Published on 8 March 2010
Translations available in: Español (original) . français .

World Governance of Ressentiment

by Arnaud BLIN
Associated Central Topics: Governance, Human Rights, and responsibility .
Associated General Topics: Governance .

Seminar organized in Iquique, Chile, on December 5 and 6, 2008, including Chileans, Argentines, Peruvians, and Bolivians.

History offers us an infinite array of examples of major and minor conflicts born of ressentiment. Revolutions, the key periods marking a break from the past and generating major cycles of history, are often the result of a sudden explosion of old ressentiments. Following the great revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and the eruption of major ideologies and virulent nationalist movements which have all, in some way, instrumentalized legitimate ressentiments, the 21st century offers us the spectacle of a worldwide political map consumed by every sort of ressentiment. To paraphrase René Descartes, we could almost say that ressentiment is the most widely shared thing in the world. It is indeed difficult to observe current affairs without perceiving the ressentiments that are the causes or consequences of the major events that make up our daily lives. Let us take a recent example. What can we make of the current financial crisis? That it will create a mountain of ressentiments, notably in Southern hemisphere countries which could be freed from poverty with just a fraction of the hundreds of billions of euros and dollars released with disconcerting speed by rich countries to save their banks. The events of 11 September 2001 provide another example. The causes behind it? For many observers, Islamic terrorism springs from the ressentiment felt by the Muslim world towards the West. The war in Iraq? How many long-standing ressentiments has it created or exacerbated in the Middle East?

There is an endless supply of examples. Most current conflicts are primarily fed by ressentiment, such as the conflict in the Middle East, tensions between India and Pakistan, and inter-ethnic conflicts in Africa. The genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, the bloodiest conflict of the last fifty years, was essentially a war of ressentiment, as were the wars in the former Yugoslavia. And aside from these examples of open conflicts, how many countries and peoples are influenced by enduring animosity dating from the past, recent or distant, which the collective memory keeps alive just below the surface, ready to explode? China, for instance, has yet to forgive Japan the acts of violence it committed in the 1930s. Neither have the Armenians forgiven the Turks for the genocide of 1915, their bitterness only exacerbated by the Turks’ refusal to recognize the event. The Spanish continue to nurture bitter memories of Napoleon and, increasingly now that Civil War mass graves are being opened, Franco, as well as of the Muslim colonization, despite several centuries having passed since it took place. The Greeks continue to hold a strong grudge against the Turks for the centuries of subjugation they inflicted upon them. The Africans and Indians have ambivalent relationships with their former colonial nations, France, England, Portugal and the Netherlands. Since the days of Monroe and, especially, Theodore Roosevelt, the US has given its southern neighbors plenty of grounds for ressentiment, and still today does nothing to overturn the feelings of animosity. Peru and Bolivia have not yet forgiven the Chileans for having sequestered a vast territory and, for the Bolivians, access to the sea. Throughout the Americas, from Chile to Argentina and the great Canadian north, Amerindian peoples feel the consequences of European colonization in their daily lives, just like the Aborigines and Maoris, amongst others, in the Pacific region. Ressentiment gnaws at people’s minds and hearts and shuts the door on forgiveness.

Collective ressentiment that establishes itself in individuals belonging to a community is often composed of several strata. We can take Togo as an example: after French colonization and the subsequent post-independence neo-colonization, this small country in West Africa fell prey to a power struggle between the Kabyés northern tribes and Ewés southern tribes, the government greatly favoring the former over the latter, and the latter fiercely defending their economic power against the former. Throughout Africa these internal conflicts nourish a ressentiment that, combined with other elements, is liable to blow up at any moment just like a dormant volcano. As demonstrated by the Ivory Coast, until recently cited as a prime example of a stable and peaceful country.

Political integration could be seen as an effective remedy for collective ressentiment, as exemplified by France and Germany, two countries that took the practice of ressentiment-driven wars to excess. Starting in the 18th century, or more precisely, since the Seven Years War (1756-63), ressentiment between the two countries provoked a series of wars, two of which engulfed the rest of the world. As we can see by examining the sequence of events. After Prussia’s humiliating victory over France at Rossbach in 1757, the French were obsessed by the thought of exacting their revenge on the Prussians, leading to the battle of Jena in 1806 with Napoleon. This humiliating defeat for the Prussians, who prided themselves on having the best army in the world, gave birth to German nationalism and enabled Prussia and then the reunified German nation to construct a state and a modern army. In 1870, the Germans wiped clean the affront of 1806 by inflicting a severe punishment on France, which lost Alsace and Lorraine. Revenge was the only thing the French could think of from 1870 to 1914, one of the main causes of the First World War. The next stage came in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, when Germany was collectively humiliated by the victors of 1918, thus paving the way for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. Despite these events, Europe went on to rebuild itself after the war and the two former enemies established a relationship built on real friendship, the cornerstone of the project for a united Europe.

However, European integration is not enough to drown out all existing ressentiment, far from it. Whether you turn to Northern Ireland, Poland, the Basque Country or Corsica, to name just a few, long-standing ressentiments foster communitarianism and tribalism that sometimes mutate into separatism. What can we say when considering the situation in Belgium? Despite being home to the European institutions, this tiny territory contains two linguistic communities, francophone and Dutch-speaking, that are being torn apart by old ressentiments, to the extent that the country is barely governable and seems on the brink of imploding.

So how have France and Germany succeeded in putting two centuries of war behind them whilst other countries seem incapable of giving up their grudges, but actually exacerbate them?

An initial explanation may be found in the very nature of ressentiment. The conflicts and wars between France and Germany were extremely violent and chalked up a number of fatalities yet to be rivaled, possibly never to be rivaled. However, these were conventional wars, since they were undertaken by states based on quarrels rooted essentially in territorial and hegemonic competition — the desire to become the dominant power in continental Europe. The people were caught up in these conflicts, instigated by their leaders, but they were not the driving force behind them. Ressentiment was therefore in some way artificial, especially since everyone went home once the war was over. It is symptomatic that regions where real popular ressentiment persists today are those that were subjugated by the victor, Alsace and Lorraine being a case in point.
And then there is the institutional construction of the European Union which, it is worth pointing out, was built on the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

But ressentiment is tenacious by nature. The Belgian situation is a stark contrast. Walloons and Flemish people are not divided by war. Nevertheless, the humiliation the Flemish felt when the Walloons were dominating the country’s economy produced a violent reaction when the scales tipped in their favor. Contemporary Belgium is marked by a mutual and deep-seated ressentiment. It is deep-seated because humiliation was, or still is, part of daily life. Because it does not spring from a foreign state or government and its conquering armies, but from a people, the country’s own people. We can see the same type of development in Rwanda, where deep-seated ressentiment, often felt between neighbors, sometimes even between a wife and husband, is rooted in daily humiliation that was totally repressed before circumstances unleashed it with the most dramatic of consequences. In contrast to other major 20th century genocides, the Rwandan tragedy had its origins in the people rather than their political leaders. And the driving force behind it was ressentiment.

Collective ressentiment between peoples, both locally and globally, manifests itself on different levels, which can be economic, social or ethnic. It may be rooted in a long, or even very long, history, and may have been buried or suppressed by an autocratic government, as in the case of Tito in Yugoslavia. It may on the other hand be more recent, without being any less virulent; the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East is a case in point, where ressentiment that arose during the last century has blown up to such proportions that it has become the main obstacle to a lasting peace, however much such as peace would benefit everyone involved. Ressentiment may also undergo some sort of major shift: the War of the Pacific was a conventional conflict, but the ressentiment born of the war, particularly in Bolivia, marked the nation so significantly that it partially defines the Bolivian people’s collective conscience, in the same way that the loss of access to the Pacific had an economic and social impact on the lives of every citizen. Over a century after the Treaty of Ancón, the ressentiment born of this war continues to define relations between Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

Ressentiment rarely brings anything other than trouble. Nevertheless, political leaders are quick to use it for nationalistic propaganda ends, either to justify a conflict or legitimize their position of power. As demonstrated by the Argentine dictators during the Falklands War, with ressentiment towards Great Britain playing a key role in the conflict.

Ressentiment between peoples or ethnic groups within a country is a potential source of civil war. When it arises between states, it creates what we know as a conventional war. When it goes beyond that level — an occurrence that happily remains within the realm of theory — collective ressentiment traverses borders and affects civilizations. This equates to Samuel Huntington’s famous theory of “the clash of civilizations” which to some extent takes ressentiment to its highest possible level. It also explains radical fundamentalism as expounded by Ben Laden, its best-known advocate. It would seem that inter-civilization ressentiment belongs to the past, even if a number of signs in different parts of the world show that these kinds of ressentiment have not completely died out.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) represented a climax in conflicts of ressentiment, then known as wars of opinion, springing mainly from intense religious rivalries between Catholics and Protestants. International relations then went on, until 1991, to become resolutely state-oriented. In other words, states were powerful and wars were mainly between countries. Nationalist ideology rooted in the concept of national interest had suppressed internal ressentiment but failed to reabsorb it. The wave of decolonization that came in the wake of the Second World War consumed ressentiment nourished by several decades of Western domination. The West thought that independence would put an end to animosity – wrongly. Fifty years on, and the ressentiment felt by the former colonies continues to grow as their inhabitants become aware of the full scope of colonial policies, a feeling corroborated by the collective guilt that has overcome their former colonizers. Two examples are the persistently tense relations between Algerians and the French, and between Indians and the British. At the same time, the movement to defend the rights of minorities fosters a new understanding of indigenous peoples ground down by the machine of History, a phenomenon that also applies to the entire American continent and Australia.

As we have already mentioned, ressentiment is the most widely shared sentiment in the world. But that does not make it universal. Colonists do not feel it, or do not feel it in the same way. Or maybe we should say that they are not aware of, or do not want to face up to, the ressentiment felt by colonized peoples.

The geopolitical thaw that resulted from the end of the Cold War gave birth to a multitude of ressentiments around the world, sparking a number of civil wars throughout the planet. The arrogance exhibited by the USA, especially during George W. Bush’s presidency, only exacerbated the old ressentiments caused by decades of provocation and blunders committed by the “White” House in the name of American moral superiority.

All these elements and others besides combine to paint a geopolitical portrait of the planet where ressentiment could be considered as one of the fundamental factors of disruption in the modern world. In the light of the European tensions that spread throughout the rest of the world in the 19th and early 20th century and the ideological warfare between the Soviet and capitalist blocks, we could almost say that ressentiment has replaced the nationalist feelings and ideologies in all their different shades that caused the cataclysms of previous centuries. We could even go further and say that a sort of deep-seated ressentiment has replaced the instrumentalization of ressentiment that formed the basis of 20th century ideologies, beginning with nationalist dogma. Was not Nazism in some senses an ideology of ressentiment of the “other”, the Jew, the Slav, the non-Aryan? Modern-day ressentiment tends to be shorn of this kind of ideological instrumentalization, which in some way makes it purer, but just as dangerous, since its roots go deeper.

How can ressentiment be tackled? This is possibly one of the key questions we need to find an answer to in the 21st century, especially since new sources of animosity such as protecting the environment, competition for common goods such as water and energy, and equity between peoples will create another layer of ressentiment if not resolved. One thing is sure: lasting peace is impossible whilst all these ressentiments are not reabsorbed, or at least contained and channeled.

Every issue relating to world governance is complex, and the problem of ressentiment is no exception to the rule. It requires an approach that is both global, seeking to understand the phenomenon as a whole, and specific, capable of examining each individual situation. Tried and tested techniques of conflict prevention and resolution are ideally suited to this area. However, they need to be implemented, which implies finding the will and means to do so. Ideally, dialogue needs to be ongoing and permanent, as ressentiment is often fuelled by misunderstanding.

On a higher level, it is also important to renew the identity of each individual and each community. Ressentiment is an aggressive act of memory — a memory often buried in the distant past — that projects beliefs rooted in a history that is misunderstood and that continues to rankle. Nationalist ideology that has been influencing state policies for several centuries has had a particularly damaging effect, since it has exacerbated ressentiment between peoples without, however, reabsorbing internal national bitterness. The erosion of national frontiers and the recent awareness of human beings’ position in our environment are contributing to redefine the identity of each one of us in a world which does seem less fragmented, even if new fracture lines are taking shape. These fracture lines may, if we are not careful, fuel old ressentiments and create new ones.

In other words, the new man and the new woman have a far more complex identity than their parents and grand-parents. This identity links them to various individuals and communities around the world, and not simply to their local, national, regional, religious and linguistic environments. In a world that is changing rapidly and profoundly, the present is going to look increasingly to the future, whereas previously it looked mainly to the past. This does not mean we should forget the past; quite the opposite, since the duty to remember is a vital element in any strategy that fights ressentiment. It is clear that the architects of a new world governance must address this difficult issue without flinching, because these architects will in the future be the people themselves.


puce Web Site Map puce RSS puce In-house news puce