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?
- 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.)
- Harper’s Magazine, July 2010, pp. 27 – 34.
- See http://www.cottet.org/girard/desir1.en.htm.
- John Woolman (1720-1772), “A Plea for the Poor, or A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich.”
- 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.)
- Žižek, op. cit., p. 299.