Right-wing politics in general have focussed on painting any discussion of the harms of inequality in society as the voice of resentment and envy. Its most popular expression in recent politics was Mitt Romney’s discussion of the 47% of Americans who would never vote for him in 2012.
|The very rich tend to isolate themselves from people
who aren't also very rich, which prevents them from
understanding the lives and perspectives of people
who live very different lives than they do.
If you don’t remember, Romney made a speech at a private $50,000/plate fundraiser during his presidential campaign, which included some remarks about who would least likely be persuaded by his proposals to lower federal income taxes. The speech was captured on videotape, and the audio was thankfully rather clear.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, alright? There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that the government has a responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. . . .
“These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. So my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney spoke of the resentment of the lower middle classes and the poor for the wealthier classes of American society. Even though conservative American media blasts its messages of class warfare every time a left-leaning (however left mainstream American politics ever really gets) politician in that country discusses overall income inequality as a serious issue, it’s those very conservative classes that have the most resentful reactions.
The roots of this idea are in Friedrich Hayek’s most popular work, The Road to Serfdom. The rhetoric of left-wing revolutionaries of his time was that socialist movements united all classes against the forces of their economic exploitation. Hayek was right to call this a sham, as many actual left-wing movements were themselves too fragmented to manage the breadth of solidarity to match their rhetoric.
And Hayek is right that many actual socialist political movements of his time began in a single specific class, and their policies were focussed on the concerns of a narrower class than their rhetoric served. He’s right when he says that the political and economic policies that benefit the labour classes of industrial factories are incompatibly different from the policies that benefit white-collar middle-class workers.*
* Or the members of a racialized minority segregated in economic ghettos, but the contemporary analysis of how cultures become racialized isn’t anywhere near Hayek’s conceptual radar. This is a severe weakness of modern libertarianism, since the conceptual frameworks that Hayek and Robert Nozick developed and thought through don’t seem to have much room for sociological and socially constructed distinctions. It’s a very pure individualism, which has trouble dealing with group identities because they’re inescapably cultural.
The rhetoric of the left-wing in Hayek’s time may have involved a great deal of class resentment against the rich. I’ll grant him that. And a resentful tone about the very rich does arise from some of the conceptualizations of 1% rhetoric that came out of Occupy.
But I also sense the sound of crying wolf when I hear talk of the poor’s resentment for the rich. Just as there are concrete differences between the policies that benefit, to take Hayek’s example, factory workers and office workers, there are even larger concrete differences in policies that favour white-collar knowledge and communications workers like myself and massively rich people like Mitt Romney. Like a non-progressive, very low tax on capital gains, or policies that encourage the use of tax shelters.
The very rich are a narrow class like any other, and there’s a lot of class-consciousness among very rich people. This is why very rich people lobby politicians and donate to campaigns that promise to protect their class interests through government policy. With class warfare being such a common message in right-wing media, it suggests to me that resentment is increasingly a mind-set of conservatives today.
Mitt Romney in 2012, speaking off the cuff to a group of fellow very rich people, spoke resentfully of those people who benefit from the United States’ byzantine tax laws so that they pay net zero income tax. The Christians whose voices dominate right-wing television and radio in the United States feel embattled and angry because the existence of different lifestyles in their own social environments make them feel threatened.
|Jobbik is the radically culturally conservative party that
has quickly risen to become a significant force in
Consider this international example, of Ezequiel Castanha, a Brazilian real estate developer who has made millions of dollars from illegal Amazon landclearing and the fraud required to cover it up. The central message that Castanha’s lawyer is communicating is that the charges against him were fabricated by left-wingers in law enforcement and the Brazilian government who envy his financial success.
And we should never forget the rhetoric of resentment and scapegoating of immigrants, foreign-descended citizens, ethnic minorities (sometimes Muslim, sometimes Roma), and the left wing, which emerges from populist right-wing parties in Europe today. Groups like France’s Front Nationale, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Germany’s Pegida, and Holland’s Freedom Party all speak the language of resentment instead of asking the people of their countries to consider more difficult, potentially revolutionary, political questions.
The rhetoric of resentment may have been used by the left in the past, but today, it’s more often a tool of the right and social conservatives. Resentment can corrupt any political movement.