Three articles worth reading, by Charles Eisenstein, based on an Girardian analysis of the scapegoating of the unvaccinated
[NB – I’m glad to see other thinkers connect Girard to what’s happening, as Eisenstein does. I covered this in some of my articles, including:
(1) Scapegoating the unvaccinated gets mainstream approval
(2) The Roman Catholic Church is wrong to impose vaccine mandates
(3) Delta variant and fourth wave caused by ADE response to mRNA vaccine
Scroll to the section of it called “The unvaxxed wrongly scapegoated”
(4) Scapegoating the unvaccinated is no more enlightened than other any other example in history [graphic]]
(A standalone Part 3 of a series. Part 1, Part 2 – both reprinted below)
Mob Morality and the Unvaxxed
by Charles Eisenstein
Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.
– Joseph Goebbels
We would like to think that modern societies like ours have outgrown barbaric customs like human sacrifice. Sure, we still engage in scapegoating and figuratively sacrifice people on the altar of public opinion, but we don’t actually kill people in hopes of placating the gods and restoring order. Or do we?
Some scholars believe we do. Following the thought of the late philosopher Rene Girard, they argue that human sacrifice is still with us today in the form of capital punishment (and incarceration – a removal from society). Girard believed that human sacrifice arose in response to what he called a “sacrificial crisis.” The original sacrificial crisis – the greatest threat to early societies – was escalating cycles of violence and retribution. The solution was to redirect the vengeance away from each other and, in violent unanimity, toward a scapegoat or class of scapegoats. Once established, this pattern was memorialized in myth and ritual, applied preemptively as human sacrifice, and carried out in response to any other crisis that threatened society.
In this view, capital punishment originated in human sacrifice and it is human sacrifice. It performs the same function: to forestall reciprocal violence through unanimous violence. It does so by monopolizing vengeance, truncating the cycle of retaliatory violence at the first iteration. This works whether the subject of execution or incarceration is guilty of a crime or not. Justice is a cover story for something more primal. Theologian Brian K. Smith writes,
The subject of a modern execution might also be carrying multivalent significations. Among other things (i.e., racial and economic metonymic potentialities), such a figure might serve as the representative of all crime, of “disorder” and social “chaos,” of the “breakdown of values,” etc. Apart from any utilitarian deterrent effect capital punishment might have, it is one, rather drastic, response to a social problem – illegal and illicit violence.
In other words, what we rationalize in the language of justice and deterrence is actually a blood ritual, in which a person, whether guilty or not, becomes a symbol. Ritual springs up irrepressibly around executions: the last meal, the “dead man walking” to the special execution chamber, the witnesses, the medical procedures, the presiding physician, the signed papers, the last rites, the covering of the head, the precise timetable, the final words, and the exacting attention to detail all mark off the execution as separate, special… sacred.
Something Must be Done
In a lucidly argued paper, legal scholar Roberta Harding offers several examples from the deep South during Jim Crow where judge, jury, and prosecutor well knew that the accused black man was innocent of the charge of raping a white woman. However, because the white supremacist social order was threatened by consensual interracial intercourse, they executed the accused anyway; if they failed to do so promptly he was lynched. Partly this was to set an example and terrify the black population, but partly it was because something had to be done.
By the same token, it mattered little that Afghan villagers or Iraqi politicians had no culpability for 9/11; nor did it matter that bombing them would have no practical effect on future terrorism (except to further inflame it). Obviously, the United States was using 9/11 as a pretext to accomplish larger geopolitical aims. Yet it worked as a pretext only because of broad public agreement that “something must be done.” And, enacting the age-old pattern, we knew what to do: find some target of unifying violence that cannot effectively retaliate. I was dismayed in 2001 when, at Quaker Meeting of all places, one of the Quakers said, “Of course, a forceful response of some kind is necessary.” What, I wondered, does “forceful” mean? It means bombing someone. In other words, we must find someone upon whom to visit violence. He may also have mentioned addressing the imperialist causes of terrorism, but those were not the subject of “of course.” Nearly everyone instinctively took for granted the necessity of finding sacrificial victims. We were definitely going to bomb someone – the only question was whom.
The 9/11 attack exemplifies what Harding calls a triggering incident, which “resuscitates dissensions, rivalries, jealousies and quarrels within the community,” leading to a sacrificial crisis. A recent such incident was the murder of George Floyd. The latent conflicts it exposed have been festering for so long that it takes little provocation for them to erupt into an active crisis. The response to Floyd’s murder is a classic illustration of the calming power of violent unanimity, as Derrick Chauvin’s conviction and sentencing temporarily quelled the racialized civil unrest that the killing sparked. Something was done – but only to quell the unrest, not to solve the complex, heavily ramified problem of police killings. It no more addressed the source of America’s race problems than killing Osama Bin Laden made America safe from terrorism.
Not just any victim will do as an object of human sacrifice. Victims must be, as Harding puts it, “in, but not of, the society.” That is why, during the Black Death, mobs roamed about murdering Jews for “poisoning the wells.” The entire Jewish population of Basel was burned alive, a scene repeated throughout Western Europe. Yet this was not mainly the result of preexisting virulent hatred of Jews waiting for an excuse to erupt; it was that victims were needed to release social tension, and hatred, an instrument of that release, coalesced opportunistically on the Jews. They qualified as victims because of their in-but-not-of status.
“Combatting hatred” is combatting a symptom.
Scapegoats needn’t be guilty, but they must be marginal, outcasts, heretics, taboo-breakers, or infidels of one kind or another. If they are too alien, they will be unsuitable as transfer objects of in-group aggression. Neither can they be full members of society, lest cycles of vengeance ensue. If they are not already marginal, they must be made so. It was ritually important that Derrick Chauvin be cast as a racist and white supremacist; then his removal from society could serve symbolically as the removal of racism itself.
Just to be clear here, I am not saying Derrick Chauvin’s conviction for George Floyd’s murder was unjust. I am saying that justice was not the only thing carried out.
Representatives of Pollution
Aside from criminals, who today serves as the representative of Smith’s “disorder,” “social chaos,” and “breakdown of values” that seem to be overtaking the world? For most of my life external enemies and a story-of-the-nation served to unify society: communism and the Soviet Union, Islamic terrorism, the mission to the moon, and the mythology of progress. Today the Soviet Union is long dead, terrorism has ceased to terrify, the moon is boring, and the mythology of progress is in terminal decline. Civil strife burns ever hotter, without the broad consensus necessary to transform it into unifying violence. For the right, it is Antifa, Black Lives Matter protesters, critical race theory academics, and undocumented immigrants that represent social chaos and the breakdown of values. For the left it is the Proud Boys, right wing militias, white supremacists, QAnon, the Capitol rioters, and the burgeoning new category of “domestic extremists.” And finally, defying left-right categorization is a promising new scapegoat class, the heretics of our time: the anti-vaxxers. As a readily identifiable subpopulation, they are ideal candidates for scapegoating.
It matters little whether any of these pose a real threat to society. As with the subjects of criminal justice, their guilt is irrelevant to the project of restoring order through blood sacrifice (or expulsion from the community by incarceration or, in more tepid but possibly prefigurative form, through “canceling”). All that is necessary is that the dehumanized class arouse the blind indignation and rage necessary to incite a paroxysm of unifying violence. More relevant to current times, this primal mob energy can be harnessed toward fascistic political ends. Totalitarians right and left invoke it directly when they speak of purges, ethnic cleansing, racial purity, and traitors in our midst.
Sacrificial subjects carry an association of pollution or contagion; their removal thus cleanses society. I know people in the alternative health field who are considered so unclean that if I so much as mention their names in a Tweet or Facebook post, the post may be deleted. Deletion is a certainty if I link to an article or interview with them. The public’s ready acceptance of such blatant censorship cannot be explained solely in terms of its believing the pretext of “controlling misinformation.” Unconsciously, the public recognizes and conforms to the age-old program of investing a pariah subclass with the symbology of pollution.
This program is well underway toward the Covid-unvaxxed, who are being portrayed as walking cesspools of germs who might contaminate the Sanctified Brethren (the vaccinated). My wife perused an acupuncture Facebook page today (which one would expect to be skeptical of mainstream medicine) where someone asked, “What is the word that comes to mind to describe unvaccinated people?” The responses were things like “filth,” “assholes,” and “death-eaters.” This is precisely the dehumanization necessary to prepare a class of people for cleansing.
The science behind this portrayal is dubious. Contrary to the association of the unvaccinated with public danger, some experts contend that it is the vaccinated that are more likely to drive mutant variants through selection pressure. Just as antibiotics result in higher mutation rates and adaptive evolution in bacteria, leading to antibiotic resistance, so may vaccines push viruses to mutate. (Hence the prospect of endless “boosters” against endless new variants.) This phenomenon has been studied for decades, as this article in my favorite math & science website, Quanta, describes. The mutated variants evade the vaccine-induced antibodies, in contrast to the robust immunity that, according to some scientists, those who have already been sick with Covid have to all variants (See this and this, more analysis here, compare to Dr. Fauci’s viewpoint.)
It is not my purpose here, however, to present a scientific case. My point is that those in the scientific and medical community who dissent from the demonization of the unvaxxed contend not only with opposing scientific views, but with ancient, powerful psycho-social forces. They can debate the science all they want, but they are up against something much bigger. Rwandan scientists could just as well have debated the precepts of Hutu Power for all the good that would have done. Perhaps the Nazi example is more apposite here, since the Nazis did invoke science in their extermination campaigns. Then as now, science was a cloak for something more primal. The hurricane of sacrificial violence easily swept aside the minority of German scientists who contested the science of eugenics, and it wasn’t because the dissidents were wrong.
We face a similar situation today. If the mainstream view on Covid vaccines is wrong, it will not be overthrown by science alone. The pro-vaccine camp has a powerful nonscientific ally in the collective id, expressed through various mechanisms of ostracism, shaming, and other social and economic pressure. It takes courage to defy a mob. Doctors and scientists who express anti-vaccine views risk losing funding, jobs, and licenses, just as ordinary citizens face censorship on social media. Even a non-polemic essay like this one will likely be censored, especially if I stain it with the pollution of the heretics by linking blacklisted websites or articles by the disinformation dozen anti-vaxxers. Here, let’s try it for fun. Greenmedinfo! Chldren’s Health Defense! Mercola.com! Ah. That felt a little like shouting swear words in public. You’d better not follow these links, lest you be tainted by their pollution (and your browsing history mark you as an infidel).Subscribe
To prepare someone for removal as the repository of all that is evil, it helps to heap upon them every imaginable calumny. Thus we hear in mainstream publications that anti-vaxxers not only are killing people, but are raging narcissists, white supremacists, vile, spreaders of Russian disinformation, and tantamount to domestic terrorists. These accusations are amplified by cherry-picking a few examples, choosing hysterical-looking photos of anti-vaxxers, and showcasing their most dubious arguments. If the authorities follow the playbook developed to counter other domestic “threats,” we can also expect agents-provocateurs, entrapment schemes, government agents voicing violent positions to discredit the movement, and so forth – techniques developed in the infiltration of the civil rights, environmental, and anti-globalism movements.
Concerned friends have advised me to “distance myself” from members of the Disinformation Dozen whom I know, as if they carry some kind of contagion. Well, in a sense they do – the contagion of disrepute. It reminds me of Soviet times when mere association with a dissident could land one in the Gulag with them. It also reminds me of my school days, when it was social suicide to be friendly with the weird kid, whose weirdness would rub off on oneself. In grade school, this contagion was known as “cooties.” (In my early teens I was the weird kid, and only very brave teenagers would be friendly to me while anyone was watching.) Clearly, the basic social dynamic pervades society at many levels. A deeply ingrained gut instinct recognizes the danger of membership in a pariah subclass. To defend the pariahs or to fail to show sufficient enthusiasm in attacking them marks one with suspicion; the result is self-censorship and discretion, contributing all the more to the illusion of unanimity.
The same kind of positive reinforcement cycle is what generates a mob. All it takes is a few loud people to incite it by declaring someone or something a target. A portion of the crowd goes along enthusiastically. The rest keep silent and conform in outward behavior even as they are troubled within; to each, it looks like he or she is the only one who disagrees. Writ large to the totalitarian state, the support of a majority of the population is unnecessary. The appearance of support will suffice.
The mechanisms that generate the illusion of unanimity operate within science, medicine, and journalism as well as among the general public. Some conform enthusiastically to the orthodoxy; others complain in whispers to sympathetic colleagues. Those who voice dissent publicly become radioactive. The consequences of their apostasy (excommunication from funding, ridicule in the media, shunning by colleagues who must “distance themselves,” etc.) serve to silence other potential dissidents, who prudently keep their views to themselves.
Notice that here I have not yet said what I personally think about vaccine safety, efficacy, or necessity (be patient); nonetheless, what I have said is enough for anyone to distance themselves from me to keep safe. If I’m not an anti-vaxxer myself, I certainly have their cooties.
Someone on an online forum that I co-host related an incident. His children had a play date scheduled at their friend’s house. A parent called him to ask if his family had been vaccinated. Politely, he said no, and his children were immediately disinvited.
While this parent doubtless believed he was being scientific in canceling the invitation, I doubt science was really the reason. Even the most Covid-orthodox person understands that the non-symptomatic children of non-symptomatic parents pose negligible risk of infection; furthermore, since vaccine believers presumably trust that the vaccine provides protection, rationally speaking they have little to fear from the unvaccinated. The risk is vanishingly small, but the moral indignation is huge.
Many if not most people get the vaccine in an altruistic civic spirit, not because they personally fear getting Covid, but because they believe they are contributing to herd immunity and protecting others. By extension, those who refuse the vaccine are shirking their civic duty; hence the epithets “filth” and “assholes.” They become the identifiable representatives of social decay, ready for surgical removal from the body politic like cancer cells all conveniently located in the same tumor.
Social stability depends on people rewarding altruism and deterring antisocial behavior. These rewards and deterrents are encoded into morals and then into norms and taboos. Performing the rituals and avoiding the taboos of the tribe, and shaming and punishing those who do not, one rests serenely in the knowledge of being a good person. As an added benefit, one distinguishes oneself as part of the moral majority, a full member of society, and not part of the sacrificial minority. Our fear of nonconformity is born of ancient experience so deeply ingrained it has become an instinct. It is hard to distinguish it from morality.
The fear operating in the ostracism of the unvaxxed is mostly not fear of disease, though disease may be its proxy. The main fear, old as humanity, is of a social contagion. It is fear of association with the outcasts, coded as moral indignation.
In any society some people are especially zealous in enforcing group norms, values, rituals, and taboos. They may be controlling types, or they may simply care about the common good. They serve an important function when the norms and rituals are aligned with social and ecological health. But when corrupt forces hijack the norms through propaganda and the control of information, these good folks can become instruments of totalitarian control.
Those doing the scapegoating may honestly, even fervently, believe the narrative of “the unvaccinated endanger others.” Again, while I find the evidence to the contrary persuasive, I won’t try to build a case for it beyond the hints I’ve offered already. As the saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into to begin with. Furthermore, most of the citations I would use would come from blacklisted sources, which, owing to their heresy, are unacceptable to those who trust official sources of information. If you trust the official sources, why, then you trust their exclusion of the heretical information. When official sources exclude all dissent, then all dissent becomes a priori invalid to those who trust them.
Consequently, much of the dissent migrates to dodgy right-wing websites without the resources to check facts and scrutinize sources. One would think, for example, that a highly credentialed scientist like Dr. Peter McCullough, a professor of medicine, author of hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, and president of the Cardio-Renal Society of America, would be able to find a hearing outside the right-wing media ecosystem. But no. He’s been sidelined to places like the right wing Catholic John-Henry Westen show. I wish I could fine a link to this persuasive interview somewhere else, especially because there is actually nothing right-wing about McCullough’s views.
Tragically, the sites that host people like McCullough are quite often home to anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ articles that use the same tactics leveled at anti-vaxxers, tap into the same template of dehumanization and scapegoating, and lend themselves to the same fascistic ends.
Moving the Masses
For these reasons, I won’t try too hard to substantiate my belief that – and I may as well say it explicitly as a gesture of goodwill to the censors, who will thus have an easier time deciding what to do with this article – the Covid vaccines are much more dangerous, less effective, and less necessary than we are told. They also seem not as dangerous, at least in the short term, as some fear. People are not dropping dead in the streets or turning into zombies; most of my vaccinated friends seem to be just fine. So it is hard to know. The science on the issue is so clouded by financial incentives and systemic bias that it is impossible to rely on it to light a way through the murk. The system of research and public health suppresses generic medicines and nutritional therapies that have been demonstrated to greatly reduce Covid symptoms and mortality, leaving vaccines as the only choice. It also fails to adequately investigate numerous plausible mechanisms for serious long-term harm. Of course, plausible does not mean certain: at this point no one knows, or indeed can know, what the long-term effects will be. My point, however, is not that the anti-vaxxers are right and being unjustly persecuted. It is that their persecution enacts a pattern that has little to do with whether they are right or wrong, innocent or guilty. The unreliability of the science underscores that point, and suggests that we take a hard look at the deadly social impulses that the science cloaks.
To say that official sources exclude all dissent overstates the case. In fact, peer-reviewed publications and highly credentialed medical doctors and scientists concur with much of what I’ve said. Admittedly, they are in the minority. But if they were right, we would not easily know it. The mechanisms for controlling misinformation work equally well to control true information that contradicts official sources.
The foregoing analysis is not meant to invalidate other explanations for Covid conformity: the influence of Big Pharma on research, the media, and government; reigning medical paradigms that see health as a matter of winning a war on germs; a general social climate of fear, obsession with safety, the phobia and denial of death; and, perhaps most importantly, the long disempowerment of individuals to manage their own health.
Nor is the foregoing analysis incompatible with the theory that Covid and the vaccination agenda is a totalitarian conspiracy to surveil, track, inject, and control every human being on earth. There can be little doubt that some kind of totalitarian program is well underway, but I have long believed it an emergent phenomenon agglomerating synchronicities to fulfill the hidden myth and ideology of Separation, and not a premeditated plot among human conspirators. Now I believe both are true; the latter subsidiary to the former, its avatar, its symptom, its expression. While not the deepest explanation for humanity’s current travail, conspiracies and the secret machinations of power do operate, and I’ve come to accept that some things about our current historical moment are best explained in those terms.
Whether the totalitarian program is premeditated or opportunistic, deliberate or emergent, the question remains: How does a small elite move the great mass of humanity? They do it by aggravating and exploiting deep psycho-social patterns such as the Girardian. Fascists have always done that. We normally attribute pogroms and genocide to racist ideology, the classic example being antisemitic fascism. From the Girardian perspective it is more the other way around. The ideology is secondary: a creation and a tool of impending violent unanimity. It creates its necessary conditions. The same might be said of slavery. It was not that Europeans thought Africans were inferior and so thus enslaved them. It was that thinking them inferior was required in order to enslave them.
On an individual level too, who among us has not operated from unconscious shadow motivations, creating elaborate enabling justifications and post facto rationalizations of actions that harm others?
Why is fascism so commonly associated with genocide, when as a political philosophy it is about unity, nationalism, and the merger of corporate and state power? It is because it needs a unifying force powerful enough to sweep aside all resistance. The us of fascism requires a them. The civic-minded moral majority participates willingly, assured that it is for the greater good. Something must be done. The doubters go along too, for their own safety. No wonder today’s authoritarian institutions know, as if instinctively, to whip up hysteria toward the newly minted class of deplorables, the anti-vaxxers and unvaccinated.
Fascism taps into, exploits, and institutionalizes a deeper instinct. The practice of creating dehumanized classes of people and then murdering them is older than history. It emerges again and again under all political systems. Our own is not exempt. The campaign against the unvaccinated, garbed in the white lab coat of Science, munitioned with biased data, and waving the pennant of altruism, channels a brutal, ancient impulse.
Does that mean that the unvaccinated will be rounded up in concentration camps and their leaders ritually murdered? No, they will be segregated from society in other ways. More importantly, the energies invoked by the scapegoating, dehumanizing, pollution-associating campaign can be applied to gain public acceptance of coercive policies, particularly policies that fit the narrative of removing pollution. Currently, a vaccine passport is required to visit certain countries. Imagine needing one to go shopping, drive a car, or exit your home. It would be easily enforceable anywhere that has implemented the “internet of things,” in which everything from automobiles to door locks is under central control. The flimsiest pretext will suffice once the ancient template of sacrificial victim, the repository of pollution, has been established.
Rene Girard was, from what I’ve read of his work, something of a fundamentalist. I do not agree with him that all desire beyond mere appetite is mimetic or that all ritual originates in sacrificial violence, powerful though these lenses are. By the same token, I don’t want to reduce our current acceleration toward techno-totalitarianism and a biosecurity state by just one psycho-social explanation, however deep. Yet it is important to recognize the Girardian pattern, so we know what we are dealing with, so that we can creatively expand our resistance beyond futile debate over the issues – and most importantly, so we can identify its operation within ourselves. Any movement that leverages contempt in its rhetoric fits the Girardian impulse. Elements of scapegoating such as dehumanization, rumor-mongering, stereotyping, punishment-as-justice, and mob mentality are alive within dissident communities as they are in the mainstream. Any who ride those powers to victory will create a new tyranny no better than the previous.
There is another way and a better future. I will describe it in Part 4 of this essay although the reader already knows what it is, by feel if not in words. This future reaches into the present and the past to show itself any time that vengeance gives way to forgiveness, enmity to reconciliation, blame to compassion, judgment to understanding, punishment to justice, rivalry to synergy, and suspicion to laughter. Transcendence is in the human being.
by Charles Eisenstein
(Part 1 of a multi-part series)
We live a double life, civilized in scientific and technical matters, wild and primitive in the things of the soul. That we are no longer conscious of being primitive, makes our tamed kind of wildness all the more dangerous. – Hans Von Hentig
The natural order is unraveling. Plagues, floods, droughts, political unrest, riots, and economic crises strike one upon the next, before society has recovered from the last. Cracks spread in the shell of normality that encloses human life. Societies have faced such circumstances repeatedly throughout history, just as we face them today.
We would like to think we are responding more rationally and more effectively than our unscientific forebears; instead, we enact age-old social dramas and superstitions dressed in the garb of modern mythology. No wonder, because the most serious crisis we face is not new.
None of the problems facing humanity today are technically difficult to solve. Holistic farming methods could heal soil and water, sequester carbon, increase biodiversity, and actually increase yields to swiftly solve various ecological and humanitarian crises. Simply declaring a moratorium on fishing in half the world’s oceans would heal them too. Systemic use of natural and alternative healing modalities could vastly reduce Covid mortality, and reverse the (objectively more serious) plagues of autoimmunity, allergies, and addiction. New economic arrangements could easily eradicate poverty. However, what all of these easy solutions have in common is that they require agreement among human beings. There is almost no limit to what a unified, coherent society can achieve. That is why the overarching crisis of our time – more serious than ecological collapse, more serious than economic collapse, more serious than the pandemic – is the polarization and fragmentation of civil society. With coherency, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is.
The late philosopher Rene Girard believed that this has always been true: since prehistoric times, the greatest threat to society has been a breakdown in cohesion. Theologian S. Mark Heim elegantly lays out Girard’s thesis: “Particularly in its infancy, social life is a fragile shoot, fatally subject to plagues of rivalry and vengeance. In the absence of law or government, escalating cycles of retaliation are the original social disease. Without finding a way to treat it, human society can hardly begin.”
The historical remedy is not very inspiring. Heim continues:
The means to break this vicious cycle appear as if miraculously. At some point, when feud threatens to dissolve a community, spontaneous and irrational mob violence erupts against some distinctive person or minority in the group. They are accused of the worst crimes the group can imagine, crimes that by their very enormity might have caused the terrible plight the community now experiences. They are lynched.
The sad good in this bad thing is that it actually works. In the train of the murder, communities find that this sudden war of all against one has delivered them from the war of each against all. The sacrifice of one person as a scapegoat discharges the pending acts of retribution. It “clears the air.” The sudden peace confirms the desperate charges that the victim had been behind the crisis to begin with. If the scapegoat’s death is the solution, the scapegoat must have been the cause. The death has such reconciling effect, that it seems the victim must possess supernatural power. So the victim becomes a criminal, a god, or both, memorialized in myth.
The buildup of reciprocal violence and anarchy that precedes this resolution was described by Girard in his masterwork, Violence and the Sacred, as a “sacrificial crisis.” Divisions rend society, violence and vengeance escalate, people ignore the usual restraints and morals, and the social order dissolves into chaos. This culminates in a transition from reciprocal violence to unanimous violence: the mob selects a victim (or class of victims) for slaughter and in that act of universal agreement, restores social order.
The Age of Reason has not uprooted this deep pattern of redemptive violence. Reason but serves to rationalize it; industry takes it to industrial scale, and high technology threatens to lift it to new heights. As society has grown more complex, so too have the variations on the theme of redemptive violence. Yet the pattern can be broken. The first step to doing that is to see it for what it is.
In order that full-blown sacrificial crises need not repeat, an institution arose that is nearly universal across human societies: the festival. Girard draws extensively from ethnography, myth, and literature to make the case that festivals originated as ritual reenactments of the breakdown of order and its subsequent restoration through violent unanimity.
A true festival is not a tame affair. It is a suspension of normal rules, mores, structures, and social distinctions. Girard explains:
Such violations [of legal, social, and sexual norms] must be viewed in their broadest context: that of the overall elimination of differences. Family and social hierarchies are temporarily suppressed or inverted; children no longer respect their parents, servants their masters, vassals their lords. This motif is reflected in the esthetics of the holiday—the display of clashing colors, the parading of transvestite figures, the slapstick antics of piebald “fools.” For the duration of the festival unnatural acts and outrageous behavior are permitted, even encouraged.
As one might expect, this destruction of differences is often accompanied by violence and strife. Subordinates hurl insults at their superiors; various social factions exchange gibes and abuse. Disputes rage in the midst of disorder. In many instances the motif of rivalry makes its appearance in the guise of a contest, game, or sporting event that has assumed a quasi-ritualistic cast. Work is suspended, and the celebrants give themselves over to drunken revelry and the consumption of all the food amassed over the course of many months.
Festivals of this kind serve to cement social coherence and remind society of the catastrophe that lays in wait should that coherence falter. Faint vestiges of them remain today, for example in football hooliganism, street carnivals, music festivals, and the Halloween phrase “trick or treat.” The “trick” is a relic of the temporary upending of the established social order. Druidic scholar Philip Carr-Gomm describes Samhuinn, the Celtic precursor to Halloween, like this:
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields…
In modern, “developed” societies today, neither Halloween nor any other holiday or culturally sanctioned event permits this level of anarchy. Our holidays have been fully tamed. This does not bode well. Girard writes:
The joyous, peaceful facade of the deritualized festival, stripped of any reference to a surrogate victim and its unifying powers, rests on the framework of a sacrificial crisis attended by reciprocal violence. That is why genuine artists can still sense that tragedy lurks somewhere behind the bland festivals, the tawdry utopianism of the “leisure society.” The more trivial, vulgar, and banal holidays become, the more acutely one senses the approach of something uncanny and terrifying.
That last sentence strikes a chord of foreboding. For decades I’ve looked at the degenerating festivals of my culture with an alarm I couldn’t quite place. As All Hallows Eve devolved into a minutely supervised children’s game from 6 to 8pm, as the Rites of Resurrection devolved into the Easter Bunny and jellybeans, and Yule into an orgy of consumption, I perceived that we were stifling ourselves in a box of mundanity, a totalizing domesticity that strove to maintain a narrowing order by shutting out wildness completely. The result, I thought, could only be an explosion.
It is not just that festivals are necessary to blow off steam. They are necessary to remind us of the artificiality and frailty of the human ordering of the world, lest we go insane within it.
Mass insanity comes from the denial of what everyone knows is true. Every human being knows, if only unconsciously, that we are not the roles and personae we occupy in the cultural drama of life. We know the rules of society are arbitrary, set up so that the show can be played out to its conclusion. It is not insane to enter this show, to strut and fret one’s hour upon the stage. Like an actor in a movie, we can devotedly play our roles in life. But when the actor forgets he is acting and loses himself so fully in his role that he cannot get out of it, mistaking the movie for reality, that’s psychosis. Without respite from the conventions of the social order and without respite from our roles within it, we go crazy as well.
We should not be surprised that Western societies are showing signs of mass psychosis. The vestigial festivals that remain today – the aforementioned holidays, along with cruise ships and parties and bars – are contained within the spectacle and do not stand outside it. As for Burning Man and the transformational music & art festivals, these have exercised some of the festival’s authentic function – until recently, when their exile to online platforms stripped them of any transcendental possibility. Much as the organizers are doing their best to keep the idea of the festival alive, online festivals risk becoming just another show for consumption. One clicks into them, sits back, and watches. In-person festivals are different. They start with a journey, then one must undergo an ordeal (waiting in line for hours). Finally you get to the entrance temple (the registration booth), where a small divination ritual (checking the list) is performed to determine your fitness to attend (by having made the appropriate sacrifice – a payment – beforehand). Thereupon, the priest or priestess in the booth confers upon the celebrant a special talisman to wear around the wrist at all times. After all this, the subconscious mind understands one has entered a separate realm, where indeed, to a degree at least, normal distinctions, relations, and rules do not apply. Online events of any kind rest safely in the home. Whatever the content, the body recognizes it as a show.
More generally, locked in, locked down, and locked out, the population’s confinement within the highly controlled environment of the internet is driving them crazy. By “controlled” I do not here refer to censorship, but rather to the physical experience of being seated watching depictions of the real, absent any tactile or kinetic dimension. On line, there is no such thing as a risk. OK, sure, someone can hurt your feelings, ruin your reputation, or steal your credit card number, but all these operate within the cultural drama. They are not of the same order as crossing a stream on slippery rocks, or walking in the heat, or hammering in a nail. Because conventional reality is artificial, the human being needs regular connection to a reality that is non-conventional in order to remain sane. That hunger for unprogrammed, wild, real experiences – real food for the soul – intensifies beneath the modern diet of canned holidays, online adventures, classroom exercises, safe leisure activities, and consumer choices.
Absent authentic festivals, the pent-up need erupts in spontaneous quasi-festivals that follow the Girardian pattern. One name for such a festival is a riot. In a riot, as in an authentic festival, prevailing norms of conduct are upended. Boundaries and taboos around private property, trespassing, use of streets and public spaces, etc. dissolve for the duration of the “festival.” This enactment of social disintegration culminates either in genuine mob violence or some cathartic pseudo-violence (which can easily spill over into the real thing). An example is toppling statues, an outright ritual substituting symbolic action for real action even in the name of “taking action.” Yes, I understand its rationale (around dismantling narratives that involve symbols of white supremacy and so forth) but its main function is as a unifying act of symbolic violence. However, this cathartic release of social tensions does little to change the deep conditions that give rise to those tensions in the first place. Thus it helps to maintain them.
I became aware of the festive dimension to riots while teaching at a university in the early 2000s. Some of my students participated in a riot following a home-team basketball victory. It started as a celebration, but soon they were smashing windows, stealing street signs, removing farmers’ gates from their hinges, and otherwise violating the social order. These violations also took on a creative dimension reminiscent of street carnivals. One student recounted making a gigantic “the finger” out of foam and parading it around town. “It was the most fun I’ve had my whole life,” he said. More than any contained, neutered holiday, this was an authentic festival seeking to be born. And it wasn’t safe. People were accidentally injured. A real festival is serious business. Normal laws and customs, morals and conventions, do not govern it. It may evolve its own, but these originate organically, not imposed by authorities of the normal, conventional order; else, it is not a real festival. A real festival is essentially a repeated, ritualized riot that has evolved its own pattern language.
The more locked down, policed, and regulated a society, the less tolerance there is for anything outside its order. Eventually but one micro-festival remains – the joke. To not take things so seriously is to stand outside their reality; it is to affirm for a moment that this isn’t as real as we are making it, there is something outside this. There is truth in a joke, the same truth that is in a festival. It is a respite from the total enclosure of conventional reality. That is why totalitarian movements are so hostile to humor, with the sole exception of the kind that degrades and mocks their opponents. (Mocking humor, such as racist humor, is in fact an instrument of dehumanization in preparation for scapegoating.) In Soviet Russia one could be sent to the Gulag for telling the wrong joke; in that country, it was also jokes that kept people sane. Humor can be deeply subversive – not only by making authorities seem ridiculous, but by making light of the reality they attempt to impose.
Because it undermines conventional reality, humor is also a primal peace offering. It says, “Let’s not take our opposition so seriously.” That is not to say we should joke all the time, using humor to deflect intimacy and distract from the roles we have agreed to play in the drama of the human social experience, any more than life should be an endless festival. But because humor acts as a kind of microfestival to tether us to a transcendent reality, a society of good humor is likely to be a healthy society that needn’t veer into sacrificial violence. And a society that attempts to confine its jokes within politically correct bounds faces the same “uncanny and terrifying” prospects as a society that has tamed its festivals. Humorlessness is a sign that a sacrificial crisis is on its way.
The loss of sanity that results from confinement in unreality is itself a Girardian sacrificial crisis, the essential feature of which is internecine violence. One might think that with little but hurt feelings at stake, online interactions would be less fraught with conflict than in-person interactions. But of course it is the reverse. One way to understand it is that absent a transcendental perspective outside the orderly, conventional realm of “life,” trivial things loom large and we start taking life much too seriously. This is not to deny the substance of our disagreements, but do we really need to go to war over them? Is the other side whose shortcomings we blame for our problems really so awful? As Girard observes, “The same creatures who are at each others’ throats during the course of a sacrificial crisis are fully capable of coexisting, before and after the crisis, in the relative harmony of a ritualistic order.”
Surveying the social media landscape, it is clear that we are indeed at each others’ throats, and there is no guarantee that that will remain a mere figure of speech as something uncanny and terrifying approaches.
Fascism and the Antifestival
by Charles Eisenstein
(Part 2 of the Girard series. Part 1 here)
Today, the Western world and particularly the United States appears to be in the midst of a classic Girardian sacrificial crisis. Once-reliable social institutions crumble. The public loses trust in its authorities: political, financial, legal, and medical. The new generation is poorer and sicker than the last. Few of any political persuasion believe that society is working or that we are on the right track. Reason, markets, and technology have failed to redeem their utopian promise. The gods have failed us, and we glimpse monsters emerging from their shadows: ecological collapse, nuclear armageddon, the poisoning of our bodies, minds, and world. Simmering differences and rivalries, once subsumed under a general civic consensus, take on a new intensity as each side grows more militant. As confidence wanes in the state’s capacity to hold evil at bay, latent ritualistic instincts come back to life.
Philosopher Rene Girard argued that these ritualistic instincts derive from social upheavals in which runaway cycles of vengeance – the original social disease – were converted into unifying violence against scapegoated victims. Rituals, religions, festivals, and political institutions evolved to prevent similar outbreaks from recurring.
One such ritual pattern that Girard identifies is the “antifestival,” in which “The rites of sacrificial expulsion are not preceded by a period of frenzied anarchy, but by an extreme austerity and an increased rigor in the observance of all interdicts.” In modern times this takes an extended institutional form in totalitarianism. Both Soviet communism and Nazi fascism had a strong puritanical streak, as both were hostile to anything outside their own order. Fascism is essentially an extended antifestival, and it arises, as does the antifestival, in response to looming social breakdown, real or imagined. In many societies, the priestly caste takes every opportunity to impose these rigorous interdicts, taboos, and rituals, which after all increase their own power. The best opportunity is a crisis that can be attributed to people’s sinful ways. A crisis like an earthquake, a flood, or… a plague.
We seem today to be partially emerging from an extended series of antifestivals, otherwise known as “lockdowns.” They have accompanied totalitarian tendencies and a quasi-fascistic hostility to true festivals or indeed to anything resembling public fun. Moreover, many of our public health measures bear a distinct ritualistic cast, and share with both fascism and with numerous archaic antifestivals an obsession with “pollution.” Consider the following passage from the early 20th-century anthropologist James Frazer, entitled “The Collapse of the Nredom Tribe: A Case of Religious Hysteria.”
Jenkins’ chronicle begins at a moment when the Nredom “tribe” (actually a numerous and highly organized society) was already showing signs of social, political, and ecological decline. For years its priests had been warning of evil spirits on the verge of attacking the people. Finally on the third year of Jenkins’ ethnographic residency, some members of the tribe began to take ill. An evil spirit was afoot! As the priests explained it, the spirit could possess anyone who did not abide by various new taboos and perform necessary rituals. Once possessed by the spirit, a person became unclean, at risk of transmitting it to anyone they associated with. No one could see the spirit without special ceremonial instruments such as the priests possessed, but they made drawings of it to show the populace.
A ritual was devised to determine whether any given person was possessed by the spirit. A specially consecrated wand was moistened with the bodily fluids of the person suspected of possession, and then sent to a special hut where priests would subject the stick to further divinatory rituals designed to force the evil spirit to reveal itself. Thereupon, agents of the priests would notify the unfortunate tribesperson of his or her possession. Anyone so adjudged of possession had to remain in strict separation from the rest of the tribe for a fortnight.
Some of the taboos and rituals that the unfortunate superstitious natives adopted were quite bizarre. For example, the priests had marks placed a fathom-length apart in all public places, stating that if everyone stood no closer to each other than the marks indicated, that they would enjoy magical protection. They also demanded that everyone who might come into proximity to the unclean perform frequent ritual ablutions and other forms of bodily purification, and wear various forms of ceremonial headgear to frighten off the spirit. All public gatherings were prohibited, and even normal functions of life severely curtailed. No activity was permitted except with the priests’ explicit sanction.
As you can imagine, this regime generated intense social stress, hardship, and some degree of opposition. Soon the priests were busy stamping out various heresies. Some heretics claimed that the rituals to stop transmission of the evil spirit wouldn’t work, or that the spirit was not so dangerous. Some heretics doubted in the very existence of the evil spirit, saying the heightened levels of sickness were due to some other cause. Others loudly proclaimed that the evil spirit had been loosed upon the populace by the priests themselves. Social tensions mounted as the priests tried to silence the heretics and arouse the populace against them.
Most people in the tribe trusted the priests, but many apparently harbored doubts too, because adherence to the rituals was inconsistent. Knowing that public rejection of the strict regime of taboos and rituals was inevitable, the priests announced they were developing a new sacrament, a magic potion that would protect the recipient forever from possession. Administered by a deputized priest via a slightly painful ritual of skin piercing, the potion sanctified all those who received it. These sanctified brethren could engage in normal life again, although they still had to abide by certain of the new rituals and taboos. Those refusing the potion remained unclean and were subject to all kinds of penalties, shaming, and ostracism.
Unfortunately, the new potion proved less effective than the priests originally promised. According to the priests, other ghosts and spirits were laying in wait, against whom new rituals and taboos must be applied and new potions administered. The power given unto the priests in this time of crisis would need to be permanent. And, they hinted darkly, this plague of evil was a kind of punishment for the tribe’s sinful ways, particularly the sins of the heretics. Heresy must be stamped out! The unclean must be sanctified! Soon religious pogroms swept the land, followed by counter-pogroms against the priests themselves. And Nredom society collapsed.
Okay, I confess. I made up this passage. The priests are the scientists. The wand is the PCR test swab. The unclean are those who test positive. The potion is the vaccine. My point is not that Covid is nothing but a religious hysteria. My point is that, whatever else Covid is, it is also a religious hysteria; that this lens greatly illuminates our current condition and quite probably upcoming events. Our social responses to Covid bear so striking a resemblance to ritual practices and ideas (masks, potions, tabooed persons, sanctification, etc.) that we have to ask how much of our public health policy is really scientific, and how much is religion in disguise. It might even lead to a deeper question: how and whether science differs from (other) religions. (Before you start protesting, “Ridiculous. What about objectivity? The Scientific Method? Peer review?” please read this explanation. The idea cannot be dismissed on trivial grounds.)
I hesitate to call anything “just a ritual,” a dismissal that ignores the mysterious relationship between ritual and reality; however, the dubious efficacy of many of our public health practices invites the judgment that they are, indeed, “just rituals.” I will not attempt here to make a case that masks, lockdowns, distancing, and so forth are dubious. Ultimately the argument comes down to whether our systems of knowledge production (science and journalism) are sound, and whether our medical and political authorities are trustworthy. To doubt public health orthodoxy is to answer no, they are not sound, they are not trustworthy. However, anyone who tries to make this case must, by necessity, source evidence from outside official institutions – evidence which, for the true believers, is illegitimate by definition.
One is unlikely to prove the priests wrong using information sanctioned by the priests. If you try, you are exposed as a heretic.
One contemporary term for a heretic is a “conspiracy theorist.” The term belongs in quotes because it is one thing to claim our institutions are unsound, and quite another to claim that a conscious conspiracy makes them so. “Conspiracy theorist” has become one of the ways to dismiss and dehumanize dissidents to public health orthodoxy.
The swiftness with which deviants from Covid orthodoxy are consigned to subhuman categories is alarming. It is just what is needed to prepare them for their role as Girardian scapegoats. A perennial human reflex, in times of trouble, is to find or create heretics and outcasts. Today they are called “anti-maskers,” “anti-vaxxers,” “science deniers,” “Q-adjacent,” “conspiracy theorists,” “covidiots,” and “domestic extremists,” subjects of a kind of virtual pogrom that humiliates, blames, and often digitally extinguishes its targets. And sometimes the consequences are more than digital.
Like modern fascists with their ideas of ethnic cleansing, and modern communists with their party purges, ancient societies according to Girard were often obsessed with pollution. The original pollutant was violence, which once instigated could quickly spread out of control, much like an infection. To quote Girard, “If the sacrificial catharsis actually succeeds in preventing the unlimited propagation of violence, a sort of infection is in fact being checked…. The tendency of violence to hurl itself on a surrogate if deprived of its original object can surely be described as a contaminating process.” Thus it was that sacrificial victims were often quarantined from normal society, and that the violence of the sacrifice was strictly contained within ritual structures.
What totalitarian societies, traditional antifestivals, and Covid lockdowns have in common is a reflex of control. This reflex meets any failure of control with more of it. When herbicide-resistant weeds appear, the solution is a new herbicide. When immigrants cross the border, we build a wall. When a school shooter gets into a locked school building, we fortify it further. When germs develop resistance to antibiotics, we develop new and stronger ones. When masks fail to stop the spread of covid, we wear two. When our taboos fail to keep evil at bay, we redouble them. The controlling mind foresees a paradise in which every action and every object is monitored, labeled, and controlled. There will be no room for any bad thing to exist. Nothing and no one will be out of place. Every action will be authorized. Everyone will be safe.
Those who attribute the controlling programs of Bill Gates and the technocratic elite to malice do not see the idealism behind the Technological Program. To the elites, their critics seem incomprehensible: deluded, ignorant enemies of progress itself, enemies of the betterment of humanity.
Unfortunately for them and for us, the paradise of total control is a mirage, receding all the more quickly the faster we approach it. The more tightly we impose order, the more chaos squeezes out through the cracks. Girard: “Violence too long held in check will overflow its bounds—and woe to those who happen to be nearby.” The same for other aspects of the Wild: desire, anger, fear, eros. Extreme order creates its opposite.
A subtle parallel connects the dynamics of the sacrificial victim with other programs of control. Ultimately, both depend on a false reduction whose temporary appearance of success allows deeper problems to persist. The cause of immigration is not just immigrants; the cause of school shootings is not just shooters; the cause of disease is not just pathogens; the cause of climate change Is not just greenhouse gases. These are but the terminal agents of a long process; they are the most conspicuous among a complex of causes; they are, like a scapegoat, convenient targets for the exercise of power. Having exercised it, we rest satisfied that something has been done.