The concept of firstness as has been developed in GA over the past few years stands in binary contrast to the “moral model” of symmetrical reciprocity. The latter evokes a symmetrical exchange of signs each element of which, each individual sign, is in its own context an example of firstness. Every human act can be considered an example of firstness, whereas moral reciprocity is only possible within the spatio-temporal configuration that the sign brings into existence.
Conversely, if we understand firstness as whatever is not reciprocated in the same configuration, given that the notion of “configuration” has no theoretical limit, all examples of firstness can be in principle included in the moral model. For example, the insight of Mauss’s Le don is to describe the act of gift-giving as in fact a form of exchange, and in teaching this concept I always found it helpful to point out that all human social life, including our own, obeys this structure. One reciprocates, but with a delay, and not “mechanically”: you don’t give an identical gift back to the giver; you don’t serve the same dishes that your host served when you reciprocate his dinner invitation. Yet we universally understand such series of actions as examples of reciprocity.
All human conduct can be considered potentially reciprocal, even if modes that we call “violent” deliberately attempt to destroy the equilibrium of the relationship between perpetrator and patient. Violent reciprocity is a paradoxical form of behavior familiar to readers of Girard; even if murder cannot be reciprocated directly, it can be avenged, and feuds of various kinds can endure for centuries, all the while each side hopes to destroy its enemy “once and for all.” Indeed, the current rise of militant jihadism is clearly understandable as the renewal of the “clash of civilizations” that appeared to have ended with the lifting of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683—not so long ago as all that.
As the reference to Mauss makes clear, reciprocity outside a ritual or ritual-like context requires deferral and variation. Firstness in the strong sense of “historical significance” is innovation, doing something first that had not previously been done, and that humanity can preserve in its historical memory. Although all examples of firstness can be encompassed in a system of exchange in the most general sense, some provide greater value to the system and extract from it greater benefits than others. John Rawls’s theory of justice attempts to evaluate the rewards for firstness by the application of the moral model in a fictional “original position” not without resemblance to the scenario of the originary hypothesis.
Rawls’s theory is generally associated with “liberalism” in the sense that was once the ideology of the US Democratic Party: concern for equality of economic reward that emphasizes both a “safety net” for those otherwise incapable of acquiring sufficient income for a normal life and improving the lot of those in less drastic circumstances through extra-market pressures such as labor unions. The basic premise is that the “natural” human condition is one of equality in goods, as is the case in hunter-gatherer societies and among ad hoc groups of “equals,” say, guests at a party or survivors in a lifeboat. Those who are wealthier are expected to contribute more to the system; their additional wealth can be justified only if it redounds to the society’s increased prosperity overall. Hence, for example, to justify differential salaries, one points out that when greater skill and effort is not rewarded, those capable of it tend to slack off; this phenomenon, for example, led to the near-universal abandonment of the egalitarian kibbutz model that dominated the first generations of life in Israel.
Indeed, the left-right division that began in the French Revolution and can be traced in less binary form to the Whig-Tory division in English (and Scottish) politics in the preceding century depends on negotiating a roughly Rawlsian compromise between the free market with its pricing system and the moral model of reciprocity as enforced by the political “market.” The notion of the “end of history” raised by Fukuyama in 1989, which I have reexamined in recent Chronicles, is ultimately a model of the just society as a judicious balance between the market’s creativity and the overall prosperity of the citizenry, not all of whom are capable of benefiting from the economic marketplace without the help of the political one.
The crisis of today’s liberal-democratic polity, where traditional left-right negotiations increasingly fail to arrive at viable compromise, leads me to believe that we must add to our understanding of firstness an additional parameter whose relevance Rawls and the liberal democracy of the past could not have comprehended.
The human is in the first place the mechanism that, through the use of signs, prevents resentment from erupting in violence. Even without mentioning the influence of the Internet and cell phone in bringing into ever closer contact peoples of vastly different levels of wealth and competence, or the increasing dependence of economic productivity on symbolic-mathematical ability, simply the end of the Cold War, by eliminating our less successful competitor, removed the major factor in mitigating the resentment of “capitalism.” Instead of being grateful to be here rather than there, we are resentful for being somewhere rather than in utopia.
Victimary thinking does not consider that the simple redistribution of some of the wealth of the “rich” to the “poor” is an adequate formula for the just society. In addition, it insists that the privileged pay moral reparations to their victims. It would be a mistake to see this arrangement simply as hypocritical, even though its effect is indeed to leave unchallenged great accumulations of wealth by “progressive” billionaires. Beyond hypocrisy, there is an anthropological point to be made concerning the attempt to “launder” firstness in the configuration of human equality.
The old slogans about the market’s promotion of moral values followed the lines of “honesty is the best policy,” “make your employees happy and they will work better,” and so on. That is, the market itself was generally trusted to select the most moral alternatives compatible with economic survival. Government intervention was the exception rather than the rule. But more recently, along with increased governmental regulation, firms have come to advertise their moral qualities directly, emphasizing their charitable contributions, their non-exploitative working conditions, and their rejection of stigmatized components (GMOs, gluten, fur, trans fats, caged chickens) to the advantage of “natural,” “environment-friendly” ones. The consumer is no longer merely expected to contribute to the “natural selection” of the most efficient firms by following his own advantage, but to include in the construction of his consumer persona the firm’s victimary-moral standing.
We can mock this exalting of consumer choice into the performance art of life, but it has been essential to the market system ever since Emma Bovary bought her first shawl at Lheureux’ dry goods store. And its new moral turn reveals how the market system is transforming firstness in the post-millennial context. It may well be that the fundamental transformation that we have observed over the past decades, and particularly under the current administration, cannot in fact be reversed even under a Republican president, that this new conception of firstness has become necessary to the networked “global village” that brings the extremes of economic success into constant contact. That virtually every inhabitant of the planet can converse with every other on Twitter or examine at least the external facets of the other’s persona on Facebook and dozens of other sites creates a promiscuity that only drastic measures can keep under control.
Human culture, including every use of language, depends on the virtual existence of a scene of representation on which all humanity as language users are virtually present. But the other side of the coin is that the public scene, reproduced in ritual and figured in non-religious settings such as plays, family dinners, and classrooms, exists in contrast with the non-public scene, solitary or with few participants, whose distance from the public scene is of the essence. It is this private space, which the public scene makes possible, most notably through the “private” use of language that is thought, that is arguably the most characteristic human space—the space of freedom, of Sartre’s pour-soi. Nothing of great import can be invented on the public scene; the community can be rallied and stimulated to action, but the more collective the scene, the less creative it can be. An artist, for example, displays his work in a public forum, but it is rare that he is able to create it there, and when he does so, what we admire is his feat of maintaining subjective separateness from the collectivity that he at the same time entertains, as with performance art and musical and poetic improvisation. The originality of what appears on the scene must as a rule be created separately from the scene, and it is the deferral of the scene’s potential violence that permits this creation. The rhythm of public and private is the rhythm of human social, cultural, and economic life.
The ubiquity of post-millennial electronic communication provides a pragmatic repudiation of privacy that has made this duality problematic, and with it, the great conquest of the private that we might call deferred firstness, in which humans are given the time and space for innovation. Not that firstness is itself in any danger. But it feels insecure enough to require henceforth the accompaniment of apotropaic gestures to ward off the resentment that had in the past been dismissed as sinful and unworthy. This is, ultimately, what “progressives” disdain others for not understanding.
The world is divided into many communities, but the “global village” makes every conversation potentially include everyone. Whence the idea that statements made “privately” or “in confidence” are virtually addressed to everyone, so that any remark that might be offensive to a member of some group is stigmatized (cf. Donald Sterling). No doubt most economically useful practices of thought, calculation, and experimentation are unrelated to questions of ascriptive human groups and their relative success. But under the conditions of the “global village,” those who engage in such practices must be made to keep always in mind that their own professional conversation may not include equal representation from all ascriptive groups. Instead of taking the “justness” of their conversation for granted on its own terms, they are forced to see its ascriptive disparity as a form of victimization.
Of course “discrimination” in a relatively meritocratic society is exercised much more importantly in testing competence than in embodying unconscious “prejudices.” But by focusing the mind on the latter, we associate our professional production of firstness with an apotropaic gesture toward universal human equality. Democrats are contemptuous of Republicans not for overtly practicing discrimination, but for refusing to admit the necessity of such gestures, refusing, in sum, to humiliate, or to use Doug Collins’ pregnant term, pre-humiliate themselves. In the past, such pre-humiliation was demanded only of entertainers and other non-heroic public figures. But today, when the Internet gives us all a chance to entertain the world with our 140-character pontifications, pre-humiliation, the victimocracy tells us, is a necessary article of faith, and its absence constitutes in itself a micro-aggression.
What we need to understand above all is the religious nature of contemporary progressivism. The victimary is a revelation, and those who have received it view those who have not as unenlightened, not merely uninformed but unregenerate. In the days of the Civil Rights movement, it was thought that it sufficed to remove de jure discrimination and impose laws requiring equal treatment. But the victimary revelation is that human relations are victimary “all the way down,” that eliminating open discrimination only leaves hidden discrimination, that outlawing aggression leaves micro-aggression unaccounted for, that relationships among genders and races, and ascriptive groups in general, are by their nature invidious, as is—in the truly universal revelatory demonstration—the overall relationship of humanity to Nature. The exchange of goods and services is secondary; the human outcome of every personal interchange not explicitly “laundered” by the admission of victimization is the assertion, perhaps unconscious, of privilege. The original model of such interchanges is that of Nazi and Jew, where the common possession of human language becomes the paradoxical instrument of asserting the absolute privilege of humans over “vermin.”
The point of the victimary belief-system, I repeat, is not doing away with the “capitalist” system, but saving it, literally as a social reality, and spiritually as a sinful condition of the soul. If you would understand the contempt of Democrats for Republicans, think of the Christian martyrs’ more humble sense of superiority to the Romans—or perhaps better, of the Muslims’ attitude toward their enemies at the time of the early conquests of Islam.
Islam means submission, as in the title of Michel Houellebecq’s chilling novel Soumission, which came out coincidentally with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. If there is one thing that Western progressives have in common with Islamic “extremists,” it is their fervor for submission. I say this without irony. Strict Islamic observance drastically curtails the means of creating a modern economy. But, in compensation, it has no problem with firstness. This point is insufficiently appreciated. As I pointed out in Chronicle 435, the reason Western feminists do so little to protest the Islamic subordination of women that often goes to the point of rape and murder is not simply the desire to spare a political ally against Western “patriarchy.” It is the recognition that under a strict religious code, differential status is not victimization. A man can say to a woman, or even a master to a slave, “I obey God’s law in treating you as a subordinate, but were I in your place, I would submit to his law just as cheerfully.”
In a word, submission is a mechanism for combating resentment. Progressives submit to different laws than Islamists, but what is essential in a religious act is the spiritual state it generates, not the details of the act itself. Perhaps that is one reason why those strident assertions of atheism so popular a few years ago are now forgotten. The Judeo-Christian ethos that the atheists attacked for its irrationality is now despised for its flaccid self-indulgence. Salvation requires more than half-heartedly accepting the Law or the personal love of Jesus. It requires genuine self-sacrifice, lacking which the privileged life is empty.
But the parallel between the progressive-victimary religion and Islam only demonstrates their irremediable separation. Sharia is a well-defined, stable set of rules that consecrate a “compact” hierarchy into which firstness has congealed. Nothing similar is possible in the dynamic economies that still operate in the West. Submission is an Islamic reality, but as in Houellebecq’s novel, a Western pipe-dream. Firstness as a dynamic phenomenon in the West engenders the anxiety of White Guilt, not the self-righteousness of the Soldier of Allah.
Our submission, like young Augustine’s, takes the form of “give me chastity and celibacy, but not yet.” It is nonetheless submission to revealed truth. If GA can do humanity any good, it will be in showing that, religion for religion, we are better off with the wiser anthropologies embodied in Judaism and Christianity, or for that matter in the humanistic Islam called for by Egyptian president Al-Sisi. Submission without God is submission to mimetic desire itself, to which Girard gives the name of Satan.