As the economic recession bites more deeply into ordinary people’s lives, the social behaviour of the wealthiest has come under closer scrutiny whether it is tax avoidance, accumulated profits or their attitude towards those poorer than themselves. The resulting picture has not been very pretty.
Responses now coming from the rich and powerful contain claims that scrutineers have debased their argument by using the politics of jealousy or envy. Both jealousy and envy are poorly understood emotions and this ignorance needs to be addressed before considering whether such arguments have any validity.
The first thing to understand is that jealousy and envy are different emotions, have separate dynamics and function in very different ways.
Jealousy is a three-sided emotion. It involves an established pairing or relationship that experiences an ‘attack’ by a third party. In a healthy relationship, jealousy can actually be beneficial. As one utilises their jealous feelings to deal with the interloper, their partner can experience this as feeling cared for. Seeing off an interloper to an established relationship is protective and clearly demonstrates the value placed upon both partner and relationship. It is good to know someone loves us enough to become protective in the face of outside attack. As with all extreme emotions, jealousy can be harmful but by the time this occurs the feeling will have slipped over the edge into envy. Where jealousy can have a positive outcome, the only useful purpose envy serves is to highlight psychological insecurities in the envier themselves. Otherwise, it has nothing to recommend it at all.
Envy is a two-sided emotion where the dynamic is between the envier and the envied and it works like this. The envier sees something desirable in another (the envied) that they believe they can never possess, regardless of any factual evidence to the contrary. The fury that arises is envy and produces two outcomes.
Stage One is where the envier severs any relationship connection and then blames the envied for the lack of that connection. With the envier responsible for this communication failure, there is little the envied can do. Of itself, a relationship breakdown is survivable. What makes envy the most destructive of all emotions is the next step.
Stage Two is triggered by the feeling of loss within the envier. They have seen or experienced a quality or ability in another that they believe is lacking within themselves and which they believe they can never possess. For some people, awareness of lack could be a spur to attain this quality or ability for themselves but not in the case of envy. The envier perceives the envied as an attacker who has caused them loss. This perception triggers a furious reaction which causes the envier to launch an all-out attack in retaliation against the source of the problem. Please bear in mind, that this is not straightforward assault but an attempt to wipe out the envied from existence itself. It is not enough to hurt; it is not enough to destroy; when this emotion rides high, the envier is seeking to annihilate the envied and everything they represent and feels perfectly justified in doing so. There is no compassion; no willingness to consider alternative viewpoints and the only acceptable outcome is the complete removal of the envied from existence. As a result, nothing is permitted to stand in the way of an envious attack and every weapon at the envier’s disposal is brought into play. History is littered with the outcomes of the politics of envy.
Envy is the only emotion-in-action that has no redeeming features, which is why it is considered the deadliest of the seven sins. Envy is what is meant by the ‘Evil Eye’.
Therapeutically speaking, it requires a very high level of skill in both practitioner and client to lay bare the bones of a full-blown envious attack and when politicians or the wealthy begin to accuse the poor of envy or envious jealousy we step on extremely dangerous ground. If envy has any role in public life, it can only be in the politics of annihilation because this is all envy is capable of.
When the wealthy start alleging that they are victims of political envy, it is important to look at how this dynamic is being played out. For example, how easy is it for the poor to make their own case? Does the evidence support the allegation? If it can be demonstrated that the “accused” have been systematically silenced by their accusers, then we might be looking at a projection. If it can also be demonstrated that the “accused” are experiencing personally destructive outcomes as a result of the actions of their accusers, then we are probably looking at the politics of envy.
It might sound odd to suggest that the wealthy envy the poor but, on balance, current evidence suggests that this is exactly the kind of politics in play at the present time. We can be grateful to the unconscious awareness of the accusers for naming the problem so accurately.
Speaking personally, I have never found the experience of being envied to be a pleasant one and I see no good reason to change my mind. If we are truly now functioning within the collective politics of envy, then the envied are facing the annihilation of all they value, up to and including their own lives, from enviers incapable of any form of compassion or mercy. Those in the throes of envy are unrelenting in their destructive pursuit of the envied. The process will not end unless or until every remnant of the envied is obliterated from existence, or until some outside intervention places firm boundaries on the actions of the envier.
Until the politics of envy are properly understood and contained, the world can expect to learn about this subject in the hardest possible way.
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Thank you for this post. Envy is indeed destructive and often deadly. It is a silent killer…I have been thinking about how shame inducing it is to consider the role it plays in interpersonal and inter-groups conflicts for some time (particularly in racism), even it is glaring obvious it is part of the dynamics, we pretend we don’t notice…. Your piece has given me much to think about. I absolutely agree with the view that marginalised groups, contrary to what many may think are particularly susceptible to the envious feelings of the more privileged. Thank you.