Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Age Of Resentment

I rarely tweet anything that more than two people retweet, so I was glad to see a bigger group of people respond to this tweet:
I was referring to the now deceased historian's four books on modern world history, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes. Broad based synthesizing histories are not in vogue anymore, but I love them for their sweeping scopes and big ideas. I was being a bit flippant, but I do think that resentment is currently an overwhelming force in world affairs.

That resentment has expressed itself in nationalist terms. Putin has harnessed the resentment over Russia's fall from superpower status to burnish his authority and invade Georgia and the Ukraine. Dating to Sarah Palin in 2008, America's hard right wing has put all of its money on the resentment-fueled "take our country back" meme, culminating in the rise of Trump. And a slim majority of British voters opted to leave the EU in a campaign driven by fear of immigrants and promises of restored national prestige.

How to explain these resentments? One response is what I call the "blame it on neoliberalism" school. They see Trump and Brexit as reactions by the economically dispossessed who relish the opportunity to smack down the elites. I find that this explanation has limited power. In the first place, the arguments for Brexit were made in explicitly neoliberal terms: less money being redistributed and fewer regulations will make the economy grow!  Just because a group of people is economically hurting, that doesn't mean that its political choices are all a direct response to that fact. That's a fallacy that a lot of people are falling into, partially due to their own life experiences. It always makes me chuckle when bougie Vassar grads lecture others for "punching down" on the Archie Bunker types. Coming from a lower-middle class background in rural red state America, I can tell you that a lot of these people are just narrow minded bigots, pure and simple. There is no great mystery to solve there, especially when white supremacy gets threatened.

It would be terribly short-sighted, of course, to just blame the Age of Resentment exclusively on racial fear, even if it is a key element. What appears to be happening is that larger resentments brought on by the forty year contraction of the middle class in the wake of neoliberal globalization are being channeled towards nationalism, which is inherently populist. This has happened in large part due to the weakness of the left. In Europe, the old social democratic and socialist parties have been in retreat. In France, with Francois Hollande in power, the socialists have been forced to compromise.  Across Latin America left-oriented governments have fallen, as in Argentina and Brazil, or are in serious trouble, as in Venezuela and Bolivia. In America the radical left has become so intertwined with academia that the people who claim to be pushing for popular revolution are incapable of making a political statement devoid of grad student jargon. That'll get the working class fired up!

With the left unable to properly harness resentment (partially due to the siren call of white supremacy), the radical right has had a field day. Anger and resentment at globalization is not being directed at multinational corporations, but at immigrants. As far as America is concerned, the Occupy Movement and the Sanders campaign certainly show the presence of left wing populism, but both tend to skew towards the young and the more educated, and both have had problems with attracting people of color. The right wing variety is much more robust, and it has a secret weapon in its media presence. In Britain, the Sun and other tabloids gushed out geysers of misinformation. In America talk radio and Fox News not only reach millions, but they crucially influence their outlooks. I still remember a relative one day who started railing about how "America is a republic, not a democracy," then realized they had been watching Glenn Beck.

What I would like to see coming out of this is a left self-critical enough to understand its shortcomings. I see so much leftist vitriol directed at liberals, for instance, without any analysis of why leftist ideas are not gaining traction. I see so many Bernie supporters wailing about a "rigged" system rather than thinking long and hard about how and why they could attract more voters of color. There is a lot of resentment out there, and it runs especially high in the white working and middle classes of this country, where it feeds on the power and attraction of nationalism and white supremacy. Combatting it will require a lot of hard work, as well as some political hard-nosedness. No more beautiful losers. No more elevating a single person in messianic status. No more blaming the right whenever the left fails. No more empty self-righteousness. In this Age of Resentment, it is time to put away childish things, and it is time to roll up our sleeves and give the fight of our lives. The loss will not be a noble defeat, it will be unthinkable.

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