Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Marxism and Christianity need each other (Part 2): René Girard and the implications for capitalism and communism

Capitalism and the scapegoat mechanism
What, then, can Marxism learn from Girard? First of all, his theory reinforces – from a different perspective – the critique of capitalism as an inherently unjust system. Complementary to the Marxist focus on economic exploitation in capitalism, Girard can be used to expose capitalism's inherent xenophobic violence (as I noted above, Girard's explanation might be taken to complement the traditional Marxist explanation of racism as capital's strategy to undermine solidarity among workers). Indeed, Girard's theory shows us why such violence must reach its peak in capitalism – ie. why Auschwitz occurred and why it must keep on occurring in one form or another as long as capitalism exists. Here the crucial point is the similarity remarked above between capitalist society and the first mimetic 'community' based on what Žižek termed the vanishing mediator between nature and culture: both are characterized by intense envy, rivalry and the mimesis of a-social behavioural patterns in general. This suggests that, as a socio-economic system, capitalism constantly regresses to the anarchic state of the vanishing mediator, constantly undoing the social order, hence also constantly in need of new sacrificial victims in order to restore that social order. What causes this constant regression into anarchy is capitalism's constitutive competitive individualism. In the spheres of both production and consumption, this competitive individualism constitutes the motor behind capitalist productivity. In the sphere of production, capital produces competing individuals by substituting the cash nexus for traditional social relations (eg. feudalism, village life, the family), thereby forcing individuals to compete on the labour market and participate in the exploitation of labour by capital (since capital = private property of the means of production). This productive moment of capitalism is then complemented by the competitive individualism inherent in consumerism, where what Girard calls “acquisitive mimesis” seems to reach its peak.

Branding: Aura in the age of mass production
At first sight, however, capitalism's mass production for mass consumption (“Fordism”) might seem to defuse Girard's claim that acquisitive mimesis must lead to conflict. As we have seen, his claim turns on the assumption that different individuals cannot possess the same object, so that those desiring that object must necessarily come into conflict. Mass production may seem to forestall that conclusion. For if the 'same' commodity is mass produced, thereby loosing its uniqueness, then 'shared' private possession of the 'same' object does seem to be possible after all (as if capitalism were an individualistic communism). Here the apologist of capitalism could – for once – invoke support from Walter Benjamin's claim that the work of art has lost its aura in the age of its mass production. This loss of aura might be taken to indicate the defusement of the conflict that acquisitive mimesis threatens to cause, since – as we have seen – it is this conflict which according to Girard imbues the desired object with a kind of magical value. Thus the loss of aura noted by Benjamin might be taken to exonerate capitalism, clearing it of the charge that it produces mimetic rivalry and hence sacrificial victims.

Of course, this is a capitalist pipe dream. We all know that mass production has not robbed the commodity of its magical aura, as is witnessed by the exchange value that branding adds to commodities (if two pairs of shoes are exactly identical, except for the fact that one pair belongs to Nike, then that pair will be more valuable). Hence, mass production might defuse mimetic conflict, but branding reinstores it, since it creates a hierarchy of values among commodities, thereby creating relative scarcity and hence mimetic conflict. Indeed, Girard allows us to understand why and how branding works. The extra value of branded commodities is no inherent value, it is what Marx would call a fetishistic projection: it is the magical aura attributed to the commodity by the very consumers who compete over it because of its supposedly magical aura. This is obviously also the reason why branding was invented by capital in the first place, that is, to counter the pacifying effect that mass production has on the conflictuality of acquisitive mimesis. It is the same reason why product differentiation was invented, the constant creation of hierarchical differences within the same brand. In this way capitalism creates ever new desires, ever new rounds of acquisitive mimesis and competition, rivalry, envy and conflict. It is thus also in the moment of consumption that capitalism constantly regresses to the state of the vanishing mediator between nature and culture, constantly dissolving the community in competitive individualism, the war of all against all. Thatcher, the queen of neoliberalism, captured this truth of capitalism perfectly when she made her famous claim that there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals.

The eternal return of the vanishing mediator in capitalism
Capitalism thrives on this regression. Competing capitals must accumulate or perish, hence they must constantly increase competition both on the labour market (thereby lowering the price of labour) and in the sphere of commodity consumption. Hence the fact that the scapegoating mechanism is more important for capitalism than for any other social order. As a form of society, capitalism is inherently contradictory: it must dissolve the social order in order to further competition, but at the same time it must save the social order if it is not to destroy itself by degenerating into complete anarchy
, the Hobbesian war of all against all. Thus, as Žižek (2006: 266) says, the condition of the possibility of capitalism is the very condition of its impossibility (which, so we might add, is the precisely condition of the vanishing mediator between nature and culture). Capitalism's amazing potential for exponential growth lies exactly  in this “condition of (im)possibility”, that is, in its capacity to unleash the dynamic of competition by dissolving its own social order. The scapegoating mechanism, then, is constantly required to save capitalism from itself, to restore the social order that it constantly destroys.

In that sense we can say that capitalism stages an
eternal return of the vanishing mediator, constantly regressing to the anarchic stage between nature and culture, constantly requiring sacrificial victims to let the vanishing mediator vanish and reinstall culture. This eternal return of the vanishing mediator is essentially related to that other 'eternal return' in capitalism, the return on investment, the circular movement of capital in it's self-accumulation. For it is capital's drive toward accumulation which causes the constant dissolution of society and hence the constant need for sacrificial victims. The more intense capital's accumulation becomes, then, the more society is in need of scapegoats. Hence the fact that the scapegoat mechanism reaches its peak in capitalism. So if Christianity – as Girard says – is fundamentally the rejection of the scapegoating mechanism, then (post)modern Christianity should first and foremost be the rejection of capitalism. Christians, that is, should make common cause with Marxism.

The messianism of Marxism
But does the inverse hold as well? Should Marxists make common cause with Christianity? In one sense, of course, this is a moot question, since from its inception Marxism has had deep affinities with Judeo-Christian messianism. Some interpreters point to Marx's Jewish ancestry as the unacknowledged source of this messianism (his mother's family produced many rabbi's), but it seems more likely that Christian messianism reached Marx through Hegel, who was a profoundly Christian thinker. Be that as it may, the parallels between Marxism and messianism have been noted many times before, both by the religious friends of Marxism and by its enemies, who see in this the proof that Marxism is an irrational and hence dangerous faith rather than the atheistic science which it has claimed to be. For example, as Robert Tucker (one of the religious friends) writes in his widely read book Philosophy and myth in Karl Marx:

“Like the Christian religious system [...], Marxism views all existence under the aspect of history; it fundamentally tells a story that has a beginning, middle, and end... For Marx, the drama of mankind's historical existence is framed by a temporalized pre-history at one end (primitive communism) and a temporalized post-history at the other (future communism). Communism lost and communism regained – such is the plot of world history as he expounds it. Between the one and the other intervenes a series of world-periods stamped with a fundamental antagonism... And just as Augustine portrays the present as the last of the historical world-periods before the Judgment, so Marx finds that the present bourgeois epoch is the 'closing chapter of the pre-historic stage of human society', the time of the deepest suffering, and the prelude to the final revolution... Thirdly, there is far more than a formal analogy here. For deeply embedded in Marxism is a theme that corresponds to the master-theme of salvation of the soul in the Christian theology of history. Marx, of course, does not use the word 'salvation'. Yet, he has the concept of a total regeneration of man.” (Tucker 2001 [1961]: 22-25)

The proletariat as secular Christ
What is especially significant in this context is the analogy drawn between the suffering of the proletariat and the soteriological suffering of the sacrificial victim in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Wackenheim (1963), for example, points specifically to Isaiah's suffering servant as the model for the proletariat as conceived by Marx – and given the fact that Marx attended Bruno Bauer's lectures on Isaiah in 1839, this particular influence on Marx's conception of the proletariat seems quite plausible (Manuel 1997: 8). Other theorists, however, point rather to Christ as Marx's main model for the proletariat. Thus, for example, Michel Henry:

“As has been rightly said: the proletariat is Christ. The proletariat is the one [...] who must go to the very limit of suffering and of evil, to the sacrifice of his being, giving his sweat and blood and ultimately his very life, in order to reach – through this complete self-annihilation, through this self-negation which is a negation of life – the true life which leaves all finiteness and all particularity behind, which is complete life and salvation itself.” (Henry 1983: 74)

What seems to be specifically Christian about this conception of the proletariat is the theme of kenosis, that is, of God's emptying himself in Christ, shedding his divine nature in becoming human and then even shedding his humanity by dying on the Cross. As Henry points out – in line with the above remark about Hegel's influence on Marx – the Christian theme of kenosis reached Marx through Hegel, who coined his concept of alienating externalization on Luther's translation of kenosis as Entäusserung (externalization). Hence, insofar as the soteriological function of the proletariat turns on the complete alienation of its humanity, Marx's conception of the proletariat seems indeed to be Christian rather than Judaic. This focus on the proletariat's loss of humanity, and the redemption brought about by that loss, is especially clear in the famous Introduction to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1844), which was the very first text in which Marx conceived of the proletariat as the revolutionary class that will overthrow capitalism. I quote the relevant passage in extenso, since it ties together a number of themes that relate directly to the Girardian problematic of the scapegoating mechanism and the way it functions in capitalism:

Soviet kitsch by N. Khukov
For Marx the proletariat is a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular injustice, but the injustice as such is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only the human, title […]; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man.” (Marx 1844)

Already by itself this is an extraordinary passage, but when read in the light of Girard it becomes especially instructive. What is so interesting about it is that here the Girardian theme of the scapegoat appears in tandem with the theme of the proletariat, both as exploited labour power and as the secular Christ whose suffering performs a soteriological function. The theme of the scapegoat is easily recognizable in the first sentence, when Marx conceives of the proletariat as “a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society”. In other words, the proletariat is the 'internal outsider' of capitalism, included through its exclusion, by law part of the citizenry yet also criminalized as a “social problem” due to its poverty, unruliness, squalid living conditions, alcoholism etc. Here we have to remind ourselves of Girard's claim that the scapegoating mechanism requires internal outsiders, whose deviating appearance marks them as potential sacrificial victims. Indeed, the sacrificial victim is the internal outsider par excellence, since his exclusion  constitutes society as such.

Surplus value and sacrifice: The proletariat's double function
What this suggests, then, is that the proletariat performs a double function in capitalism. On the one hand, there is the well known function exposed by Marxism, the economic function of the proletariat as exploited labour power, the source of surplus value. On the other hand, however, there is the function exposed by Girard, that of the sacrificial victim whose death reconciles the social order to itself. Contrary to Marxism, then, we should not see the scapegoating mechanism as limited to instances of racism or sexism as these undermine workers' solidarity. Rather we should see the proletariat in its entirety as the sacrificial victim whose exclusion reconciles the social order of capitalism. In other words: the proletariat is the (eternally returning) vanishing mediator of capitalist society (corresponding to the eternal return of capital in its self-accumulation). This poses the interesting question what the precise relation is between these two functions of the proletariat, being both sacrificial victim and the source of surplus value. Is the relation between these two functions external, such that the relative outsider's position of the proletariat as society's scapegoat also happens to render it vulnerable to exploitation, being forced to sell its labour power and thus become the source of the surplus value on which capital feeds? Or is this rather an internal relation, such that the social effect of the sacrificial victim (the mythical institution of community) enters into the very essence of what surplus value is? I will not deal with this issue now, however, since it requires an investigation of its own (I hope to investigate Marx's labour theory of value from the perspective of Girard's theory in one of the future posts on this blog).

The “injustice as such” in the light of Girard

Thus Marx's characterization of the proletariat as
“a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society” fits Girard's theory of the scapegoat perfectly. But how does the rest of the above passage from the Introduction hold up in the light of Girard? Here I would like to argue that a Girardian interpretation of the proletariat as conceived by Marx allows us to develop a new and informative interpretation of Marx's claim about the proletariat's “universal suffering” and the fact that it claims no particular right because no particular injustice, but the injustice as such is perpetuated against it”.

For Marx, this “injustice as such” is not just the economic exploitation of the proletariat (which in itself is a mere “particular injustice”, however grave), but its dehumanization, its
kenosis in alienation, such that the “species being” of its humanity appears as an alien force in capital as it commands all the powers of collective human labour. As I already noted, however, insofar as Marxism relies on man's natural sociality – the human “species being” – it commits the inverse mistake that liberalism makes when it relies on the fiction of man's natural individualism. The crucial turn in human evolution was precisely the loss of such innate sociality, which was replaced by the artificial sociality of culture. Thus the special nature of the human “species being” consists in the fact that it no longer has a species being. What makes us human is precisely our alienation from humanity. The vanishing mediator between (human) nature and culture is this constitutive alienation. Thus the “injustice as such” can no longer be interpreted in terms of proletariat's alienation from its own humanity. The same holds for the universality that Marx sees in the proletariat's suffering: this universality can no longer be understood as pertaining to some general essence of humankind.

Marxist imitatio Christi
This does not mean, however, that Marxian notions like “injustice as such” and “universal suffering” make no sense anymore. Girard allows us to interpret such notions in a new and indeed more convincing way. The “injustice as such” can now be taken to mean the fate of the sacrificial victim, whose exclusion constitutes the universality of society as such (what Girard calls “unanimity-minus-one”). This fate is the “injustice as such” because – as constitutive of the social order – the injustice perpetrated against the sacrificial victim cannot be addressed within the social order: it remains strictly unthinkable within society's mythology (and the legal system is part of that mythology). As the victim of injustice, the sacrificial victim has no 'official' name: he only appears in a mythically distorted way, as the ambiguously divine root of evil/goodness, but not as the innocent victim he really is (compare Lacan on the real as the excluded of the imaginary order). Hence the fact that the fate of the proletariat – its exclusion as internal outsider – must remain invisible from the vantage point of capitalist society. Marxism is necessary to make the proletariat visible, to give it a name and a voice.

Marxism, then, is a form of imitatio Christi, the mimetic following of Christ. Just as Christ substituted himself for all the victims of the scapegoating mechanism, so the Marxist substitutes himself for the proletariat, turning its messianic suffering – the suffering of Isaiah's Servant of the Lord – into a self-conscious role, a messianic mission. The sacrifice of the proletariat is thus transformed into a voluntary self-sacrifice in name of the Revolution, to save the proletariat from the cross of capital. Marxism must constantly renew this self-sacrifice. Without it, communism degenerates into just another social order, based on sacrificial victims. The anti-Semitism and show trials in Stalinist communism have taught as that much.

-Henry, Michel (1983 [1976]), Marx: A philosophy of human reality. Bloomington: Indiana University.
-Manuel, Frank E. (1997), A requiem for Karl Marx. Cambridge, Mass & London: Harvard University Press.
-Marx, Karl (1844), “A Critique to the Contribution of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – Introduction”, this text can be found online:
-Tucker, Robert C. (2001 [1961]), Philosophy and myth in Karl Marx. New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers.
-Wackenheim (1963), La Faillite de la religion d'après Karl Marx. Paris.m
Žižek, Slavoj (2006), The parallax view. Cambridge, Mass & London: MIT Press.


  1. Horrifying to see how the grandiose theory of Girard is dimmed and misinterpreted…
    First of all the question is not “What Marxism can learn from Girard?”
    “What we can learn from Girard?”…

    If there is any scapegoat for Marx, it is definitely not the Proletariat, but it is the Capitalist he keeps offering us to persecute and eradicate…which actually have been practiced in so called “socialist” cultures of Eastern Europe…without any recognition and understanding on the side of “Western” Marxists…

    And of course there is nothing any “Christian” in Marx, noting more than the ever-present scapegoating mechanism, which the whole so called “modern” thinking busily trying to hide…

    1. Hi Lisztes,

      Thanks for your critical comments. As for the question to be asked, that of course depends on the questioner. Everyone is free to ask the question he or she wants to ask.

      It is true that in Marxism the capitalist functions as the obvious scapegoat. Marx himself is guilty of that (just look at the diatribe against the bourgeois in the Communist Manifesto), although in his more reflective works Like Das Kapital and Grundrisse he explicitly states that the capitalist as a person is not to blame since he too is a mere function of capital, just like the worker. But apart from that, I wasn't talking about the scapegoat for Marxism but what the scapegoat for capitalist society is according to Marxism (two different things).

      As for the Christian element in Marx, here I simply disagree with you. According to me, there is a clear Christian element in Marx's thinking, probably - as I said - because of Hegel's influence on him. The whole thematic of humanity's alienation (externalization) in its own product, which as capital comes to rule over it until humanity takes the product back into itself in the communist revolution - all this is a clear secularization of the Christian idea of kenosis, as many scholars say. Of course, it is debatable whether Marx leaves Christianity intact as a religion (ie. as a transcending orientation towards the divine). Here Marx's explicit atheism seems to get in the way. But on the other hand, one may wonder if Christianity is not in itself -- in its "perverse core" as Zizek would say -- an atheistic religion, where God becomes man and dies. That, however, depends on your interpretation of Christianity. Needless to say, I favor an atheistic interpretation of Christianity as the religion wherein God is defined through his death.

      I agree with you that Marxism is responsible for many crimes, especially in Eastern Europa and Asia. Hence my remarks at the end of the post above. But I do not think that these crimes are intrinsic to Marx's thought. As a historical movement Marxism has been as much a distortion of Marx's original message as Christendom has been a distortion of Christ's message. These are gigantic tragedies, which urge us to recover those lost messages. Strange as it may seem, Marx has only seldom be read in the proper way, that is, with an open mind to what he actually writes. Mostly his works have been read (if read at all) through the political spectacles of his enemies or so-called allies (Stalin etc.). Thus I share Michel Henry's conclusion that Marx is one of the least understood philosophers of all times. This has nothing to do with Western Marxism's blindness to the crimes committed by Eastern Marxism.

      I hope I have answered your interesting criticism sufficiently.

      Peter Sas