Émile Durkheim. 10 octobre 2018. Review and response

James Dingley’s presentation on Émile DURKHEIM (1858 – 1917) (Cercle français de Belfast, 10th October, 2018) – A brief review, and an extension of Durkheim’s ideas to modern times.

There is a lot one could say about Durkheim, and James made a good beginning, in an accessible and enjoyable presentation. Essentially, the division of labour (now more commonly known as specialisation) was the mainspring of the industrial revolution, and Durkheim explained many of the new developments in 19th century society in terms of its effects, especially the contrast between life in the traditional rural setting, and in the rapidly growing industrial cities. I had not been aware of Durkheim’s emphasis on morality and religion as important sources of stability, particularly their encouragement of tolerance in anonymous urban centres where people from many different regions and occupations had to honour contracts and accept others’ behaviours, strange (to them) as they might be. Unexpectedly, to some, Durkheim is the person who could be credited most for "laïcité” in France. The state recognition of marriage for legal purposes, so that couples still are formally married only at the mairie, can be ascribed directly to him.

Most of what I would like to say in response concerns the division of labour and the current environmental crisis; in the interests of brevity, I have focussed on four questions: “What is the Crisis?”, “Why are our Structures Deficient?”, “What Change is required?”, and “What are the Main Challenges?”

What is the Crisis? Survival in Question
Humankind faces the real possibility of extinction, either of our species, or of life itself, through climate change, pollution, armed conflict, or all three. This would be a pity (!), as there is no significant evidence of any life anywhere else in the universe. However, the young have more to lose than we do; we have to open up a genuine path towards a sustainable soicety, with an ideology which counters the promises made by free markets to poor people. 

Why are our Structures Deficient?Specialised Technology
The specialisation of modern society is a source of many difficulties: the achievement of economies of scale by modern firms reduces the power of democracies to protect consumers and workers. The pursuit of free market ideas, combined with economies of scale, opens the environment, especially the seas, to waste from what seems like an inifinite number of different production processes. Our needs tend to be met one at a time, with a specific production process developed to meet each, so that (broadly speaking) only costs specific to that need are considered in the profitability calculation. Also, all of the professions tend to restrict their activities to their own interests, limiting the progress that can be made towards sustainability. The technology structures (universities, multinationals, governments) monopolise the available scientific talent, and manage it from separate ivory towers, at a long distance from everyday practice. 

What Change is required? From Specialised to Integrated Technology
We need rational approaches to the development of integrated technologies which will meet basic human needs, locally, within current resource constraints. Integration means identifying all the costs and outputs in societal terms, and developing ways of living and working together, on technologies specific to our local environments which will meet those needs. (This is about the largest agenda one could think of.) When we re-tool our basic systems (such as energy), local knowledge, and sharing it, will be essential, in addition to an understanding of universal technologies. 

What are the main challenges?
Sustaining human beings as the transition occurs, from one technology set (which does, after all, deliver survival, even if it is unsustainable in the long run) to a new one. Also, the new technology set has to be adopted by everyone in the society where it is to work, if sustainability is to be achieved.

Main Areas: 
Healing Nature – reducing the damage made so far
Healing Work – many people’s work does them harm
Healing Learning – Change criteria from selecting the best, and rejecting the rest, to genuinely developing provable skills. This probably means fathers or mothers teaching their own children, using information technology of many different kinds, mediated by religious or cultural institutions. 

This is likely to be rather more than might have expected from a response to a talk about a 19th century scholar. Durkheim was right, in so many ways, and his commitment to humanity is well worth replicating.

Douglas McCulloch
15th October, 2018.