Envy – the deadly sin of radical politics


I don’t know about money, but in the twentieth century envy has been the source of all evil, or at least most of it.

It was envy that motivated the two totalitarian ideologies, which between them account for the vast graveyard of somewhere from 100 to 200 million murdered, starved, worked to death, and killed in wars of aggression they had unleashed. They also account for the great bulk of oppression and persecution, denial of human rights, economic devastation and general human misery inflicted on hundreds of millions more.

German Nazism, or national socialism as it called itself to distinguish it from the international socialism of the communist Soviet Union, was primarily animated by envy and resentment. Inwardly, its anti-Semitism, as historian Gotz Aly has convincingly argued, had been an expression of economic resentment against the professional and business success of the relatively small Jewish-German minority, perhaps the best assimilated and integrated such minority in the whole of Europe at the time. Outwardly, its aggression had been motivated by the desire for land and resources, which the Slavs had in abundance and the Germans, according to Nazi ideology, needed and deserved instead.

Revolutionary socialism, or communism or international socialism as it had sometimes been known, was in turn animated by economic envy of the have-nots and the status envy of the intellectuals against the property owners. Communism’s ostensible quest for equality relied on, at least for its visceral emotional power if not the actual tangible result, the violent drive towards the lowest common denominator – tearing down the few rather than lifting up the many. Capitalism, for all its faults, is propelled by an aspiration “I want to have what X has got”, not in a sense of taking X’s particular possession but in acquiring an analogous possession of one’s own. In communism, on the other hand, “I want to have what X has got” refers precisely to taking away from X to give to oneself. All too often, however, when “I want to have what X has got” is not possible or practicable (there might, for example, be ten different people in addition to you who want X’s otherwise indivisible possession all to their own exclusive use), “I don’t want X to have what he or she has got” becomes an acceptable substitute. If I can’t have it – if I can’t take it away from you for myself – neither should you.

Oprah has once asked Bono (big celebrities apparently need only one name) to explain the difference between the American and the Irish temperament. Bono obliged with a story of a man walking down the valley with his son and pointing out to him a big mansion on the hill. In America, the father tells his son: “One day, I will have a mansion like this man”; in Ireland he says: “One day, I will get that motherf***er”. This, in essence, is a difference between capitalism and socialism. For all its idealism and noble rhetoric of equality, justice and fairness, the naked drive for possession – of power and things – is the greatest driver of the revolution. Envy, resentment and hatred of some – few – of one’s fellow human beings is a surer and stronger impulse for action than love for many – the masses.

Curiously, envy is the only one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins to feature among the Ten Commandments adopted from Judaism. It is the last, tenth proscription “Thou shall not covet” or to expand on it in full, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The prohibition relates to both desiring someone else’s partner (a romantic ideal, though the ancients, and the not so ancients, could be as proprietary about women as about chattels) as well as desiring someone else’s things. Condemned are not abstract aspirations – “I would like to have a wife – or husband (like my neighbour does)” or “I would like to have a donkey”; such sentiments, after all, are the necessary motivators to put in an (more often than not) honest effort towards achieving a respectable objective – but the feeling of envy for what another person possesses and we want to deprive them of so we can have it instead. The Israelites – or their God, depending on the extent of your belief – certainly understood the destructive power of envy, even if they would have found difficult to conceive the share scale of horror unleashed by its politicisation more than three millennia later (and of which their descendants became perhaps the most focused victim). It is a lesson we seem to be condemned to relearn – and forget – anew every generation or so.

The primacy of envy is perhaps one reason why the communist utopia has proved so difficult to conceptualise, much less actually implement in practice. It is, after all, much easier to tear down, take away and destroy what exists than create something new, whether we’re talking about a bag of grain or a whole society. Envy is a destructive passion; at best it’s zero sum (your loss is my gain), at worst it’s simply zero, as we drag someone else down to our own level. If capitalism’s greed and acquisitiveness drive us to keep up with the Joneses, communism’s envy and resentment work to ensure the Joneses are kept down with us.

Road to hell is paved with good intentions, and at no time in history has this been truer than during the last century. That, at least, is the most generous spin on the failed totalitarian experiments of the past. It’s truer to say that talk is cheap, which is why the Good Book says “by their fruits you shall know them”. The actions and their results are also much better at revealing the true motivations. Unintended consequences are rarer than you think, so look deeply behind lofty slogans. Envy might be traditionally green tinged, but it’s at its most deadly when red or black.