work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

the consumerist cult of the individual, social peace and its enemies

06.09.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

With the decline in traditional religiosity and the deracination of the individual in a multicultural consumer society – shouldn’t we descend into an age of violence, particularly at a time of global crisis? Apparently not. According to this here the UK is now at its most peaceful ever, with crime rates, and especially homicide rates, constantly falling.

There is less violent crime than ever before and overall the expression of discontent becomes less physical as well. The fact that you’d be forgiven to think the opposite (looking at the barrage of crime reporting) is easily explained by a common causal factor. As the BBC’s Mark Easton sums up the report:

In the UK there is good evidence that people are becoming more tolerant of difference and less tolerant of violence. Behaviour that may once have been accepted with a sad shrug now demands a political response. Attitudes towards domestic violence, child abuse and drunken aggression have changed enormously in the past few decades, both at an administrative and social level.

This is a very Durkheimian development. As crime is pushed back, the abhorrence of crime increases and vice versa, which would explain why it looks like violent crime is getting worse all the time while, in fact, it is in dramatic decline. But how is this possible in a society where at the same time religious belief and belonging is crumbling away, migration adds to an already very high ethnic and religious diversity and, in Durkheimian terms, the all-important conscience collective is thus disappearing.

Generally Durkheim is misunderstood as having advocated strong ideological commitments to create harmoniously organised and cohesive national societies. Where he has been studied to inform nation building (as in the case of Turkey and Iran – see Arjomand 1982) the lesson was one of enforced ethno-linguistic and/or ethno-religious homogeneity. But in fact, he has elements of an explanation in store why both the mixing and the disintegration of religious and ethnic homogeneity can be a force for peace and harmony rather than, as has been predicted so often, ending in “rivers of blood”. To start with the less plausible: sheer reduction in homogeneity. For Durkheim this not only minimises the overlap of shared values, beliefs and motives, and thus makes others less reliable, predictable and likeable (in the literal sense of “being imagined as someone like oneself…”) – if balanced out in a regulated system of exchange that safeguards a minimum of equitability it enforces a compromise on the smallest common denominator. If there is nothing else we can count on as communality, then the mere fact that we’re all individuals must emerge as the inviolable foundation of society and hence become the new religion: the individual is deified. To quote (becoming a bit of a habit)  Durkheim’s (1898) statement:

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)

I have argued that this is in tune with and supported/sustained by the ethos of a consumer culture that sustains value orientations that are in conflict with ruthless capitalist exploitation

So far I assumed that this is mainly an ethos derived from the argument in the Division of Social Labour – i.e. responding to the diversification and subsequent individualisation that comes with a capitalist economy. But, as Inglis and Robertson show, a similar outlook informs Durkheim’s perspective the Elementary Forms – where he develops what they call an ‘emergent global organic solidarity’ (2008: 20). For them, it is the communication of different religions when involved in peaceful exchanges that produces a similar effect (though neither they nor Durkheim himself suggested a link to the cult of the individual): the emergence of “international gods” that are synthesised out of what the religious system of the communities that got in contact have in common (in the end boiling down to some principles like the Golden Rule – and the respect for the life of everyone included in the newly merged society).

What we might have in the British case is a convergence of the two: radical individualisation due to a liberal political tradition and pervasive consumerism – and loss of common ground due to a radical decrease in religious belief and belonging in the majority population and advanced globalisation leading to the remainder of traditional religiosity to be pluralistic to the extreme.

This could lead to a possible way of answering the question of whether human rights have their roots in religious traditions (as religious leaders tend to claim) or, to the contrary, in the retreat of religions (as atheists and humanists tend to claim). Against the background of a confluence of internationalisation of divinity (reducing it to core values – which tend to be the basic human values of reciprocity and dignity that all religions as embodiments of shared values and beliefs inevitably contain) and secularisation (throwing humans back on themselves).

Of course, this comes with a loss of certainty and homeliness in existence that has driven anti-civilisational radicals throughout the 20th century – as Plessner (1999) has presciently analysed in his Limits of Community in 1924. Those who yearn for the comfort of closed Gemeinschaft and fear the indeterminacy of an open future easily turn into ideologues of death (Carl Schmitt is a case in point). The fascist dreamers of the absolute for whom community can only be found in the construction of friend-enemy distinction, people like the murderers of Lee Rigby, people like Anders Breivik… and people who openly or secretly admire them.

They can’t tolerate the tolerance of a cosmopolitan society whose plurality of beliefs and non-belief and ethnic ambivalence create uncertainty and disorientation alongside the freedom of expression. Ideologists find it easy to mobilise the unhappiness created by social injustice effluent from the same cultural/economic system on which cosmopolitanism is built against the latter. Cosmopolitan culture, indeed, does seem to be the softer target. But has also proved to be far more resilient than its enemies keep hoping for.

Murdering people citing ethnic and/or religious difference is indeed intended put an end to cosmopolitan tolerance and opportunity – invariably the perpetrator see the main  purpose of their crimes as trigger for a race war or a religious war. But up to now this strategy doesn’t seem to work. In the wake of the barbaric murder of drummer Lee Rigby anti-Muslim hate incidents have gone up, but overall the popularity of the self-styled heroic defenders of the Occident, the EDL, has further declined. In his late novel Kingdom Come J G Ballard predicts a hooligan ultra-nationalist movement sporting St George’s cross t-shirts and links it emergence to pervasive consumerism. While there now indeed seems to be such a movement, the majority of consumers seem to be quite immune to its appeal. While the objective of the propagandist s of hate seek to create a Manichaeism of warlike political communities under the assumption that ‘no way of life can ever prevail in the world if its followers accord their faith and commitment a subordinate position in their lives. Or, if they live and die for causes other than their faith’ (Mawdudi 1985: 116) – the tendency of religious mentality in a consumer society evidently goes the way of sanctifying the individual self (Bailey 1990: 494f.). The pursuits of the likes of Anjem Choudary as well as those of the EDL are likely to end in frustration – as in this curious incident.


Arjomand, Said Amir (1982): ‘À la recherche de la conscience collective: Durkheim’s Ideological Impact in Turkey and Iran’, in: American Sociologist, Vol.17, pp.94-102

Bailey, Edward (1990): ‘The Implicit Religion of Contemporary Society: Some Studies and Reflections’, in: Social Compass, Vol.37, No.4, pp.483-97

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

Inglis, David/Robertson, Roland (2008): ‘The Elementary Forms of Globality: Durkheim and the Emergence and Nature of Global Life’, in: Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol.8, No.5, pp.5-25.

Mawdudi, A.A. (1985) Let Us Be Muslims (Khutubat) (Leicester: Islamic Foundation)

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community, New York: Humanity Books

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