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The End of Kantian Universalism: Fairground Economy, Police States, and the Permanent Apocalyptic Sacrificial Carnival (Part IV)

The End Of Kantian Universalism: Fairground Economy, Police States, And The Permanent Apocalyptic Sacrificial Carnival (Part IV)

In the previous articles I repeatedly asserted that we ‘basically’ live inside a police state, as the police is the most basic institution of the modern state, whether liberal democratic, authoritarian, or other. No doubt many who read them wondered how could an over-60 university professor, who furthermore revealed himself as resolutely non-Marxist, use such a terminology that recalls the worst excesses of 68-ism? In this concluding article I now try to clarify this point, also bringing out its direct relevance for the times we are living.

To start with, I consider the paradoxical centrality of the police for the modern state, and for modernity in general, a plain fact and not a ‘critical’ perspective. I was first made to recognize this in my conversations in Texas with Marxist Latin-American students, when we both tried to understand each other, beyond the evident ideological schism or chasm – then, coming out of Communist Hungary, I was a matter of fact liberal democrat. They much helped me to overcome this prejudice of mine, though I’m not sure I was as efficient in overturning their Marxism. They were evidently more skillful – or more ideological. One of the differences we managed to resolve concerned the police. In Hungary, the police was not really corrupt, but rather was a main instrument of totalitarian Communist rule. In Mexico and Peru, among others, I was made to understand, the police was indeed corrupt, meaning that people could not turn to the police to help them in case their were burglarized, as – I was told – they might simply take what was left; or had to be paid a bribe to act. It was then that I realized that indeed, without a properly working police force, there is no democracy. But, to be sure, this is both paradoxical and worrying.

This is because it does not mean that a decent society absolutely needs the kind of police that we have; and even less that having a police as it is, even without any corruption, does not involve a hefty price. The price is indeed enormous, and this is what I now try to bring out in this article. The main price is that this police, and the fairground economy, assume each other, complement each other, cannot live without the other, and it is they together that destroy any possibility of meaningful life, and furthermore destroy the entire planet – through their joint (Kantian) mentality, and through their concrete acts.

In one sense, what I’m saying is close to standard Manchester liberalism, which assumes free markets working within the law, and the police enforcing the law. However, apart from other issues, the police are much more than a ‘law’ enforcement agency, and it is this aspect of the ‘police’ I try to pursue now.

Police Origins

My central point concerns the interpenetration of the police and the fairground economy, since their – joint – origins, and that this happened under the aegis of an (apocalyptic) byzantine influence – apocalyptic, as what happened in 1453 in Constantinople, with a prelude in 1204 due to the Fourth Crusade, was a genuine apocalyptic experience: for them, the end of the world as they knew it; and whatever was transmitted from the Byzantine world into Europe – mimes, Sophists, rhetorician, alchemists, obscure court society ideas and philosophies like Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and Hermetism – were all further colored by this apocalyptic experience.

Obviously, it is impossible to present in a short article a substantiation of these points; instead, I’ll offer a short etymological excursion, and then use some ideas of Michel Foucault as a guide.

Police Etymology

The etymology of the word ‘police’ is simple and uncontroversial, also extremely important, though for some reasons very little known – perhaps exactly because on the surface it is so astonishing. It is the Greek word politeia, title word of Plato’s dialogue translated as Republic, and also extensively discussed by Aristotle as capturing the effective socio-political constitution of a polis. Thus, politeia was a much broader word than politiké, which became the source of politics proper. Now, politeia was translated as ‘police’ in the first treatises of Plato and especially Aristotle translated into modern European languages, and in the early 16th century, at first in Germany, was given as the name of certain ordinances that aimed at restoring civic peace and harmony under increasingly turbulent conditions (about this, see in particular Gerhard Oestreich). I’ll return soon to the character of these conditions – the increasingly permanent fairs, eventually turned into stock-markets.

The semantic development of the term differed in the continent and in England. In the continent, as an aspect of the rise of the absolutist state, French police and German Polizei became increasingly associated with the agency developed to enforce these ordinances, and eventually came to design the modern police forces. In England, however, and closely connected to the rise of statistics (especially mortality rates for insurance purposes, an occupation much boosted by the London plague) and political economy, the term gained the form and significance of ‘policy’. This is why in England for long a ‘police force’ as such did not exist, while in French and German there are no proper words for ‘policy’. A term like ‘social policy’ is expressed through derivatives of ‘politics’, like Sozialpolitik, which is etymologically incorrect, as politeia and politiké are both independent derivatives of polis.

Foucault on Police and Reason of State

Bringing in now Foucault (who incidentally died in the AIDS pandemic), in the continent the rise of the police was closely connected to the doctrine of raison d’état. The meaning of this term originally was again quite different than today, though this development is most interesting, as the modern meaning of ‘reason of state’ is closely connected to states of emergency and the operation of secret polices: crucial aspects of the way the modern permanent sacrificial carnival works. But originally, ‘reason of state’ meant the manner in which the rising states should be organized in order that their forces can grow, potentially without any limits – this was the way in which infinity was introduced into the language of European politics, much promoting the emergence of the economy, through the new discourse of ‘political economy’. The classic work about this was written by Friedrich Meinecke, one of the most important figures of German historiography, while the connection between police and the doctrine of raison d’état was discussed in a key writing by Michel Foucault, itself only preparation for a research never completed. It was original delivered as a 1979 Stanford lecture entitled “Omnes et singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’ ”, or about how to govern rationally at the same time each and all; based on his 1978 Collège de France lectures. Voegelin actually lived then in Stanford, and – as Paul Caringella told me – he very much wanted to attend. However, as he was sick, he had to send Caringella, who had to brief him with a detailed account of the content of the talk. In this context, it is quite relevant that Paul Caringella also told me that Voegelin not only had read Foucault’s books, but in his office they were shelved on a prime place, just next to his desk. And Barry Cooper told me that Voegelin personally advised him to look into the works of Foucault. Barry Cooper’s book on Foucault was the second book ever published in English about Foucault – and remains still one of the best, even though it appeared before Foucault’s last books were finished – preceded only by the book of Foucault’s translator, Alan Sheridan, which is not really a monograph, rather a set of long quotes from Foucault, with extended comments. Voegelin had an eye for quality and was always looking for kindred spirits, so certainly recognized one in Foucault. That this goes against current ideological divisions only shows the radical faulty of all such divisions.

Incidentally, another central term of modern economics, and not only, is also closed tied up with the vicissitudes of ‘police’ and ‘reason of state’, and this is interest. Before anybody applied the term in the sense of individual or personal interests, the term was used as ‘interest of the state’, a quasi equivalent of reason of state; and the central figure in this semantic and actual-political development was Richelieu.

But how does all this connect to the fairground economy? In one sense, the connection to political economy is self-evident and already indicated. For a more detailed study, Foucault’s lecture again contains hints, though it must be taken into a direction not explored or even signaled by him. According to Foucault, the first comprehensive compendium of police regulations was a 1611 work by Louis Turquet de Mayerne, with the strange but revealing title Aristo-democratic Monarchy, which was the first time the term ‘political economy’ was used – a term that in Aristotelian terminology simply makes no sense, being equivalent to an absurd ‘public private’. Incidentally, the rise of political economy can be traced to four French treatises, each written around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, and each author was associated with the Huguenots (French Calvinists; the others were Barthélemy de Laffemas, Olivier de Serres, and Antoine de Montchrétien). However, in 1599 Turquet wrote a comprehensive regulation of fairs, entitled Traicté des negoces et traffiques, hinting that the police emerged in order to reinforce civic and moral ties weakened by escalating fairs – corresponding to its etymology in Aristotelian politeia. Turquet’s works thus offer a genuine ‘missing link’ between the rise of the fairground economy and the police state.

The counterpart of fairground spirit is rigid normativity; that enforcing laws and regulations, a bureaucratic tinkering with formal institutions is the only way to maintain order. The connections between this fairground spirit and Weber’s spirit of capitalism stamped by the Protestant ethic, just as Elias’s court society and Foucault’s disciplinary society, are to be researched. As a preliminary suggestion, the significance of the Protestant ethic lies in its precarious fusion of the dynamic fairground economy and its normative policing, resulting in a paradoxical, moral attitude to moneymaking. Incidentally Geneva, Calvin’s city, kept a main European fair up to the mid-15th century; it was only after that – helped by French kings – Lyon took over, where – together with Antwerp – the first stock-markets emerged, in the 1530s-1540s, helping to understand why Rabelais was the first author who used the term ‘economic life’ in the modern sense, in the Preface to Gargantua, published in 1536 in Lyon. The sworn enemy of Rabelais was none other than Calvin, who evidently understood neither Rabelais’ irony, nor his deep immersion in both Franciscan spirituality and Platonic thought. This was no doubt one of the reasons why Calvin transformed his city, Geneva, into the first effective totalitarian police state, governing the entire city with plague-like regulations under ‘normal’ circumstances.

The manifold connections between Calvinism and the fairground economy, but also the state police and Kantianism, are well worthy a separate study. Central to Calvin’s theology was the radical corruptness of man. As a diagnosis of late renaissance papacy and its surroundings, this is not at all erroneous; but its generalization into the human condition is certainly problematic. Kant grew up under the influence of Pietism, one of the most radical branches of Calvinism; and his quasi-Gnostic vision of the world as total chaos unless the ‘transcendental mind’ – meaning: himself and like-minded Kantian philosophers – bring order to it is nothing but secularised Calvinism. We should be aware that this same project was renewed by neo-Kantianism in its various versions, involving figures like Kelsen, Popper, Hayek, Friedman, or Habermas, who all fully subscribe, in spite of their differences, to this world vision.

Weber, strangely, never perceived the significance of fairs; one can identify the precise points in his life-work where he almost got to study fairs and yet he didn’t (the 1894-6 essays on the stock-market, and the 1920 lectures on Economic History – incidentally, his first works as a Professor of Economics and his last work altogether, as he died in the great flu epidemics of 1920; thus, strangely enough, Weber and Foucault died in the two great pandemics of the last hundred years; Weber exactly a hundred years ago). One cannot identify Weber as a precursor of the idea of a ‘fairground economy’. Fernand Braudel, who unfortunately intensely disliked Weber’s work, got much closer to this, through his detailed studies on the importance of late medieval and Renaissance fairs but – probably due to his closeness to the Marx-Durkheimian social history perspective – failed to realize the broader theoretical significance of his own research. However, Weber was right on the spot to single out for attention Calvinism.

In a way, one could argue, the modern fairground economy turned Calvin’s anthropological ‘diagnosis’ into a performative speech act. Certainly not every single human being was ‘radically corrupt’ in the 16th century. However, economic theory does assume and thus cannot fail to produce radical corruptness. For those in whom European culture, or any other spiritual-ethic world vision, is still strong enough can follow the principles of economics without being personally corrupt pleasure-maximizers. However, whatever ethical stance they do have, is outside and in principle against the very core of economic thinking. It will be therefore gradually eroded, and thus radical corruptness will rule unchallenged – unless we do something; and first of all – good for us! – in thinking. Modern economic mentality is first of all a modality of thought, and no radical social or political revolution can successfully and effectively counter it. These would just lead to its reinforcement; just as Soviet Bolshevism (or Chinese Maoism) were in a way the best springboards of a particularly ruthless form of ‘capitalism’.

Back to Kantianism

So what is the heart of Kantianism, and why does it necessarily lead to the joint rule of a terror-mongering police state (or a state police), and a carnivalesque fairground economy? It is because for Kantianism every single case, everything that happens in life must be looked at from the outside, from the universalistic perspective of the spectator. Both words in italics are of vital importance. First, everything must be valuated and judged universalistically; not by paying attention to the concrete event in a concrete situation, involving concrete people, concrete beings, living and non-living, in a concrete, given context. In this way the value, the meaning, the juice of life, is taken out of everything, and is turned into an instance of a series of repeatable and substitutable components. And this does not remain a mere speculation, a theoretical perspective, but is assigned to various agencies of the state to supervise, control and punish – Surveiller et punir, Discipline and Punish (again Foucault). The second concerns the fundamental theatricality or modern institutions and modes of thinking, back to Descartes, Adam Smith and Kant, and which was discussed in detail in my Comedy and the Public Sphere (see its review for the January 23 2014 issue of VoegelinView by Paul Corey).

We can see very well how this supervision and control takes place in the current pandemic madness. First, as already discussed, the pandemic targets a very specific population, yet the measures by which it is faced are universalistic. Second, as the enforcement of these measures is not entrusted on people – how could it be, as they are not fully justifiable; and at any rate, the rise of a legal-police mentality is based on the principle of distrust, foundation of Cartesian rationality, continued by Kantianism (it is not accidental that traditionally France and Germany had the strongest police forces and police powers), and founded on the mentality of prevention and an obsession with avoiding risks (at the same time when entrepreneurs are supposed to be engaged in nothing else by the pursuit of risk) – rather on the state and especially on the police forces. Furthermore, as all such agents are increasingly instructed (in ways that can be particularly well seen in airport security, a closely related theme, another aspect of the same mentality) to act universalistically, meaning to strictly enforce the word and not the spirit of the law (something absolutely fundamental for Kantianism), the result is that the police is given unlimited powers about asking people simply walking on the empty streets the most intrusive of questions – Why are you on the street? What are you doing anyway? Is your business necessary? All this is totally and absolutely pointless, as bars and restaurants are closed, most businesses work at best half-time, so people would not be on the street in flocks anyway, but it does not matter, the universalistic regulation is passed (and our politicians, whether in Italy or elsewhere, but certainly with great predilection in Italy, have nothing better to do that to debate for hours on such nonsense whether people should maintain a one meter or one and a half meter distance in shops or streets; or whether one parent or two parents can accompany an infant for a walk or a visit to the doctor, and similar matters that would drive normal people quickly mad), so it has to be enforced, it is enforced, and thus the police are lying in wait for people, setting up ambushes for them in liminal places like road intersections and squares, in order to stop people and investigate them about what they are doing. For somebody having grown up in Communist Hungary this is terribly disturbing, as it brings out memories about practically not being able to walk on the streets without thinking about what I would say if a policemen would suddenly stop me in the street. This is not due to a personal paranoia, but was simply the mindset that the police, and other related agencies, were trying to inculcate in every people. To give only one trivial example, once (around 1981) we had to argue at length with a policeman when, leaving a village, and having nobody on the road or nearby, we were starting to accelerate 20 meters before the end of the village sign, and not after. Going back to current Italy, even this is not enough, as they are also lying in wait in the entries into the forest. Thus, near our house, there is a popular hiking road. One might think that there is nothing more innocuous than going into the forest for walking, as the virus certainly does not lie in wait among the trees, but no, the police is, in order to give out hefty penalties to those who try to escape the suffocating house quarantine by venturing into the forest. All this does not have any meaning in real life, but is perfectly rational from the perspective of strict universalistic Kantian legalism.

One of the great enemies of universalistic legalism is concrete tradition; and the way Kantianism handles its enemies is to convert them into its allies and agents, against their own spirit and values. A perfect example for this is Ireland, which was, quite recently, one of the (if not the) most traditional countries in Europe, but where this respect for tradition, shortly after the emergence of the independent state (always a very tricky development), turned into a traditional-ism, jointly promoted and enforced by the new state and the Church (any collusion between state and Church is always extremely detrimental, shown well in the fact that the Lutheran countries, where the state and the Church were always particularly close, became the most secularized countries in the world), with the result of Ireland now being one of the most globalized of all countries, with fairground economics ruling unchallenged, having a devastating impact on culture and on society.

Our Present: The Permanent Apocalyptic Sacrificial Carnival

The game that we are all forced to play, in our lives, with our lives, at the interpenetration of the fairground economy and the state police, can be described as a permanent apocalyptic sacrificial carnival. It is a kind of carnival, like every fair is, with its entertainments and fairground barkers (meaning the media with its advertisements); with every rule of decency temporarily suspended – a situation which always involved a degree of ambivalence, keeping everyone in between the extremes of rigidity and laxity. But at the same time it is also technically a sacrificial system, where the working of the ‘economy’ requires a ‘healthy’ unemployment rate (otherwise people would become lazy); and where politicians pay with their head the improprieties of their employees. The ‘economy’ is the modern equivalent of the golden cow, or the Phoenician deities, Baal, Mammon and Moloch, to whom regular human sacrifices were made: we must sacrifice our lives to the economy, and then, in our old age, we can receive our reward, a pension, and can visit the world as tourists, lying at our feet, while enjoying all the comforts of the good life – anything we sacrificed when we were young: as if those times could return at the age of 70+. Thus, as the fairground mentality trickles down, young people realize some of the tricks, and so try to enjoy life ‘to the full’ while young, not noticing that all such accumulation of pleasure experiences only makes them even more slaves to the fairground economy. While Christianity, supposedly, brought an end to the sacrificial mechanism – certainly ritualistic human or even animal sacrifice is not possible in our days – modernity inaugurated at its heart an inverted sacrificial system, where everyone becomes sacrificed in the altar of the economy – except, perhaps, the famous 0,01%, the super-rich – though probably even they must pay somehow, being permanently on the edge; and nothing generates as much media attention as one of the super-rich moguls collapsing.

The sacrificial nature of the economy closely rhymes with the deeply sacrificial character of plague control, another central source of modern police regulations (fairground and plague can be connected as two extreme instances of liminality). It is similar to the fairground economy in not identifying a single individual (or group) as a scapegoat, rather everybody, without exception, is subjected to the same regulation which, in a certain sense, is reasonable at its core, but where the universal, context-free enforcement of the word of the rule becomes the source of oppressive excess.

The strange thing is that, of course, those who create and enforce such exception-free zero-tolerance regulation know deep in their heart that they are exaggerating. Their tone betrays them. As I have already mentioned, here around our house everyday twice a car with a loudspeaker passes, calling everyone to stay home. Now, I have never ever heard such a voice in Italy as the tone of this speaker. It is repulsive beyond belief. It is the voice of a person who tries to sound confident and convincing when knowing deep in his heart that he does something improper; being part of a machinery. I can only compare it to two tones I have heard before: the tone of Hungarian radio and cinema news presenters in the 1950s – which I did not hear then, but through films and historical documentaries; and the official voice in Irish language state programs in the 1960s that again I heard in Irish TV much later. I could not understand what was said, but the voice was simply appalling. And this is the voice that has been resurrected, or came out of the blue, now, as the tone of Italian ‘civil protection’ enforcement.

The ‘civil protection’ car only comes 2-3 times a day, but the buses are running regularly – fully empty. How could it be otherwise, as nobody is allowed to go outside, except for shopping; and who can shop with a bus. So the police could just as well arrest anyone taking a bus. But nobody takes a bus, so there is no point. Except that the buses are running, sometimes completely empty, sometimes with one or two persons on board, no doubt part of some agreement with the trade unions – another absolutely necessary and completely mad institution of our everyday unreality, who defend their members tooth and nail, whatever the situation – against the capitalists and the managers, and against everybody else (see public transport strikes, the most frequent strikes of our ‘normal’ days). Running promptly, regularly, every 15 minutes – the number 7 buses which otherwise are the notoriously most unreliable buses in the whole of Florence.

So the only noises we hear from the nearby streets, otherwise busy with car traffic – itself the noise of the unreal reality of permanent restlessness – are the ambulance sirens, the empty buses, and the ‘civil protection’ car, polluting the air with its absurd tones. Oh, and I almost forgot about the drones occasionally buzzing above you, spying on you. Super unreality.

Plague control, as Girard again has shown in his Scapegoat, can easily turn into an actual scapegoating process, by identifying certain individuals or groups of people guilty for infecting others. It is this exact mechanism that was resurrected both by the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, in strangely all but identical ways. The Nazi method, the scapegoating of the Jews as being culpable for the miseries of the German people, first in WWI and then during the Great Depression, is rather well known. The Stalinist case is perhaps less known. There, after the aristocrats and the capitalists, the rich peasants (kulaks) were identified as the ‘enemies of people’, and then the process culminated in forged trials brought against some of the leaders of the Communist party itself. However, and still, this was not so different from the concrete model, the French Revolution, and how there as well the ‘Revolution’ started to eat up, as sacrificial victims, its own children.

There is even something strangely archetypal in plague control; this is what Foucault somehow captured in Discipline and Punish, and this is why this work, in spite of certain excesses in its language, became so extremely influential. This is also why the theme returns at the heart of the most important modern European writers, including Heinrich von Kleist, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, or Camus. And at this same archetypal level plague is always connected to the fairground. For Thomas Mann, the plague erupts in Venice, the most carnival-saturated city in Europe; for Camus, the plague appears in a port, and ports are particularly liminal places, sharing manifold similarities with fairs, as even Karl Polanyi recognized this; and even in von Kleist’s short story ‘The Findling’ the plague appears in Ragusa, another port (today Dubrovnik). A particularly striking combination of the fairground and the plague takes places in one of the most important films of all times, staging an archetypal (rather the archetypal) myth of modernity, Goethe’s Faust, in Murnau’s film Faust, which starts by a carnivalesque fairground scene, with saltimbanques and jugglers entertaining the public, until one of them collapses on stage and the public starts to run away in panic, shouting ‘plague, plague’! This is how Dr. Faust appears in the film, called to bring help, but he cannot.

Finally, an apocalyptic experience is another extreme instance of liminality. Apocalypse here is not meant in the strict theological sense, as Christ’s second coming and the last judgment – though this also plays its role in the background: it is not accidental that both the best known poem of WB Yeats and the best known song of one of the most important rock groups, the Stone Roses, is entitled ‘The Second Coming’; rather as the experience of the entire world one simply took for granted collapsing – or the experience of the ‘End of the World as we Know it’, title of a key song by another key rock group, REM. Rock music, at its very best, just as folk music and folk tales, is particularly incisive in bringing out archetypal images and experiences. All this came to be combined, also with the modern novel, in the Rolling Stones song about the trickster.

What happens with our sacrificial carnival, promoted jointly by the fairground economy and the police state, is that apocalypse is first turned into an everyday event, thus becoming literally permanent, and then is assigned a positive value. There is first an unprecedented event, a ‘revolution’, which etymologically means to turn things around, or upside down – the par excellence definition of a clown act; then this revolution becomes followed by another, and another again, until it becomes permanent: political revolution, economic revolution, technological revolution, communication revolution: theatre, photography, cinema (or ‘moving pictures’), television (or cinema at home), video (or TV that you can store for yourself), home computer, Internet, social media, smart phones, etc. etc. Through this seemingly innocuous series, each change building on the other and becoming ever more self-evident, the destruction of the condition of possibility of a meaningful life, a certain stability which means that successive generations can appreciate the previous generations and find a series of common experiences to share and perpetuate, is ignored, forgotten, and eventually considered as a potential threat to the sovereignty of the single individual to ‘invent oneself’. So ‘invent yourself’! Meaning – destroy yourself (creatively), be something else that you were born into, follow your own fancy, and in this way you can become – like the gods. Truly! Even immortal, as this is what some of our rules, in their unlimited madness, are preparing for and luring us to imitate them. This trick is identical to the one Goethe identified in his Faust: to sell one’s soul to the devil, thus destroy what is indestructible by any other means but self-destruction.

All this madness, to repeat, cannot be understood but by incorporating the collapse of the Byzantine world as the root cause in the emergence of modernity; the event that magnified and brought together plague control (origin of police) and carnivalesque fairs (origin of the fairground economy). Marx-Durkheim based ‘social’ history is instrumental in ignoring the significance of concrete events, but the perspective of liminality offers us a way to theoretically incorporate event-mentality (Foucault, based on Ariès) at the heart of historical change. We can only overcome our historical entrapment by recognizing its nature, the events that led to it. This was the main aim of Max Weber, based on his reading of Nietzsche, and we must follow his spirit in order to go beyond the limits of his words. Voegelin, Girard and Foucault are some of the most important, if by no means unique guides in this endeavor.

A Concluding Comment

This series of articles has a simple conclusion. The economy is not sustainable, and it must go away. Disappear. It is the economy that is not sustainable, not simply any of its modalities, whether capitalist, socialist, mixed, or whatever. The economy emerged at a particular (liminal) moment, at a genuine crisis of European culture, but was a wrong solution. It is unsustainable; it only furthers the progressive destruction of nature, culture, society, even the individual person. It is simply a scandal. It is a trick and a trap; a cage made of material much more irresistible than iron, and of which the so far ultimate modality is the Internet, this spider web (the spider is one of the most widespread trickster figures in folktales and anthropological accounts) – but for this reason it can also disappear, hopefully with less polluting effects.

Central to the radical corruptness of the fairground economy is another ontological assumption: the principle of unlimited substitutability. This is brought out particularly clearly in the works of Roberto Calasso, an Italian publisher, essayist and Maussian-Girardian anthropologist, especially in his two perhaps most important works, Ardor (2010), devoted to Vedic Hinduism, and The Book of All Books (2019), devoted to the Old Testament – 7th and 10th books in the series that started with his 1983 The Ruins of Kasch, that was offering a truly novel perspective on the French Revolution, through a focus on rituals of sacrifice. In these works Calasso, who was the publisher of Girard’s works in Italian, argues that the basic underlying principle of sacrifice, of technology and of the modern exchange economy is the same, and this is the idea that everything can be substituted by something else; or the principle of infinite substitutability.

The inference is that these systems are radically hostile to life, where nothing can be substituted. Everything that is truly important in our life, our loved ones, our friends, our parents, our children, spouses, colleagues are unsubstitutable as they are concrete, given individuals, just as our pets and homes and garden trees and so on. If we lose them, if they die, this is a tragedy that cannot be unmade – even though life certainly must go on. It is this knowledge and awareness that Colin Turnbull renders evident through the depiction of events after the death of a protagonist in his classic Forest People, where the Pygmies of the rain forest prove themselves much more wise than us moderns – or the supposedly more ‘evolved’ villagers. The idea of substitution, central to exchange, and especially the idea of infinite substitutability is hostile to life, to nature, to everything, so is nihilist in the extreme. This is why the modern exchange economy is identical to unprecedented existential corruptness. It is strangely confirmed in an aside of Jean-Paul Sartre from his Maoist period where he argued that instead of some people exploiting other people, we should all combine our forces to exploit nature. Really? Is it so different from capitalism at its worst? And what if not just the ‘world proletariat’ fights back against such ‘exploitation’, but nature itself? As it is happening right now, and in many ways?

So am I preaching another revolution? Nothing could be further from my intentions and purpose. Revolution, the revolution is part of the problem, not the solution. At any rate, a revolution against the economy is meaningless. I rather expect the passing away of the economy following the model of the collapse of communism – in a way dismantling itself once its own absurdity becomes evidenced. One might say that communism collapsed when two local party secretaries could not meet and talk about the victorious path to communism without bursting into uncontainable laughter – a bit similarly to the way Saint-Simon argued that Roman religion became untenable, according to Cicero (I never could find the passage …), when two augurs could not meet in the Forum without laughing at each other.

The cynicism of our rulers might be stronger than the famous Bolshevik cynicism, but this is not sure, and at any rate they have to put up with nominal democracy, so the situation is by no means as hopeless as it was under communism – and even that regime collapsed.


This is the fourth of four parts with parts one, two, and three available; also see “Scapegoating Kant“.

Arpad SzakolczaiArpad Szakolczai

Arpad Szakolczai

Arpad Szakolczai is a Board Member of VoegelinView and a Professor of Sociology at University College Cork in Ireland. He is author of Comedy and the Public Sphere (Routledge, 2012); Novels and the Sociology of the Contemporary (Routledge, 2016); and Permanent Liminality and Modernity (Routledge, 2017).

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