Under the dire circumstances of the covid crisis social solidarity takes the unanticipated, paradoxical form of ‘self-isolation’ and what is called ‘social distancing,’ exhibiting fear of contact with friends, neighbors and strangers. The distancing is actually physical with a social goal: it is practiced in collective self-defense to restore the social solidarity that renders individuality possible, providing the social framework, social norms and social bonds that will enable people to live their normal individual lives, as before.
But what was normal before? And what will look normal afterwards, when the crisis finally abates? Which individual lives did the social solidarity of recent times enable to flourish and which others did not in consequence? Though the virus itself is blind to social divisions, the crisis itself has vividly distinguished the privileged and sheltered from the exposed and endangered, above all those ‘essential’ workers, black and other minority communities, the poor, the aged, the chronically sick, the homeless, the incarcerated and detained. Suddenly, as during Hurricane Katrina, the truly vulnerable become visible to all.
So it is time to think about social solidarity, which is why Durkheim is the classical sociologist for this moment. His entire life’s work consisted in seeking to understand it and explore its mechanisms. His inaugural lecture at the University of Bordeaux was on ‘Social Solidarity’ and his first book, The Division of Labor in Society, advanced his famous distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. The first sustains collective identities, common sentiments and shared beliefs; the second unites ever more interdependent people across and despite their divergent life courses, values and interests. It was in 1898 in his essay ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’ that he deepened that latter idea by asking how a complex modern society can survive a crisis. A society, he came to see, ‘cannot hold together unless there exists among its members a certain intellectual and moral unity.’
The crisis was the Dreyfus Affair, which polarized France between those adamantly opposed to questioning the army and the Church, who condemned Dreyfus, seeing them as pillars of national unity and those, like Emile Zola, outraged at the conviction of the innocent Jewish captain falsely accused of betraying his country. Durkheim turned the anti-Dreyfusard argument on its head, arguing that national unity in an advanced, heterogeneous society demands a society-wide commitment to individual rights, holding ‘the individual in general’ to be sacred, by according a kind of ‘religious respect’ for ‘the human person, wherever it is to be found, and in whatever form it is incarnated.’ ‘The idea of the human person,’ he wrote, ‘given different emphases in accordance with the diversity of national temperaments, is…the sole idea the sole idea that survives, immutable and impersonal, above the changing tides of personal opinions, and the sentiments which it awakens are the only ones to be found in almost all hearts.’ ’This ‘religion of humanity whose rational expression is individualist morality’ was ‘the only system of beliefs that can ensure the moral unity of the country.’ Its ‘motive force’ was ‘not egoism but sympathy for all that is human, a wider pity for all sufferings, for all human miseries, a more ardent desire to combat and alleviate them, a greater thirst for justice.’ And Durkheim contrasted individualism thus understood with another kind of individualism, typified for him by Herbert Spencer and those he called ‘the economists’: ‘that narrow commercialism that reduces society to nothing more than a vast apparatus of production and exchange.’
The crisis Durkheim addressed was local, while the pandemic we face is global, and yet we can see two striking parallels. In both cases we can see intense polarization tearing at the social fabric. in France it was largely driven by antisemitism. In Trump’s America and post-Brexit Britain the pandemic invaded societies whose civic morale was already sapped by exceptionally bitter political hostilities. And in both cases the proposed remedy lies in the rejection of the market fundamentalism that in the United States has wreaked social devastation and promoted unbridled inequalities.
And yet the Durkheimian secular religion of individualism, if it is to prevail in the world after the pandemic, will need to go far beyond the liberalism and the socialism that went before. It will need really to take seriously the sacredness of individual lives, extending ‘religious respect’ to all those defined by social categories that have hitherto functioned to exclude them from it. On the most optimistic assumptions, people will learn from the current crisis that the interdependence of organic solidarity demands recognition of everyone, including all health workers, from doctors to those who dispose of dead bodies, the delivery man and the cashier in the grocery store.
April 23, 2020.
Steven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at New York University. From September 2015 to July 2016 he was a Krzysztof Michalski Visiting Fellow at the IWM.