Robert Kurz on scapegoating, moral panics and conspiracy theory culture.
The confusion of bourgeois sentiment and the hunt for scapegoats
The most popular parlour game is the hunt for scapegoats. If something went wrong on a large scale, most often it is an imperative not to call into question the matter as such but to look for certain individuals to take the blame. It is not opportune or even possible to hold responsible hybrid objectives, destructive social relationship, or contradictory structures, rather it has to be attributed to individuals who lack in resolution or competence or even distinguish themselves malicious. It is much easier to keep heads rolling but to overthrow matters as they stand and restructure social dynamic.
The spontaneous tendency of the non-reflective consciousness to iron out troubles by shifting the blame on individuals complies with the liberal ideology: Liberalism in principle has individualised the causes of social problems. The prevailing order of the social system was raised to the nobility of a dogma to the effect that it became a law of nature, thereby unreachable and untouchable for any critical assessment. Hence, the causality of negative experience has to be located in the individuals as they are situated in their actual frame of existence. Personal hardship or failure is the fault of the particular individual concerned, individually guilty culprits or gangs of accomplices do generate social crisis and disaster. Never ever the system as such can be faulty, rather some individual has done wrong or even committed a crime.
This kind of reflection is deeply irrational but a relief for consciousness because one has not to take pains in ascertaining and being critical of the conditions of one’s own very existence. Essentially impersonal problems of the social structure and development are identified with particular individuals, social groupings etc. or shifted on them symbolically. In the Old Testament this mechanism is depicted as the making of a "scapegoat" onto whom the society symbolically shifts its sins and drives it to the desert afterwards. This technique of a superficial personalisation of problems and disaster can adopt two methods.
The first one is to cast the blame on the individuals, groups or institutions concerned. Either rank and files will denounce leaders or leading bodies as incapable duds, or, if the culprits can make it to turn the table, they in return will accuse rank and files of inefficiency, or not having the guts to pull themselves together etc. In modern politics such mechanism of apportionment of blame is in fact the concept of its mode of operation. The crowd abuses politicians and the politicians abuse the crowd. As everybody knows any opposition party will never attribute social problems to the system of politics and its underlying structure of social (re-)production but will claim that it is due to their competitors who are currently at the helms and their "wrong" policy.
The second method is even more irrational and hazardous. In general, any social problem is projected onto a single or some certain groups, which are identified as the "absolute evil" thereby serving as a concept of the universal public enemy. Any ideology - according to Marx ideology as such is always a misperception, a distorted picture of the world - puts into operation in one way or another such personalising concept of a public enemy. Even if Liberalism as the modern core-ideology is comparatively pragmatic in its search for culprits and does not hesitate to replace one "wicked" trait by another according to the circumstances (e.g. "unreasonable desires" and the laziness of the poor, "bad upbringing" and the criminals etc.), one has to face that its progeny is in fact committed to one-dimensional concepts of an universal enemy. The most vicious and momentous idée fixe hatched out in the society’s lap is anti-Semitism that culminated in the mass-murder of Jews in Nazi-Germany.
The opposite of an irrational search for culprits would be an emancipatory social criticism not aiming at particular groups of individuals but ready to transform the prevailing forms of social reproduction and social relations. And undoubtedly it is still the Marxian theory that has the largest potential to take effect in this respect. It is true that the ideas of the workers’ movement - which reached its own limitations meanwhile - in their essence were personalising as well in so far as social contradictions were rather attributed to some sort of "will for exploitation" ascribed to "the owners of the means of production" than to the blind laws and forces of the modern commodity producing system. And ironically it is just this reduced theoretical approach that can be traced back to the liberal heritage of the workers’ movement Marxism, namely the idea that whatsoever problem occurs must be due to mere intentions. However, the Marxian theory provides for a by far more sweeping approach to a "critique of the system" that really deserves to be called like that and does not confuse the structural crises with "ill-minded" individuals or social groups. Still, after the collapse of "actual existing socialism" and the triumphant advance of the neo-liberal ideology, social critique was not further elaborated along such line of thought but silenced all together. The social system and its structure became a taboo, more strictly obscured than ever before. As soon as the prevailing forms of social relations can no longer be subjected to criticism though social problems aggravate, conspiracy theories forge ahead. No wonder that over the last 20 years along with the decline of Marxism, once more racism and anti-Semitism are on the way trying to explain the misery by means of various personifications of the Evil. Even in democratic societies, politicians of the centre are searching for scapegoats quite unabashed. In Germany a book with the title "Nieten in Nadelstreifen" (duds clad in pinstripe suits), written by the business journalist Günter Ogger, became a best-seller, branding managers to be failures and declaring them, due to their collective incompetence, to be the source of the growing socio-economic disaster. However, today’s redeemers and heroes are the losers and accused of tomorrow. Some media even publish charts of "winners and losers of the week" as to politics, business, sports and showbiz. The merry-go-round for executives and leading politicians is turning faster and faster: Crisis, breakdowns and bankruptcies beat the time for "individually responsible individuals" to resign just to get replaced by others who can’t do better. Sacrificing pawns or queens can’t soothe the gloomy feeling of some universal menace; in seeking some kind of expression the sentiment gives birth to spectres. The Western societies, not longer able to reflect themselves critically, deliver anonymous mythical apparitions symbolising the elusive Evil of their very own structure.
One of these mythical apparitions of the negative is the terrorist. The more mysterious and arbitrary the bomb attacks of the confused or frustrated, of various crusaders, of warriors of god, or of Mafia-gangs seem to be, the more they resemble the blind and impersonal "terror of the economy". Long since the lines between terror-groups, state administration, and intelligence services got blurred. The democratic society catches the image of the terrorist whenever looking at the mirror. It is exactly that what qualifies the shady and dubious figure of the terrorist to externalise the resident Evil within the "society of decent Bourgeois" as an abstract foe. The mechanism of projection works mirror-inverted: As the ideologically orientated terrorist catches sight of the Evil in capitalism in gazing at the functional elite incarnate, the democratic politician conversely will explain the social insecurity as the result of a "threat by those terrorists". Both sides, terrorists and security agencies, use the method of "hunting down" individuals to proudly present the bodies like trophies to the public, staging the "terror of virtue" (Robespierre). Meanwhile the existence of terrorists, whether real or just a phantasmorgia, became the legitimising precondition for the market-economy democracies all over the world.
Quite similar is the case in respect of the myth of the speculator, beginning to blossom in the '90s simultaneously to the blowing up of the global bubble economy. As well known, the clumsy agitation against speculative gains is quite close to anti-Semitism because the latter identifies Jews with the negative aspects of money. With George Soros the myth was given the complexion of an individual, but at the same time he is epitomising an anonymous threat: The capitalist labour society has got a hunch that it is on the verge of obsolescence and projects the problem onto a personalised Evil, which allegedly is getting ready to ruin "respectable labour". The more obvious it becomes that the labour system is self-destructive with the era of speculation as a result, the direr becomes the need for a mythical subject that is ostensibly responsible. That this irrational explanation is spawned by the perception of people who bet their bottom dollar in the stock market is in fact the precondition for the incarnation of the projection. After the crash of the technology markets, media are eager to declare the "duped private investor" a victim of sinister financial powers pulling the strgs backstage.
Over the last few years while the crisis was culminating another projection is gaining ground alongside with the terrorist and the speculator: the child-abuser is the most recent incarnation of the Evil. No magical invocation of the devil can do without a sexual component. Parallel to the alleged "abuse of social welfare" by (preferably foreign) spongers, sexual abuse became a popular subject. One can hardly find a therapist who will not talk his clients into believing that they were subject to "sexual abuse" during childhood. Until now the classification of "bad uncles" is still vague, but it is impossible to miss its closeness to anti-Semitism: The Nazis made the assertion that it was Jews who made humans a commodity, at the same time depicting them as lecherous fiends chasing the innocent girls and children of the major social layer. Once again the official society has to externalise and personify one of its structural aspects as a symbol of the Evil. Most of sexual abuse cases have always taken place in the "cosy" atmosphere of sweet home. One should not forget that the Belgian child murderer Dutroux brought his victims to the most prominent circles to satisfy their lust. Capitalist society is hostile to children anyway. At the same time this form of society is hostile to lust to the core. The slogan of "sexual liberation" used by the student movements of the '60s, whose protagonists were not able to overcome the prevailing social forms, has only led to a sexualisation of the media and advertising, while the actual sex life of the commodity-consuming individual is more miserable than ever before.
The manifestation of sexual crimes as an irrational symbolisation of social contradictions thereby becomes even more venomous and malicious. Any diversity of the actual appearance is levelled out in order to conjure up the demons of persecution. In the critical debates of the 70th, sexual thrill as described in literature by authors like Vladimir Nabokov in his novel "Lolita" or Thomas Mann in "Tod in Venedig" was approved as a variant in the spectrum of sexual behaviour to be found in many civilisations - on the condition that it happened within the frame of loving care and without violence. Nowadays the staging of the "populace healthy sentiment and common sense" in the media equates this side of eroticism with child prostitution, child rape, or homicide of little children by sex offenders.
The legitimate motive to denounce and fight masculine violence against women and children, a problem exacerbating in a crisis-ridden world, turns into its opposite and transforms into a tool to demonise the phenomenon instead of criticising it, hereby barring the way to get to the root of the matter. The projective mania even stamps children as child abusers: In the USA an 18 years old youngster who ran away with his 14 years old girl friend was brought before the committing magistrate handcuffed. The same happened to an 11 years old boy being watched by a strait-laced neighbour when playing harmless doctor games with his 5 years old half sister.
The mythical apparitions of the Evil are necessary to discharge the negative energy of the social crisis in an irrational and anti-emancipatory way.
The terrorist, the speculator, and the child-abuser do have in common that they strike from the dark - so do the anonymous forces of competition. It could be everybody or nobody. Fritz Lang’s film "M - the metropolitan hunt for a murderer" (M - eine Stadt jagt einen Mörder), set in Berlin against the background of the worldwide economic crisis, has illustrated in an oppressive way how the hunt for an unidentified sex criminal melts into a mass-psychological syndrome, entailing an atmosphere of suspicion, denunciation and raving violence. The society shows up an ugly mug not in the least less terrifying than the kisser of the murderer.
Today the very same syndrome makes itself felt on a by far larger scale due to the spread of electronic means of communication. Politicians and the media pursue a course of hysterical populism touching off lynch law. When tabloids in England published the names and addresses of alleged child-abusers, a raging mob drove some of them to committing suicide and rampaged the practice of a paediatrician because of its inability to distinguish "paedophilia" from "paediatrics" (a broad hint on the quality of the British education system).
Such "events" only illustrate how far we already got with social paranoia. A society that is not interested any longer in getting on to its own secret is doomed to stage witch-hunting.
Robert Kurz, 18/03/2004.