Extremism as a failure of status

September 03, 2021

Extremism as a failure of status

Editorial credit: Robert P. Alvarez / Shutterstock.com

Sophie Kaldor

How are you feeling? Yes, really... how do you feel right now? Perhaps energised? Slightly nervous? Maybe even a little annoyed by being asked to answer this question... This is meant to be an article about far-right extremism, so what do feelings have to do with it? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Scientific literature has now fairly well established that humans are guided by emotions first, then reason.[1] Affective experience completely colours a person’s decision-making process, both in shaping the framework through which we evaluate choices, as well as the ability to pick between these choices.[2] The ability to decide is dependent on the ability to feel.[3]

Parents, marketing agents and politicians know this intuitively. But research on the central role of emotion in decision-making has only really boomed in the last decade, popularised by books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Governments, meanwhile, are only just starting to consider its effect in designing policy and even here its application is scattered: it is easier for policymakers to see how people’s feelings matter when it comes to increasing vaccination sign-ups, for example, than in deterring a violent extremist.

And yet if political actors are guided by emotions (just like everyone else), then we need to understand what feelings are motivating extremists when carrying out an attack. Determining anyone’s emotional state is not an easy task, let alone that of terrorists. Perpetrators’ public statements of intent (so-called ‘manifestos’) nevertheless offer us an imperfect lens into their motivational drivers and, through analysis, an insight into the emotions underpinning and self-justifying their attacks.

In a research paper published earlier this year with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, I examined whether the emotional process of ressentiment plays a role in motivating far-right violent extremists to carry out an attack.[4] I found evidence of ressentiment in my study of three far-right extremists’ manifestos: those of Anders Behring Breivik (Norway, 2011), Brandon Tarrant (Christchurch, N.Z., 2019) and Patrick Crusius (El Paso, U.S., 2019).[5]

The manifestos selected for the study are particularly significant within the white supremacist movement, both as a source of ideology and as inspiration for later attacks. Their central tenet— that white European populations are being deliberately replaced through migration and the population growth of minority groups—has a long history in far-right circles. While the ‘Great Replacement’ theory has been explicitly referenced by some far-right politicians, perhaps even more concerning is its insidious incorporation within mainstream political vocabulary across the West.[6]

But what is a ressentiment? A ressentiment is a long-term disposition directed at a hostile external object, which the resenting person or group believes occupies an undeserved status.[7] Unmet grievances are held on to and nursed until the resenting person derives pleasure from their own victimhood.[8] Ressentiments are more stable than ‘hot’ emotions such as anger and hatred; they are built over time and eventually completely distort the person’s perception of those resented.[9] While there are overlaps between the two concepts, regular ‘resentment’ can be summarised as a response to failures of justice, while ressentiment arises from a failure of status.[10]

According to Nietzsche, ‘ressentiment man’ undergoes a three-step process: Firstly, he perceives his inability to live the life of importance, supremacy and nobility he desires.[11] Secondly, believing himself to be completely unable to achieve this aspiration, he nevertheless retains his misplaced sense of supremacy.[12] Thirdly, the ressentiment man refuses to accept his powerlessness and instead directs his hatred toward his ‘victorious rivals’, namely, those whom he feels enjoy more power or prestige than they deserve.[13]

By analysing far-right extremists’ manifestos, it emerges that the extremist perpetrator, like ressentiment man, experiences ‘repressed vengeance’ due to what he believes is a decline in his own noble status brought on by the demise of Western civilisation.[14] Somewhat surprisingly, across the manifestos, the object of the far-right extremist’s ressentiment is the economic and political establishment, not the migrant community. While the authors of these manifestos believe multiculturalism is to blame for their status decline, the perpetrators hold elites (rather than migrants) morally culpable for this trend. The extremist perceives that current norms and values have engrained this group’s power, and thus sees violence as the only way of correcting the status imbalance.

It is important to note that extremists’ emotions do not justify their actions, nor does this research suggest violent extremism is predestined by a particular emotional state. Clearly not everyone who experiences ressentiment is or will become an extremist. However, as emotions can explain our actions, it is valuable for deterrence efforts to understand whether ressentiment is an important motivating factor in violent extremism.[15]

For policymakers, it is clear that ressentiment’s all- encompassing mindset means any government attempt to negotiate with extremists on political terms is futile. The ressentiment extremist possesses political goals which are incapable of compromise. Assuming that conciliatory policies such as restrictions on migration will reduce the far-right extremist’s actions contradicts the entrenched nature of their emotional-political point of view. However, since ressentiment follows a three-step process, there remains a possibility for early targeted intervention. New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern’s ‘Wellbeing Budget’, which devoted NZ$455 million towards mental health services in the wake of the Christchurch attack, is illustrative of a possible emotions-centred approach to targeting root causes of extremism.[16]

For concerned citizens, it is useful to identify other instances of ressentiment in everyday politics, the media and our private lives. Here Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s diagnosis of ressentiment in pre-WWII Germany is instructive: we can draw parallels between the resentful, naïvely utopian culture which bred the German Nazi youth movement and our own increasingly polarised society.[17] Both then and now, groups across the political spectrum hold the deep belief that some other group— be they non-whites, Trump voters or leftist media—are preventing society from becoming what it should be, for those who deserve it.

Our culture is awash in opposition of each other’s ‘should-be reality’—reciprocal ressentiment—and none, including Christians, are immune to such feelings. It is relatively easy for Christians to transition from lamenting the West’s increasing secularisation towards nurturing a personal sense of victimhood at Christianity’s lost status. Given ressentiment’s ubiquity as well as its potentially devastating consequences, we face the fundamental question of how society can satisfy the human need for recognition in such a way that one’s identity is not conceived in opposition to another’s.[18]

Christians have a unique answer to this conundrum: humans are not only equal in their status as created beings made in God’s image, but their value is fundamentally dependent on the status their Creator accords them, not the evaluations of others. This is why the apostle Peter could write to the early Christians calling them ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession’, when from an earthly perspective, his readers represented a wide cross-section of society and belonged neither to one earthly race, nor class nor nation.[19] Peter reframes these classic measures of status to point to a new and non-exclusive way of viewing one’s identity: as one people ‘from every tribe and language’ belonging to God.[20] It is easy to take for granted this God-given status when Christians are in the cultural majority. Yet our fundamental worth in God’s eyes— irrespective of social status—is even more important to clarify and rely upon when the proportions are flipped. There is no room for status anxiety when taking equality before God seriously.


Sophie Kaldor holds an MA Global Affairs from Yale University and begins her PhD in International Relations at London School of Economics this autumn.



[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (Vintage Books, 2012), pp52-59; Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), pp24, 103; Jonathan Evans and Keith Stanovich, ‘Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate’. Perspectives on Psychological Science Vol.8, 2013, pp223-241.

[2] Jon Elster, Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior (MIT Press, 1999), p165.

[3] Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Putnam, 1994); Haidt, Op.cit., pp52-53.

[4] Sophie Kaldor, ‘Far-Right Violent Extremism as a Failure of Status: Extremist Manifestos through the Lens of Ressentiment’. ICCT Research Paper, 11 May 2021: https://icct.nl/publication/far-right-violent-extremism-as- a-failure-of-status-extremist-manifestos- ressentiment/.

[5] This research drew upon the discourse analysis categories of political scientist Reinhard Wolf. See R. Wolf, ‘Political emotions as public processes: analyzing transnational ressentiments in discourses’. Researching emotions in international relations: Methodological perspectives on the emotional turn, eds. Maéva Clément and Eric Sangar (Springer, 2017), pp231-254.

[6] Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner, ‘The Great Replacement’: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2019), p17.

[7] R. Wolf, Op.cit., p234.

[8] Paul Hoggett, ‘Ressentiment and Grievance’. British Journal of Psychotherapy Vol.34 no. 3, 2018, pp393-407.

[9] R. Wolf, Op.cit., p234; Julian A. Oldmeadow and Susan T. Fiske, ‘Contentment to Resentment: Variation in Stereotype Content Across Status Systems’. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy Vol.12 no. 1, 2012, pp324–329.

[10] Elizabeth Brighi, ‘The Globalisation of Resentment: Failure, Denial, and Violence in World Politics’. Millennium Journal of International Studies Vol.44 no. 3, 2016, pp414-415.

[11] Max Scheler, Ressentiment (Marquette University Press, 1994), p54; William Remley, ‘Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment as the psychological structure for Sartre’s theory of anti-Semitism’. Journal of European Studies Vol.46 no. 2, 2016, p147.

[12] Remley, Ibid., p147.

[13] Wolf, Op.cit., p234.

[14] Remley, Op.cit., p147.

[15] Elster, Op.cit., p165; Peter Goldie, The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp37–49.

[16] New Zealand Treasury, ‘The Wellbeing Budget’. Budget 2019, 30 May 2019.

[17] Andrew Root, ‘Pastoral leadership lessons from Bonhoeffer: The alt-right, the twitter mob, and ressentiment’. Dialog Vol.59, no. 2, 2020, pp82-92.

[18] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: the politics of recognition (Princeton University Press, 1994), p26.

[19] 1 Peter 2:9, English Standard Version (ESV).

[20] Revelation 5:9-10, English Standard Version (ESV).

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