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Essay: Compare Karl Marx & Emile Durkheim’s Criticisms of Anomie & Alienation in 19th Century Eur

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Both writing in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim were heavily critical of the industrial society and the rise of capitalism in nineteenth century Europe. Despite this, their criticisms of the problems with society are noticeably different. This is made most clear through their concepts of alienation and anomie, and the different assumptions and implications they entail. (Lukes, 1977). Anomie is defined as being “a state of normlessness that occurs when people lose sight of the shared rules and values that give order and meaning to their lives” (Chambliss & Eglitis, 2014). In order to look into how Marx might criticise Durkheim’s concept of anomie, it is important to first examine both of their general theories in detail, as it is these theories that are the underlying causes of both alienation and anomie. There are no direct criticisms of Marx on Durkheim, as Durkheim wrote about anomie after Marx’s death, however criticisms can be inferred from looking at both of their works. Three criticisms will be presented. First, it will be suggested that Marx would be critical of Durkheim’s sole focus on solidarity, secondly there will be a criticism by Georges Friedmann, who was influenced strongly by the works of Marx. Thirdly, the difference between anomie and alienation will be highlighted as a critique in itself.

Marx’s theory revolves around class struggle, which is the conflict between those who own and control the means of production, who he called the ‘bourgeoisie’ and those who provide their labour, who he called the ‘proletariat’. He looks particularly into “the social relationships that create private property rights over economic resources” (Turner, 1996) and to him, this class struggle is “the main agency of social change, the underlying meaning of social revolutions, and the key element in the transition from one type of society to another” (Turner, 1996).  In Marxist theory, human society is comprised of two parts: the base and the superstructure. The base contains the relations of production and means of production such as tools, machines and raw materials. This shapes and maintains the superstructure, which holds anything that is not directly to do with production, such as family, culture, law and education. This is then fed back to the base, transforming it into a dialectical pattern, with the base, Marx says, “condition[ing] the general process of social, political and intellectual life” and determining the conditions of the superstructure “which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Marx, 1977). He believed that the society held class-consciousness, which can be defined as “a social condition in which members of a social class, and in particular the working class, are actively aware of themselves as a class” (Crossman, 2015).  There was also such a thing known as false consciousness, which is a lack of the awareness in class-consciousness, resulting in an inaccurate perception of the reality of class. In this case, the false consciousness is apparent to Marx due to the inability of the working class to see the nature of this oppressive class relationship. However, he believed that over time they would eventually have an awareness of the reality of the classed society in which they lived in, and would become mindful that they are being exploited and they would therefore gain class-consciousness. Marx believed that once the proletarians had achieved class-consciousness, they would inevitably become a threat to the wealthy as a worker-led revolution would ensue and overthrow the oppressive capitalist system (Gilbert, 1979).

Marx alleged that the ‘bourgeoisie’ ran the states by acting like it was the common interest of all, when actually it was in their interest and they were instead just exploiting the working class. Marx thought he would see more of the working class rise socially and financially after the industrial revolution, however this didn’t materialise. He viewed the system as being inherently unfair as the working class became poorer and poorer which consequentially made them experience alienation. This arose because the workers began to feel lost as they became more detached from their work, “resulting in a feeling of powerlessness” (Johnson, 2016). This was soul destroying and they began to experience the world as external and objective and no longer felt a part of a social group, known as estrangement. Marx didn’t see a capitalist market economy as a self-regulating system; rather, it periodically entered periods of “self-generated breakdown, known as crises” (Sperber, 2013). In order to rid the proletarians of any further alienation, Marx believed capitalism had to end and a socialist society had to be imposed, which would also bring class conflict to an end. In his communist manifesto, written in 1848, he stated, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” (Marx & Engels, 1969).

Durkheim, on the other hand, bases his work around solidarity, which is what he says holds society together. He states that there are two kinds of solidarity: mechanical and organic. Mechanical solidarity exists in pre modern societies, and they are bound together by what Durkheim named collective consciousness. This is the state in which everyone holds the same values and has the same experiences, and for the most part, people are bound together by “commonalities, similitudes and likenesses” (Pope and Johnson, 1983). On the other hand, organic solidarity exists in modern societies, and there is a lack of similarity, with people worshiping different Gods, and having different jobs, experiences and values. Interdependence is the cohesion of society here. Although everyone is very dissimilar, they all rely on each other. He states that unlike those in pre modern society, who are self sufficient, the modern person relies on numerous people, such as the butcher, the banker, the policeman, the teacher, etc. An analogy to describe this is comparing organic solidarity to the human body, which has different organs that all do their own specialised job in order to make the whole system work. He doesn’t view collective consciousness as being cut out altogether in this society; rather it is all “very general and indeterminate ways of thought and sentiment, which leaves room open for a growing variety of individual differences” (Durkheim, 1997). He does however state that there is something that is predominantly valued by most people in western societies: individualism. This is the value and interests of the individual rather than wider society and is particularly visible in consumerism and is “one of the dominant global social forces” (James et al, 2010), which Durkheim likens to “the religion of the individual” (Durkheim, 1997). In this consumerist society, people are constantly told that they are free and unique individuals and therefore people both think and buy whatever satisfies them personally. However, even though individualism is collectively valued, it doesn’t promote social solidarity or unite people because “it is not to society that it attaches us; it is to ourselves” (Durkheim, 1997).

This specialisation, according to Durkheim, brings about the division of labour. In pre modern societies, everyone essentially carries out the same jobs, especially if you go back to hunter-gatherer societies whereas in modern society everyone has highly specialised roles. Specialisation is powerful as everyone unites together to make something that no one person could make alone, however a consequence of being so specialised is that no person could survive alone. The number of people in a society and the degree of interactivity between them is what Durkheim called dynamic density, and this is what causes the shift from mechanical solidarity to organic. As the dynamic density increases, competition increases, causing society to drive to find a more efficient way of doing things. However, this division of labour brings about Durkheim’s concept of anomie. This is when there is too much individualism and people go into a state of normlessness, where they are unclear of what is and isn’t moral behaviour. In this state of anomie, people are isolated and reduced to the repetition of meaningless tasks and they begin to feel unsure of the choices they make due to no guidance or regulation.

It has been said that the association of both Marx and Durkheim’s theories are one of “mutual disregard” (Bottomore, 1981) and although Durkheim was familiar with Marx’s works, Marxist thought was not influential to his own. However, if Marx had written after Durkheim, it could be said that he would be critical of a number of things. As previously stated, anomie arises from the division of labour which arises from two types of solidarity. Marx would be critical of Durkheim focusing so heavily on solidarity and not viewing class conflict and economic factors as influential.  Durkheim does recognise class conflict as a thing, but not the cause, merely a symptom of social problems and that it was “not as fundamental as the overarching issue of social solidarity” (Turner, 1996). Durkheim argued “that the “sad class conflict” of the time was only an unimportant secondary phenomenon…the conflict between labour and capitalism…disrupts the solidarity generated by the interdependence of functions but can be overcome through the integrating actions of the state and occupational associates…Durkheim dismissed class conflict as a transitional and minor phenomenon” (Bottomore, 1981). Durkheim is so heavily focused on solidarity that he fails to see that conflict is such a profound influence on society throughout history and he also fails to draw on the flaws in the division of labour, which are highlighted by Marx and his theory of alienation. Division of labour to him is what creates class conflict, what destroys the harmony of the human race and what caused this alienated labour, this soul-destroying force. Durkheim disagreed with the view that a major social change would occur from class struggle, however that is exactly what has happened in the course of the twentieth century. Marx would argue that Durkheim switches over the relationships in society as he explains social phenomena through the movement of ideas rather than reasoning with the material, the mode of production. For Durkheim it is "the consciousness of men that deter-mines their being," and not, as Marx argued, "social being [that] deter-mines their consciousness." (Bottomore, 1981)

Georges Friedmann, who was strongly influenced by Marxist theory, also criticised Durkheim’s division of labour and concept of anomie, and it could therefore also be suggested the Marx would hold a similar judgement. Friedmann implies that the division of labour actually gives rise to two separate kinds of solidarity: the coming together of a firm as a whole and the solidarity of workers as a class. He states, “…it is not the interdependence of the operations imposed on them by the division of labour that leads to a feeling of moral solidarity, and creates a network of lasting relationships within this human group. It is not their technical status…but their social status that gives rise to this feeling, their daily awareness of their common situation in regard to their employer…and in general within the society of which they form a part" (Friedmann, 1962). This is not too dissimilar to Marx’s concept of alienation, which arises from class-consciousness.

A critique in itself could be that of the difference between alienation and anomie. Alienation revolves around a situation in which the worker is coerced into doing something and cannot do anything about the social forces that structure their lives, which results in the worker becoming alienated and feeling powerless, whereas in contrast, anomie arises from a situation in which it is the individuals themselves who resist social values and live their own lifestyles, always looking for more. Alienation arises due to the individual being held back by such strict constraints and having to follow rigorous procedures. An alienated individual, who is over guided and controlled by the society he created, is in complete contrast of the anomic individual, who is too free and in frantic need of some structure and control and unable to find any guidance in knowing how to go about their lives. Marx says the problem lies in the individual’s powerlessness in society, whereas Durkheim says the problem lies in the individual’s need for society to be more powerful. Those who are alienated are striving to be liberated, whereas those in anomie want a portion of their freedom to be taken away. Marx doesn’t view an individual as possessing the freedom that Durkheim suggests and he would view this as an inherent flaw in Durkheim’s theory.

To conclude, both Marx and Durkheim used their concepts of alienation and anomie to describe the “radical attack on the dominant institutions and values of industrial society” (Horton, 1964). Although attacking the same behaviour, the attacks came from contrasting viewpoints and therefore their criticisms of the problems with society are noticeably different. Marx looked at the importance of freedom from constraint, whereas Durkheim looked at the importance of constraint and guidance of freedom. Marx sought power and change while Durkheim sought maintenance of order. Marx would be critical of Durkheim’s sole focus on solidarity, which causes division of labour, which causes anomie, and Durkheim’s apparent disregard of class conflict being a majorly influential. Friedmann’s criticism suggests that Marx would criticise Durkheim’s view that interdependence leads to solidarity, and that rather it is someone’s consciousness and social status that gives rise to this. Regardless of any criticisms, both Marx and Durkheim are considered to be founding fathers of sociology, with Marx introducing the idea of communism and the problems it brings to society, and with Durkheim exposing what it is that holds society together and how society deals with the divisions in society.

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