“Brown makes the bold choice of echoing conservative critics in scrutinizing left-wing variants of identity politics from a Nietzschean perspective; however, she takes a far more nuanced and less polemical approach.”
endy Brown, who currently teaches at University of California, Berkeley, is the greatest critical theorist alive today, and her writing spans a panorama of topics with ease and profundity. While her recent work has marked a turn towards analyzing neoliberalism and its corrosive effect on democracy across the globe, perhaps her most provocative analyses come from her re-interpretations of Nietzsche and his arguments about the politics of resentment. Brown makes the bold choice of echoing conservative critics in scrutinizing left-wing variants of identity politics from a Nietzschean perspective; however, she takes a far more nuanced and less polemical approach. She also makes the striking claim that right-wing critics are far too tempted by the easy partisan belief that identity politics is exclusively the purview of the political left—and that resentment need only be directed from the weak towards the powerful.
Reinterpreting Nietzsche In an Age of Identity Politics
“Liberalism contains from its inception a generalized incitement to what Nietzsche terms ressentiment, the moralizing revenge of the powerless, ‘the triumph of the weak as weak.’ This incitement to ressentiment inheres in two related constitutive paradoxes of liberalism. There is a paradox between individual liberty and social egalitarianism, which produces failure turned to recrimination by the subordinated and guilt turned to resentment by the ‘successful.’ There is one between the individualism that legitimates liberalism and the cultural homogeneity required by its commitment to political universality. This latter paradox stimulates the articulation of politically significant differences, on the one hand, and the suppression of them, on the other, and offers a form of articulation that presses against the limits of universalist discourse even while that which is being articulated seeks to be harbored within-included-in the terms of universalism.”- Wendy Brown, States of Injury
As far back as her classic 1993 essay “Wounded Attachments,” Brown notes that resentment—or in the Nietzschean parlance “ressentiment”—was a ubiquitous feeling in modern societies. Contra pro-capitalist commentators, who insisted that this resentment was only ever directed by the poor against the rich, Brown notes that it was far more widespread. Indeed, how could it not be? Modern capitalist societies were hyper-competitive places where to be a winner was everything and to be a failure was to have lost the game of life. What made it worse was the ideological veneer given to dignify this competition, which held that everyone had had the same opportunities to get ahead. This implied that if one failed it was due to a lack of personal virtue; if one did not make it, it was because he or she did not work hard enough, lacked the necessary talent, etc.
The disadvantaged, as such, were denied even the modicum of dignity they enjoyed during the medieval epoch, when affluence and poverty were said to be determined by God, rather than by individual efforts. Moreover, people always struggled against the limitations of the dominant liberal ideology. On the one hand, this thinking insisted that it was a universal and rational account of freedom, while, at the same time, asserting that people ought to abandon their traditional ways of life (if these turned out to be economically inefficient). Neoliberalism—a particularly elitist strand of liberalism—radicalized this transformative tendency through establishing a vast global legal order to protect and further spread capitalism. This often all took place while undermining the very democratic systems that might have enabled citizens to legitimate neoliberal reforms from the bottom up; the European Union’s technocratic revolution from above is a prime example of this failure.
In this context, many progressives became attracted to identity politics as a way of pushing against the status quo. However, Brown cautioned that there were serious limitations to this type of politics. The most obvious is that identity politics is often framed as the opposition between a victimized group and its oppressors. Here, Brown is very careful. Brown argues that very often this oppositional relation does exist; many people are genuinely oppressed by others. For example, LGBTQ individuals have long been oppressed by heteronormative expectations; the poor are often exploited in the workplace; and millions in developing countries face very real political suppression. But the problem with a politics merely centered on ending this oppression is that the victimized identity appealed to largely exists as a product of opposition. The groups and movements that then form understand themselves largely by what they oppose, rather than by what they want to achieve. The danger of this is that individuals can develop what Brown calls a “wounded attachment” to their identity as victims, wishing to overcome it but unable to conceive of themselves in any other terms. This would also limit the potential of these movements to truly shake the status quo, since they would then need a strong sense of not just what they oppose but also the new kinds of worlds they wish to construct.
Brown’s approach to this subject is very nuanced and goes far beyond simplistic tirades about the evils of “post-modern neo-Marxism” on university campuses. She makes the point that one cannot have a highly stratified society where some enjoy tremendous advantages over others—while, at the same time, insisting the intense competitions are fair—and not expect many to feel a tremendous sense of resentment. Moreover, often, these groups are correct to condemn the status quo. This is because, of course, the competition is very much stacked in favor of the few, rather than the many. Brown’s point is that—unless we move away from a resentment-driven politics of opposition towards one that is more constructive—the political potential of identity movements will be limited. At their worst, they may wind up replicating the very structures of oppression that generated their anger in the first place. This is because resentment tends to be scattered and even reactionary. Many despise elite groups that project superiority, while, at the same time, envying their power and authority. This makes for an untenable emotional deadlock that can express itself by electing post-modern conservative populists, who promise to make people feel strong through victimizing the weak. This brings us to a final point about Brown’s take on identity politics.
Conclusion: The Resentment of the Masters
Brown criticizes Nietzsche for simply assuming that resentment would largely be directed from the weak against the powerful, as well as for drawing the rather aristocratic conclusion that the new Übermensch would rise above the “herd.” In her tremendous new book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, which was published last year, Browns argues that throughout history the powerful have always resented those with far less. Simultaneously, the powerful tended to regard those who are weaker as inferior, while also fearing any mass effort to challenge their privileges. Feudal lords resented early liberal thinkers, who demanded political liberty be extended to all, and these lords, in turn, insisted that God had put people in their respective places for a reason. Social Darwinists eschewed Darwin’s anti-teleological distinction between adaptability to the environment and innate superiority to argue that “science” now demonstrated that the strong naturally rose to the top and the weak fell to the bottom. At their most crude, neoliberals were little better, expressing anger that the lower classes frequently refused to recognize their innate inferiority. The following excerpt from Ludwig von Mises’ letter to Ayn Rand is telling:
“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: You are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you. If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it is still the truth that had to said in the age of the Welfare State.”
As we pass from the neoliberal era, new forms of resentment are taking hold. Brown observes that wealthy patricians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are calling on citizens to wall themselves off from the dangerous world outside. Rather than recognize a shared responsibility to improve the lives of all, the resentment of the powerful insists that there are winners and losers. Furthermore, if one wishes to remain a winner, privileges must be jealously guarded from refugees, minorities, and the undeserving poor. This resentment has now reached endemic proportions due to the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, with certain conservative media outlets expressing concern that citizens will come to expect handouts for doing nothing before fatalistically opining on how everyone dies and that we cannot let our scruples stand in the way of getting people back to work. Given these strange realities, Brown’s analysis is more vital than ever before.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof