simmel and durkheim on anomie
In my undergraduate social theory class, I teach a little bit of Durkhem’s The Division of Labor and Simmel’s essay on the problem of modern culture, as anthologized in the Levine volume. Last week , multiple students asked: How are Simmel and Durkheim’s criticism’s of modernity different?
I had to admit that they formulated very similar criticisms: modern society was dysfuntional because we are disconnected. However, Durkheim and Simmel had very different proximate causes for modernity’s problems. Simmel was not quite obsessed with the development of capitalism as a root problem, while Durkheim, and other classical theorists, definitely though that the capitalist division of labor was the fundamental issue in modernity.
The Simmel take on capitalism was always a bit conflicted. Yes, he could be extremely critical. When I took an undergraduate theory course, he was presented as a sort of Marxist. The city was the nexus of capitalism, and they city depersonalized you. But if you read Philosophy of Money in its entirety, you’d see he also had a number of very positive things to say about modern economic institutions. So it’s not just a case of anti-capitalist critique.
That leads me to my main point about Simmel’s view of modernity. I think ultimately it’s a cultural argument. The formlessness of modern life, his terminology for anomie, was less about social differentiation (i.e., the capitalist way of organizing work) and more about the lack of values that provided order for the spirit. Individualism, which is not logically connected with modern capitalism, was the culprit. Anomie reflects a shift in culture, not just a technical development.
So, theory heads, did I get this one right?