Capitalism as a Form of Human Sacrifice: The Comedy of Innocence & The Comedy of GuiltDr. Nicholas Partyka I Society & Culture I Analysis I April 13th, 2016
The mention of human sacrifice is likely to conjure a bevy of fantastic notions, images of exotic locales, and perhaps visions of pre-historic peoples dancing around a fire or an altar. For some, the idea may even trigger a visceral disgust. Despite killing untold numbers of persons for heresy or apostasy, the main religions of the Western world reject human sacrifice as a part of their practice of religious worship. The God of Abraham, that little episode with Isaac notwithstanding, does not require the shedding of human blood as a feature of the way He proscribes being worshiped. Many things may still be sacrificed as part of Christian religious practice, but blood, human or animal, is not one. Certainly this God, through the medium of his Earthly spokespersons, has commanded, or at least endorsed, the shedding of others' blood, e.g. that of Jews, Muslims, Pagans, and heretics. But, even here, the shedding of blood is not a mainstay of conventional worship. We rational, modern, scientifically minded people are quick to dismiss the idea of human sacrifice. Though the form has changed, we still practice human sacrifice, and it remains an important part of how society and community are reproduced. Moreover, we preserve significant features of sacrificial rituals as practiced by ancient people.
Among Marx's first words in the Manifesto are his famous, and oft quoted, line, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". But, importantly, he continues, "Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another". Class society is based on hierarchy, that is, on social relations of domination and subordination. And this social relationship of domination is not an end in-itself, but rather it is the means by which wealth, resources, status, and opportunities are funneled into the hands of the dominating class. Class society has always functioned in this way, as a fundamentally predatory mechanism whereby the wealthy exploit the poor. And, as long as class-based society persists, so too will this mechanism of predation and exploitation, as well as the inequalities and divisions that come with it. This is one of Marx's most essential points; wealth and poverty go together, because poverty is the direct result of the accumulation of capital.
Ritual sacrifice is typically thought of as a relic of the ancient past, something barbaric or ignorant peoples engaged in, as something enlightened societies eschewed once they developed a truly scientific, i.e. modern, way of thinking. Unfortunately for the victims, ritual human sacrifice is a widespread practice in contemporary society. It is the very foundation of how the dominant class reproduces its wealth, power, and position. We share with our ancient peers the need to justify human sacrifice, to rationalize our actions, and thus to appease our conscience. It is in this vein that while the ancient Greeks made use of a "comedy of innocence", we modern Westerners have adopted the "comedy of guilt". The ancient Greeks needed their sacrificial victims to be willing in order to appease their guilty conscience. Perhaps the most salient example is Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis. We moderns also need our victims to be responsible for their own murder, that is, they must be the authors of their own demise. Thus, for example, the string of incoherent, blatantly racist, exaggerated, and downright preposterous legal excuses given for the murder of unarmed citizens by police, especially people of color.
Just as with the ancient Greeks, myth helps sustain our preferred justifications for ritual sacrifice. Myth is essential because at the heart of ritual sacrifice lies the deadly contradiction. Namely, the question, as Walter Burkett asks it, "Can what is not a gift really be a sacrifice?" If society can't get the victim to agree to be sacrificed, then the act is much more a murder than a sacrifice, and hence an unworthy form of offering for a God(s). Complicating the matter is one major difference, namely, that unlike the ancients, we specially select, and then groom for the purpose, the eventual victims of sacrifice. In their ritual comedy, the ancient Greeks only had to trick an animal into a performing a simple gesture, our modern ritual comedy requires highly elaborate, sophisticated, and inter-connected social, economic, and political institutions. Within these institutions lurk apparitions like the welfare queen, the food-stamp surfer, the ghetto gang-banger, the lazy immigrant, et cetera. These are myths created by the dominant class to rationalize and justify the ritual sacrifice of some members of the community.
The Comedy of Innocence
For the ancient Greeks, ritual sacrifice was an integral part of the practice of their religion. The sacrificial ritual consisted of the killing, butchering, and eating of the sacrificial animal. Blood sacrifice was one the most important ways in which the ancient Greeks connected to their Gods. The obvious similarity of animal blood to human blood, the sense of worshiping a God in animal form, the wearing of clean clothes, the wearing of animal masks during the ritual, all point to the way in which the animal sacrificed stood in for human sacrifice. The Gods required sacrifice in order to be propitiated, and thus provide the things Greek people needed in order to flourish. There is a certain quid pro quo about this practice. The Gods want things, and human wants things. So, humans give the Gods what they want, and thus the Gods will give humans what they want. Humans, of course, want things like good weather for growing crops, calm seas for sailing and trading, for favor in battle, et cetera. Human sacrifice, despite appearing in Greek literature, was certainly considered to be taboo by the ancient Greeks; in fact, the Furies are thought to hunt down and wreak vengeance upon those who commit blood crimes. Indeed, there remains no archeological evidence for human sacrifice among the Greeks. Thus, the sacrificial animal stands in for humans, and also for the God, in the ritual sacrifice.
The sacrificial ritual was an important way that community was re-created by the Greeks. Most members of the community had roles to play in the ritual. This ritual was an elaborate process, and it would begin with cleansing, and festooning the chosen animal. Because the Greeks made use of animals like cattle and sheep, the most important sacrificial animals, for their secondary products, they would have been older animals, chosen based on having a suitably healthy and unblemished appearance. The Gods demand a good looking sacrifice, not an ugly or deformed one. The process then moved on to a ritual procession to the sanctuary which included singing and dancing, and invocations to the particular God the sacrifice is intended for. Once the procession reached the sanctuary the comedy of innocence would then be performed. After this, the clan chief, a person of political and thus also religious power, would kill the animal, catching its blood in a basin, then spatter some over the altar, and the rest being burnt. Then the animal would be skinned and butchered, the inedible bits set aside for reconstituting the animal symbolically. These innards, the splanchna, are then burned on the altar. Lastly comes the cooking and eating of the meat.
The offerings to the Gods must be burnt, for it is in the form of smoke that the sacrifice rises to the sky, that is, to a place where the Gods can consume it. If the blood of a sacrifice was allowed to drain into the ground, this would be a sacrifice to chthonic Gods, that is, the Gods of the underworld. Moreover, the Gods require sacrifice because without it, they cease to exist. Indeed, there is no God where there is no sacrifice, no ritual observance of the God. The Gods thus depend on sacrifice to sustain their own existence. This comes out in Aristophanes' The Birds, where two disaffected Athenians defect to form a new kingdom in the sky with the birds, after which they begin an embargo on humans' sacrifices to the Gods, in effect threatening to starve the Olympians. Whether the offering is burned up or poured out, if the Gods do not receive sacrificial offerings, and in the appropriate form, they will eventually perish.
Even without potential embargoes, as described in Aristophanes' play, the mechanics of the sacrificial ritual posed problems for the Greeks. They utilize myth, and the comedy of innocence to alleviate the moral dilemmas their form of religious worship created. Consider again Walter Burkett's question, How can something that is not a gift be a sacrifice? The Greeks get the meat of the animal, all the useable pieces, and the rest is symbolically reconstituted, and then offered to the Gods. Why, one might reasonably ask, are the Gods satisfied with what they receive? Here the myth of Prometheus helps the Greeks have their cake and eat it too. In one form of the myth Prometheus tells the humans to sew up innards and entrails, the inedible bits, back inside the skin. He then helps the humans by tricking Zeus into choosing the "reconstituted" animal instead of a pile of meat. In a different version of the myth Zeus intentionally picks to get the worse end of the deal, no doubt because of his benevolence. In fact, in the first version of the myth, it is precisely because Prometheus tricked Zeus, that Zeus took fire away from humans. This is why Prometheus then has to do what he becomes best known for, namely, stealing fire from Mt. Olympus and giving it back to humans. This is how, through myth, the Greeks could answer Burkett's question in the affirmative.
The other problem that had to be confronted was that the idea of a cow, sheep, ram, or pig consenting to be sacrificed by a human in the name of a God is laughable. Humans and animals possess no reliable means of communicating, especially for such a complex notion as ritual sacrifice. Moreover, even if a machine enabled humans and animals to communicate, it is by no means clear that we could sufficiently explain to them notions like God and ritual sacrifice for them to make a suitably informed choice that could alleviate humans' guilt. Thus, the Greeks made use of the comedy of innocence to resolve their feelings of guilt at killing an animal they have raised, and have a relationship with, and stands in symbolically for humans. As we saw above, this process would occur at the beginning of the sacrificial ritual. The human participants would stand in a circle, water would be brought in a vessel, and there would be a ritual washing of hands. Water would then be offered to the animal, or perhaps sprinkled on its head, inducing the animal to make a gesture that the humans could interpret as it giving its assent to be sacrificed. In another variation of this process a select few animals might be arrayed around the altar, upon which were places some food item cows would find hard to resist. The first animal to move in for a taste of the treats displayed before it could then be interpreted as assenting to be sacrificed. Since the animal could be said to go "voluntarily" to the sacrificial altar any feelings of guilt the Greeks had would be assuaged.
One can see now how the practice of ritual sacrifice in ancient Greek religion made a comedy, a mockery, of the innocence of the sacrificial animal by conducting a sham of a ceremony through which the animal agrees to be killed. This is how the Greeks again answer Burkett's question in the affirmative. Something which is not a gift can be a sacrifice, if the sacrifice itself consents to be sacrificed. The sacrificial animal in effect makes a gift of itself. And then, since the animal stands in for both God and human, each makes itself the sacrifice, giving itself as a gift to the other. This reciprocal giving formed the basis of the on-going relationship between humans and the Gods. It also helped re-create and reinforce the sense of community through participation in the ritual sacrifice and meal. Thus, through myth and comedy the Greeks were able accomplish two important tasks in how they rationalized their practice of ritual sacrifice. First they were able to obtain important elements of reproducing their community, that is, meat products, and at the same time to appropriately honor the Gods.
The Comedy of Guilt
Ritual sacrifice is no less a part of contemporary society than it was ancient Greek society. One important difference is that while the ancient Greeks may or may not have actually engaged in human sacrifice, contemporary capitalist society definitely does. And, where the ancients situated their comedy at the beginning of their sacrificial ritual, we moderns place our comedy at the end of our sacrificial ritual. Unlike the ancients we select our sacrificial animals more or less at birth, and then groom them assiduously for their role. The most important difference between us and our ancient Greek counterparts is that while they made a comedy of the innocence of their sacrificial victim, we moderns make a comedy of the guilt of our sacrificial victims. Only if presented with "choices" at the beginning, and then voluntarily making the wrong choice can we moderns revel in the joy of the punishment of the sacrificial victim. We go out of our way, quite a ways out sometimes, to establish the guilt of the sacrificial victim. For, indeed, there can be no joy in punishment unless the victim is guilty. However, the institutional structure of capitalist society is such that the mechanisms for establishing guilt are so decisively flawed that it constitutes a comedy of guilt.
Capitalist society precisely structures inequality so that those on the bottom have the least wealth, the fewest resources, the fewest opportunities, the worst schools, the worst healthcare, the unhealthiest neighborhoods, are destined for the worst jobs, for social marginalization, mass incarceration, political disenfranchisement, and for an early death. These people try to make their ends meet as best they can, and when this requires bending or breaking the law, they are punished severely. A society based, most fundamentally, on private property delights in seeing people punished for crimes against property. This makes the observers feel more secure in their property holdings, and helps reaffirm the basic notions and prejudices of a form of community based on the ownership and exchange of private property. Just like with the ancient Greeks, the comedic aspect to our modern sacrificial rituals helps assuage our collective guilt, it helps us to answer Burkett's question in the affirmative. The comedy of guilt, just like the comedy of innocence, makes the voluntary action of the would-be sacrifice the key element. Modern capitalism needs its sacrificial victims to be willing, or, as it is in our case, unwilling to abide by the eminently reasonable prescriptions of a system of law designed to uphold the bourgeoisie as a class, and thus the system of social relations that sustains their position of ideological hegemony.
One particularly dark variation on this ritual comedy of guilt can be observed in the extremes to which authorities, pundits, and everyday people on social media, will go to place blame for their own death on those unarmed, mostly people of color, killed by police. Legally speaking, we simply allow the police to claim that they felt that their lives were in danger, thus excusing the use of deadly force. In these instances one can observe the comedy of guilt being played out as predominantly white officers try again and again to explain how and why they felt so threatened that they had to kill an unarmed civilian. Darren Wilson, in one particularly ghastly instance of this ritual, went so far as to make Michael Brown out to be a demon, to imbue him with super-human qualities, and thus perceive him as posing a deadly threat to Wilson's life. In another, rather macabre, instance of the comedy of guilt there is the case of Tamir Rice. Many attempted to place the blame on this little boy because the officer perceived him as older, and as more threatening. Many even tried making his own murder Tamir's fault by blaming him for playing with a realistic-looking toy gun in public, which he should not have been doing in the first place. In this same vein one can observe the comedy of guilt being played out in cases like that of Trayvon Martin & Dontay Ivy, Eric Garner & Freddy Gray, Laquan MacDonald & Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland & so many many others. "If only the now deceased citizen hadn't done x when confronted by the police", or "if they had only said y when stopped by the police", "if only they hadn't been engaging in z low-level criminal offense at the time, or just prior", are the refrains sung during the ritual comedy of guilt.
More mundane variations on this sacrificial ritual, and the comedy that accompanies it, occur on a daily basis. Indeed, they form the very foundation of capitalist society. Without ritual sacrifice, the form of community which is most central to reproducing bourgeoisie society cannot be sustained. For the Greeks, ritual sacrifice was also about sustaining community. In their case the sustenance is more physical in nature, that is, they needed the calories. The Greeks sacrificed animals because they needed to eat, but also to honor the Gods. Today, we also need to eat, but the way we feed ourselves is much more complex than it was with the ancient Greeks. The sustenance derived from ritual sacrifice is, however, much more financial in nature today than in more distant epochs. The plain truth is that capitalism profits from the use, exploitation, and destruction of the poor, in particular black and brown bodies, and the bodies of women. This is as true today as it was in the halcyon days of the Atlantic slave trade. After slavery there was Segregation, after Segregation there was Jim Crow, after Jim Crow there arrived mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is the modern form taken by the capitalist machine which feeds on the poor, on black and brown bodies, and on the bodies of women, and profits from their poverty, captivity, marginalization, and also their deaths.
Poverty and inequality are the structural products of capitalism. They are also the main drivers of the feelings of desperation and exclusion that incline many to engage in illegal activities. Simply put, capitalism is a pyramid scheme whereby the opulence of the few is subsidized by the exploitation of the many. Thus, the kinds of material and social circumstances that studies have routinely shown to be criminogenic are the direct result of the "healthy" operation of a capitalist economy. Thus, capitalism can never be without crime, since it creates so many potential criminals, and incentivizes the rewards of successful crime so heavily. This is the main reason why the search for guilt, after certain kinds of individuals commit certain kinds of crimes is so comedic, to the point of being a mockery, a sham. Capitalist society chooses, almost from birth, those it will subject to the kinds of social and material pressures that drive people to crime in order to meet their needs, either for material resources or for social status. Then, after some of these people succumb to the pressures and incentives arrayed before them, capitalists utilize their power to organize public rituals of sacrifice, or as we call it, the criminal justice system. Capitalist elites intentionally dis-invest in public social services, e.g. education and healthcare, then when people find it impossible to live with dignity, they resort to any means necessary to provide. Capitalist elites criminalize this behavior, then apprehend, try, and if convicted, punish those who refuse to accept the social station assigned them. One grotesque example of the comedy of guilt in this connection is the widespread criminalization of homelessness.
One other prominent, and almost Kafkaesque, example of the way capitalist society makes a comedy of the guilt of its sacrificial victims is the insidious school to prison pipeline scholars have done much work to illuminate. The poorest students - usually people of color - are crowded into the worst neighborhoods, are segregated into the worst schools, and are suspended, expelled, and otherwise disciplined at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. These students are, without a sufficient education, left to fend for themselves in an economy we're constantly being told is globalizing and shifting to reward highly educated, high-skill workers. These people, again, mostly people of color, are increasingly caught up in the criminal justice system, where they are stopped and questioned, arrested, charged, tried, and convicted much more often than their white peers. Then they are given more sever treatment at sentencing, less lenience at parole, few to no resources for re-integration upon release, then thrust into the same job market for which they were originally poorly suited, only now at a further disadvantage; and also likely formally politically disenfranchised. Capitalist society condemns an entire segment of the population, the working classes, to systematic deprivation of resources and opportunities, and then punishes these people when they do whatever they have to in order to get by. Once these poor and marginalized persons have been caught-up in the criminal justice system their labor is exploited for profit by the prison-industrial complex. Dis-investing in resources for the re-integration of former convicts into their communities ensures that recidivism rates will be high enough to produce a reliable pool of labor to exploit. The privatization of prisons, which are proliferating in America, only exacerbates these incentives by cutting out the middle-man of the allegedly impartial "democratic" state.
Outside of, though certainly many times in conjunction with, the prison-industrial complex, the poor and marginalized are preyed upon and exploited by other elements of the capitalist ruling class. Sub-prime loans, student loans, and payday loans are all ways that the desperation, humiliation, and aspiration of the poor and marginalized are used against them for profit. The dominant neo-liberal narratives about education and the job market, for example, endlessly repeat how essential a college education is for success. And yet, poor students who reach for a better future by getting a college degree are finding that education is not a silver-bullet for social mobility, nor a panacea for income inequality. Large debt loads, a recession weakened labor market, structural changes in the capitalist global economy, as well as racism, patriarchy, and elite privilege all combine to sharply limit the avenues of social mobility truly open to graduates from the lower classes. Even those who major in highly remunerative disciplines, get excellent grades, and graduate, often face significant obstacles to success in their chosen field, e.g. the prospect of years of unpaid internships in order to have a resume appropriate to the job one ultimately wants, that they simply cannot afford. Payday loans, with their egregiously high interest rates and heavily punitive system of fees and fines, have been decisively shown to be nothing more than economic traps to bilk the poor of what little they may have. These companies take advantage of poor people, whose delicate economic equilibrium are easily disrupted by exogenous shocks, and who typically have insufficient savings to absorb those shocks; if they have any savings at all. Payday loans offer a quick fix to the cash-strapped poor, which quickly and reliably spiral into a mountain of crushing debt the poor borrower has little to no chance of ever paying off.
And then, after the poor and marginalized have fallen victim to the trap set by predators in our rigged economy, the elite, and of course their sycophants, blame the victims for their victimization. Recent college grads should have not gone to college if they couldn't afford to pay back the loans, debtors should have forgone whatever luxury they borrowed money in order to maintain. In this elite narrative it is always the moral failings of the individual that produce their impoverished, and desperate situation. The sub-prime loan crisis at the bottom of the housing collapse in 2007-2008 is a perfect example. Poor families were targeted by the big banks for risky loans that the banks assumed, even without a financial crisis, those families could not pay back. In the boom stage, elites and their institutions proclaim to the poor that prosperity is within reach; "easy credit can get you that home in the suburbs with the good schools". When the securitized debt instrument trend caught fire the incentives for financial institutions to create debt only multiplied. Then, after the crash, all the blame was placed at the door of those greedy poor families trying to live beyond their means, i.e. live with dignity outside the ghettos assigned to them. If only those people hadn't fallen for the insidious trap set for them by the sophisticated con-artists and loan sharks on Wall-Street, then the economy wouldn't have collapsed. This is a great example of the comedy of guilt being played out before our eyes.
Over the years, elites have developed an elaborate lexicon and discourse that they use to condemn the poor and justify the violence visited on them. The prejudices of the bourgeoisie against the poor are reified in formal law codes, sometimes approved by "representative" governments, and then used to justify the brutality needed to harness the labour-power of the poor to the apparatus of capitalist accumulation. These prejudices can be millennia old. Interestingly, this ancient pedigree can be seen in the very word at the heart of the controversy. "Democracy" is an oft invoked concept these days, but one about which there is not always a great deal of clarity. The word comes from the Greek words, Demos, meaning 'the people', and kratos , meaning 'power'. In the ancient world the term 'democracy' would have been used by elites as a pejorative for a kind of polis where the "common man", especially those with no property, had a voice in the government. Thus, 'democracy' translates as "the force of the people". Though, one must mention here that Demos does not refer to "the people" in the way modern readers will likely infer. The demos refers to the body of native-born adult male citizens of the polis. And, even more specifically it is used to refer to those native-born adult males wealthy enough to afford the hoplite panoply.
In the ancient world, 'demokratia' was invoked by elites in much the same way that the term 'anarchy' is used by elites today. However, the word 'anarchy' comes from the Greek 'an', a prefix implying the negation of what follows, and 'archos', meaning 'ruler'. Thus, 'an archos' translates as "without a ruler". The difference is that a ruler has some kind of legitimacy on their side, whether they are a tyrannos or a basileus. A demokratia, on the other hand, has no, and can have no, legitimacy at all; it is by definition an illegitimate regime, based on use of force by the majority of the worst people against the minority of the best people. One finds this echoed in the Romans' use of the concepts of libertas and licentia. The former refers to the legitimate power of the senatorial class to make the law, and to dominate the most important functions of the state. The latter referred to the illegitimate use of force by the lower classes against the nobility. A political regime imposed by, and for the Plebian order, in the eyes of the Patricians, could never be said to act with or from libertas, even though they were acknowledged to be free men and Roman citizens. A political regime dominated by the Plebian order could only ever be said to act from licentia, that is, from wantonness, lust, and instinct. The Plebians could never act from freedom, because they are led around by their dominant pursuits, pleasure and luxury, thus they can only act from licentia.
Suchlike forms of prejudiced language are still an integral part of the acting out of the comedy of guilt in capitalist society. This is because these vocabularies help elites ritually express their rationalizations for sacrifice, and thus absolve themselves of guilt. Only once they have been self-absolved can the moral guilt of sacrificing an unwilling victim be dissolved in the mind of the elite, who have always been the ones who organized and performed sacrifice. The comedy of guilt must be continually re-performed in order for the ruling class of capitalist society to square the circle implicit in Burkett's question; How can that which is not a gift be a sacrifice? By shifting blame for the problems and peril associated with poverty and precariousness onto the poor and exploited, the elite are able to turn unwilling victims into consenting sacrificial animals. So, when the process of capital accumulation requires the consumption, degradation, and exploitation of human life, as it inherently does, elites are ready with a bevy of convenient rationalizations that deflect blame; and, in a way that allows elites to continue to feel good about enjoying their opulence, even amidst appalling poverty. The ideology of the elite has always been flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the ritual comedy of guilt. Medieval Christian rulers found a way to rationalize the exploitation and persecution of Jews for profit; early modern Europeans found a way to rationalize the Atlantic slave trade; contemporary Americans have, in this illustrious tradition, found a way to rationalize a school to prison pipeline and prison-industrial complex that continues the super-exploitation of black and brown bodies which has fueled the capitalist development of the, now, "developed" countries.
Marx, Karl. "Manifesto of the Communist Party". The Marx & Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker.:473
For excellent resources on the religion of ancient Greece see Burkett, Walter. Greek Religion. 1977. Trans. John Raffan. Harvard University Press, 1985. Also see Meineck, Peter. "When Gods Walked the Earth: Myths of Ancient Greece". Barnes & Noble Audio. Portable Professor Series: 2005.
Scholarly opinion is divided on this question. Though there are literary references to human sacrifice, e.g. Achilles' sacrifice of Trojan captives during the funeral of Patroclus, there is as yet no archeological evidence of the practice of human sacrifice among the Greeks.