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  • Anarchism and the Politics of Ressentiment
  • Saul Newman (bio)

“A word in the ear of the psychologists, assuming they are inclined to study ressentiment close up for once: this plant thrives best amongst anarchists....”[1]

Of all the nineteenth century political movements that Nietzsche decries — from socialism to liberalism — he reserves his most venomous words for the anarchists. He calls them the “anarchist dogs” that are roaming the streets of European culture, the epitome of the “herd-animal morality” that characterizes modern democratic politics.[2] Nietzsche sees anarchism as poisoned at the root by the pestiferous weed of ressentiment — the spiteful politics of the weak and pitiful, the morality of the slave. Is Nietzsche here merely venting his conservative wrath against radical politics, or is he diagnosing a real sickness that has infected our radical political imaginary? Despite the Nietzsche’s obvious prejudice towards radical politics, this paper will take seriously his charge against anarchism. It will explore this cunning logic of ressentiment in relation to radical politics, particularly anarchism. It will attempt to unmask the hidden strains of ressentiment in the Manichean political thinking of classical anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon. This is not with the intention of dismissing anarchism as a political theory. On the contrary I argue that anarchism could become more relevant to contemporary political struggles, if it were made aware of the ressentiment logic of its own discourse, particularly in the essentialist identities and structures that inhabit it.

Slave Morality and Ressentiment

Ressentiment is diagnosed by Nietzsche as our modern condition. In order to understand ressentiment, however, it is necessary to understand the relationship between master morality and slave morality in which ressentiment is generated. Nietzsche’s work On the Genealogy of Morality is a study of the origins of morality. For Nietzsche, the way we interpret and impose values on the world has a history — its origins are often brutal and far removed from the values they produce. The value of ‘good’, for instance, was invented by the noble and high-placed to apply to themselves, in contrast to common, low-placed and plebeian.[3] It was the value of the master — ‘good’ — as opposed to that of the slave — ‘bad’. Thus, according to Nietzsche, it was in this pathos of distance, between the high-born and the low-born, this absolute sense of superiority, that values were created.[4]

However, this equation of good and aristocratic began to be undermined by a slave revolt in values. This slave revolt, according to Nietzsche, began with the Jews who instigated a revaluation of values:

It was the Jews who, rejecting the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed) ventured with awe-inspiring consistency, to bring about a reversal and held it in the teeth of their unfathomable hatred (the hatred of the powerless), saying, ‘Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble, the powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally wretched, cursed and damned!’....[5]

In this way the slave revolt in morality inverted the noble system of values and began to equate good with the lowly, the powerless — the slave. This inversion introduced the pernicious spirit of revenge and hatred into the creation of values. Therefore morality, as we understand it, had its roots in this vengeful will to power of the powerless over the powerful — the revolt of the slave against the master. It was from this imperceptible, subterranean hatred that grew the values subsequently associated with the good — pity, altruism, meekness, etc.

Political values also grew from this poisonous root. For Nietzsche, values of equality and democracy, which form the cornerstone of radical political theory, arose out of the slave revolt in morality. They are generated by the same spirit of revenge and hatred of the powerful. Nietzsche therefore condemns political movements like liberal democracy, socialism, and indeed anarchism. He sees the democratic movement as an expression of the herd-animal morality derived from the Judeo-Christian revaluation...