Resentment is an attitude toward one’s fellows that stands on the border between animal and human. If we consider the serial organization typical of the higher apes, the ability of individuals to challenge higher-ranking animals for their position reflects a degree of mimetic tension that nonetheless remains within the reflexive limitations of serial ranking. The breakdown of this system among certain hominins, which I hypothesize led to hominization, would have reflected an increased tension leading to generalized resentment/aggression against the entire ranking system, eventuating in the originary event.
At this point, the participants, in fear of their lives, first experienced the sacred as a transcendental force that obliged them to consciously abort their appropriative gestures, leading to the reciprocal exchange of these gestures as signs marking the deferral of appropriation and ultimately permitting the egalitarian division of the object of contention. This is the foundation of originary morality, the sense of reciprocal symmetry inherent in humans as members of a cultural community, sharing the beginnings of language and a common sense of the sacred.
But even in egalitarian societies, the members cannot be exclusively guided in everyday life by the symmetry of the originary scene. This scene, and the equal distribution of food that is its founding institution, embody a general principle of reciprocity that is necessarily tempered by the needs of other activities. This importantly includes child-rearing, where parents initiate their offspring into the customs of the community, extending scenic self-consciousness to what were formerly unreflective actions.
Thus there arises, in conjunction with the moral imperative of reciprocity grounded in the scene, a set of ethical rules that necessarily differentiate among members of the community. For example, various group actions require a degree of hierarchy: like parents with children, someone must be in charge of a team of hunters or participants in a construction project.
In time, the practice of sedentary agriculture gives rise to true hierarchical societies with explicit differences in rank that directly contradict the intuition of moral equality inherited from the originary scene. Eric Voegelin described the archaic middle-Eastern empires as compact in the sense that sacred transcendentality was wholly subordinated to the social order, kings and emperors being assimilated to gods. In these societies, egalitarian morality, however practiced between those of equal rank, was rejected as a universal; no underlying equality was recognized between nobles and commoners, between an Athenian citizen and one whom Aristotle considered a “natural slave,” or a Roman and an instrumentum vocale.
Very briefly, it was the transformations of what Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” beginning in the West with the Hebrews’ conception of the One God whose will commands all humans as “created in his image,” that renewed within these societies the originary intuition of moral reciprocity. Seth Sanders’ The Invention of Hebrew (U Illinois, 2009) demonstrates the importance among the Hebrews of a shared scripture (and a high degree of literacy) in contrast with the imperial religions revealed only to the rulers and their priests and courtiers, whose writing systems were complex and inaccessible to the multitude.
Thus the fundamental moral model was once more made the foundation of communal ethics. As Hillel’s “golden rule” put it, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.” Christianity emphasized the dialectical relationship implicit in Judaism between worldly ethics and transcendental morality, Caesar and God, whose final purpose is conceived not as the maintenance of a particular social order but the survival of an ethical universe ultimately grounded on reciprocal morality among souls of equal intrinsic worth.
Chronicle 621 exemplified what I have called the epistemology of resentment by the perspective implicit in the actions of the representatives of the Tiers-Etat in 1789 to accept their resentment of status inferiority as the ultimate source of their moral intuition. This perspective subsequently came to be associated with the “Left,” in reference to the seating of those who refused to recognize the King’s supreme authority in the 1789 French National Assembly, as opposed to those on the “Right” who continued to respect what Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France let us call the “Burkean” values of the historically consecrated social order.
The promotion of our visceral sense of injustice to the transcendental source of moral truth is in effect its sacralization, setting it above any culturally specific ethical laws. To thus divest the sacred of its connection via established religion to the social order implies iconoclasm in both vocabulary and action. Hence we should understand the French Revolution’s destruction of churches and religious objects less as a denial of the sacred as such than as its relocation in an individual moral intuition no longer corrected or guided by these institutions. Needless to say, within a traditional social organization, such rejection of authority is precisely what the sacred represses.
Medieval peasant revolts and the like had been spontaneous outbursts, lacking in a clear ideology, let alone the means to overthrow the system of government. Even the turmoil in 17th century England never successfully challenged the fundamental principles of political order, and the monarchy has survived to this day. In contrast, the revolutionary consequences of the 1789 Etats-Généraux offered their example to future emulators.
It is worth noting that the French Revolution might well not have occurred without its less radical American predecessor. Andrew Roberts (The Last King of America, Viking, 2021) has noted that George III, denunciation of whom occupies a large portion of the Declaration of Independence, was a liberal monarch not unsympathetic to the demands of the colonials, although opposed to granting them independence.
The Americans’ grievances were stated in severe but not resentful terms, as violations of the rights of colonials as British citizens presumably deserving of an equal say in fiscal policy (“no taxation without representation”) despite not residing in the homeland. Thus Burke, whose condemnation of the French Revolution is canonical, had been generally sympathetic to the colonials’ demands and opposed to Britain’s military aggression, even if he was unhappy with the final outcome. Although the war inspired by these grievances led—ironically, aided by crucial French military assistance under Lafayette—to separation from the motherland rather than the overthrow of an established government, it clearly supplied a prototype for the latter.
We describe as “liberal democracy” the pragmatic model of Western government, of which the US Constitution remains the most elaborate and so far most successful example, yet its near-coevality with the epistemology of resentment is no mere coincidence. It was the conscious danger of what Aristotle described as the tendency of democracy to degenerate into ochlocracy, the rule of the resentful mob, that had prompted the creators of the Constitution to introduce multiple “checks and balances” to prevent resentful conflict from taking over the political debate. Although the American example failed to moderate the French revolutionaries, we can be glad that we were not obliged to find out what the reverse order of events might have accomplished.
Yet the sacralization of resentment in the heat of political conflict did not offer itself as a serious political doctrine; on the contrary, revolutionaries did their best to deny its motivating force. Marx’s system, elaborated following the failure of 1848’s last “bourgeois revolution,” sought to justify its communist ideology by means of an economic doctrine that in theory required no political action whatever. The Marxist militant denied resentful motivation: he was merely a historical midwife ushering in the birth of the new era. The “falling rate of profit,” a term today’s so-called Marxists show little sign of having heard of, was the engine that would bring about the apocalypse of capitalism. To quote a famous passage from Chapter 32 of Das Kapital:
The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch32.htm )
Whether or not a Communist party may be presumed to be guiding this “expropriation,” the evolution of the economy leads inevitably to it. This violence, presented as generated by the economy itself (bursting integument, death-knell of private property, expropriation expropriated), cannot be blamed on its mere facilitators. “Scientific socialism’s” belief in history is not transcendental but immanent faith. What justifies our resentment of the “fetters upon the mode of production” is described not in terms of our sense of injustice but of world-historical socio-economic necessity.
The ambiguity inherent in calling such revolutionary doctrines as communism, fascism, wokeism,… religions reflects the fact that although the sacred/Superego is never really absent from human affairs, the replacement of the transcendental source of our originary sense of moral equality (“endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”) by the confident assertion of its natural immanence grants it something like the status of a mathematical truth, one that trumps the ethical laws of the social order.
Which conveniently permits dismissing any necessary inequalities of the revolutionary order itself as temporary expedients destined to “wither away”—a term no longer heard, although implicit in communist doctrine, presumably even with “Chinese characteristics”—and consequently to set these inequalities beyond judgment, in a word, to sacralize them—en attendant. Thus have history’s most egregious tyrannies been excused by the need to break eggs to make omelets—provided they affirm, with whatever degree of hypocrisy, the originary doctrine of moral equality.
Orwell’s “freedom is slavery” sums up the ethic of the revolutionary “vanguard” that abolishes society’s Burkean wisdom and denies to its subjects the free use of the human consciousness it pretends to liberate. Whatever the generosity of its original motivation—admixed even in the most sincere cases with ruthless cruelty—it is no surprise that the history of social orders created by the ideologies derived from the epistemology of resentment has been uniformly disastrous. (Yet we cannot blame these ideologies alone for the horrors of the 20th century; would they have ever been unleashed had it not been for the civilizational quasi-suicide of the first World War, whose horror was principally the result, not of an excess of resentful passion, but of a tragic misunderstanding of the effects of modern weaponry that discredited the late-Westphalian concept of limited war?)
Marx’s “scientific” conclusion that capitalism evolves of itself into socialism has been disproved in every single instance. The state’s monopoly on production can be established only by despotism, which may decay, as it did in the USSR, but certainly not “wither away.” The world continues to vote with its feet; those who leave war-torn or impoverished nations to seek a better life elsewhere are uniquely drawn to liberal democracies, not to Russia, North Korea, Iran, or even China. Nor need we assume that the growth of AI will make socialism any more viable. The market as a source of economic feedback remains indispensable to technological innovation, which has not shown itself to be accessible now or in the conceivable future to the replacement of free market activity by “machine learning.”
In short, the empowerment of a ruthless party tasked with rooting out vestiges of the former order inevitably leads to tyranny, and as we see in China today, despite Deng’s seemingly promising integration of market methods into Mao’s centralized state, in the absence of institutional “checks and balances,” the innovation-killing centralization of all power in the Party poses a seemingly inevitable temptation for succeeding leaders such as Xi.
There emerged, so to speak as a dialectical response to the liberal-democratic West’s defeat of communism and apparent achievement of the “end of history” in 1989-91, although it had been in preparation since the 1960s, a significant new wrinkle in the epistemology of resentment. I have called it victimary thinking, the essential component of which is white guilt, the internalization by the “victimizers” of the victim’s resentment, in principle without consulting the latter.
Today this has been absorbed into the all-embracing Woke paradigm that dominates the American and a good part of the European academic/intellectual and institutional elite. I have discussed at length the political implications of wokeism (see, e.g., Chronicle 715), but it merits a more fundamental, let us say, strategic rather than tactical, analysis.
It is no small matter that the key object of stigmatization in the victimary perspective is not Marxian class-relations but racism—to be followed by sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ad nauseam. Whereas Marx had understood class distinctions in a materialist framework, reconceiving the class resentment of, e.g., the Tiers-Etat as a sign of the historically necessary dialectic of systems of production, the partisans of wokeness constantly emphasize the racial nature of social distinctions, dismissing any explanation of the greater or lesser success of given ethnic groups in modern society other than past and/or persistent racial/ethnic discrimination.
Thus victimary thinking overtly describes itself as a reverse (“anti-“) racism that, analogously to antisemitism in the religious domain, attacks the bearers of socio-economic firstness. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, and particularly since the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, this assimilation is made increasingly openly, the Jewish State being described as a “European colony” in the Jews’ former homeland which, having once been a part of the Islamic Ummah, can no longer legitimately be separated from it. And, just as many Jews are themselves willing to accept this analogy, so many whites willingly accept the denunciation of their “white privilege” as a burden of historic guilt independently of their individual experience, whether in the US as an apotropaic gesture toward America’s black population, or in Europe, toward immigrants from former colonies.
Despite the fact that racial discrimination has been outlawed in Western nations, rather than encouraging all races to accept this recognition of their intrinsic equality and put the past behind them, victimary thinking insists on explaining any difference of current qualification or status as the consequence of racial discrimination, promoting various forms of affirmative action as means not simply to overcome deficiencies of preparation but to compensate for them. The substitution of “equity” for equality is understood to imply that any group disparity in success is evidence of racism and must be counterbalanced regardless of aggregate qualifications—deliberately ignoring, and indeed, profiting from, the demeaning effect this “soft bigotry of low expectations” has on the members of the racial groups thus advantaged.
The strength of victimary thinking within the liberal-democratic order lies in the appropriation of the formerly colonized/enslaved’s resentment by those whose own privileged status remains invulnerable to the reverse discrimination accorded the descendants of the latter. Those who virtue-signal their white guilt use this borrowed resentment as a weapon against their “deplorable” middle- and lower-class white counterparts, who have not only lost any former privileges but are faced with the compensatory privileges of their former “victims,” who are encouraged not only to accept the benefits of affirmative action but to condemn their white competitors as intrinsically privileged nonetheless.
Both class resentment and victimary thinking put forth the absolute primacy of the moral model of reciprocal equality, but where the implementation of the former leads in principle to the overthrow of the social order that permits the possessors of “capital” to own the means of production and to subject workers to “wage-slavery,” the latter is indifferent to socio-economic structure, measuring inequity merely by the relative status of different races with respect to wealth, health, education level, etc.
In other words, wokeness is the political equivalent of a neutron bomb in contrast with the real thing. Leaving “infrastructure” intact as irrelevant to its interactional model of morality, it attacks only in terms of interpersonal relations, as though we were still a group of hunters surrounding the body of a bullock, careful not to allow any individual—or any “racial” subgroup—to take a piece before anyone else. That some of us are billionaires and some minimum-wage workers is not something we need to condemn; what must be made equal is rather the percentage of whites and blacks in the former category, and in all other social categories considered prestigious.
There are, of course, no “entry requirements” for billionaires; they have to make it on their own. But for administrative appointments or advertising model gigs or admissions to Harvard, an “equitable” number must be chosen from each victimary group. It is thus quite understandable why the billionaires and their associates are happy to support this doctrine.
We might describe it as a cynical means of distracting us from the real “inequities” in a system which, in contrast to Marx’s “to each according to his needs,” allows some to earn and possess vastly more than others. But behind the cynicism is a fundamental anthropological truth: the most offensive, resentment-provoking behavior is one that harks back to the originary scene of humanity by denying equality face to face. The woke billionaire may not share his income with you, but he will be sure not to subject you to any micro-aggressions. On the contrary, like the Democrat lawmakers in this famous photograph, he will happily express his worshipful humility toward the memory of the unfortunate George Floyd.
I needn’t tell you how old Marx would have reacted to this approach to expropriating the expropriators.