Zero confidence: Durkheim, the economic crisis and suicide
Source Dave Anderson
Date 08/12/06/06:08

Steven Lukes
Zero confidence

BANKS COLLAPSING, HOMES repossessed, jobs disappearing... no wonder
the world is in despair. Steven Lukes turns to Emile Durkheim to make
sense of the real depression.

The impact of the credit crisis here in New York on people's everyday
lives ishard to discern as yet, other than anecdotally, but it is
doubtless both vast and deep. The newspapers carry troubling stories.
Thus the New York Times reports on Tylor Pappas, living in a
three−bedroom house in a New Jersey suburb −−"Forty−three years old.
Neither rich nor poor. With a wife, Holly; the two boys; a small
business of his own in Manhattan", managing advertising campaigns and
producing videos for clients, "intelligent, well−informed, ingood
standing with society and, like so many of us, not quite sure what to
do ashis life savings shrink by the day. 'This is insane,' he says,"
staring (the reporter writes) into "the pixilated abyss: 'We're
watching our money evaporate. I don't have any confidence in what I'm
being told. I have zero confidence.'"

One of my NYU students described to me the agitated, aggressive
behaviour ofsubway commuters who work in Wall Street on the day the
crisis broke. Some couldn't bear to travel on the train and took taxis
instead. But a psychiatrist friend of mine, whose clients range across
the social classes, told me of her impression that as yet people are
still rallying around, as they did after 9/11,glued to their
television sets and feeling a togetherness in a shared but scarcely
understood disaster.To gain some grasp on what might be happening,
perhaps we might turn to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, whose
classic study of suicide, published in 1897, developed the notion of
anomie. He first expounded this idea in his book The Division of
Labour in Society, in which he treats it as an "abnormal" form that
the division of labour takes in modern industrial societies. But in
Suicide anomie plays a central role as a social cause of suicide and
one of the principal ills of modern industrial society.

Anomie signifies the breakdown of the normative frameworks of our
lives, the upsetting of rules, expectations, one's sense of one's
place in society, one's status vis−−vis others, a social condition
with grave psychological effects,leading in extreme cases to suicide.
In fact, one could say that Durkheim's book is not really about
suicide, but rather about the distinctively modern condition, ever
more present in advanced industrial societies (read capitalism),that
induces a distinctive kind of suffering −− a pathology that is at once
social and psychological, that occurs in the economy at times of booms
and busts,and of which the index is a high and rising suicide rate.

Durkheim called anomie "the malady of infinite aspiration". His
central idea was that human beings need regulation −− a framework of
informal and formal rules that set limits to what they are entitled to
expect, for instance, in the form of economic rewards. It is an idea
that contrasts sharply with the culture of capitalism, not least its
US version. Could there be any more striking contrast with his idea
than the culture of Wall Street and the City of London in the last
three decades? Durkheim, who was a late−ninetheenth−century
socialist,hoped to "moralise" capitalism −− a notion that has,
perhaps, a somewhat conservative ring. But recall RH Tawney,
egalitarian socialist, who once wrote a pamphlet called The Sickness
of the Acquisitive Society.

Anomie, for Durkheim, manifests itself in times of economic disasters, when

"a kind of declassement occurs, suddenly thrusting certain individuals
into a situation inferior to the one they occupied hitherto. They must
therefore lower their demands, restraintheir wants, learn greater
self−control [...| they are not adjusted to the condition imposed on
them and they find its very prospect intolerable; thus they experience

And it is also found during crises of prosperity when the scale
regulating needs

"is upset; but a new scale cannot be improvised [...]. One no longer
knows what is possible and what is not, what is just and what is
unjust, which claims and expectations are legitimate and which are
immoderate. As a result there is no limit to men's aspirations [...]
appetites, no longer restrained by a disoriented public opinion, no
longer know where to stop."


"Because prosperity has increased, desires are heightened [...].But
their very demands make it impossible to satisfy them.Overexcited
ambitions always exceed the results obtained,whatever they may be; for
they are not warned that they must go no further. Nothing, therefore,
satisfies them and all thisagitation is perpetually maintained without
abatement.Moreover, since this race toward an unattainable goal can
afford no other pleasure than the race itself, if pleasure it is,once
it is interrupted, one is left quite empty−handed. At the same time,
the struggle grows ever more violent and painful,both because it is
less regulated and because the competition is more keen. All classes
are set against one another because there is no longer any established
classification. Effort grows just when it is least productive. How, in
these conditions, can the will to live not weaken?"

Durkheim thought that we all need social or moral regulation −− rules,
or norms, that set limits to what are otherwise limitless and
destructive desires:from "top to bottom of the scale, greed is aroused
unable to find ultimate foothold. Nothing could calm it, since its
goal is infinitely beyond all it can attain." But he also thought that
we all need social integration: we need to be attached to social
groups and to the wider society. The lack of such integration is a
further pathological condition (which he called egoism, meaning social
isolation or detachment) leading to rising suicides, which is why, he
argued,the suicide rate goes down during wartime and at moments of
national crisis,when people pull together and feel the strength of
social bonds. Solidarity in the face of a commonly experienced danger
is, he thought, a protection againstsuicide.

So perhaps my psychiatrist friend was on to something. Perhaps, last
week anyway, we were still in the 9/11 stage of this credit meltdown
and perhaps the anomie of the bust that has followed the unprecedented
boom of the last three decades is yet to come. The boom was, of
course, highly unequal in its impact,manifested at the extreme in the
wildly extravagant incomes and kickbacks of corporate executives and
bankers and all those dealers in ever more recondite financial
instruments. Their free−for−all rampage was enabled by a lack of
regulation −− that is, oversight and control by legally assigned
regulatory bodies. This all the newspapers and commentaries have
repeatedly pointed out. What Durkheim adds is the observation that
moral regulation was absent and,indeed, never even contemplated. As
for the bust, now beginning, its consequences may well be anomic in
the way that Durkheim described, but we should recall, from the
history of the Great Depression, that solidarities of the
disadvantaged can also develop. But then there were active and
flourishing labour unions and a degree of cross−class solidarity
encouraged by the New Deal.

What did Durkheim have to suggest in the way of policies and
institutional reforms that could counteract the anomie he so vividly
described? Here we should, in all fairness, recall that he was writing
at the end of the nineteenth century −− a time in which one could be
optimistic about the coming together of economic, social and moral
progress. He thought that moral education could help to counteract the
ethos of unlimited acquisitiveness. More helpfully,perhaps, he
envisaged institutional reforms that would develop solidarities based
on people's occupational lives −− not, of course, class−consciousness
in the Marxist sense, but cross−class solidarities that would bind
workers and employers in a mutual commitment to shared norms of
fairness. One can discern elements of this idea in various
twentieth−century developments, such as attempts at national incomes
policy in Scandinavia and Britain and forms of worker−management
cooperation in Germany.

It seems to me that many questions about the future of capitalism as
we have known it are raised by the current economic crisis. Already
various developments that were unthinkable in the United States have
become accepted as necessary: state part−ownership of financial
institutions, massive state involvement in regulating financial
markets, and so on. European leaders are already pronouncing
American−style capitalism in some way inferior to a supposedly morally
superior European variant. Thus President Sarkozy ofFrance has said
that the world needs to "bring ethics to financial capitalism".Will we
start to consider the morality of capitalism as a matter of
wide−ranging public debate? If so, there could be no better place to
start the discussion than Durkheim's Suicide.

Published 2008−11−18 Original in English Contribution by New Humanist
First published in New Humanist 6/2008(c) Steven Lukes/New Humanist(c)
Eurozine An article from www.eurozine.com3/3

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