The Politics of Envy

A rather long post, I’m afraid!! Your comments are welcome.

The recent party conference season in the UK has raised a number of issues which as Christians I think we need to address. Discussions concerning the less advantaged and how the rest of society ought to relate to them and act towards them have split along party lines; Christian discussions have likewise divided along similar political tendencies. I think, though, we need to move away from the automatic left-leaning ‘we need to do more for the poor’ and the right-leaning ‘those on welfare are getting something for nothing’ responses and try to see what may be happening on a deeper level. This is an attempt to do that and, necessarily, relates to the discussions in the UK but has, I think, relevance for similar debates elsewhere.

I want to look at this issue from the standpoint of the theory of mimetic desire as described by the French anthropologist, Rene Girard. (The Wikipedia article on Girard is helpful, here.) This theory seems to me to offer a way of understanding what is happening and perhaps sounding a warning about our reactions and attitudes, not just to the poor but to the whole basis of our society.

Girard sees mimetic desire as being the basis of violence in society and also as the reason for the development of religious rituals. While I do not find the full working out of his theory concerning the origins of the religious life to be persuasive, the basic premise of mimetic desire does speak to society and the way in which we behave. A detailed discussion of his theory is not possible here, but a brief summary would not be out of place.

Girard sees society as arising from an original chaos; this chaos being one of mimetic desire.  The chaos threatens to destroy the people in the group and thus they band together to murder one of their number who, for one reason or another, has been marginalised.  The murder has a cathartic effect on the group who recognise the need to avoid a return to the chaos from which they have now escaped.  The victim is seen as having been the cause of the strife and, since the strife has now ended, s/he must have been responsible.  A necessary lie is thus propagated which transforms the original mob murder into a sacrifice for the good of the community.  This sacrifice is then re-enacted at regular intervals and performs the task of being a catharsis to any potential violence within the society, as well as being a reminder of that society’s origin.  As Girard says, “The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric”.

The sacrificial rite gradually becomes part of a larger religious system which includes the use of prohibition to reduce the risk of mimetic desire leading to a repeat of the former chaos.  Myth gradually grows up around the sacrifice to explain what is going on, an explanation which in reality obscures the truth behind the incident.  Violence thus becomes an intrinsic part of the religious system, a system which paradoxically preaches against violence, something it is able to do because the sacrifice of the surrogate victim permits it.

In the present political climate, the issue is not about how, and why, certain religious rituals may or may not have arisen. Rather we need to explore the parts of this theory which are relevant.

Mimetic desire must first be distinguished from cathetic desire, the latter being desire focused on a single goal by a subject and, thus, a desire which does not necessitate the presence or activity of a second person.  Mimetic desire, however, does include the involvement of a third party, the model.  Both the subject and the model desire the same object, this desire leads to a rivalry between the two.  This rivalry, though, “does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it”.  The subject must identify with the model in order for mimesis to take place, he must, as the term suggests, imitate the model.  Girard discusses this with particular reference to Oedipus, noting the identification which takes place between Oedipus and his father and the desire involved in the myth.

This leads us to the next important point in the theory, that of the double-bind.   For the mimetic desire to erupt into conflict and violence, it is necessary that the model also becomes the obstacle to achieving the desire.  In Oedipus’s situation, his father not only models the desire, he also is the one person standing in the way of Oedipus fulfilling his desire.  Without this aspect there is no rivalry.  Girard summarises this as being a ‘be like/don’t be like’ situation where conflicting messages are given to the subject.

In order to gain what he desires, the subject has to remove the model, hence the eruption of violence, a violence which becomes reciprocal; the next important phase in the theory.  This reciprocity can be on the individual level or it can be revenge attacks by the model’s family.  We enter a cycle of violence which appears to have no solution and which represents the chaos before the founding of society as mentioned above.

It is here that the role of the surrogate victim becomes central.  By transferring the revenge which otherwise would have been exacted on the perpetrator of any particular violent act onto an innocent, surrogate victim, the cycle of violence is broken.  The victim, as one who is on the edge of society has no-one to take revenge for him/her and thus the reciprocity of violence is removed.

I suggest that we have found ourselves in a classic mimetic desire situation in society and it is this which finds expression in the various political positions. I’d like to suggest that the following aspects of Girard’s theory are to be found in our present society.

First, the object of desire. Our society is based upon the continual striving to obtain and own more “stuff” – the symbols of wealth and success. It is a society which holds displays of wealth – and ostentatious displays at that – as being not only acceptable but good. It is a society which places personal advancement and success (usually measured in monetary terms) as the be-all and end-all of life. The object of desire in our culture is ever-increasing wealth and prosperity.

Second, the model, or the person or people who are seen as having – at least to some extent – achieved this goal of wealth and prosperity. In our context, we might consider this to be the privileged in society; those who – for whatever reason (this can be good, old-fashioned hard work, or accident of birth, or slightly shady financial or tax-avoidance tactics) – are prosperous.  These people present their situation as being one which is to be emulated, encouraging other members of society to strive to achieve what they have.

Third, the subject – the people who are not in the position of the model but who, like the model, wish to attain to the object of desire.

If we take these three aspects together, we have a picture of society where a sector of that society holds up to another sector the aim of being like them in having or achieving a position of wealth and prosperity. This aim of prosperity is portrayed as something which is desirable, not so much in and of itself, but because the models are those who already have this. They encourage others to also desire it, and the subjects do just this. So, our society does not just have a group of people who are successful and wealthy, but these are a group of people others wish to emulate in order to have what they have.

So, we move to the stage of rivalry. A rivalry which is made all the more hopeless by the double-bind of mimetic theory. While the models encourage the subjects to ‘be like us’, this is, in essence, impossible. Not everyone can be wealthy and successful in the way the models are. This double-bind was perfectly illustrated by a line from David Cameron’s speech to his party’s conference. (This is not a party political point, all sectors of British politics have bought into the ‘prosperity, wealth and success are desirable’ aspect of contemporary society.)

“Refusing to apologise for his comfortable childhood, [Cameron] said that he wanted the entire country to enjoy similar advantages, adding: “To all those people who say: ‘he wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school,’ I say: ‘yes, you’re absolutely right.’

“I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.””


The mimetic nature of this is clear: I am privileged, I wish all to be privileged. The lack of logical consistency, in that if all are privileged none is privileged, is a necessary part of the double-bind of Girard’s theory.

The rivalry, though, has a sinister aspect to it as well, since it leads to chaos. Within the context of this critique of society, the chaos we have experienced is that of the financial crash – the credit crunch and subsequent recession. It is a chaos which comes about through the subject desiring what the model has – wealth and the accoutrements of prosperity. It is a chaos to which all have contributed, all who have bought into the ‘rightness’ of the object of desire. Thus, the crash was not just brought about by the privileged, it was also brought about by all of us who saw easy and cheap credit as a way to attaining our desire.

We live with the consequences of that chaos and the rivalry is expressed in the attacks – common attacks – on those seen as being behind this – the bankers. However, the bankers are also part of the model, they are part of that sector of society that has been held up as having that to which we all aspire. The cries from one sector of society that the bankers should pay, is an expression of the rivalry which leads to chaos.

Girard’s theory leads us to a solution. The solution is to find a scapegoat, someone who is on the peripheries of society and thus has little, if any, voice or power. If such a scapegoat can be found, upon whom the pent up frustrations and rivalries of the model and subject can be vented, then the potential deepening of societal chaos can be avoided. This is what the theologian James Alison (see here), in his development of Girard’s theory, describes as a unifying expulsion. By victimising a marginalised person, the chaos caused by the rivalry can be contained. At a later stage, in a moment of revealed discovery (using Alison’s phrase), the model and subject will come to recognise that their victimisation of the surrogate is something which was un-called for, that the victim was indeed innocent.  This could – perhaps should – lead to a desire for finding other ways of being together, ways which would remove the negative aspects of mimetic desire. Society is put back on an even keel and can move on.

It seems to me, using this model, that both the left’s demonisation of the bankers and the right’s portrayal of those on welfare as ‘scroungers’ and ‘work shy’ are simply part of the same game or scenario. A biblical response to the situation would, I think, move in a different direction. That is not to say that those who have committed crimes should not be punished, or that the rich should not pay their share of taxes; or even to suggest that those who abuse the welfare system should not be punished. Rather, it is to say that while these may be necessary for sound governance and sensible use of funds, all of these responses are still working within the context where the desire for wealth and prosperity is accepted as a good thing. Jesus, though, would suggest otherwise. It is in this context that Christians need to rediscover what he meant when he said “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matt 6:24)  Our response to the financial crisis and to the political debates that have come out of this must be, first and foremost, a return to serving the one true God – to recognising that if we buy in to the wealth, success and prosperity lies of our society we are part of the cycle of mimetic desire and are failing to be salt and light in this world.

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