How owning our Resentment can save Australian Politics
In this piece, Paul Tyson, honourary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, outlines his take on the rise of rightwing populist resentment, as a powerful political force, from an Australian perspective.
Professor Robert Solomon notes that we all experience strong emotional responses to being the victim of an injustice. Solomon singles out three responses in particular: anger, contempt and resentment. Crucially, these emotions have distinct political signatures. Anger is a potentially resolution producing emotion directed towards equals; contempt is a vengeance and retribution focused emotion directed towards inferiors; resentment is an impotent and servile emotion directed towards superiors.
Our politicians, as leaders who are often intimately connected with the ‘great and good’ of the land (not to mention the rich), have a particularly fine-tuned awareness of electoral resentment. If things are not going so well for the common citizen, politicians are liable to face a resentment fuelled backlash in the poles. Indeed, a defining feature of Australian voting for some time now has been a cynical tendency to vote governments out, rather than to vote governments in. This signals high levels of disappointment and resentment in the polity, and astute politicians, like foxes sniffing the hounds, respond to this situation with attentive and strategic intelligence.
One of the things politicians can do with a dissatisfied and insecure electorate is endeavour to re-direct upward focused and frustrated resentment into downward focused and powerful contempt. If a small but apparently dangerous group of undeserving scum can be blamed for the troubles of the common citizen, then politicians can take tough action against that target – with no political cost to themselves – and be seen to be empowering the valid retributive interests of the common citizen. Recent tough social security reforms directed at the long-term unemployed, and indefinite detention policies directed at boat arrival asylum seekers, are textbook examples of this dynamic at play.
So far, turning resentment towards our leaders into contempt for unfortunate and powerless minorities has worked like a charm. And it works, not because it makes factual or moral sense, or has any defensible intellectual justification, but because it makes politically usable emotional sense.
The emotional success of the politics of contempt has meant that both major party blocks are now deeply committed to weeding out lazy welfare rorters and to unflinchingly maintaining tough boarder protection policies. These contempt objects must be punished regardless of why so many Australians are welfare dependent and why so many people are globally displaced. So long as we are superior to the unemployed and the asylum seeker – because we work hard and we are not breaking the law in order to get a free hand out, even though we struggle – any ‘help’ given to them can be read as unworthy assistance that should be directed towards us, the worthy ones. Because aggressive policies against unworthy bludgers and opportunistic and dangerous intruders are emotionally defined, it simply doesn’t matter that they are chock full of moral and conceptual incoherence. On top of this, being tough on dangerous scum is an emotional winner because it gives the arena crowd a sense of vicarious potency over some public contempt object that is sacrificed to its own need for self-justification. It’s all a bit religious really.
To this sort of emotional dynamic, conceptual coherence is irrelevant. Employing explicitly deterrent and deteriorationist policies towards boat arrival asylum seekers in the name of being just and humane, can work without a hitch if you set things up correctly. Successive Australian governments have been very careful to de-personalize those whom we so profoundly psychologically damage on Nauru, and to shroud the nasty details of our “boarder protection” policies in military secrecy. Militarization has the added advantage of promoting a narrative where our glorious troops and hard-working immigration officials are being both compassionate to those at risk of drowning and taking strong action to defend Australians from a dangerous external threat. Conveniently, it would be “un-Australian” to even consider saying unkind things against the professional actions of our troops when following orders. These narratives are entirely in keeping with the logic of re-directed resentment, for it locates a sense of insecurity in an outside force which our leaders can protect us from, rather than in the ineffectiveness of the policies of our leaders or the predatory self-interest of our powerful elites.
There are a few problems, though. If the underserving scum are not in fact causing our own insecurity and diminished opportunities (which they never are), reprocessing resentment into contempt will fail to ameliorate the ongoing reality of insecurity in the electorate. This failure will produce pressure to either face the real causes of electoral insecurity, or it will heighten the scapegoat game until it is an intractably evil dead end. If we are lucky, the inability of re-processed resentment to actually change anything positively will result in abandoning scapegoating brutality towards our ‘inferiors’. Instead, something will need to be done to address the real causes of our insecurity. However, human social dynamics being what they are, we must be aware that there are tipping points which, once past, produce an almost fixed trajectory towards barbarity and destruction
Perhaps both we voters and our political representatives are already too morally compromised to face up to our inhumanity. Because neither political party has resisted the ‘stop the boats’ narrative, indeed both parties have sought to outdo each other in ‘stopping the boats’, so both political parties are now deeply morally compromised. Bipartisan political consensus has now constructed designedly human rights violating and refugee convention flouting immigration policies. There is now no way to back out and save face without acknowledging guilt. This means we have already passed the normal ‘locked in’ tipping point in political dynamics. From here we head into very unpleasant moral terrain. Our politicians must keep feeding populist rage against unworthy scum in order to justify the policies they have created. When we ourselves have tipped past the point of no moral return – when we have called evil good and have invested ourselves in advancing these policies – we are in National Socialist territory. And let us not forget, the Germans of the 1930s were not inherently morally inferior to us.
But we can still escape moral disaster, and it is resentment that opens a way forward. If we can locate our resentment as resentment, and refuse the processing of resentment into contempt, but keep our discontent focused on our leaders and our elites as the real cause of our insecurity and diminished opportunity, then the politics of contempt, and its degrading inhumanity, can be broken.
In the end resentment itself cannot help us, for the defining political signature of resentment is servile powerlessness. What we really need is determined resolution seeking anger. But the first step out of the politics of contempt is to refuse to have our resentment downwardly re-defined.
Let us look at this first step a bit more closely.
Is it a fact that middle and lower class Australia – the large majority by any measure – are experiencing increased insecurity and diminished opportunities? Yes it is. Michael Pusey’s “The Experience of Middle Australia” pointed out, some time ago, how the growing income inequality trend in Australia has put sustained pressure on Middle Australians to either hike themselves up into the high pressure, high flying elite class, or fall into the bottom two quintiles class of Australian household incomes where continuous financial pressure is inescapable. Runaway housing costs for young people, runaway levels of personal debt, the blossoming of insecure work norms, the absence of significant manufacturing and rural employment sectors, our dependency on international primary commodity prices, highly educated people who cannot get work in their field etc.; these are the real causes of our anxieties. The 2014 Senate Committee Submission by the St Vincent De Paul Society on the extent of income inequality states the obvious when it points out that lower income households are a rapidly growing proportion of Australian households, and financial and workplace security is getting ever hard for them to find. Do refugees and the long term unemployed cause these deep pressures on Australian households? Of course not. Further, our leaders are not going to change anything for the better by kicking those below us on our behalf, just so that we can have some sort of cathartic release for our own feelings of powerlessness, unfairness and insecurity. (And it certainly doesn’t help those whom we kick.)
We should not allow our leaders and our elites to let us feel that the weak and vulnerable are the cause of our insecurity. We should not participate in vicarious potency by punishing those we have contempt towards through the inhumane scapegoating policies of our resentment re-channelling politicians. Rather, we should recognize that it is our resentment that fuels this electorally powerful push towards the politics of contempt. We should take responsibility for our own resentment.
Resentment is an interesting litmus test of a democratic polity because significant levels of resentment shows that political participation is breaking down. To feel powerless as a citizen, and to feel like one has no say over the conditions under which one lives because elite power interests are either driving or immune from the political process, is to indicate that the very idea of citizen based power is being eroded. Active and empowered citizens are not resentful; they do not hide subserviently behind unpleasant ‘realities’ they cannot change; they take their collective destiny into their own hands and are the true sovereigns of their state. But this is not our experience as citizens. We experience growing inequality and insecurity in our polity, accompanied by an increasingly nasty competitiveness and heightened self-protectiveness in the lower elite’s class. What we thought of as our accepting and inclusive society is rapidly turning into a society of super elite winners, a struggling and anxious middle, and a large and disenfranchised underclass of permanent losers. We see ourselves as powerless to change this, and we see politics as a theatre we watch, with increasing disinterest, rather than as a forum in which we participate.
Interestingly, our politicians are resentful too.
The powerlessness of our own political class to protect the interests of the commonwealth against global forces promoting the interests of the transnational superclass renders our politicians inherently politically impotent. We resent our politicians for not advancing our real interests, and yet they are powerless to do so. Global power is the real power nowadays, and ‘realistic’ national polities of Australia’s size can do little to chart their own course in the global sea. This is the cause of our powerlessness in the Australian polity, a powerlessness suffered by voters and politicians alike.
Let us be frank. High power cares not a whit for the Australian (or any) polity. As Michael Hauser points out, high power is post-political now. Yanis Varoufakis has described the manner in which non-elected representatives of the French and German financial sectors control European economic policy in the Eurozone, rendering state located democracy irrelevant to high power. Susan George has written about the contempt the transnational Davos class has for democracy and the national interests of polities. Functionally stateless super-rich actors are the real power players of the global world order now, and our politicians are their servants. We citizens correctly sense that our politicians are our leaders and representatives in name only. Indeed, until our politicians face their own resentment which is a function of their powerlessness to control the economic and moral conditions of the Australian polity, we will all be slaves to a passive ‘realism’ that simply refuses to take charge of our own destiny.
Recognizing resentment in the electorate and in our politicians is the first step in facing up to our nation’s pervasive and debilitating servile outlook. The next step is to overcome resentment itself, by renouncing the passivity of deference to our overlords.
Resentment is an emotion of dependent inferiors. We are dependent inferiors because we accept a servile relationship to the geopolitical, financial and corporate powers that bestride the narrow world like colossi. Indeed, we pride ourselves on our practical realism, which means we simply accept the great powers as given and work with them towards what we like to think of as our own advantage. We do not defy those powers and go our own way. Compare, for example, the Boston Tea Party with Gallipoli. What we should ask ourselves is whether we must always bow to great powers, whether we must always be the tool of great powers, and is our ‘realism’ a convenient justification for cowardice and servile dependency?
Why – as Malcolm Fraser argued in his last book – do we bow to the US? Why – as Nicholas Shaxson’s analysis of tax havens wonders – do we bow to a global financial system where the super-rich strip mine our nation’s wealth without putting anything but trifles into our nation’s tax coffers? Why are our banks licensed to ‘produce’ money (out of nothing) and why do our boardroom and executive high fliers receive staggering remunerations even when they preside over disasters, and yet we have to penny pinch, humiliate and heavily monitor those who cannot find work? Why do we bow to this?
The way things now are is not the way things simply must be. Our ‘realism’ is actually a servile submission to the ‘might is right’ status quo which keeps us in slavery to those who exploit us for their own gain. This need not be, if only we were not slaves in our own mind. Nietzsche was right: resentment is the emotion of slaves.
We need to move out of a passive and servile acceptance of systemic injustice and exploitation, and into the realm of intelligent and morally driven anger. Here, it is really a failure of political imagination that holds us back. Can we imagine going our own way in the world, a way that is not blindly subservient to the prevailing global high powers? This cannot be as hard as we think it is. For example, Norway’s five million people have much more backbone and global autonomy than we have. But here, alas, Australia has no courageous history of independence to draw on. From our origins we were a colonial dependency deeply tied to powers across the waters. Then, after World War Two, we shifted our great power dependency addiction from the UK to the US. We are going to have to grow up as a nation, for the first time, if we are to take our own destiny into our own hands.
The way forward is to move from the political emotion of contempt to a hard and serious confrontation with the realities of our own resentments. If we can face and renounce the servile impotence of resentment, then we can move towards angrily and creatively addressing the real causes of pressure and insecurity on our polity. Then we can aspire to being a noble people who are independent and courageous enough to take moral charge of our national destiny.
At present, we are a long way from confronting our servile impotence. We shield ourselves from even naming our resentment – let alone owning it – by believing lies about ourselves. We are determined to think of ourselves as noble, successful and innovative, and as beset by unfair threats posed by unworthy insiders and opportunistic and evil outsiders. These are the convenient lies of resentment re-processed as false pride and contempt. Alas, it is only the truth that will set us on the road to freedom.