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Terrorism caused by those seething with resentment

In 7 January and again on 13 November 2015 Paris was struck by the worst terror attacks in its peacetime history. If one combines the fatalities from the attack at the
Charlie Hebdo Headquarters and Kosher supermarket carried out in January with the mass shootings at the Bataclan theatre, suicide bombings at the Stade de France and shootings at the restaurants of the 10th and 11tharrondissment which were all carried out in a coordinated fashion on 13 November, it is clear that these attacks represent the worst wave of terrorist violence on French soil since the anarchist wave of terror in 1890s and the series of Algeria-related attacks of the 1960s and 1990s.

 On both occasions, the attacks were perpetrated by European citizens – mostly French nationals of non-European descent, including Algerian and Moroccan – and claimed by ISIS, with the exception of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters killings, which were claimed by other jihadists.

Thus, while they didn’t justify the attacks, a number of intellectuals attributed moral and political significance to them. For instance, the French sociologist Emanuel Todd read the events firstly, as proof of resentment deriving from a reality of deep injustice and discrimination; and, secondly, as providing important insights about the French the social and political situation, dominated by an Islamophobic middle-class and a myopic defence of the principle of freedom of speech. The recognition, rather than denial, of grievances formed part of the only possible political solution.

On the other hand, the position which prevailed in both French and British governments attributed no political or moral significance to the attacks. Attempts to understand the causes of the attacks amounted to mere ‘sociological excuses’ and thus a worthless endeavour.

 Rather, the attacks were interpreted as a mindless vendetta, with no relation to issues of justice but part of a delusional plan fuelled by rancour and envy – bearing the hallmark, in other words, of
ressentiment. No insights were to be gained from the attacks, if not the increased need for robust counter-terrorist policies against ‘enemies’ against a  ‘fascist’ ‘death cult’

However there are warning (ie Connoly) , that the the more this process of recognition is delayed or stalled, the higher the likelihood that such resentment may fold in onto itself, ossify and re-present itself as ressentiment

For when ressentiment takes over, justice leaves the scene and revenge takes over – the aim of depriving and making others suffer becomes more important than affirming one’s worth. Depriving innocent civilians of life and the enjoyment theore of, as happened in Paris, constitutes a powerful clue of a resentment turned ressentiment

And yet, a few questions should make us hesitate before reaching any definitive conclusions. After all, the persistence of grievances can hardly make the same grievances illegitimate. Further, it is sufficient to look at the history of terrorism to know that the killing of innocent lives has been, at times, the only way to have grievances finally addressed.

During the siege at the Kosher supermarket, one of the January attackers, Amedy Coulibaly, voiced resentment in these terms: ‘Stop attacking the Islamic State, stop unveiling our women, stop putting our brothers in prison for everything and anything. […] You’re the ones who elected your governments. Firstly, your government  never hid their intentions to be at war in Mali or elsewhere.Secondly, it is you who is financing (the government). You pay taxes’. When one of the hostages replied that paying taxes is an obligation, Coulibaly replied: ‘You do not have to. I do not pay taxes..'

Resentment has a long history and a bad name. It is one of those negative emotions which,according to historians and philologists, have driven the movement of human development. The history of resentment can be considered as parallel to that of progress,

As ‘a passion of justice denied resentment lies at the heartof democracy’.
 It is the emotional state which, more than any other sentiment, proves that we care about and are ‘committed to certain moral standards, as regulative of social life’.

 In history resentment has an ambiguous place – similarly to violence, it is deemed to be both a creative and a destructive force, a functional or dysfunctional attitude. In its positive incarnation, resentment is the guardian of justice..

As a moral emotion, resentment isnot only an appropriate individual response to failures of justice, but it is also an indispensable attitude to cultivate if an overall degree of fairness is to be maintained in society. The XVIII centuryPresbyterian theologian Joseph Butler considered resentment as an indispensable social bondholding society together, a ‘weapon’ whose function is to ‘to prevent and remedy injury, and the miseries arising from it’.

Considering this sentiment in the context of other moral virtues, such as charity and compassion, Butler concluded that resentment is needed precisely to allow injustices to be acknowledged and injuries to be punished, rather than merely forgiven or forgotten. In some circumstances, therefore, resentment is morally superior to charity. Although acknowledging its potentially beastly character, unsocial nature and violent potential.

Annette Baier once noted that terrorism has the ‘power to make resentment felt’.
 Similarly, Jon Elster more recently claimed that permanent feelings of resentment are ‘the most relevant feature of populations’ from which terrorists, in particular suicide bombers, are drawn.

However, risk and resilience (we are all in this together) seem to function today as the preeminent rationalities of neo-liberal governance. ‘Neoliberal citizenship’, MarkNeocleus claims, ‘is nothing if not a training in resilience’.

The rationality of resilience and the move towards an ontologization of risk, thus, descend from the injunction to cope with ‘what is’ and its failures – whatever these may be – without asking necessarily why these may be so. Questions concerning causes, consequences and responsibility are cast away as modernist and dualist relics,swallowed up by an ever-encompassing flat and monist ontology that demands ‘its due’.

Failures are less and less subjected to causal and moral analysis, while they are more and more considered as horizontal ‘entanglement to be sidestepped  rather that solved in a meaningful way.

This, however, creates the conditions for progressively alienated, frustrated and especially resentful individuals. As Wendy Brown has argued, individuals are at once saturated with human power and yet increasingly alienated from their capacity to truly act politically. ‘Starkly accountable, yet dramatically impotent’, the individual ‘quite literally seethes with ressentment 

Thus, the way in which failures are rendered immanent, ontological and a matter of individual responsibility – rather than of political and normative concern – seems to generate particular emotional results, notably the rise of resentment 

While the main theoretical preoccupation of today seems to be how to sidestep, handle and overcome the effects failure through resilience and risk management, the move to make failure immanent and ontological only succeeds in pushing failure (and its real effects) down to the level of the individual. 

The micropolitics of affect that presides over the ways in which failure is processed, blame and responsibility are attributed, shame and humiliations are handled, and resentments are articulated thus becomes crucial. This is especially important at a time of increasing and violent individuation, ie terrorists.. 

Resentment is the emotional plane around which failures experienced at the individual and global level convergence. A journey into its nature and place in the contemporarycondition is thus required

 What is judged detrimental if not wholly questionable, is not the place of resentment within the moral order. Rather, it is the contemporary prejudice against negative emotions and the overriding fixation for ‘closure’ that places societies at fault when it prevents them from acknowledging and remedying injustices. 

Therefore, it is the absence of resentment in the face of injustice that should be denounced as immoral. There is virtue in resentment, in other words. As Jean Améry stated, there is virtue in the moral ‘vertigo’ of resentment that disrupts the moral order and prevents hasty attempts at reconciliation.

 It is only because of resentment that injustices become ‘a moral reality’ and it is only through resentment that an entire community, includeing perpetrators of injustice, are ‘swept into the truth
of a quintessentially existentialist notion, that of ressentiment 
While resentment is understood to be note a legitimate sense of anger, and a desire for justice in the face of an injury, ressentiment indicates the pernicious and self-defeating folding in of this emotion onto itself.

Ressentiment is suspended, delayed or botched revenge. As a frustrated, ossified and ultimately generalised form of resentment, Ressentiment plants itself in the psychic underground of the sufferer as a blunt arrow, kept in permanent tension by the pain or memory of humiliation, yet never released from the bowof desire.

 From there, according to Friedrich Nietszche and Max Scheler, ressentiment
poisons the mind of those who suffer from it –  in a restless movement that blurs past and present,
ressentiment recalls the injuries suffered; resentment, unconsummated and thus intensified, bounces back as re-sentment.

 What makes this emotion particularly corrosive, aside from its generic, permanent and ontological character, is a form of denial. Instead of recognising the value of what is desired, ressentiment involves on the one hand, the careful cultivation of a type of false consciousness predicated on the inversion of the value of what was originally desired and, on the other, the delusion of an idealized alternative world where the victim becomes the ruler, and suffering can finally cease

According to Max Scheler’s reading of Nietzsche’s ressentiment the origin of this emotion are not failures of justice but failures of recognition or status, in particular the envy that derives from comparing oneself to others and resenting one’s inferiority. ‘Envy is the strongest source of
ressentiment. Thus, while resentment is preoccupied with injustice and is moved by moral grievances deriving from perceived failures of justice, ressentiment is concerned with inequality and fuelled by the envy deriving form perceived failures of recognition or status. 

 Resentment starts from an affirmation of rights. It demands reparation of wrongs in a commensurate and prompt way and is satisfied by the increase in one’s own well-being that follows that reparation.

Ressentiment on the other hand, starts from the perception of one’s impotence or lack of rights. It expresses itself as a generalised and non-specific desire for revenge, made more intense by the construction of scapegoats and cultivation of fantasies of vendetta. Its satisfaction ultimately comes more from the misfortunes of others than from an increase in one’s well-being, in terms of the degree of emphasis laid on envy as the underlying motive of ressentiment
 and in terms of the possibility of channeling and venting ressentiment
 into revenge

A number of theorists have reflected on the issue of whether the political and social conditions of late modernity at a time of rampant neoliberalism and incessant securitization promote emotions of resentment.

Ressentiment iss stored resentment that has poisoned the soul and migrated to places where it is hidden
Ressentiment is the affect that underpins the construction of scapegoats, the exercise of revenge, and the affirmation of a negative or inverted form of enjoyment. For the subject experiencing
ressentiment enjoyment comes more from the misfortunes of others than an increase in one’s 
measure up to the idealised standard of the ‘middle class’. On the other, the envy experienced towards the model of the sovereign, liberal individual. The consequence is that the subject ‘seethes with ressentiment an emotion which appears to be a general and fundamental existential condition in the ‘plastic cage’ of late modern societ

The failure to acknowledge and respond to protracted grievances causes resentment to fester and escalate into

The denial of failure, in other words, leaves the subject worse off than the experience of failure itself. This is not least true, as Gilles Deleuze has argued, because it consigns the subject to an emotion that is alienating and non-emancipatory. Far from being an active and positive mode of political action, ressentiment decomposes resistance and incapacitates contestation.

In her writings, Wendy Brown has similarly mobilised the concept of ressentiment to account for the particular character and formation of identities in late modernity.
According to Brown, the contemporary subject is characterised by a condition of radical failure and diffuse envy. On the one hand, the failure to measure up to the idealised standard of the ‘middle class’. On the other, the envy experienced towards the model of the sovereign, liberal individual. The consequence is that the subject ‘seethes with
ressentiment an emotion which appears to be a general and fundamental existential condition in the ‘plastic cage’ of late modern societies.

According to Brown, resentiment exhibits three main characteristics. First, the externalization and displacement of suffering, which involves the production of scapegoats: ‘a culprit responsible for the hurt, and a site of revenge to displace the hurt’ and the re-enactment, rather than the resolution, of injuries as they are distributed and externalised to others.

Third, the proliferation and sacralisation of the condition of victim. In noting the rise of victimary narrativewe live in a world where many people, rightly or wrongly, feel blocked, or paralyzed, in all aspirations, obstructed from achieving their most legitimate goals. Individual psychology inevitably ends up resenting this permanent frustration, and the need arises for a term that expresses this state of affair. The word ressentiment seems designed to play this role

The protracted denial of failures of justice, in other words, leaves the subject reeling and prone to revenge, rather than the pursuit of reparation. In other words, the denial of failure is more dangerous than failure itself, not least because it abandons the subject to alienating, non-emancipatory and the self-sabotaging emotion of

 Slavoj Zizek advanced a reading of the Charlie Hebdo
 attacks that provides an interesting account of the role of envy in the confrontation between Islamic terrorists and the West. Do the Charlie Hebdo
 terrorists] really fit this description [of fundamentalists]? What they obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, fromTibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy 
.The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’ conviction of their own superiority.  

The majority of this post are extracts from a quite brillian paper at:

See also:  Marc Ferro,
Resentment in History 
 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010) and Bernardino Fantini, Dolores Martín

The terminological distinction between resentment and
ressentiment is not always used unambiguously, partly due to the difficulties of translating
Moruno, and Javier Moscoso (eds).
On Resentment: Past and Present 
 (Cambridge: Cambridge ScholarsPublishing, 2013). 

On casually discovering the literary work that arguably first described
ressentiment namely Fyodor Dostoevsky’s
Notes from Underground 

iSee CA Miller, ‘Nietzsche’s ‘Discovery’ of Dostoevsky’,
Nietzsche Studien
2, no. 1 (1973): 202–257 and Walter Kaufmann, ‘Introduction’, in Kaufmann,
Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre

(London: Penguin, 1975).

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