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Why liberal rationalism has failed to explain the world we live in now


Writing for The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra examines why liberal rationalism—the worldview of so many Western elites, economists, and talking heads—failed so utterly to anticipate the outcome of the Brexit vote and the electoral victory of Donald Trump. As Mishra argues, liberal rationalism makes specious assumptions about what drives human behavior, neglecting the role of emotion and passion almost entirely. Here’s an excerpt from Mishra important piece:

The problem for these critics of Enlightenment rationalism, as Robert Musil defined it, was not that we “have too much intellect and too little soul”, but that we have “too little intellect in matters of the soul”. We suffer even more from this problem today as we struggle to make sense of the outbreaks of political irrationalism. Committed to seeing the individual self as a rational actor, we fail to see that it is a deeply unstable entity, constantly shaped and reshaped in its interplay with shifting social and cultural conditions. In our own time, amid what Hannah Arendt described as a “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else”, this fragile self has become particularly vulnerable to ressentiment.

Ressentiment – caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness – is not simply the French word for resentment. Its meaning was shaped in a particular cultural and social context: the rise of a secular and meritocratic society in the 18th century. Even though he never used the word, the first thinker to identify how ressentiment would emerge from modern ideals of an egalitarian and commercial society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An outsider to the Parisian elite of his time, who struggled with envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection, Rousseau saw how people in a society driven by individual self-interest come to live for the satisfaction of their vanity – the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

But this vanity, luridly exemplified today by Donald Trump’s Twitter account, often ends up nourishing in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and it can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby individuals feel acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection. (As Gore Vidal pithily put it: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”)

Such ressentiment breeds in proportion to the spread of the principles of equality and individualism. In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Scheler developed a systematic theory of ressentiment as a distinctly modern phenomenon – ingrained in all societies where formal social equality between individuals coexists with massive differences in power, education, status, and property ownership. In an era of globalised commerce, these disparities now exist everywhere, along with enlarged notions of individual aspiration and equality. Accordingly, ressentiment, an existential resentment of others, is poisoning civil society and undermining political liberty everywhere.

But what makes ressentiment particularly malign today is a growing contradiction. The ideals of modern democracy – the equality of social conditions and individual empowerment – have never been more popular. But they have become more and more difficult, if not impossible, to actually realise in the grotesquely unequal societies created by our brand of globalised capitalism.

Image: A Brexit supporter, and a Vote Remain campaigner exchange views in Market Square, Northampton, UK on May 31, 2016. Via the Guardian.