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Durkheim's Collective Conscience

Tags World HistoryOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

04/16/2001Martin Masse

If you were to pick up a copy of the Financial Times (yes, the pink newspaper) next weekend and read the column with the weighty title, "Pause For Thought," you would probably think the author is just another typical left-wing commentator hired to give some counter opinion in a paper where capitalism is usually presented in a positive light.

In his recent columns, Michael Prowse has written about how the so-called communitarian movement of Amitai Etzioni in the U.S. offers a relevant alternative to atomistic individualism and capitalism; how "reform of the legal profession must ensure it meets social needs, rather than making it a commercial venture"; and why performance tables for public hospitals and schools are wrong "when what we want from them is uniformly good service." In this last piece, he asked pointedly: "Do we want to pit citizen against citizen in an endless competition for the 'best' products and services?"

Well, why not?

In any case, it would seem this guy knows little about markets and has probably never heard of Mises, Hayek, or Rothbard. But that would be a wrong assessment. In the early 1990s, Prowse was the Times’s foreign correspondent in the U.S., and his column at the time, "Michael Prowse On America," was actually one of the few in a mainstream paper anywhere where a libertarian point of view, including that of the Austrian School, was favorably presented. He even spoke at the Austrian Scholars Conference. His speech, a powerful defense of Misesianism, was reprinted in the Austrian Economics Newsletter (Spring 1996).

Sometime in between, however, Prowse returned to the Old Continent and had a change of heart. In his April 7 column, we learned what caused it: While writing a book on economic liberalism in 1997, he read the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. After only a few pages, he says, he realized that his previous hostility to what he had believed were nonsensical social theories had in fact been blind prejudice.

Durkheim (1858-1917) is not well-known in the English-speaking world, but he is a very big name in the French intellectual tradition, and no self-respecting mainstream intellectual in the francophone world can ignore him. His books on religion and suicide are still considered classics in these fields.

His main contribution to contemporary thought, however, in line with his predecessor Auguste Comte and many other French thinkers since, was to give some semblance of scientific credibility to another collectivist approach in the study of human beings. As Prowse writes: "Durkheim's great books are dedicated to the proposition that society transcends the individual: that our beliefs, values, dispositions and desires are often products of social forces and structures we poorly understand."

Durkheim taught that society exists "outside" and "apart" from the individuals who form it. Society is a "thing" in itself, and should be studied as such. For example, all the beliefs, attitudes, imagery, etc., that make up culture and morality exist not only in the minds of individuals, but as a "collective conscience" independent of them, just like our mind is more than the physiological substrate on which it depends.

Society is thus an emergent entity. From Durkheim’s perspective, morality and culture, the collective phenomena par excellence, exist autonomously in our social surrounding; they are imposed upon us, and individuals do not have any discernable impact on them. What's important is to study the collective phenomenon itself, and how each individual is well-adapted to it or not (which would make him dysfunctional in society).

It is no surprise to find that Durkheim considered the theory of value to be "the most fundamental of all economic theories," and was sharply contemptuous of the subjective reformulation which had revolutionized economics after 1871 (Kenneth H. Mackintosh, Journal of Libertarian Studies, 14:1). Durkheim's viewpoint is the exact antithesis of Austrian subjectivism and methodological individualism.

Here is how Durkheim explains it:

If we can say that in some sense collective representations exist outside of individual consciences, it is because they derive not from individuals taken one by one, but from their interaction, which is very different. No doubt each one brings his own share in the elaboration of the common result; but private sentiments become social only in combining under the pressure of sui generis forces that this association develops. Following these combinations and the mutual alterations that result from them, they become something else. A chemical synthesis occurs which concentrates and unites the synthesized elements and, by this very process, transforms them. Since this synthesis is the work of the whole, its stage will also be the whole. The resultant that comes out of it thus extends beyond each individual spirit, just like the whole extends beyond the part. ... It's in this sense that it is outside particular individuals. ... To really understand what it is, we have to take into consideration the aggregate in its totality. It is it that thinks, feels and wants, although it can only do this though particular consciences. That is also how we can see that the phenomenon of society is not dependent on the personal nature of individuals." (Sociologie et Philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, p. 35-36 - my translation)

I find it quite amusing that Prowse has now become a collectivist through reading mystical rambling such as this—I followed the opposite intellectual course, thanks in part to Prowse himself.

When I started questioning all the collectivist claptrap I had learned in school, it was against Durkheim in particular that I was reacting. A sociology course I took in a Montreal junior college in the early '80s was devoted mainly to Durkheim, Marx, and to pop futurist Alvin Toffler (!!). I remember a heated discussion in university with a Durkeimian political scientist about where in the world could the "collective conscience" be if not in the minds of the people themselves. His reply was that it was reductionistic to believe that individuals had any control on what they thought and believed: We simply reflected all the images around us, and these images and communications and links between individuals have a life of their own, outside of us.

For some years, I thought I was alone in thinking that this did not make sense, that people's minds were the basis and explained social phenomena, and not the opposite. I was then working on a book on Quebec nationalism, trying to deconstruct the prevailing concept of the "nation" as a collective entity with its own identity apart from that of individuals that compose it. This is more than a theoretical problem.

Since the Quebec nation is defined by our nationalist elite as essentially French-speaking (despite the presence of a big minority of English-speakers in the province for almost 250 years), repressive laws to impose the use of French and limit that of English in various walks of life are seen as justified. Quebec’s personality has to be made "whole" again, has to regain its "integrity," and the levers of the provincial state—a separate one with all the powers of a sovereign country would of course be preferable—are being used to achieve this.

But how could one claim that the only real and legitimate national identity on this territory was Québécois, when its population had in fact rejected separation in a referendum, and when so many of its citizens still chose to identify as Canadian, French-Canadian, English Canadian, native, etc.? There was a major contradiction at the heart of nationalist discourse, because it stated the objective existence of a nation which did not correspond to the subjective identification of its presumed members.

This was also the time when political correctness and "identity politics" became prominent issues all over North America. I thought the slogans of the feminist, ethnic, or whatever type of "oppressed group" of activists were as far-fetched as those of Quebec nationalists. How could one claim that these "identities" were so special as to be unfathomable to non-group members? Why was it so crucial to show solidarity with group members and redefine one’s entire life to correspond with the group’s definition and demands?

It seemed like just another ideological ploy to hand over power to self-declared elites who knew what was good for the group and would tell us what to do. Durkheim never imagined such social developments, and most of today’s activists don’t know who he is, but the parallels between his sociological theory and their collectivist views are unmistakable.

Then, in 1993, I read a series of articles that Michael Prowse wrote in the Financial Times, discussing Mises and the Austrian School. I had never heard about it before. It seemed to make sense; my curiosity was piqued, and I got a copy of Human Action at McGill University's library. And there it was, on page 42, somebody who finally agreed with me!

First we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals. A collective operates always through the intermediary of one or several individuals whose actions are related to the collective as the secondary source. It is the meaning which the acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character. ... a social collective has no existence and reality outside of the individual members’ actions. The life of a collective is lived in the actions of the individuals constituting its body.

Those who want to start the study of human action from the collective units encounter an insurmountable obstacle in the fact that an individual at the same time can belong and--with the exception of the most primitive tribesmen--really belongs to various collective entities. The problems raised by the multiplicity of coexisting social units and their mutual antagonisms can be solved only by methodological individualism. (HA, pp. 42-43)

Presumably, Michael Prowse read this years ago and believed it made sense. Still, he was later converted to the holist view by Durkheim, who he says "fitted none of the stereotypes of the discipline's detractors: he was not woolly-headed and he didn't hide behind obscure generalities. He was as compellingly lucid as any empiricist philosopher."

Well, it’s nice to know what society thinks through Michael Prowse’s particular conscience. But, if I may say so, I think I still prefer to make up my own mind and differ from the collective conscience on this.



Martin Masse

Martin Masse is an associate researcher at the Institut économique Molinari in Paris (www.institutmolinari.org) and publisher of the libertarian webzine Le Québécois Libre (www.quebecoislibre.org).

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