The anatomy of envy


Societies marked by the skewed distribution of resources and assets generate envy. A society divided by the differential access to resources is united in the universal emotion of envy felt by all its members irrespective of their social standing and location. Envy can be seen as the psychological reflex of certain definite tangible socio-economic arrangements based on power. What power divides, envy unites. Envy can be simply defined as a feeling of resentment experienced towards what others have or are, coupled with an acute dissatisfaction with what one oneself has or is. A realisation of relative deprivation combined with a derogatory self-image, it is a symptom of a state of affairs in which people are acutely aware of the presence of the lack of correspondence between effort and reward.
It is a measure of the distance between what we possess and what we would like to possess determined through the gulf between what others own and what we own. A child of material and social schisms, it spawns further divisions, both spiritual and material. It provides the basis for both peaceful struggle for self-betterment and hostile dispossession. Urging competitive labour in society by compelling human beings to strain the utmost limits of their capacity for work in the pursuit of imitative acquisition of goods, objects and conveniences, envy rationalises the division of labour and the apportioning of labour’s dividends. Some of the popular social situations generating envy are racism, sexism, gerontocracy, plutocracy, etc, corresponding to divisions based on race, gender, age, wealth, etc, respectively.
Enjoying a diffuse presence across the whole social fabric, envy defines vertical or between-group and horizontal or within-group relations in a society. Vertical or between-group envy regulates relations between the members of two different social groups in which the dominant social group enjoys relations of dominance with respect to the lesser social groups. Horizontal or within-group envy defines the nature of exchanges between members of the same social group, specifically the dominated social group. Within-group relations also exhibit verticality when the internal struggle for domination takes place between different factions of the dominant social group. This hybrid type can be called in-group vertical envy.
Envy is also accompanied by aggression in situations wherein non-violent competition is made impossible by either vast difference in the exercise of power (vertical social relations) or near-parity of the use of force (horizontal relations, and also the in-group verticality). Vertical relations characterised by major difference between groups in available and disposable power are the dominant form of social relations. Vertical envy, based on huge difference of power between a strong and weak social group, is primarily aggressive because the purpose of this type is to ensure smooth and continued transfer of both existing and new value from the weak social groups to the powerful social group and the consequent concentration of value in the latter.
Horizontal envy within the same dominated social group, based on near-parity of power is also primarily aggressive. The reason for this primacy of aggression in horizontal relations is the vehement desire of the weak to copy the behavioural patterns of the leading groups. Just as the fundamental logic of contact between the dominant and the dominated is based on physical or non-physical violence, so the latter think it a matter of utmost urgency and privilege to institute their internal relations on the same basis of aggression which they experience as a routine matter of everyday existence. Horizontal envy facilitates the above-mentioned transfer through largely symbolic means. This envy is mainly symbolic as it does not result in the overall change in the social standing of the weak group but creates the impression through petty acts of dispossession that such a change has taken place.
Vertical and horizontal envy also charge the first and second stages of Fanon’s cycle of violence respectively. A third stage is also envisaged in this cycle which normally consists in sending aggression upwards in a manner analogous to paying back a debt. The recent riots in England can be seen as a weak form of this third stage. Vertical envy is mostly legally sanctioned; it is normalised to the extent that it lays down the limits of the legal system in divided societies. Horizontal envy is legally penalised but tacitly sanctioned to be used as an argument against the unruly nature of the masses and the indispensable need for law and order. Trying to tackle horizontal envy without first dealing with vertical envy can lead to social and legal formalism. The third stage of the cycle is patently considered a glaring violation of law because it attempts to reverse the prevailing flow of envy in society.
In order to create healthy futures for mankind, envy needs to be minimised substantially through the establishment of a reasonable social contract. The basic step towards establishing such a contract is to realize the importance of providing socio-economic justice to all. Social justice is superior to legal justice because of its anticipatory nature. The latter only deals with wrongs that have already been committed but the former considerably forecloses the commission of wrongs, to begin with.

The writer is a Senior Policy Analyst working for the OIC’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and can be contacted at [email protected]