The Scapegoating Machine

Peter Thiel’s philosophical mentor explains Trump, Gawker, and social media

THE WORD “scapegoat” has been on people’s lips in the wake of the election and it’s not hard to understand why: the scapegoat provides a readily available theory for the popularity of Trump’s supposed populism, which is manifestly directed against innocent victims. As Jeet Heer noted on Twitter, Trumpism can be understood as a variant of what German leftist August Bebel described a century ago as the “socialism of fools,” his term for certain strains of “populist” anti-Semitism, a current which Hitler ultimately rode to power. The “socialism of fools” gains political mileage by highlighting the destabilizing effects of capitalism and turning its resulting anxieties against ethnic and religious others, rather than against the capitalist system itself.

In fact, those who adopt scapegoating as a political program saw Trump as one of their own and hailed him as such early on. This doesn’t only include white supremacists like David Duke or Stephen Bannon. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, whose support for Trump earned him a place on the transition team, is a former student of the most significant theorist of scapegoating, the late literary scholar and anthropologist of religion René Girard. Girard built an ambitious theory around the claim that scapegoating pervades social life in an occluded form and plays a foundational role in religion and politics. For Girard, the task of modern thought is to reveal and overcome the scapegoat mechanism--to defuse its immense potency by explaining its operation. Conversely, Thiel’s political agenda and successful career setting up the new pillars of our social world bear the unmistakable traces of someone who believes in the salvationary power of scapegoating as a positive project.

Thiel, who has repeatedly cited his intellectual debts to his old professor, funds an institute, Imitatio, dedicated to supporting research based on Girard’s theories. His 2014 business manifesto, Zero to One, subtly but unmistakably draws on Girard’s thought, and the seminars on which the book was based make this influence more explicit. He even claims to have made his crucial early investment in Facebook based on Girard’s account of the imitative or “mimetic” basis of desire, which according to Thiel can explain the runaway success of imitation-driven social media platforms. Certainly, Thiel’s support for the Trump campaign is no less an expression of his philosophy; his prescience seems to have been borne out again. While Girard’s insistence on the universal explanatory value of the scapegoat mechanism can seem hyperbolic, it holds a surprising key to understanding the emergent media sphere that helped deliver the Trump presidency--a sphere that Thiel had a hand in creating.

According to Girard, all desire is “the desire of the Other.” That is, humans desire things not out of any intrinsic or autonomous volition, but because others desire those things, and we unconsciously mimic them. By having or seeming to have the object of desire, the Other makes us desire it, but also makes us resent the Other’s having it, instead of us. The model becomes an obstacle. This is why, in Girard’s account, mimetic desire and violence are inextricable. All desire is potentially a source of conflict, especially when the desire is for something intangible and perhaps illusory (such as honor, status, respect, and recognition--all fundamental to social life). The less concrete the object, in fact, the larger the rival looms, and the greater is the potential for violence. Violent rivalry is a recurrent theme across so many mythical traditions, Girard claims, because it is a basic problem human societies have always had to solve in order to avoid internal conflict.

The solution, according to Girard’s speculative account of cultural origins, was the scapegoat. The first human communities formed themselves around acts of collective violence against arbitrary victims; the reciprocal violence of rivals becomes univocally redirected against a common victim, and mimetic violence, once aligned in a shared act, becomes a unifying factor. Thus, the group’s violence is expelled to the exterior and peace returns. Such acts, in his view, created gods (memorialized, deified victims), myths (idealized stories of the community’s salvation), rituals (the structured reenactment of the murder), and the first hierarchies. Traditional religious cultures, many of which revolved around sacrificial practices, ritualized the scapegoat mechanism and thereby preserved it as an instrument of social stabilization that could channel the disruptive surplus violence of social life into symbolic acts of violence.

Sacrifice, in this account, is symbolically enriched scapegoating. Sacrificial rituals, and the systems of taboo and prohibition that supplemented them, provided cultures with a mechanism for preventing the antagonisms that regularly threaten human social life. Much of Girard’s published work is taken up with revealing the veiled presence of scapegoating in a wide array of religious texts and rituals: his analyses range from ancient Greek literature and philosophy to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and from the Hindu Vedas, to African, Polynesian, and Native American religious orders. The basic thesis of his major writings is that religion is, paradoxically, a violent means of controlling humanity’s violence.

With regard to the modern West, Girard elaborates a revised version of the secularization thesis associated with Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. He correlates the rise of techno-scientific rationality and secular governance with the decline of the sacred as an organizing principle of culture; but he also detects the residues of sacrificial religion everywhere, especially in the regular resurgence of violent scapegoating in the modern world. For Girard, the decline of sacrifice offers the possibility of transcending the scapegoat mechanism, which he presents as an unequivocally desirable form of progress. But at the same time, he claims the demise of the sacred poses dangers: since religion has been the primary form of regulating violence, its displacement raises the possibility of an uncontained, apocalyptic violence, as well as a panicked return to the most violent forms of religion. All in all, though, Girard’s accounts of the modern world are less in-depth and more ambiguous than his work on ancient religions, leaving the significance of his theory for the present scene open to diverse, even opposed interpretations.

Peter Thiel’s is one such interpretation. Although his book Zero to One avoids mentioning Girard directly, it draws heavily from his theory of mimetic desire, and contains important clues about how Thiel understands the contemporary significance of scapegoating. One of the central arguments of the book is its critique of the illusory, “horizontal” mode of progress in contrast with the “vertical” progress of technological innovation. Thiel writes: “horizontal progress is globalization--taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere.” In other words, Thiel defines globalization as a mimetic process that spreads through imitation: China, India, and other developing nations copy innovations originating elsewhere, thereby producing goods at a fraction of the cost. This is what he calls “one to n” progress, which drives most growth today, in contrast with the “zero to one” progress that he insists is what we most need.

Most overtly, Thiel criticizes “one to n” imitative innovation from a management perspective as a recipe for stagnation. Contrary to the standard conservative free-market views of most of his right-wing allies, Thiel regards competition as undesirable, because if many companies--or countries--are trying to do the same thing, none will truly stand above the others, and all will have narrower profit margins than if they were doing something unique. (This is the basis for Thiel’s notorious advocacy of monopoly.) On a global scale, the result of the “one to n” model is that industries in many countries compete to produce the same goods at the lowest cost. It is here that Thiel’s Girardian background suggests a more serious problem with the “one to n” progress typical of globalization: the potential for violence built into it.

This assertion may seem strange at first, but consider it in light of recent events. In the proverbial example, workers in Ohio and Michigan suddenly find they must compete to sell their labor against workers in Northern Mexico and Southern China. For globalization apostles like Thomas Friedman, this situation simply means that workers everywhere need to pull themselves up more vigorously by their bootstraps, and that government policy--especially in education--needs to encourage them to do this. Since by the magic of the invisible hand this should lead to improvements in productivity everywhere, the endpoint will be globally shared prosperity.

Brexit and the Trump victory have reminded us that things are not working out this way. Instead of retraining as software developers, many workers in the developed world whose standard of living has declined or stagnated are embracing a politics of ressentiment focused on getting even with perceived rivals in a struggle for access to the shrinking pie of middle-class prosperity. China, against which Trump promised a trade war, and Mexican immigrants, against whom he promised a deportation force, served parallel functions in his campaign rhetoric because for some of his voters, they both occupy the structural position of the mimetic rival who appears to have deprived them of their privileged status.

Such a politics of ressentiment is more or less what a Girardian account would predict as the consequence of an expanding field of globalized competition. Instead of simply striving to improve their lot in the new economy--that is to say, focusing on pursuing the alleged object of desire--Trump voters in declining regions instead turn their political energies against the perceived obstacle: the Other who seems to now possess what they once possessed. If a politics focused on getting back at those perceived as rivals is so appealing, Girard’s theory would suggest, that is because of the ultimately metaphysical basis of desire: the drive to deprive the rival of the object of desire, in other words, exceeds the drive to obtain the object itself. The basic situation of globalization, according to this account, is what Girard called a “mimetic crisis” in which barren rivalry spreads across societies and threatens to tear them apart unless the impulse to violence can be harnessed into a shared collective act. On a larger, more complex scale, it replicates the ancient crises that, according to Girard’s speculative history, found their solution in the scapegoat mechanism. For this solution to be reached, he claims, the dispersed violence between rivals must be transcended in the collective channeling of violence against sanctioned scapegoats.

As Thiel reveals in one of the seminars that became the basis of Zero to One, he seems to understand the substitution of the scapegoat for the rival as the original “zero to one” moment of human progress. By putting a brake on the cyclical repetition of mimetic violence that emerges out of “one to n” logic, the sacrifice of a surrogate victim allowed institutions to stabilize and establish shared symbolic orders, most fundamentally religion, but ultimately monarchy and other forms of hierarchy. Intriguingly for Thiel’s purposes, Girard once stated that “the goal of religious thinking is the same as that of technological research--namely, practical action.” Sacrificial religion is, in Thiel’s vocabulary too, a “technology” because it transcends the violence of mimetic competition and creates a regime for managing it. All this suggests that for Thiel, developers of “technology” need to accomplish something comparable to what religions did in the primordial era of humanity: the creation of superstructures that blunt the tendencies toward dissolution currently threatening global society.

The role Thiel sees for scapegoating in the contemporary world order is apparent in his infamous vendetta against Gawker, which seems to have become his own rival and obstacle for a time. This enmity should not blind us to a certain similarity, since above all else, Gawker styled itself as an organ of scapegoating. Indeed, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, journalist Hamilton Nolan semi-ironically declared: “Nobody wants to hear about intricate economic factors that combined in unforeseen ways to predicate an economic collapse. We want scapegoats!” (He went on to list ten of them.) Gawker’s willingness to single out individuals as targets of public ire, and to galvanize online mobs against them, was a source of its appeal and at the same time what made it so embattled.

Others have noted the similarities between Thiel and his nemesis Nick Denton--itself an interesting case of Girardian mimetic rivalry--but they have generally missed Thiel and Denton’s shared understanding of the immense political power of scapegoating, even if they drew somewhat contrary conclusions from it. “The Founder’s Paradox,” the most overtly Girardian chapter of Zero to One, suggests an obvious reason for his antipathy to Gawker’s version of scapegoating:

The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they’re praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune… [It is] beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures.

Throughout this section of the book, Thiel compares capitalist “founders” (like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and himself) to mythical “founders” like Romulus and Oedipus, who in Girard’s telling are quasi-deified victims of collective violence. He goes on: “Before execution, scapegoats were often worshipped like deities… These are the roots of monarchy: every king was a living god, and every god a murdered king. Perhaps every modern king is just a scapegoat who has managed to delay his own execution.” The passage resonates eerily with its author’s monarchist sympathies. An uneasy question lurks beneath the whole discussion: how can successful entrepreneurs like Thiel retain the mystique of the “founder” while avoiding becoming its victims?

In one of his seminars, Thiel made the political stakes of his concern with scapegoating more explicit, making reference to Occupy Wall Street: “The 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of this classic scapegoating mechanism. It is all minus one versus the one.” The central task of controlling what Girard calls the “victimage mechanism,” for “founders” like him, is to deflect collective violence from themselves. Gawker, on the other hand, seemed to specialize in identifying targets for that violence, or at least for collective online vituperation--and those targets often belonged to the capitalist “founder” class, although many debated whether Gawker at times abandoned its proclaimed commitment to “punching up.” Crushing Gawker was not simply an attack on a particular organ of scapegoating that had offended Thiel, but an attempt to disarm a certain politicization of scapegoating in a digital world given over to it.

Upon Gawker’s demise, former editor Max Read suggested that the publication’s deepest problem was less Thiel’s lawsuit than the fact that various social media platforms had “out-Gawkered Gawker,” so that the latter was “no longer the bottom-feeder of the media ecosystem”--that is, no longer at the cutting edge of online scapegoating, thanks to “one to n” mimesis. Thiel, as the first outside investor in Facebook, played a role in the emergence of competitors and has cited social media platforms repeatedly as a crucial recent instance of “zero to one” innovation. And while he described Gawker as an organ of “bullying” (even “terrorism”), Thiel has spoken in grandiose terms of social media’s social and political potential: “companies like Facebook create… new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world.”

From a Girardian standpoint, though, bullying and “form[ing] communities” are connected, since scapegoating is the cement of group identities. This is what it means for social media to “out-Gawker” Gawker. There is a direct line between a proliferation of mimetic behavior and the spread of contagious violence that seeks out and persecutes arbitrary victims--a violence that can also, precisely, “form communities.” To create machines that facilitate mimetic behavior, then, is to create scapegoating machines. And that, Read’s account implies, is what we’ve ended up with. Social media intensify the global regime of universalized competition and feed its tendency toward rivalry and ressentiment; at the same time, they create the space for new modes of scapegoating to emerge.

Social media platforms, a Girardian analysis suggests, are machines for producing desire. Their equalizing structure--what is most widely celebrated about them--converts all users into each other’s potential models, doubles, and rivals, locked in a perpetual game of competition for the intangible objects of desire of the attention economy. By embedding users in a standardized format, social media renders all individuals instantly comparable in simple, quantitative terms. Enabling instantaneous comparison creates the conditions for a universal proliferation of horizontal rivalry. In this situation of universalized mimetic antagonism, conditions are ripe for scapegoating. Tensions may be redirected onto (innocent) victims in episodes of bullying that form communities enabled by tools of mimesis: sharing, retweeting, hashtags, and so on.

The companies that operate social media platforms have been rightly criticized for their failure to protect users from mob abuse and from the more pervasive daily harassment to which women in particular are subjected. Such efforts, however, may be somewhat moot: as long as the same passions that drive online abuse and scapegoating are also what give users a feeling of community on social media, its operators will be hard-pressed to rein them in, even if they wish to. But Thiel’s various activities suggest that the existence of an arena of turbo-charged scapegoating may also serve larger political ends for him and his allies.

Thiel’s support for Trump’s populist authoritarianism, which has led some to demand his removal from Facebook’s board, can be parsed in exactly these terms. On one hand, this political stance makes little immediate sense business-wise, and does not seem ideologically consistent with his libertarianism. On the other hand, support of Trump’s political scapegoating follows neatly from Thiel’s strategic appropriations of Girard. At its most basic level, rightist scapegoating represents the opposite vector from revolutionary violence directed toward the powerful--what Thiel describes as the violence of the 99% versus his violence of the 1%. Like the social media platforms on which it has thrived, Trumpism channels violence mainly toward victims it wishes to marginalize.

But we should recall that there is another dimension to the scapegoat mechanism, also addressed by Thiel in “The Founder’s Paradox,” which is a counterintuitive connection between the scapegoat and the ultimate figures of authority: kings and gods. In Girard’s speculative history, this is because scapegoats were originally persecuted outsiders, but they also assumed divine status by virtue of their ability to polarize violence and instill social unity. It stands to reason, then, that if the politics of scapegoating is first and foremost based on the persecution of arbitrary victims, the figures it empowers will nevertheless partake in some of the scapegoat’s qualities--specifically, a capacity to serve as an object of collective opprobrium and vituperation as well as the standard bearer of violent power.

As it happens, two ideologically opposed observers have interpreted Trump himself in exactly these terms. Shortly after the election, the anthropologist David Graeber asked on Twitter: “could Trump be a sort of Girardian sacred king, marking a break with humanity by his crimes, but thus taking on the sins of his people…” He added: “if so it can’t end well for him. The ‘exploits’ or transgressions that make him divine at first make him a sacrificial victim in waiting.” But Graeber had been preceded in this insight by conservative commentator David Gornoski: “Trump even viscerally looks the part of the old scapegoat kings who would be ceremonially paraded before being sacrificed.” The Reddit users who dubbed Trump “God Emperor” seem to have had a similar intuition. While various observers detect this symbolic efficacy in Trumpism, Girard’s analysis also makes clear the instability of its polarizing force.

Scapegoating is, for Thiel as for Girard, the ultimate “zero to one” innovation in that it originates a mechanism for the containment of destabilizing mimetic violence. For Girard, the difficult task facing the contemporary world is to transcend the scapegoating that has defined most human societies and create a non-violent basis for the social order. His former student, on the other hand, seems to view scapegoating far more pragmatically, as a still-potent source of power and danger that must be managed carefully by anyone who hopes to control the technologies that increasingly mediate our social life. It appears that the ways we use social media play uncomfortably into his hands, and that the regime of hyper-mimetic online existence he helped forge has played a direct role in the elevation of the new “God Emperor,” whose followers, in turn, have initiated a terrifying wave of scapegoating. But in revealing himself and the extent of his power, Thiel may have also triggered a cycle of mimetic rivalry that can’t stop until it claims its first founder as a victim.