Nietzsche, ressentiment, and public anger

Nietzsche is an enigma. He’s dangerous to read and quote, yet intoxicating and thought provoking. In places he writes poetically, in others he writes like the mad philosopher he became. There are passages that are just plain wrong, yet there are others that are incredibly insightful. Recently I have been drawn, via Pankaj Mishra’s book Age of Anger, to his concept of ressentiment and his analysis of the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ in an attempt to understand our current situation – a situation dominated by very deep feelings of frustration and anger.

According to Nietzsche’s analysis, the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ can be traced back to a feeling of “complete and fundamental superiority” by “a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind”, most notably to the aristocracy of the ancient Greek city state. Then, aristocracy meant rule by the best, by those of good character, by “the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good…in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian.” Put very simply, the good was what ever the aristocrats of the time said it was, albeit a good influenced by the practical necessity of maintaining a flourishing city state with them in charge.

In time, the baton of defining ‘good and bad’ was taken by the priests, beings who claimed to be the mouthpiece for the expression of God’s own word on the subject, a situation that created a great deal of tension between the political / military leaders and the priestly class. However, this led, according to Nietzsche, to a slave revolt in morality, a revolt (according to my understanding) which coincided with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Under this revolt “only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people”, whereas the “rich, the noble and powerful” are now eternally wicked. This brought about what Nietzsche describes as the ‘herd mentality’, a situation that encapsulated everything he hated about Christianity, a situation in which people stop thinking for themselves, stop striving for power, all because they are led to believe that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.”

Whilst reluctant to completely dismiss this as a description of the origins of morality, I have two serious problems with it as an analysis of our current situation. The first concerns ressentiment. For Nietzsche, “The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment”, a deep-seated existential feeling of resentment towards those with power, “turns creative and gives birth to values.” In historic terms I just do not think such a creative turn occurred. The values adopted by ‘the masses’ were not of their origin but of a new, emergent class of pious philosopher that appeared originally as a social response to the English Civil War, then as part of the Scottish Enlightenment, and subsequently as a reaction to the French Revolution. I think that rather than turning creative, this ressentiment has grown, turned socially cancerous, and is currently revealing itself through the symptoms of public anger for anything and everything.

The second problem, a corollary to this, is that our sense of good and bad is still being defined by a small group of powerful people. These are no longer the Greek city aristocrats, nor the medieval priests, nor the Victorian public school nobility (though there are still echoes of the latter), but the leaders of business, those who control our economic model, those who, because they have wealth, influence what’s left of our government, together with the celebrities who endorse their brands and the marketing executives who create our wants and desires. They are the ones who now define our sense of good and bad. They are the source of our hopes and desires, they create what we aspire to, our goals and aims in life. But they have created aspirations and goals that can only be achieved by the very few. They have created dreams that will never be fulfilled. The result is that people feel frustrated and angry. There exists, to quote Mishra, “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”. People, quite understandably, don’t understand the source of this feeling, but instead direct it at any wandering scapegoat that happens to appear.

Inequality, knife crime, and ressentiment

Much has been said in the last week about knife crime. But little has been said about the strong correlation between rising income inequality and violence. This correlation has been documented by many scientists, most notably by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their two best selling books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. However, as Peter Wilby correctly points out in the current edition of New Statesman: “cause and effect cannot be derived from a statistical correlation”. Such a correlation can, though, strongly suggest a relationship that should be explored further. It’s disappointing that this exploration has had such little press coverage. So what could explain this correlation?

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra uses the word ressentiment to describe an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” This isn’t jealously or envy of any particular person or situation, but a deep feeling that flows from the very core of our being, a feeling that leaves people feeling, well…angry. Angry at everything and everyone. We suffer, he concludes, “from an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented.” And, like Wilkinson and Pickett, he points the finger of blame at the rocketing increase in inequality: “The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth, or a more extensive escape from material deprivation…But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed.”

Our current economic model has produced a very large increase in wealth, power and influence for those at the top of the income ladder, whilst leaving those at the bottom barely better off, in real terms, than they were several decades ago. Social mobility, the opportunity to climb the social ladder and live at a level above that of your parents, has ground to a halt. The unequal growth produced by this economic model is largely fuelled by consumerism – the promotion and enticement to purchase lifestyles and social status that, cruelly, will always be beyond reach. Consumerism, as someone once said (sorry, I can’t remember who) is the purchasing of goods we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know. This is criminally wasteful of resources, it pushes people into debt, and it fails to achieve the social respect we so desire.

For the vast majority (about 95%) of the last 200,000 to 250,000 of human history we have lived in egalitarian groups, groups in which co-operation and equality were essential to survival, and in which competition and status seeking were shunned. It is only since we left this hunter-gatherer life style and settled down in farming communities that humans have felt the need to revert to pre-human dominance hierarchies, a social format in which it was essential to know and adhere to your position in the hierarchy, to avoid eye contact with your superiors and to demand respect from your inferiors. Think of the famous Monty Python sketch at this point. This means, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out in The Inner Level, that there are two potentially opposed systems within our social brain, two rival sources of social anxiety – one acutely aware of our place in the hierarchy, and one that is assertively egalitarian.

As humans, rather than higher primates, we feel at our best, our happiest, when we feel connected, when we feel part of a community. This is the socially evolved result of our hunter gatherer lifestyle, a lifestyle that actively resisted any member of the community getting too dominant or too powerful, a lifestyle that respected everyone simply because it was acknowledged that every one was important and of value. However, during the course of the evolution of capitalism, and particularly during its most recent incarnation, neo-liberalism, we have been indoctrinated to believe that the purpose of our life is to create wealth for ourselves and compete with our neighbour in an attempt to ‘get on in life’, to accumulate wealth and status, to believe that we are all individuals who should pursue our own self-interest.

At best, this competition for status is a zero-sum gain. If you increase your status, power or wealth by moving up the hierarchy someone else must slip down. At worst (at the present moment) the problem is that the status, power or wealth of the vast majority of people rarely, if ever, changes. The lifestyles we aspire to, those that are sold to us by celebrities or marketing companies, are constantly out or reach. The result? Deep feelings of envy, humiliation and powerlessness, together with the need to make the pain go away. We feel anger. And if we don’t take drugs to take the pain away, we find groups of people to blame – so called elites, foreign immigrants or rival gangs. And we find ways to try and acquire the money we are told we need to gain the status we believe we deserve. And we find ways to gain respect within our own communities. Or if we feel ignored by our wider community we find respect within a gang. Knife crime, I can’t help thinking, is just one manifestation of an ever steepening social hierarchy, of ever growing inequality.