Acquisition, Rivalry and Capitalism

Understanding Marcel Mauss from a Girardian Perspective

By Per Bjørnar Grande

Associate Professor

Bergen University College


Anthropology and Rivalry

Conflict can be seen as an initial stage of violence. In psychology, sociology and anthropology mimesis is understood, more than in philosophy and religion, as acquisitive mimesis, an acquisition which also is based upon the other. Marcel Mauss’ work, The Gift, illustrates the acquisitive basis of human societies in a most intriguing way. The strength of Mauss work (a work on how primitive societies are governed by the laws of exchange) lies in the emphasis he puts on rivalry in the act of exchange. Mauss shows that all kinds of gifts (within the societies he has researched, mainly Polynesian) are based on a system of reciprocity. This reciprocity, which governs different kinds of exchange, clearly contains acquisitive elements. The balancing of accounts can contain virtually anything. This indicates a system of mimetic reciprocity.

Mimesis, contained in the receiving of a gift in an attitude of reciprocity, could be labelled a mimetic bind. This double nature is, as Mauss writes, already inherent in the word gift, which in Germanic languages can mean both a gift and a poison. In receiving a gift all kinds of obligations are required. In this respect, reciprocal mimesis means surrendering to the laws of society. Also religious sacrifices are built upon a principle of reciprocity. When there is reciprocity, the system, according to its own laws, is governed by good mimesis. And when there is some kind of breach, bad mimesis is always near at hand. Among the Polynesian clans refusing to give, failing to invite, or refusing to accept, is tantamount to declaring war, indicating that violence is near at hand whenever there is a breach in reciprocity. Mauss writes in his Conclusion that throughout a considerable period of time, in a considerable number of societies (up until modern times) there was no middle way: either one trusts completely or distrusts completely, either one gives everything or one goes to war. The rivalry is not only limited to necessities, there is rivalry in all spheres, not least in the act of generosity; the will to outdo the other with presents and feasts is also imbued with the same mimetic rivalry.

Mauss talks about the ability to attract and dazzle the other person. At certain potlatches there is a rivalry over who is the richest and the most madly extravagant. Mauss clearly perceives rivalry in generosity, and cunningly concludes that ‘everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and rivalry.’ In some instances there is a violent transcending of the reciprocal system of giving and returning gifts. Instead of a controlled reciprocal mimesis, there is a purely violent mimesis where one destroys in order not to give the slightest hint of desiring one’s gift to be reciprocated. Mauss gives an example from the American Northwest where houses and thousands of blankets are burnt, and the most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown into the water ‘in order to ‘flatten’ one’s rival.’ This indicates a development from a rational and upholding mimesis based on reciprocity, to a violent, almost apocalyptic frenzy. In such cases it is insufficient to restrict mimesis to reciprocity. Mimesis based on exchange is only one part of mimetic desire. The more destructive examples given by Mauss indicate the metaphysical and non-materialistic forces in human societies. As long as there is reciprocity, everything is fine. But a breach in etiquette, a lack of honour (which is just as important in some primitive societies as in modern ones) transforms the rationality of a mimetically based exchange system into other, destructive, forms, indicating that acquisitive mimesis can mean something more and something worse than mere mimesis based upon exchange. The system of gifts, of exchange, has a balancing function, but its reasons and its dialectical nature are far from rational.

Mauss’ research is limited to particular cultures, but, as he indicates, many of these phenomena or mechanisms have something universal about them.  And daringly, within an anthropological context, he claims that it is possible to extend his observations to our own societies. In fact, it is difficult to find anything more universal than rivalry and violence even if the forms vary greatly. The strength of Mauss’ research lies in the way he sees the rivalistic tendency in all kinds of exchange, and therefore regards rivalry as something inevitable. Mauss’ work on exchange clearly corresponds to the acquisitive nature of mimesis. It would appear to be one of the anthropological works which most clearly address mimetic conflict and rivalry. His research on exchange, in relation to gifts and commerce, shows, from an anthropological point of view, the acquisitive side to human coexistence.

The Economy of Rivalry

Girard does not limit rivalry to any specific object. He emphasizes rivalry in love, which indicates this special area as being potentially rivalistic. According to both Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida, mimesis has always been a problem in relation to economy. When the economy is a part of the picture, there are possibilities for both rivalry and hatred, Lacoue-Labarthe writes. And the economy, alongside love, is the most common ground for rivalry. Economic rivalry, in its initial stages, has something clearly rational about it; for example, when applying for a job. If I don’t persuade the committee that I can do a better job than the other applicants, I will be without work, meaning I will have less money, less social contact, a less bright future and so on. Economic rivalry in its initial stages is a kind of rationale for survival, a survival arising from a scarcity of goods and scarcity of jobs. When, however, rivalry is not based on survival, but on prestige, it becomes a part of metaphysical desire, a desire based on the other, on having a more exclusive car, house, boat than the other. The objective value, if one can use such a term, plays an entirely secondary role; the aim is to beat the rival in an ongoing economic race where things play a symbolic and highly decisive role.

In economic rivalry, when scarcity is the problem, rivalry seems profound, and when we analyse the relationship between the economy and mimesis, money is very easily transformed into the cause of rivalry. The interesting fact is that it is the initial, more rational stages of economic rivalry that are the most violent. The scarcity of jobs, food or other goods will often spark off violence, while using the economy to enhance prestige, is, in a modern society at least, not directly violent, even if this kind of rivalry creates scapegoats among the rivals who do not make it, and also exploits suffering people in the Third World to an even greater degree.

Rivalry, Christianity and Capitalism

From an historical point of view, internal desire has become more acute, while external desire has, because of the lack of absolute and common collective goals, clearly weakened its effect on society, which means that in contemporary society it is difficult to motivate and stir desire around an external rival. And even if firms manage to create a rivalistic atmosphere towards other firms, all kinds of internal rivalries will arise within a group. This tendency is clearly not new, but the individuality stemming from the sacrificial breakdown, has made rivalry more internal, less clear cut, less based on collective desires. The sacrificial breakdown which clearly moderates scapegoating, however, produces more subdued, individual versions of expulsion. When the illusive balance between us and them crumbles, rivalry creeps into all private areas such as families, friendships, rivalry with relatives and colleagues and so on, leaving no stone unturned, unless there are prohibitions and ethical norms to stop the rivalry creeping in and disintegrating the smallest social entities.

This makes ethics and, in moderate forms, prohibitions so acute in the modern world. Without the sacrificial checking and balancing of our desires, desires threaten to rule the making of the world. Religion often questions different forms of desire, helping people quit desires which do violence towards the self and the other.  But Christian mimesis, an imitation of Christ in the Western world, does not seem to propagate prohibitions against rivalry in itself. Violence brought about by the freedom to rival anyone and leading sometimes to a scapegoating, where people fall out of competitive niches, can, in fact, be seen as a modern form of victimizing. From such a point of view, the imitation of Christ consists in seeing Christ in any victim brought about by capitalism. The encouragement of this relatively new global ideology seems to create victims out of a market system where the most brilliant, the most lucky and, at times, the most brutal possess the greatest value.