File spoon-archives/postanarchism.archive/postanarchism_2003/postanarchism.0307, message 18

Date: Wed, 9 Jul 2003 22:56:37 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: [postanarchism] Newman: "Anarchism and the Politics of Ressentiment"

Again, sorry for the already posted articles - I only
have a few more to transfer over to the Spoon
Collective and then it should be all new stuff...


Anarchism and the Politics of Ressentiment

by Saul Newman

"A word in the ear of the psychologists, assuming they
are inclined to study ressentiment close up for once:
this plant thrives best amongst anarchists...."[1]


 Of all the nineteenth century political movements
that Nietzsche decries -- from socialism to liberalism
-- he reserves his most venomous words for the
anarchists. He calls them the "anarchist dogs" that
are roaming the streets of European culture, the
epitome of the "herd-animal morality" that
characterizes modern democratic politics.[2] Nietzsche
sees anarchism as poisoned at the root by the
pestiferous weed of ressentiment -- the spiteful
politics of the weak and pitiful, the morality of the
slave. Is Nietzsche here merely venting his
conservative wrath against radical politics, or is he
diagnosing a real sickness that has infected our
radical political imaginary? Despite the Nietzsche's
obvious prejudice towards radical politics, this paper
will take seriously his charge against anarchism. It
will explore this cunning logic of ressentiment in
relation to radical politics, particularly anarchism.
It will attempt to unmask the hidden strains of
ressentiment in the Manichean political thinking of
classical anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin and
Proudhon. This is not with the intention of dismissing
anarchism as a political theory. On the contrary I
argue that anarchism could become more relevant to
contemporary political struggles, if it were made
aware of the ressentiment logic of its own discourse,
particularly in the essentialist identities and
structures that inhabit it.

Slave Morality and Ressentiment


 Ressentiment is diagnosed by Nietzsche as our
modern condition. In order to understand ressentiment,
however, it is necessary to understand the
relationship between master morality and slave
morality in which ressentiment is generated.
Nietzsche's work On the Genealogy of Morality is a
study of the origins of morality. For Nietzsche, the
way we interpret and impose values on the world has a
history -- its origins are often brutal and far
removed from the values they produce. The value of
'good', for instance, was invented by the noble and
high-placed to apply to themselves, in contrast to
common, low-placed and plebeian.[3] It was the value
of the master -- 'good' -- as opposed to that of the
slave -- 'bad'. Thus, according to Nietzsche, it was
in this pathos of distance, between the high-born and
the low-born, this absolute sense of superiority, that
values were created.[4] 

However, this equation of good and aristocratic began
to be undermined by a slave revolt in values. This
slave revolt, according to Nietzsche, began with the
Jews who instigated a revaluation of values:


 It was the Jews who, rejecting the aristocratic
value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful happy = blessed) ventured with awe-inspiring
consistency, to bring about a reversal and held it in
the teeth of their unfathomable hatred (the hatred of
the powerless), saying, 'Only those who suffer are
good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are
good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly,
are the only pious people, the only ones, salvation is
for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble, the
powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful,
insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally
wretched, cursed and damned!'....[5]


 In this way the slave revolt in morality inverted
the noble system of values and began to equate good
with the lowly, the powerless -- the slave. This
inversion introduced the pernicious spirit of revenge
and hatred into the creation of values. Therefore
morality, as we understand it, had its roots in this
vengeful will to power of the powerless over the
powerful -- the revolt of the slave against the
master. It was from this imperceptible, subterranean
hatred that grew the values subsequently associated
with the good -- pity, altruism, meekness, etc. 


 Political values also grew from this poisonous
root. For Nietzsche, values of equality and democracy,
which form the cornerstone of radical political
theory, arose out of the slave revolt in morality.
They are generated by the same spirit of revenge and
hatred of the powerful. Nietzsche therefore condemns
political movements like liberal democracy, socialism,
and indeed anarchism. He sees the democratic movement
as an expression of the herd-animalmorality derived
from the Judeo-Christian revaluation of values.[6]
Anarchism is for Nietzsche the most extreme heir to
democratic values -- the most rabid expression of the
herd instinct. It seeks to level the differences
between individuals, to abolish class distinctions, to
raze hierarchies to the ground, and to equalize the
powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the
master and the slave. To Nietzsche this is bringing
everything down to level of the lowest common
denominator -- to erase the pathos of distance between
the master and slave, the sense of difference and
superiority through which great values are created.
Nietzsche sees this as the worst excess of European
nihilism -- the death of values and creativity.


 Slave morality is characterized by the attitude
of ressentiment -- the resentment and hatred of the
powerless for the powerful. Nietzsche sees
ressentiment as an entirely negative sentiment -- the
attitude of denying what is life-affirming, saying
'no' to what is different, what is 'outside' or
'other'. Ressentiment is characterized by an
orientation to the outside, rather than the focus of
noble morality, which is on the self.[7] While the
master says 'I am good' and adds as an afterthought,
'therefore he is bad'; the slave says the opposite --
'He (the master) is bad, therefore I am good'. Thus
the invention of values comes from a comparison or
opposition to that which is outside, other, different.
Nietzsche says: "... in order to come about, slave
morality first has to have an opposing, external
world, it needs, psychologically speaking, external
stimuli in order to act all, -- its action is
basically a reaction."[8] This reactive stance, this
inability to define anything except in opposition to
something else, is the attitude of ressentiment. It is
the reactive stance of the weak who define themselves
in opposition to the strong. The weak need the
existence of this external enemy to identify
themselves as 'good'. Thus the slave takes 'imaginary
revenge' upon the master, as he cannot act without the
existence of the master to oppose. The man of
ressentiment hates the noble with an intense spite, a
deep-seated, seething hatred and jealousy. It is this
ressentiment, according to Nietzsche, that has
poisoned the modern consciousness, and finds its
expression in ideas of equality and democracy, and in
radical political philosophies, like anarchism, that
advocate it.

 Is anarchism a political expression of
ressentiment? Is it poisoned by a deep hatred of the
powerful? While Nietzsche's attack on anarchism is in
many respects unjustified and excessively malicious,
and shows little understanding of the complexities of
anarchist theory, I would nevertheless argue that
Nietzsche does uncover a certain logic of ressentiment
in anarchism's oppositional, Manichean thinking. It is
necessary to explore this logic that inhabits
anarchism -- to see where it leads and to what extent
it imposes conceptual limits on radical politics.

(for the rest please visit

===="The world is the natural setting of and field for all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not 'inhabit' only 'the inner man' or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself."

 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1945

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