Resentment Is A Modern Problem

Everyone remembers the day.

On January 6, 2021, rioters roiled by Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 U.S Presidential election stormed the nation’s Capitol, tearing through barricades and building security, and sending death chants echoing through the hallowed halls of Congress. More than 140 people were injured in the assault. Five people died, including police officer Brian Sicknick, who suffered two strokes after engaging with protestors.

Shortly thereafter, barriers were erected around my workplace, the Hawai’i State Capitol. I serve as the chief of staff for Rep. Jeanné Kapela, one of the islands’ most progressive legislators. We are magnets for regressive vitriol. As we witnessed in January, people whose social and economic privilege is predicated on stifling dissent will police society’s margins with a combative and, at times, murderous aggression.

Such outrage was not confined to Washington, D.C. This winter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned all 50 states that armed demonstrations were being planned at their seats of government. Thankfully, in the Aloha State, incidents of violence were few and far between. Several protesters unsuccessfully attempted to breach the temporary barricades that encircled Hawai’i’s legislative center. While they were easily blocked from entering, they could not be prevented from exercising their First Amendment right to shout obscenities at legislative staff members and, on at least one occasion, gestured menacingly toward a Capitol employee in a manner that may have involved a concealed weapon.

It has become cliché to denounce these violent outbursts as the actions of individuals fighting for a racialized past. There is undoubtedly a lot of truth to that sentiment. Largely (though by no means entirely) uneducated Caucasian men and women propelled Trump to the presidency because of disenchantment with the seemingly inevitable downfall of their perceived superiority. While people of color have fiercely and fearlessly demonstrated the structural inequality that still stymies America’s long march toward freedom, members of the alt-right and their sympathizers have simultaneously advanced a political agenda based on economic and ethnic nationalism, attempting to reclaim a pre-World War II era that silenced minorities’ dissent by any means necessary.

Yet, social resentment isn’t just a matter of the past. Construing it as merely atavistic misunderstands its relation to and acceleration by political modernity. The mob that celebrated the new year by crooning for the deaths of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence fetishized an executive administration that sowed racial, sexual, and class division within the complex forces of globalization to amplify its power. Hate crimes spiked under Trump’s rule because extremist groups felt empowered by his rhetoric and shielded by his actions, which cast immigrants and ethnic minorities as adversaries to provincial white dominion.

Like its religious counterpart, however, political dominionism is as much a product of modernity as a reaction to it. Adherents of dominion theology–who overlap heavily with supporters of political dominionism–seek to institute a government founded on Christian fundamentalism, whereby all public structures and discourses are redirected toward the consecration of Biblical law. They don’t just want to recapture the time of Moses. Rather, Christian dominionists believe that restructuring government in the image of Jesus Christ is essential to preventing contemporary society from slipping further into postmodern sin.

In a similar way, political dominionists are not simply premodern. While they promote a disingenuous and prejudicial version of history to prop up their power grabs, those gestures are made within the field of current class conflicts. As the Economic Policy Institute has stated, decades of accelerating wealth inequality in the U.S. have left working families unable to meet their basic needs. Even during the pandemic, the nation’s top earners added literal trillions to their bank accounts, while lower-income employees lost their jobs and, as eviction moratoriums expired, their homes.

Anti-democratic hardliners, like Trump, exploit the social alienation caused by this widening economic chasm to concoct a populist narrative filled with imaginary threats, often backed by evangelical sermons that sanctify resentment as a righteous expression of God’s will. Instead of being loved by their neighbors, immigrants seeking asylum from human rights violations are cast as job stealers and drug kingpins. Black and indigenous people calling for police reform are decried as criminals intent on destabilizing communal order. LGBTQ+ individuals demanding anti-discrimination protections are denounced as child predators. Frustrated by politicians who prioritize stock market wealth over their constituents’ well-being, many working class citizens have fallen into desperation, seeking material solutions that never arrive and succumbing to the rhetorical gimmicks of opportunistic fear-mongers.

Virulent white nationalism and Christian puritanism have been intertwined with U.S. history since the country’s founding, as numerous historians have reminded us. No matter how one feels about the New York Times’s 1619 Project, it is an incontrovertible fact that the roots of American democracy and economic hegemony are planted in capital extraction that has disproportionately harmed non-white and non-male people, from blacks held in bondage under chattel slavery to native people dispossessed of their ancestral lands to women whose unpaid care work facilitates male fortunes. As American capitalism has evolved, its discriminatory underpinnings have adapted with it.

Corporations haven’t embraced a post-pandemic ethos of redistribution, despite the massive social investments that have been required to keep the nation’s economy afloat and its people alive. With the Delta variant spreading more quickly than ever before, plutocrats have resisted calls for reinstating restrictions to prevent future infections. Never have the fatal consequences of continuing to engage in “business as usual” been more apparent, but CEOs have dismissed warnings about rushing to reopen as big government alarmism. In Hawai’i, nearly 25 percent of new COVID cases involve children. The state’s education department does not have a metric to guide school safety decision-making, however, because campus closures would force parents to find alternative forms of childcare and, possibly, stay home from work. Don’t expect the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor legislation to provide universal childcare to female employees, though, since that would require the creation of new public funding streams that might eat away ever so slightly at corporate bottom lines.

Instead of participating in deliberations about economic justice, the private sector is spending millions of dollars to co-opt movements that are demanding structural reform. Diversity training has become an $8 billion industry that allows business leaders to perform an anti-racist skit on the world stage, while those same executives flood the campaign war chests of political candidates who oppose the policies and regulations that would genuinely uplift BIPOC people, like a living wage, universal healthcare, or rent control. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, the Paris Accord’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is in serious danger because of our collective failure to decarbonize our economy. Don’t tell that to Big Oil, however, which is doing all it can to keep fossil fuels flowing through “sustainable” pipelines that are powered by environmentally racist carbon capture technologies. Hastening our planet’s transition to a clean economy is derided by these companies as quixotically anti-capitalist. For Wall Street speculators, if a solution isn’t market-based, then it has no value. They only worry about one shade of green.

As the sea level rises, working families are getting crushed in waves of debt. Nevertheless, pointing out the ideological bankruptcy of corporatism does nothing to remove the material barriers that leave people on the cusp of eviction. When orange prices are soaring faster than cost of living increases, we shouldn’t scoff at low-wage employees who scarf down Egg McMuffins for breakfast. They’re only trying to survive in a hyper-competitive, increasingly automated work environment that’s leaving them behind. If public officials don’t provide the safety net that workers need to modulate an undulating economy, then the social distortions connected to financial deprivation will only worsen, leaving our democracy susceptible to strongman-sponsored political violence.

Friedrich Nietsche, perhaps the foremost philosopher of ressentiment, theorized that resentment is an egoistic reassignment of perceived inferiority to an external scapegoat, whereby the ego creates the illusion of an enemy that can be blamed for one’s failures and labeled “evil.” The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard expanded upon this framing to argue that resentment metastasizes in a “reflective, passionless age,” during which the populace replaces creativity with conformity to maintain a status quo that enables their own sense of superiority.

In both cases, resentment is a reactionary position undertaken to rationalize one’s own socioeconomic debasement by dehumanizing the Other, so that encounters with people who are different than oneself–racially, sexually, culturally, or in any other manner that can be socially constructed as a opposing signifier–are always already hostile. Morality, itself, becomes less about articulating a coherent set of values than a process of devaluating strangers as uncivilized barbarians, a fiction that is easy to brand as fact in a society that forces its citizens to spar like gladiators in an irrational marketplace for a share of the abundance that they see advertised daily on their virtual streams.

To evade further social decay, we should redirect our democracy toward care, not competition. We should cultivate an economy that strengthens people, not profit. Hard as it may be, we should respond to anger with empathy. And we should realize that the only way to “bring us closer together,” as the election phrase goes, is to center the struggle to overcome inequality in every political decision we make.