Friday, June 5, 2009

Life in a world of unlimited horizons and limited means

I ran across this bit while rereading Durkheim's Suicide [first published in 1897]. I thought it very timely.

“For a whole century, economic progress has mainly consisted in freeing industrial relations from all regulation.
…[N]ations are declared to have the single or chief purpose of achieving industrial prosperity; such is the implication of the dogma of economic materialism …. And as these theories merely express the state of opinion, industry instead of being as a mean to an end transcending itself, has become the supreme end of individuals and societies alike. Thereupon the appetites thus excited have become freed of any living authority [either church or state]. By sanctifying them, so to speak, this apotheosis of well-being has placed them above all human law. Their restraint seems like a sort of sacrilege. For this reason, even the purely utilitarian regulation of them exercised by the industrial world itself through the medium of occupational groups has been unable to persist. Ultimately, this liberation of desires has been made worse by the very development of industry and the almost infinite extension of the market. So long as the producer could gain his or her profits only in his or her immediate neighborhood, the restricted amount of the possible gain could not overexcite ambition. Now that he or she may have almost the entire world as his or her customer, how could passions accept their former confinement in the face of such limitless prospects.
Such is the source of the excitement predominating this part of the society, and which has thence extended to the other parts. There, the state of crisis and anomy is constant and, so to speak, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. Nothing can calm it, since its goal is far beyond all it can attain. Reality seems valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imaginations; reality is therefore abandoned, but so too possibility is abandoned when it in turn become reality. A thirst arises for novelties, unfamiliar pleasures, nameless sensations, all of which lose their savor once known. Henceforth one has so strength to endure the least reverse. The whole fever subsides and the sterility of all tumult is apparent, and it is seen that all these new sensations in their infinite quantity cannot form a solid foundation of happiness to support one during days of trial. The wise person, knowing how to enjoy achieved results without having constantly to replace them with others, finds in them an attachment to life in the hour of difficulty. But that humanity who has always pinned all its hopes on the future and lived with his eyes fixed upon it, has nothing in the past as a pleasure against the present’s afflictions, for the past was nothing to it but a series of hastily experienced stages. What blinded that person to him- or herself was his expectation always to find further on the happiness he or she had so far missed. Now he or she is stopped in his or her tracks; from now on nothing remains behind or ahead to fix his or her gaze upon. Weariness alone, moreover, is enough to bring disillusionment, for he or she cannot in the end escape the futility of an endless pursuit.
We may even wonder if this moral state is not principally what makes economic catastrophes of our day so fertile in suicides. In societies where a person is subjected to a healthy discipline, he or she submits more readily to the blows of chance. The necessary effort for sustaining a little more discomfort costs him or her relatively little, since he or she is accustomed to discomfort and constraint. But when every constraint is hateful in itself, how can closer constraint not seem intolerable? There is no tendency to resignation in the feverish impatience people’s lives. When there is no other aim but to outstrip constantly the point arrived at, how painful to be thrown back! Now this very lack of organization characterizing our economic condition throws the door wide to every sort of adventure. Since imagination is hungry for novelty, and ungoverned, it gropes at random. Setbacks necessarily increase with risks and thus crises multiply, just when they are becoming more destructive.
Yet these dispositions are so inbred that society has grown to accept them and is accustomed to think them normal. It is everlastingly repeated that it is human’s nature to be eternally dissatisfied, constantly to advance, without relief or rest, toward an indefinite goal. The longing for infinity is daily represented as a mark of moral distinction, whereas it can only appear within unregulated consciences which [sic] elevate to a rule the lack of rule from which they suffer. The doctrine of the most ruthless and swift progress has become an article of faith. But other theories appear parallel with those praising the advantages of instability, which, generalizing the situation that gives them birth, declare life evil, claim that it is richer in grief than in pleasure and that it attracts people only by false claims. Since this disorder is greatest in the economic world, it has most victims there.”

Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1897 [1951 trans. by John Spaulding]. [Edited for archaic use of masculine gendered pronouns.]

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