Inspired by the study of humankind through various sources, including the Bible, Marcel Proust, and Shakespeare, René Girard (1923-2015), a celebrated anthropologist, developed a mimetic theory. It is relevant to many things in life, from Ukraine and to stock market bubbles, M&A hype, and organizational culture.
According to Mr. Girard, individuals are wired to imitate other people’s desires, leading them to want the same things. Think about kids keen to play with the same toy or of ‘The Joneses.’ Desire does not originate within individuals. Disturbingly, it is driven by others.
Inevitably, these dynamics lead to fierce competition for scarce assets and leadership positions. Through social interaction, all individuals end up with similar aspirations. The tension rises, threatening the community. Mimetic desire brings mimetic violence.
The Ukraine situation arguably fits Mr. Girard’s theory. If the West had not manifestly been interested in Ukraine, Russia would not have been either. It is the desire of one which drove the desire of the other. Appreciating these dynamics might have helped avert a war.
Mr. Girard further observes that a scapegoat mechanism is typically set off to bring about peace and order. It allows the community to collectively direct its frustration and anger towards an unfairly punished single individual or group of individuals. The scapegoating brings unity with a religious flavor. Rituals used to relive the special moments are instated. Over time, stories become foundational myths. These observations almost perfectly underpin the story of ‘The Hunger Games’, where the annual sacrifice of teenagers serves to remind the population of the perils of rebellion and violence.
In ‘Manias and Mimesis’ (2019), the authors link Mr. Girard’s thesis to financial bubbles: ‘[Markets are] sublime machines that synthesize beliefs and aggregate them into prices. […] Desire and imitation spread through the markets like a contagion.’ Violent busts follow. ‘[…] You can scapegoat [trading] algorithms and short-sellers.’ I would add that the same dynamics can be encountered, if not engineered during IPO processes.
Naturally, mimesis can be observed in M&A, too. Over the last twenty years, specific sectors (e.g., security, water, and oil & gas) have attracted strategic interest from a growing number of industrial companies. Acquisition multiples skyrocketed. Many companies overpaid for acquisitions. Ire naturally turned to leadership teams. But the entire financial community was responsible for fueling a ‘crisis of sameness.’ Recall a favorite quote from ‘Coup de Torchon,’ a movie that is darker than dark: ‘All crimes are collective.’
To conclude, anyone buying into Mr. Girard’s thesis would have to acknowledge that the diversity of people’s objectives and opinions in any community or organization is an inherent source of stability.