The Political Economy of Scapegoating




ussr-vs-isis1Scapegoating is as old a tactic as political power itself, and a vital tool in the perpetuation of political, economic and social privilege. James Madison, the Father of the US Constitution, expressed a great truism about state power when he described its fundamental role as being to defend ‘the minority of the opulent from the majority.’ What Madison neglected to mention was that the defense of the minority of the opulent against the majority tended to entrench and exacerbate social and economic inequality. This in turn precipitated social chaos as inequality and disorder exacerbated social and class conflict, threatening the stability of the system as a whole.


Faced with this situation, the minority of the opulent required some mechanism or other to neutralize social conflict and ensure stability without having to address its root causes in the defense of their economic and social privileges from economic democracy and social justice. They needed to be able to establish and maintain a state of peace without justice, a state long understood to be synonymous with tyranny. Whether the tyranny concerned was that of an individual autocrat, or a class of them, the same problem remained; what the minority of the opulent needed in effect was an ideological safety valve to take the pressure away of actually existing social conflicts and tensions and divert them onto a scapegoat, onto one or another ideological punching bag for the shortcomings of a society devoted to maintaining the minority of the opulent in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.


Its Machiavellian tenor notwithstanding, a characteristic that has threatened here and there to give it away, the great strength of the ideological safety value throughout the centuries has been its adaptability; while the form taken by the safety valve any particular period of history has been unique to that incarnation, the essential dynamics have always remained the same. Arthur Miller demonstrated as much when he caught it in the spotlight with The Crucible, drawing an adroit parallel between the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthyist Red Scare politics of the 1950s. Unfortunately the ideological safety valve slipped the noose, being allowed to run amok throughout the Cold War before reappearing once again as the defining feature of the official US reaction to the 9-11 attacks.


Perhaps part of the explanation for the longevity of the ideological safety valve lies in the fact that it is only in the last few decades that it has come to be recognized for what it what is, in this instance by sociologists concerned with the recurring phenomenon of what we today call moral panics. This being the case, it becomes far easier to track the history of the scapegoating mechanism backwards. As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, this ideological safety valve is one with an ancient vintage, each new incarnation of the ideological safety valve tending to innovate on the previous incarnation, Moreover, each new incarnation of the exact same ideological safety valve invoked in defense of the minority of the opulent seems often to contain elements of older ones so as to resonate with a ready-primed, if not especially self-aware, audience, and bury its message of fear deep in the back passageways of the collective unconscious.


We find the roots of the scare-mongering dynamics associated with moral panics, the ideological safety valve and the defense of the minority of the opulent from the majority in what historian Norman Cohn described as an ‘ancient fantasy.’ The essence of the fantasy, what we might describe these days as a propaganda trope or cultural motif, was, as Cohn wrote, that ‘there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human’ (Europe’s Inner Demons, ix).

The fantasy changed, became more complex, down through the centuries. It played an important part in some major persecutions; and the way in which it did also varied. Sometimes it was used merely to legitimate persecutions that would have occurred anyway; sometimes it served to widen persecutions that would otherwise have remained far more limited. In the case of the great [European] witchhunt it generated a massive persecution, which would have been inconceivable without it. In pursuing its history one is led far beyond the confines of the history of ideas and deep into the sociology and social psychology of persecution (ibid).


It is in fact this concern with the horrific and oft-bloody consequences of historical events like the European Witch Hunts that has been the driving force for research into the technical aspects of moral panics — in particular, ‘deviance production’ in sociology and ‘moral disengagement’ in social psychology. Sociological research into the ‘production of deviance’ has been based on the fact that deviance is a product of the power to impose a particular interpretation of the meaning of ‘deviance’ on popular discourse at any given moment, as opposed to any particular characteristic, activity or behavior associated with anyone thus labeled. Along the same lines, research in social psychology into moral disengagement has focused on the various psychological devices by which we disable the mechanisms of self-condemnation in order to reconstruct actions that might otherwise be interpreted as immoral, harmful, dangerous, irresponsible or even criminal to maintain a positive self-image (or put more simply, the bullshit stories we tell ourselves to neutralize our consciences by tricking them into thinking we’re good people when we’re not). This approach recognizes that we rarely reject the idea of morality out of hand, merely apply it selectively.


Sociological approaches to studies of moral panics help us to understand various manifestations of moral panic for the ideological safety valves they are by looking at the ways various social issues are overblown and turned into pretexts for repression. Stuart Hall et al for example describe what they call a ‘signification spiral’ that results in the production of a deviant as scapegoat for social ills created in the service of the minority of the opulent: a) The intensification of a particular issue; b) The identification of a subversive minority’; c) ‘Convergence’ or the linking by labeling of the specific issue to other problems; d) The notion of ‘thresholds’ which, once crossed, can lead to further escalation of the problem’s ‘menace’ to society; e) The element of explaining and prophesying, which often involves making analogous references to the United States – the paradigm example; f) The call for firm steps (Policing the Crisis, 220).


Complementing and enhancing this sociological approach, research into moral disengagement has made a vital contribution to our understanding of the ideological safety valve to the extent that it reveals how the production of deviance functions in practice to facilitate persecution of ideological scapegoats. Typically, we ‘disengage’ from the targets of blame-shifting, political persecution and ideologically-driven scapegoating though such strategies as playing the victim, blaming the victim, and invoking the “with us or against us” fallacy so as to conflate being doubted, contradicted, questioned, challenged or criticized with attacks on our person. In many ways, this latter mechanism is the cornerstone of moral disengagement and one of its most powerful mechanisms, particularly insofar as the logic of ‘if you think for yourself the deviant practitioners of evil win’ provides an initial pretext for all the others.


One way or the other then, the function of moral disengagement mechanisms is largely to (1) reconstruct immoral conduct, (2) displace or diffuse responsibility, (3) misrepresent injurious consequences as beneficial to the victim, and (4) dehumanize the victim. Additional strategies include euphemistic labeling (‘collateral damage’); advantageous comparison (‘I hit Saddam with the plastic spade in the sandpit because he hit me first’); displacement of responsibility (‘just following orders’); diffusion of responsibility (‘everyone does it’); and disregard or distortion of consequences (‘they love it’). Defenders of the minority of the opulent can use any or all of these psychological mechanisms to establish a rationale for targeting under cover of moral panic those whom they feel threatened, having demonized them as deviants from whom society needs rescuing in one manner or another.


We need not look too hard to find historical examples of Cohn’s ‘ancient fantasy’ as ideological safety value in practice. The aforementioned experience of the European Witch Hunts was so protracted in its wanton and brutal dispensing of state terror and mass murder that it now serves as an archetype or cultural trope for any scare campaign perpetrated in the process in particular of defending the indefensible; when someone is ganged up on by cowards on the basis of lies and falsehoods they are ‘witch hunted.’ Two main historical factors serve otherwise to demonstrate the continuing historical significance of the Witch Hunts:


1) Their instrumental role in rescuing the social and economic tendencies in Europe responsible for sewing the seeds of modern capitalism from peasant movements pursuing alternative models of economic democracy built around the commons, as feminist historian Silvia Federici has documented in her seminal work Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia, NY);


2) Their instrumental role in invoking what I call ‘the wages of patriarchy,’ after David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (Verso) which discusses the role token privileges given to the white working class in capitalist societies plays in fuelling intra-class ethnic divisions and entrenching the hierarchical social order dominated by the minority of the opulent.


As a protracted scare campaign waged as part of the massive waves of social warfare that occurred throughout Western Europe during the medieval era (eg the English Peasant Revolt of 1381, the French Jacquerie, the Flemish peasant revolts, the Peasant War in Germany), the gendered nature of the persecutions under the European Witch Hunts paid male peasants a ‘gender wage’ insofar as it spared them burning at the stake — the classic tactic of state terror designed to demonstrate to all and sundry what happened to those who opposed the minority of the opulent. The Witch Hunters operated their persecutions through the secular courts of Europe rather than the church-controlled ecclesiastical ones, a most telling fact about the class nature of the European Witch Hunts when we remember that no such thing as democratic franchise existed during the Middle Ages.


As a means of class warfare, the witch persecutions functioned as a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy in the classic sense of the term. In fact the ‘wages of patriarchy’ worked and continue to work exactly the same way as the ‘wages of whiteness,’ a fact that ought to be the cause of sober reflection in English-speaking countries outside of Western Europe founded on colonialism and genocide and that continue to be characterized by marked inequality and social chaos.


Thankfully, the roots of the witch-panic fuelling the European Witch Hunts are quite well understood. The hateful stereotype of the old hag on a broomstick, a specifically female folk demon whose purported role as Bride of Satan was to aid the execution of the latter’s diabolical plot against God, a goal she would achieve by carrying out maleficarum, or evil works, did not simply fall out of the sky, no more so than the dynamics and processes associated with moral panics as such. On the contrary, the roots of the witch stereotype originate back at least as far as the Roman Empire before Constantine, when the Pagan authorities persecuted the Christian minority on the basis of myths that Christians themselves adopted later for exactly the same purpose when the aforementioned adopted Christianity as the state religion.


‘The stereotype of the witch, as it existed in many parts of Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,’ wrote our historian benefactor Norman Cohn, ‘is made up of elements of diverse origin . . . some of these derived from a specific fantasy which can be traced back to Antiquity.’ (ibid, ix.) Illustrating the application of the ‘ancient fantasy’ to the witch panic, Cohn quotes a pagan description of early Christians in the following terms:


I am told that, moved by some foolish urge, they consecrate and worship the head of a donkey, that most abject of all animals . . . Others say that they reverence the genitals of the presiding priest himself, and adore them as if they were their father’s . . . As for the initiation of new members, the details are as disgusting as they are well known. A child, covered in dough as to deceive the unwary, is set before a would-be novice. The novice stabs the child to death with invisible blows; indeed he himself, deceived by the coating dough, thinks his stabs harmless. Then — it’s horrible! — they hungrily drink the child’s blood, and complete with one another as they divide his limbs. (ibid, 1).


In this example, we find the foundational tropes of Cohn’s ancient fantasy as it appeared in Roman times: the diabolical feast and the incestuous orgy. Similar tropes appear even earlier in fables concerning the Bacchanalia. Ironically enough, they appear again later in texts written by orthodox Christians integrated into the Roman state.


One such text comes from Psellos, a ‘leading Byzantine statesman’ from Constantinople and author of a Greek dialogue entitled On the Operation of the Demons. In demonising dissident religious groups such a the Paulicians, who had split from the official church with a view to recovering what they felt was the spiritual vitality of early Christianity through more non-hierarchical approaches, Psellos turns the tables on his persecutors by applying the ancient fantasy to a religious context as a pretext for attacking religious dissent. Psellos’s target in this case was the Bogomiles, another minority Gnostic sect who shared heretic status along with the now-minority pagans who were likewise guilty of thinking differently. The basic elements of Cohn’s ancient fantasy are unmistakable:


In the evening, when the candles are lit, at the time when we celebrate the redemptive Passion of Our Lord, they bring together, in a house appointed for the purpose, young girls whom they have initiated into their rites. Then they extinguish the candles, so that the light shall not be witness to their abominable deeds, and throw themselves lasciviously on the girls; each one on whomever first falls into his hands, no matter whether she be his sister, his daughter or his mother. For they think they are doing something that greatly pleases the demons by transgressing God’s laws, which forbid marriage between blood relatives. When this rite has been completed, each goes home; and after waiting nine months, until the time has come for the unnatural children of such unnatural seed to be born, they come together again at the same place. Then on the third day after the birth, they tear the miserable babies from their mothers’ arms. They cut their tender flesh all over with sharp knives and catch the stream of blood in basins. They throw the babies, still breathing and gasping, onto the fire, to be burned to ashes. After which, they mix the ashes with the blood in the basins and so make an abominable drink, with which they secretly pollute their food and drink, like those who mix poison with hippocras or other sweet drinks. Finally they partake of these foodstuffs; and not they alone but others also, who know nothing of their hidden proceedings (ibid, 19).


These two examples of scare mongering demonstrate the adaptability of the ancient fantasy as ideological safety valve, as does their adaptation to the changing needs of persecutors and persecuted. Changing fortunes precipitate a reversal of roles, persecuted becoming the persecutors in a way that bears parallels with more modern conflicts (particularly around the Middle East). The same was demonstrated again as proponents of primitive mercantilism amongst the opulent minority found themselves at loggerheads with proponents of primitive communalism amongst the dispossessed classes of the peasantry, many of whom expressed their desire for social justice in religious dissent (‘heresy’), or outright apostasy.


As a pretext for repression and ideological persecution, the utility of the Bride of Satan stereotype built on the power of previous incarnations of Cohn’s ‘ancient fantasy’ to drive a wedge between the class enemy by using women’s sexuality as a weapon against them. The Malleus Maleficarum (Witches’ Hammer), the medieval witch hunter’s handbook penned by the acutely unhinged Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, demonises female sexuality as the root cause of such evils as miscarriages, the wiping out of harvests and the affliction of men and women ‘with terrible ailments, both inner and outer’ (1A). Kramer’s deeply misogynistic invective accuses women of being prone to sexual temptation by Satan and accordingly becoming his willing accomplice due to weaknesses of character purportedly inherent to their gender. Predictably enough, these are described in terms that suggest the same lack of self-restraint as those precipitating the bloody feast and licentious orgy of earlier times — a more carnal disposition and diminished capacity for religious faith.


The Bride of Satan or witch stereotype also cast the minority of the opulent as victims of those who dared resist the oppressiveness of medieval hierarchies, or voice a desire for social justice, especially through religious dissent. For the female half of the target population, the scapegoating dynamics of the European Witch Hunts had the effect of blaming peasant women for existing on the one hand, and on the other for resisting moves by the minority of the opulent to maintain and extend their power — particularly through the enclosure movement in England — at the expense of the atypical levels of freedom the peasantry of Western Europe enjoyed in the latter stages of the Middle Ages. For the male half of the target population, the Witch Hunts gave them with additional temptation to accept the wages of patriarchy, abandon their social responsibilities to their female comrades, and victim-blame. Modern ignorance of the vision of economic democracy spurring medieval peasant movements indicates the degree of success of the application of the ideological safety valve in the archetypal form, as does the general level of sexism and misogyny in what passes for civilization.


Of additional relevance is the fact that the targeting of women during the European Witch Hunts and the demonization of female sexuality had another function, that of incorporating the enemy class of landed peasantry into a new work regimen known as the wage system, and 2) sourcing and exploiting means of startup capital from which to kick-start the cycle of capitalist production. In actual fact these two goals were opposite sides of the same process, known to modern political economists as ‘primitive accumulation’ (see Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism). As it was developed by the nascent capitalist classes of the period between the end of the Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Era, the process of primitive accumulation took three main forms:


  • Colonisation of the feudal commons via enclosures, an act that first forced the landed peasantry out of the economic self-sufficiency they had been habituated to throughout the feudal era as the cornerstone of subsistence production, first into agrarian wage labour and then into the cities to become industrial wage slaves;


  • Military acquisition of colonial possessions for exploitation of land and human resources (see Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life);


  • Colonisation of the female body as a means of breeding factory fodder for exploitation in industry via the wage system and war fodder for the military acquisition of colonial possessions; the extirpation from women in general of the habit of freedom and their subjugation for the purpose of being rendered brood mares for capital and the state.


In this context the adaptation of the ancient fantasy and the ideological safety valve as a weapon of social and class warfare in a time far closer to our own follows a set pattern, though naturally by this stage the stereotype of the witch had long faded into the realm of fairy tale. The fact is well established by Edward Herman (The Real Terror Network) and Noam Chomsky (Deterring Democracy, numerous others) amongst others that ‘War on Terror’ mythology did not begin spontaneously with the 9-11 attacks as the pretense of their reaction suggested, but rather in the 1980s as a product of the tail end of the Cold War. In this instance, Reagan was fond of linking conflict in the region to the purported machinations of the Evil Empire:



There is no doubt that far more than simply arming the PLO, the Soviets had made Lebanon the center of Soviet activity in the Middle East . . . Based on documents they had captured, it was clear that a terror network sponsored by the Soviets and involving Hungary, Bulgaria, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Pakistan, India, the People’s Republic of China, East Germany and Austria were all involved in assisting the PLO (Mattia Tolado, The Origins of the US War on Terror, 82).



If you resist the settler colonialism of those who colonize, persecute and then play the victim on the basis of having been persecuted historically themselves following exactly the same manner as the Christians of two millennia ago, the communist terrorists win. The ‘ancient fantasy’ as ideological safely value cum scare mongering and moral panic, with all that involved in terms of the production of deviance and moral disengagement, was and remains as strong as ever.


As the quote from Reagan reveals, the Terror Scare, the global moral panic over terrorism that characterized the US response to the 9-11 attacks, was built on Reaganite ‘War on Terror’ mythology in the same way that the Cold War was built on the ‘Domino’ Theory of encroaching communism — the peril of an exterior threat a classic example of Cohn’s ‘ancient fantasy,’ and thus of the ideological safety valve. Its reappearance here, as with other examples throughout history, merely serves to demonstrate its continuing value as a means of spreading state terror, shutting down rational thought, driving the population thus panicked into the arms of tyrants and reconstructing state power such that those responsible for deploying the ideological safety valve, in presenting themselves as The Salvation of All That is Good from the Evil Others from Outside, thus become cures of the problems for which their defense of the minority of the opulent is ultimately the cause.


A social order based on privilege and justice, and whose very existence depends on lies and dishonesty, can hardly appeal to reason or the better angles of human nature when looking to get itself out of hot water. The defenders of the minority of the opulent must look instead to the ‘ancient fantasy’ and the ideological safety valve for a pretext for blame shifting and repression. To date it has been extremely effective at rescuing the minority of the opulent from basic accountability and ownership for the consequences of their actions as a succession of ruling classes, a fact that would appear to account for its popularity across two millennia. The fact that their victims are forgetful does not help matters much, though we can easily redress the situation by refusing to further neglect our own history.



Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne. He is researching moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating, ‘the oldest trick in the book.’

This article was originally published in Counterpunch, vol. 22 no. 8 (2015).





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