Do Disintegrating Societies “Vomit Up” Disturbed and Demonic Leaders? Durkheim’s “Anomie”

The great American social critic Chris Hedges, who has seen a lot of disintegrating political systems in his travels as a foreign correspondent, offers a very resonant or thought-provoking concept when he says that disintegrating societies often “vomit up” criminal psychopathic leaders like the Serbs Mladić, Karadžić, Milošević, et al and Trump himself.

Hedges brings back the Émile Durkheim (one of the fathers of sociology who died in 1917) usage of “anomie” which Durkheim introduces in his masterful book Suicide from 1897. Anomie refers to a level of social bewilderment and lostness where a person or people opens the door to suicide or demonic demagogues who become cult figures rather like Trump to his supporters.

The real question becomes the social rot and dislocatedness that allowed for the rise of the devilish leaders (and secondarily the leaders themselves). The anomie is the problem, the leader a symptom of the problem.

The term anomie—“a reborrowing with French spelling of anomy”—comes from Greek: anomía (ἀνομία, ‘lawlessness’), namely the privative alpha prefix (a-, ‘without’), and nomos (νόμος, ‘law’). The Greeks distinguished between nomos, and arché (ἀρχή, ‘starting rule, axiom, principle’). For example, a monarch is a single ruler but he may still be subject to, and not exempt from, the prevailing laws (i.e., nomos). In the original city state democracy, the majority rule was an aspect of arché because it was a rule-based, customary system, which may or may not make laws (i.e., nomos). Thus, the original meaning of anomie defined anything or anyone against or outside the law, or a condition where the current laws were not applied resulting in a state of illegitimacy or lawlessness.

The contemporary English understanding of the word anomie can accept greater flexibility in the word “norm,” and some have used the idea of normlessness to reflect a similar situation to the idea of anarchy. However, as used by Émile Durkheim and later theorists, anomie is a reaction against or a retreat from the regulatory social controls of society, and is a completely separate concept from anarchy, which consists of the absence of the roles of rulers and submitted.

Nineteenth-century French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim borrowed the term anomie from French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau. Durkheim used it in his influential book Suicide (1897) in order to outline the social (and not individual) causes of suicide, characterized by a rapid change of the standards or values of societies (often erroneously referred to as normlessness), and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for better or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life. This was contrary to previous theories on suicide which generally maintained that suicide was precipitated by negative events in a person’s life and their subsequent depression.

In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community. Robert King Merton also adopted the idea of anomie to develop strain theory, defining it as the discrepancy between common social goals and the legitimate means to attain those goals. In other words, an individual suffering from anomie would strive to attain the common goals of a specific society yet would not be able to reach these goals legitimately because of the structural limitations in society. As a result, the individual would exhibit deviant behavior. Friedrich Hayek notably uses the word anomie with this meaning.

(Wikipedia’s entry for “Anomie”)

Chris Hedges’ point is intriguing because it offers an unusual “flashlight” on the problem of “destructive charisma” in leadership styles where the socially diseased state of the society itself calls forth (i.e., “vomits up”) such leaders from Hitler to Trump.

While not perhaps the whole story, it does get at something crucial, the “endogeneity problem” not in economics where it is usually discussed but in politics. Endogeneity comes from endogenous (i.e., generated from within). Exogenous is the opposite.

The German literary masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) shows a society where life and values are too topsy-turvy and dislocated to be sustainable and this creates an “ecosystem” of disorientation where Nazis begin to emerge or rather “crawl forth.” Thus the Hedges metaphor of “vomit up” is suggestive.

Essay 39: Movies as a “Parachute” or Backdoor Into the Field of Economics

Here’s a second example of using movies to “sneak up on” a field such as economics.

Think of the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948, a Humphrey Bogart classic:

In 1925, in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), two unemployed American drifters, survive by bumming for spare change. They are recruited by an American labor contractor, Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), as roughnecks to construct oil rigs for $8 a day.  When the project is completed, McCormick skips out without paying the men.

Returning to Tampico, the two vagrants encounter the grizzled prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner holds forth on the virtues of gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. The two younger men feel the lure of gold and contemplate its risks. Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a desperate bar fight, they collect their back wages in cash. When Dobbs wins a small jackpot in the lottery, he pools his funds with Curtin and Howard to finance a gold prospecting journey to the Mexican interior.

The flophouse mentioned above (“Oso negro”) has a quick scene which is a marvelous “parachute” into economics:  a group of men begin to reflect on why gold is so expensive while the basics of life like water or air are not.  Howard (their “cracker barrel philosopher-sage,” played by Walter Huston) explains that a thousand men set out to find gold.  999 of the men fail to find any, one finds some.  The price of gold has to reflect the costs of finding it (i.e., men, equipment, time, effort, opportunity costs, risks, danger, etc.) by all thousand and include the 999 failures and not just the one success.  This is an example, albeit primitive, of something like the labor-theory of value explored by Ricardo and then Marx:

Labor theory of value

The labor theory of value (LTV) is a heterodox theory of value that argues that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of “socially necessary labor” required to produce it. … Marx did not refer to his own theory of value as a “labor theory of value.

Again, using this movie as a charming or enchanting “jumping off place,” you would begin to “dive into” those pages of the textbook that are relevant, much as you’d use a dictionary to look up some words. You then read towards the front and the back of the textbook, coming at it your own way, mindful of these questions of yours which begin to give the field a “shape.” You could do the “standard slog” through the textbook, none of which you remember three days after the course because nothing was based on your own “enchanted” searching and exploring.

Lastly, the author of the original 1927 novel, on which the movie is based, B. Traven was a German anarchist and he may have analyzed the world and its prices and costs (i.e., economics) like Howard in the movie.  This too is itself another “pathway” into economics, a biographical one.