03 October 2010

A Nietzschean interpretation of American Politics?

It may seem like there's a lot of resentment in the air in this country, but Jack Bronston would say you're spelling it wrong. In an op-ed for the Sunday Times Union, the former state senator suggests that Americans, and many people elsewhere, are suffering from a surfeit of ressentiment, a French word popularized worldwide and reified by Friedrich Nietzsche into a term of political science. As explained most thoroughly in his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche uses ressentiment to describe the feeling that those who are better off than us are so by immoral means. Ressentiment is the starting point of that sklavenmoral which the philosopher identifies as the root of morality in general. In the more ancient past, he argues, there wasn't good and evil, but simply good and bad, bad simply meaning less good, less adequate. Morality and evil come into the picture when those worse off, instead of conceding their inferiority or the superiority of their betters, insist that the betters cheated or sinned their way into superiority. In a deft bit of intellectual or emotional jujitsu, the "slaves" managed to convert their betters to a moral viewpoint, with consequences Nietzsche finds somewhat regrettable.

Bronston defines ressentiment in his own terms as "a feeling of helplessness, envy and hatred by people who feel they have been taken advantage of by powerful rulers or more favored adversaries who ... have acted immorally to gain their advantage." Bronston believes that times of economic upheaval like the present make feelings of helplessness more widespread and increase the potential for ressentiment to run wild in the political realm. Rather than provoking the "slaves" of the 21st century to rewrite the rules anew and impose a new morality, economically-driven ressentiment, Bronston proposes, simply makes the masses vulnerable to demagogues of both "left" and "right." The danger of ressentiment, in his view, is its potential to empower authoritarian rulers, whether they be Christian or Muslim fundamentalists or Russian nationalists. Strangely, Marxists aren't listed among the threats though they would probably be the modern exemplars of ressentiment in Nietzche's view. Maybe Bronston doesn't identify Marxism with the sort of irrationality that defines ressentiment in his own analysis.

In Nietzsche's own time, I doubt that he thought that more than a handful of people were not governed by some sort of ressentiment, since morality of the sort he denounced had spread universally by the processes he described in the Genealogy. As Bronston himself hints, ressentiment crosses class and cultural lines in this country, including entrepreneurial conservatism as the sklavenmoral of the master class. I'm not sure Bronston or any other modern pundit can adopt Nietzschean terminology in part only. Bronston wants to oppose ressentiment to some simple idea of rationality, or some acknowledgement that opportunities still exist for free people, but the correct opposite to Nietzchean ressentiment is that pre-morality that exalts the strong and despises whatever falls short. Only libertarianism, perhaps, comes anywhere close to that dubious ideal, and I don't think that's what Bronston wants for America or the world. What he seems to want, from the evidence of the column, is for Americans to shake off the feeling of helplessness that he thinks fuels modern ressentiment. We need to feel empowered again, but to please Bronston, we have to do so without the aid of demagogic politicians or preachers. That would seem to oblige us to perpetrate some giant economic revival on our own initiative, perhaps without concerning ourselves with political power. But Bronston's critique of alleged ressentiment begs a question: does he believe that we should not believe that people have acted immorally in bringing us to our present predicament? Does he think that there's no need for some sort of moral revolt from below to tame the banks and the brokers? He doesn't give us enough evidence to guess his true views. We know only that he wants us to go about things rationally and not follow blindly the rabblerousers and mad mullahs of our time. That's a fair request, but it doesn't really tell us what is to be done. Maybe Bronston doesn't consider that his job, which may have been only to tell us to question our motives and think before we act. We certainly should think, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't judge, and if Bronston is telling us not to do that, his advice may prove worse than useless.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps before we can figure out what is to be done in the current times, we must first be shown what not to do.

d.eris said...

"Marxists aren't listed among the threats though they would probably be the modern exemplars of ressentiment in Nietzche's view."

Indeed, Nietzsche was a strong critic of socialism, probably not least because of its reliance on Hegel's philosophy. Here's a paper on Nietzsche's critique of egalitarianism that I came across doing a bit of googling:


d.eris said...

This post got me thinking a bit, see also my extended response at Poli-Tea.

Unlikely said...

I've come to see that Nietzsche was wrong on one account -- that God's death is permanent.
The most radical religious belief in our culture is that of resurrection. Some people think that religion is dangerous and violent, but at it's core Christianity is the most radial system of belief because it identifies God's death to the culture and to individuals while also announcing the new life of the individual even before their physical death.
Jesus followers are radical because they aren't stuck within the institutional prisons that you so well name. In deed the very language of the most radical Christian is that they have died to self in order that Christ might live through them.
Thanks for a provoking post.