Envy, Democracy, Meritocracy, and Resentment: Answer to Sergio

In response to a previous post, Sergio asks:

Richard,

I also have a question for you, and it´s about the nexus of concepts involving positive-sum societies, meritocracy, envy, life-as-a-game and the issue of losers/winners. Recently I read Kenneth Minogue´s insightful book “The servile mind”, and he claims that one of the central traist of the West´s success vis-a-vis traditional societies, is the view of life as a game (he mention Huizinga´s homo ludens), because it tends to prize merit (“the best player”) which then tends to be good for all. However, how to deal with losers and their “self-esteem”? The modern PC solution is a sham because they spouse a totally fake/forced egalitarianism in order to spare people *any* feeling of failure or inadequacy (as if it solved anything).
Minogue doesn´t enter this issue beyond observing that Western societies have so many different possible roles that people, if motivated enough, could find “success” in *some* roles. But the fact is that losers tend to be resentful and we know the power of resentment to create untold damage.

What´s your view on that?

I would put it slightly differently. We have relegated zero-sum games primarily to games (sports, gambling). There is competition in all cultures; the question is, how do cultures handle the results. Honor-shame cultures tend to “rig” the deck in favor of the already honorable (incumbency) and to exclude from high-stake competition whole groups of people (manual labor) whose success would violate the proper “order.” Here violence plays a key role (most are, by modern standards, militaristic societies), where “la raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.”

In the West, we have linked egalitarianism with meritocracy – everyone can compete, the best, regardless of class ethnicity etc gets rewarded. (You can complain that affirmative action has reversed that – which it was not supposed to do – but that doesn’t touch the broader point that no political culture has been as meritocratic as the West.

I remember one day i saw a book in my father’s study titled Meritocracy. I asked him what it was about. He described the basic principles of a meritocracy (basically the ones I had grown up learning were the proper “rules of the game”). So what’s the problem? Many people don’t want to hear that they don’t merit what they think they should have. (I.e., as I was later to learn, the difficulty of real self-criticism.)

Fromm hit the nail on the head in Escape from Freedom: the problem with freedom is that it comes with responsibility. You want to make choices? How do you deal with making the wrong choice? In that sense, democratic freedoms call for maturity from the whole populace (hence my emphasis on demotic values that discipline and empower the populace). They call for an ability on everyone’s part to take (at least some) responsibility for our own mistakes. It means that citizens have to struggle with and overcome envy as much as possible. Schoeck would say, you can’t get rid of envy, but you can challenge it into its more positive forms of competition.

This means, among other things, that you can’t just bring democracy to any culture and say, “there you go.” The notion of a “domino-effect” of democracy, what i call the Chomskyite Bush doctrine that holds democracy as a default mode, and (our support to) dictators as the only reason democracy (or egalitarian unoppressive societies) don’t flourish, is silly. We have a contemporary expression of it in the “Arab Spring” fever of our journalists – get rid of the dictator and you’ll have a flourishing of civil society.

7 Responses to Envy, Democracy, Meritocracy, and Resentment: Answer to Sergio

  1. Sérgio says:

    Richard,

    Many thanks for the comments! Let me add some more comments. You wrote,

    “Fromm hit the nail on the head in Escape from Freedom: the problem with freedom is that it comes with responsibility. You want to make choices? How do you deal with making the wrong choice? In that sense, democratic freedoms call for maturity from the whole populace (hence my emphasis on demotic values that discipline and empower the populace). They call for an ability on everyone’s part to take (at least some) responsibility for our own mistakes. It means that citizens have to struggle with and overcome envy as much as possible. Schoeck would say, you can’t get rid of envy, but you can challenge it into its more positive forms of competition.”

    I agree completely but still what you say is more diagnostic and what troubles me
    is that the *prescription*. It´s one thing to say that “citizens have to”
    do this and that, but how to accomplish that? The usual answer is the one prescribed by the Enlightenment, namely: education. But it´s clear that the philosophes were over optimistic about that and at this point in time I´m very skeptical about the power of education in preparing people to deal with failure (even to exercise self-criticism, which is a prerequisit). As I mentioned, the PC solution is to just to artificially pump people´s “self-esteem”, a true recipe for hypocrisy, disillusion and more resentment. Maybe there´s *no* solution, that is, each person has to deal with it as he can. But I do have the feeling that a merit-based society risks creating a huge amount of resentment; maybe that´s unavoidable and the best one can do is hope that society builds some checks and balances preventive measures (education, the rule of law, other opportunities) so what the malignant resentful won´t be able to reach power positions in which to inflict large-scale damage.

    Best regards.

    • Richard Landes says:

      good point. Sagan has a remarkable comment in his Honey and the Hemlock, about how, given the overwhelming power of the dominating imperative (zero-sum thinking), to build a democracy on principles of mutual renunciation of the this kind of paranoia (do onto others before they do onto you), is really a kind of miracle.

      your comment about the current PC approach goes to the heart of the matter: education is important but insufficient as a millennial tool for perfecting society (it’s not even sufficient for the modest demotic ambitions of a democracy). The techniques that work well sometimes within a civil framework (build self-esteem), can backfire when applied as a blanket maneuver.

      i know i have some good solid agnostic-atheists commenting here, and i always appreciate their smart and shrewd remarks. but i’d suggest here that a religious commitment to these principles may, evolutionarily, prove to be the most valuable source of the inwardly generated desire to do what “citizens have to.” in other words, if we go from the nice sounding ideas – human rights, mutual respect, positive-sum relations – to the kind of emotional issues raised by trying to implement them, we come on a series of issues – resisting negative envy, listening to criticism, self-examination, honesty – that demand a whole different range of desires.

      by and large most secular thought about democracy has been of the Adam Smith nature: rational humans, self-interested/selfish, are just fine for getting a democratic system to work. since it’s rational to prefer a society based on positive-sum behavior (more productive, more congenial to difference), all you need is rationality. my point is that positive-sum games demand a good deal of “selflessness” that is not really rational. in that sense, the rationalists (who proliferated throughout most of the “social sciences” in the 20th century) were really freeloading on the more fundamental efforts of demotic religious believers (a vigorous breed well-delineated in Weber’s Protestant Ethic).

      i think demotic religiosity is at the origin of modern democracy.

      to return to your comments. the question is what, other than a personal commitment to a God who wants you to “love your neighbor, or the stranger as yourself” can we come up with to encourage people to fight envy and Schadenfreude, self-criticize even if it means public embarrassment, and adopting positions of vulnerability? It seems so counter-indicated by life experience.

      • Sérgio says:

        “… to build a democracy on principles of mutual renunciation of the this kind of paranoia (do onto others before they do onto you), is really a kind of miracle.”

        Indeed, that´s why Western civilization is such an exception. But it´s path was paved with blood motivated by ideologies that included non-secular and secular religions.

        “your comment about the current PC approach goes to the heart of the matter: education is important but insufficient as a millennial tool for perfecting society (it’s not even sufficient for the modest demotic ambitions of a democracy). The techniques that work well sometimes within a civil framework (build self-esteem), can backfire when applied as a blanket maneuver.”

        Maccoby observes the “… typical Enlightenment ignorance of the spring of the springs of human nature. The Romantic reaction tapped deeper layers of the mind; but it also release devils from the unconscious.” Keke´s also criticizes the “optimistic faith” of the Enlightenment. Still, I think the philosophe, with all their naiveté, were right about the need/importance of education, but they were wrong in thinking it was *the* definitive solution and that evil could be erradicated for good.

        “i know i have some good solid agnostic-atheists commenting here, and i always appreciate their smart and shrewd remarks.”

        Yes, I am one of these people. :)

        “… but i’d suggest here that a religious commitment to these principles may, evolutionarily, prove to be the most valuable source of the inwardly generated desire to do what “citizens have to.” in other words, if we go from the nice sounding ideas – human rights, mutual respect, positive-sum relations – to the kind of emotional issues raised by trying to implement them, we come on a series of issues – resisting negative envy, listening to criticism, self-examination, honesty – that demand a whole different range of desires.”

        Though I agree that the “secular faith” of the Enlightenment was naive, as emotions are pervasive in all human affairs (that´s the conclusion of recent research in neuroscience), I find it unconvincing that “religious commitments” are a better solution. The historical record is not favorable in this respect and I don´t see any incompatibility with being non-religious and abide to ethical/moral standards for other reasons, from self-interest to love of *real* (not abstract) people, freedom, etc. John Keke´s develops some of these in his books.

        “…by and large most secular thought about democracy has been of the Adam Smith nature: rational humans, self-interested/selfish, are just fine for getting a democratic system to work. since it’s rational to prefer a society based on positive-sum behavior (more productive, more congenial to difference), all you need is rationality. my point is that positive-sum games demand a good deal of “selflessness” that is not really rational. in that sense, the rationalists (who proliferated throughout most of the “social sciences” in the 20th century) were really freeloading on the more fundamental efforts of demotic religious believers (a vigorous breed well-delineated in Weber’s Protestant Ethic).

        i think demotic religiosity is at the origin of modern democracy.”

        I think you simplify a bit the position os “rationalists”. Prof. Minogue´s argues quite cogently that the Western type of self-interest is quite imbued of the concept of responsabilities, duties and respect for the rule of law. In any case, he also convincingly argues that christianity was instrumental for the western development of its type of individualism. But one thing is the historical role of something and quite another its current and even intrinsic value. I think it´s obvious that secular and non-secular ideologies (which includes religions) have extremely positive, creative traits but also extremely negative, dangerous and pathological ones. And maybe that´s it: we have to leave with those facts and manage it as best as one can.

        “to return to your comments. the question is what, other than a personal commitment to a God who wants you to “love your neighbor, or the stranger as yourself” can we come up with to encourage people to fight envy and Schadenfreude, self-criticize even if it means public embarrassment, and adopting positions of vulnerability? It seems so counter-indicated by life experience.”

        Well, why not personal commitment to the well being of other people, based on one´s experience of well-being and from the desire to extend it loved ones and then to greater society?

        I fail to see how commitment to a supernatural being, for whose existence there´s no shred of evidence (and in fact, contradicts all the accumulated scientific knowledge) , who keeps permanently hidden and allows the continuous amount of evil one sees in the world, could serve as a better basis for the common good.

        Best regards.

  2. Rich Rostrom says:

    “the Chomskyite Bush doctrine”?

    Even Chomsky has never blamed the U.S. for all the bad governments in the world. His focus has always been on exclusively criticizing the U.S. (and its allies) while resolutely ignoring the sins of anyone else. Not denying those sins, or blaming them on the U.S., but just not talking about them.

    As for the distortion of the Bush Doctrine (our support of dictators is all that prevents democracy): Bush himself clearly knows better than that – he used armed force to remove dictatorships for which the U.S. had no responsibility, and then expended great efforts to build up civil societies in their places.

    Bush never said there was a universal yearning for democracy; he said there was a yearning for freedom. It is arguable that freedom implies democracy – that people are not free unless their government is answerable to them – but they are not equivalent.

    • Richard Landes says:

      i think it’s hard to say that chomsky doesn’t blame the USA and Israel for most of the problems in the world today. if in principle he allows other sources of oppression, his obsessive focus and (as you point out) his lack of interest in any of these other sources no matter how problematic, makes it hard to take seriously some claim that he “never said” something like what i said.

      what i mean is, the underlying presupposition that justifies chomsky’s “self-critical” obsession with the political behavior of his own cultures (Judaism and the US), is the idea that, were it not for our intervention, things would be a whole lot better, that most cultures have a default mode that makes them okay (a form of liberal cognitive egocentrism), and it’s our support for dictators that makes them continue to dominate. (Here 1951 in Iran becomes the paradigm of US intervention against democracy, for authoritarian political leaders.

      As for Bush, i’d just say that anyone who can talk about turning Iraq into a democracy and then creating a domino effect in the rest of the region, shares the liberal cognitive egocentrism i detect in chomsky.

  3. [...] people the vote, that military alliances don’t give a free hand to hostile partners. Without a democratic culture of fairness, tolerance, ability to self-criticize, and respect for the “other,” and can, [...]

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