I do not believe that I am exaggerating if I say that we are living in exasperated societies. For reasons that are clear in some instances and less reasonable in others, movements that express rejection, anger, or fear are multiplying. Civil societies burst onto the scene in opposition to those whom they perceive as a stagnant political establishment that is estranged from common interests and is impotent when the main problems overwhelming people must be confronted.
This entire situation should probably be explained in terms of the social changes we have experienced and our inability to either understand these changes or manage them. We have impotently witnessed a series of deep and abrupt transformations of our ways of life. There are some who blame these changes upon globalization, while others blame emigration, technology, or a crisis of values. There are people everywhere who are disappointed for varied and often contradictory reasons, on the right and the left, by globalization’s deficiencies or its excessiveness. This malaise is represented by phenomena as heterogeneous as the indignados movement or by the rise of the far right in many European countries. The number of discontented people is growing everywhere. In political competition, those who succeed in most effectively representing or managing the malaise have the most to gain. Nothing is worse than appearing in the eyes of public opinion as someone who is resigned to the current state of affairs. This probably explains the difficulties of traditional parties that are more aware of the limits of politics and are less capable of bearing responsibility for new agendas than new social movements and that offer balanced positions incomprehensible to people who are enraged.
The spreading of this emotional framework would not be possible without the media and social networks. In this irascible society, a considerable part of the media’s function consists of bringing outbursts of anger to the forefront, while social networks are ignited at different points, with actual emotional bubbles being formed. Temperament is favored in relation to discourse within this mixture of information, entertainment, and showmanship that characterizes our public space. Virulence is seen as a show of sincerity, and nuanced discourse is perceived as lacking authenticity. Those who are most offensive gain the most attention in the public sphere. As a result of the media and social networks, there are benefits that accrue to persons who know how to perpetuate a show.
We must begin by recognizing the greatness of political anger or of the desire to reject the unacceptable. Actual conditions in our world are scandalous. Whereas apathy situates events under the sign of necessity and repetition, anger uncovers disorder behind the apparent order of things, and signifies a refusal to regard the intolerable present as a destiny to which people must submit.
However, a description of indignations would be incomplete if we failed to take into account their ambivalence and cacophony. Annoyance with political impotence has led to movements for democratic regeneration, but it is also the source of the “right without complexes” that is achieving gains in so many countries. There are victims, but there are also extremely diverse types of victimhood. Moreover, the status of being an indignado, critic, or victim does not turn an individual into someone who is politically infallible.
In order to illustrate collective anger in a varied way, we can consider how American politics since 2008 has witnessed the rise of two movements expressing authentic social anger with opposite political views (the Tea Party and Occupy), along with the fact that recent electoral cycles have been marked by political polarization and the rise of extreme forms of discourse. Donald Trump’s success has been interpreted as the intense anger of the conservative population. At times, however, we forget that what launched the Tea Party was the Obama Government’s announcement of new financial bailout measures for large banks, which is exactly the same event that set in motion the alterglobalist left’s protest movements.
Indignation is usually not accompanied by reflectiveness. We therefore have valid reasons for distrusting majority-based anger, which often results in the identification of enemies such as foreigners, Islam, political establishment, or globalization, resulting in unfair generalizations that hinder a balanced attribution of responsibilities. We need to distinguish at all times between indignation in response to injustice and reactive anger that is seeking to find guilty parties while it fails when it comes up to building collective responsibility.
The fact that indignation is more strongly oriented toward denunciation than toward construction explains its limits when it comes to it being transformed into political initiatives. An exasperated society may be a society where nothing changes, including the circumstances that have awakened so much irritation. The main problem that we are facing is how to ensure that indignation, instead of being reduced to fruitless agitation, will result in effective transformation of our societies.
In response to the present overwhelming of our capabilities for configuring the future, reactions vary from despair to anger, but, in both instances, there is an implicit surrender to passivity. We become convinced that no initiatives properly speaking are possible. Acts of indignation are apolitical acts, insofar as they eschew a lasting structure for intervention. Political involvement generally seems limited by a form of mobilization that seldom produces constructive experiences and those who govern respond to it by feigning dialogue without doing anything. We are experiencing an irritated society and an agitated political system, where interaction hardly produces anything new, as we would be entitled to expect given the problems we are facing.
Politics is reduced, on one hand, to prudent management without enthusiasm, and, on the other hand, to brutal expression of passions without rationality, and it is simplified to a struggle between gray managers of impotence and disrupters, between Hollande and Le Pen, to give an example (Hollandia and LePenia, as Dick Howard said).
The world’s misery must be governed politically. The situation would require putting an end to unproductive exasperation and reorienting the disorder of emotions toward argumentation. Everything is dependent upon our capability of translating the language of exasperation into politics, in other words, into converting this multi-faceted amalgam of irritations into genuine projects and transformations. This would provide coherence to these expressions of anger, and create a public space where everything can be discussed.