Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Marxism and Christianity need each other (Part 1): René Girard and the implications for capitalism and communism

Recently I have been reading and thinking about René Girard and the philosophical import of Christianity for the issues of community, communication and social mediation. Girard advocates a by now quite famous anthropological interpretation of Christianity as the religion in which the violent foundations of culture (the scapegoating mechanism) as such are exposed and which – through the death of Christ – offers a way out of this violence. It struck me that his insights allow us to take a fresh and informative look at the ills of capitalism, the possibility of communism and the relevance of Christianity in this matter. In the following post I would like to share some of these thoughts, with a view to the renewal of Marxism through the spirit of Christianity. In the process I will also comment on the parallels between Girard's views and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan, partly in order to show the fruitfulness of Girard's approach for post-structuralism, partly to prepare for the encounter of Girard's views with some Lacanian-Marxist ideas from Žižek. Due to its length, I have decided to split this text in half; the next half will be posted in about a week on this blog. The first part introduces Girard's theory and then applies it to the issues of capitalism and communism. The second part deals specifically with Marxism and what it can learn from Girard.

René Girard
The mimetic nature of desire
For Girard, the violence inherent in every form of human collectivity (with the exception of the ideal Christian community, which may however never have actually existed) stems from the constitutive importance of mimesis (mimicry, imitation) for all human learning and hence culture. Girard came to this anthropology of mimesis in a rather odd way, namely through his initial study of literature (1961), the findings of which he then generalized to the field of human culture as such. Especially important for Girard in this regard was Shakespeare. For Girard, the Shakespearean drama depicts a universe ruled by the “fire of envy”, where individuals continually infect each other – through some mimetic plague – with their violent desire for power and lust. What Girard learned from Shakespeare is that human desire is always based on imitating a model, someone who we wish to be. We want what the other wants. Thus Girard speaks of “acquisitive mimesis” as the source of desire, which is therefore always triangular. Our desire for an object (1) is always aroused by an other (2) who directs our attention to that particular object (3). It is the other's desire that makes the object desirable. As shall be clear to readers familiar with Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Girard's theory of the mimetic nature of desire is quite close to these theories, although he does not refer them (compare Hegel on the struggle for recognition and especially Lacan on the narcissistic constitution of the ego through the imaginary mirroring of others – also like Lacan, Girard stresses that human desire is essentially based on a lack inside the subject).

Envy, rivalry, conflict, disillusion
Girard's crucial point is that the mimetic, triangular nature of desire necessarily leads to rivalry and conflict with the model and others who follow the same model. “Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on one single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it.” (Girard 1995: 145) Hence the model, whose desire for an object makes the latter desirable for us, thereby becomes an obstacle, standing between us and the object, blocking the way towards our full satisfaction, which therefore takes on a mythical aura. “If only we had what the other has, then we would be complete...” Envy and rivalry thus invest the object with a value beyond its physical characteristics. In this way the object achieves a certain 'metaphysical' status (compare Marx on the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity). When the object is finally obtained, disillusion is of course inevitable, since the object turns out to be not magical at all, but 'just another object', incapable of filling the lack that motivates human desire. Hence we turn to other objects, that is to say, to other models showing us what to desire. And so the circus of human desire continues, through ever new rounds of mimesis, envy, rivalry, conflict, exalted expectation and disillusion. Girard stresses the volatile nature of this situation and how easy it can degenerate further into a spiral of reciprocal violence. For, or so the subject thinks, if I can get rid of the other, I shall be able to acquire the magical object. But, of course, the other thinks the same about me. In this way Girard's theory of the mimetic nature of desire backs up the Hobbesian hypothesis of the “war of all against all” as mankind's natural state.

The beginning of civilization according to Kubrick
The rise of the scapegoating mechanism
Thus the mimetic basis of human behaviour implies not just the imitation of desire and culture but also of violence, which thereby becomes intensified to the point of threatening the very culture that mimesis aims to install. Once our primate ancestors acquired the trick of mimesis that set them on the road to culture, the challenge became controlling the violence that accompanies acquisitive mimesis. This challenge is especially pressing because mankind seems to lack – as Girard indicates, again in line with psychoanalysis – the protection offered by instinctive “braking mechanisms against violence” which are found among animals, ensuring that “animals of the same species never fight to the death” (Girard 1995: 221 – note: the latter is not entirely true, since some apes do kill within their own species, but Girard’s general point seems convincing). So what is the solution offered by human culture to the problem of reciprocal violence? Girard's answer is that the problem produced its own solution in the form of the victims of the violence, whose deaths offered moments of order and peace in what was otherwise a social chaos of rivalry and conflict. As Depoortere describes this hypothetical situation which must, according to Girard, have happened countless of times among our primitive ancestors:

“Time after time, the same happens. There is total disorder, a lot of aggression and violence; and suddenly, suddenly someone is killed. Violence stops, and everybody comes to take a look at the deceased. They form a circle. Suddenly, disorder disappears and an ordered structure comes into being: a circle around the deceased. Moreover, disorder and violence do not return immediately. The circle dissolves, and the apes take up again their daily routine. Rest has come back in the group.” (Depoortere 2008: 41)

Thus the victim forms – quite literally – the centre of social order, the pacified “circle around the deceased”. After numerous repetitions of similar crises of spiralling mimetic violence and its resolution through the death of a victim, our hominid ancestors began to recognize the pattern: killing an individual puts a stop to crises and creates social order. In this way the scapegoating mechanism was born – the mechanism which according to Girard forms the basis of every human collectivity. Gradually that mechanism became ritualized in the first forms of human culture. Our ancestors learned to anticipate the crises, no longer waiting passively for mimetic violence to engulf the fragile social order: instead, they started to simulate such crises and then kill a victim to prevent the crisis from actually occurring. Thus the ritualized feast came into being, in which the crisis is enacted and concluded through ritual sacrifice. Communal unity is therefore always – in Girard's poignant phrase – “unanimity-minus-one”.

Myth and the ambiguity of the victim
Girard describes myth informatively as the perspective of the community insofar as it is depends on the scapegoat mechanism (compare Lacan on the imaginary order as founded on the exclusion of the real). Girard: “Myths incorporate the point of view of the community that has been reconciled to itself by the collective murder and is unanimously convinced that this event was a legitimate and sacred action...” (Girard 1987: 148) Hence in myth the sacrificial victim occupies the central position, being both its source and the primal object of its narratives and rituals. As Girard stresses, the scapegoating mechanism turns the victim into an essentially ambiguous figure, who appears mythically as both good and evil – an ambiguity increased by the fact that the community will generally select as victims those who are already on the fringes of the community: the potential victims might look different, have a physical impairment, perhaps they are loners without a family, perhaps they speak differently or come from another ethnic origin. The point is that the very 'strangeness' of an individual makes him stand out from the crowd, thereby automatically drawing attention to himself, being an easy target for the scapegoating mechanism. Moreover, by targeting a relative stranger, the community circumvents the problems that might arise when someone is targeted who is an obvious member of the community, for in that case a new round of reciprocal violence might arise (his family might protest against his murder, for example). In order for the scapegoating mechanism to function properly, then, the community must harbour – indeed: produce – 'internal outsiders' whose difference marks them as potential sacrificial victims. In this way Girard explains the constitutive importance of xenophobia for every community (the exception, again, is the ideal Christian community).

Aztec sacrifice
Thus in the communal mythology the deviating appearance of the victim fuses with his ambiguous character as the sacrificial foundation of the community. On the one hand, since with his death the violence stops, the victim is held to be responsible for that violence, becoming the mythical cause of the mimetic crisis, the principle of evil that must be eradicated if social order is to return. On the other hand, the victim is also the one who through his death delivers the community from violence, appearing as its rescuer, the source of goodness. Thus the phenomenon of taboo is instituted, pertaining to some deviating part of the community which is excluded, forbidden to its members – an exclusion that constitutes the community as such, delineating its limits. As Jan Populier describes this constitutive exclusion of the sacrificial victim: “Being the embodiment of all evil, violence and disorder, his return to society must be prevented at all costs... As the embodiment of all goodness, peace and order, however, he must also remain present in society.” (Populier 1994: 23 – my translation, PS) The sacrificial victim, then, is both inside and outside the community, present through his absence, forming the living centre of the community through his death. In that sense the community is de-centred, having its inner essence outside of itself. Thus the scapegoat becomes in the communal mythology a supernatural being who decides on peace and violence, order and disorder. As the source of violence, he should be feared; as the source of peace, he should be worshipped. In this way, according to Girard, the mythical notion of the divine was born. All gods and goddesses derive from this mythologization of the sacrificial victims produced by the scapegoating mechanism. (And here the Freudian analogy is obviously the killing of the father by the primal horde, by which the Law became installed, backed by a mythologization of the killed father as the ancestral god.)

The desacralization of violence in Judaism
How does Christianity enter this picture, according to Girard? As a religion, Christianity is on the one hand heir to the mythical imagination that accompanies the scapegoating mechanism. At the same time, however, Christianity is the religion in which this mythology and the scapegoating mechanism as such are exposed and overcome (at least idealiter). Christ's message is basically that we must relinquish violence as the basis of community and instead turn to love, letting himself be crucified in order to expose the injustice of the scapegoating mechanism, offering himself as the final victim, exonerating all future victims. For Girard, Christianity is in this regard the final step in the long history of demythologization and desacralization of violence that characterizes Judaism as such (compare Levinas' interpretation of Judaism as a rejection of the mythical totalization of the other). According to Girard, the Hebrew Bible tells the story of the gradual exit from mythical religion. The rejection of sacred violence as the basis of myth is already apparent in Genesis with the story of Cain and Abel. At first sight, this story is as mythological as, for instance, the story of Remus and Romulus: one brother kills the other whereby a civilization is founded. But whereas in the Roman myth the murder of Remus is considered justified and Romulus becomes the founding father of Rome, in the book of Genesis Cain's act is unambiguously condemned as an unjustified and vulgar murder and it is rather the innocent victim Abel who indirectly becomes the founding father of a just community (Girard 1987: 146-7). Girard sees this Judaic critique of the mythology of the scapegoating mechanism culminating Isaiah's Song of the Servant of the Lord, which already points towards the Crucifixion. Here are three revealing verses from Isaiah (53:3-5):

“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account

Surely he has born our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.”

This fragment begins by describing the Servant of the Lord as the ideal sacrificial victim, selected on the basis of his ugliness and deviating physical appearance (“acquainted with infirmity”). The fragment clearly describes the social reconciliation effected by the scapegoating mechanism (“the punishment that made us whole”). But rather than share in the mythological reversal of the gruesome truth, portraying the victim as guilty and the murderous community as justified, Isaiah stresses the victim's innocence and the community's injustice towards him (“he was wounded for our transgressions”, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter”, “by  a perversion of justice he was taken away”, “although he had done no violence” – 53: 5-9). As Girard notes, however, although Isaiah goes a long way in exposing the scapegoating mechanism, the desacralization of violence is not fully completed. In Isaiah the victim's sacrifice still remains divinely ordained (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” – 53: 6, 10). Thus the injustice of the community becomes the injustice of God himself, who remains the God of irrational wrath and continues to require the atoning sacrifice of innocent victims. In the Hebrew Bible, Girard concludes, God remains contaminated by sacred violence (Girard 1987: 154-7 – and here one would like to say: indeed, just look at how Israel treats the Palestinians).

Christ’s exposition of the scapegoating mechanism

The desacralization of violence – and one could even say: desacralization as such – is only completed in the New Testament, according to Girard. He refers in particular to Christ’s command to love one’s enemy, the identification of God with love and the denial of God's responsibility for illness and catastrophes, which are no longer taken to be manifestations of divine wrath (Girard 1987: 182-3). Of course, the sacrifice of Christ is still divinely ordained and in that sense there is a residue of sacred violence in Christianity. But the crucial point is that Christ = God, who therefore ordained his own death, exiting from this world in order to free it from sacred violence. In contrast to what many believers and non-believers think, the Gospels do not interpret Jesus' death in terms of God's requirement of bloody sacrifice as atonement for human sinfulness (see Depoortere 2008: 47). This interpretation, which remains within the mythical logic of sacrifice, is a later invention, when Christ's original message was forgotten and Christianity relapsed into mythology, partly because of the Church's collaboration with State power under Constantine (thus turning into Christendom, with its imperial aspirations). The point of Christ's death was not to atone for human sin but to reveal the injustice of the scapegoating mechanism, thereby making possible a radically different, non-violent community. But already in Christ's lifetime, this message was not grasped. According to Girard, his listeners were so blinded by their mimetic attachment to violence that they simply could not understand him. As a result, the direct and 'easy' way out of violence – ie. following the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount – failed. Therefore, as Girard writes, it became “necessary to turn to the indirect way, the one that has to bypass the consent of all mankind and instead pass through the Crucifixion” (Girard 1987: 202). The Crucifixion became necessary as a form of teaching by illustration. 

Detail from The Lamb of God by the Van Eyck brothers
The Crucifixion was the inevitable outcome of the ruling logic of mimetic violence and its sacrificial dissolution. Once Christ's message – the rejection of the scapegoating mechanism in favour of love – had been turned down, he was bound to become the victim of that logic (Girard 1987: 208). In a world dominated by violence one can only survive by becoming an accessory to violence. As the Gospel stresses, however, Christ was without violence (echoing Isaiah on the innocence of the sacrificial victim, “like a lamb led to the slaughter”), hence he could only fall prey to it. Thus he exposed the functioning of the scapegoating mechanism. Because he was emphatically without violence, it is clear that he could not be guilty and that his death was an injustice. Thus the Crucifixion revealed “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35), that is to say, since the foundation of human civilization through the original sacrifice of an innocent victim.

Girard as a theorist of capitalism?
So how does all of this relate to the issues of capitalism and communism? As a way into this matter, note that Girard's theory of the mimetic source of desire and reciprocal violence seems vulnerable to an objection when we use it to understand capitalism. At first sight, of course, Girard's theory seems to fit capitalism perfectly. His description of the triangular nature of desire (model, desire, object), of “acquisitive mimesis” and the envious rivalry it leads to, investing the desired object with a magical aura – don't we recognize here capitalism's “possessive individualism” (MacIntyre) and the consumerist quest to share in the magical lifestyle of celebrities, whose 'sidereal' aura reflects on the products we buy, especially if our neighbours already bought them? The suspicion, however, is that Girard's theory of desire fits capitalism rather too well. The suspicion, in other words, is that Girard did not construct a universal and timeless anthropology that explains human culture as such and hence also capitalism, but that rather the reverse is the case: his theory seems to have been conceived first on the basis of capitalism and then generalized to the rest of human history and culture. It seems no coincidence that Girard first developed his theory of desire in his work on Shakespeare, for according to many sociologists of literature the Shakespearian drama (like the Hobbesian “war of all against all”) – focusing on the contagious effects of desire and rivalry and the resulting excesses of violence – reflects the competitive nature of bourgeois society and capitalist economy as they began to emerge in the early modern times in which Shakespeare lived.

Liberalism's ideal man: Robinson Cusoe
Consider, for example, Girard's claim that acquisitive mimesis necessarily leads to conflict because individuals cannot possess the same object. This might seem to be the most obvious thing, but when we reflect on it the question arises: But why can't they share the desired object? Why must possession necessarily be individual, that is, private property, as Girard seems to presuppose? Why rule out the possibility of joint possession, that is, communism? Thus we may raise the same objection to Girard that Marx raised against the political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo (and with them against the entire ideology of liberalism), namely that they mistook the individualism of modern bourgeois society for a universal and timeless human trait, ignoring the fact that such individualism was an effect of capital (the cash nexus intervening in traditional social relations) rather than vice versa. Thereby they furnished an ideological justification for capitalism as a natural system, corresponding to man's innate desire for individual liberty – what Marx in the Grundrisse called the “phantasielosen Einbildungen der 18.-Jahrhundert-Robinsonaden”. 

Communism instead of Christianity?
Of course, the case of Girard's seemingly individualistic theory of desire is different, since if anything he cannot be accused of justifying capitalist desire – on the contrary: his entire theory is an indictment of such desire (and in that sense one can say that Girard has a tendency toward communism). Nevertheless, the point remains that his critique of mimetic desire seems predicated on individualist assumptions, reflecting not a timeless human nature but rather a social structure peculiar to a very specific historical epoch. This threatens to bring down the entire edifice of Girard's innovative interpretation of Christianity. Although this objection does not affect the efficacy of Girard's critique of mimetic desire, it does seem to limit the scope of that critique to capitalist society, to the competitive and consumerist individualism which Girard seems to capture so well. Thus his work can be read as giving one particular explanation why capitalism requires xenophobia, namely as the scapegoating mechanism necessary to restore the social order as it is threatened by the reciprocal envy and violence of the acquisitive mimesis generated by capitalist consumerism (and this explanation might be taken to complement the traditional Marxist explanation of racism as capital's strategy to undermine solidarity among workers). But precisely insofar as Girard's theory remains limited to capitalist individualism, his appeal to Christianity as the only way out of mimetic violence seems no longer necessary. The mimetic nature of desire still stands, but envy and rivalry seem no longer inevitable when we replace individualism with a communitarian vision of man as an essentially social being – a “species being” (Gattungswesen) as Marx says following Feuerbach – whose “I” is from the outset secondary to the “We” of communal life. For insofar as people can share, can have things in common, there is no reason why mimetic desire must lead to conflict. Instead of the religious detour through Christianity, then, the secular turn to communism seems to suffice to overcome the scapegoating mechanism and bring about a just and non-violent society.

The problem of community
Yet Girard cannot be get rid off that easily. Although there is some truth to the claim that Girard modelled his theory of desire on capitalist individualism (especially in light of the importance of Shakespeare for the formation of his theory), there is nevertheless a sense in which Girard does succeed to transcend those historical limitations and to formulate ideas with a universal, anthropological reach. After all, the entire point of his theory is to explain the possibility of community as such. In criticizing Girard, then, we may not simply presuppose the possibility of community as an unproblematic given, as the above objection to Girard does. Such a critique is circular: the unproblematic community, to which we appeal in order to obviate Girard's apparent individualism, is precisely what he contests. In particular we may not presuppose some natural, innate sociality in man, as an evolutionary extension of the instinctive herd mentality of our primate ancestors (and insofar as Marxism presupposes such natural sociality – what Marx calls man's “species being” – it commits the inverse mistake that liberalism makes when it relies on the fiction of man's natural individualism). Here we must stress, with psychoanalysis, that human beings have lost such instincts, so that human community is primarily cultural (based on laws, prohibitions, signification etc.) rather than natural. It is precisely this transition from nature to culture – from the primitive herd to human community based on what Lacan calls “the Law” – that Girard wants to explain. Just as Freud explained this transition in terms of the primordial killing of the father by the primitive horde, so Girard explains it in terms of mimesis and sacrificial killing. Girard's particular strength here is that his theory allows us to explain why man is deficient in his natural instincts, namely, because man is primarily a learning animal, whose instincts have been replaced with the capacity for mimesis as the basis of human culture (and this fundamental importance of imitation for human development has been corroborated by much recent research in disciplines like neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, primatology and memetics – for a good overview, see Depoortere 2011).

The sacrificial victim as vanishing mediator
To the extent then that mimesis took over from instinct, to that same extent man's natural sociality (the herd mentality) was lost and mimesis had to make up for that loss by creating the unnatural sociality called culture. Thus mimesis works on the basis of what Žižek has termed the vanishing mediator between nature and culture:

Slavoj  Žižek   
“How do we pass from “natural” to “symbolic” environs? This passage is not direct, one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither Nature nor Culture – this In-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on homo sapiens, enabling him to form his supplementary virtual symbolic environs, but precisely something which, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos […]. It is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose a moment in human (pre)history when (what will become) man, is no longer a mere animal and simultaneously not yet a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized”, “derailed” nature which is not yet culture.” (Žižek 1997)

Hence, what our proto-human ancestors imitated w
ere evolutionary useful behavioural patterns within a broader context of “perverted nature”, characterized by the loss of social instincts. It seems clear that in such post-natural and pre-cultural anarchy mimesis must have involved the copying of violent and generally a-social behaviours. Thus we can understand Girard's claim that the mimetic nature of desire necessarily leads to a spiralling reciprocal violence, insofar as that desire is primarily anarchic, the desire of the unruly vanishing mediator between nature and culture. The first community made possible by mimesis, then, is the unstable 'community' of envy, rivalry, competition and violence (and here, again, we recognize capitalist society, which raises the interesting question how capitalism relates to the vanishing mediator between nature and culture). It is here, as Girard points out, that the scapegoating mechanism must intervene, deflecting the reciprocal violence on 'internal outsiders', thus stabilizing the community. In a sense, then, the sacrificial victim allows the vanishing mediator to realize its destiny – that is to say: to truly vanish and give way to human community governed by the Law. The violence of the vanishing mediator is both projected and exerted on the sacrificial victim, who thereby – through an expiating substitution – becomes the vanishing mediator of human community. Or in Christian terms: the vanishing mediator is incarnated by the sacrificial victim produced by the scapegoating mechanism.

The next part of this essay investigates the lessons that can be drawn from Girard for Marxism:Why Marxism and Christianity need each other (Part 2): René Girard and the implications for capitalism and communism

-Depoortere, Frederiek (2008), Christ in postmodern philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard and Slavoj Žižek. London: T&T Clark.
-Girard, René (1961), Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset.
-(1995 [1972]), Violence and the sacred. London: The Athlone Press.
-(1987 [1978]), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. London: The Athlone Press.
-Populier, Jan (1994), God heeft echt bestaan: Met René Girard naar een nieuw mens- en wereldbeeld. Tielt: Lannoo.
-Žižek, Slavoj (1997), “Cogito, Madness and Religion: Derrida, Foucault and then Lacan”. To my knowledge the English version of this essay has only been published online by www.lacan.com. The complete url is: http://www.lacan.com/zizforest.html A Dutch translation of this text can be found in: Žižek, Slavoj (1997), Het subject en zijn onbehagen: vijf essays over psychoanalyse en het cartesiaanse cogito. Amsterdam: Boom.


  1. Hi Peter,

    I'm thankful I stumbled upon your blog.

    I was looking for some writings on the relationship between Girard's Mimetic Theory and Lacan's notion of "Desire is the Desire of the Other" and came upon this post.

    Reading about your project, it would seem that our interests align and dovetail in several ways, albeit you are a lot further ahead than me in understanding all of this! I feel I am only beginning.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.


    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for your nice comment. Unfortunately, I am no longer actively engaged in philosophy... I wish you good luck with your project.