Anger, ressentiment and the neo-liberal virus

The peace and tranquillity that followed the political storm of six months campaigning (first for the county council election, and then for the general election) has allowed me some time to reflect on just what the hell’s been happening in politics over the course of the last year. It all started, of course, with the EU referendum result. Whilst the vote to ‘leave’ was a shock, it wasn’t so much a shock as the unearthing of a general and wide spread sense of anger in the country. And his shock progressed to unbelievable levels with the election of Donald Trump, a result that again revealed huge levels of anger and frustration. But how do we explain this anger? And how do we respond?

In The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra argues that this chronic anger, this contempt for the ‘establishment’ and the ‘political elite’ expressed in the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the election of a celebrity businessman with a huge ego, is the result of a general sense of ressentiment. Following Nietzsche and several others, Mishra defines ressentiment as an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” The best way to explain this intense feeling is through its main contemporary cause, the rise and global victory of neo-liberalism.

As Stephan Metcalf has recently pointed out in an article for The Guardian, in recent years the term ‘neo-liberalism’ has “become a rhetorical weapon, a way for anyone left of centre to incriminate those even an inch to their right”. It’s a term which those with an interest in politics but little understanding of economic theory have taken to refer to some extreme form of free-market capitalism, and a term which the average voter has probably digested as a piece of meaningless jargon. It is, however, also a term that describes not only a very real and actual phenomenon, but one which demands to be widely understood and debated. Over and beyond its association with global free-market economics, neo-liberalism describes how the values of free-market economics have spread, virus like, to infect the majority of human activity – most pertinently health care and education. For most of the life of capitalism, social values have been supplied by religion. This has acted as a counter-balance to the market, and kept it firmly ‘in its place’. But with the general decline of religion, and with the strong advocacy of the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, the values of the market place now dominate all society.

Whilst ‘the market’ has had some success in alleviating extreme poverty and promoting technological solutions to a number of social problems, it is built on a number of false premises, premises which are now free to spread beyond the market. Standard economic theory, for example, is built upon the notion of rational, self interest – that we are naturally rational animals who, if unrestricted, will use our reason to promote our own self interest, and that this self interest, as if guided by some ‘invisible hand’, will metamorphose into the best interest of everyone. The trouble is, of course, that we are only partly rational (emotion plays a highly significant role in driving our ethics), and that we have evolved to co-operate with others, not to be in constant competition with them. In allowing the ethos of the free-market to dominate all areas of human activity we are effectively allowing life to imitate art, we are turning naturally caring and cooperative animals into the competitive, greedy, self-centred consumers described by economic theory.

But it’s worse than this. Neo-liberalism, in order to generate the consumer demand that is its life-blood, promises much more than it is capable of delivering. Members of hard working families, free of external restraints, are not only capable of achieving the life style they desire, they deserve it. Wealth, power or celebrity status are all there for the taking if only we have the motivation and are prepared to work hard. And a few people have so achieved. But only a few. And that’s the problem. Our free-market economy has increased the total wealth, but only a small minority have benefited. For most people levels of wealth and living standards have at best stagnated, and for many they have actually declined in recent years. Because of the spread of the neo-liberal virus, this failure of the market to deliver is an existential failure. When the values of the free-market are our values, when the meaning we ascribe to our life is derived from our role within this market, when the market fails to deliver we experience existential failure. We feel angry. We feel ressentiment. And in particular, we feel ressentiment towards those who have very obviously succeeded: the perceived elite, the establishment, foreign workers taking our jobs and houses. And this indiscriminate and unspecific anger is only made worse by the extent to which ‘their’ success is rubbed in our noses by the media.

But what is to be done? How do we allow other values and meaning to enter our social lives? Part of the problem is that the current situation has slowly evolved. It is not the result of a grand conspiracy, and those who have promoted free-market values (well most of them anyway) have done so with the best interests of everyone in mind. Simply attempting to install a contrived set of values would fail miserably, even if such an enterprise were possible in the first place. And before anyone assumes that I’m calling for a return to religious values – I’m not. Not only do I think it impossible to return to any past set of values, I firmly believe that because religion is based on false premises it should not serve as a source or justification for any value system. So what is to be done?