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Durkheim’s Populism

November 9, 2017 Frontpage No Comments


In recent months the word “populism” has entered the vocabulary of anyone who has access to Western media. What it means is open to interpretation. It may refer to the interests of the common man, the ordinary citizen, as distinct from that of the elite who may govern him. In a sense, it may be exemplified by the Catholic Church insofar as the Church exercises a presence in a worldwide population. It may designate the attitude of those who resist the deep state as found in Brussels and Washington.
In any event, the topic offers an excuse to examine the notion as found in August Comte and in his nineteenth- and early twentieth-century disciple, Emile Durkheim. Hence the title of this brief essay, “Durkheim’s Populism.”
A question that has loomed large for the last three quarters of a century is one that the French psychologist put to himself perhaps as early as 1904. Secularization in the aftermath of the French Revolution had changed the face of Europe. Durkheim asked, “How can societies maintain their coherence and integrity in an era when traditional and religious social ties no longer prevail?”
Put another way, absent Christianity, how is one to achieve a common moral outlook, a “common faith,” as John Dewey was later to call it.
To answer his own question, Durkheim was led as a social scientist to explore how collective or group consciences are formed. Between 1898 and 1900, he published in the Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale three essays on the nature of morals and rights. These were expanded and developed and eventually published in 1937 under the title Leçons de Sociologie Physique des Moeurs et du Droit. And in English as Professional Ethics and Civic Morals.
Influenced by the positivist sociology of Saint Simon and Auguste Comte, and in accord with that methodology Durkheim set about the empirical examination of social, moral, and psychological phenomena supporting a given community.
The science of morals, he insisted, must be based on the study of moral and judicial facts. These facts consist of rules of conduct that have been sanctioned by a given community. The sociologist will examine how these rules of conduct were established over the course of time, and determine the interests or causes that gave rise to them and the useful ends they fulfill.
In his search for a communal set of beliefs that would replace what he thought was lost in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Durkheim was led to the study of religion in its most elemental form. That study did not lead him to the classical sources of Western culture for an understanding of religion, but to the study of primitive religions and totemism as he found it exemplified in Red Indian Pueblo rain dances and in the practices of Eskimos and aboriginal tribes in Australia.
One cannot fault Durkheim’s method of investigation, but one must acknowledge its limitation. Durkheim may have had greater success had he chosen to study the mature forms of religion rather than the primitive. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a totemic figure but a Creator responsible for the order of nature. Durkheim, lacking a metaphysics, is unable to reason to an immaterial order, as did Plato and Aristotle, or even to a Stoic conception of morality. Religion in his study is left without a rational foundation. He can only describe what is.
Parenthetically we may note that John Henry Newman, no stranger to British empiricism, in his early study of religion, similarly devoted essays to the reasonableness of faith as actually practiced by the great mass of believers, subjecting that faith to a phenomenological analysis.
He found in the common man a spontaneous movement of the mind, involuntarily culminating in an assent to God’s existence. Such faith, he held, is an exercise of reason, “the acceptance of things real which the senses do not convey.”
Newman was convinced that the unbelief or skepticism promulgated by his contemporaries was not unlike the belief of Christians, insofar as it too depended on presuppositions and prejudices, although of an opposite nature.
He charged that typically the skeptic does not decide in accord with evidence, but instead considers the religious outlook so far improbable that he does not have to examine the evidence for it. He cites David Hume’s discussion of miracles as an example.
In Le Division du Travail, Durkheim acknowledges that social solidarity is a moral phenomenon that does not yield to precise observation and measurement. Yet he identifies two broad categories of rules; first, those that apply to all men and, second, those that apply domestically, that is, family obligations and civic duties such as loyalty and service. He recognizes that no man exists who is not a citizen of a state. He recognizes too that the duties of a citizen are not the same in an aristocracy as they are in a democracy, or in a democracy as in a monarchy.
Given the fact of human groupings are anterior to the birth of a human individual, the individual must be conceived as a component part of the social organism.
On the subject of rights, Durkheim disputes the postulate that the rights of individuals are inherent. “It is not obvious that the rights of an individual are ipso facto his at birth. They are not inscripted in the nature of things.” It is the state that organizes and makes a reality of rights. Rights have to be won in contest from opposing forces which deny them. He is not alluding to conflicting claims on the public purse, but to something more fundamental.
Among the forces that he finds suppressive of individual freedom are family, church, trade associations, and regional entities. As social life becomes more complex and varied, the state is obliged to intervene or provide a counterforce to those entities, given their propensity to absorb the personalities of their members.
The state has the obligation to check the divisive character of these secondary groups, for if they were left alone, they would enclose the individual within their domain and prevent him from assimilation into the larger whole. It is the function of the state to free the individual from patriarchal authority.
It is the state that organizes and makes a reality of rights, Durkheim argues. Take away from man all that has a social origin and all that is left is but an animal on par with other animals. It is society that has raised him to a level above physical nature. The stronger the state the more the individual is free. The meaning of “self-government” is that choice is to be made in the context of collective or group consciousness. “A man is more free in a throng than in a coterie.”
Durkheim in effect has provided the ideological platform for the Marxism yet to come, the radical absorption of the individual into the collective.
Philip Mankowski, in reviewing Philip Eade’s new book on Evelyn Waugh for First Things, brings out an aspect of populism that is relevant to the theme of this presentation. Waugh puts into the thought of one of his characters some insightful remarks. Rip is a protagonist in the short story Out of Depth. In contemplating the future, Rip is aware that the future may not resemble the past.
He puts to himself, “What if all the political, cultural, and solidities of twentieth century Europe were to disappear? What if everything taken for granted, every compliancy, has been demolished?”
He continues to muse: “Suppose the contingencies of history have made conquering races out of the conquered, and suppose too,” in Waugh’s words, “the new empires have carried their civilizing schemes to the barbarous wild that was once Piccadilly and Grosvenor Square.” Under such circumstances, Rip sees that only the spiritualties may remain unchanged. Rip is not depicted as a pious churchgoing Londoner, “yet the unsensational gestures and rhythms of the low Mass provide for him a touchstone of intelligibility, a shape in chaos.” The Catholic, for example, may feel at home anywhere in the world where the Mass is celebrated. Yes, in spite of the fact, as Stuart Reid put it: “The destruction of the old liturgy is perhaps the greatest act of vandalism in history.” This is an aspect of life that eludes Durkheim’s positivistic method, an aspect that provides true freedom.
Durkheim is right in maintaining that a successful society requires a general consensual agreement on the values that social efforts are designed to achieve. Freedom cannot be secure in a society in which any substantial social element does not identify its own aspirations and self-interest with the good of the whole. Rousseau will speak of a “general will,” in contrast to Hobbes’ “war against all.”
Durkheim follows Aristotle in the recognition that if a true constitutional order or a true polity is to be brought into being, it must merge two opposing social tendencies, oligarchy, which he defined as rule by the few for the few, and democracy, which is rule of the many for the benefit of the many.
A free society, he holds, depends upon its ability to maintain a balance between competing factions such that no group or interest is permitted to impose a majority dictum. Furthermore, in a well-ordered society each separable interest group must acknowledge that its own freedom to prosper depends on the maintenance of freedom for all competing interests.
As James Madison argued in the debates prior to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, representative government must represent the society it is called to govern. Freedom cannot be secure in a society in which either a tyrannical majority or a tyrannical minority is able to impose its will on all who dissent from its dictums. Enshrined in the American Constitution are multiple checks and balances, between states and the federal government, and among the legislative, executive, and judiciary.
The Constitution of the United States remains in spite of judicial attempts to undermine its intent. Whether the common consensual values it has for the most part enabled for 228 years are likely to survive in the absence of the Christian moral principles that prevailed at its adoption remains to be seen.

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