Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 29 July 2011

Adam Smith, Rousseau and Durkheim - and "the Fracture"

We wanted to reward our friends with a quick adaptation of some "sociological" reflections from the "Civil Society" chapter of our forthcoming work, Krisis, that can be applied ready-made to the current "government debt crises" unfolding in all major capitalist economies, China included, of course.

Lucio Colletti (in Ideologia e Societa') reports that Adam Smith once pointed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a glowing example of the florescence of sociological studies in France when compared with their dessication in Britain. Smith referred in particular to an essay by Rousseau in which he drew a sharp distinction between the "egoism" predominant in "modern society" and that noticeable in "primitive society". The difference, according to Rousseau, was that in primitive society we can also find aspects of "egoistic" behaviour, but that unlike "modern" (he meant "bourgeois") society, this "egoism" did not have such disastrous impact on the lives of other members of society.

We know that Adam Smith places the "natural propensity of human beings to truck, barter, and trade" at the very origin of the "market economy" (in chapter two of Wealth of Nations) - but he guards well from making it "essential" to the very survival of its "members". In other words, Smith sees "exchange" as an option, as a choice, that is an "excrescence" of pre-existing individual "specialisation", but does not see (what is in fact the case), that "specialisation" or "the division of social labour" is absolutely essential (!) to the survival of any human "society"!

Put in other words, it is not the propensity to exchange that allows human beings "to exchange" the pro-ducts they make; rather, it is the necessity of the division of social labour to our very "survival" (physical and mental) that allows the development of a "market society"!

This is precisely relevant to the "fracture" that we see in US society and in the European - indeed in all capitalist economies right now! - between those who understand that it is not possible to have a "society of individuals" whose "egoisms" will simply tear it apart, and those who fail to see this.

And I need not tell you which side "must" prevail! Because without the division of social labour, which is what "the collective capitalist", the State, guarantees, we simply cannot have a society at all! The French sociologist Emile Durkheim must have followed the steps of Rousseau: because in his La Division du Travail Social he does two things that make him extremely relevant to the current "crisis":
First, he speaks of "social labour" and not (!) of the "social division of labour" - so in other words Durkheim understands that there is no "labour" as such, there is only "social labour".
Second, Durkheim interestingly calls the division of social labour in "primitive" societies mechanical and that in "modern" societies organic.

Now, you and I would think that he had it the wrong way around - in the sense that there were no "machines" in primitive societies - so therefore how can their solidarity (or co-operation) be "mechanical"? And instead we have lots of "machinery" in modern societies - so how can our solidarity be "organic"? After all, we are as "inorganic" as any societies have been in human history!!

But you can see what Durkheim meant: - the "solidarity" of modern advanced industrial capitalist societies is "organic" because the degree of "inter-dependence" is such that just about every aspect of our "division of social labour" becomes "systemically risky"!!

Now, if you can explain this to a Tea Party yokel - those who would have us return to "the days of horse and buggy" or, again with FD Roosevelt, who would have us "fear fear itself" (!) - but of course you can't. So you will have to make them see it... if we are to have any "society" at all!
Cheers to all.

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