The Corner

Occupy Wall Street and Ressentiment

In today’s G-File (sign up in the top right corner of this page), Jonah has blessed and cursed us all by sharing a HuffPo post from JD Samsom, of the “multi-media feminist electronic punk” band Le Tigre.* This is the part Jonah excerpts, but you should read the whole thing. It’s breathtaking:

Like so many teenagers, I believed in the “American Dream,” that I could move to New York from the Midwest and become an artist. I would achieve both fame and success, and I would never have to think about money. The first half was true. I made art and lived activism, and I achieved amazing amounts of success that I feel incredibly proud of. The second half, not so much. I have been able to live well, eat well, invest in my arts and make my own schedule, but I forgot to save money and think about my future. 

This summer I tried to rent an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The process sent me into an emotional crisis and awakened me into a whole new realization of our economy, the music industry at large and, more specifically, what it means to be a queer artist in 2011. 

I spent days trolling around Williamsburg, looking at shitty apartments with cockroaches lining the doorways, fighting neighbors, rats in the ceiling, bedbugs infesting the linoleum floors, fifth-floor walk-ups and cat-pee-soaked carpets. The rent was exorbitant, availability was scarce, and I was turned down by two different landlords for being “freelance.” To be honest, I don’t blame them. Not only am I freelance, but I’m lesbian freelance. Double whammy. What was the reason they turned me down? Because it was easier to rent to a rich, trust-fund, straight-guy banker who wants to live in the coolest borough in the world? Because when he met me he saw a tattooed gender outlaw who makes “queer electronic punk music” and isn’t sure when the next check is going to come in? Yeah, I don’t blame him. He doesn’t give a shit about how kids email me all the time thanking me for keeping them from committing suicide. It’s not part of his capitalist business practice.

First, a note on that last bit. The average landlord in Williamsburg is up to his eyeballs in “tattooed gender outlaws,” the difference is most of them work day jobs now. That neighborhood has become the Epcot Center of Scenester-dom and Samson’s arrived ten years too late to get in on the cheap rents. If she’s looking for bleeding-edge authenticity, she ought to try the South Bronx. Kevin Williamson will be glad to give her a tour.

Second, that bolded paragraph is enlightening, isn’t it? It makes me think of what Derb pointed out yesterday — the inane fantasy that “everybody [can and] will have everything” is eternally recurring, and at least as old as Aristophanes. The great, and probably terminal, flaw of the Left’s various grievance-group “isms” is that they implicitly rely on a world in which trade-offs have been abolished. It isn’t just that Samson should be free to move to New York and consecrate herself to her “art.” It’s that she should be free to do that while enjoying all the benefits of her choice and suffering none of the consequences. What she wants is not the freedom to choose but the freedom from having to choose.

What sort of worldview makes this fantasy conceivable? Well, if I had to pick just one French term of art popularized by a 19th-century German philologist to describe the Occupy Wall Street set and its attendants, it would be Nietzsche’s Ressentiment. Why does good old English “resentment” not suffice? Why is the extra ‘s’ and fancy French pronunciation required? Well, resentment is about begrudging the success of your betters as a way to avoid reflection on your own failures. The Nietzsche scholar Robert Solomon described resentment as an “impotence self-righteousness” directed at your superiors, and contrasted it with anger (directed at your equals) and contempt (directed at your inferiors). But ressentiment is what happens when you take that impotent self-righteousness and define a whole morality of good and evil in terms of it, build a whole belief system out of it, build an ideology, a political movement — an occupation.

Nietzsche’s work is highly problematic, and has of course been misappropriated and abused for a hundred years, but I think he got this much right on. He was also correct to point out that out that the leaders of men, the successful few — you might even call them the one percent — are too busy acting, doing, and accomplishing to complain about their “emotional crises.” Contrast with the likes of Samson, who in a stream of consciousness puts all her resentment on paper — writes it all down for the world to see — drawing a line — a squiggly, irrational line, but a line nonetheless — from her insecurity about not being able to make coffee or wait tables or draw a steady paycheck, to the demonization of Wall Street. Seriously, the first paragraph of her piece is all about how ill-equipped and incompetent she is (I didn’t say it, she did!) and the clarion cry at the end is that all this constitutes “Another reason to come together. Another reason to occupy Wall Street. Another reason for change.” 

If this is how the other 99 percent think — or rather, don’t — we’re done for.

*An indie musical aside, disregard if you’re a square: I’ve heard Le Tigre and, actually, they aren’t bad. Though I don’t think there’s anything especially punky about their beats and nothing too overtly feminist either. When I think of feminist punk I think of 90s “Riot Grrrl” acts like Sleater-Kinney, who rock so freakin hard that by the time I finish listening to one of their records I’m ready to condemn myself as a perpetuater of patriarchic hegemony.