Part I: Mimesis and Economics


Girard famously distinguishes two kinds of desire.  The first is “romantic” desire, the kind of desire most people take to be the normal definition for human desire. There are certain natural desires, and aggression is a distortion from outside of those basic human desires which need to be satisfied.  Thanks to modernity, the Self who has these natural desires can now be “liberated” to express them freely.  Girard calls this the “Romantic Lie.”

Instead, borrowing from Hegel, but also shifting his analysis, Girard thinks of human desire as mimetic.  This means that human desire does not actually know what it wants.  Human desire is shown what it wants by the desires of another person.  Desire is formed by observing what it is that another wants, and making that the object of one’s desire.  He asks us to consider any child’s play room.  Most kids grow quite uninterested in their own toys after a few days or weeks.  If, however, another child comes over and gets excited about what he sees, suddenly the owner will discover anew that he actually does “want” that toy after all, quite a bit.  Desire has been stirred by mimesis.

I for one think that Girard is fundamentally right.  And I also think that the basic analysis of desire outlined above gets us far in a correct analysis of the problems of the modern market. As long as you accept the Romantic Lie, you will essentially be a liberal, faithful to the idea that free market “frees” us up to pursue what we desire. As long as we all pursue our desires according to enlightened self-interest, we will all be happy.

Yes, if the Romantic Lie were true.  But if you open up a market this way to creatures whose desire works mimetically, then what do you have?  Trouble.  Desire is not “natural” but produced, and whoever is most efficient at producing desire wins. Welcome to the modern “free” market, where advertising rules the day.  Whoever has the most money to advertise sells the most, whatever the quality of the goods may be.

I raise this point to apply it to Caritas in Veritate. My contention is that Benedict is in clear continuity with Centesimus Annus with one important clarification, where Benedict takes up the social thought of John Paul II and deepens it.  John Paul II spoke of three sections of society: civil society, the state, and the market.  Each of these must interact in order for there to be a proper understanding of the common good.  Benedict agrees, and deepens the analysis.  Notice the following quotation from paragraph 37:

The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.

Benedict is working with the same three categories as John Paul, and he speaks of each of them as a logic.  Market logic needs political logic and gift logic.  Gift logic is nothing other than the logic of family life, since this is the foundation of civil society.  This may seem a throwaway line, and those of the Weigel bent seem to think that all the stuff about gratuity in the encyclical is compromise stuff to those bad “social justice” people.  But I see this line as the heart of what Benedict is doing. Since his World Day of Peace address in 2008, he has made the family and ecology some of his central concerns.  This is because without gift logic, the others all fall apart.


Let’s stay on track. Without gift logic, market logic falls apart.  This is not just because the family teaches us to be nice to one another, and so we will also be nice in our workplace.  In a healthy family, a child learns that, because his desire is mimetic, he must learn to structure his desire around what is best for the whole. A healthy child, without being aware of this, will learn, not to counteract mimesis — this is impossible — but rather to channel it through the desires of the parents which are self-sacrificial and directed toward the good of the whole.  The Common Good thus incorporates human mimetic desire in a way that Enlightened Self-Interest based on the Romantic Lie is unable to do.  Because the liberal model is based on a false understanding of desire, the whole thing falls apart.

Thus, capitalism must form around the family, not the family around capitalism. This hasn’t happened of course, and we are the worse off for it.  The best way this can happen is through family gift mimesis translated into civil society by means of what Benedict calls vocation. This vocation requires discernment.  So I will turn to these categories as economic ones in the following post.  I’ll finish with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton on this matter from the essay Three Foes of the Family:

It cannot be too often repeated that what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism. No doubt it might have been Communism, if Communism had ever had a chance, outside that semi-Mongolian wilderness where it actually flourishes. But so far as we are concerned, what has broken up households and encouraged divorces, and treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favor of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers. It is not the Bolshevist but the Boss, the publicity man, the salesman and the commercial advertiser who have, like a rush and riot of barbarians, thrown down and trampled under foot the ancient Roman statue of Verecundia.

Nathan O’Halloran, SJ

3 Responses to Part I: Mimesis and Economics

  1. Mason Slidell says:

    I think the points you make in your analysis are revealed well in the current health care debate. The debate between Republicans and Democrats is focused on words that are taken from market logic: access, rationing, employer-based, cost control, system efficiency, etc. If these words serve as the basis of the conversation, then health care is a commodity of the market and is therefore an “other.” The debate is centered then on the best way to rangle it into submission either by market forces or governmental forces. The underlying principle, from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching, is that health care is guarantee sustained by the gift logic (teaching both good care for the body and medical care for the sick and dying) learned in the family and buttressed by the culture. Instead, it is a privilege, maybe a privilege for a few or for all, but a privilege nonetheless.

  2. Matt Talbot says:

    Fascinating start, Fr. Nathan. I look forward to part 2.

  3. Jonah Signpost says:

    Interesting post.

    Girard seems to be spot on when it comes to desire. Desire are never 100 % driven by enlightened self-interest. Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008 many questions have revolved in my mind, I see all the inflated assets, for example; massive leverage (credit through money printing) bidding prices of existing buildings and assets up. I think it is an indicator that people do not use money to delegate economic activity to create wealth, instead they are speculating and destroying wealth like there is no tomorrow. If the family is not there, there is no tomorrow. But hey, how surprised people will be when they will notice that there is a tomorrow!

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