Saturday, March 7, 2009

the division of labor

I want to ask, at the end of De la division du travail social, how Durkheim can be so insightful and open minded about some things, and so committed to other obvious falsehoods? Durkheim asserts, for instance, that the individual is not the substratum of society, but is rather the result of the development of society. This is a rather radical thing to say, and I think especially so around 1890. Yet he also has a remarkably blinkered faith—without basis in evidence, as far as I can tell—that everyone has a ‘place’ in society, that it could be possible for each individual to be ‘fitted’ with a task that adequately fits their personal merits and abilities. Now, in fact, it is possible that he believes the second of these opinions is tenable exactly because of the first—that is, since society has such power in molding its organs (for this is what we individuals are), then of course we will all be shaped to fit our purpose, and ultimately no one will be out of place. I find this a little chilling--it makes me think of Ranciere's classifications of denials of the political from Dis-agreement. But first, what is Durkheim’s broad argument?

As groups of individual humans become larger (in his terms, grow in volume and density) the structure of these groups necessarily changes. At first, societies were segmented, built of a certain number of similar units (families, clans...). This kind of society is strongly conscious of itself and is held together by mechanical solidarity, or similitude (people are mostly the same). As societies grow, and become organized, the division of labor becomes increasingly necessary. The different parts of society become less and less like one another—their form is shaped by their function. A modern society is characterized by organic solidarity, which is solidarity born of mutual dependence. Society is less conscious of itself as such, and individuals, since they are more different from one another, are more conscious of themselves.

A great many consequences flow from this basic understanding of the nature of societies and their modernity. In particular, Durkheim has a clear vision for the primacy of the educational establishment and the government in shaping society. Some active directing agent, he believes, must make certain that the division of labor is not distorted in any serious way, and that each individual, newly opened up to the world, knows just enough about it (and not too much) to feel the dignity of their position as an organ—to feel that they are a part, and only a part, of a larger whole on which they depend, but which also depends on them. Indeed, this is the basis of the morality that Durkheim derives from the nature of society. He says,

La morale des sociétés organisées [as opposed to segmented societies] suspend pas notre activité à des fins qui ne nous touchent pas directement; elle ne fait pas de nous les serviteurs de puissances idéales et d’une tout autre nature que la nôtre, qui suivent leurs voies propres sans se préoccuper des intérêts des hommes. Elle nous demande seulement d’être tendres pour nos semblables et d’être justes, de bien remplir notre tâche, de travailler à ce que chacun soit appelé à fonction qu’il peut le mieux remplir, et reçoive le juste prix de ses efforts. Les règles qui la constituent n’nt pas une force contraignante qui étouffe le libre examen; mais parce qu’elles sont davantage faites pour nous et, dans un certain sens, par nous, nous sommes plus libres vis-à-vis d’elles. (404)

This is, I must admit, a clear articulation of another kind of liberalism. Not only does the individual ultimately depend on society, but the very idea of individual freedom is emergent from its structure. Yet this understanding of society, I think paradoxically because it is so indebted to ‘sociological relativism,’ is deeply committed to the idea, evoked here, of the ‘juste prix.’ I was surprised to see, near the end of this book, Durkheim cite Karl Marx on how the division of labor cuts down on time wasted in production and, as it were, tightens up the pores of the day (388). Without citing Marx, but I think clearly drawing on him, Durkheim also endorses a version of the labor theory of value—each thing has a value determined socially by the amount of useful labor contained within it. For Marx, this is the necessary starting point for the peculiar nature of labor-power as a commodity that is sold for its true value, and yet produces more value than went into it. For Durkheim, the same observation simply serves as a basis for asserting that since there is a correct price (however impossible to actually calculate), there are just contracts.

I have read that Durkheim and Bergson are in a sense the two master thinkers of this period. Certainly, I had the intense feeling reading De la division... that this was the beginning of a conversation I had heard before. For instance, Durkheim discusses law at length in the early parts of the book, as a way of grasping the structure of social consciousness. He argues, essentially, that certain forms of punishment have less to do with the crime and more to do with affirming the reality of the social bond. It is easy to see how one could begin there, and end with the idea—which I, perhaps incorrectly, associated with Bataille and others—that crime is in a sense necessary and constitutive of the psychic reality of society. Crime is produced by society in order that punishment of it may re-enforce collective consciousness.

Given, then, that Durkheim is foundational, I want very much to better understand the form of his relativism. This is his first book, does he retain the heavy, guiding, organic metaphor? I want to know more about his reading of Marx (it is somewhat remarkable that he mentions him at all, is it the German connection to people like Schmoller?)—how, specifically, does he react to the various increasingly assertive worker’s movements of the 1890s? There is something quite radical about attempting to treat the proletariat and ‘white collar’ workers as, essentially, the same, which is what he does. It also creates the potential for a radical under-evaluation of the claims of the industrial laboring population, and blindness to economic forces more generally.

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