Reading about Arthur Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell”: “The Future is his domain; hence, like Nietzsche, he refuses ressentiment’s obsessive nursing of past grievance.” * (Ressentiment is very close to resentment, but as Nietzsche used it, is rage that is both personal—psychological–and social hostility to those considered the cause of one’s misfortune.)
This was in 1870 or so, when the concept of Progress towards a better future for all was widely believed. Rimbaud had a grievance against the world, and saw himself not as a poet, one of the acceptable roles, but a visionary. His mission lasted from age fifteen to nineteen, when he gave up in despair, but it was still enough time for him to be celebrated today as the greatest poet/visionary of modern times.
It is that Progress, Rimbaud’s youthful though ambivalent faith, which has disappeared, yielding a collective ressentiment that is the major motivation for the Trump presidency.
For those who detest history, I’m sorry, but history has brought us to this point. Of course, it is a narrative and is debatable, but without that debate, based on facts and interpretation, we will never get beyond anger, self-pity, and withdrawal into helplessness. War has been declared on us, and as I said in my last post, it is time for an avant-garde not dependent on the old guard, its defense of “art,” its institutions and media.
Neoliberalism, beginning in the late 70s and coming to power with Reagan, set out to eliminate the visionary future that was the successor of Rimbaud’s vision. It had sustained not only socialists but the working class and the American Dream, whose locus was the Democratic Party, the reason that is today called “the left.” Neoliberalism reduced Progress for all human existence to the trickle-down from above theory—first let the rich get richer, then maybe something will be left over. This returns us to the medieval platitude that we will always have the poor with us, “us” being the powers that be. Progress would henceforth be the sole domain of the global advance of capitalism, with nothing allowed to stand in the way. That was the plan.
This divided the political sphere. Political liberals wanted compromise; they still believed it possible to base the social order on capitalist expansion and have social benefits for all. In the sixties this was called “guns” (the “hot” war against Vietnam, since any Communist country would block world capital/market expansion) and “butter” (the Great Society—Medicare, Poverty Program, Voting Rights, etc.). Conservatives said this was unrealistic; capital needed everything it could get its hands on to survive and to expand. They were right, capital is always in crisis if it can’t expand, and it is “too big to fail.” The Great Society would have to be sacrificed, along with any regulations for human benefit that hamper expansion. For instance, a future for human existence requires response to the damage capital has done to the environment. To deny climate change and refuse to make the massive corrections it requires is to say, there is no future for humanity except what capitalism permits.
Since all this takes place in a democratic form of government, enough people must be persuaded and organized to execute the design. This is why neoliberalism had to be joined to neoconservatism, which was the validation, fostering, and politicization of ressentiment. It was a package deal. One hand takes away the better future-for-all and the other offers a better future limited to some. It is more palatable to call it respect and dignity. These are believed to be a limited commodity; such that those who are not getting their share must take it away from others. The new vision would be a seeming contradiction: the future would return us to the fifties, the period before Civil Rights began the sixties expansion of the ranks of those the government recognized as full humans.
What popularly evoked generosity for the other, the election of Obama, would be fiercely blocked during his eight years and turn into ressentiment against the other, which neo-conservatism and its alt-right, gun rights, anti-abortion, Christian identity, and white supremacy groups had long been preparing for. Without a future for all there is no way to avoid ressentiment against those patronized by liberal governments, who seem to be eating up the future that could have been everyone’s.
The movement draws upon racism but is primarily an attack on the government, whose strength has been to act as buffer, protecting and advancing those “identities” that were added to the list of human beings in the sixties. The catchword for that protection was “p.c.” and its support can be called either guilt or concern for the welfare of others. Today when liberals are stripped of political power, no longer able to enforce political correctness, the guilt they relied on among those who were economically and socially secure is no longer effective. Not only that, the former protectors are themselves joined to those they thought they could protect. This means a major distinction of class, in the shape of liberal protectors and recipient protected, has just been eliminated.
The white supremacist government backed by armed supporters just elected is attacked by liberals as ignorant. This is patently true and barely denied: Trump is a naif, openly amazed to find out what the job of president entailed, just as he had consistently disregarded factual truth. But the liberals are equally naïve and dumb if they do not see how this situation came about and continue as if nothing has changed. They act as if the return to the status quo—guns and butter, which has been the Democrats program all along–will change the situation.
People in shock see that the situation is deep with implications but it hasn’t yet occurred to many that the meaning of this revolution is that capitalism is maybe not too big to fail. Unwittingly, though the markets now think differently, Trump may be leading us straight to that failure, without the aid of any leftist visionaries. Revolutions are nothing if not surprises. We are caught unawares, woken up, rubbing our eyes: What do we see?
Nativist movements such as Trump are poised to sweep the world, and sweep away anything in the path of capital. We are in the opening of a revolutionary phase, but it is only the opening. To be as naïve as those who have declared war on us is like throwing in the towel before we’ve even gotten wet.
* Ross Posnock, Renunciation , p. 88