Resentment is as old as humanity; it expresses the individual’s scandalized reaction to what he perceives as a violation of the symmetry defined in the originary scenic configuration in which mimetic rivalry was deferred. It depends on our common human sense of moral equality, whose felt violation it reacts to, not necessarily justly from the broader perspective of the community. The system of social regulations, eventually codified as laws, responds to resentment, and either informally or in the context of a judicial system attempts to evaluate its justification. As anthropologists well know, in most hunter-gatherer societies resentment leads to more violence than in hierarchical societies where judicial systems are backed by a central authority. Trusting individuals to settle their differences in the absence of empowered arbitrators is not generally an effective formula for keeping the peace.
In the hierarchical societies that emerged from the practice of sedentary agriculture, the inequality of the rulers and their subjects was taken for granted, and the resentments of the latter toward the former were given no latitude. For millennia their occasional flareups were rarely effective in modifying political systems; the only effective source of violence was rivalry among the ruling caste.
It is significant that the term ressentiment to which Nietzsche would give its philosophical credentials in his Genealogy of Morals was under the Ancien Régime the expression of aristocratic self-righteousness—even if the classical quote, Rome, unique objet de mon ressentiment, pronounced by Camille in Corneille’s Horace, is not without a nuance of powerless frustration. But by Nietzsche’s day, l’homme du ressentiment had assumed the character of the Untermensch, the powerless loser.
For the French Revolution, prepared by the English and then the American, was the great turning point of modern political thinking. For the first time the resentment of the tiers état was no longer the desperate cry of the medieval peasant revolts but an effective political statement that led to the abolition of the caste society of les trois états. It is from this point that we can date the political history of the epistemology of resentment, that is, the socially confirmed decision to find in one’s resentment not merely a desire for personal vengeance or a stimulus to improve one’s condition but a fundamental source of ethical understanding—and as a result, to no longer call it “resentment.” The revolutionary tiers état, whatever its excesses, returned to the originary egalitarian model of human relations no longer as an abstraction but as a basis of political action. Caste-based social relations, long established in social practice, were condemned as immoral, and the resentful rage they inspired, no longer repressed, was converted into a political force: the modern Left.
The Left-Right opposition, as we know, originated in the seating in the French Assemblée Nationale in 1789. But whereas the Left as the party of resentment has maintained a real continuity since its origin, the Right has become split between what it was in 1789—the unresentful party that accepts reality as it is—and what the “extreme Right” became after WWI: the yet more resentful mirror image of the Left, reaching a paroxysm of hatred that even Stalin and Mao never attained—even as the latter were responsible for far more violence. That it was no coincidence that the Jews were the primary object of this hatred is demonstrated in the present day, as the Left allies itself with Muslim Jihadism in its hostility to the West’s originary “chosen people,” supposedly exemplary of white privilege on a cosmic scale.
Today, with the decay of traditional Judeo-Christian restraints, the US is witnessing ever more extreme forms of the epistemology of resentment. But it is no longer that of the sans-culottes or the Bolsheviks. Wokism makes use of lower-class resentment, encourages it by refusing to punish “minor” crimes, abolishing bail, refusing to curtail illegal immigration… But its ideological base is not at all among the minorities it cultivates, some representatives of which are happy to profit from it, but among the economic elite, the source of the finances of Antifa and the like, and a radicalized upper-middle class of university professors and administrators, employees of non-profit foundations, and unionized bureaucrats and teachers, backed by an antinomic culture that encourages what can only be called the decadent behavior of overt transgenderists and sponsors of Drag Queen performances in elementary schools. No, this is not your grandfather’s Left.
The OED gives 2013 for the first use of the term virtue-signaling, which so well describes the Left’s moral stance in our victimary age. What is new about this adaptation of resentment epistemology is that the presumably “normal” speaker, a member of the unmarked or “white” class, avoids denunciation for his avowedly privileged status by denouncing, explicitly or implicitly, those of his peers who in some way affirm, if only by failing to apologize for it, this “normal” status. The source of this model is American race politics, the white-black dichotomy traceable to Southern slavery. (As Asians seeking admission to Harvard have discovered, being non-white does not make them people of color.) It has been extended to such phenomena as “land acknowledgements,” in which speakers begin by avowing that the podium at which they are standing is on land usurped from the X tribe.
The embarrassment that virtue-signaling (v-s) inevitably causes, and that we are inevitably expected to repress, stems from the fact that it is not the modesty of one who rejects the praise of others, but the arrogant exhibition, not of real virtue, but of its “signal.” A behavior now so pervasive that universities and foundations spend millions on DEI bureaucracies that oblige applicants for jobs or admissions to demonstrate how much they have done to implement these virtues.
This is, as far as we know, the first time in all human history that v-s has been put into practice. The word is only ten years old, yet throughout the institutional world it has become as natural as breathing. Why had no one ever thought of it before? It is not the equivalent of the hypocrisy of Molière’s faux dévôts. Although these too signaled their virtue, the difference is precisely that the traditional hypocrite wants to be recognized for exceptional virtue, as the term holier-than-thou suggests. Whereas the v-ser is not so much asserting his superiority over others as affirming in Orwellian fashion his obedience to a new normality. His action, whether in acknowledging the priority of an Indian tribe or in capitalizing Black in contrast to white, implies not that he is of superior, but simply of acceptable moral character, demonstrating to those of us who do not yet realize this the error of their ways, and the proper way to act in the future—or else.
Back in 2006 I quoted in Chronicle 337 a remark by Jens Orback, at the time Sweden’s “Minister of Democracy”: “We must be open and tolerant toward Islam and the Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so toward us.” For Orback, accommodating these immigrants was not a mode of v-s directed at his fellow natives, but a demonstration of acceptance of their eventual hegemony. In Europe this is indeed a real possibility for the not-very-distant future. Whereas even with the increase in illegal immigration encouraged by the current administration, there is little chance that the US will soon be dominated by racial minorities, let alone followers of Islam. On the contrary, the pattern here has uniformly been that in a generation or two new immigrant groups assimilate into the culture. This has been progressing with the Latino population, and we may expect it eventually to become the case for American blacks as well, as new generations emerge that have not been subject to racial discrimination. The risk is only that the prolongation of “antiracism” policies will ingrain in elements of the black community a victimary sense of racial privilege.
Is victimocracy the ultimate stage of the epistemology of resentment? Orback was after all imagining a world in which the power structure would be changed to his disadvantage. In contrast, Wokism implies that what we had until yesterday taken for granted as ethical behavior in fact reflects an unchanging racial caste structure against which we must continue indefinitely to struggle in order to remove successively smaller still-invisible defects, from microaggressions to nanoaggressions. White supremacy (to limit ourselves to that one “inequity”) can never be altogether obliterated, even as we work to ferret out its subtlest traces.
Thus Wokeness, with its ever-changing notion of normality, takes the place of seeking any critical change in economic relations. It focuses entirely on the interpersonal; its frame of reference is what Marx called the superstructure, while the economic, military, political… aspects of society, focused on worldly realities, are “bracketed.”
We have already gone far toward focusing our entire program of education from elementary school through the university on maximizing “equity,” a maximum that only continues to increase at the expense of academic subject matter, whether in the humanities or even the sciences. We might speculate that the endpoint of this development would be a society where humans need no longer concern themselves with worldly realities at all, because AI—of which ChatGPT is just a primitive preview—would be performing such operations.
Wokism and globalism
Wokism, as its name implies, is a young people’s way of thinking. Its emphasis on “safe spaces” and microaggressions suggests the worldview of a spoiled child in a comfortable family. What then explains its funding and promulgation by the most powerful figures of our social order, by tech billionaires and directors of major corporations, Federal agencies, and “non-profit” foundations? Why are the current masters of our economy so concerned to undermine the normality that past ruling classes have always affirmed?
The term “globalism” is often evoked as the basis of an explanation, but for this to be successful, this term cannot refer to a utopian vision of world culture in which our differences would be sufficiently harmonized for their “diversity” to become a source of richness rather than strife. I think that to understand the Davos idea of “globalism” is rather to see it primarily as a negative force: breaking down obsolete local barriers to the worldwide circulation of products and services. Without implying a direct causality between encouraging transsexualism and opening up markets, it suffices to judge any traditional ethical limitation on individual desire—which is to say, on the individual’s “creative engagement” with his/her resentment—as prima facie an obstacle to the world-wide exchange of information and consumer goods.
Hence globalism is linked with Wokism as a critique of the old “bourgeois” normality. Short of openly seeking the breakdown of civil order, globalists instinctively prefer to liberate, in Freudian terms, the id from the superego, rejecting as the equivalent of racism any hierarchical valuation of individual desire. Along the same lines, letting criminals out of jail or freeing them without bail punishes the old “normal” society for the racist restrictions that presumably engendered their criminality in the first place. Although making profits requires employees with high skill levels, globalists feel, perhaps rightly, that there is more to be gained in encouraging consumerist expansion than lost in the apotropaic gestures of affirmative action.
Thus the global marketeers, without perhaps conceiving their goals in such explicit terms, see the liberation of Western society from its traditional norms as both a recognition of the evils of its past “white supremacy” and a source of market expansion, driven by the enhanced circulation of electronic information. At the same time, they do not fear the breakdown of the social order on the local scale because they have no particular attachment to this order, whether local or even national: provided that the world economy continue to function, the globalists in their gated communities can imagine themselves above the fray.
Will the political realism stimulated by the Ukraine war suffice to restore our national solidarity? Are we witnessing the final self-caricatures of Woke decadence in the Satanic show at the Grammys and Rihanna’s twerking at the Super Bowl? It is too early for optimism, but the upper-middle class, the key demographic of political action, has been showing clear signs of restiveness, as our public schools perform more and more disgracefully, our cities become more unsafe, and the world’s dangers ever-so-gradually force us to awaken from the stupor of the “end of history.”