mimetic scarcity (2)

outsideSupper1The loosening of family and tribal bonds was a second and much longer term strategy for diffusing violence resulting from mimetic rivalry. (See mimetic scarcity 1 for context.) Up to the present day it has been effective enough to be considered a good thing. But it has its disadvantages. It has led to what Norman Geres, a writer cited by Paul Dumouchel, calls “a contract of indifference.” This contract has released from obligations for violence, such as the vendettas that have scarred many social groups. That is good. But this contract as also released us from obligations to care for the misfortunes of other people. That is, we are no longer our brother’s keeper. As an instinctive reaction to violence, the various effects were never planned out and they are still not easily visible. Most seriously, the contract of indifference is deleterious to social conscience. We don’t easily see a connection between our individual actions and their social consequences. To take one example: polluting the environment just doesn’t seem to get on the radar of those who use technology at a level that does just that. It supports an individualist spirituality where saving one’s own soul is the main thing and broader social issues are off the radar.

It is the scarcity created by this “solution” that forms the founding dynamic of capitalism. The basic argument, as I understand it, is that the scarcity gives humans an incentive to try and overcome the scarcity by increasing production so that there will be more material goods than there were. This works in the sense that more material goods are produced that can be consumed by people. But scarcity is not overcome because the increase of production increases desires for goods and when this leads to more increased production, desires increase still more. Material goods never catch up with desire. Mimetic desire, where we desire things because other people desire them, further intensifies this frenzy because whole inventories of perfectly wearable shoes disappear if only a few designs are in fashion. This is how this “peaceful” solution to violence leads directly to the quiet, hidden, sacrifice of many people on the hidden altars of indifference. Indifference is just as contagious as mimetic violence. The ennui of modern humanity analyzed by legions of philosophers and social commentators witnesses to the extent of this contagion.

If Paul Dumouchel is right in suggesting that creating scarcity has roots in early humanity, created scarcity has become much more prominent in modern times. I will make only a brief historical detour to consider the Jewish tradition. The prophets exposed the truth of collective violence much more deeply and clearly than other cultures, thus attenuating the efficacy of sacrificial religion. (“I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” Hos. 6:6) Did this prophetic exposure increase use of the solution of scarcity to limit violence? The countless oracles against oppression of the poor suggest that scarcity was alive and well in early Jewish society. Perhaps the surrounding cultures, still grounded in sacrificial religion, still had stronger social bonds for caring for each other’s’ needs. Maybe. An historical study of this matter would be welcome.

In pleading for the poor and oppressed, the Jewish prophets were clearly aware of the problems created by scarcity and loosening social bonds and so were trying to increase the scope of “family.” That is, far from loosening ties, we are to strengthen them and extend them. By inviting all of us into being siblings of him, Jesus also encouraged us to be brothers and sisters of one another: the whole church, all of humanity is family. Jesus is most explicit in this teaching in Matthew 25 where “the least of these” are all part of Jesus’ family and therefore ours as well. It is this sense of family that motivated St. Paul to take up a collection in his various churches so as to give famine relief to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

This is a hard saying. First the Jewish prophets and then Jesus, by his death as a result of collective violence, throws a monkey wrench into the first “solution” to violence. But before he died, Jesus, along with the prophets who preceded him, threw another monkey wrench into this second solution. We are given an ascetical double whammy. We have to renounce the solidarity that leads to mimetic strife and then to collective violence, but not only must we retain these same ties, we must strengthen and extend them when it comes to providing for others. That is, the borders that made providing for family tenable have been exploded. Not only that, but if these are “solutions” to violence resulting from intensified mimetic rivalry, and both have been exploded, then we have to discipline ourselves to renounce that rivalry. In analyzing the land enclosures in England, Dumouchel noted the mimetic rivalry of the lairds that caused them to desire better productivity of their lands that brought on scarcity without reducing any material goods in their environments. Make no mistake. I am not suggesting we have to renounce capitalism. We have to exchange goods and services somehow. But renouncing mimetic strife will change the social complexion of capitalism as it changes everything else.

One of the reasons this social demand for social solidarity seems so onerous is because we tend to hear it through the filter of “the contract of indifference.” That is, we think the entire burden falls on each of us individually. We forget even before we hear it that we are invited into a family, a family that is the Body of Christ. We do not have to take responsibility for others, each on our own little lonesome. That would be rugged individualism all over again. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility as members of a Body. Jesus reaches out to everyone through each and every one of us. Our personal responsibilities are collective responsibilities.

The Need for New Hearts: an Advent Meditation

wreckedTrees1The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.

In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.

The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid.  Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.

There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”