“Politics of envy” is a fuzzy term that lives on for its rhetorical utility

Explainer, Keywords / Tuesday, May 23rd, 2023

Borrowed from American political discourse, the term was first used in the Singapore Parliament by opposition member Low Thia Khiang to describe the ruling party, but it has since been monopolised by economic conservatives. CHERIAN GEORGE contextualises its use.


Politics of envy is a commonly heard accusation in the real world of politics, although its status in political theory is somewhat dubious. The term, used mostly by American pro-market politicians and commentators, is loaded with the implicit claim that objections to extreme inequality are motivated by the visceral emotion of envy — one of the proverbial seven deadly sins — and not social ideals such as justice and fairness. Those who wield the term do not necessarily defend greed (another “deadly sin”). They argue that existing economic policies are in the long-term interests of the whole society and that inequality is an inevitable, unintended effect that should not distract the public and derail progress. Use of the term thus tends to surge when the right feels threatened by mass outrage at extreme wealth while the majority are struggling economically — such as following the global banking crisis of 2008.

The first recorded mention of the term in Singapore’s Parliament came, uncharacteristically, from the left. In 1994, Workers’ Party leader Low Thia Khiang, speaking during the debate on the Government’s proposed ministerial pay formula, said that just because the private sector bosses were reaping big gains in a booming economy was no reason for ministers and senior civil servants to do likewise. “Do not tell me that the Government is suffering from the politics of envy — envious of other people’s high salaries,” Low said in Mandarin. Responding, People’s Action Party backbencher Peh Chin Hua flipped the allegation, accusing Low of “embracing the ‘politics of envy’” when he objected to high salaries for public servants. “I often say that if we are jealous of the success of another person and jealous because his salary is higher than yours, then it is just an illustration that you are useless,” Peh added, also in Mandarin. Since then, the term has been used in Singapore, like in the United States, almost exclusively by economic conservatives (and elites) to put critics on the left (and below) on the defensive. It is thus one-sided in application: “politics of envy” attributes vulgar and selfish motives to those questioning others’ privilege, and not to those defending their own. 

Despite its common use in political discourse, social scientists approach the concept with caution. Envy is a measurable disposition operating at the level of individual psychology, but it gets fuzzy when turned into a theory of political behaviour at the societal level. It is obvious that consumer capitalism, through commercial media and popular culture, cultivates an unquenchable desire among people for things they don’t really need. Whether such aspirations can explain resentment toward the super-wealthy is less clear. People’s concerns about their relative status (which may indeed be tinged with “envy”) are likely to be a function of where they stand in relation to their own reference groups or “in-groups” — people within or just above their own socio-economic class — and not to countrymen living in a totally different world. During the coronation of King Charles III, there was no sign that Britons protesting the ostentatious spectacle were dreaming of moving into Windsor Castle. As captured in the slogan “Not My King”, public anger was more about whether the monarchy could claim to represent or even understand the British people. 

Left wing populists in some poorer countries have taken class resentments to destructive extremes. But, the “politics of envy” spectre tends to be conjured up instead in advanced economies that are unlikely to become the next Venezuela. More about polemics than social scientific precision, the term tells us little about the societies it claims to describe. It may be most interesting as an indicator of the state of mind of those who use it, revealing their own anxieties about their dependence on a possibly unsustainable economic order that is producing unconscionable inequality.

— By Cherian George, Professor, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University, and AcademiaSG editor.