work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Le nez rouge de Durkheim

02.15.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

It’s Red Nose Day again soon  – which comes as a reminder of just how closely the quasi-religious culture of celebrity and consumer sainthood and the discourse of humanitarianism and human rights are interlinked (see Goodman 2009). In an earlier post I have suggested that we can see the discourse of human rights as quasi-theological and high-church version of what Durkheim’s ‘cult of the individual’ that forms the residual conscience collective of modern society – and consumerism as its folk religious cultural basis that provides it with an everyday plausibility. Durkheim (1898) claimed that modern individualism is more than just an egoistic pursuit of self interest, and nor is it just a cultural facilitator of the workings of the division of labour in capitalist societies – rather it is a proper religion. This central statement cannot be quoted often enough:

Quiconque attente à une vie d’homme, à la liberté d’un homme, à l’honneur d’un homme, nous inspire un sentiment d’horreur, de tous points analogue à celui qu’éprouve le croyant qui voit profaner son idole. Une telle morale n’est donc pas simplement une discipline hygiénique ou une sage économie de l’existence ; c’est une religion dont l’homme est, à la fois, le fidèle et le Dieu – Whoever infringes on a man’s life, a man’s freedom, a man’s honour, inspires in us a sense of horror which is, in every respect, parallel to that which a believer feels when seeing his idol desecrated. Such a morality is therefore not simply a matter of healthy discipline or wise economy of existence. It is a religion in which Man is at once believer and God. (my translation , MZV)

It is easy to see how this relates to the discourse and practice of human rights within and across nation states. Elliott (2007 sums up the status that human rights have in today’s global culture as follows:

‘… the normative content of human rights standards points to a global environment where the individual is widely regarded as fundamentally sacred and inviolable, and therefore the locus of rights that must be guaranteed by legitimate global actors. Not unlike the apostolic mission of Christianity, for example, the human rights movement sees no boundary to its activity of securing temporal salvation for each and every individual regardless of race, gender, nationality, religious affiliation or sexual preference. Reminiscent of the Christian notion of the soul, human rights are deemed to be inherent in every person as fundamental, ontological features. And just as salvation in the Christian faith is closely linked to the heavenly fate of souls, recognition of and respect for human rights is believed to be integral to the fate of humanity on earth.’ (Elliott 2007: 350)

But what is the link to consumerism? My point would be one of exclusion. If, as Elliott plausibly argues, the human rights discourse not to be explained with rational choice approaches or perspectives from activism (the latter quite obviously not, since the human rights activism presupposes the self-evident legitimacy of human rights) – it has to be seen as embedded in a world culture (2007: 347). But what other world culture is there save consumerism? This is not to suggest that the sources of the human rights discourse lie in commercial culture – although there is something to be had from such a genealogy, as Sznaider (2001) shows. Elliot (2007: 351) suggests multiple sources in ‘ancient Athens, Jerusalem or Rome’ but gives most credit to Christianity. While I am not so sure about that (in fact – I would include non-European sources as well as the devastating experience of totalitarianism), what is more interesting is the question how human rights became to be such an integral part of world culture that we could see their institutionalisation in human rights law and international human rights courts as high theology and church of the cult of the individual.  Similar to Weber’s and Campbell’s arguments about the Protestant and Romantic roots of capitalism and consumerism respectively, even if the genealogy should be correct (and in the case of human rights I am more doubtful than in with respect to the capitalist and consumerist spirits), the question arises how the ideology is sustained after the demise of its source (e.g. among Western secularists) and beyond its confines (e.g. in Japan or South Korea). Elliott suggests that the institutionalisation of human rights in international organisations. This falls short, I think, of the scope of his suggestion that the discourse of human rights is anchored in world culture. That would imply some globally shared set of everyday practices and/or beliefs that have attained the status of taken-for-granted and self evident part of social reality. I can think of only one such culture – and that is the culture of consumerism. Institutions such as human rights law, of course, will be important in reinforcing the idea of the sacredness of the individual – but they are not really present in everyday life. And where they are, they are often enough ridiculed – as they are when less obvious and plausible cases brought before national and international high courts are ridiculed in the popular press. I think when we consider global culture we cannot get round consumerism – even if the link is, at first, not that obvious. See here for my case that this link is so strong that, ironically, it puts a question mark behind the legitimacy of the economic system that produced it, making possible what I have called a ‘consumerist critique of capitalism’.


Durkheim, Émile (1898): ‘L’Individualisme et les intellectuels’, in: Revue Bleue, No.10, pp.7-13

Elliott, Michael A. (2007): ‘Human Rights and the Triumph of the Individual in World Culture’, in: Cultural Sociology, Vol.1, No.3, pp.343-63

Goodman, Michael K. (2009): ‘The Mirror of Consumption: Celebritization, Developmental Consumption and the Shifting Cultural Politics of Fair Trade’, in: Geoforum, Vol.41, No.1, pp.104-16

Sznaider, Natan (2001): The Compassionate Temperament. Care and Cruelty in Modern Society. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

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