SOCIOLOGY Émile Durkheim – Free Ebook

Émile Durkheim is the philosopher who can best help us to understand why capitalism makes us richer and yet frequently more miserable. He was born in 1858 in the little french town of Épinale near the German border. Before he was forty, Durkheim was appointed to a powerful and prestigious position: as a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. Durkheim lived through the immense, rapid transformation of France. From a largely traditional agricultural society… …to an urban industrial economy. He could see that his country was getting richer; that capitalism was extraordinarily productive and, in certain ways, that it was also liberating. But what particularly struck him and became the focus of his entire scholarly career, was that the economic system was doing something very peculiar to people’s minds. It was, quite literally, driving them to suicide. In ever increasing numbers. This was the immense insight unveiled in Durkheim’s most important work: Suicide, published in 1897. The book chronicled the remarkable and tragic discovery that suicide rates seem to shoot up once a nation has become industrialized and consumer capitalism takes hold. Durhkheim observed that the suicide rate of Britain of his day was double that of Italy but in even richer and more advanced Denmark it was four times higher than in the UK. Durkheim’s focus on suicide was intended to shed light on a more general level of unhappiness and dispair in society. Suicide was the horrific tip of the iceberg of mental distress created by modern capitalism. Across his career, Durkheim tried to explain why people had become so unhappy in modern societies, and he isolated five crucial factors: 1-In traditional societies, people’s identities are closely tied to belonging to a clan or a class. Few choices are involved; a person might be a baker, a lutheran or married to their second cousin without ever having made any self-conscious decisions for themselves. They can just step into a place created for them by their family and the existing fabric of society. But under modern capitalism, it’s the individual that now begins to choose everything: what job to take, what religion to follow, who to marry and where to belong. If things go well, the individual takes all the credit. But if things go badly, the individual is in crueler place than ever before for it seemingly means that there is no one else to blame but they themselves. Failure becomes a terrible judgement upon the individual. This is the particular burden of life in modern capitalism. Capitalism raises hopes: everyone, with effort, can become the boss. Advertising stokes ambition, by showing us limitless luxury that we could, if we play our cards right, secure very soon. The opportunities are said to be enormous, but so too are the possibilities for disappointment. In modern capitalism, envy grows rife. It is easy to become deeply dissatisfied with one’s lot, not because it’s objectively awful, but because of tormenting thoughts about all that is almost, but not quite, within reach. The cheery, boosterish side of capitalism attracted Durkheim’s particular annoyance. In his view, modern society struggled to admit life just is, often, quite painful and sad. Our tendencies to grief and sorrow are made to look like signs of failure rather than, as should be the case, a fair response to the arduous facts of human condition. One of the complaints against traditional societies, strongly voiced in Romantic literature, is that people need more freedom. Rebellious types used to complain that there were far too many social norms. Norms telling you what to wear, what you’re supposed to do on Sunday afternoons, what parts of an arm is respectable for women to reveal. Capitalism, following the earlier efforts of Romantic rebels, has relentlessly undermined social norms. Countries have become more complex, more anonymous and more diverse. People don’t have so much in common with one another anymore, the collective answers to even very important questions like who should you marry or how should you bring up your children have become weaker and less specific. There’s a lot of reliance on the phrase ‘Whatever works for you’, which sounds friendly, but it also means that society doesn’t much care what you do and doesn’t feel confident that it has good answers to the big questions of your life. In upbeat moments, we like to think of ourselves as fully up to the task of reinventing life and working everything out for ourselves. But in reality, as Durkheim knew, we’re often simply too tired, too busy, too uncertain and then there’s nowhere to turn. Durkheim was himself an atheist, but he worried that religion has become implausible just as its best side, its communal side, would’ve been most useful to repair the fraying social fabric. Despite its factual errors in its fantastical dimensions, Durkheim appreciated religion. He knew that the sense of community and consolation that religion offer are highly important to people. Capitalism has, as yet, offered nothing to replace this with. Science certainly doesn’t offer the same opportunities for powerful shared experiences. The periodic table might well possess a transcendent beauty and be a marvel of intellectual elegance, but it can’t draw a society together around it. In the nineteenth century, it had looked at certain moments, as if the idea of the nation might grow so powerful and intense that it could take up the sense of belonging and shared devotion that had once been supplied by religion. Admittedly, there were some heroic moments, but they generally didn’t work out very well. Family too seemed for a time to offer the experience of belonging that people seem to need. But today, although we do indeed invest hugely in our families, they’re not as stable as we might hope and by adulthood children are hardly tied to their parents anymore. They don’t expect to work alongside them, they don’t expect their social circles to overlap and they don’t feel and they don’t feel that their parent’s honour is in their hands. Today, neither family nor the nation are well placed to take up the task of giving us a larger sense of belonging, of giving us the feeling we’re part of something more valuable than ourselves. Émile Durkheim was a master diagnostician of our ills. He shows us that modern economies put tremendous pressures on individuals and leave them dangerously bereft of authoritative guidance and communal solace. We are all Durkheim’s heirs and still have ahead of us the task that he grappled with. How we can create new ways of belonging, how we can take some of the pressure off individuals and find a more correct balance between freedom and solidarity and how to generate ideologies that will allow us not to be so tough on ourselves for our failures and our setbacks.

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