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The Globalisation of Re-sentment: Failure, Denial and Violence in World Politics

(*)
Elisabetta Brighi, University of Westminster
[e.brighi@westminster.ac.uk]

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary and not envious:
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.
W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene I

It is commonplace for pop psychology today to invite their readers to embrace, rather than resist,
failure. Invoking a supposedly timeless wisdom that stretches from Confucius to Sylvester Stallone,
self-help websites such as ‘Psychology Today’ urge readers to cease looking at failure as one looks at
an unappealing birthday present and start welcoming failure as a gift, disappointment as a growth
opportunity, and defeat as a path leading to complete mastery of the resilient self. 1 A good dose of
denial, disavowal and effacement are arguably involved in the process. While the unresolved
feelings or incongruent actions that may have precipitated failure are mostly left unscrutinised, the
wider social, cultural and political context, conditions, and contradictions become conveniently
elided or misrepresented. The focus turns obsessively to the self and its expected ability to reset and
reconfigure towards personal success, achievement and happiness. 2 Rather than a moment of
appearance and truth, failure is thus denied and rendered barren.

(*) Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2015 Millennium Annual Conference on ‘Failure and
Denial in World Politics’, London, 17-18 October, 2015 and at the 2015 European International Studies
Association Conference on ‘The Worlds of Violence’, Giardini Naxos, 23-26 September 2015. Many thanks to
the discussants and panel participants for their insightful comments and questions.
1
See Psychology Today, ‘The Gift of Failure’, available at
https://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201408/the-gift-failure (20 December 2015).
2
For critical commentaries on positive psychology, see Sam Binkley, ‘Happiness, positive psychology and the
program of neoliberal governmentality’, Subjectivity 4 (2011): 371-394; Sam Binkley, ‘Psychological life as
enterprise: social practice and the government of neo-liberal interiority’, History of the Human Sciences 24, no.
3 (2011): 83–102; Paul Verhaeghe, What about me? The struggle for identity in a market-based society
(London: Scribe, 2014); and Nicole Aschoff, The New Prophets of Capital (London: Verso, 2014).
1

As noted by critical scholarship, these new topographies and technologies of the self mirror, channel
and manage political and social practices that are today global in reach. 3 Emotions are, after all, not
just a private reality but a social and cultural one too – the psychic and affective landscape changing
with the changing social and political condition. 4 As Mark Neocleus among others argued, ‘neoliberal
citizenship is nothing if not a training in resilience’. 5 Embracing, rather than resisting failure, and
bouncing back from it forms ‘the basis of subjectively dealing with the uncertainty and instability of
contemporary capitalism as well as the insecurity of the national security state’. 6 The excesses of an
ever expanding security agenda and of hyper-capitalism at a time of austerity require huge
emotional work so that these can be accommodated and maintained, rather than undermined, lest
the system becomes awash with the negative affect of failure. Failure is, after all, a toxic emotion. Its
occurrence breads a host of reactive ‘red’ emotions such as shame, humiliation, anger and
resentment. Its appearance often reveals a lack or loss – of face, of dignity, of self-respect. Its
trauma constructs hierarchical subjectivities around blame and responsibility, victims and
perpetrators, worthy superiors and unworthy inferiors.
Contemporary global politics is awash with failure. The failure of a liberal post-Cold War ‘New World
Order’, the failure of financial and monetary systems, the failure of climate change governance, the
failure of the Global War on Terror, the failure of the Arab Spring, the failure of multiculturalism, the
failure of EU migration policies – the list goes on. While on the one hand globalisation has rendered
political processes complex, disaggregated, unpredictable, prone to accident and to the
multiplication of risk (including the risk of failure), 7 their inherent vulnerability is often amplified
tactically and capitalised upon by entrepreneurs of populism and managers of unease to suit the
interest of the day. 8 Within the sociology of late modernity, Zygmut Bauman and Ulrich Beck argued

3

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1978-79
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Thomas Lemke ‘“The Birth of Bio-Politics”: Michel Foucault's Lecture at
the College De France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality’, Economy and Society 30 (2001): 190-207; and Nicholas
Kiersey, ‘Everyday Neoliberalism and the Subjectivity of Crisis: Post-Political Control in an Era of Financial
Turmoil’, Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, no. 4 (2011): 23-44.
4
Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, in Civilization, Society and Religion: Group Psychology,
Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 388 and C. Wrights Mills, The
Sociological Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 [1959]). For a contemporary assessment, see
Iain Wilkinson, Anxiety in a ‘Risk’ Society (London: Routledge, 2001).
5
Mark Neocleus, ‘Resisting Resilience’, Radical Philosophy 178 (2013), 4.
6
Ibid., 5.
7
James Der Derian, ‘Global Events, National Security, and Virtual Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International
Studies 30, n. 3 (2001): 669-690; Patricia Owens, ‘Accidents Don't Just Happen: The Liberal Politics of HighTechnology ‘Humanitarian’ War, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 32, no. 2 (2003), p. 595; Louise
Amoore, The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
8
Chantal Mouffe, ‘The “End of Politics” and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism’, in Francisco Panizza,
Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (London: Verso, 2005) and Didier Bigo, ‘Globalized (In)Security: The
2

that such failure is experienced not only at the global level, but increasingly at the level of the
everyday and of the individual. 9 In fact, late modernity is a time not only of individualisation, but of
tragic individualisation: ‘the individual must cope with the uncertainty of the global world by him- or
herself. Here individualization is a default outcome of a failure’. 10 Starkly accountable yet
dramatically impotent, the individual is ‘nakedly and tragically individuated’. 11 We thus come to a
paradox. While individuals are at the receiving end of global processes that can and often do fail
them, individuals are also expected to embrace those failures in the name of resilience, happiness,
or a future possibility of success.
There is, however, a third sense in which the individualisation of global politics may be defined as
truly tragic. The failure, or loss, of states’ monopoly on legitimate violence is cascading into forms of
contemporary violence that project the individual to the foreground and coalesce around the
everyday. As the recent wave of terrorist attacks testifies, against a background of failure and crisis,
individual self-radicalisation fuelled by failure and resentment becomes a path to violent
empowerment. The possibility of individual violence has thus entered the circle of systemic failure.
The affective politics that regulate such circle becomes, therefore, the ultimate horizon of a global
politics in which battlefields and theatres of war, after disappearing or going virtual, have
reappeared in the shape of the individual emotional landscape.
In this paper I investigate how the globalisation of failure intersects the globalisation of resentment
and the diffusion of individualised forms of political violence. I shall do so through the lenses of
contemporary terrorism, and in particular the ‘fifth wave’, ‘micro-structural’ terrorism as evidenced
in the 2015 double terror attacks in Paris. The first part of the paper charts the rise of global
resentment in its interaction with changing forms of violence and against the background of the
multiplication of failure and cascading grievances. The second and third parts examine the place of
resentment in the affective and moral economy of the global age by unpacking this concept along
two axes. The first axis maps the distinction between resentment and ressentiment and seeks to

field and the Ban-Opticon’, in Didier Bigo and A Tsoukala (eds.), Terror, Insecurity and Liberty. Illiberal practices
of liberal regimes after 9/11 (Routledge: Abingdon, 2006), 10 - 48.
9
Zygmut Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambrige: Polity Press, 2000) and The Individualized Society (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 2001); Ulrich Beck, World risk society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999) and ‘Living in the world risk
society’, Economy and Society 35, no. 3 (2006): 329-345; Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim,
Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences (London: Sage, 2001).
10
Beck, ‘Living in the world risk society’, 336.
11
Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” Political Theory 21, no. 3 (1993): 402. See below for a fuller
investigation of Brown’s arguments on individualisation and ressentiment. For a recent critique of the
individualization thesis, see Rolf Becker and Andreas Hadjar, ‘“Individualisation” and class structure: how
individual lives are still affected by social inequalities’, International Social Science Journal 64, no. 213-214
(2013): 211–223.
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rescue the former from the relative hegemony of the latter. By contrasting the readings of Adam
Smith, Joseph Butler, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Scheler and their contemporary epigones, it fleshes
out the distinction between resentment geared towards justice and that driven by envy. The second
axis explores the gap between resentment and ressentiment from the point of view of the
entanglements of identity and difference. By drawing on the writings of William Connolly, Wendy
Brown and René Girard, it evaluates different configurations of the relation between self and other
and assesses the strengths of the claim concerning an ever expanding diffusion of ressentiment in
late modern times. The paper closes with a reading of the Paris terror attacks of 7 January and 13
November that seeks to disentangle the different forms of resentment mobilised in the acts. By
raising the issue of the moral value of resentment, the paper ultimately seeks to address the
question of how to cope with failure while holding on to emancipatory, counter-hegemonic and selfaffirming political practices.

Resentment and contemporary political violence: between failure and grievance
To survey the landscape of political violence today is to take in the enormous transformations in the
ways in which violence has being operating politically over the last century. A hundred years since
the First World War, violence seems to be less and less contained by war and its rules. The crisis of
war is the crisis of the sovereign state and its most important founding principle – the monopoly on
the legitimate use of violence. The paradox of contemporary war is that while it may be everywhere
– ubiquitous in time and space – it has lost its shape and turned into an increasingly emptier
signifier. The hollowing out and fragmentation of war, however, has certainly not marked the end of
violence. It is calculated today that 90% of all violent deaths occur outside situations of conflict and
war: of the 500,000 violent deaths per year, only 10% can be blamed on conflict and war. 12 Rather
than being contained by war, today the vast array of insecurities and forms of violence that affect
the global human condition are refracted across an ever growing number of global processes: from
the global economy and its infrastructures to financial markets and global peripheries. 13 Freed from
this yoke, violence travels today across political spaces and along an insecurity continuum that defies
distinctions between inside and outside, public and private.
12

See Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011. Lethal Encounters (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2011), 43ff and Keith Krause, ‘War, Violence and the State’, in Michael Brzoska
and Axel Krohn, (eds.), Securing Peace in a Globalized World (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
13
For three complementary perspectives, see Martin Jay, Refractions of Violence (New York: Routledge, 2003);
Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in the Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2014); and Paul Dumouchel, The Barren Sacrifice (East Lansing: Michigan State University
Press, 2015).
4

Intersected with the speculative and precautionary turn that made of risk the preeminent rationality
of governance, 14 the globalisation of violence has produced a creeping informalisation, privatisation
and, ultimately, individualisation of it. Individuals are thus at the centre of a paradoxical condition:
not only are they at the receiving end of a gamut of violent global processes that exceed the control
of sovereign states or international institutions, but they are more and more held responsible for
their own security, implicated as they are in the everyday averting of risk and insecurity. At the same
time, the very processes that have determined the diffusion and irradiation of violence have also put
individuals in the condition of inflicting – and not just suffering – significant amounts of violence.
In ways that parallel the ascendance of modern terrorism and its anarchist phase, and on the basis
of recent attacks seen in Norway, the US, the UK and France, scholars have speculated about the
coming of a ‘fifth-wave’ of terrorism in which self-styled terrorists, lone operators and selfradicalised individuals may become the greatest concern to society. 15 Others have looked at new
terrorist movements, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, as global and yet diffused ‘micro-structures’ that
combine ‘global reach with microstructural mechanisms that instantiate self-organizing principles
and patterns’. 16 Rather than on solid institutional and organisational capabilities, the new terrorist
networks rely on a diasporic and horizontal pool of volunteers who act often independently,
sometimes with only the most tenuous association with terrorist movements. 17 Violence today is
thus increasingly carried and carried out by individuals. As such, its circulation and flow interpellate
not only the structural and the social, but the personal and intimate, in their reciprocal
reverberations and interlocking economies of affect.
Resentment is arguably at the heart of the moral economy of contemporary terror. It is the
emotional plane around which failures experienced at the individual, social and global level
convergence. As noted by a number of scholars, if there is a thread common to the latest wave of
terrorist attacks, it is arguably the way in which personal resentments resonate with and are

14

Luis Lobo-Guerrero, Insuring Security: Biopolitics, security and risk (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 2.
On anarchist terrorism, see Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin, The History of Terrorism (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2008) and Ayse Zarakol, ‘What Makes Terrorism Modern? Terrorism, Legitimacy, and the
International System’, Review of International Studies 37, no. 5 (2011): 2311-2336. On ‘lone wolf’ terrorism,
see Elisabetta Brighi, ‘The Mimetic Politics of Lone-Wolf Terrorism’, Journal of International Political Theory 11,
no. 1 (2015): 145-64 and JD Simon, ‘Technology and Lone Operator Terrorism: Prospects for a fifth wave of
global terrorism’, in J Rosenfeld (ed.) Terrorism, Identity and Legacy: The Four Waves Theory and Political
Violence (New York: Routledge, 2011), 44–65.
16
Karin Knorr Cetina, ‘Complex Global Microstructures: The New Terrorist Societies’ in Theory, Culture &
Society, 22, no. 5 (2005): 214.
17
See especially, Barak Mendelsohn, The al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the TwentyFirst Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
15

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embedded in larger political narratives of failure and grievance. 18 To start with, scholars
investigating the psychology of terrorism have long agreed that resentment provides one of the
fundamental drivers of radicalization, and a key affective influence in the choice of becoming a
terrorist. ‘I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of
feeling humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or
“undo” this loss of face’. 19 A brief and anecdotal survey of recent attacks suffices to illustrate how
failure, grievance and resentment are arguably central themes to the trajectory of attackers. It was
after the failure to secure his membership in the US Olympic boxing team as well as his US
citizenship that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bomber, decided to trade his existence as
the stay-at-home father of a small girl in a cramped, subsidised apartment on the periphery of
Cambridge, MA, for the identity of bomber and a fleeting place in the spotlight. 20 When Michael
Adebolajo took to the streets of south London to kill fusilier Lee Rigby, he video-recorded (and later
penned) his resentment and desire for revenge in simple terms: ‘If you find yourself curious as to
why carnage is reaching your own towns then know it is simply retaliation for your oppression in our
towns (…). You people will never be safe’. 21 After the sequence of gun attacks in Toulouse and
before the 32-hour siege that would end in his death, the unemployed and recently divorced
Mohammed Merah spoke of his resentment against France: against the agents of the French state –
and especially the army, who had rejected his application a few months earlier – against the new
French legislation banning women from wearing the full Islamic veil, against France’s involvement in
Afghanistan, and against France’s alleged protection of Jews, ‘who kill our brothers and sisters in
Palestine.’ 22
Personal resentments and intersect with larger political narratives and are often mobilised together
in an emergent discourse that liberally combines the intimate and the distant. Three wider
dimensions of resentment are particularly relevant. Firstly, there is the failure of full integration in

18

Ramon Spaaij, Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention (New York:
Springer, 2012) and Raffaello Pantucci, ‘A typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary analysis of Lone Islamist
terrorists’, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (London, 2011).
19
The renowned psychiatrist James Gilligan quoted in Andrew Silke, ‘Becoming a Terrorist’, in Andrew Silke
(ed.), Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and Its Consequences (Chichester:
Wiley, 2003), 40. See also E. G Lindner, “Humiliation as the Source of Terrorism: A New Paradigm,” Peace
Research 33, no. 2 (2001): 59–68.
20
Christian Caryl ‘The Bombers’ World’, The New York Review of Books, 6 June 2013, available at:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/bombers-world/
21
The Telegraph, ‘Woolwich attack: the terrorist's rant’, 23 May 2013; The Telegraph, ‘Lee Rigby trial: full text
of letter given by Michael Adebolajo to ‘Angel of Woolwich’, 29 November.
22
The Guardian, ‘Mohamed Merah: polite neighbour who was turned down by French army’, 21 March 2012
and France24, ‘“Gunman” calls FRANCE 24 hours before pre-dawn siege’, 22 March 2012.
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multicultural societies. 23 Terror has been invoked as a response to a failure of assimilation that keeps
some members of Western societies away from their holy grail of employment, ownership and
stable family structure, along which success is measured, and close to the peripheries of the social
order. The Tsarnaev brothers story offered an emblematic example of the peripatetic struggle for
acceptance, between displacement and belonging, while the stories of the British jihadis revealed
already decade ago the links between the crisis of the UK model of multiculturalism, the rise of
resentment and the recourse to terrorism. 24 Terrorism is seen as powerful way of turning the failure
and lack of integration into a resounding and spectacular success, inverting the hierarchy of power
and worth attached to those models of integration.
For those whose identity is tied to histories and cultures of the Middle East, the second narrative of
resentment relates to the perceived humiliation of Arabs and Muslims at the hands of Westerners,
especially the US, since 9/11. 25 There is no doubt that the appeal of al-Qaeda and ISIS for young
disaffected Muslim worldwide stems from the grand narrative of humiliation and redemption
vehicled in the official discourse of their leaders. As Jessica Stern has recently noted concerning ISIS,
the ‘narrative of victory most appeals to those who feel they have lost something’. 26 In identifying
themselves as ‘the brothers who have refused to live a life of humiliation’, ISIS frames the
movement’s grievances in terms of an aspirational parable that turns failure into success, loss into
the recovery of dignity. Its appeal is especially intended for a young generation of Muslims who are
represented as ‘drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation’. The rise of
jihad means the chance to join the movement which will ‘remove the garments of dishonour, and
shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone and

23

Christopher Hill, The National Interest in Question: Foreign Policy in Multicultural Societies (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2013).
24
See respectively, Janet Reitman, ‘Jahar’s world’, The Rolling Stone, 17 July 2013, available at:
http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717 and Shane Brighton, ‘British Muslims,
multiculturalism and UK foreign policy: “Integration” and “Cohesion” in and beyond the State’, International
Affairs 83, no. 1 (2007): 1–17.
25
Khaled Fattah and K.M. Fierke, ‘A Clash of Emotions: The Politics of Humiliation and Political Violence in the
Middle East’, European Journal of International Relations 15, no. 1 (2009): 67-93 and Paul Saurette, “You Dissin
Me? Humiliation and Post 9/11 Global Politics,” Review of International Studies 32, no. 03 (2006): 495-522.
While the focus of this paper is on Islamic terrorism, a victimary narrative of humiliation is also arguably
common to some attacks of non-Islamic nature, for instance that perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway in
July 2011 in the name of a Christendom under attack and humiliated by Islam. See Brighi, The Mimetic Politics
of Lone-Wolf Terror.
26
Jessica Stern, ‘What Does ISIS Really Want Now?’, Lawfare, 28 November 2015, available at
https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-does-isis-really-want-now (20 December 2015). Needless to say, this is
articulated in response not only to the humiliating policies of the West, but to the multiple failures within
political Islam and modernization of the Middle East. See Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard:
Harvard University Press, 1996).
7

the dawn of honour has emerged anew’.27 Despite the noticeable strategic, operational and
generational differences, al Qaeda and ISIS are similar in one important respect. Their narratives
weave the personal and social plane together – they skilfully manage to embed individual
experiences of failure and resentment in a larger and empowering narrative that promises to turn
shame into power.
Naturally, this feeds into a much deeper and trans-historical reservoir of resentment. Rather than
being focused on the present circumstances of Muslim populations and on developments in the
Middle East since 9/11, this third and final dimension of resentment reaches back in time to
colonialization and hierarchical imperial histories. In the current epoch of renewed global
connectivity, terrorism seems to be travelling along old imperial roads, connecting peripheries to
their old metropolitan cores, only in the inverse direction. That the contemporary wave of terrorist
attacks mobilises and reactivates a set of grievances related to the history of colonialism is obvious if
one considers that ISIS presented the breaking of the borders created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty
between Syria and Iraq as one of their greatest victory and indeed the symbolic moment of
establishment of the caliphate. 28 Additionally, the fact that at least three of the Paris attackers were
of Algerian descent has been noted as being arguably not insignificant. 29
Failure generates grievances, and grievances generate resentment. When the former becomes
endemic, the latter takes centre stage. The micropolitics of affect that presides over the ways in
which failure is processed, blame and responsibility are attributed, shame and humiliations are
handled thus require further scrutiny, not least for their repercussions on the macro, or global
political level. This is especially important in those cases where the possibility of accommodating, or
indeed embracing failure, is overtly rejected and where violent retribution is sought instead. A
journey into the nature and place of resentment in the global age is thus required. 30

27

A. M. Al-‘Adnani, ‘This is the Promise of Allah’, 29 June 2014, available at
https://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/06/.
28
Pieter Van Ostaeyen, ‘The Islamic State Restores the Caliphate’, 29 June 2014, available at
https://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/06/.
29
See, for instance, Robert Fisk, ‘France’s unresolved Algerian war sheds light on the Paris attack’, 16
November 2015 and Alec G. Hargreaves, ‘French Muslims and the Middle East’, Contemporary French
Civilization 40, no. 2 (2015): 235-54.
30
Two important caveats are in order before proceeding further. Although the distinction between causes and
justifications is seldom as clear cut as we would like to believe (see Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 82-85), a study into the origins and dimensions of
resentment should be confused neither with a deterministic account of terrorism, nor with a justification of
actions inspired by it. In terms of the former, scholarship has long accepted that terrorism is best understood
in processual terms and as a contingency-ridden multi-causal phenomenon. See respectively, John Horgan, The
Psychology of Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2005); Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan, Leaving Terrorism Behind
(London: Routledge, 2009); and Alex Schmid, ‘Root Causes of Terrorism: Some Conceptual Notes, a Set of
8

Resentment or Ressentiment? On the Moral Status of a Global Emotion.
Resentment has a long history and a bad name. It is one of those negative emotions which,
according to historians and philologists, have driven the movement of human development. The
history of resentment can be considered as parallel to that of progress, if not a counter-melody born
from its very failures. 31 In this history resentment has an ambiguous place – similarly to violence, it is
deemed to be both a creative and a destructive force, a functional or dysfunctional attitude. This
ambiguity is reflected in its uncertain status as a Janus-faced moral emotion. Indeed, one can
arguably recognise two faces to resentment: a virtuous face and a vicious one, separated by a slight
literal variation always in danger of being elided. 32 On the one hand, resentment tends to indicate a
legitimate response to a perceived injustice; on the other, ressentiment refers to a metaphysical
mode of being in the world. Due in large part to the recent revival in of interest in the work of
Friedrich Nietzsche, recent political theory has tended to subsume or fold the former into the latter
and discuss resentment predominantly, if not uniquely, as ressentiment. There is value, however, in
redeeming the distinction between the two and rescuing the former from the hegemony of the

Indicators, and a Model Root Causes of Terrorism’, Democracy and Security 1 (2005): 127–136. Not all
resentful individuals become terrorists, after all. However, while this means that terrorism is a complex
phenomenon that cannot be explained by a single cause or set of causes, this does not mean that resentment
in causally unimportant. In terms of the latter, as a particularly heinous form of political violence, terrorism
generates deep moral dilemmas – its legitimacy has been almost invariably been denied, at least until recently
(see infra, fn. 83). In so far as it violently calls into question pre-given political orders and reveals ‘the presence
of two worlds in one’ (Jacque Rancière, ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, Theory and Event 5, no. 3 (2009), p. 21),
terrorism is often met with inevitable ambivalence.
31
Marc Ferro, Resentment in History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010) and Bernardino Fantini, Dolores Martín
Moruno, and Javier Moscoso (eds). On Resentment: Past and Present (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, 2013). On casually discovering the literary work that arguably first described ressentiment, namely
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, in February 1887 Friedrich Nietzsche compared the book to a
melody: ‘ein Stück Musik, sehr fremder, sehr undeutscher Musik; […] ein Geniestreich der Psychologie, eine
Art Selbstverhöhnung des γνῶθι σαυτόν’ (‘a piece of music, very strange music, very un-German; a
psychological stroke of genius, a cruel jibe of “know thyself”’). See CA Miller, ‘Nietzsche’s ‘Discovery’ of
Dostoevsky’, Nietzsche Studien 2, no. 1 (1973): 202–257 and Walter Kaufmann, ‘Introduction’, in Kaufmann,
Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre (London: Penguin, 1975).
32
A growing body of literature across moral philosophy, anthropology and political theory has reflected on this
variation. See most recently, Michael Ure, ‘Resentment/Ressentiment’, Constellations 22, no. 4 (2015): 599–
613; Didier Fassin, ‘On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions’, Current
Anthropology 54, no. 3 (2013): 249-267; Thomas Brudholm, Resentment’s Virtue: Jean Amery and the Refusal
to Forgive (Temple University Press, 2008); and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, ‘The Dramas of Resentment’, The
Yale Review 88 (2000): 89–100. The terminological distinction between resentment and ressentiment is not
always used unambiguously, partly due to the difficulties of translating ressentiment in English without
collapsing this into ‘straight’ resentment. For a puzzling example of such confusion, see Fassin, ‘On Resentment
and Ressentiment’, 260. For an example of a carefully considered choice and an argument for a ‘third way’, see
Brudholm, Resentment’s Virtue, esp. 12-13, 101-03.
9

Nitzschean interpretation, so that the virtues and vices of this moral emotion can be explored more
critically.
In its positive incarnation, resentment is the guardian of justice. 33 As a moral response, resentment
is not only an appropriate individual response to being unjustly treated, but it is also an
indispensable attitude to cultivate if an overall degree of fairness is to be maintained in society. The
XVIII century Presbiterian theologian Joseph Butler considered resentment as an indispensable social
bond holding society together, a ‘weapon’ whose function is to ‘to prevent and remedy […] injury,
and the miseries arising from it’. 34 Considering this sentiment in the context of other moral virtues,
such as charity and compassion, Butler concluded that resentment is needed precisely to allow
injustices to be acknowledged and injuries to be punished, rather than merely forgiven or forgotten.
In some circumstances, resentment therefore wins over charity. Although acknowledging its beastly
character, unsocial nature and violent potential, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith
painted a similarly positive picture of resentment. According to Smith, resentment functions as a
necessary corrective to imbalances in justice and as that reparative mechanism which restores
society to a state of harmony and fairness.35 Once restrained and tempered of any of its excesses,
resentment becomes that ‘noble and generous’ feeling of indignation that inspires the sympathetic
recognition of others and transforms a community of strangers into a community of moral agents
bound by the same nomos. 36 Immanuel Kant noted that desire for justice flows ‘irresistibly from the
nature of man’. Resentment may be ‘malicious’; yet, it is not only a legitimate feeling but the ‘most
vehement and deeply rooted’ indication of our desire for justice. 37
The contemporary political philosophy of scholars such as Jeffrie Murphy, Margaret Walker and
Robert Solomon follows on from these arguments, combining the insights from Adam Smith with a

33

The positive role of negative emotions (such as resentment, anger, and rage) in justice is brilliantly explored
in Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, ‘Are Envy, Anger, and Resentment Moral Emotions? Philosophical Explorations 5, no.
2(2002):148-154 and in two recent and so far unpublished works: respectively, Grace Hunt, ‘Affirmative
Reactions: In Defense of Resentment’ (New York: The New School, 2012), unpublished PhD manuscript; Rupert
Brodersen, ‘Rage, Rancour and Revenge: Existentialist Motives in International Relations’ (London: London
School of Economics, 2014), unpublished PhD manuscript.
34
Joseph Butler, Fifteen sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel (Cambridge: Hilliard & Brown, 1827 [1726]), viii
quoted in Fassin, ‘On Resentment and Ressentiment’, 251-52.
35
Strikingly, it is in Theory of Moral Sentiments that Smith uses for the first time the now well-known
metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’, namely that self-regulating mechanism responsible for restoring harmony in
markets or, as it happens, moral orders. In Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 215.
36
‘We admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by
the rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally
call forth in that of the impartial spectator’, in ibid., 30.
37
Quoted in Grace Hunt, ‘Redeeming Resentment: Nietzsche’s Affirmative Ripostes’, American Dialectic 3, no.
2/3 (2013): 124n8.
10

revived Aristotelian view of resentment and anger as a morally justifiable and useful affects. 38
Robert Solomon goes as far as to assert that, as ‘a passion of justice denied […], resentment lies at
the heart of democracy’. 39 It is the emotional state which, more than any other sentiment, proves
that we care about and are ‘committed to certain moral standards, as regulative of social life’. 40
What is judged detrimental if not wholly questionable, in these authors’ view, is thus not the place
of resentment within the moral order. Rather, it is the contemporary prejudice against negative
emotions and the overriding fixation for ‘closure’ that places societies at fault when it prevents them
from acknowledging, deliberating on, and remedying injustices. Therefore, it is the absence of
resentment in the face of injustice that should be denounced as immoral, especially given that,
according to an interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s writing on The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is the
very absence of resentment that signals the real end of the human and intersubjective condition. 41
There is virtue in resentment, in other words. As Jean Améry stated, there is virtue in the moral
‘vertigo’ of resentment that disrupts the moral order and prevents hasty attempts at reconciliation –
resentment succeeds where empty compassion fails. 42 It is only because of resentment that the
injustice becomes ‘a moral reality’ and it is only through resentment that an entire community,
including perpetrators of injustice, are ‘swept into the truth’. 43
Amongst contemporary political philosophers, however, a much less positive understanding of
resentment ordinarily circulates. This is due to the hegemony exercised by the Nietzschean reading
of a quintessentially existentialist notion, that of ressentiment. 44 While resentment is understood to
denote a legitimate sense of anger, and a desire for retribution in the face of an injury, ressentiment
indicates the pernicious and self-defeating folding in of this emotion onto itself. Ressentiment is
suspended, delayed or botched revenge, a particularly savage affect designed to deaden the
experience of failure-related pain. As a frustrated, ossified and ultimately generalised form of
resentment, ressentiment plants itself in the psychic underground of the sufferer as a blunt arrow,
kept in permanent tension by the pain or memory of humiliation, yet never released from the bow

38

For a brief overview, see Brudholm, Resentment’s Virtue, 10-11.
Robert C. A Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Addison-Wesley,
1990), 270.
40
Richard Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994),
69.
41
Grace Hunt, ‘Hannah Arendt on Resentment: Articulating Intersubjectivity’, The Journal of Speculative
Philosophy 29, no. 3 (2015): 289.
42
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, ‘The Dramas of Resentment’, The Yale Review 88 (2000): 89–100.
43
Jean Améry, At The Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York:
Schocken, 1980), p. 70. On Améry, see also Brudholm, Resentment’s virtue and Hunt, ‘Affirmative Reactions’.
44
Hunt, ‘Affirmative Reactions’, 71ff.
39

11

of desire. 45 From there, according to Friedrich Neitszche and Max Scheler, ressentiment poisons the
mind of those who suffer from it – like a wave on a rock, in a restless movement that blurs past and
present, ressentiment recalls and re-presents the injuries sufferer; resentment, unconsummated and
thus intensified, bounces back as re-sentment. 46 Arguably, the fire of ressentiment burns on two
forms of failure and grows taller when stoked by denial. The experience of humiliation and defeat, or
not living up to a standard, provides the first kind of failure and coagulates into resentment. The
failure of satisfying one’s desire for retribution and redressing the injustice suffered provides the
second failure and turns a particular resentment into a generic, permanent and ontological feeling of
ressentiment. However, what makes the latter particularly corrosive is a form of denial. Instead of
recognising the value of what is desired, ressentiment involves on the one hand, the careful
cultivation of a type of false consciousness predicated on the inversion of the value of what was
originally desired and, on the other, the delusion of an idealized alternative world where the victim
becomes the ruler, and suffering can finally cease. 47
According to Max Scheler’s reading of Nietzsche’s ressentiment, the engine of this particular mode of
being is envy – envy of whomever or whatever does not experience the subject’s suffering,
displeasure and wrath. ‘Existential envy […] is the strongest source of ressentiment. It is as if it
whispers continually: “I can forgive everything, but not that you are – that you are what you are –
that I am not what you are – indeed that I am not you”’. 48 Ressentiment is the affect that underpins
the construction of scapegoats, the exercise of revenge, and the affirmation of a negative or
inverted form of enjoyment. Suffering is taken as proof that someone must be to blame. Similar to
Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of amour propre, as distinct from amour de soi, for the subject
experiencing ressentiment enjoyment comes more from the misfortunes of others than an increase

45

For a phenomenology of ressentiment, see Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, trans. Natasha
Randall (London: Canongate, 2012 [1864]), esp. 22. For a commentary on Dostoevsky’s novel as a portrait of a
contemporary lone-wolf terrorist, see Brighi, ‘The Mimetic Politics of Lone-Wolf Terrorism’.
46
‘The existence of ressentiment thus demonstrates the artificial nature of the separation between past and
present, which exist one inside the other; the past becomes a present that is more present than the present’;
in Ferro, Resentment in History, 128.
47
Victimary narratives are therefore central to ressentiment. For a comprehensive treatment of the
mechanisms behind the construction of victimhood and its proliferation in global politics today, see Harald
Wydra, Politics and the Sacred (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015), 178-224.
48
Max Scheler, Ressentiment (New York: Shocken, 1972 [1912]), 52. For a comparison of Nietzsche’s and
Scheler’s rendering of ressentiment, see Nicholas Birns, ‘Ressentiment and Counter-Ressentiment: Nietzsche,
Scheler, and the Reaction Against Equality" in Nietzsche Circle (September 2005), available at
http://www.nietzschecircle.com/RessentimentMaster.pdf
12

in one’s well-being. Imposing one’s suffering on others through revenge therefore becomes a way of
actualising one’s negative enjoyment. 49
What is the relation between resentment and ressentiment? Are they incommensurable emotions,
driven by different passions and seeking satisfaction in different ways, or are these overlapping
variations on the same affect? And which version is more prevalent today? To investigate their
confluence and difference today it is useful to interrogate this affect not only as an individual
prerogative, but as a relation which presupposes a number of entanglements between self and
other, identity and difference.

Resentment, Ressentiment and Reciprocity
The second conceptual axis along which varieties of resentment coalesce concerns the
intersubjective axis of identity and difference. Resentment is not only a reactive emotion, but a
deeply relational one. When considered within the family of failure-induced ‘red emotions’, such as
anger, shame and humiliation, resentment presupposes a set of feelings towards an Other, be it
imagined or actual. The resentment that is tied up with a loss or injury is a response to the vertigo of
seeing oneself through the eyes of the other – injured, denigrated, maimed. As Jean Paul Sartre
illustrated, experiencing shame and resentment invariably attests to a certain loss of control over
one’s identity and proves our degree of vulnerability to the other. 50 More than any other, this
experience reminds us of our inescapable intersubjective condition, of how our identity is shaped at
the iridescent boundary between self and other, of how our foundation falls both inside and outside
of ourselves. 51
A number of political theorists have traced the origins of resentment and ressentiment in different
configurations of the entanglements between identity and difference. William Connolly’s writings on
49

The readings of ressentiment given by Nietzsche and Scheler overlap yet also differ considerably – inter alia,
in terms of the degree of emphasis laid on envy as the underlying motive of ressentiment and in terms of the
possibility of channeling and venting ressentiment into revenge. As brilliantly argued in Brodersen, ‘Rage,
Rancour and Revenge’,156-58, Nietzsche understands revenge to be exclusively in spiritual rather than actual
terms, while in Scheler the possibility of actual revenge stems directly from the misplaced aggression of
ressentiment. Contra Brodersen, however, I argue that one should not infer from this that Schelerian
ressentiment equates to ‘simple’ resentment incorrectly named and, as such, is not real ressentiment. The
tension of ressentiment is precisely the one that survives after its necessarily partial revenge is consummated.
50
Thus, Sartre: ‘Shame is a unitary apprehension with three dimensions: “I am ashamed of myself before the
Other”’, in Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (New York: Pocket
Books, 1978), 222.
51
See Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2014).
13

the politics of resentment are a particularly interesting case in point. Connelly’s concerns with
resentment stem from a long-standing interest in how to ground democratic societies in the
‘globalisation of contingency’ of late modernity on an egalitarian and pluralist ethos. 52 While
Connolly acknowledges that resentment and moral indignation arguably are ‘indispensable sources
of energy and inspiration’ for the formation of new political subjects and social movements, 53 he
warns about the exclusions and excesses spawned in the process. These may be inevitable in so far
as identity and difference are mutually constituted and in so far as security is, at least to some
degree, pursued in identity. As Connolly’s formula reads, ‘Identity requires difference in order to be,
and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty […]. The multiple
drives to stamp truth upon […] identities function to convert differences into otherness and
otherness into scapegoats’. 54 Identity politics is always potentially also a politics of resentment. The
politics of resentment is that which deprecates, rages against, and ultimately punishes difference.
Resentment here emanates from a paradox of failure and denial: the failure, or impossibility, to
achieve the fullness of identity, combined with the denial of the requirement of difference in order
for identity to exist. As well-known, the protections advocated by Connolly against the perils of
resentment are to embrace contingency and cultivate critical responsiveness at both the individual
and collective level, while endowing democracies with an agonistic ethos of pluralism. 55
If the origins of resentment lie in the entanglements and paradoxes of identity and difference, for
Connolly ressentiment is altogether ‘another matter’. 56 Relying on a Nietzschean reading of
ressentiment, Connolly places the origins of this affect rather outside of the immediate political fray,
within a second-order, metaphysical plane. Ressentiment is a form of existential resentment against
‘mortality, time, and the world’, against our finitude and the injustice it is commonly perceived to
entail. 57 ‘The temptation to ressentiment is bound to the human condition, particularly to the facts
of mortality, profound suffering, grief and the irreversibility of time that mark that condition’. 58 In
addition to this, and not without ambiguity, however, Connolly provides another route into
ressentiment. Rather than existential, this is a political route which is constituted by a form of
52

William E. Connolly, Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1991), The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1995) and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
53
William Connolly, ‘A World of Becoming’ in Alan Finlayson, Democracy and Pluralism: the Political Thought of
William Connolly (Milton Park: Routledge, 2010), 228.
54
Connolly, Identity\Difference, 64, 67.
55
Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization, 178-198.
56
Connolly, ‘A World of Becoming’, 228. Cfr. also Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization, 213n17.
57
William E. Connolly, ‘The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine’, Political Theory 33, no. 6 (2005): 877.
However, our existential attitudes to mortality and finitude have repercussions for our political identities; see
Connolly, Identity\Difference, 164-65.
58
Connolly, ‘A World of Becoming’, 228, emphasis added.
14

protracted resentment: ‘ressentiment is stored resentment that has poisoned the soul and migrated
to places where it is hidden and denied’, 59 ‘it can grow out of an accumulation of justified
resentments’ and can get dangerously congealed and ‘encoded into the spirit of institutional life’,
endangering pluralism. 60
Interestingly, for Connolly the contemporary condition is one around which these two routes into
ressentiment converge. Existential ressentiment is heightened by ‘a set of general circumstances
[that] work to intensify [its] cultural temptation. The globalization of capital, with its production of
extreme inequality between and within regions, is one. Another, ironically, is exposure to new
experiences of time that press themselves upon us […]. The globalization of capital, a sharper sense
of global contingency and ressentiment are interinvolved’. 61 At the same time, identity-related
political resentments proliferate, congeal and become amplified in ressentiment via the working of
‘global resonance machines’ that intensify and capitalise on forms of violent disciplining of
difference. ‘In a world moving faster than heretofore, in which inequality is rampant, in which
minoritization proceeds at a fast pace, and in which traditional conceptions of time face a host of
counterexperiences, resentment can all too readily slide into ressentiment’. 62 Although the precise
drivers of this convergence are not entirely or unambiguously explained, the result is that today the
two trajectories of ressentiment converge and escalate. ‘Today resentment against cultural diversity,
economic egalitarianism, and the future whirl together in the same resonance machine’. 63
In her writings, Wendy Brown has similarly mobilised the concept of ressentiment to account for the
particular character and formation of identities in late modernity, at a time profoundly defined by
rampant liberalism. 64 Although her account of ressentiment owes just as much to a Nietzschean
reading, her arguments present a different configuration of the entanglements between identity and
difference than in Connolly’s reading. At the heart of the moral triumph of ressentiment in late
modern, capitalist societies Brown places a particular mode of desiring, which is experienced by all
subjects when embedded in the equalising and universalising social and political structure of late
liberal modernity. It is ‘the prior presumption of the self-reliant and self-made capacities of liberal
subjects […] that makes all liberal subjects, and not only markedly disenfranchised ones, vulnerable

59

Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization, 213, emphasis added.
Connolly, ‘A World of Becoming’, 228, 230.
61
Ibid., 229, 230.
62
Ibid.
63
Connolly, ‘The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine’, 879.
64
Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” Political Theory 21, no. 3 (1993): 390–410, States of Injury: Power
and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995) and Politics Out of History
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
60

15

to ressentiment’. 65 In particular, the contemporary subject is characterised by a condition of radical
failure and envy. On the one hand, the failure to measure up to the idealised standard of the ‘middle
class’, which represents the ‘normalization rather than the politicization of capitalism, […] the
representation of the ideal of capitalism’. 66 On the other, the envy experienced towards the model
of the sovereign, liberal individual – a model which is ‘enthroned in […] the very structure of desire’,
despite being denied and denigrated like an ‘absent father’. 67
According to Brown, the failure and envy mobilised by this kind of ressentiment are not only specific
to the affect of liberal subjects. Rather, ‘like all other forms of resentment, [ressentiment] retains the
real or imagined holdings of its reviled subject’ and deploys against it a revengeful and yet impotent
will that perversely sacralises, distributes and ultimately only extends the subject’s subjugation. 68
Three aspects of this failure are worth noting. First, the proliferation and sacralisation of the
condition of victim – indeed the attachment to those wounds of exclusion and histories of suffering
which set the very parameters of identity. In noting the rise of a moralizing politics of recognition,
Brown anticipates the coming of that ‘empire of trauma’ which anthropologists Didier Fassin and
Richard Rechtman identify as being a constitutive cipher of the contemporary moral economy. 69
Second, the externalization and displacement of suffering, which involves the production of
scapegoats: ‘a culprit responsible for the hurt, and […]a site of revenge to displace the hurt’ and the
re-enactment, rather than the resolution, of injuries as they are distributed and externalised to
others. 70 Third, a failure of the will: ‘identity structured by this ethos becomes deeply invested in its
own impotence’, generating only a blunted critique of power and returning incessantly to its own
narcissistic wounds, rather than finding ground for genuine self-affirmation. 71 Although specific to
the history of liberal modernity, the impotent attitude of ressentiment appears very close to being a
general and fundamental existential condition in the ‘plastic cage’ of late modern societies, 72 where
individuals are at once saturated by human power and yet increasingly alienated from their capacity
to truly act politically.73 This is because

65

Brown, ‘Wounded Attachments’, 400-01, emphasis added.
Ibid., 395.
67
Ibid., 396; see also, 409n8.
68
Ibid., 394.
69
Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
70
Brown, ‘Wounded Attachments’, 401. A revenge, however, that often does not extinguish ressentiment. See
infra, fn 50.
71
Brown, ‘Wounded Attachments’, 403.
72
Brown, States of Injury, 28.
73
Brown, Politics out of History and Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (London: MIT Press, 2010). For a
different take on Brown’s use of ressentiment, see Simon Glezos, ‘Brown’s Paradox: Speed, Ressentiment and
Global Politics’, Journal of International Political Theory 10, no. 2 (2014): 148-68.
66

16

the characteristics of late modern secular society, in which individuals are buffeted and
controlled by global configurations of disciplinary and capitalist power of extraordinary
proportions, and are at the same time nakedly individuated, stripped of reprieve from
relentless exposure and accountability for themselves, together add up to an incitement to
ressentiment that might have stunned even the finest philosopher of its occasions and logics.
Starkly accountable, yet dramatically impotent, the late modern liberal subject quite literally
seethes with ressentiment. 74

The French American theorist Réne Girard offers yet another perspective on resentment and
ressentiment and the way these are linked to patterns of reciprocity between self and other, identity
and difference. Like Brown, but more than Brown, and echoing Lacan’s well known formula that
‘desire is always the desire of the Other’, Girard thinks of desire and identity as always retaining
‘holdings’ of their models or rivals. 75 While this is especially true for liberal and modern subjects, this
is more generally the case for all human beings, whose desires are always and inescapably imitative
and whose identities are constructed mimetically. 76 The possibility of rivalry and envy is therefore so
endemic and wired into human relations that in Girard ressentiment becomes the default form of
resentment. Ressentiment occurs whenever mimetic desire meets an obstacle on its way to fruition
and becomes frustrated. This may happen more often than we think if we accept that our models
are also our rivals and that our desire is always ultimately a metaphysical one, namely a desire not
just according to the Other, but a desire to be the Other. 77
If this is rather ambitiously presented by Girard as a sort of ‘general law’ concerning all human
nature, it is a law that seems to apply especially to modernity and late modernity. 78 The proliferation
of ressentiment flows from the triumph of the very operating principles of liberal and capitalist
societies, namely equality and the market, whose competitive effects are now amplified on a global
scale. Both principles operate on and multiply the occasions for comparisons and envy. Further, they
increase the chance of ressentiment since, one the one hand, the promise of equality and wealth is
74

Brown, ‘Wounded Attachments’, 402.
For an introduction to Girard’s mimetic theory, see John Williams (ed.), The Girard Reader (New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003). For an application of mimetic theory to global politics, see Elisabetta
Brighi and Antonio Cerella, ‘An alternative vision of politics and violence: Introducing mimetic theory in
international studies’, Journal of International Political Theory 11, no. 1, 3-25. For a critical account of Girard’s
notion of ‘the political’, as compared to classical and contemporary political theory, see Elisabetta Brighi and
Antonio Cerella, The Sacred and the Political (London: Bloomsbury-Continuum, forthcoming).
76
See Réne Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1966 and Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1977).
77
See Nidesh Lawtoo, The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious (East Lansing: MSU
Press, 2013).
78
See especially Stefano Tomelleri, Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society (East Lansing:
Michigan State University Press, 2015).
75

17

frustrated by the reality of inequality and structural imbalances and, on the other hand, the loss of
transcendental points of reference consigns humanity to live and fight its battles internally and
immanently. In resonance with Connolly and Brown, 79 Girard states that
we live in a world where many people, rightly or wrongly, feel blocked, or paralyzed, in all
aspirations, obstructed from achieving their most legitimate goals. Individual psychology
inevitably ends up resenting this permanent frustration, and the need arises for a term that
expresses this state of affair. […] The word ressentiment seems designed to play this role. 80
If Girard recognises the greatness of Nietzsche for having provided the most elaborate
understanding of ressentiment, he cannot follow Nietzsche’s denunciation of slave morality as a
specific product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One the one hand, mimetic desire is our lot qua
human beings and therefore it cannot be thought of as property of any specific class, or culture. On
the other hand, Christianity may have accelerated the coming of a hyper-mimetic age but is also
believed to contain antidotes against it. 81
What is stirkingly missing from Girard, however, is as thorough a discussion of resentment as we find
of ressentiment. Girard focuses so much on the latter that the former does not figure at all as a
moral emotion. What is missing, in other words, is an account of how legitimate grievances may
emerge as something other than the mere operations of envy and mimetic rivalry; an
acknowledgement of the possibility of self-empowerment strategies that do not simply feed the
vicious and violent circle of scapegoating; an account of how self-affirming practices may develop
independently of, or prior to the encounter with the other. This is not accidental, however. Given
that ‘politics can no longer save us’, Girardian mimetic theory rather controversially advocates to
transcend politics altogether by embracing the grace and non-violence of Christian revelation as the
only way out of the apocalypse of late modernity. 82 Quite aside from the fact that non-violent forms
of reciprocity can hardly be reduced to this particular spiritual tradition, the problem that remains is
whether the issue of resentment and ressentiment should only be considered as an apolitical,
existential and metaphysical one or whether, on the contrary, we should resist the temptation to
transcend it and rather consider it still a deeply moral and political question.

79

Although well worth pursuing, a more extensive comparison of the striking contrasts and overlaps in the
political theory of especially William Connolly and René Girard is beyond the scope of the present paper. Such
assessment could usefully start from Connolly’s own critical reading of Girard in The Ethos of Pluralization, 5158.
80
Réne Girard, ‘Preface’, in Tomelleri, Ressentiment, p. ix-x.
81
Scott Cowdell, René Girard and Secular Modernity (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).
82
See René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing: Michigan State
University Press, 2010).
18

As seen from this brief survey, resentment and ressentiment occupy different places in
contemporary political theory and are set apart by different configurations the entanglements of
identity and difference, self and other. 83 On the one hand, resentment starts from self-affirmation
and from the acknowledgement of difference within the relation that caused injury or loss.
Resentment presupposes a clear sense of one’s identity and worth as opponent, quite aside from
whatever may be mobilised in the encounter with the other, which includes also a sense of one’s
responsibility in the relation, as well as a sense of possible, adequate and emancipatory (selfaffirming) responses to injury. On the other hand, ressentiment starts by looking outside of oneself,
by incessantly comparing oneself to the other during the encounter with the other, expecting and
demanding identity. When the comparison leaves the subject wanting, suffering is interpreted as a
proof of virtue, rather than of responsibility, and revenge becomes the only possible response. The
new identity that is formed, however, will inevitably bear the scars of its original exclusion.
The difference between resentment and ressentiment therefore remains crucial in terms of its moral
and political implications. Not only do resentment and ressentiment differ in terms of whether they
are moved by justice or envy – they differ also in terms of whether they presuppose, seek and
cultivate a culture of difference or a culture of (frustrated) identity. The fact that the three
contemporary political philosophers analysed above have converged around an interpretation of
late modernity as a time at which humanity is sliding towards a form of endemic ressentiment does
not bode well for our political horizons. Further, what are the consequences of this state of affairs
when the possibility of violence is multiplied and the possibility of revenge becomes not just
imaginary but actual? Is the current wave of global terrorism fuelled by resentment or ressentiment?

Resentment, Ressentiment and Terror: Paris and the World
On 7 January and again on 13 November 2015 Paris was struck by the worst terror attacks in its
peacetime history. If one combines the fatalities from the attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters
and Kosher supermarket carried out in January with the mass shootings at the Bataclan theatre,
suicide bombings at the Stade de France, and shootings at the restaurants of the 10th and 11th
arrondissment, which were all carried out in a coordinated fashion on the evening of 13 November,
it is clear that these attacks represent the worst wave of terrorist violence on French soil since the
anarchist wave of terror in 1890s and the series of Algeria-related attacks of the 1960s and 1990s.
83

The following way of distinguishing between resentment and ressentiment owes to Hunt’s insightful
treatment in ‘Affirmative Reactions’, 105-09.
19

Seen in a historical perspective, the attacks constitute a new chapter within the trajectory of political
violence in France, one whose political rationalities are hard to dismiss yet not easy to decode. The
attacks were perpetrated by European citizens – mostly French nationals of non-European descent,
including Algerian and Moroccan – and claimed by ISIL and al-Qaeda in Yemen. All attackers were
later revealed as having links to local jihadi groups in France and Belgium, although some of these
links were loose and unstructured, and a few are believed to have fought with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The motivations voiced by the attackers linked their protest against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to
the treatment of Muslims in France, especially concerning the veil ban and discrimination by the
police, to French and US involvement in Iraq and Syria. 84
Immediately after the attacks, quite aside from the outpouring of public mourning and the imposing
policy response by French counterterrorism authorities, an uncomfortable debate started to emerge
within public opinions and intellectuals concerning the causes of the attacks and what these
revealed about the societies involved, France especially but global politics more generally. 85 Against
the impressive display of national unity and condemnation of the attack which culminated in the
solidarity march (marche republicaine) of 11 January 2015, a few intellectuals questioned the
attempt to rally behind the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ cry. Amongst these, the sociologist Emanuel Todd
denounced the demonstrations as exclusionary and ill-advised in their attempt to, on the one hand,
deny the reality of deep inequality and discrimination at the roots of the attacks and, on the other,
glorify the French middle-class behind an Islamophobic and myopic defence of the principle of
freedom of speech. 86 French authorities, in the person of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, took
an unprecedented step in publishing an excoriating review of Todd’s book on Le Monde, defining its
arguments as self-flagellating, unnecessarily gloomy and ultimately dangerous for the French body

84

On Charlie Hebdo attacks, a good collection of short pieces can be found in Natalie Oswin (ed.), ‘Forum:
“Charlie Hebdo” and the Politics of Response’, Society and Space, 9 March 2015, available at
http://societyandspace.com/2015/03/09/charlie-hebdo-and-the-politics-of-response-a-forum-2/. See also,
Clara Eroukhmanoff, ‘Physical vs Linguistic violence: An unecessary distinction in the Charlie Hebdo case?’,
paper presented at the European International Studies Association Conference, 26 September 2015. On the
November attacks see, The Telegraph, ‘Who were the terrorists? Everything we know about the Isil attackers
so far’, 20 November 2015. Available at
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11996120/Paris-attack-what-we-know-aboutthe-suspects.html
85
See, for instance, Zygmunt Bauman, ‘The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society’, Social
Europe, 13 January 2015, available at http://www.socialeurope.eu/2015/01/charlie-hebdo/.
86
See Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015) and, for some reactions, Le Monde,
‘Emmanuel Todd contre les illusions de la France du 11 janvier’, 7 May 2015, available at
http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2015/05/07/emmanuel-todd-contre-les-illusions-de-la-france-du-11janvier_4629131_3224.html and The Guardian, ‘Emmanuel Todd: the French thinker who won't toe the Charlie
Hebdo line’, 28 august 2015, available at
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/aug/28/emmanuel-todd-the-french-thinker-who-wont-toe-thecharlie-hebdo-line.
20

politics. A few months later, following the November attacks, Valls further explained his position by
equating attempts to understand the causes of the attacks to mere ‘sociological excuses’,
inconsequential and self-defeating since nothing could either explain or justify the actions of the
attackers. 87
These debates were not only confined to France. The November attacks and the consequent
decision to join the US-led coalition against ISIS led to an open confrontation in the UK between
those who were eager to establish causes and debate the motivations for the attacks, and those who
rejected these attempts as inappropriate, pointless or dangerous. The influential left-wing
movement ‘Stop the War Coalition’, chaired until recently by the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn,
came under intense criticism after it released a statement, later withdrawn, which squarely blamed
failed Western interventions in the Middle East for the attacks and deaths in Paris. 88 In response to a
statement by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn during the Commons debate on Syria in which
Benn whipped up support for UK airstrikes by comparing this mission to the anti-fascist campaign led
by the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the same group issued a statement in which it
identified ‘the jihadist movement [as] far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that
drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign’. This contrasted quite
dramatically with the discourse of the mainstream Left and the Conservatives, which converged
around an outright condemnation of the attacks and of its perpetrators, defined as nothing other
than a ‘fascist’ ‘death cult’. 89
The use of political violence by non-state actors has historically often engendered great moral
ambivalence. Of all types of political violence, terrorism was until recently the one traditionally
considered not only the most contentious, but invariably the most illegitimate. 90 It is unsurprising,

87

See Le Monde, ‘Manuel Valls: “Non, la France du 11 janvier n'est pas une imposture”’, 7 May 2015, available
at http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2015/05/07/manuel-valls-nous-devons-resister-au-pessimismeambiant_4629245_3224.html; Le Point, ‘Manuel Valls: “aucune excuse sociale” ne doit être trouvée au
terrorisme’, 25 November 2015, available at http://www.lepoint.fr/politique/manuel-valls-aucune-excusesociale-ne-doit-etre-trouvee-au-terrorisme-25-11-2015-1984728_20.php; and Xavier Molénat, ‘La sociologie
excuse-t-elle les terroristes?’, AlterEcoPlus, 1 December 2015, available at http://www.alterecoplus.fr/endirect-de-la-recherche/la-sociologie-excuse-t-elle-les-terroristes-201512011020-00002614.html.
88
The Guardian, ‘Jeremy Corbyn determined to attend Stop the War event’, 10 December 2015, available at
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/10/jeremy-corbyn-attend-stop-the-war-event-criticism
89
The Guardian, ‘Hilary Benn makes emotional plea for Britain to bomb Isis ‘fascists’ in Syria’, 3 December
2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/02/william-hague-breaks-with-cameronover-use-of-ground-forces-in-syria.
90
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 2006), C.A.J. Coady, ‘The Morality of
Terrorism’, Philosophy 60 (1985): 47–69 and Robert E. Goodin, What's Wrong With Terrorism? (Cambridge:
Polity, 2006). Cfr. Uwe Steinhoff, ‘How Can Terrorism Be Justified?’, in Igor Primoratz (ed.), Terrorism: The
Philosophical Issues (Palgrave: Basingstoke, 2004), 139-156 and Christopher Finlay, Terrorism and the Right to
Resist: A Theory of Just Revolutionary War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
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therefore, that the double Paris attacks would continue along this common interpretative path and
generate such contrasts and ambivalence. Due to the strong and diffuse resistance to acknowledge
the political and moral significance of terrorism, however, its role has been often denied only at
societies’ own peril.
One way to read these predicaments is to inquire whether resentment or ressentiment can explain
them. In particular, if we refer back to the distinctions teased out in the second and third section of
the paper, we can start raising a number of important albeit uncomfortable questions: can the Paris
attacks be read as expression of legitimate resentment, motivated by a desire to re-establish
standards of justice, and even ‘necessary’ to the maintenance of fairness in society? Far from
proving the attackers’ lack of commitment to certain moral standards, did the attacks provide a
moral vertigo necessary to ‘sweep us into the truth’ of otherwise invisible crimes and injustice, to
paraphrase Jean Améry? Alternatively, were the attacks a form of revenge produced by a frustrated,
misdirected and generalised resentment better understood as ressentiment? Were these the result
of a sense of perceived inferiority, or impotence, and the expression of a narcissistic fantasy aimed
at violently inverting a negative power differential? Was radical envy rather than a sense of justice at
the heart of these attacks – a moralizing envy only magnified by and further concealed behind
exclusionary victimary narratives?
It is hard to deny that the violence seen in Paris demonstrated once again the power of resentment
and that terrorism should be understood as a particularly dramatic ‘power to make resentment
felt’. 91 Genuine resentment towards a specific set of issues was after all expressed in the statements
and testimonials left by the attackers, all too often casually dismissed in the media as ‘rants’. These
manifested the degree of anger ad extreme unease towards three specific sets of issues: the limits of
multicultural integration and the conditions of Muslims in France; the failures, excesses and crimes
of post-9/11 Western policies and interventions in the Middle East; the uncomfortable legacy of
colonial history. As painful reminder of how these issues remain unresolved, resentment and the
violence that this generates can hold up a mirror to societies often too tempted to achieve ‘closure’
prematurely and unfairly, if not ignore injustices altogether. As recognised by Adam Smith and
Joseph Butler, more than reconciliation or forgiveness it is the expression, rather than repression, of
this resentment and its sympathetic recognition by others that potentially turns a community of
strangers into a community of moral agents bound by the same nomos.

91

Annette Baier, ‘Violent Demonstrations,’ in R.G. Frey and C.W. Morris (eds.), Violence, Terrorism, and Justice
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
22

As Connolly warns, however, the more this process of recognition is delayed or stalled, however, the
higher the likelihood that such resentment may fold in onto itself, ossify and re-present itself as
ressentiment. When ressentiment takes over, justice leaves the scene and revenge takes over – the
aim of depriving and making others suffer becomes more important than affirming one’s worth.
Depriving innocent civilians of life and the enjoyment theoreof, as happened in Paris, constitutes a
powerful clue of a resentment turned ressentiment. And yet, there is an additional way in which the
face of ressentiment may be recognisable in the attacks.
Slavoj Zizek advanced a reading of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that provides an interesting account of
the role of envy in the confrontation between Islamic terrorists and the West, as well as the relation
between identity and difference.
Do the [Charlie Hebdo terrorists] really fit this description [of fundamentalists]? What they
obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from
Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep
indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists
really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he
hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is selfdefeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are
deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. […] The
fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority
and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global
consumerist civilization. […] The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve
their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that,
secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them.
Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dose of that true ‘racist’
conviction of their own superiority. 92
Rather than demonstrating a ‘clash of civilisations’ and a desire to assert irreconcilable differences,
in Zizek’s account the encounter between Islamic terrorists and the West seem to function according
to a hyper-mimetic and imitative logic, which is the logic of envy and ressentiment. It is the relentless
comparison and frustrated desire of identity, rather than difference – including religious difference –
that fuels ressentiment and its violent expressions. This, however, can hardly be understood as a
condition exclusive to terrorists. Rather, as the paper has illustrated, a number of scholars converge
in identifying this as the increasingly global condition of societies under the spell of a failed or ‘fake
egalitarianism’ and on the verge of an ‘uncontrollable explosion of ressentiment’. 93

92

Slavoj Žižek, ‘Are the worst really full of passionate intensity?’, The New Statesman, 10 January 2015,
emphasis added, available at http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charliehebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity
93
Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (eds.), The Truth of Žižek (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), 228, 231.
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If the Paris double attacks of 2015 teach us anything, therefore, it is that today it is imperative to
resist conflating resentment and ressentiment and, instead, rescue the former from the latter. What
is necessary is to resist channelling the legitimate power of resentment as a moral emotion into the
increasingly non-emancipatory moral fabric of ressentiment. As Gilles Deleuze illustrated, far from
being an active and positive mode of political action, ressentiment decomposes resistance and
incapacitates contestation. 94 Further, far from being an individual emotion, ressentiment just like
resilience has become a hegemonic mode of governance generated by today’s relentlessly
competitive and radically contingent condition. Far from encouraging dignity and diversity,
ressentiment compromises self-empowerment, while it corrupts political action. 95 Privileging
resentment over ressentiment, however, makes demands on ourselves. First, it asks us to go against
powerful environmental stimuli that are currently converging to create ressentiment as our
sovereign mode of being. Secondly, it expects us to be incessantly aware of our own nature and
limitations as deeply imitative and mimetic subjects, rather than fall into an unacknowledged
narcissism as a condition for political action. Thirdly, it demands that we build societies able to
cultivate resentment, rather than ressentiment, and able to denounce failure rather than embrace
resilience, so that we can feel – and feel more deeply – a sense of moral outrage on behalf of others
and their grievances.

Conclusions
Global politics in late modern times is characterised by a proliferation of failure and denial. The
failures and grievances created by the logic of late capitalism and hyper security are less and less
subjected to causal and moral analysis, while they are more and more subsumed under a denialist
injunction to ‘keep calm and carry on’ or, in other words, practice resilience. When failure and
grievances abound, however, resentment takes centre stage. At a time of violent and tragic
individualisation, the possibility of ‘micro-structural’ violence fuelled by resentment has entered the
circle of systemic failure in the shape of ‘fifth-wave’ terrorism. The individual affective sphere and its
landscapes of resentment thus become important drivers of global political processes.
Aside from illustrating that ‘emotions matter’, through some inroads into classical and contemporary
political theory and a brief survey of recent events, this paper advanced a close reading of varieties
94

Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 57.
On what moral philosophy and political theory should this more positive notion of resentment be founded
on and channelled into is an important question that unfortunately exceeds the scope of this paper. Pace
Hunt, ‘Affirmative Responses’, whether Nietzsche’s philosophy of ressentiment can still provide such a frame
of reference seems, however, debatable.
95

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of resentment and ressentiment in a plea to the making of a better global society. According to
Avishai Margalit, failure and, in particular, the humiliation and resentment that stem from failure,
are the defining traits of societies that lack one important attribute: decency. Decent societies are
those that refrain from humiliating their members and cause no deliberate injury to their selfrespect: ‘a decent society is one that has not lost its sense of shame, that is, a society whose
members are ashamed of acts of humiliation and abuse’. 96 If this is perhaps a sublime yet important
ideal to which international society should aspire, what becomes equally critical is to know what to
do when such a society fails to be decent – when it fails, when it humiliates, when it shames. The
way we process our resentments therefore becomes crucial. The possibility of a better future hang
on whether we can resist, delay or avert the slide of resentment towards ressentiment, just as the
dash in title of this paper wishes to suspend, indefinitely, the coming back of a sentiment into a resentment.

96

Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 135.
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