I recently read Suicide by Emile Durkheim (one of the founding texts of sociology) for the first time and was repeatedly struck by how much it speaks to current UK policy concerns, especially regarding 'the Big Society' and subjective wellbeing. I've written before about how The Big Society is riven by a tension between its Schumpeterian agenda (innovate our way towards socio-economic reciprocity) and its Durkheimian agenda (conserve the social ties that we have, and temper the pace of capitalism). But I hadn't realised quite how pertinent Durkheim's sociology is to current political anxieties. In the manner of an Alain de Botton-style manual for wonks, here's my How Durkheim Can Change Your Ill-Thought-Out White Paper.
Durkheim's notion of 'anomic suicide' (which he distinguishes from two other forms, namely altruistic and egoistic suicide) is built on his observation that suicide rates increase at times of economic upheaval, regardless of whether people's circumstances improve or deteriorate. High achieving individuals and intellectuals are also more likely to commit suicide, as are protestants. The problem, in all such cases, is that the individual is left without tangible, mediating institutions to limit their desire or choices, and they end up facing a problem of limitless possibilty, which is the essence of anomie:
Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture. It has been claimed, indeed, that human activity naturally aspires beyond assignable limits and sets itself unattainable goals. But how can such an undetermined state be any more reconciled with the conditions of mental life than with the demands of physical life? All man's pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or - which is the same thing - when his goal is infinity. Since the distance between us and it is always the same, whatever road we take, we might as well have made the motions without progress from the spot. Even our glances behind and our feeling of pride at the distance covered can cause only deceptive satisfaction, since the remaining distance is not proportionately reduced. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.
The policy implication here is quite clear. Telling people that they can achieve anything they want, can have anything they want if only they demand or work towards it enough, will exacerbate misery, not alleviate it. For example, the notion that hosting a global spectacle such as the Olympic Games will encourage more people to engage in prosaic acts such as going for a jog is a gross misunderstanding of how 'society' works (as the government has now accepted) and may in fact be the opposite of the truth. Where 'world class' becomes a normal benchmark of performance, the vast majority of people are - and feel themselves to be - an abject failure. Pete Sampras may not actually be infinitely better than me at tennis, but as long as he remains a symbol of what tennis means, my own sporting achievements will feel very close to zero (the same is true for those who make cultural revolution their benchmark of political achievement.)
Of course what the Seb Coes of this world also fail to appreciate is what John Kay calls 'obliquity', that aiming for an adequate performance may, inadvertently, be the best route to a winning performance. Aiming exclusively at a winning performance, meanwhile, can often end in something that isn't even adequate. Shareholder-oriented profit-maximising firms often make smaller profits than those which factor in other stakeholder interests. Equally, a nation such as Germany which invests money in sport for its own sake, not as some sort of target-based High Performance Athlete Outcome Leadership Framework as promoted by the British government and its coterie of private sector consultants, ended up thrashing our deeply unpleasant national football team at the last World Cup.
Nick Clegg's new agenda for social mobility invites a similar criticism. Of course social mobility is a difficult thing to be against, but that is very different from making it one's defining moral principle. As much evidence from the past fifty years would suggest, social mobility has tended to be greatest during those periods when nobody was actively trying to generate it; it is best pursued obliquely. The post-Thatcher era of meritocracy and open competition has seen a collapse in social mobility. But then what could be more dispiriting, more conducive to anomie, than being repeatedly told that there is no limit to how high one should aim? Sadly that is an injunction that excites the alumni of Eton and Westminster, and intimidates or depresses nearly everybody else. Richard Sennett's Respect details the forms of anomie that accompany societies even when (or especially when) they do deliver on something approaching meritocracy.
But if unhappiness is an effect of excessive upheaval and competitiveness, writing in the same year (1897) as the world's first psychology laboratory was created, Durkheim is scarcely asking for unhappiness itself to be targeted:
Many sorrows can be endured only by being embraced, and the pleasure taken in them naturally has a somewhat melancholy character. So, melancholy is morbid only when it occupies too much place in life; but it is equally morbid for it to be wholly excluded from life. The taste for happy expansiveness must be moderated by the opposite taste; only on this condition will it retain measure and harmonize with reality. It is the same with societies as with individuals. Too cheerful a morality is a loose morality.
Policy lesson number two: keep a lid on that positive psychology, Prof Layard. Indeed the central thesis of Suicide, and what makes it a pioneering piece of social science, is the claim that something as apparently psychic as suicide is, in fact, sociological (how Durkheim would have dealt with the neuro-brigade, I'm not sure). And if we're to avoid the slippery slope towards endemic prozac prescriptions and cognitive behavioural therapy, it might be necessary to view happiness and unhappiness as indicators of deeper, sociological realities, and not as objects of policy themselves. Certainly, Durkheim would warn against seeking to maximise happiness, just as he would likely warn against seeking to maximise anything.
The final chapter of the book is called 'Practical Consequences', and addresses the question of what to do on the basis of his findings. Evidence-based policy, no less. On one level, Durkheim's proposals are music to Progressive Conservative and Blue Labour ears:
Individuals are made aware of society and of their dependence upon it only through the state. But since this is far from them, it can exert only a distant, discontinuous influence over them; which is why this feeling has neither the necessary constancy nor strength.... While the state becomes inflated and hypertrophied in order to obtain a firm enough grip upon individuals, but without succeeding, the latter, without mutual relationships, tumble over one another like so many liquid molecules, encountering no central energy to retain, fix and organise them.
As Phillip Blond or Maurice Glasman would eagerly agree, individuals need sources of morality and collectivism that are external to themselves, but less abstract and distant than the state. They need their desires delimited and channelled into institutions that are finite, tangible and authoritative. The state, from a Durkheimian perspective, is no better at dealing with anomie than X Factor: both are too distant, too universal and too amoral to provide rules that constrain in a tangible and moral way. The intermediary level of social organisation, between the individual and the state, is what will rescue modern society from anomie.
But on what would such an intermediary level of sociability be built? Durkheim dismisses regionalism and parochialism as too hostile to the larger structure of 'society'. Instead he offers the following:
The only decentralization which would make possible the multiplication of the centers of communal life without weakening national unity is what might be called occupational decentralization.... [We should] make the occupational group the base of our political organisation.
He refers to the 'occupational group or corporation' as holding out hope for non-state-based forms of solidarity. I assume this means professional associations, unions, guilds and - possibly - worker co-operatives. But with the exception of the government's new-found enthusiasm for public sector mutuals, how else is this area of civil society and economy being nurtured or invigorated? I've written about the possibility and benefit of happiness economics opening up a new politics of production, though the necessary institutional accompaniments for this are as yet unknown. Again, the Durkheimian-Schumpeterian dilemma arises: to re-affirm those 'occupational groups' that have been there for the last 150 years, or start building some new ones?