Excess, Violence, and Us

If oil-fouled little birds can’t fly beyond the rainbow why, oh, why would I?

Last night, my reading was repeatedly interrupted by explosions as people around me celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and firecrackers. As the noise continued for what seemed a long time, the word “excess” came to mind: an excess of violent noise, I thought sadly and with some irritation, celebrates the violent excess of war. But I realized, too, that the relationship between violence and excess is much subtler and more intimate than is evident in war’s intentional destruction—and that, as Slavoj Žižek notes, excess, with its violence, is the animating spirit of our society.

A certain excess which was, as it were, kept under check in previous history, perceived as a local perversion, a limited deviation, is in capitalism elevated into the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money, of a system which can survive only by constantly revolutionizing its own conditions, that is to say, in which the thing can survive only as its own excess, constantly exceeding its own “normal” constraints.1

I recalled then an article in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article, “The Food Bubble,” is subtitled “How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it.”2 Its author, Frederick Kaufman, describes the process by which wealthy investors and banks, seeking new forms of speculation in order to “beget” even more money for themselves, began some years ago to speculate on “futures” of staple food, particularly wheat. By repeatedly betting that wheat prices would rise higher and higher, they made the prices do just that; as a result, millions of the world’s poor could not afford the wheat they needed to survive. People who already possessed wealth far in excess of their needs, driven to even greater excess by, I can only assume, the kind of “mimetic desire” and rivalry of which René Girard writes,3 kept food from millions of human beings, human beings whose harsh poverty—which the wealthy can alleviate at any time they care—had perforce kept them innocent of the lust for excess that drives their respectable, well-fed, self-absorbed killers. Such is the blind, violent injustice of excess.

As I was considering those things, an aircraft passed invisibly but audibly overhead, and, painfully aware that the broken BP rig continues to spew millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico, I allowed my thoughts to turn to our excessive use of oil. Based on some Boeing statistics from a few years ago, I estimate that there are more than a million and a half commercial flights every month—every month! Where are all those people (more than a billion each year) going? Aren’t many of them traveling somewhere in order to “have a good time”—that is, to play? Or, ironically, to enact “family values” by visiting relatives, perhaps during a holiday season? As they fly off, as one conservation-oriented Web site4 puts it, to a warmer climate, how much petroleum are they burning, and how much are they contributing to polluting the planet and changing the climate? Are they at all aware of the violence they are helping to perpetrate against the earth and its living things, against, in fact, their own offspring, whose fuel is being depleted and whose environment is being wrecked? Is this not another example of the mindless violence of excess? (Here I become aware of the irony of my being alerted to the role of excess by the frequent flyer Žižek.) And in our over-privileged societies it is not only the wealthy who travel unnecessarily. An unquestioned but murderous excess is, indeed, “the very principle of [our] social life.”

The Quaker tradition speaks of a very different principle of life, the principle to which a Friend referred yesterday in worship, echoing the saintly Quaker John Woolman, as “universal love.”5 René Girard’s work can remind us that the love in which we Friends believe that we believe6 is the love that eschews violence and seeks to end the victimization of the powerless. As Woolman would not wear dyed clothing or eat food made by slave labor, can we not refuse, as best we can, to participate in the socially-sanctioned, often unnoticed, and yet horrendous violence of excess in our financial, familial, and recreational pursuits? As a people expressly committed to heeding the call of the holy spirit of nonviolence and simplicity, a spirit which radically calls into question capitalism’s “call to enjoyment,”7 how do we live in a society driven by the deadly principle of excess?


  1. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 297. (The MIT Press, 2006.) (I believe that Žižek is quoting himself here from his earlier “Lenin’s Choice” afterword in Revolution at the Gates.)
  2. Harper’s Magazine, July 2010, pp. 27 – 34.
  3. See http://www.cottet.org/girard/desir1.en.htm.
  4. http://www.chooseclimate.org/flying/mf.html
  5. John Woolman (1720-1772), “A Plea for the Poor, or A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich.”
  6. I am reframing Vattimo’s famous phrase as query and challenge here. See Gianni Vattimo, Belief (original Italian title, Credere di credere). (Stanford University Press, 1999.)
  7. Žižek, op. cit., p. 299.

3 thoughts on “Excess, Violence, and Us

  1. I appreciate this post. Part of my spiritual practice, maybe the most important part of it, has been my decision to abstain, within my powers, from that which I know to cause harm or suffering. I don’t pretend to be perfect at this, but I also don’t pretend that my imperfection excuses my responsibility to renew this commitment every morning. I am not isolated in this, thankfully. My family is very supportive. I have also found online communities of people similarly motivated toward this type of activism. I think people assume that giving up stuff is a painful, guilt-ridden exercise. I have not found it to be so especially with the support of people who share information as well as good humor and encouragement. To me, it is the humor that moves simplicity from harsh obligation to joyful challenge.

  2. I find that support is very helpful in this, and I thank you for expressing it and talking about communities of support. I have found that writing about this can result in being told I am naive, that I need to realize that individuals can do nothing of any significance — that I should join Garrison Keillor, for example, in the attitude that “if we cannot stop ourselves or tolerate government making us stop or slow down, then I suppose we should enjoy the ride” (see here). Even good friends look away when I speak about curtailing pleasure trips. But “we cannot stop ourselves” from waging war, either, and yet we Friends continue to free ourselves from that compulsion. I don’t know whether there’s hope or not, but I remember Thomas Merton’s words to James Forest, which speak not only to detachment from results but also to the essential value of relationship and community:

    Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

    • George,
      That Thomas Merton quote says well what I have been thinking so much but have been unable to articulate. I’ve been trying to say that I choose to do what I think is right just because it is right and when it comes right down to it, I tend to think of individuals who might suffer less or be made slightly more joyful. Sometimes it feels like we make so little difference but one of my experiences gives me great hope. When I was a little girl, I decided that it was very important to work to save wolves. I started a society of child-writers/researchers. I collected money to give to a wildlife organization. I invited a man who owns hybrid wolves to bring his wolves to my elementary school so the other children would learn to love them too. I also told my uncle, a big game hunter, about my feelings. One day he came back from a trip in Alaska and told me about how he had a perfect opportunity to shoot a wolf. “But I thought of you and I let him go.” One life saved. It is a beginning, isn’t it?

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