Scapegoats and Sin Eaters

We’re taking a short philosophical detour in this post. Its aim is to extend the argument we are making about moral panic and its ritual diminishment.

The Scapegoat

The social theory of the scapegoat has been most fully developed by René Girard.

Scapegoating has its background in the human need for the resolution of conflict. Where a conflict or societal problem arises, a group, tribe or nation looks for a place to discharge that conflict. Often a person or smaller group of people within that society or outside of it becomes that target – the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is essentially a substitute. It is necessary for the scapegoater(s) to be able to lay some form of fault or blame for the problem at hand on the scapegoat, otherwise the choice of the scapegoat would appear random and the scapegoat’s ‘sacrifice’ would not be efficacious.

But it is not necessary for the scapegoat to have actually committed any wrongdoing. Fault or blame is merely imputed to the scapegoat, and s/he becomes a convenient and necessary vessel used to transport that society’s sense of fault or self-dissatisfaction (sometimes seen as ‘sin’) out of that society.

For historical examples, think Aztec human sacrifice. Or the Jewish people under Nazism. Or, most pertinently, of the Salem witchcraft trials.

Charlie Campbell, author of Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People astutely points out that not “… every scapegoat is entirely innocent, though many are [1]”. But guilt or innocence is not the point here. The point is to load guilt onto a party whom then society can punish or expel.

As Campbell puts it:

“Ancient societies often kept official scapegoats, animals or humans who would be sacrificed after disaster in the hope of purifying the community and avoiding further punishment from the gods. These unfortunate figures were like lightning conductors, carrying away public anger. Or, to use a similar analogy, they are like electric fuses, which melt as the circuit becomes overloaded, and are thrown out, and replaced, so the current can flow once again… Today, we might have moved on from such barbarism, but we express the same urges in different ways. We still shriek for blood after disaster and are quick to find someone to blame for something usually far beyond the power of a single being…

We’ve seen this happen increasingly during the current economic crisis, and technology and the modern media mean that it is easier than ever before to spread these ideas and scapegoat people. We often decide on their guilt before all the evidence has emerged and social
media allows a mob to build swifter than ever before…”

In essence, this is about the imputation of guilt upon a person or group so as to assuage a collective sense of guilt and to purge that guilt from the midst of that community. It allows anger and distress to be discharged and societal order to be recovered.

Trouble is, someone pays for this with their life, freedom or future. And that person or group may not be in any sense responsible for the communal ill placed at their feet.

The Sin Eater

This thinking can be extended by looking at the rather bizarre historical phenomenon of the sin eater. When someone died suddenly and therefore without being absolved of their sins, sometimes a sin eater was employed by the family of the deceased. A piece of bread was placed on the chest of the corpse. The sin eater would consume the bread and leave the house, sometimes being ritually driven out, taking the dead person’s sin upon himself.

Because the understanding was that the dead person’s sins had actually been transferred to the sin eater, he was a figure of loathing and hatred, shunned and excluded from society [2].


One would like to think that society has developed beyond these strange apotropaic practices. But, arguably, these phenomena can give us insight into what’s going on today in the moral panic surrounding sexual offences.

There are some correlations to be made.

First, public moral judgement does not depend on the alleged sexual offender actually being guilty of the offences charged. In fact, that person may be guilty. But, equally, s/he may not. What’s important is that blame and disgust can be expressed towards that person.

Where a conviction results, and disgust can be expressed, then (and only then) can public anxiety at the phenomenon of sexual abuse be diffused. And out of that diffusion comes, in some quarters, a greater sense of public well being and confidence.

Contrariwise, where no conviction results, public anxiety is not dispersed, and moral panic can continue to grow and to express itself in other ways.

Second, scapegoaters never think about the demonizing effect on the scapegoat. This blog is an extended plea for balance and common sense, and all we are saying is this. When it comes to alleged sexual offences, the criminal justice system needs to be balanced and scrupulously fair. Because it is difficult or almost impossible for society at large to be. There are just too many emotions swirling around, as society’s perceived ills and anxieties get pinned onto one important but narrowly-focussed issue. Sexual offending is wrong and must be punished. But scapegoating is wrong too, and it must not be allowed to get out of hand.


  1. See the list of scapegoats just given.  ↩
  2. The custom appears to have died out over the last couple of centuries, although there was a church service in 2010 to commemorate the restoration of the grave of the last-known sin eater in England, who died in 1906.  ↩


This month will see the return of the (6th) annual Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 26th April 2014 at the Trinity Centre, Trinity Rd, BS2 0NW. The following advert is from their blog:

“As politicians proclaim ‘economic recovery’, the gap between rich and poor in Britain continues to grow. It’s not surprising really. Another housing bubble, combined with Cameron’s ‘permanent austerity’ package was unlikely to do much for anyone but the top 10%. As we continue to bailout the bankers and the true extent of MPs (false) expense claims becomes clear, those worst affected by cuts are demonised as ‘scroungers’.

To shift attention from the real fraudsters, the right-wing press fuels immigration hysteria – another vulnerable group is criminalised, and the borders are increasingly fortified. Despite the recent floods and the scientific consensus on climate change, the state and corporate response is to extract more fossil fuel by ‘fracking’.

All over the world, resistance and experimental alternatives to this broken system are well under way. From everyday resistance enacted in the home, workplace or school, to more spectacular forms of direct action. From a thousand spanners in the works to a million spades in the earth, people are occupying, creating and organising new ways of living without hierarchy, domination and capitalism.”


They go on a bit, but we thought best to stop there, before you start to think it’s not a bookfair but a kind of hippie therapy sesh. As it is, there will be over 60 stalls, a large discussion room, 30+ workshops (the programme is up here)/activities, a Radical History Zone and the Permanent Culture Now marquee. There will also be freshly cooked food by Kebele Cafe & Anarchist Teapot, and some Kids space and outside adventure playground, too. And we at BARF will be there, too, of course.

So spread the word.bnr3


Copied from Libcom/Phil’s Blog:

“Why aren’t we rising up? Whether the ‘we’ in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption – it’s all the rage, so why aren’t we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and ‘I’m alright Jack,’ or they just don’t have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.


Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who’s aggressively and proudly apolitical. They ‘don’t want none of that’ if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they’ve internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that’s just wrong.

There’s a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world’s full of problems and there’s no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we’ll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they’re racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they’re not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they’re smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as ‘sheeple’ and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they’re alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.


Resistance doesn’t happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership – a ‘leadership of ideas,’ for want of a better term – it’s not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left’s kind of leadership emerges it’s easy to recognise – it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals.’ It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian.’

By and large, people don’t want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people – at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It’s also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there’s still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the ‘tyranny of structureless‘ meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to ‘represent’ others by imposing their own views on the collective don’t have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.”