The Barbell Ethics of Modernity
Why we live in the best and the worst of times simultaneously
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote Dickens in the famous opening A Tale of Two Cities.
It’s the most Girardian opening to any novel ever written. René Girard, the great social theorist who first articulated the phenomenon of mimetic desire in human society, realized that we are living in a world where things are simultaneously the best they’ve ever been and the worst they’ve ever been—yet very few people seem capable of holding this paradoxical coincidence of opposites in their mind at the same time.
Instead, there is knee-jerk absolutizing of almost everything: things are quickly labeled either “the best” or “the worst”. (It seems to be a national pastime, for instance, for journalists to label every American President either “the best” or the “the worst” in history after about six months in office. This absolutizing tendency has now extended to everything from Bitcoin, sports teams, education, start-ups, restaurants.)
In his book Evolution and Conversion, which is written in the form of a dialogue, Girard is pressed by his interlocutor to admit that the market is a broken system which produces a ‘tolerable’ amount of victims. The interviewer sees the market as a sacred center which requires sacrificial victims in order to function. “Econometrics is the calculation of the tolerable number of sacrifices in a given market,” he claims.
"But it also saves more victims than any previous historical moment ever did! One cannot balance these accounts, and balance them against what? It is the first time in world history that a society cannot be compared with any other, since ours is the first to encompass the whole planet.”
Girard knew that markets have lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than any other era in history. Modern markets have ‘saved’ more people from poverty while at the same time producing more victims, in absolute terms. Victims include those who are locked out of markets, exploited by them, or punished by them.
(Markets ‘punish’ in a highly impersonal way. Bankruptcy is a product of ‘market forces’; there is not an executioner or an angry crowd standing around ready to hurl stones at unsuccessful entrepreneurs—they simply notice notice their bank accounts dwindling. There is no-one to blame but themselves for not recognizing and executing well to deliver ‘what the market wants’. The narrative becomes that they simply failed to Add Value™.)
This two-sided view is what led to René Girard being called ‘the most ambivalent of men’ by some of his colleagues. They meant it in the most positive sense possible, though: Girard couldn’t help but see the promise and the danger—or the full range of potentialities—of people and institutions. The world itself hangs in the balance as it grapples with the Revelation of the Victim found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, while at the same time largely rejecting them:
We easily say that everything people say about world is true: it is by the worst of all worlds. They say repeatedly—and this is not false—that no world has made more victims than it has. But the opposite proposition is equally true: our world is also and by far the best of all worlds, the one that saves more victims than any other. In order to describe our world, we must multiply all sorts of propositions that should be incompatible but now are true simultaneously.
This is what I call the “Barbell Ethics” of the modern world. Many of our key institutions (the stock market, the eduction system, democratic institutions), people, and technologies are simultaneously both the best and the worst that we’ve ever seen—and that’s because humanity knows things which the vast majority of people refuse to accept. The gap between knowledge and action grows wider, and truths both terrible and wonderful are most likely to be found at the margins.
Let’s explore just a few of the institutions where this Barbell Ethics seems apparent.
Many on the political Left lambast markets as being inefficient and unfair, producing far too many victims (and perhaps too many is one) as wage inequality increases and crony capitalism stacks the deck.
Many on the political Right, on the other hand—especially those still hanging on to the neoliberalism born of the Reagan area—defend free markets with quasi-sacred reverence. They see markets lifting more people out of poverty than any other economic system known to man, and believe that markets are, on the whole, more just than anything else we’ve ever tried.
The hard truth is: everyone is right, at least partially. Seeing the barbell-shaped morality of these key institutions can save us from a lot of the hand-wringing. Our cultural institutions are always a form of violence-containment, according to Girard. They serve a special function of preserving order.
Girard introduces a key word when writing about this: the Greek word κατέχον, or katechon—which means “that which withholds.” A katechon is a “structure of containment.” In this sense, a virus quarantine is a form of katechon, on a biological level. But the most important forms of katechon are social ones: the structures that contain mimetic violence.
Girard believed that are many ‘katechontic structures’ in the modern world which function as forms of secular transcendence—they ‘hold back’ or ‘contain’ or ‘delay’ major apocalyptic events. Democratic institutions, technology, mass media, markets, and other structures each have a role to play in containing violent outbreaks, each in its own way. They are the Successor Institutions to the institution of the scapegoat mechanism.
Many people believe these institutions are now breaking down, which—in Girard’s view—would usher in an apocalyptic event, whether that be war, climate destruction, or some other catastrophe which, until now, we have managed to ‘contain’ through our katechons.
The market has been one of the most effective of these structures. Consumerism, in particular, became a way of life—and that allowed the market to fulfill greater and greater human needs and act as a much more powerful katechon than when the market functioned only as a mechanism for getting what we ‘need’—in the twentienth century, it became a mechanism for getting what we think we want.
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed…Man’s desires must overshadow his needs,” said Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers banker, in 1927. He was involved in a new effort to engineer desire along with characters like the infamous ‘father of public relations’, the incomparable Eddie Bernays.
Mazur was essentially writing about creating—and then diffusing—more and more mimetic desire.
This fits the Barbell Ethic: the new era of consumerism was good in that it prevented outbreaks of mimetic violence (the market itself functions as a form of self-transcendence); it is bad in that it encourages—and relies upon—non-stop, runaway growth to prevent the kind of mimetic rivalry that can’t be solved through price discovery. This is precisely why people like Peter Thiel seem to believe that the only thing keeping our society from impending collapse is continued economic growth.
Without it, we lose the one katechon containing a large mimetic crisis.
Modern technology functions as a kind of double-edged sword, too. It has a Barbell Ethic.
Tech is simultaneously some of the best of what the modern world has to offer, while at the same time being one of the greatest dangers to our development as humans.
Don’t most of us feel that in our bones with a love-hate relationship with social media? Isn’t this what the AI-threat and debate is all about? Technology is both the blessing and curse: the pharmakos, the problem and the solution—to everything, it seems.
NYU Professor Geoff Schullenberger has written some of the most incisive Girardian analysis on the mimetic role of technology in the modern world. Writing about Peter Thiel and his relationship to technology, he notes:
Sacrificial religion is, in Thiel’s vocabulary, 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.
Schullenberger suggested to me that I pay particular attention to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—with my Girardian glasses on.
The role of technology is striking from the very beginning of the film. One of the apes averts what is essentially a mimetic crisis with a rival tribe by going from “zero to one” (to use Thiel’s phrase): he realizes that he can use a bone as a weapon. The bone becomes a technology.
This happens, as fans know, after a mysterious alien monolith appears. That monolith becomes the sacred center around which the world of the apes turn. In the rest of the film, technology is shown to be the kind of deified superstructure that Schullenberger described.
Here’s Girard, in his own words:
“Technology certainly helps in channeling mimetic competition and violence. It is not bound by mimetic laws, and it plays a crucial role in our life, in that it diminishes the impact of mimetic impulses. However, it is true that is also increases the power of possible harmful actions of aggression and violence.”
That ambivalence and Barbell Ethics, again.
What to make of modern technology? The development of blockchains and the decentralization ethos pushing their development is one of the many attempts to use technology in order to achieve a secular form of transcendence—in the way that the scapegoat mechanism was a form of deviated transcendence for our ancestors.
(By deviated, I mean ‘horizontal’ transcendence as opposed to ‘vertical’ transcendence—the latter being a form of transcendence coming from and made possibly by a higher power; horizontal or deviated transcended is a form of man-made, manufactured transcendence.)
So technology is a katechon, in addition to market. I am referring to the functional role of technology in the mitigation of violence when I write, in Wanting:
The scapegoat mechanism was the first major social invention to address the problem of desire. The market economy was the second. Neither will be able to protect us from mimetic escalation and crises in the future. The preservation of humanity might rely on a ‘third invention’—one that is yet to be discovered, or that is in the process of being discovered. Humans will have to find a new way to channel desire in productive and nonviolent ways. Without one, mimetic desire will spiral out of control. It’s impossible to know what this emergent social mechanism might be, but I’ll indulge in some brief speculation….
I need to devote an entire newsletter, or series of newsletters, to this Third Invention. But for now I’ll say this: I do not view the world of blockchain-based crypto development to be the kind of zero-to-one innovation that will solve the problem of runaway mimesis. I think a solution is more likely to come from interplanetary travel and settlement.
However, the general point of this article is that our technological development can be viewed using the Barbell Ethic perspective: there is good and bad counter-balancing the same bar right now. The question is: which way will it tip?
Technology carries with it great promise, but it also comes at a great cost to our humanity. Contrary to the Techno-Utopians, I don’t believe technology can solve all of our problems, or even most of them—and it would be foolish to put that kind of faith in it. At the same time, there’s no reason to be dour. We can build great things as long as they are built with a view to a healthy human ecology.
But it seems to me that we are clearly not accounting for the real human costs of tech at a human level. Every day, new holes in the boat seem to appear. For a simple and relevant example: just look at the increasing and alarming rise of men putting Apple Airtags into women’s property in order to be able to track them. Can Apple engineer a ‘bug fix’ for this human behavior? No. They might be able to mitigate the problem a bit (one idea proposed is alerting people on their phones when they have a foreign airtag on them, after a certain numbers of hours), but short of giving people Neuralink lobotomies the core problem remains: people are capable of evil.
David Brooks summed up what I think the dilemma of the techno-utopians is in a recent articles in the Times:
“It’s an illusion, as T. S. Eliot put it, to think that a society in which people don’t have to be good can thrive. Life is essentially a moral enterprise…”
It is an illusion to think that technology can solve moral problems. It’s for lack of a moral imagination that technology is causing problems in the first place!
One way to approach technology from the Girardian perspective is to maintain some of the ambivalence and humility of Girard himself on most matters: we might see technology as a tool to mitigate most problems—but not completely solve them.
I take that perspective because I have a core belief that all of the greatest problems inflicting humanity are, at their root, spiritual problems. And there is no code, no cryptography, no policies or form of government that will ultimately prevent us from needing to be good.
If we do not develop into men and women who have the will to do good, then we slide back toward the heaviest side of the barbell—and right now, that seems to be the side of abdicating personal responsibility.
“Our technological civilization brings about a change in the rhythm of human existence. There is a speeding up of tempo that makes it more difficult to find the minimum of freedom on which a minimum life of prayer depends.” —Jean Danielou, Prayer as a Political Problem
The Barbell Ethic can also be seen in politics.