We live under what Eric Gans has called a “victimocracy,” a political and cultural system trenchantly laid bare in its British form by Ben Cobley in The Tribe. The heart of the system, Cobley argues, is a binary division of society into favored and unfavored groups. Elite brokers in media, politics, and academia advance the cause of favored groups and subvert the interests of the unfavored. Group membership is marked by race, sex and sexual orientation, religion, and immigrant status, but the organizing principle of the system is victimhood. Favored groups are victims; unfavored groups are victimizers. The victimocracy reorders society to avenge designated victims.
Accusations of hate crime or racism are the brokers’ weapons of choice. After the Brexit vote in 2016, an Oxford physics professor, Joshua Silver (the broker), filed hate crime charges against Tory Home Secretary Amber Rudd (the victimizer). Her crime? In a draft of a speech, Rudd called on Parliament to tighten regulations on immigrants (the victims). If Rudd committed a hate crime, Cobley observes, then a majority of British voters are criminals. Or think Brett Kavanaugh, who is multiply disfavored (white, male, straight, Catholic); media brokers classified him as a victimizer, an enemy of women, even before Christine Blasey Ford went public.
But victimocracy is more than a politics. It’s a spirituality, a revelation (“Woke!”), a Christian heresy. Confessing a crucified Savior, Christianity stands with victims, but the victimocracy claims to surpass Christianity by defending victims—homosexuals, for example, and women—that Christianity allegedly victimized. It’s more Christian than Christianity, but takes the side of the victim not to defend the innocent so much as to bludgeon the guilty.
The victimocracy is a new substitute for the sacred. As Jean-Pierre Dupuy explains, in pre-Christian paganism, the sacred was a mechanism to manage violence and rivalry. It did this by “containing” violence, in a double sense. It kept violence within limits by permitting forms of “good violence.” Sacrifice was one of the chief rituals of the pagan sacred. It checked communal violence (it “contained” violence) by allowing sacrificial killing (violence “contained” within the system).
Following René Girard, Dupuy argues that Christianity undermines the pagan sacred. Jesus is the final sacrifice, and he is unsurpassable. There’s no going back to innocent paganism, when we blithely celebrate sacrificial violence. We still sacrifice, but usually with a bad conscience. We’re haunted by Jesus, haunted by the possibility that the scapegoats we expel may be innocent, and haunted by the fear that good violence may be just plain old violence.
Instead of returning to the past, the modern world has thrown up alternatives that, Dupuy argues, have the same structure as the pagan sacred. Classical economists defended economic activity as a way of containing violence: “Make trade, not war.” But economics curbs the violence of war by permitting the petty and not-so-petty violences of global trade. The international political order is also structured like a sacred order: International institutions prevent global war by tolerating targeted violence.
In the long run, these quasi-sacreds can’t work. The global economy multiplies opportunities for rivalry and conflict. Dupuy buttresses this point by citing Adam Smith’s arresting “specular” description of wealth: We accumulate not to meet basic needs but to be seen as wealthy by people we want to impress. (Thorstein Veblen had nothing on Smith, who knew all about conspicuous consumption.) Economics can’t dispel rivalry because rivalry is built into it.
International political order also increases opportunities for rivalry. A nation nurses resentments as its defeats and humiliations are amplified in the global media theater. Ask a terrorist why he terrorizes, and you’ll hear a tale of aggrieved victimization: He’s only doing to others what others have done to him. It’s inevitable, Dupuy argues, that “the evil of resentment—no matter which name we give to it: pride, wounded pride, envy, jealousy, hateful passion, or any other—should have devastating consequences.”
Victimocracy is yet another substitute for the sacred, a system that “contains” violence by authorizing violence—literal or metaphorical—against those identified as victimizers. It also can’t work. Girard observed that victims are locked in mimetic competition with victimizers. Victims want to destroy their oppressors, but at the same time they idolize the victimizers, longing to be free and powerful enough to victimize. Once victims gain power and take their revenge, the tables turn and former victimizers learn to play the victim, using their now-favored status to club their victimizers. Victimocracy spirals into a cyclical war of rival victimocracies.
This is the grim state of contemporary politics. I spent the past two weeks in South Africa, where the former victimizers (Afrikaners) are now threatened by their former victims (represented by the African National Congress). Many Afrikaners respond with a narrative of victimization of their own, as they try to leverage the victimocracy to their advantage. Recent American politics is also a tale of rival victimocracies. Elite brokers take up the cause of favored victims, while Trumpism inverts the victimocracy by teaching Middle American whites to see themselves as victims of elites and their clients. On the streets of Portland, aggrieved antifa activists battle aggrieved patriots with fists and baseball bats.
It’s hard to see how we can defuse victimocracy’s inevitable escalation, but maybe we can find some crumbs to mark a path to sanity. For a long time, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking politics is an amoral game of power. The prospect of clashing victimocracies should leave us with a healthy suspicion that politics dissolves into brutality unless it’s infused with what we think of as apolitical habits and virtues—humility, gentleness, forbearance, forgiveness, kindness, charity, love.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.