing nihilism), the overman (=the individual capable of this) etc. with current Left / Right debate in the Western world ?

    Do you think there ever was a free and fair debate in democracies were truth came to light and everyone just stood in awe of its light and agreed and went kumbaya together ? What a load of idealist and utopian crap. The game is the same, the weapons have changed: no more mass media uniersal messaging bought by politicians, but social media, with its flaws (rumors & online censorship) and advantages (independent collective conciousness regardless).

    If anything, Trump’s Right is still the most (constitutionally) liberal voice in the world right now, while the US Left is fixated on SJW issues and is out to “check your privilege whitey”. This is political war, not resentment morality. Trump couldn’t care less about Christianity, it’s a tool. The bottom line is: people follow the strongest.

    “redress the balance of history, and save humanity from the paranoid, superstitious mediocrity” – you’re still waaay to idealistic to get Nietzsche, it’s a total misunderstanding. He would never think the world needs fixing, or that truth needs to be fought for etc. He would simply ask you: why do YOU really insist on fixing the world and on having the truth at all cost?

    Nietzsche is not in the Left / Right debate (at least not in the way you present him, as having a some sort of solution to resentment morality that you think you identify in this debate), he knows it’s all politics, meaning superficial BS (=competing interpretations of the world from various human types). He’s not the one to state what Truth is, but he is the one that clearly states what kind of a human type / race / individual is to be preferred: the Aristocratic type.

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    1. “This is a really confused (and confusing) endless rant.”

      – go figure, your confused rant lacks poetry however

      “Why would you mix Nietzschean concepts like slave morality (=liberalism, Christianity), revaluation of all values (=completing and surpassing nihilism), the overman (=the individual capable of this) etc. with current Left / Right debate in the Western world ?”

      – I didn’t, I think you may have done though.

      “Do you think there ever was a free and fair debate in democracies were truth came to light and everyone just stood in awe of its light and agreed and went kumbaya together ?”

      – No

      “If anything, Trump’s Right is still the most (constitutionally) liberal voice in the world right now, while the US Left is fixated on SJW issues and is out to “check your privilege whitey”. This is political war, not resentment morality. Trump couldn’t care less about Christianity, it’s a tool. The bottom line is: people follow the strongest.”

      – good for you, totally irrelevant to my point if you feel compelled to idealise an overweight, stroppy puppet of multi-national corporations, I’m glad you found your calling. As outlined above, the war goes far deeper than politics I’m afraid, bluntly asserting the opposite doesn’t carry much persuasive power.

      “redress the balance of history, and save humanity from the paranoid, superstitious mediocrity” – you’re still waaay to idealistic to get Nietzsche, it’s a total misunderstanding. He would never think the world needs fixing, or that truth needs to be fought for etc. He would simply ask you: why do YOU really insist on fixing the world and on having the truth at all cost?” –

      ‘On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.’ Have you ever actually read Nietzsche dude? Beyond edgy online secondary sources?

      “Nietzsche is not in the Left / Right debate (at least not in the way you present him, as having a some sort of solution to resentment morality that you think you identify in this debate),” –
      Again, Nietzsche has not been placed on the left / right divide in the above account, resentment is a psychological state, not a political one, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

      The fixation on the left/right dichotomy is your own doing here, not mine I’m afraid, but that’s ok, we all colour what we read with what we want to read. I suggest you read more on Nietzsche’s psychological history of religion for a more nuanced understanding of why statements like “people follow the strongest” are far from given.

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      1. Finally I have some time for a proper takedown, here goes.
        Poetry, huh? For some actually good and non-confused poetry, check out Greek literature first and see how you measure up before deciding on poetry.
        Most of your reply is denying that you included Nietzsche in the Left/Right debate. Which is ridiculous if you would simply re-read your own blogpost, for example:
        “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.”
        The whole purpose of your blogpost here is to show that -allegedly- the fuel for the Trump right is resentment to facts and to ideological alternatives and that this attitude is rooted in consumerism.
        This in itself is both totally one-sided fake bullshit (what about the resentment on the Left when BLM protesters are asking whites in the suburbs to give up their homes because of past sins?) and also a complete misapplication of Nietzschean concepts to the current situation.
        You don’t know your Nietzsche, and yes I’ve both studied him and carefully read him, -slowly- as he suggests. You’ve referred to his writings somewhere else as being ‘self-contradictory’: dude, that’s just your brain working wrong. Nietzsche has crystal-clear logic and any apparent contradiction is meant as a challenge to the reader.
        You come out with this totally irrelevant quote about truth from HTH: this only suggests he respects and admires the quest for truth, but it says nothing about -what- truth is for Nietzsche. Let’s see:
        “Supposing that Truth is a woman–what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women ?” – (BGE, Preface)
        “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” – (“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”)
        Well it looks to me like there is no ‘one’ truth, or to quote from your blogpost ‘common understanding of truth’, ‘higher truths’ etc. Also I doubt that the concept of inversion of all values translates to creating new values in the same old way (which would therefore be new idols, truths, ideals, meaning exactly what Nietzsche railed against). His slave morality and analysis of resentment is tied to a human type, which is why it is totally misguided to apply it to a political movement that necessarily includes many human types and many motives. Also, you’re shooting yourself in the foot when you complain about the internet and atomised truths and disregard the quotes from Nietzsche above.
        You’re the old-school liberal tied to Enlightenment values and you’re about to get politically erased. You’re complaining that “we are manipulated into a premodern religious psychosis” as if having religious values is a sickness. Actually liberal dogmatism like yours is the norm and it’s source is religion – read Locke. You ask for new values with better propaganda with zero justification (or yeah, because you have “facts & statistics”, then do a blogpost about that, I doubt they stand up to scrutiny).
        Finally, on Trump: no illusions, he’s the perfect demagogue. But he delivers. He’s a good guy: if he does even 10% of what he says (and he has, even more, compared to any other backstabbing career politician) the world would be a better place. Just international-wise: no more multinational trade deals and no new wars, I’ll go for that.

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      2. Brevity could also be something for you to brush up on, but thanks for replying all the same. So I will, in turn, attempt to brief.

        The post looks “totally one sided” to you because it is, that was entirely deliberate, well done for noticing. Although you seem to have an issue with the application of Nietzsche’s ideas to modern contexts, in this case the psychological state of resentment, which is not a political movement as you keep insisting. This is precisely why “facts and statistics” are largely irrelevant. A common understanding of truth implies the possibility of interpretation, or indeed illusory truths, or prejudice, which is again why this is a battle of values, not politics. Although a follow up article may see the light of day at some point on how to further address the state of resentment still eating away at history’s apparent victors.

        I am indeed I’m well acquainted with Locke, although we fell out long ago, largely because, as you say, the modern liberal project which failed so spectacularly finds its root cause in his brand of Christian liberalism.

        I wasn’t aware of any liberal dogmatism on my part, largely because we’re having this delightful exchange of ideas without dogmatically shutting each other down, and as stated, modern liberalism is very much a failed project.

        As for your views on Trump, I can’t help you there, best of luck with him. Apologies for the lack of brevity.

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  2. I appreciate the attempts in thinking the (post)modern experience that traverse your writings ; I hesitated replying on a couple of them, but like M. Meister the mention of Nietzsche is making me come out of the basement. I won’t actually double down on a correct interpretation of Nietzsche, or whether or not his thought can be reconciliated with emancipatory progressive ideals – rather, if you care about emancipation from a non-liberal perspective, I think you need to go in the opposite direction : you should read some (more) Marx. There is no ideological struggle out there ; the struggle is about the modes of production, about work, about the creation of value, of capital. The very idea that there should be a “battle for hearts and minds” is in the very heart of the liberal ideology that you seek to denounce. It’s not so much that this ideology ignores “human nature” – there is no such thing, if you understand not only Marx but Nietzsche as well – it’s that the ideal of rational discourse masks the social (class) struggle, the material modes of production, the coalition of interests that produces and reproduces society as a system (and submits individuals to the creation of value). Precisely, the struggle IS factual in nature, it not at all ideological, it is not about belief – it’s about how belief stops one from seeing “facts” (the word fact here is inadequate to a more synthetic, global and systematic understanding of reality, however – a philosophical understanding, so to speak). Cheers.

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