What René Girard would have to say about Dominic Cummings
The French philosopher warned of the spiralling nature of psychosocial violence
On Monday, as I watched Dominic Cummings’ very own ‘agony in the garden’, I kept thinking about the French philosopher René Girard.
Girard crossed the boundaries of disciplines ranging from anthropology and history to economics and theology. His major contribution was to the study of the human person and human violence — why do we appear so ready to commit violent acts? His answer was ‘mimetic desire’; the idea that by imitating the desires of others we learn to desire the very same things. The catch is that coveting objects so intensely leads to rivalry and, eventually, violence.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The process, of course, is a spiral. Once begun, rivalry and violence can only grow, eventually threatening to destroy the community. Something must be done to prevent a total collapse.
That something, in nearly all cultures, is the destruction of the scapegoat; a single individual who acts as the focus of all aggression, uniting former rivals in the project of his or her obliteration. If the sanctity of the community is at risk — as in the plague-ravaged Thebes of Oedipus Rex or lockdown Britain — the scapegoat must be eliminated. Only then will peace return.
The Cummings scandal is a Girardian moment in its fullest sense; a confluence of extraordinary pressures and circumstances, fuelled by indignation, rising tension, and the need to exorcise communal aggression. Crucially, the analysis holds regardless of whether or not we think Cummings guilty of the infractions he is accused of committing.
Were Girard still with us (he died in 2015), he might firstly have noted that freedom during lockdown is a dangerously finite good. The more someone else breaks the rules, meeting up with friends or travelling outside their home, the longer lockdown lasts for the rest of us. Your desire for freedom competes directly with mine. The fact that Cummings was himself partly the originator of these rules only exacerbates the dynamic.
Secondly, he might have pointed out that most political debate is conducted on Twitter, the archetypal imitative medium. Competition for likes drives a brutal, unforgiving, and well-documented polarisation. After four years of political division and months into a pandemic, tensions are high.
I was personally unmoved by Cummings’ infraction of the rules, and it certainly didn’t seem like anything anyone should be sacked over. Clearly I am profoundly in the minority. Instead, as he spoke for over an hour in the Downing Street rose garden, the country was turning against him. Now a majority of voters — Labour, Conservative, Leave, Remain — think he should go.
But Cummings was, in the eyes of much of the media, already a monstrous transgressor. The sacred lines in the sand of civilised politics had been crossed with his Brexit victory and the Conservative election win late last year. Once the enemy of a small politically engaged faction, he has been transformed into the enemy of all. Without his resignation, who can restore the sacred order at the heart of British political life?
Girard himself had an answer. He considered the New Testament’s radical message of forgiveness unique in human history. Breaking the cycle of psychosocial violence, in our time, would require turning the other cheek. Only absolution, rather than aggression, could make for lasting peace. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I say good luck with that.
At first (and indeed second) glance I read that as a ‘textbook Guardian moment”. And it seems that interpretation would have been equally appropriate.
I don’t agree that the writer is in a minority in his belief that Cummings did nothing wrong. Nobody I know blames Cummings for what he did, and we are all disgusted by the reaction of the BBC and the media in general.
A heavily constructed Guardian moment at that, designed to bring down Cummings, Boris and ultimately Brexit, inspired and guided by those with Europhilic desire, and quite possibly involving the EU oligarchy too.
The contrived outrage from many remainer/remoaner propagandists, including the BBC totally against it’s charter, is designed to wind up the ‘working’ class against those they voted for, lets hope the MSMSM (Midden Stream Main Sewer Media) are flushed successfully, into the cesspit of history.
A superb and original analysis.
Certainly the appalling hysteria and raging emotings are akin to Brownshirt levels of emotional fascism.
Basically it’s a victim seeking grievance game of outraged top trumps.
To state the obvious, his card was marked for winning the Brexit vote , and engineering a solution to the libleft conspiracy to hamstring the nation until it was hogtied for Huawei and Greta lunacy.
We owe Cummings greatly, and- after Scruton last year- we either stand by our own or find ourselves in history’s dustbin.
Boris himself was dobbed in for a domestic row by his Guardian guard dogs that can seemingly read. Last summer.
In truth, the patriots and those of sense and goodwill need to learn to fight and stand up to the evil that power exudes in pursuit of a salary and some media groomings from the BBC etc.
We have failed to back Nigel or Tommy, Katie or Anne Marie, and even Peter Hitchens is a marked man.
We need to want our way, being as nasty and scary as the enemy is to our people.
A theme this week on these pages has been one of polarisation. Other articles include “Is China trolling the West?”, “Coronavirus has driven America mad” and “Slowly but surely, Britain is turning into America”. The focus is on how we are becoming more entrenched, forming group loyalty and a bunker mentality where the truth, or the search for it, doesn’t matter because we are at war defending our group against the other side. As we know, the first casualty of war is the truth. At the moment, it is like a Catch 22 ““ we are becoming entrenched and inflamed because the other side lies, and the more entrenched we become the more we forgive, ignore, or not even see the lies on our own side. Social media has probably not helped in this respect; as people increasingly gravitate towards supportive groups, while being restricted to just 280 characters when ‘debating’ with people outside their group. We see people in power playing on this and further inflaming situations to their advantage. It does not bode well. Forgiveness, turning the other cheek, absolution, would all help turn the tide on the part of individuals but it is particularly important that our politicians, their advisers, the media, and others with power, take a moral lead by being more honest, considered and respectful in their behaviour. It is vital for our democratic future that we break this destructive divisive cycle.
Rene Girard’s theory is very relevant to this situation and we must remember that he formulated his concept of mimetic desire before social media. Indeed at least one of the earliest investors in Facebook recognised that this new form of communication would provide a prolific opportunity and outlet for our desire to like, be liked and like what others liked. Dominic Cummings has clearly provided the scapegoat for which people have been longing but so far their desire is being frustrated. This desire has to be satisfied and it is only a matter of time before he is eventually driven out or someone else takes his place – Matt Hancock? These are ugly times. We need clear-headed philosophers and psychologists with the power of communication to confront us with what we are becoming.
‘A majority of voters think Dominic Cummings should go’ …
results from a poll of 1,160 people. Let that sink in. JUST OVER ONE THOUSAND PEOPLE, and we’re not told how they were selected.
End this hysteria.
However Girard was in error when he stated that the ‘New Testament’s message of forgiveness was unique in human history’.
What about the Goddess Clementia and her faithful disciple Julius Caesar? Or the Roman Senate’s clemency to Caratacus, the incendiary Briton?
Morals, Ethics, Civilised behaviour in all its facets, were fully devolved well before the advent of the New Testament!
The current Cummings Witch Hunt just confirms what a debased society we have become, since the collapse of the Classical World.
Dives in Omnia.
I think the debasement was rather more recent, perhaps beginning in the 1960s but massively accelerated from 1997 onwards.
It’s hard to identify a precise cause and there are probably many. Personally I would point to the exponential expansion of fiat money allied to the ‘long march through the institutions’ of the Frankfurt School, whose sole purpose is to destroy the west.
I think you may have misinterpreted my statement
that the concept of ‘forgiveness’ did not begin with the New Testament, as Girard mistakenly believed.
I would maintain it had existed for centuries before the advent of Christ and his chums.
However I do agree there has been an appalling collapse in what we might loosely call moral fibre, particularly since the emergence of T Blair Esq and all his cronies.
Your apposite mention of the Frankfurt School should remind us that this pernicious organisation has been spewing out crypto communist drivel since the days of Weimar.
Germany should hang her head in shame for nurturing and suckling such an institution, who’s avowed intent as you rightly say, is the destruction of the West. In fact no other single organisation, including “the other place” has done so much damage to the concept of Western Democracy.
In former times this would have been designated as Hate/Thought Crime. You will recall that ‘we’ hanged Julius Streicher for very same at Nuremberg.
I am always surprised that neither Hobsbawm or Miliband were alumini. They would have made ‘star’ students don’t you think?
I can’t think of anywhere that Girard claimed or implied that the notion of forgiveness as such was totally unprecedented or unknown anywhere before the New Testament. What he did argue was that Christ’s teaching, life and death were the first fully self-conscious, deliberate and complete demonstration (and thereby “deconstruction” if you like) of the full nature of mimetic desire and the resulting crises, resolution and birth of cultures through the scapegoat mechanism. What follows is not the first *discovery* of forgiveness but the first complete *understanding* of why the forgiveness of sins is humanities’ only hope… of breaking the cycle of escalating mimetic crises and scapegoating, which in the atomic age threatens our utter destruction and complete hell on earth. Or as William Blake said “Friendship cannot exist without Forgiveness of Sins continually” ( in “Jerusalem” betwixt Chapters 2 & 3)
Most pertinent thing I’ve read all week. Very thought provoking.
Equality (aka mimetic desire) as a human right.
Oh goody, all of us can keep up with the Kardashians
“¦or is it the Royles?
Brilliant piece of connecting the dots! A perfect real-world, contemporary example of RenÃ© Girard’s thesis on human motivation laid out in his book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning”. Thanks for bringing these together!
I think it is a confluence of the rather sad rule obsessed people we have become – that was our big problem with the EU: we hated their rules and moaned about them bitterly but followed them whereas other countries (particularly, but not solely France) would just ignore them when they became inconvenient. And a vindictive MSM and political class. Most ordinary people had no idea who Dominic Cummings was or what his role is, until now. He is not like the Scottish CMO, who was on telly every night along side the wicked witch of the North sanctimoniously preaching.
Great! Boris says we can now meet in groups of 6 outside, including now in our own gardens, as long as we stay 2 meters from anyone from a different household. Some people will even do that, but most will only have 7 or 8, keep out of each other’s personal space and only go inside for a wee. The fear of death (either our own or a loved one) is slowly being replaced by the fear of R, which in many ways is a step in the right direction.
If you imagine – man drives a long distance for himself, sick wife and child to isolate in a property for 2 weeks with the help of his nearby family. Police have concluded there is no breach of the lockdown rules for this incident. The second one somewhat strange but minor one is a telling off if he’d have been caught in the act. So far it seems a reasonable thing to have done under the circumstances in the first instance the second less so but could be reasonably forgiven most would I guess say?
Now add in – this person is Dominic Cummings et al it suddenly becomes “work of the devil himself and must be cast out!!!”
Because for some either the police are lying, he is lying, his reasons are simply not good enough his wife wasn’t that sick his child wasn’t vulnerable enough or all of the above because I don’t like what he stands for. The lack of insight some have for their own thoughts and conclusions is staggering.
This is the best sanest article written to date. A Mountain being made out of a molehill. He was brave in the back garden. He got s lot of sympathy. But for an intelligent man made a big mistake or two actually. Not checking before driving 250miles! And not have an hour’s test drive! True or false it’s stupid. An apology made sincerely and we could move on. Not now. Media pack smell blood!
That article has inspired me to have a read of Rene Girard
It could be a profound life-changeing experience, I can assure you. It is not all easy going but there is some good assistance available… e,g. https://www.youtube.com/wat…
DC and his family were quite obviously pushed out of their London home by the twitterati mob.
I do blame Cumming for affecting public morale..we have made sacrifices in terms of not seeing children or parents for many weeks now resulting in anxiety and isolation.. He has undermined the collective sense of altruism which sustained these acts of discipline and deprivation by setting a bad example.
That said..he doesnt deserve to be hounded and pilloried in the way he is being…Additionally there may well be a Remainer agenda underpinning the ferocity of the attacks taking place….and the level of scapegoating is repulsive.
However…he has acted as though there is a different set of rules for him and as though his undeniably difficult predicament was somehow exceptional…when in fact people every day have been faced with similar tough choices and made more moral choices than he.
For that …the public can judge him as lacking in principle and solidarity with themselves. Its not just about making political capital in this regard…its about a breach of trust which
creates division at a time when society desperately
needs to feel sense of common identity solidarity and support coming from those in power.
Cummings is found by the relevant authority, the police, to have possibly committed a minor breach. Maitless demands he is sacked. Maitless is found by the relevant authority, the BBC management, to have definitely committed a breach. Maitless demands the Twittersphere applauds her. Is she not acting as if a different set of rules applies to her?
Indeed, this is the behaviour we expect of a leader.
But Cummings is an advisor. He should, though, have resigned from observing the SAGE committee.
If we get into the blame apportioning game then I would blame our press and media, especially the BBC, and those trying to make cheap political capital out of this “crisis” for affecting public morale disastrously, consistently, and continuously. Dominic Cummings contribution would be not even one drop in the ocean compared with theirs!
I think the lugenpresse missed the public mood on this. When all bar the public sector are looking into the financial abyss the silent majority are not concerned with the goings of Cummings. The not-so-silent minority screeching at him must be aware that Varadkar, Sturgeon and many others have bent the lockdown rules. I hope this turns their spite to ashes in their mouthes, but am not holding my breath!
Well done, Jack. I have been reading Girard and similar related thinkers for more than 10 years now and he is absolutely fundamental to understanding of what is going on in our world.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe