Wanting the Worst

“Let’s talk about envy. Give us some more beer…”

That’s Ivan, in Yuri Olesha’s short novel, Envy, published in 1927. Ivan is drawing the young and envious Nikolai further into a plot to disrupt Soviet society. His protégé, Nikolai Kavalero, dreams of glory but is stuck on the margins of society. He stews over the privileges and honors bestowed on others. Ivan feeds Nickolai’s envy, his sense of unfair exclusion.

Olesha’s novel is cited by Helmut Schoeck in his magisterial work, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, originally published in German in 1966 and republished by Liberty Fund in 1987. According to Schoeck, Olesha’s novel is a rarity in openly addressing this powerful and disruptive emotion. Envy, says Schoeck, is something we all feel but hardly ever talk about. Other negative emotions are granted a degree of public respect. We can admit to hatred, fear, and even jealousy, but envy is a quality we attribute only to others, whose envy is to be feared.

That’s because the envious have only one real goal: to see the people they envy brought low. In Schoeck’s telling, the envious man doesn’t want the good things—the house, the farm, the wife, the children—of the person he envies. He simply wants that person to lose those good things. The pleasure he looks forward to is the misery of his rival. The rival, moreover, need not even know he is the target of envy. The man who envies hides his resentment, typically by dressing it up in the clothes of altruism. He calls for “social justice,” for example, when what he really wants is to inflict suffering on the people he resents.

Why does he envy? Where does the resentment come from? We can refer the question to Cain, or Joseph’s siblings—or to a host of other primal figures, a great many of whom just happen to be brothers. In a chapter on “The Psychology of Envy,” Schoeck traces “the propensity to envy” to sibling rivalry. The sources explain why envy so often fixes on very small differences, “low threshold values.” We seldom envy people who are stationed far above us in the social hierarchy. Envy is for those who are close and with whom we can make minute comparisons.

Schoeck substantiates observations like this with an abundance of ethnographic data. Envy is informed and enriched by his combing anthropological studies of the Hopi, the Dobuans (Melanesia), the Lovedu (South Africa), the Siriono (Bolivia) and many other peoples formerly called “primitive.” His point is that envy is not some unintended by-product of capitalism or of economies with significant divisions of labor. Envy, to the contrary, is basic to the human condition and is to be found in all human societies—though it is elaborated, checked, and suppressed in many different ways.

If Schoeck is right about envy as a human universal that everywhere has significant social consequences, he has at least a partial foundation for a general “theory of behavior.” But just how significant are those social consequences? For the Dobuans, those consequences are severe. We know of this island society mainly through the work of the anthropologist Reo Fortune who depicted the natives as paralyzed by fear of one another. Any slight advantage that a man might gain in gardening or trade will subject him to the envious spite of those around him, who will use supernatural means to bring him down. He knows this about others because he feels the same envious spite towards them. The consequence is a society of extreme egalitarianism in which all alike suffocate their ambitions to avoid the dangers of being envied.

The Dobuans may be an extreme case, but Schoeck offers an abundance of other ethnological evidence that envy afflicts social life in a great variety of small-scale societies. Fear of the “evil eye” suppresses entrepreneurship and innovation among peoples across the world. To do anything in a superlative manner is to court ill-feeling among the less skilled, and that ill-feeling is channeled into the subtext of daily life.

But does envy continue to dog societies at more advanced levels? The burden of Schoeck’s book is to trace the workings of envy in every kind of regime, from kingdoms to democracies, and from theocracies to communist states. At the same time he is building out his theory that envy is one of the glues of human society. Some of our key institutions, according to Schoeck, exist to curtail envy or to transform it into something else. Schoeck calls this the “inhibiting effect” of envy. Fear of envy pulls people back from the sorts of achievement that would unravel a social order that has to provide some degree of ordinary stability. Thus, many cultures view the truly exceptional man as tempting Fate. Some societies make room for overachievers, but view them as risking the envy of the gods. Odysseus and Aeneas do not have an easy time of it. These stories serve as cautionary tales against hubris—and in this way, envy serves as a brake on reckless ambition.

Schoeck notes that American social science has a peculiar blind spot for envy. He traces this to the envy of the social scientists themselves who are generally “men who are discontented with their place in society and culture, former members of some kind of underprivileged group or class.” They are driven by an “egalitarian impulse” and at least publicly favor “a society of absolute equals.” Such a thing can never be, and social scientists’ own life choices often bear this out. The eradication of social differences and status just gives rise to new differences and statuses. The social sciences ignore envy because to confront it would be embarrassing.

This puts Schoeck firmly on the anti-utopian spectrum in modern social thought. Envy is a condition we learn to live with, not a problem that can be solved once and for all. This gives Schoeck a powerful tool for interpreting behavior that otherwise makes little sense. He quotes a man arrested in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1952 for setting fire to eight cars: “I couldn’t afford to own an automobile… and I didn’t want anyone else to have one.” This isn’t just social deviance at work: With only slight editing, this could serve as the campaign slogan of several of the current contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Leveling through destruction of the nation’s wealth is better than witnessing major inequalities of wealth, goes the thinking.

Or they convince themselves through magical thinking that they can expropriate the wealth of the nation and that it will, out of thin air, replenish itself. No number of Venezuelas will persuade them otherwise, because envy has so tight a grip on their minds that they cannot imagine their project will fail. Still other leftists, however, stick with the classic formulation that imposing misery on all is better than allowing general prosperity if that entails having a handful of exceptionally wealthy individuals. Socialism inevitably straddles an impossible aspiration and an inescapable reality. It can manage that only by summoning up fierce feelings of injustice. Its engine is unbridled envy.

That sort of will-to-destroy is at the heart of socialism, and Schoeck’s clarity on this point probably goes a long way towards explaining why Envy never became a key text in modern social science. But if it is ever to have a break-out moment, we have surely arrived at it. Schoeck holds up a mirror to our egalitarian movements. The more we prosper as a society, the more envious people become of the small differences that set us apart. People grow belligerent in wanting to erase “privilege” even as they seek to establish a punishingly exact new hierarchy of virtue. The unacknowledged (because it is unacknowledgeable) force behind such movements is envy.

Schoeck makes considerable use of literature and philosophy as he constructs his theory. Among the books he pauses to consider is Yuri Olesha’s novel—that “angry young man” who finds himself immobilized in the young Soviet state. When the book was first published, Soviet authorities mistook it as a satire against the envious young man, Nikolai Kavalero. But soon word got around that Kavarero, though thwarted in the end, was actually the protagonist of the story and the deeper satire was against the commissar whom Kavalero envied. It turned out that Kavalero was largely Olesha’s self-portrait: a very rare confession on the part of a writer of a feeling that is universally deplored. Kavalero knows that to be envious is to invite the contempt of his betters and he is indeed ashamed of himself. But his ability to feel such shame seems somehow to elevate him over the bureaucrats who turned their envy of prosperity into a state religion. Olesha’s novel precariously balances between condemning envy and validating it.

That precarious balance is at the heart of Schoeck’s theory. Envy is not nice, but it is indispensable. Without “a minimum of envy,” the traditions that provide stability and order would be swept away by eager revolutionaries. Envy domesticates power, says Schoeck. It guards property from theft and rights from expropriation. Envy also turns back on some individuals who realize “the futility of brooding on invidious comparisons.” From these arise the rare individual who then turns to a full-scale effort to “outdo the others by his achievements.” The effort to escape one’s own envy can thus be a tremendously creative force. The post-envious man becomes “the better rider, fisherman, hunter, fighter, lover, or writer.” The tyranny of envy can, at least in some circumstances, give rise to its opposite. This, Schoeck says, makes envy one of the keys to the rise of civilization.

Like one of those poisons that can, in very small doses, contribute to health, but in larger doses cause grave damage, envy in Schoeck’s theory has to be measured in grains to have any good effect. A little too much will produce Dobuans, or worse still, the Soviet state.

Envy, Schoeck says, goes deeper than “homesickness, desire, worry, disgust, [and] avarice.” He quotes individuals who deny they envy anyone at all, but his indictment of human nature on this score is so compelling, those denials sound a little defensive. “Let’s talk about envy. Give us some more beer.…”