Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!
On page 100 of EFE, Becker takes on The Mystery of Sacrifice. I must admit that I learned a lot from Thorstein Veblen about recognizing assumptions and separating them out from research findings. There’s no question that Becker makes loads of assumptions about value in his work. Even his concept of evil is based on a view that he must have about non-evil or good. For him, evil is often measured by the wonton destruction of human life and environmental destruction. His assumption is that human life has intrinsic value and should not be destroyed in the name of an ideology of immortality. The ‘should’ there is the key to understanding Becker’s moral assumption here. In the world of animals, there is a great deal of killing and sometimes for the equivalent of an immortality project. When a wandering male lion challenges the dominant male in a lion pride and kills him, he also kills the cubs so that the females will immediately go into heat and bear his cubs. He instinctively knows that his genes are superior to his defeated foe’s and must therefore be the ones to take the pride into the future. In fact, lions are much more predictable than humans in their behaviour, but not entirely. We often feel that the world is driven by irrationality. I mean how else explain the 1994 Rwandan massacre or what’s happening in Syria today. However, according to Alex Comfort, as Becker points out, “the Freudian revolution in thought…revealed to us that the irrational had structure and so we could begin to understand it.” (p. 101)
For Becker and many others before him, such as Brown and Mumford, to whom he acknowledges an intellectual debt, sacrifice is a barter with the gods. It’s an acknowledgment of the “pitiful finitude and powerlessness of man in the face of the mysterium trememdum of the universe, the immensity of what transcends him and negates his significance.” (p. 101)
Sacrifice, then is not an ‘irrational aberration,’ but a basic human reflex of truth, a correct expiation of natural guilt.
If one feels blocked, immobilized, guilty in a word, the solution is to expiate that guilt and reassert the flow of life by sacrificing life to the gods. The gods give life, but they want the sacrifice of life in return or their gift giving may just dry up. Gift giving must be reciprocal between the gods and us. Now, of course, the expiation of our guilt is a social-political affair. People are quite willing to put up with much tyranny “because of its rewards not only to their stomachs but also to their souls.” (p. 101) Becker writes:
They support tyranny by willingly marching off to war, not only because that reduces the frustration they feel at home toward authority, not only because it enables them to project their hatreds on the enemy, but also because it expiates their guilt. How else explain the parents that we read about during each war who, when told about the tragic death if their son, have expressed regret that they had not more to give? This is the age-old essence of primitive gift giving; it chills us only by the nature of the sacrifice that they make so willingly and by the secondhand god to whom it is offered – the nation-state. But it is not cynical or callous: in guilt one gives with a melting heart and choking tears because one is guilty, one is transcended by the unspeakable majesty and superlativeness of the natural and cultural world, against which one feels realistically humbled; by giving one draws oneself into that power and emerges one’s existence with it.
Of course, there may be choking tears and genuine gratitude to the gods for providing us with life, but there is celebration in sacrifice too. A scapegoat, in the original meaning of the word was really a goat over which a ritual was performed so that all the tribe’s uncleanliness and weakness was transferred to the goat which was then killed or run off leaving the village clean.
Men spill blood because it makes their hearts glad and fills out their organisms with a sense of vital power; ceremoniously killing captives is a way of affirming power over life, and therefore over death.
We want to feel as though we have casual control over powerful forces. Becker notes that Detroit car makers sell power and speed –“with their businessman’s realism about the truth of life –“ (p. 102) They knew that to sell cars they would be wasting their time talking about how great their cars were on gas. It’s no coincidence that car ads on TV always show the manufacturer’s car with no other car in sight barreling down a highway, the driver with not a care in the world. Perfect control. The sacrifice in this case may be personal indebtedness but what is more important, having a sense of power driving a special car or living a prosaic, meek, invisible life with nothing obvious to show how great a person you are? We feel guilt for driving an inferior vehicle or getting stuck in traffic unlike those fortunate, strong people in the car ads who apparently never experience traffic jams.
To bring this to an end for today, I think this quote from Becker is appropriate:
…if you kill your enemy, your life is affirmed because it proves that the gods favor you.
Does this analysis make any sense to you in trying to figure out what Harper and the conservatives are doing in Canada? Harper is desperate to know that the gods of capital favour him. He seems to be willing to sacrifice everything for that to happen. Whatever it takes.