My first book was titled Mal Occhio: The Underside of Vision, and explored a world I knew from growing up in an Italian American family, one where common ailments (stomachache, headache, fever) were often attributed to mal occhio or “evil eye.” My point here is not to revive that story, but to point out that the operating principle behind mal occhio in our tradition was envy: an outsider sees something—a quality, an object, a trait—that he or she admires, and beneath that open admiration lies a corrosive envy. The admiring person, evil eye cultures believe, either desires to have that object (a beautiful baby, say) for him/ herself, or wishes it harm. Behind it all lies envy, supported by the fact that the evil eye complex, in Roman times, was known simply as invidia, the word for envy. One of the side effects of the evil eye belief was a cultural inhibition on display, and on the individualism which leads to boasting. In evil eye cultures (usually villages), it is more prudent to keep one’s possessions and gifts under wraps, to downplay any good fortune one might have, so as not to incite envy and the resultant harm from evil eye. Socially, this tends to act as a check on runaway egos and tends to keep things, at least overtly, more or less balanced.
Modern societies, of course, pretend to be free of such superstitions, and indeed turn them on their head, but in truth, our industrial societies are more shot through with envy than we might suspect. We can see that this is the case by looking at any number of TV commercials, where the possession of a new car or any other shiny object is gazed at with wanting and pure envy by a neighbor. We are all, as eager consumers, meant to envy those who have beautiful or desirable objects (including women or babies) and to work hard to be able to get them. Objects, that is, are desirable not to satisfy a need, but simply because they appear to confer some magical quality on those who have them. The well-known commercial in which Jessica Simpson (herself a desired object) gives voice to her naked desire is one of the best cases ever made for this idea: She extols the benefits of Direct TV broadcast on something she calls “1080i,” and then adds the punchline: “I totally don’t know what that means, but I want it.” What more needs to be said about American commerce and its mania for inciting raw lust for objects or services consumers don’t really need?
This raw desire is partly what Pankaj Mishra writes about in his fascinating book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). For Mishra, the key concept driving the seemingly motiveless violence of terrorists and mass murderers and groups like ISIS in our time, is what he terms ressentiment. This French word connotes something akin to the English ‘resentment,’ but with more overtones and implications. Mishra quotes several well-known thinkers about this key idea, beginning with Hannah Arendt, who describes ressentiment as “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness…” The French critic Rene Girard develops this further with his term ‘appropriative mimicry’—desiring objects because the desires of others tell us that they are something to be desired. This sounds like a primer for American advertising. But Mishra explains Girard further as follows:
the human individual is subject, after satisfying his basic needs, to ‘intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess…If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being’ (66).
This is a key concept here. It is not just objects themselves that are desired; it is being, a state of mind or emotion which is hard to define and which masses of people feel but have no way of satisfying because they’re not even sure what it is (like Jessica Simpson, who admits to having no idea what it is she wants so much). All they know is that certain fortunate others seem to have it, and seem to have it because they possess certain objects; and so, to get being, the envious masses focus their desires on the objects or lifestyles of the elite.
There are a few other key ingredients that contribute to the toxic stew of our time, and Mishra traces them out at great length. Here, what’s important is to lay them out briefly. First is the general idea in most modern cultures that all are equal and therefore have the right and the capabilities to get anything they desire. Of course, this is a myth but it is a myth that has been promoted relentlessly since at least the beginning of the industrial revolution (see our Declaration of Independence). What it leads to in modern societies is the unlimited expectations that all modern populations exhibit—not just in advanced societies, but now in developing cultures as well. And of course, modern media exacerbate this situation with advertising and related media that are full of images of apparently rich and satisfied westerners enjoying all the fruits of advanced industrialism.
The other key ingredient is the fact that, in the face of these almost unlimited desires and aspirations, most people simply cannot satisfy them. Most people, that is, are as powerless as insects in comparison to the elites in advanced societies, and know that they are powerless. They find this humiliating—as Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the first to articulate. The result is that we get individuals, and whole societies, whole continents composed of envious and humiliated outsiders. These are the masses of people who want and feel they deserve what others seem to have, others who are conspicuously enjoying a wealth of possessions and a sense of “being” that comprises their ultimate desire, but which is simply beyond their reach. They can’t have it, and yet they are constantly goaded by what they see in the media—this is literally the purpose of modern media, to instill desire for useless goods in as many people as possible—to try to get it. And this leads to envy of those who have it. Envy and powerlessness and ressentiment.
The outcome of all this unsatisfied desire and powerlessness, in Mishra’s telling, is the resort to violence. In a world where some few have multiple dwellings and more goods than they know what to do with, and increasing capital to always get more, those who are so powerless they have barely enough to survive are eventually induced to do something. But what is to be done? Where can all this desire be satisfied? Where can something to change the world be found? And here is where demagogues come in. Demagogues are those who, like many of the leaders in our world today (and many more in the past) provide easy solutions to the powerlessness and frustration of the masses. Mishra cites some of them: Narendra Modi in India; Vladimir Putin in Russia; Recip Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; and of course, Donald Trump in the United States. All use the same formula, one perfected by Hitler and Mussolini (and D’Annunzio in Italy before him): they promise to bring the nation or group to a power and glory that apparently reigned in the past. For Mussolini, it was to restore Italians to the greatness of the Roman Empire. For Putin, it’s to restore Russia to the superpower status of the Soviet Union. For Trump, it’s to Make America Great again (by restoring a presumptive greatness that reigned in the immediate post-World War II period.) And more than just promising restored national greatness, the demagogues point out that those who stand in the way of this greatness are not the real culprits, the power elites and the system that favors them, but rather the scapegoats—the Kurds in Turkey or the Muslims in India or the undocumented immigrants in America. Once these troublemakers are either expelled or collared with draconian controls, so the promise goes, all the problems will vanish. It is reminiscent, of course, of the classic scapegoats used by Hitler and the Nazis, where all Germany’s troubles were attributed to the nefarious workings of the Jews. And wherever there are scapegoats, there is the corollary, the deflection of anger to the now-legitimated targets of violence. For the real satisfaction for those who are powerless and humiliated and envious lies, when all else fails as it always must, in violence.
Mishra focuses both on those who, historically, promoted theoretical violence like Nietzsche and Wagner in Germany and the Futurists like Marinetti in Italy, and on the more recent devotees of violence for its own sake like Timothy McVeigh (who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City), Ramzi Yousef (bombed the World Trade Center in 1993), and Omar Mateen (massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida). They are the real exemplars of the anger that Mishra seeks to document and understand: “For them the act of violence is all; they have no vision of an alternative political reality on a global or even local scale, like the one of a classless society” (292). That is to say, unlike even the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these modern purveyors of violence—and those who join ISIS come instantly to mind—seem to have no need for justifications or rationalizations for their violence. Like those who drove airliners into the World Trade Center on 9/11, the act of violence is sufficient unto itself. Mishra puts this in historical context, citing the first aerial bombing of Libya by Italians in 1911, as “confirm(ing) that the emerging New Man, theorized by Nietzsche and Sorel, and empowered by technology, saw violence as an existential experience—an end in itself, and perpetually renewable” (248). That it kills innocents in no way diminishes its appeal, and may even enhance it. In a sense, these killers have had enough of rationalizations and justifications; all have failed them over time; every program for equality and restitution has failed and ended in further powerlessness. Mishra puts it this way:
Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge (341).
For certain people whose envy and frustration are great enough, this can sooner or later lead to the fatal decision to turn fantasy into reality, as with the suicide killers of ISIS, whom Mishra reads as follows:
In all cases they move from feelings of misery, guilt, righteousness and impotence to what Herzl [Theodor, a founder of Zionism] called, admiringly, the ‘voluptuousness of a great idea and of martyrdom’: a grand vision of heroic self-sacrifice in which a life of freedom can finally be achieved by choosing one’s mode of death (295).
So there it is. In a world where freedom and self-determination are promised to everyone, but one in which millions are prevented from ever reaching anything like freedom but are subjected to constant humiliation instead, the feelings generated can lead to the heroic vision of the martyr’s death; the suicide bomber who kills innocents and may even be aware that his act will fail, like all previous ones, to bring about change, but who at least can achieve the freedom of choosing his own death.
Thus does envy lead to ressentiment and ressentiment, in a surprising number of cases, lead to the violence we are becoming accustomed to. And thus does our modern world, impelled by a capitalist system that depends on inciting envy in millions of consumers, come to resemble, more than we might imagine, the overheated world of the Italian village. The problem—and it is serious—lies in the fact that so far, the modern world has no safety valve like mal occhio to mitigate the toxic effects of all this supercharged envy. There is no set of practices to tamp down the rampant individualism and desire that seem to be the inevitable product of our diseased economic/political system. Instead, the opposite is true: the gulf between the few rich and the masses of the poor engendered by global capitalism is driven ever wider, in the process dramatizing the open wounds that must eventually lead to explosions among those left out; to violence among the marginalized, who are growing more and more marginalized and enraged by the day. And to the rise of more and more demagogues who seek to divert that legitimate anger onto convenient scapegoats for their own self-aggrandizement. Whether, in this century, it will take the kinds of bloodbaths that erupted in the 20th century for people to realize they are being led down a fool’s path to armaggedon, is still to be decided; but with everything conspiring to drive envy and humiliation ever higher, the signs do not look good.