Towards a Sociology of Resentment: A Debate on Class and Whiteness

by Vron Ware
Open University

Sociological Research Online 13(5)9

Received: 15 Jul 2008     Accepted: 10 Sep 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


This debate essay argues that there are urgent reasons why sociologists should pay attention to the history of resentment as 'a political idea'. It offers different examples of the way the concept of white working class resentment has been routinely used in public discourse on race, immigration and multiculturalism in the UK. The BBC White Season is examined in detail as a framing device. Trends in political campaigning indicate increasing use of polling data to identify emotive issues, such as economic immigration and asylum seekers, which have been shown to be particularly divisive in marginal areas. In the context of policy-oriented, academic research on social cohesion, citizenship and belonging, social class and white identity emerge as key indicators of 'resentment'. The Nietzschian concept of ressentiment, particularly as developed by German sociologist Max Scheler, is considered in order to complicate the broader psycho-social dynamics of resentment today. Finally, the essay discusses Ghassan Hage's work on affective attachments as a model of thinking through 'resentment' as a particular response to perceptions of waning racial privilege. The concept of 'white decline' and the subsequent embracing of victim identity precipitates political formations that endanger fragile multicultures.


1.1 This is a reflexive essay arguing that sociologists should pay close attention to the concept of resentment as 'a political idea' in contemporary Britain. It results from an invitation by the editors of this special section on 'the East End' to respond creatively to some of the issues thrown up by the research these authors have done in this part of London. The prospect of white working class resentment occurs frequently in current political and media discourse on race and immigration in the UK. It is often cited as an explanation for racist or anti-social attitudes, whether these are expressed through opinion polls and electoral choices, or in media narratives of social conflict. Like other powerful emotional forces such as anger, fear and envy, resentment is represented as an unfortunate but inevitable outcome of inequality and injustice. More recently it has been identified as a reaction arising from largely erroneous but deeply felt perceptions of unfairness, particularly in relation to the heralded failure of multiculturalism. In the critique of multiculturalism, white working class resentment is viewed as a rational, understandable response to the pressures caused by successive waves of immigration since the founding of the welfare state in the post 1945 period. Since 2001, it has become a routinely employed concept in the vocabulary of politicians and policy makers attempting to change the terms of public discourse on race and immigration. In his recent study on fear, Corey Robin suggests that fear becomes a political idea when it emanates from society or has consequences for society (Robin 2004, 2). By borrowing the term 'political idea' I am suggesting that resentment, like fear, becomes political when it refers to a collectively held emotion expressed in response to the threatened well-being of a particular group, especially where that emotion is readily mobilised by political forces.

1.2 The concept is routinely used in political speech on the topic of immigration and multiculturalism. In December 2006 Tony Blair addressed these themes as part of his farewell series on 'Our Nation's Future'. 'We like our diversity,' he said. 'But how do we react when that "difference" leads to separation and alienation from the values that define what we hold in common? . . . or the first time in a generation there is an unease, an anxiety, even at points a resentment that our very openness, our willingness to welcome difference, our pride in being home to many cultures, is being used against us; abused, indeed, in order to harm us.' (Blair 2006)

1.3 In May 2007, Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking, justified her decision to speak on the social and political costs of substantial immigration within her constituency, and the necessity of listening to the chorus of fearful and frustrated citizens who were turning in unprecedented numbers to the British National Party (BNP). She began by acknowledging that 'Britons choose to retire to Spain or France, yet some here find it difficult to adjust to Poles and Romanians who come to the UK to work. Thousands of our citizens emigrate to Australia and financial centres around the world, yet Africans or Asians who come to the UK to seek a better life are resented. As the effects of globalization intensified [she continued] the people who face the greatest changes tend to be those who live in the poorest communities where migrants can afford to settle. So while we need strong leadership to promote the rewards migration offers, it is only fair to hear the resentments and fears it can arouse. Only by listening to those fears can we demonstrate understanding for the difficulties settled communities experience in adjusting and move beyond the fears to secure tolerance and harmony.' (2007)

1.4 Although Hodge was criticised for giving substance to wild rumours that migrants were being given preferential treatment by the borough's social housing department, the political logic that she employed was barely scrutinised. Indeed, it reproduces a form of common sense blandishment expected of politicians whose job it is to sound authoritative. The argument runs that immigration often arouses resentment among the poorest sections of the population. This is either because it offends their (British) sense of what is fair, whether in terms of distribution of resources or attention, or because they feel their generosity is being abused. Resentment is compounded by fear and insecurity produced by rapid, visible changes brought about by global economic and geo-political forces. The government's correct response to these negative feelings, common sense then suggests, is to acknowledge the causes of fearful resentment by listening, understanding and then demonstrating 'manifest fairness'. It all sounds eminently reasonable, much as a wise parent would seek to allay sibling rivalry. However, the formulation rests on several assumptions that need to be challenged. The first of these is that 'fairness' is the absence of bias or favouritism, and that the government (or other authority dispensing power and resources) is the best judge of that. It does not accept that some of those who resent the presence of foreigners think it would be fairer if they were not admitted in the first place. The vagueness of the term 'fairness' is one of the first problems that arises from misunderstanding the phenomenon of resentment.

1.5 A second problem can been identified in a speech by Trevor Phillips in April 2008 on the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' episode:

'Whatever we feel about immigrants,' he declared, 'immigration is part of our future.
'The real question will be whether we can, as a modern economy, seize the restless tide of talent that is currently sweeping across the globe. So far we are lagging behind our competitors. But while we cower in fear and fret about whether to admit clever foreigners from other nations - America, Australia and Canada are already sailing on that tide of talent.
'There is creeping resentment in all directions,' he continued, 'which can only be halted by policy of manifest fairness.' (Phillips 2008)

1.6 Phillips emphasised the fact that however hard it is to talk about the social and psychological impact of immigration, it is far better to have it out in the open, because it is here to stay. 'If we cannot talk about it now, then when?' he goes on to ask. In general, talking about a problem is better than repressing the negative feelings that threaten to erupt if bottled up. This produces a familiar strategic move by those politicians who declare their interest in broaching the subject. As Hodge began her speech: 'In our open, tolerant country, there are, thankfully, few issues that remain taboo. But, motivated by the fear of both legitimising racism and encouraging the extreme right, migration is one. Yet for many voters, it continues to be a top issue.'

1.7 These two aspects of the resentment discourse, fairness and openness, need to be addressed before going any further. For a start, if resentment against migrants is felt most keenly by those who are poorest, then it is likely that there will be other material and psychological wounds contributing to the sense of injury. As Jonathan Rutherford has pointed out, 'Labour politicians have spent a decade dodging the issue of class. But it's now getting harder to avoid. Talk about migration and race and you end up talking about class and inequality.' (Rutherford 2008). Despite a decade of New Labour government, the gap between rich and poor has actually increased, as Jon Cruddas, MP for the constituency adjoining Hodge's, points out in his reflections on 'Race, Class and Migration': 'On the basis of both the empirical changes over the last ten years and the best projections for the future, it is clear that we are witnessing an ever more pronounced polarisation within the labour market – and wider society – often described as the 'hour glass' economy.' (Cruddas 2007). The deliberate attempt to insist on the presence of migrants as the trigger for alarming levels of social unease effectively blocks a more rigorous analysis of the material conditions that those communities are facing. Cruddas continues:

Moreover, the communities undergoing these rapid demographic changes are often the most poorly equipped to do so, and maintain high levels of poverty, social immobility and poor public services. Poorer, low-cost housing areas, primarily in urban settings, are taking the strain in managing migration flows. The impact of migration on the labour and housing markets has triggered tensions and threatened community cohesion…

1.8 In his account of urban regeneration plans in Barking and Dagenham, Michael Keith's article in this special section concurs with this point that it is imperative to avoid the careless mistakes of the past. This might be done by emphasising a different model of council and community leadership, attending to previously overlooked factors such as the potential strands of competition among older residents and successive waves of migrants: 'The economic logics of housing-led population growth need to be understood against the context of the multicultural dynamics of population change that has informed the growth of BNP support locally.'

1.9 Moving to the second problem, it is debatable whether the fact of talking about an issue can begin to allay deep levels of resentment, especially when it has not been proved that (as is argued in this case) immigration is the sole or even overriding cause. The populist move to claim credit for bringing the topic into the open now makes it essential to address the assertion that it has not been possible to discuss immigration openly in this country before.

The White Season

2.1 Before turning to the history of repressing 'open' discussion about immigration, it is instructive to note that the pattern of argument described so far saturates other areas of public discourse. The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict (Dench, Gavron, Young 2006) which draws on research in Tower Hamlets from the 1950s to the early 1990s, found a receptive audience for its ethnographic description of a deeply felt and collective sense of betrayal by those in power. This issue is in part a response to The New East End, an intervention which supplies a significant academic contribution to what might be called 'a politics of resentment'.

2.2 Michael Collins' earlier book, The Likes of Us: a biography of the white working class, was heralded as an authentic voice when it was published to great acclaim in 2004. Within this book, and in his subsequent columns, he insists that the glitzy transformation of cosmopolitan cities like London, which has produced a wealthy middle class enamoured of the virtues of multiculturalism, has been achieved at the expense of local, deeply-rooted white working class communities and culture. His autobiographical account pre-empted the interpretation of the findings in The New East End that a culture with an emphasis on citizens' rights and entitlement rather than consolidating community and mutuality has been achieved at enormous cost to 'the old working class' (Collins 2004).

2.3 More recently, BBC2's White Season screened a provocative series that claimed to address the marginality of working class white people in Britain. The intervention countered head on the rumbling accusations of elitism and liberal bias which erupted in October 2006.[1] The channel responded by declaring that the 'white working class' had become an endangered ethnic group, its survival threatened by 'revolutionary' socio-economic change and its voice muted by politically correct dogma. By drawing attention to this development, the BBC were able to demonstrate that they were redressing an imbalance that had been flagged up in unspecified audience feedback.

2.4 The series was announced several months beforehand, and over the preceding days was trailed by a series of adverts emphasising these themes. One particularly sensational trailer made it clear that the word 'White' was intended to highlight the 'unspeakable' topic of race as the key to the predicament of the 'indigenous' working class. It showed the impassive face of a white male being inscribed with foreign languages by a succession of darker hands reaching out from the beyond the frame. The pale skin was sequentially covered with black ink until only the whites of his eyes remained. As he closed his blackened lids in final submission the question appeared beneath: Is white working class Britain becoming invisible?[2] The soundtrack to this dramatic erasure was a rendition of 'Jerusalem' by self-proclaimed 'progressive patriot' Billy Bragg (Bragg 2006).

2.5 Shortly before the programmes began, commissioning editor Richard Klein published an article in the Daily Mail that explained the rationale behind the series. He made it clear that the terms 'White' and 'working class' were aligned with emotive states such as victimhood, rage, abandonment and resentment:

A sense of deep resentment also shines through the documentaries. In part as a consequence of multiculturalism, the irony is that many of the white working class see themselves as an oppressed ethnic minority too, and lower down the ladder than other groups on the hierarchy of victimhood. They complain of double standards and hypocrisy, pointing out that the media revel in telling stories of Asian and African immigrants, but ignores tales from the white working class. Every other culture, they argue, is revered except that of the indigenous population. And their most powerful grievance is often reserved for the Labour Party. Though they feel they have been neglected by all political parties – 'none of them care about the likes of us' is a common phrase - they are particularly angered by the perception that the Labour Party, founded just over a century ago to protect the interests of the working class, now no longer sees them as important - they feel abandoned. (Klein 2008)

2.6 This emphasis on neglect and unfairness as a framing device requires deeper analysis than can be offered here, particularly as the five specially commissioned documentaries and one drama did not consistently convey the same message of marginalisation and passive despair. While they demand attention as individual programmes in their own right, it is sufficient here to note that they were accompanied by news items, national opinion polls and archival resources drawn from across the BBC and coordinated on an interactive website which collated all the material including an 'archive' of previous programmes dealing with working class issues from mining to football. In effect, the BBC seemed to be demonstrating its record of addressing working class themes at the same time as admitting that they had been guilty of overlooking them.

2.7 There is a great deal more to be said about the role of the print and broadcast media in contributing to a sense of the white working class as a homogenous social segment driven inexorably into the arms of the far right. Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: an intimate history, responded to this in a recent essay entitled 'This white working class stuff is a media invention' in which she writes:

'There is now a group that is said to act as one and for whom a vote for the BNP can't truly be condemned, such is their suffering and ignorance - the "white working class". Its members are believed to have separate values, needs and motivations to working-class people who aren't white, and are said to be revolting at not having received preferential treatment from a Labour government.' (Hanley 2008)

2.8 It is important to note that Hanley and others are challenging this simplistic construction of an injured but fascistic working class whiteness by 'a media dying to appear more in touch than it truly is.'(Hanley 2008). By implication the white middle classes are assumed to be better equipped to deal with the demands of a pluralist society, either because they are able to isolate themselves from its day-to-day effects or because they have developed tastes for more cosmopolitan lifestyles. For the purposes of this argument it is necessary to turn to the second problem raised earlier: the claim that now is the time to lance the boil caused by repressing any expression of resentment against immigration.

Race as Taboo

3.1 The White series was part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in April 1968, and the highlight of the week was a documentary purporting to examine its legacy. The occasion was marked by several other media events throughout spring 2008, and Powell's speech was widely used to reflect on contemporary issues of immigration, social cohesion and segregation. One of the recurring themes was that the forthright condemnation of Powell's racism, both by the Tory government and the Labour opposition, had led to the suppression of disgruntled white working class voices in the name of a dogmatic, top-down moralism. This extract is from a BBC Newsnight report of a poll specially commissioned for the White series:
'And like 88% of white working class people questioned, he also felt it was difficult to criticise immigration without being labelled a racist.'
'Yes, definitely. You have to tread on eggshells every time you talk about it these days,' he said. (Long 2008)

3.2 The concept of resentment needs to be understood in relation to Powell's fate – not because of what he actually said, but because he was sacked for saying what a lot of people thought. When the articulation of Powellite views became unacceptable in mainstream political discourse, it is argued, the concerns of working class white men and women, who bore the brunt of immigration policies, were effectively ignored. In order to investigate this claim and question the patterns of forgetting that it masks, it is useful to go back to 1968 to sample a contemporary reaction to Powell's speech. It is particularly instructive to listen to the way that his working class supporters, notably the dockers' union which marched in protest at his sacking, were represented by media commentators. This extract from an Observer editorial is a reminder that the episode had a deeply polarising effect. But it also indicates that the negative feelings about immigration that Powell intended to exploit were neither being denied nor swept under the carpet.[3]

3.3 The article demonstrates that race was already a 'taboo' subject in British society, but it explains that this was largely due to understandable reasons arising from recent history. The consequences of racism were associated with the 'Hitlerian experience' as well as the with 'colour bar relationships of the Colonial Empire (which) became matters of uneasy shame and regret.' Racial conflict was understood as a global issue, with events in South Africa, Australia and the United States very much on everyone's minds. Powell's shocking intervention had woken people up to the fact that Britain too had a race problem which threatened to change the country beyond recognition. 'It was without any conscious act of volition that Britain found itself an increasingly multi-racial society,' the article continued, and this had had produced a great deal of 'racial ill-feeling'. The 'liberal view' argued the Observer leader, was either to minimize the extent of this problem, or to lecture those workers who protested. However, it continued, 'It would be a great mistake (to) write off all these people as racists, or merely to disapprove of them and seek to correct their attitudes by legislation alone: they should be heeded and admitted to have problems that most people would find straining if in their situation. It would be a mistake because if we simply ignore their feelings, they will probably develop powerful emotional drives resulting in action which might then become unmanageable.'(Observer 1968)

3.4 The authors explained that the sources of these problems could be found in the collision of two sweeping forces of change. One was the (unasked-for) appearance of thousands of 'coloured' immigrants. The other was less specific: 'Housing problems, wage standstills, unemployment, rising living costs, uncertainty about Britain's future place in Europe and in the rest of the world have combined to produce unsettling economic and psychological pressures.'

3.5 Recognising the deep confusion caused by these phenomena was the first step in disentangling them, but there were many practical measures to be taken as well. Immigration control was one avenue of approach, coupled with various measures to encourage the voluntary integration of immigrant communities into British life. While the word 'resentment' is not actually used in this piece, there is an awareness of the role of emotion as a social force. 'In proposing more frank public discussion and a more courageous facing of the illiberal aspects of human nature, two things should be remembered. First, that any such discussions, if to be productive, must be restrained - which in these circumstances is required from both sides. Shouting by anybody on either side - especially if the intention is to incite racial hatred or to exploit prejudice for political gain - can only produce heightened emotions.'

3.6 The use of phrases such as 'powerful emotional drives' and 'unsettling…psychological pressures' indicates a recognition that accusations of racism touched an explosive core that lay deep within the culture. However, it is important to look more closely at this consensus that immigration has been avoided as a political topic for fear of stirring up racism – or being seen to be racist. The subject has had a continuous presence within successive administrations since well before 1968, not least in a raft of legislation restricting entry to the UK and limiting claims to UK nationality. If critical sociologists are to challenge the simplistic terms of today's political discourse on resentment then it is necessary to understand how the language of psycho-social dynamics has been employed in discussions of race and immigration in the intervening 40 years.[4]

Power of Emotions

4.1 There is an added reason why it is important to pay attention to the power of emotions as social forces. It is worth noting in passing that governing by focus groups and the political strategy of intensive polling followed by 'pitching the message to suit the polling' has become standard practice in Anglophone countries (Gould 1999). Communications experts like the Sydney-based Crosby-Textor are building on their experience of managing populist election campaigns by making immigration a central factor (Fickling 2004). Because the subject rouses strong public emotions, once the issue has been mobilised around a particular scare or event, politicians are then entitled to allay public fears by appearing to take them seriously. Lynton Crosby, who worked with John Howard over the course of four elections until he was defeated in 2007, with Michael Howard in the UK 2005 general election providing him with the slogan, 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' and Boris Johnson in the London mayoral election in 2008, is the most well-known proponent of what was termed in Australia 'wedge politics'. In Britain this tactic, arguably imported via Crosby's influence, has become known as 'dog-whistle politics', a phrase used to describe an appeal to some sections of the population over the heads of others.[5]

4.2 Testing the emotional register of the population, or targeted groups within it, has become an integral aspect of political calculation. Vast sums of money are spent investigating what people feel strongly about and how this might be channelled into votes. At the same time, opinion polls, phone-in programmes and other indices of public opinion indicate that Britain is a deeply unhappy society, suffering a profound malaise not alleviated by increased affluence, and made inexorably worse by the moral bankruptcy of a political leaders who do not listen. (Jeffries 2008) The emphasis on feelings was a key component of the BBC2 White season, amplified by the way it has been archived on its website.

4.3 In his justification for the series, commissioning editor Klein explained that the BBC-sponsored research had discovered that the deepest dissatisfaction felt by white working class Britain stemmed from their sense of betrayal by New Labour. Despite this finding, the series underlines the more sensational dynamics of race as the key to understanding their disillusionment. Although the interactive forums have been closed, site visitors are invited to pursue the question 'Are White Working Class people ignored in Britain?' by investigating the White spectrum, organised around a set of emotional responses from anger to happiness. Words indicating a range of feelings are distributed across the screen, while coloured 'particles' of different sizes, corresponding to intensity and to particular emotions, float across as if it was a video game. A soundtrack of electronic music overlaid with incoherent voices lends the experience a deliberately neutral but ethereal quality. Click on a particle and an extract from a comment made during the course of the series shimmers into view. 'Fear' for example, produces the response: 'Our ethnic friends have so much protection that white citizens are frightened to have an argument for fear of being called racist.' However, another comment of the same colour emerges as: 'There are a lot of people in this country with fear of the unknown'.

4.4 Many of the 4183 statements collated for this site were uttered in the course of BBC Newsnight research carried out in Derbyshire, commissioning an opinion poll and airing a short documentary about the findings. In an accompanying article, entitled 'White Britons' Despair and Fear', journalist Jackie Long reported a conversation with one woman who remarked: It makes you sad because it's not your country any more. You feel, or should I say, I feel, that I shouldn't be here any more, you don't feel as though you belong in the English country any more.' (Long 2008)

4.5 There is not space to analyse this particular contribution here – the manner in which the journalist asked leading questions, for example, or the choice of an all-white community as its focus – but the quote above underlines a vocalised whiteness that Les Back has identified as part of the 'dramaturgy of racism' (Back 2009). By framing whites (within differing social and geographical locations) as an ethnic group on a par with ethnic minorities, treating its members as an endangered species, and highlighting questions of race and immigration as the cause of their resentment and unhappiness, the BBC squandered a chance to engage in a more constructive investigation about social inequality and the future of this country.

Resentment as Subject

5.1 I have suggested that resentment is a significant but misunderstood phenomenon, and that is currently being used as a screen to divert attention from New Labour's failings after ten years of being in power. In this climate, as Keith emphasises in his essay here, 'it is more rather than less important that journalistic cliché and muddled thinking are avoided in understanding both the ethical power of sociological analysis and the moral perils of racial polarisation, nationalist politics and community division.' The next section will ask: if resentment is represented as a powerful feeling (or a set of combined or even conflicting feelings) implicated in the psychological condition of British culture, then how is it to be studied by sociologists? The mobilisation of resentment as a political phenomenon has been the subject of a number of books that address the particular contingencies of US class and race politics which, though sometimes connected, are not so relevant here (Patterson 1997, Hardisty 1999). Resentment has been analysed as a purely psychological condition, but this tends to focus on individual rather than collective patterns, looking to personality rather than a concept of the social. Although Farrar (in the Introduction to this section) has referenced sociology's history of analysing race and immigration in the UK , there is little within this field that focuses explicitly on resentment as a mobilising force in politics.

5.2 One exception to this is an examination of the 'talk' of shopkeepers in a London neighbourhood by Karen Wells and Sophie Watson (2005). Their research in a market street identifies discourses of blame and resentment among individuals located within a specific social location as well as within a particular place. 'Contemporary radical right-wing politics across Europe have most support among shopkeepers and blue-collar workers…Historically, small shopkeepers have organized politically to counter what they perceive as the twin threats to their survival: corporate capital and immigration.' (2005: 275). The authors show that the shopkeepers who articulated their resentment 'perceive the distribution of political and economic resources by local and national governments, below them to 'asylum seekers' and above them to large capital to be illegitimate and unfair.' (2005: 262). They conclude that in articulating this politics of resentment, their subjects expressed a sense of entitlement that stemmed from their embodied national identity. The shopkeepers 'construct a highly exclusionary notion of Britishness that essentially conflates being British/English with being white, Anglophone and Christian.' (2005: 275).

5.3 This analysis of the components of a class-specific worldview illustrates the detailed work needed to challenge the predominant representation of a homogenous white working class overwhelmed by resentment towards foreigners. However, by concentrating on the shopkeepers' speech it does not adequately explore the wider socio-psychological implications of resentment.

5.4 The Nietzschian concept of ressentiment, which resembles the English term resentment even though it is not identical, offers another valuable approach, particularly where it directs attention back to the development of a sociology of knowledge. Reading Max Scheler's work on ressentiment in which he attempts to develop Nietzsche's ideas reveals some pertinent insights into the psychological as well as social dimensions of the concept. Based in Germany in 1911 as a contemporary of Durkheim and Simmel, Scheler observed that the phenomenon was not a consequence of social and political inequality in itself, but a characteristic of those societies where there was an expectation of equal rights:

Ressentiment must therefore be strongest in a society like ours, where approximately equal rights (political and otherwise) or formal social equality, publicly recognised, go hand in hand with wide factual differences in power, property, and education. While each has the 'right' to compare himself with everyone else, he cannot do so in fact. Quite independently of the characters and experience of individuals, a potent charge of ressentiment is here accumulated by the very structure of society. (Bershady 1992: 120)

5.5 The notion of 'accumulation' is useful here as it points to the exponential effects of powerful feelings that are systemic, as distinct from Blair's suggestion that resentment has re-emerged after a generation in abeyance, or Phillips' formulation that it is 'creeping'. Scheler observation that resentment is implicated in the structure of those societies which promise equality but fail to deliver is extremely relevant to this discourse too. However, it is important to correct the implication in this paragraph that resentment is directed at those who are materially better off. As Watson and Wells have argued, the phenomenon entails a particular mixture of grievances: '(it) answers the classic question of politics, 'who gets what and why?' with 'they get everything because we get nothing.' (2005: 262)

5.6 This next extract from Scheler's essay highlights a more intractable problem which undermines the formulation that resentment can be diffused by fairness. In his discussion of the relationship between the Nietzschian themes of revenge and ressentiment, Scheler writes that, 'We must add the fact that revenge tends to be transformed into ressentiment the more it is directed against lasting situations which are felt to be 'injurious' but beyond one's control – in other words, the more the injury is experienced as a destiny.' (1992: 121) After giving several historical examples where this might be arguably the case, he turns again to the issue of class politics in industrialised societies: 'In the development of the labour movement, the conviction that the very existence and fate of the proletariat "cries for revenge" also became a mighty dynamic factor.' His next elaboration contains profound implications for our analysis of 'resentment' as it is utilised in contemporary discourse: 'The more a permanent social pressure is felt to be a "fatality",' argues Scheler, 'the less it can free forces for the practical transformation of these conditions, and the more it will lead to indiscriminate criticism without any positive aims. This peculiar kind of "ressentiment criticism" is characterised by the fact that improvements in the conditions criticised cause no satisfaction – they merely cause discontent, for they destroy the growing pleasure afforded by invective and negation. It is peculiar to 'ressentiment criticism' that it does not seriously desire that its demands be fulfilled. It does not want to cure the evil; the evil is merely a pretext for the criticism.' (1992: 121)

5.7 This point underlines the urgency of analysing resentment as an affective relationship between people occupying different social locations. Scheler suggests that the condition can entail a kind of pleasure inherent in self-pity or victimhood, and that it does not necessarily expect or want a remedy. A deeper psycho-sociological understanding of resentment therefore indicates that it is rarely alleviated by removing the source of the grievance, even if that were possible. This makes it even more important to understand how it works, both as a social force and as a figure of speech.

5.8 Although Scheler was writing a century ago and his work has not been comprehensively translated in English, his insights point to a vital thread within the history of sociology that has been overlooked.[6] More recently, historians of political thought have argued that the concept of resentment is deeply implicated in fixing notions of the injured and the injuring in social positions (Brown 1995). Grasping the broader implications of resentment as a sociological concept underlines the reasons why it is important to develop an analysis that looks beyond a narrow national framework. Anxieties about the status of 'native', 'indigenous' and white is apparent not just in the UK but in all European and Anglophone societies where national identities, rooted in colonial histories, are conflated with being 'white, Anglophone and Christian'. It is in this context that economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are liable to be seen as the undeserving beneficiaries of social resources, claiming and receiving welfare entitlements at the expense of majority ('indigenous') populations.

5.9 Social theorist Ghassan Hage offers some useful conceptual tools in his investigation of what he calls 'white decline' in the context of the 'defensive society' in Australia. Societies are mechanisms for the distribution of hope, he argues, and 'the kind of affective attachment (worrying or caring) that a society creates among its citizens is intimately connected to its capacity to distribute hope.' (Hage 2003: 3). His discussion of paranoia offers further example of how resentment might be analysed as an affective attachment. In his 'Brief History of White Colonial Paranoia' he writes:

Paranoia' denotes here a pathological form of fear based on a conception of the self as excessively fragile, and constantly threatened. It also describes a tendency to perceive a threat where none exists, or, of one exists, to inflate its capacity to harm the self. The core element of Australia's colonial paranoia is a fear of loss of Europeanness or Whiteness and of the lifestyle and privileges that are seen to emanate directly from that. It is a combination of the fragility of White European colonial identity in general and the Australian situation in particular. (Hage 2003: 49)

5.10 Hage's ethnographic and political work returns again and again to the overriding themes of worrying, hopelessness and paranoia in Australian culture, offering useful insights into parallel work in other places where the apparent waning of racial privilege and the subsequent embracing of victim identity precipitate political formations that endanger fragile multicultures. It is within this complex knot of feelings, reactions and 'affective attachments' that resentment is likely to be identified as a significant social force capable of shaping electoral politics.


6.1 Understanding resentment as psycho-social dynamic, one that plays a structuring role within social democracies, remains an urgent task. This is not just a question of paying closer attention to the dynamics of social class, welfare rights and the local politics of urban regeneration as a distributive mechanism. It is also vital to comprehend what the implications of resentment might be where there is a crisis over the meanings of whiteness as a basis of identification. Where racial privilege is felt to be under threat or in decline, usually when linked to a sense of indigeneity or loss of a way of life, there is no possibility of putting the clock back and restoring things to the way they once were. The affective attachments that Hage and others have identified within societies where whiteness has historically conferred some sort of guarantee of belonging and entitlement present an opportunity for political mobilisation in the name of white supremacy, however that resonates locally. It is important to grasp that the concept of racial hierarchy, including the historical construction of whiteness, also represents an extraordinarily powerful 'political idea' capable of providing compelling explanations for inequality, marginalisation, injury and entitlement. When deeply felt moods of resentment are articulated from a racist perspective, the possibilities of ameliorating a sense of injustice by positing an anti-racist, 'fair' solution are almost nil, especially considering that 'the evil is merely a pretext for the criticism' as Scheler suggests.


1 See for example Daily Express October 24th 2006.

2 (

3 'Stop Shouting, Start Talking: What The Observer Thinks'. The Observer, Sunday April 28 1968. Race in Britain - Observer special

4 In 1976 MP Sidney Bidwell, a self-declared socialist, began his book with the declaration that 'Immigration and race relations cannot be considered apart…The white worker resents what has happened.'(Bidwell 1976)

5 It is worth adding the term 'triangulation' to this list, a term that has become widely used to refer to political candidates who adopt some of the policies of their opponents, showing themselves to 'above' rather than to the right or left of them.

6 See Wendy Brown (1995) for an important discussion of ressentiment within political theory.


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