Resentment and its alternatives

cross-posted from Questioning Transphobia

Jam, “School Competition” skit, Channel 4, UK, 2000.

[Warning]: This skit is not safe and is extremely disturbing.

What I’m also keenly aware of as we discuss the austerity measures is the keen sense of resentment that is allowed to drive public discussion and policy. But it’s resentment only of a certain licensed kind.

What I mean is, whether you’re talking about “dole bludgers” in Australia or “welfare cheats” or immigrants in the US or “lazy postal workers” or whatever in the UK, the resentment is levied at public programs. What are universal forms of human rights are instead refigured as selective drains on the public good in ways that the subsidised finanical sector is not.

The grotesque Jam segment I’ve posted above (recently posted on Nina Power’s blog) shows the ways in which Baby Boomers who benefited from free education programs have a false sense of scarcity and an overwhelming sense of resentment that fuels their behaviour and their politics. Only I deserve what I have earned, and in order to safeguard it I will do whatever I can to destroy the lives of those others I resent. In contrast to me, they have not earned it and thus I must exert my efforts not in making more opportunities for everyone but in preventing the illegitimate from accessing the ever-diminishing options.

The quite obvious example of this is the response of the Tea Party in the US, who as this recent Rolling Stone article showed, ignore those forms of government support they receive whilst whole-heartedly resenting those they do not. Needless to say, this is hypocritical, base politics at its worst.

But there’s other forms of resentment that we should make politically viable. I resent that the people who had free educations now expect me to have a debt, and that this is ever-increasing, I resent that financial markets fail and receive golden parachutes while poor people get squeezed even harder, I resent that corporations are not held accountable for wrecking the earth and that governments are more afraid of regulating them than hurting the people they are supposed to serve. I resent how trans people are almost always not protected by law, society or business. The invisible hand of the market will not protect us, it allows more discrimination and legitimates our oppression. I resent the politics of resentment, the people who will leave systemic institutional inequity aside in order to get their own small slice of the pie, no matter the cost to others.

Those are legitimate resentments in my opinion, and they can and should fuel political solidarity and social change. As the amazing Sarah Jaffe said recently at Global Comment:

The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.

Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”

Sarah articulates a hopeful alternative to the politics of resentment. Resentment can be useful in channeling political anger, but it must be supplemented with more, with alternatives to the world-as-it-is – a world that can and should be better. Defeating pessimism is its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and leads us into the ever-diminishing returns of the neo-liberal state. Sarah says that:

I want a world in which people are doing things they love because they love them. Imagine what people could accomplish if instead of bosses who make us feel like shit in order to get away with paying us less, we could spend that time truly doing what we love and getting good at it. Rather than wondering what happens if we don’t have money as an incentive, why don’t we think about the things we could do if we didn’t have to worry about money?

I don’t want Stalinism or Castroism. But I do take inspiration from the democratic shifts in Latin America, from countries moving without violence toward a better society for all. Despite the anger and the attempts to reinstitute a hierarchy–through violence, of course–Latin America perseveres with its experiment.

Global capitalism is crumbling and people are angry. They’re taking to the streets around the world, and they’re looking for a solution. Isn’t it the time now to think about real, long-term changes? About not “taking the country back,” but taking the country–the world–forward?

I know humanism was discarded for some good reasons and some extremely bad, but perhaps it is time to more strongly use a language of human rights, which are universal. Because it seems to me that the problem is articulating things as compelling outside of a capitalist framework wholly determined by current or future moneymaking capability (something I slipped into even in the post). We must have spaces that are not wholly commodified, that are not wholly determined by exchange, power and violence.

We have an inherent, universal right to not only survive but flourish, a universal right to learning (education), to be in as little pain as possible (health), to safe roads and jobs and fulfilling vocations, a universal right to imagination and creativity, to literature and thought and art and life and love.

These things are not always measurable by money, but sometimes that means they are more valuable for that very reason.

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