L’Homme Du Ressentiment Renewed

24 May 2024

Robert A. Schneider, The Return of Resentment. The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023. xiii and 297 pp.


There is more than one way to read this book.  On the face of it and just as the title promises, it is about the changing fortunes of a political emotion, resentment, from the eighteenth century to the present day in the Atlantic world.  But it is also a book about the current moment and how roiling waves of resentment seem to have swept over the entirety of the American political spectrum from the Trumpist Right, it almost goes without saying, to the social justice Left.  The author identifies himself as a product of the 1960s, as a baby-boomer in a word, and this world of resentment poses a particular challenge to him as someone who came of age in another era when hope and an aspirational futurity were the order of the day.  Schneider’s text is not least an attempt to come to terms with the new emotional regime that all of us, willy-nilly, find ourselves obliged to inhabit.

Schneider’s historical analysis begins in what he calls the Age of Sensibility.  It was a time when differences of rank came under scrutiny, when men in a commercializing society began to think of themselves as equals.   But whether by design or chance, they were not always treated as such, and when slights occurred, a sense of injury inevitably resulted.  Theologians and political philosophers, from the Anglican divine Joseph Butler to David Hume, took note of the sentiment and gave it a name, resentment.  A wronged person had every reason to feel resentful, they judged, but it was far better not to wallow in grievance but to set things right, find a path to forgiveness, and move on.   

In the nineteenth century, the term acquired a whole new layer of meaning, and what drove the change was the coming of industrial society with its factory towns and big cities.   Not everyone relished the massification of life and mind that resulted, not Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, nor the classicist turned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  The former’s Notes from Underground (1864) is made up of the first-person ruminations of a nameless narrator, a man out of step with the materialist, scientizing times.  He feels unseen and focuses his resentments on a military man, plotting to find a way to make the high and mighty officer take notice of him.  Nietzsche is the quintessential critic of the herd mentality and how it squashes the man of taste and strong character.  For Nietzsche, however, the individual, the exceptional being, is not the bearer of resentful feelings, so much as the envious crowd who scheme to bring him down.  And the herd wins out:  such is the plotline of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morality (1887), which tracks the origins of conventional morals to a slave revolt that succeeded in turning the world topsy-turvy, flattening the proud sufficiency of the aristocrat and elevating a new credo to take its place, Christianity, which transmuted weakness and humility into virtues.  

With the “Nietzschean moment” (Schneider’s phrase), all the elements of an understanding of resentment as a political emotion are in place.  Resentment is a collective sentiment.  It burrows its way into groups who feel unrecognized, even humiliated in a changing, massifying world.  They have a sense of their worth.  Everyone is supposed to be equal after all in a democratizing modernity, but that sense has been made a mockery of, as the world passes them by.  The resentful may not have a firm grasp on who is to blame, but they know that they are hurting, and they find scapegoats who, as they see it, have by plot or sheer pushiness elbowed to the head of the queue.  

It was liberal-minded American academics of the post-Second World War era, the sociologist Daniel Bell in the lead, who first put it all together, constructing what Schneider calls a “resentment paradigm.”  They wanted to make sense of far-right eruptions like McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.  Times were good, which ruled out material deprivation as a primary cause, and so social scientists turned instead to the concept of status anxiety.  People felt they were losing out in relative terms and losing out to unworthy others.  They seethed with festering resentment, an irrational feeling, and lest there be any doubt on that score, what better proof than the wild accusations right-wingers hurled about communists in high places, indeed, under every bed in the phrasing of the era.  The historian Richard Hofstadter took the analysis one step further, deploying the paradigm to parse not just contemporary phenomena, but grass-roots movements from the past.  In The Age of Reform (1955), Hofstadter aimed his sights on the Populist wave that swept across America in the final decades of the nineteenth century.  The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is a Cold War classic.  It is sharp and intelligent but also expressive of mid-century liberalism’s deep suspicions about groundswells from below.

Schneider does not buy into such suspicions.  Popular movements are not inevitably anti-democratic, and they are often motivated by real, material grievances.  That said, when the time comes to talk about Trumpism, the resentment paradigm makes a reappearance, stripped of its Freudian framing, if not always of its elitist condescension.  For whom does Trump speak after all but for those “left behind” in a globalizing world, the inhabitants of flyover country whose patriotism and downhome values are disparaged by coastal cosmopolitans.  As for the nefarious plotters behind it all, Trumpists don’t lack for candidates from George Soros on down.  Schneider urges readers not to sneer at Trumpists, not to pile on humiliations that will just stoke greater resentment.  But in the end, he seems to acknowledge that the resentment paradigm, once disencumbered of its psychologizing and elitist baggage, has some purchase.

Yet, here’s where Schneider’s discussion takes a novel twist, in fact two.  He reminds us, pace Joseph Butler, that resentment as an individual emotion is sometimes justified, even useful.  Take the case, Schneider proposes, of Jean Améry.  Améry was born Hanns Meier in late Habsburg Vienna and deported to Auschwitz as a Jew during the war.  He survived, relocated to Belgium once peace was restored, and changed his name.  A still hurting Améry took note of how quick contemporaries were to forget and move on from wartime complicities.  Such obliviousness angered him, and he made up his mind to puncture it, to stick out like a sore thumb as he put it.  Such righteous resentment, Schneider notes, has in our time assumed collective forms, and he cites by way of example the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed close upon apartheid’s demise and the Argentinian National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which was created in 1983 just as the country was emerging from a decade of military dictatorship.  Such tribunals sought to lay bare the truth of what had happened as a way to overcome the pain born of oppression and loss, and the template they established proved transferable, as one nation after another has created imitations, all, however, in pursuit of a kindred objective:  to identify victims and perpetrators and in so doing to allow for the possibility of mutual understanding, reparation, and forgiveness.  Schneider’s bottom line is that, in the right circumstances, resentment may produce positive outcomes.  

Now, Schneider does not want to equate this form of resentment with Trumpist fuming.  The aim in one case is to get things right, in the other to get even.  He might have added that the Trumpist camp has a penchant for conspiracy mongering and scapegoating that the partisans of truth and reconciliation do not.  That said, Schneider has a point to make worth thinking about.  Resentment, he claims, is everywhere in American discourse today.   Trumpists see themselves as put upon by sneering liberals who want to turn the country over to immigrants and line-jumpers with little commitment to traditional virtues like thrift, hard work, and patriotism.  The Left has grievances of its own, rooted in identities that have been erased or trampled by a racist majority, which for all its self-congratulatory rhetoric about progress and liberty, has wielded a heavy, cruel hand since America’s very inception.  Feelings of victimization, the breeding ground of resentment, are pervasive, fueling culture wars and tribal politics, the whole stew brought to a boil by a social media environment that feeds and feeds off polarization.  “Our currently benighted political culture,” that’s how Schneider characterizes where American stands today, and the characterization lands on his book’s very last page.  

There is generational work at play in this line of analysis, and this is the second twist in Schneider’s presentation.  As noted, he self-identifies as a baby-boomer, and boomers, he is at pains to demonstrate, were not hommes de ressentiment.  They had a bone to pick with their Cold War elders, men like Bell and Hofstadter who were unable to sympathize with democratically inspired popular movements.  No doubt, resentment was a feature of the emotional landscape in the 1960s and 1970s, but its purveyors were Nixonians, lashing out at the era’s young.  The young themselves, however, were motivated by a different mix of sentiments, part quest for authenticity, part utopian aspiration.   A hopeful future beckoned, and they meant to help build it.  But that future never quite arrived, and what settled in instead was a culture of grievance.  Schneider, I think, and boomers like him, feel not a little bewilderment in the face of this brave new world where emotion, not reason, rules.  People don’t vote their interests but opt instead for demagogues.  The Age of Sensibility is where Schneider’s analysis began.  It ends with entry into an emotional regime of a different order, and he all but gives it a name, the Age of Resentment.  Schneider valiantly applies the historical skills he has acquired over a lifetime to make sense of where we are and how we got to this unhappy place.   



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