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Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Before I begin today’s Part of this Micro-tutorial, I must correct an appalling omission in the antepenultimate paragraph of the last Part [i.e., in the third paragraph from the end.] I omitted the words “suicide varies,” thus rendering the sentence meaningless [humph, humph, on one commented on that!] The sentence should read: “He finds that suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of religious society, of domestic society, and of political society.” OK, now let us continue.

There are some societies, Durkheim suggests, in which social integration has been carried to such an extreme degree that individuals do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from the social order. In such cases, the individual may believe that he or she has a social obligation to commit suicide as a consequence of having failed to conform sufficiently to some social norm. Suicide becomes obligatory in these cases, Durkheim argues, and thus one can actually speak of “obligatory altruistic suicide.” For the most part, he imputes this excessive social integration to “primitive” societies, but he does remark, in a sentenced that I consider one of the most unintentionally funny in the classical sociological literature, “The readiness of the Japanese to disembowel themselves for the slightest reason is well known.” Once started, Durkheim cannot easily let the subject drop, and he actually distinguishes “three varieties” of altruistic suicide: “obligatory altruistic suicide, optional altruistic suicide, and acute altruistic suicide.” I shall spare you the details, but he does produce some interesting statistics of military as opposed to civilian suicides, showing that military men [at that time there were no military women] are very much more likely than civilians to commit suicides, and noncommissioned officers more likely than commissioned officers [wouldn’t you know?]

Finally we come to yet a third species of suicide, to which Durkheim attaches the suggestive label “anomic suicide.” His discussion is especially interesting because it was written more than a century ago, and yet reads as though it were a commentary on economic and political developments of the last decade or so.

Durkheim begins his discussion with a statement that must be read with great precision: “No human being can be happy or even exist unless his needs are sufficiently proportioned to his means.” At first, this seems to mean simply that human beings cannot long survive in a situation of such destitution that the available food and other necessaries fail to meet their basic physical needs. But it turns out that Durkheim has something quite different in mind. Recall that he is living and writing at the end of a long period, extending almost a century by 1897, of an economic expansion of produced by unfettered capitalism. As Marx suggests in the opening line of Capital, the period is characterized by a cornucopia-like outpouring of commodities. Individual human beings, Durkheim believes, are incapable of imposing upon themselves restraints on their desires. “It is not human nature,” he writes, “which can assign the variable limits necessary to our needs. They are thus unlimited so far as they depend on the individual alone.” Desires are by their nature “insatiable,” and it is a source of torment to be in the grip of insatiable desire, even when the actual quantity of goods one is consuming far exceeds what was available in an earlier time. “Thus, the more one has, the more one wants,” Durkheim observes, “since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.”

To be in such a condition is to be without a law or constraint imposing limits on desire. It is thus to be a-nomic [i.e., literally, lacking in law. Compare the pair of terms from Kantian moral philosophy: autonomy, or giving law to oneself, and heteronomy, or having law imposed on oneself by another.] Under normal and healthy circumstances, it is society that imposes limits on appropriate desire, thus protecting us from the psychological disorientation of ever-expanding desire. But, Durkheim says in what really sounds like a cri de coeur, “[f]or a whole century, economic progress has mainly consisted freeing industrial relations from all regulation…. [G]overnment, instead of regulating economic life, has become its tool and servant. The most opposite schools, orthodox economists and extreme socialists, unite to reduce government to the role of a more or less passive intermediary among the various social functions.” [I confess I find this characterization of “extreme socialists” puzzling. I am uncertain to what Durkheim is making reference.]

“From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. … The longing for infinity is daily represented as a mark of moral distinction, whereas it can only appear within unregulated consciences which elevate to a rule the lack of rule from which they suffer.”

The result of this “lawlessness’ or anomie is, in its most extreme manifestations, suicide.

There is a great deal more in the book, of course, both in the elaboration of detailed statistics of rates of suicide in a wide range of social groupings and in the analysis of those statistics, but I think the thrust of the argument should be clear by now. Near the end of his discussion, Durkheim returns to the theme he enunciated in the Preface. Here, in two lengthy quotations from Book Three, is the essence of his position.

“Usually when collective tendencies or passions are spoken of, we tend to regard these expressions as metaphors or manners of speech with no real significance but a sort of average among a certain number of individual states. They are not considered as things, as forces sui generis which dominate the consciousness of single individuals. None the less, this is their nature, as is brilliantly shown by statistics of suicide.”

“Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces [he means physical forces, forces of nature Ed.], though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, through the uniformity of effects. When we find that the number of deaths varies little from ear to year, we explain this regularity by saying that mortality depends on the climate, the temperature, the nature of the soil, in brief on a certain number of material forces which remain constant through changing generations because independent of individuals. Since, therefore, moral acts [i.e., psychological acts Ed.] such as suicide are represented not merely with an equal but with a greater uniformity, we must likewise admit that they depend on forces external to individuals. Only, since these forces must be of a moral order and since, except for individual men, there is no other moral order of existence in the world but society, they must be social.”

Needless to say, Durkheim does not think that the agency of collective tendencies is restricted to suicide. The operation of collective tendencies, he believes, is seen throughout the sphere of social life, and hence constitutes an appropriate independent realm of phenomena worthy to be the subject of an independent scientific discipline, namely Sociology.

Is Durkheim right? I believe he is, so long as we understand his thesis in the temporally longitudinal fashion that I outlined above in Part Three of this Micro-tutorial. Indeed, the approach championed by Durkheim in Suicide is now so widely accepted that his claims have become commonplaces. There are contemporary theorists who resist this appeal to collective tendencies and invoke the models of Game Theory and Rational Choice Theory to provide individualist micro-foundations for their discussions of such societal phenomena as politics. I have had my say about these authors in a number of publications, and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. [See my critique of Elster, at, for one extended example.] For those who would like to see a shorter statement of essentially the same point of view, take a look at my re-posting, on September 24th of this year, of my Credo.

With that, I conclude this Micro-tutorial. I hope it has proved of interest to some readers. When I return to Chapel Hill on Christmas Eve, I shall put it up on


Don Schneier said...

I wonder if anomie eludes dialectical interpretation. In any case, it seems to follow from Durkheim's analysis of greed that today's Plutocrats are themselves prisoners in the cave, not its puppeteers. If so, then while demonizing the 1% might be emotionally satisfying, recognizing them as victims, too, of a plague is diagnostically more potentially constructive.

Mary Lou Bethune said...

When you return to Chapel Hill, would you ever consider coming over the the Occupy CH site on Franklin? We would love to see you. I really really loved reading your piece on Newt's dissertation. The comments were wonderful and give me more hope for the survival of sanity (or the triumph of hope over experience)>

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course I will come to the site, as soon as I return home. I was there the first day, and have donated money to the group, but I have not been back since then. However, I am on the listserve, so I get all the messages. Right now, for some mysterious reason, my email is down, but I imagine UMass will fix it soon.