Sexual Competition, Mimetic Desire, and Neoliberal Market Society


In neoliberal market society, everyone faces the discipline of the market. In order to survive—ie in order to obtain the means to pay for the family’s food, rent, clothing, et cetera—ordinary people have to compete in the labor market. Investors have to compete with each other. And, of course, firms compete against their rivals. Indeed, even a pure monopolist has to worry about entry. A lot of ink has been spilt on the precariat workforce. But insecurity is the calling card of the neoliberal market society. Moreover, the closer we get to the neoliberal utopia, the fairer the verdict of the market. For the losers, there is no escape from the harsh sentence. So far we are still with Polanyi and Hoffer. But we must go further.

Houellebecq would suggest that we pay attention to the onset of ‘savage sexual competition’ as a result of the sexual revolution. In his account, the West made a wager with history that maximizing freedom would maximize happiness; and lost. (In Elementary Particles, Houellebecq articulates this pathos quite well but fails to surmount the last chapter problem. He picks up the same subject again in Soumission and this time gets his pathetic characters to ‘slouch towards Mecca‘ to escape their predicament.) For the neoliberal subject the rigors of sexual competition are, if anything, harsher than the rigors of the labor market. The liberalization of the sexual economy from the 1960s onwards must therefore be seen as an important component of the neoliberal condition. We need to investigate the market discipline faced by the neoliberal subject in the sexual marketplace. But we must go further still.

If we want to ground the analysis of neoliberal market society in the lived experience of the neoliberal subject, we must reckon with mimetic desire à la Girard. For we are not only enslaved by an obligation to enjoy. The pleasure principle is merely the beginning. What a neoliberal subject wants is not some independent draw from a fixed and exogenously given distribution. Nor are her desires merely correlated with those of others. She wants what others want because they want it. So she wants the iPhone X because, admit it, it’s cool. She knows what they will all think when they see the device in her hand. But that’s simply a case of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’—which is what we tend to find across consumer markets; a largely benign case of mimetic desire. Things get much more zero-sum when only a few can win and others must lose. The higher the college’s ranking, the more attractive the potential partner, the more prestigious the job etc, the more cut-throat it gets. Because desire is largely mimetic, neoliberal subjects are always found locked in mimetic rivalry—with their friends in high school, at work, or at a bar; and anonymously, with an amorphous mass of peers on job sites, dating platforms and so on and so forth.

In Girard’s scheme, mimetic rivalry engenders violence in archaic society. The instability intensifies until everyone gangs up against a single victim; a scapegoat, whose murder at the hands of the mob restores consensus and reestablishes the social peace. The ‘sacrificial crisis’ and the act of collective violence are not mythical, but real; a common solution arrived at by all archaic societies and ritualized as human sacrifice. This is the dark heart of our all-too-human past.

Neoliberal market society unleashes mimetic rivalry on an unprecedented scale. But it does so in a contained manner. Moreover, the modern state enjoys a near-absolute monopoly of violence. The violence engendered by the intensification of mimetic rivalry is therefore projected onto other domains—onto the political plane, onto video-games, on screen, onto 4chan, and perhaps most tragically, onto the neoliberal self. Perhaps that what is behind the curves studied by Case and Deaton.

If we want to interrogate the neoliberal condition, we must go beyond the whipsaw of global macro forces; beyond market discipline as currently understood in terms of the commodification of labor and capital. We need to start thinking about the market discipline faced by the neoliberal subject in the sexual marketplace as well. More generally, we need to take a broader view of the ever-intensifying market-like competition in neoliberal market society, eg for college admissions. We must get a handle on the attendant intensification of mimetic rivalry; the trauma thereby visited upon the neoliberal subject; and the socio-political consequences of that trauma.



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