Emile Durkheim is a philosopher who explained why Capitalism makes us richer and yet frequently more miserable; even – far too often – suicidal.
Living through the 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 productive and whilst the economic system might have created a new middle class, it was doing something very peculiar to people’s minds. It was – quite literally – driving them to suicide in ever increasing numbers unveiled in Durkheim’s most important work, Suicide, published in 1897.
The book chronicled a remarkable and tragic discovery: that suicide rates seem to shoot up once a nation becomes industrialised and Consumer Capitalism takes hold. Durkheim observed that the suicide rate in the 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. Furthermore, suicide rates were much higher amongst the educated than the uneducated; much higher in Protestant than in Catholic countries; and much higher among the middle classes than among the poor. Suicide was the horrific tip of the iceberg of mental distress created by Capitalism.
He isolated five crucial factors:
In traditional societies, people’s identities are closely tied to belonging to a clan or a class. Their beliefs and attitudes, their work and status follow automatically from the facts of their birth. Few choices are involved: a person might be a baker, a Lutheran, and married to their second cousin – without ever having made any self-conscious decisions for themselves. They could just step into the place created for them by their family and the existing fabric of society.
But under Capitalism, it is the individual that now chooses everything: what job to take, what religion to follow, who to marry… This ‘individualism’ forces us to be the authors of our own destinies. If things go well, we can take all the credit. But if things go badly, it is crueller than ever before, for it means there is no one else to blame. We have to shoulder the full responsibility. Failure becomes a terrible judgement upon oneself. This is the particular burden of life in modern Capitalism.
2. Excessive hope
Capitalism raises our hopes. Everyone – with enough effort – can become the boss. Everyone should think big. You are not trapped by the past – Capitalism says – you are free to remake your life. Advertising stokes ambition by showing us limitless luxury that we could (if we play our cards right) secure very soon. The opportunities grow enormous…as do the possibilities for disappointment.
3. Too much freedom
Capitalism – following the earlier efforts of Romantic rebels – relentlessly undermined social norms. States became more complex, more anonymous and more diverse. People didn’t have so much in common with each other any more. The rules or norms that one had internalised stopped applying.
There’s a lot of reliance on the phrase: ‘whatever works for you.’ Which sounds friendly but also means that society doesn’t much care what you do and doesn’t feel confident it has good answers to the big questions of your life.
Durkheim was himself an atheist, but he worried that religion had become implausible just as its communal side would have been most necessary to repair the fraying social fabric.
Durkheim saw religion created deep bonds between people. The king and the peasant worshipped the same God, they prayed in the same building using the same words. They were offered precisely the same sacraments. Riches, status and power were of no direct spiritual value.
Capitalism had nothing to replace this with. Science certainly did not offer the same opportunities for powerful shared experiences. The Periodic Table might well possess transcendent beauty and be a marvel of intellectual elegance – but it couldn’t draw a society together around it.
5. Weakening of the family
In the 19th 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 once had been supplied by religion. Admittedly there were some heroic moments. In the war against Napoleon, for instance, the Prussians had developed a dramatic all-encompassing cult of the Fatherland. But the excitement of a nation at war had, Durkheim saw, failed to translate into anything very impressive in peacetime.
Increasingly, the ‘family’ in the traditional expansive sense has ceased to exist. It boils down to the couple agreeing to live in the same house and look after one or two children for a while. But in adulthood these children do not expect to work alongside their parents; they don’t expect their social circle to overlap with their parents very much and don’t feel that their parent’s honour is in their hands.
Our looser, more individual sense of family is not well placed to take up the task of giving us a larger sense of belonging – of giving us the feeling that we are part of something more valuable than ourselves.
Durkheim shows us modern economies put tremendous pressures on individuals, but leave us dangerously bereft of authoritative guidance and communal solace.
He didn’t feel capable of finding answers to the problems he identified but he knew that Capitalism would have to uncover them, or collapse.
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