We Are Not Worthless: Resentment, Misrecognition and Populist Mobilization

The current stage of liberal democracy generates myriad grievances that fuel resentment, providing a basis for new waves of populist mobilization.
Hans-Georg Betz, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, populism, what fuels populism, grievance politics, why Trump won, resentment in politics, AfD Germany, East West Germany inequality, resentment and populism

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We live in resentful times. Dare we even utter these words? They sound as trite and cliché as that time-honored opening sentence that has introduced so many articles on populism in recent years, “A specter is haunting Europe.” It can easily apply to Latin America, or the United States or, why not, India, Turkey or the Philippines. But, to abuse a well-known adage, only because something is trite does not necessarily mean that it isn’t true.


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The fact is that we do live in an age of resentment, and populism has been among its main political beneficiaries. Resentment has been credited for propelling Donald Trump into the White House in 2016, contributing to the narrow success of the Brexit vote, playing a major role in Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, and fueling the most recent upsurge in support for radical right-wing populist parties in Europe. Those who vote for them are said to be “fearful, angry and resentful of what their societies have done for them over the years.” Those of us who have been studying these developments for the past several decades could not agree more.

Unsocial Passion

Populism derives much of its impetus from the force of the emotions it evokes. The arguably most potent of these emotions is resentment. Unfortunately, more often than not, the link between resentment and populism is merely asserted, as if it were self-evident. As a result, resentment is either trivialized or comes to stand for about any emotion considered objectionable.

The reality is, however, that resentment is a highly complex, equivocal and ambiguous emotion.  Etymologically, resentment derives from the French verb ressentir, which carries the connotation of feeling something over and over again, of obsessively revisiting a past injury (from the outdated se ressentir). It is for this reason that Adam Smith, in his 1759 treatise on moral sentiments ranks resentment among the “unsocial passions.” This is not to say that resentment is an entirely odious and noxious passion. On the contrary, Smith makes a strong argument that resentment is “one of the glues that can hold society together.” For, as Michelle Schwarze and John Scott have pointed out, “we need the perturbing passion of resentment to motivate our concern for injustice.”

On this view, resentment represents what Sjoerd van Tuinen has called “a mechanism of retributive justice” that “prevents and remedies injuries.” It is from this sense that Smith’s notion of resentment as the glue that holds society together derives its logic and justification. If resentment is an unsocial passion, it is, as Jerry Evensky has argued, that resentment, if “unregulated … can be the most socially destructive of all passions.” Here, resentment is nothing but vindictiveness and rancor, the urge to find malicious pleasure in revenge. This is the dark side of resentment.

The other, positive side to resentment is what Smith calls the “safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.” In this iteration, resentment serves as a mechanism that “prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done; that the offender may be made to repent of his injustice, and that others, through fear of like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence.” This type of resentment is, as Jonathan Jacobs has put it, “vitally important to maintaining the proper regard for the status of persons as equal participants in a common moral world.”

As a moral emotion, Elisabetta Brighi has stated, “resentment is not 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.”

An excerpt from a speech by Frederick Douglass, the prominent 19th-century African American abolitionist, orator and preacher illustrates the point. Speaking before the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, Douglass noted that it was “perhaps creditable to the American people” if European immigrants from Ireland, Italy or Hungary “all find in this goodly land a home.” For them, he continued, “the Americans have principles of justice, maxims of mercy, sentiments of religion and feelings of brotherhood in abundance.” When it came to “my poor people (alas, how poor!) enslaved, scourged, blasted, overwhelmed, and ruined,” however, “it would appear that America had neither justice, mercy, nor religion.” As a result, he charged, African Americans were aliens “in our native land.”

Strangers in Their Own Land

The irony should not be lost on anyone who has followed the course of American politics in recent years. In 2016, Donald Trump not only secured the Republican nomination, but he was also elected president of the United States. He did so on a platform that catered to the disenchantment of large swaths of the country’s white population with a political class that appeared to care little about their concerns. Trump scored particularly big among the millions of white Americans who thought of themselves as having become, in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s words, strangers in their own land.

Similar sentiments have been reported from the eastern part of Germany. A study from 2019 by one of Germany’s leading public opinion firms came to the conclusion that 30 years after unification, “many eastern Germans still feel like aliens in their own home.” The political fallout has been dramatic: The “feeling of alienness” has informed party preferences more than have differences between political agendas.

Other studies have shown that a significant number of eastern Germans see themselves as second-class citizens. Talia Marin, who teaches international economics at the technical university in Munich, traces these sentiments to the fact that after unification, many eastern Germans were being told in not particularly subtle ways that their skills and experience acquired during the communist period “had no value in a market economy.” Confronted with this “feeling of worthlessness,” they “lost their dignity.” A representative survey from 2019 provides evidence of the extent to which eastern Germans continue to feel slighted. In the survey, 80% of respondents agreed with the statement that their achievements in the decades following unification have not received the recognition they deserve.

Dignity, studies have shown, is central to contemporary politics of recognition. It is at this point that resentment and populism meet. For, as Grayson Hunt has argued, resentment represents “an interpersonal dynamic which desires the restoration of respect.” Recognition, Charles Taylor has noted, constitutes a “vital human need.” Recognition entails, in Avishai Margalit’s words, “acknowledging and honouring the status of others.”

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The opposite is misrecognition. Misrecognition, in turn, is a major source of resentment. Pierre Rosanvallon, in a recent essay on populism, ranks resentment among what he calls the “emotions of position.” These are emotions that express “rage over not being recognized, of being abandoned, despised, counting for nothing in the eyes of the powerful.” In his view, what provokes these emotions is the huge gap that often exists between objective reality, such as the fact that, in terms of GDP, France is ranked fifth among industrialized economies. Subjectively, however, the daily lived experience of a substantial number of French people is quite different who face difficulties making ends meet.

France is hardly unique. As early as 2008, one of the BBC’s top executives, Richard Klein, noted that “the people most affected by the upheaval” that had characterized Britain during the past decade, both economic and cultural, “have been all but ignored.” Klein’s comments were made at the occasion of a BBC documentary series on Britain’s white working class. The documentary revealed a profound sense of “victimhood, rage, abandonment and resentment” among these strata. Not even the Labour Party, once the protector of working-class interests, seemed to consider them important. As a result, they felt completely abandoned, no longer worthy of dignity and recognition.

This is what also seems to have happened in post-unification eastern Germans, or at least not in the perceptions of eastern Germans. Otherwise, they would hardly consider themselves second-class citizens, not on an equal footing compared to westerners. The result has been widespread resentment, surfacing, for instance, during the refugee crisis of 2015-16. At the time, the priority was to integrate the hundreds of thousands of newcomers Angela Merkel’s government had allowed to enter the country. For good reasons, in the east, the mood was one of irritation, if not outright hostility.

The predominant notion was that the government should first integrate what was once communist East Germany. Eastern Germans complained that in the years following unification they had been asked to fend for themselves. Yet a few decades later, the state was lavishing benefits and support on refugees. For them, eastern Germans grumbled, the state did have money, for “us,” not.

Misrecognition

The eastern German case is a classic example of misrecognition, defined as the denial of equal worth, which prevents its victims from interacting on par with the rest of society. It denies its victims mutual recognition and, in the most extreme case, excludes them from equitable and just (re)distribution. Objectively, this might sound like a thoroughly unfair assessment. After all, for decades, the German government transferred a massive amount of funds to former East Germany (GDR). German taxpayers were forced to pay a “solidarity surcharge” designed to finance Aufbau Ost, a program of reconstruction designed to allow the eastern part of the country to catch up with the west.

Yet none of these measures appear to have substantially reduced the lingering sense of resentment prevalent among large parts of the eastern German population. In 2019, around 60% of respondents in the state of Brandenburg considered themselves second-class citizens, while some 70% resented the economic and political dominance of westerners. Two years later, a few days prior to the regional election in Sachsen-Anhalt in June 2021, 75% of respondents there agreed with the statement that “in many areas eastern Germans continue to be second-class citizens.”


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Federico Tarragoni, a leading French expert on populism, provides another illustration of misrecognition, this time not from Western Europe but Latin America or, more precisely, from Venezuela. Tarragoni is primarily interested in explaining the widespread support Hugo Chavez garnered among large parts of Venezuela’s population. On the basis of discussions with ordinary Venezuelans living in the outskirts of Caracas, he reports the profound sense of injury and injustice experienced on a daily basis by the inhabitants of these barrios, who have a strong sense that nobody has any interest in them. They are cut off from the rest of Caracas. As one resident puts it, these are places where taxis don’t go. For Venezuela’s high society, these barrio dwellers are nothing but “savages” for whom they have nothing but disdain and contempt.

It should come as no surprise that contempt on the part of one side breeds resentment on the part of the other. Resentment, in turn, evokes a panoply of related emotions, such as anger, rage, even hatred, and particularly a wish for vengeance. When unfulfilled, however, when justified grievances are met with smug indifference on the part of those in charge, the wish for vengeance is likely to turn into resignation. In the sphere of politics, resignation is reflected in a drop in electoral participation, at least as long as there is no credible alternative. This is where populism comes in.

Feeding on Resentment

Populism feeds on resentment. Populist discourses of resentment “encode reactions to a sense of loss, powerlessness, and disenfranchisement; they consolidate feelings of fear, anger, bitterness, and shame.” The targets of populist discourses are, however, rarely the institutions and policies responsible for socio-economic problems, such as neoliberalism, international financial markets or transnational corporations. Rather, they are found in groups that appear to have gained in visibility and recognition, such as ethnic and sexual minorities, while others have been losing out. Populists channel the resulting wish for vengeance to the one place where everybody, independent of their social status, has a voice — at the polls.

Election time is payback time. This is how two prominent Austrian political scientists commented on the fulminant upsurge of support for the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) under its new leader, Jörg Haider, in the late 1980s. In the years that followed, the Austrian experience was replicated in a number of Western European countries, most notably Italy, Switzerland and across Scandinavia. The arguably most egregious case in point, of course, was Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 — an act of vengeance, at least in part, against a political establishment that more often than not appeared to show little more than thinly veiled contempt for ordinary people and their increasingly dim life chances (viz Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”).

The vote for Trump was an instance of what Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, from the London School of Economics, has characterized as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter.” These are once-prosperous regions that have fallen on hard times, walloped by the decline of mining, by deindustrialization and offshoring: the Rust Belt in the United States, northern England in the UK, Wallonia in Belgium, the Haut-de-France region in the north of France. These areas have been left behind in the race to remain competitive — or regain lost competitiveness — in the brave new world informed by financialization and globalization.

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To be sure, these developments have been going on for some time. More than a decade ago already, the French political geographer Christoph Guilluy drew attention to the emergence of what he called “la France périphérique” — peripheral France. These are areas increasingly cut off from the dynamic urban centers. These are the areas, Guilluy noted, where the large majority of the “new popular classes” live, far away from the “most active job markets.” Thus, Guilluy charged, “for the first time in history, the popular classes no longer reside ‘where the wealth is created’ but in a peripheral France, far from the areas that ‘matter.’”

The demographer and historian Hervé le Bras has extended the territorial analysis to include France’s educated middle class. He finds that “territorial segregation” increasingly also affects these social strata, segregation largely dictated by educational level. The higher the level of education, the closer a person lives to the urban center. The opposite is true for those disposing of lower levels of schooling who, as a result, see their upward mobility effectively blocked. The situation of qualified workers is hardly any better. Their qualifications progressively devalorized, they too find themselves relegated to the periphery, far away from the most advanced urban centers, more often than not forced to do work below their qualifications.

Brave New World

In this brave new world, it seems, a growing number of people are left with the impression that they have become structurally irrelevant, both as producers, given their lack of sought-after skills, and as consumers, given their limited purchasing power. Unfortunately for the established parties, as Rodriguez-Pose readily acknowledges, the structurally irrelevant don’t take their fate lying down. Telling people that where they live, where they have grown up and where they belong doesn’t matter, or that they should move to greener shores where opportunities abound more often than not has provoked a backlash, which has found its most striking expression in growing support for populist movements and parties, both on the left and on the right.

The eastern part of Germany is a paradigmatic case in point. British studies suggest that there is a link between geographical mobility — and the lack thereof — and support for populism. To be sure, there are plenty of people who insist on staying in their familiar surroundings for various perfectly sensible reasons, such as family, friends and proximity to nature. At the same time, however, there are also plenty of people who stay because they have no options, which, in turn, breeds resentment.

As Rodríguez-Pose has observed, “the lack of capacity and/of opportunities for mobility implies that a considerable part of the local population is effectively stuck in areas considered to have no future. Hence, the seed for revenge is planted.” This is what has happened in parts of eastern Germany. One of the most striking demographic characteristics of eastern Germany is its skewed age distribution, disproportionately dominated by the elderly. And for good reason: After unification, many of those who could get away left in search of better life chances in the west.

The German ethnologist Wolfgang Kaschuba has characterized the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the east as “the revenge of the villages.” In fact, a number of studies have shown that the AfD did best in structurally weak areas, characterized by demographic decline and lack of perspectives for the future. The most prominent example is Lusatia, a region in eastern Brandenburg and Saxony, bordering on Poland. In the regional elections in 2019, the AfD reached some of its best results in Lusatian villages, in some cases almost 50% of the vote.

The region is known for lignite mining, which during the GDR period represented a major industrial sector, attracting a number of industries and providing employment for the whole region. After unification, however, most of these industries closed down, resulting in mass unemployment and a large-scale exodus of anyone who could. The recent reversal of Germany’s energy policy, which entails a drastic reduction of coal in the energy mix, means that the days of lignite mining are counted — another blow to the region, rendering it even more economically marginal — if not entirely irrelevant. Under the circumstances, resentment is likely to remain relatively high in the region and with it continued support for the AfD.

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Resentment, the Presbyterian bishop, theologian and moral philosopher Joseph Butler insisted in a sermon from 1726, is “one of the common bonds, by which society holds itself” — a notion later adopted by Adam Smith. Today, the opposite appears to be the case. Today, more often than not, resentment is the main driver behind the rise of identity-based particularism (also known as tribalism) and affective polarization, both in the United States and a growing number of other advanced liberal democracies.

Diversity in its different forms, with ever-more groups seeking recognition, breeds resentment among the hitherto privileged who perceive their status as being assaulted, lowered and diminished. The current stage of liberal democracy, or so it seems, generates myriad injuries and grievances and multiple perceptions of victimization, each one of them prone to fuel resentment, providing a basis for new waves of populist mobilization.

Populist mobilization, in order to have a chance to succeed at the polls, has to offer a positive motivation to those who experienced disrespect, contempt, slight or a general lack of recognition or appreciation. This is, to a certain extent at least, what is meant when we talk about the “populist valorization” of the experiences of ordinary people. Valorization means in this context taking ordinary people, their concerns and grievances seriously. Populist valorization, however, falls far short of the norms of recognition, which are based on mutual respect and esteem.

It represents nothing more than what Onni Hirvonen and Joonas Pennanen characterize as a “pathological form of politics of recognition” centered upon “the in-group recognition between the members of the populist camp” and the denigration of anyone outside. As such, it cannot but “contribute to the feelings of alienation and social marginalization” that were the source of resentment in the first place. It is unlikely to assuage the profound political disaffection permeating contemporary advanced liberal democracies. In the final analysis, the only ones who truly benefit from the politics of resentment are populist entrepreneurs.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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