Monday, December 12, 2016


Pankaj Mishra thinks rationality can't explain our contemporary political mess. Instead, we need to look into our emotional state, especially the old notion of ressentiment:
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. . . .

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.
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.

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.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Alternately, we continue the deadlock until the underlying situation changes.

One big change coming up is the impending die-off of the Baby Boomers, and the inheritence of the country by younger groups like the millenials, ushering in more modern societal values in the process, and likely changing how we practice governance and politics in major ways.

Another big change will be the continuing march of technological progress reshaping our economy and society in powerful and unexpected ways. We're already seeing the earliest stages of a "sharing economy" developing in our cosmopolitan urban centers due to the internet's mainstream adoption. On top of that, self education is easier today than ever before. (Remember library card catalogs? Non-cross referenced databases? Actually having to leave your home to be able to, say, listen to five hundred year old music from a country on the other side of the planet performed by people who don't speak your language? In my own not-far-distant youth, such things were utter fantasy.)

Fossil fuels are likely going to be driven obsolete within my lifetime. Regimes all over the world that rely on these resources for income are going to find themselves struggling to compensate for their losses as prices continue to trend downward with global demand. This could have huge potential ramifications all around the world, both good and bad, and I'm not sure anyone can predict how it will all play out.

Climate change continues apace. It seems very likely now that we've left it too long, done too little too late, and the planet is going to change in catastrophic and likely irreversible ways, with nothing we can do to really stop it. Natural disasters on an unprecedented scale may reshape our behavior both directly and indirectly. Millions living in low lying coastal regions will be displaced, major cities across the world will be flooded and abandoned, and life will go on at higher elevations. The big risk is crop failure and loss of arable land, which could quite realistically destroy civilization as we know it through mass starvation and ensuing resources wars.

That may sound alarmist, but the risk is very real, and plainly apparent. Maybe we'll get lucky, and be spared the worst possible outcomes. But even in a best case scenario, we'll still be seeing massive disruption of the status quo all over the globe as the environment shifts and fluctuates in complex and unpredictable ways.

The point is, eventually our circumstances will change in a way that forces us to stop fighting against each to a gridlock. Change may not come right away, but it certainly isn't that far off down the road, whether we want it or not.