Ressentiment – caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness – is not simply the French word for resentment. Its meaning was shaped in a particular cultural and social context: the rise of a secular and meritocratic society in the 18th century. . . . People in a society driven by individual self-interest come to live for the satisfaction of their vanity – the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself. . . .I think there is much to this. I have written here several times about the potential problems with meritocracy, especially when combined with great inequality: it leads to society's "losers" having their failure rubbed in their faces, as they get laid off while their bosses jet from one mansion to another. Add to that the ancient cultural quarrels between urbanites and country folk, rapid economic and social change, and the ongoing collapse of trust in institutions of every sort, and you end up with very unpleasant politics.
Such ressentiment breeds in proportion to the spread of the principles of equality and individualism. In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Scheler developed a systematic theory of ressentiment as a distinctly modern phenomenon – ingrained in all societies where formal social equality between individuals coexists with massive differences in power, education, status, and property ownership. In an era of globalised commerce, these disparities now exist everywhere, along with enlarged notions of individual aspiration and equality. Accordingly, ressentiment, an existential resentment of others, is poisoning civil society and undermining political liberty everywhere.
But what makes ressentiment particularly malign today is a growing contradiction. The ideals of modern democracy – the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment – have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realise in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalised capitalism.
It seems to me that problems of this magnitude call for strong, even radical measures, which is what the American system cannot deliver as long as the two parties are too closely matched for either to get a commanding majority.