THR Blog   /   December 15, 2020

The Paradoxical Relevance of Durkheim to Our Time

What in the world does the division of labor have to do with campus protests, the curse or blessing of “wokeness,” or the populist movement centered on Donald Trump?

Alan Jacobs

( Bust of Émile Durkheim. Christian Baudelot via Wikimedia Commons.)

A few years ago I published an essay in which I used Leszek Kołakowski’s book The Presence of Myth—especially his distinction between what he calls the “technological core” and the “mythical core” of society—to explain certain trends in protest movements on American university campuses. I argued that many of the most characteristic elements of today’s protests “don’t arise from the discursive rationality of the technological core; they arise from the symbolic order of the mythical core, and are a response to its disturbance.” This is not meant as a denigration but rather a typological description, and, though I do not say so in the essay, could be used with equal validity to describe the nature of Trumpist populism in America today.

After publishing that essay, which also draws heavily on Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil, I continued to meditate on the extent to which much twentieth-century humanistic thought—especially those texts that center on myth, ritual, the sacred and the profane, the origins and development of religious belief and practice, and so on—might help us better to understand the contours of our own social moment. These meditations led me from Kołakowski and Ricoeur back through Northrop Frye, Mircea Eliade, Suzanne Langer, Ernst Cassirer, and Carl Jung, all the way to a figure who seems to me especially relevant to the tensions that mark our current social dysfunction: the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917).

The obvious work of Durkheim’s to consult here would be his last major achievement, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), but while that is indeed an astonishingly rich and generative text, I have found myself drawn more strongly to his first book, The Division of Labor in Society (1893). As Anthony Giddens, one of Durkheim’s shrewdest interpreters, said of this book,

The Division of Labour is Durkheim’s fundamental work. It establishes a framework of thought which remained at the basis of all his later writings, although he never again returned to problems of such broad compass. as those dealt with in that book. His subsequent works are certainly far more than a mere gloss upon the conclusions reached in The Division of Labour. He modified and complemented these conclusions in substantial measure; but his ensuing contributions are virtually all elaborations of themes which are originally to be found there. This is especially true of the main connecting thread in his writings, the development of his conception of moral authority.

But what is the relevance of this book to current events? What in the world does the division of labor have to do with campus protests, the curse or blessing of “wokeness,” or the populist movement centered on Donald Trump?

An answer might begin here: For Durkheim, the division of labor—a  term coined by Adam Smith to describe what was then an increasingly dominant reality—is simultaneously a cause and a symptom of the deterioration of earlier social forms, earlier ways of relating the individual to society. As Durkheim writes in his Preface to the book,

The question that has been the starting point for our study has been that of the connection between the individual personality and social solidarity. How does it come about that the individual, whilst becoming more autonomous, depends ever more closely upon society? How can he become at the same time more of an individual and yet more linked to society?

This question can be answered only by investigating the earlier forms of “social solidarity” that the division of labor has in some sense displaced or supplanted. Durkheim believes, “The economic services that [the division of labor] can render are insignificant compared with the moral affect that it produces, and its true function is to create between two or more people a feeling of solidarity”

Durkheim therein articulates a theory of social solidarity, which is also a functional theory of morality. That theory centers on what he calls the “collective consciousness” (conscience collective), “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society,” which “forms a determinant system with a life of its own.” He then puts forth a fourfold matrix by which one might describe the collective consciousness of any given society:

  • volume
  • intensity
  • determinateness (or rigidity)
  • content

The “content” of the collective consciousness may or may not be religious, but Durkheim believed that the more religious it is the more likely volume, intensity, and determinateness are to rise. When the content of the conscience collective is not religious, or is less seriously religious, then we may expect to see a lessening of volume, intensity, and determinateness and therefore the creation of more room for individuation.

To say that traditional forms of the collective consciousness are displaced by the division of labor

is not to say that the common consciousness is threatened with total disappearance. But it increasingly comprises modes of thinking and feeling of a very general, indeterminate nature, which leave room for an increasing multitude of individual acts of dissent…. As all the other beliefs and practices assume less and less religious a character, the individual becomes the object of a sort of religion. We carry on the worship of the dignity of the human person, which, like all strong acts of worship, has already acquired its superstitions. If you like, therefore it is indeed a common faith. Yet first of all, it is possible only because of the collapse of other faiths and consequently it cannot engender the same results as that multiplicity of extinct beliefs. There is no compensation.

That you may have what is effectively a religion without priests, temples, or even gods is a point that Durkheim also affirms in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he grounds his argument in this definition: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions — beliefs and practices that unite its adherence in a single moral community” (italics in original).  For the sake of convenience, Durkheim calls this “single moral community” a “church,” though for him the term encompasses a wide range of institutions that are quite unlike churches in the Christian sense. Yet all function as churches function, and Durkheim’s accounts of religion are functionalist through and through, always concerned with the work that beliefs and practices do to achieve and consolidate social solidarity.

The relevance of Durkheim’s arguments about the collective consciousness to our current moment is that wokeness and Trumpist populism alike are promoted and sustained—chiefly through social media—by a collective consciousness that meets Durkheim’s definition of a religion. Moreover, both movements have a stronger, more decisively religious character than the belief in “the dignity of the human person” that in Durkheim’s time had become “a sort of religion,” a common but vague faith. We perceive that through their rituals of inclusion and exclusion, and especially through their remarkably similar ways of punishing dissent and expelling heretics. (See, for instance, the readiness of many Trump supporters to denounce Republican officials, strict conservatives of long standing, as willing tools of China or Russia or North Korea or Venezuela when those officials do not do Trump’s bidding; or the leftist “struggle sessions” conducted with what seems to be increasing frequency, especially on Twitter.) To put this phenomenon in Durkheimian terms, these movements are marked as religious in their content by their high levels of volume, intensity, and determinateness.

The problem, though, is that on the Durkheimian view of things these developments should not have happened. We have noted that he says that “there is no compensation” for what is lost when old beliefs become extinct, and, similarly, he also argues throughout his career that there can be no return to those old beliefs or anything like them. The transition from old forms of solidarity enforced by “churches” to new forms produced by the economic arrangements manifested in the division of labor cannot be reversed. Near the end of The Division of Labor Durkheim writes, “Just as ancient peoples had above all need of a common faith to live by, so do we have need of justice. We can rest assured that this need will become ever more pressing if, as everything leads us to foresee, the conditions that dominate social evolution remain unchanged.”  This is to say that the conditions that led to the increased division of labor, and to new forms of social solidarity emerging therefrom, will continue, and therefore the articulating of our aspirations of justice for individuals will continue their ever-more-complete displacement of any need for “a common faith.”

I say “for individuals” because, as Durkheim wrote, “Just as the ideal of lower societies was to create or maintain a collective life as intense as possible, in which the individual was engulfed, ours is to inject an even greater equity into our social relationships, in order to ensure the free deployment of all those forces that are socially useful.” It is therefore clear that justice and equity will be produced by the “free deployment” of individual powers and gifts, and this freedom is a replacement for the condition of being “engulfed” by an intense religious life.

Durkheim believed that in an increasingly economically complex society the division of labor would weaken the old group identities that religion sustained. Simply to increase the size of the society has this effect: “When civilization is developed over a vaster field of action, when it relates to more people and things, general ideas necessarily appear and there become paramount”—and  chief among those “general ideas” is that of “mankind.” A kind of humanism replaces group identities, and the very generality of that affiliation creates greater “scope…for individual variations.” As “the collective consciousness becomes more rational, it therefore becomes less categorical and, for this reason again, impedes less the free development of individual variations.”

It seems, then, that Durkheim did not envision what we now see on some parts of both the political Left and Right, in America and elsewhere: a disparagement of any individuation that would weaken the intensity of the collective life of the group; an emphasis on group identities to the virtual exclusion of any interest in common humanity; a series of increasingly formalized rites for marking inclusion in and exclusion the group; the creation of two rival political “churches.”

In his brilliant introduction to a collection of Durkheim’s writings, Anthony Giddens makes the provocative point that Durkheim shared with many other social thinkers of his era a fascination with the problem of change, precisely because he was living through a period in which traditional society was fundamentally giving way to modern individualist society.  Durkheim’s believed this transition would soon be completed and, when it was completed, there would be no going back to the earlier social forms.

The relevance of Durkheim to our present moment arises, it seems to me, rather paradoxically from the strong possibility that he was wrong in his belief that the transfer to a modern social order was both imminent and irreversible. Certainly it seems that in our current moment some of the features of traditional society that Durkheim calls particular attention to have undergone a kind of revival. Perhaps this is their Indian summer; or perhaps the fundamental impulses of traditional societies are harder to kill off than Durkheim thought they were.