Politics of Resentment

“Totalitarian ideologies are ways to recruit resentment.”—Roger Scruton

The role of resentment in civil life is as old as Cain and Abel. We read of the terrible class strife between democrats and oligarchs in Athens and the conflict between plebeians and patricians that undermined the Roman Republic. Resentment long formed the basis of political opportunism, but it is apparently only since the 18th century that envy was formally “justified” in philosophical systems.

In earlier epochs, mass resentment was largely spontaneous and of limited duration, like occasional peasant uprisings. By contrast modern theories of social envy have become self-perpetuating ideology machines that justify the ambitions of a political class—whether trying to achieve power or retain it. There is no gainsaying their claims. There is no hope of ameliorating the causes of resentment since that, in turn, would undermine the self-proclaimed salvific role of the ideologue. (Would the terrorist really be willing to lay down his arms if all his claims were met?)

One of my favorite contemporary writers, Roger Scruton, addresses this point in A Political Philosophy (2006). He says that the rapid spread of totalitarian governments is not due to some transient psychosis or social anomaly; rather “there is something in human nature to which [these systems] correspond and on which they draw their moral energy.” In a healthy community, Scruton explains, resentful feelings are “a natural offshoot in the competition for advantage.” Such feelings that can be sublimated to serve a socially beneficial purpose, like creative outlets for ambition and the establishment of rules of polite conduct to promote civility. On the other hand

Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others: institutions like law, property and religion which create hierarchies, authorities and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives. To the resentful these institutions are the cause of inequality and therefore of their own humiliation and failures. In fact they are the channels through which resentment is drained away. Once institutions of law, property and religion are destroyed—and their destruction is the normal result of totalitarian government—resentment takes up its place immovably…. For the resentful there is no such thing as real authority or legitimate power. There is only pure power….

See related commentary: “Envy and the Politics of Discontent

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