Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Max Scheler, George Orwell, Ressentiment, and the Left

Max Scheler describes a form of ressentiment that leads to "indiscriminate criticism without any positive aims." (Ressentiment, ed. Coser, Schocken 1972, p. 51) Although Scheler was writing in the years before the First World War, his description put me in mind of contemporary liberals and leftists. He continues:

This particular kind of "ressentiment criticism" is characterized by the fact that improvements in the conditions criticized cause no satisfaction – they merely cause discontent, for they destroy the growing pleasure afforded by invective and negation. Many modern political parties will be extremely annoyed by a partial satisfaction of their demands or by the constructive participation of their representatives in public life, for such participation mars the delight of oppositionism. It is peculiar to "ressentiment criticism" that it does not seriously desire that it demands be fulfilled. It does not want to cure the evil: the evil is merely a pretext for the criticism. We all know certain representatives in our parliaments whose criticism is absolute and uninhibited, precisely because they count on never being ministers. (Ibid.)

About a generation later, on the other side of the Channel, George Orwell wrote in a strikingly similar vein:

The mentality of the the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.

How does that French line go? The more things change, the more they stay the same? Think of today’s carpers and whiners on the Left, people like Paul Krugman, Michael Moore, George Carlin; think of the wild-eyed Phil Donoghue, ‘Screamin’ Howard Dean, the histrionic Al Gore of Lock Box and "I invented the Internet" fame; think of any Democrat Party operative. What are their positive suggestions? Take away their blind oppositionalism and what is left?