Marx’s Concept of Alienation versus Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie

Marx’s Concept of Alienation versus Durkheim’s Concept of Anomie

Both Marx and Durkheim, as was suggested in Chapter 1, were fundamentally guided in their choice of topics to study by their desire to understand and try to solve the problems that arose as the societies in which they lived moved from a preindustrial to an industrial state. For Marx, one of the most serious of these problems was what he termed alienation; for Durkheim, the more critical problem was anomie. While both of these important concepts call forth images of profound human discontent, and while both are often seen as increasingly prevalent in modern society, they are fundamentally distinct and in certain ways antagonistic. An examination of these two notions may help us to better understand the underlying differences between the visions of society developed by these two seminal sociological thinkers. Marx’s notion of alienation reflects a perception that people in modern society are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. For Marx, it is an essential part of human existence that we collectively create the social world in which we live. Governments, economic systems, educational institutions, and even religions are the products of human activity and consciousness. We created them and, in principle, we can change them. But over time, and especially as societies become more complex (and more capitalistic), people begin to lose track of the fact that they have created the society in which they live. Social institutions begin to be perceived as oppressive. Instead of something we shape and create, they come to be seen as, in effect, coercive external realities to which we must conform. Ultimately, we come to feel powerless to influence the circumstances of our own lives. Marx felt that this progressive process of alienation results from the capitalist mode of economic production, but it could equally well be argued that it is inherent in any sufficiently large-scale, economically advanced modern society. Marx saw modern man as alienated in many dimensions of life. For instance, in the world of work, the assembly line serves as an excellent example of objectified alienation. Humans created it, yet the individual worker standing on the line feels totally powerless, unable to alter the character of the task he or she is compelled to perform or even the pace at which the work must be done. Furthermore, workers lose a sense of how their contribution to the overall effort promotes the final end of the manufacturing process — they feel not only powerless but also that their work is meaningless. Beyond that, Marx notes that highly alienated workers also lose a sense of commonality with their fellow workers. They feel not only controlled, but also isolated. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements, in addition to experiencing other pathologies. What occurs in the workplace is echoed in other dimensions of life. For example, people who are politically alienated feel powerless to affect important decisions made by elected leaders. The government they elect comes to be seen as “they,” not “we.” People no longer perceive any value in participating in politics, and they no longer derive a sense of shared identity with others through joint political activity. Note that, for Marx, alienation ultimately results from a societal situation in which there are too many rules, rules the individual feels are being imposed upon him or her, despite the fact that ultimately all of these rules are the products of human social activity. Durkheim also sees a strongly negative quality creeping into life in modern industrial societies, but he diagnoses the situation quite differently. For him, the problem stems from the destruction of the close ties that bonded the individual to family, church, and community in the traditional, preindustrial village. In such a society, high in mechanical solidarity, individuals knew exactly what was expected of them. There was little or no normative ambiguity. But with the advent of the urban and industrial revolutions — the same changes Marx saw as leading to alienation — Durkheim saw the new urban industrial worker as subject to a breakdown of the moral consensus that was characteristic of the village community. Thrust into industrial cities in jarring juxtaposition to dozens of different subcultures, members of the developing modern societies of Western Europe and America began to lose their moral compasses. With the decline of the absolute and inflexible norms found in traditional society, modern man was cast adrift on a relativistic ocean where right and wrong were no longer easily defined. Durkheim called this condition of society anomie, from the Latin a (without) nomos (order). In a state of anomie, often defined as normlessness, people in modern society drift from one definition of proper behavior to the next, never sure they are acting as they ought to. The result of this endemic moral rootlessness, according to Durkheim, is social pathology much like that envisioned by Marx as the consequence of alienation: drug abuse, family dissolution, high rates of crime and mental illness, high suicide rates, and so forth. But while alienation and anomie may both be endemic to industrial societies and may lead to similar behavioral problems, they are fundamentally different concepts. An alienated individual is one who is exposed to too many rules, to too strict a set of constraints. Far from being in a state of drift, the alienated individual is oversteered, overguided, dominated, and ultimately crushed by the very society that he and others like him established. In contrast, the anomic individual is in a state of moral free-fall, desperately anxious for structure or constraint but unable to find enough moral guidance to be able to know how to live his or her life. The problem is that society is too weak, not too strong. People who are alienated know exactly what is expected of them, but find the yoke of these expectations crushing. People with anomie yearn for the guiding hand of society but find only a chaotic freedom that fails entirely to liberate. For Marx, the problem is the powerlessness of the individual to shape or even resist the coercion of society; for Durkheim, modern people desperately wish for society to be more, not less, coercive. Ultimately, Marx’s vision is of people striving to free themselves from the fetters of excessive regulation, while Durkheim suggests that people cannot live happy or productive lives unless properly guided by the invisible hand of society. Discussion Questions Which vision — Marx’s or Durkheim’s — strikes you as a more accurate explanation for the numerous social pathologies that characterize modern industrial and post-industrial societies? How can we attempt to remedy the problem of alienation? How can we try to reduce anomie? Is it possible to achieve a balance between too much and too little normative constraint, so that people can be neither alienated nor anomic?