Michelle Schwarze’s engaging new book, Recognizing Resentment: Sympathy, Injustice, and Liberal Political Thought (Cambridge UP, 2020), delves into the idea and role of resentment within the political environment and how spectatorial resentment can work to support the pursuit of justice within society and political systems. Schwarze argues that resentment, as an emotion, recognizes the humanity in others, and, if realized appropriately, can help integrate emotions into political life. The liberal political project focuses so much on rationality and eliding the emotions, the turn to resentment and, from it, sympathy can seem at odds both with the modern liberal approach and with our general understanding of resentment. Schwarze’s research centers around three thinkers from the Scottish Enlightenment, Bishop Joseph Butler, Adam Smith, and David Hume. Recognizing Resentment also integrates work by Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville, Samuel von Pufendorf, as all of these thinkers were considering the role of sentiment, specifically sympathy within liberal society, and this is a path towards sympathetic resentment, which allows a citizen to put themselves in the shoes of another, particularly an individual who has been wronged or is a victim, and to advocate for justice on behalf of another. Spectatorial resentment is the embodiment of this capacity, this ability to adopt emotions on behalf of other people—especially anger—and this can sustain a kind of contagion sympathy.
Recognizing Resentment’s focus on Butler, Hume, and Smith as their work is trying to get at the emotions that are behind justice, pursuing the specific concern with social trust. The individual needs to be able to adopt the resentment of others—this also provides a kind of equality across citizens, thus leading to a form of political equality, which is a key component of liberal society. Schwarze also discussed the pitfalls or problems with sympathetic resentment, and the forms of inequality that can undermine the capacity for true spectatorial resentment. If citizens are too stratified, particularly based on class and wealth, it becomes quite difficult to sympathize with each other. Recognizing Resentment: Sympathy, Injustice, and Liberal Political Thought leads the reader through the complexities of affect within politics and political thought, and argues for the importance of resentment within a just political order.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @gorenlj.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.