"Today, the Western world and particularly the United States appears to be in the midst of a classic Girardian sacrificial crisis. Once-reliable social institutions crumble. The public loses trust in its authorities: political, financial, legal, and medical. The new generation is poorer and sicker than the last. Few of any political persuasion believe that society is working or that we are on the right track. Reason, markets, and technology have failed to redeem their utopian promise. The gods have failed us, and we glimpse monsters emerging from their shadows: ecological collapse, nuclear armageddon, the poisoning of our bodies, minds, and world. Simmering differences and rivalries, once subsumed under a general civic consensus, take on a new intensity as each side grows more militant. As confidence wanes in the state’s capacity to hold evil at bay, latent ritualistic instincts come back to life.
Philosopher Rene Girard argued that these ritualistic instincts derive from social upheavals in which runaway cycles of vengeance – the original social disease – were converted into unifying violence against scapegoated victims. Rituals, religions, festivals, and political institutions evolved to prevent similar outbreaks from recurring.
One such ritual pattern that Girard identifies is the “antifestival,” in which “The rites of sacrificial expulsion are not preceded by a period of frenzied anarchy, but by an extreme austerity and an increased rigor in the observance of all interdicts.” In modern times this takes an extended institutional form in totalitarianism. Both Soviet communism and Nazi fascism had a strong puritanical streak, as both were hostile to anything outside their own order. Fascism is essentially an extended antifestival, and it arises, as does the antifestival, in response to looming social breakdown, real or imagined. In many societies, the priestly caste takes every opportunity to impose these rigorous interdicts, taboos, and rituals, which after all increase their own power. The best opportunity is a crisis that can be attributed to people’s sinful ways. A crisis like an earthquake, a flood, or… a plague.
We seem today to be partially emerging from an extended series of antifestivals, otherwise known as “lockdowns.” They have accompanied totalitarian tendencies and a quasi-fascistic hostility to true festivals or indeed to anything resembling public fun. Moreover, many of our public health measures bear a distinct ritualistic cast, and share with both fascism and with numerous archaic antifestivals an obsession with “pollution.”