René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire has many implications for economics but Girard himself has never explored this area except for a few passing references. Pierre Dumouchel is among the colleagues of Girard who has done this for us. In his new book The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays he fills in some gaps in Girard’s scheme by examining scarcity, the lynchpin of much liberal economic theory. The shrinkage of objects that occurs when two or more people focus on the same object while consigning all others to oblivion suggests that scarcity is created rather than a fact of nature. While filling in some gaps in Girard’s scheme, Dumouchel comes to the same conclusion via a different route, one that examines this presupposition of liberal economic theory. (Mimetic desire is briefly explained in Human See, Human Want) Dumouchel points out that the economy of early humanity shows few signs of scarcity as built into nature. Although scarcity in the sense of famines or related catastrophes could occur, usually these early societies were affluent in the sense that people had enough. This affluence occurred because the social bonding in these groups was close enough that they shared among themselves, making sure that everybody had enough to live on. Nobody was left to starve unless the whole group starved. This sounds idyllic, but Girard’s theory of collective violence at the dawn of humanity indicates there was a problem. Dumouchel helps us understand what it was. Girard’s presentation of the primal mimetic crises at the dawn of humanity gives the impression that the escalating mimetic rivalry occurs between individuals. Dumouchel suggests that the rivalry was between social groups. He suggests that when social leaders, usually patriarchs, engaged in mimetic rivalry with other social leaders they triangled “third party” people into the fray, usually with much manipulation. The very social bonds that led the members to provide for each other also bound them together against the enemy groups. This social bonding caused the mimetic tensions to escalate. The obligation to feed was also the obligation to fight.” (See Two Ways of Gathering) Girard has argued that spontaneous collective violence stopped social crises and the institutionalization of sacrificial religions perpetuated this “solution.” The Judeo-Christian tradition, however, has attenuated the power of sacrifice to hold society together. Dumouchel agrees with all this but he adds a second “solution” that unfolded more slowly, this one just as unconscious as the first. The violence of feuds between groups of people was especially hard on the third parties drawn into them as they were the ones most likely to be victims of the violence. To avoid this victimization and to tone down the violence, people started to loosen the social bonds that obligated all in the group to fight. In so loosening these bonds, the violence was much more sporadic. It still did a lot of harm but with far fewer participants, society as a whole was not engulfed in the feuding and the crises leading to the victimage mechanism occurred much less often. Unfortunately, the loosening of the social bonds that reduced the scale of violence also created scarcity. The bonds that loosened the obligation to fight also loosened the obligation to provide for others in the group. Those who could not provide for themselves were left out in the cold—literally. Third-parties were yet again victims. There is not a trace of the kind of violence that goes with lynching and other frenzied social actions. On the contrary, nothing happens. And that is the problem. It is indifference that kills. It isn’t that some people got together and made a plan to squeeze out weak people by creating scarcity. Rather, an understandable desire to reduce violence had this effect. This also demonstrates that scarcity is not built into nature although, since the material goods in the world are finite, scarcity can and does happen in nature. In the social groups that loosened their bonds connecting themselves quantity of material goods did not change. What changed was the social configuration, one that resulted in scarcity. This schema by Dumouchel is valuable for connecting the scapegoating mechanism in early societies posited by Girard and the modern style of exclusions that leave large numbers of people on the margins and outside of them. Although frenzied scapegoating actions happen, the creation of economic scarcity is the more ongoing, pressing modern problem. Dumouchel illustrates this whole process in his analysis of the land enclosures in England that culminated in the 18th century. These reflections leave many questions that I will look at in a future blog post or two. Most particularly, since Christianity is alleged to have destroyed the efficacy of sacrificial violence, where does this leave Christianity in relation to economic scarcity?
Move on to Mimetic Scarcity (2)