The passing of René Girard was a great loss to the social sciences, and like all great losses it went largely unnoticed. The English-language media managed only a few scattered obituaries (e.g.), most of them incorrigibly erroneous. The French-language media did slightly better (e.g.), but there was not nearly enough.
One thing that makes Girard so important is that he showed, more than anybody else, what is wrong with economics and why all the policies aimed at solving our major economic problems fail so miserably.
Girard’s starting point was an understanding of human desire. To understand it, he turned to the best possible sources – the great stories around which human civilizations have been organized. He wrote studies of Proust, Dostoevsky, the Greek myths, the Brahmanas of Vedic India, Shakespeare, and the Book of Job.
Girard understood that, other than the desire for basic necessities, human desire is almost entirely mimetic. One person wants X because somebody else – a mimetic model – wants X. It is entirely irrelevant that there is as much and as good outside the scope of the model’s desire. What the desiring subject wants is what the model wants, not something else equivalent in terms of utility.
It is not hard to see that this leads inevitably to violence. Desires of different subjects are determined to fix upon the same rivalrous goods. Worse, there is a mechanism that exacerbates desires past the point where reasonable agreement remains an option. Your desire for X causes me to want X. My desire for X then leads you to want X even more. My desire is in turn strengthened, until the positive feedback mechanism brings both of our desires into the category of obsession: the greatest engine of unrestrained violence in human culture.
The inevitable convergence of human desires on rivalrous goods explains the prevalence of what economists call ‘shortages’. Economists explain shortages by the failure of prices to adjust to the point where supply equals demand. But their explanations assume that human desires are fixed. Girard shows that, on the contrary, desires increase exponentially in intensity, until shortage is converted into violent, obsessive rivalry. Features of real life that are puzzles for economists – scarcity in the midst of abundance, failure to take the best course in positive-sum collective action problems – are precisely what Girard’s theory leads us to expect. Economists look for equilibrium – what we would expect from a linear system. But the upshot of Girard’s theory is that the dynamics of human desire are viciously nonlinear. As the Girardian mathematician Jean-Pierre Dupuy points out, the relevant state points in a social system will always be attractors, not equilibriums.
It was well known to some of the earliest Western social scientists that desire is mimetic. Mimetic desire plays a crucial role in Hobbes’s explanation of the ruthless violence of the ‘state of nature’. Spinoza came close to developing a systematic calculus of mimetic desire. In the more optimistic eighteenth century, the concept almost disappeared entirely: Rousseau, who differed from his contemporaries in finding rivalry worthy of discussion at all, made it into something tame and almost benign. He and his contemporaries had good reason to be sceptical about the theories of Hobbes and Spinoza. If desire is, through the mechanism of mimesis, so inexorably geared towards violence, how has society survived at all? Certainly Hobbes’s theory of the transition from the state of nature into civil society does not provide an adequate reply; Spinoza gave powerful arguments against the idea that civil society brings an end to the violent condition of rivalry that defines the state of nature.
Girard discovered the answer. Society has survived because it has developed a mechanism for concentrating violence on a limited number of victims. This he called the “scapegoating mechanism”. In fact the scapegoating mechanism exploits the very mimetic mechanisms that render it necessary for society’s survival. People who fall into violent, obsessive desire quickly lose their grip on reality. It is easy to convince them that the source of their frustration – their inability to satisfy their mimetic desires without running into violent conflict – is the fault of some group of scapegoats. It is important for the scapegoats to be a disenfranchised minority, so that the violence of society can be turned upon them without fear that they will be avenged. Here, again, Girard’s theory renders unsurprising that which economists and political scientists are at a loss to explain: for instance how the favoured ‘cure’ for economic depression is to visit structural violence upon low-paid immigrants, racial minorities, the homeless, the unemployed and the disabled.
Girard was, it should go without saying, not an advocate of the scapegoating mechanism. He became a Christian because he saw it as fundamentally a rejection of Caiaphas’s maxim: it is better that one innocent person should be destroyed than that the whole nation perish (John 11:50). As a matter of history, he recognised that the scapegoating mechanism is the only thing that has saved human society from perishing in the flames of its own mimetic violence. But as a matter of moral philosophy he recognised no less that it is an utterly unacceptable solution.
He was too wise to propose what is called a ‘coherent alternative’. He listed no suite of social reforms to solve the problem of mimetic violence without the scapegoating mechanism. His only advice was that each of us should do our best to resist scapegoating. When asked what he thought we should do about terrorism and religious violence in the modern world, he broke the greatest taboo of academics and political commentators. He simply replied: “I don’t know.”
Anybody who reads Girard with an open mind will be free henceforth of two egregious misconceptions with which thinkers like Friedrich Hayek have infected the social sciences.
The first is that there is anything to be admired in the phenomenon of spontaneous social order. It is certainly impressive, in some non-moral sense, that human societies display self-organizing behaviour: they form complex patterns of order without any conscious central planning. But the most historically common form of spontaneous order is that of a human community tacitly agreeing to vent all of its violent frustration upon a defenceless subgroup. Girard’s work consisted of exposing the secret violent origins of almost all human institutions. Our enthusiasm for our institutions must be brought face-to-face with their origins.
The second is the notion that capitalism succeeds because it accepts human vices for what they are. Capitalism, it is commonly said, designs systems by which the self-interested egoism of individuals can be employed for the benefit of society. But humans are not self-interested in the required sense. They are willing to make great sacrifices in material wellbeing for the sake of visiting greater suffering upon their scapegoats. Americans could enjoy a higher standard of living if they sought to maximize employment rather than incarceration for racial minorities. But then many of them would not get to enjoy the relief of frustration that comes from knowing that others are suffering violence and degradation, that those others are not themselves and not ‘people like themselves’.
It is not capitalism that we have to thank for the stability and prosperity of our society. It is the scapegoating mechanism. This is a horrific scandal, of course. The loss of Girard is the loss of a finger to point to that scandal. We will go back to ignoring the horror by which we live until another Girard comes along.