Apple pickers and oyster diggers: Involving some classical social theory

Emile Durkheim[i] has addressed the fact that societies and the social division of labour are becoming more and more complex and have to rely on growingly complex conditions. But, with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg[ii], neither Durkheim nor many other thinkers of his era ever said or thought that this progress could also take place the other way round. But crises usually challenge everything, including the unspoken law of modernism: that development always means progress. And, at the beginning of the 21st century and four decades of austerity policies, it does not seem that it is a law of nature that a crisis will necessarily be followed by a socially inclusive recovery like the post war period after 1945, and it is historically evident that economic progress may harm not only working classes (parts) or certain sectors of economic activities and failing entrepreneurs, but also threat and harm complete countries, the natural environment and the global climate. So far, it is mainly left, ecological, post-growth and postcolonial thought and writings that have brought this forward.

But, as the RESCuE project is discovering practical patterns of socioeconomic resilience, we might have to rethink this issue once again. I think it is more than obvious that complex modes of production, exchange and consumption and social integration, like paid work in a highly organized workplace away from home and household, in a modern labour and market society framed by a welfare state, are vulnerable to failure if exposed to a serious crisis. Couldn’t it be that, if such divisions of labour, complex markets and the modern post-industrialist institutions fail, gradually or completely, some people are starting to re-actualize older, residual, less complex layers or patterns of production, consumption and social integration? Production seems to redevelop from offices, companies and factories at least partly into home- and housework, direct use of nature, and informal work. Labour, exchange and consumption are losing the ‘social’ as well as losing formal and legally regulated markets as one of the Smithian[iii] expressions of ‘the social’, but are now increasingly being allocated alongside patterns of acquaintance, like family, kinship, neighbourhood, subculture and informal structures of the local community. Exchange for money is complemented by older systems such as barter, gift exchange, sharing and keeping production and consumption more within their own ‘oikos’. Let’s remember another early 20th century social theorist, Ferdinand Toennies[iv], who said that society is a rather precarious and abstract issue, requiring deliberate action of citizens who do not necessarily know each other, while communities come into existence naturally, based on similarity of life situations, co-presence or co-locality. Toennies’ thoughts well expressed what Durkheim did not say too explicitly, that society might at a certain historical stage take over tasks from communities – which is very true in the case of the welfare state, most obviously in the Scandinavian ones. For both Durkheim and Toennies, as I read them, a very regular price of this turnover from communities into society may be anomie in case of failure and a lack of affective inclusion even when the system is working well. Persisting poverty, growing unemployment, but also a growth of crime, rising social protest not only from the left, and a lack of social belonging that have been widely diagnosed throughout Europe in the last years might be symptomatic and connect to current diagnoses of postdemocracy[v] or the delayed crisis of capitalism[vi]. But it seems that some few people are able to turn the table and develop strategies to buffer or cope with the crisis, developing resilience.

Why so few? This is where the inherent complexity growth argument of Durkheim, less visible but also crucial for Toennies might have its weak point. It could be a modernist or liberal misunderstanding, that only markets (including financial markets), the dissociation of home and work, of workers and the means of production, the uneven distribution of work-related knowledge, the highly developed global divisions of labour and modern institutions and organisations are complex, and more complex than their historical antecessors? Isn’t it even more a misunderstanding to think of older layers and practices as less complex? Especially in terms of knowledge: not everyone has the knowledge of seasons, places, properties of plants and ways of preserving which are required for gathering. Not everyone has the knowledge to repair a car or washing machine, to lay tiles on the roof, exchange a rotten beam in a timber framework or grow food in the garden. Not everyone has the knowledge to build and keep up informal networks and ties for mutual help in a poor and deprived neighborhood, not to talk about the knowledge of cooking healthy meals for little money. And not everyone has the knowledge to successfully walk the thin line between acceptable and inacceptable informal practices, or between barely legal and illegal practices with respect to declaring or non declaring informal income to the social authorities or squatting public land. And of course, it is not too common to know what to do with 100 kilos of apples before they start rotting or how to dig oysters and other shellfish on the Thames’ banks at low tides.

Thus, we might now be able to draw a first conclusion: For analyzing practices in vulnerable households exposed to crises, it could be interesting and helpful to use the image of layered knowledge and practices, of which lower or older ones come to work when the newest layer fails in a crisis. This goes also – not mentioned here before – together with Raymond Williams[vii]’ model of dominant, residual and emerging patterns of culture: If the dominant pattern fails, previously residual patterns reemerge, or new ones emerge. But the reemergence of residual patterns requires precarious conditions, like knowledge, which might not be residual but simply lost. Backing up earlier empirical arguments and conceptual assumptions, the uneven distribution of knowledge might add another argument why resilience is a matter of a few, and neither a mass phenomenon nor a broad anti poverty strategy – and why many families actually suffering from the crisis can never be honestly blamed for not being resilient. And, it can be added, we all know that knowledge can be transferred if we manage to develop good institutions which are sensitive for inequality and its inherited risks.

There will be further conclusions coming up. Let’s keep thinking about it and discuss them.

Markus Promberger, July 3, 2015

[i] See Emile Durkheim, “La division sociale du travail”, and “La suicide”

[ii] See Rosa Luxemburg, “Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus“

[iii] See Adam Smith, “An Inquiry to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”

[iv] See Ferdinand Toennies, “Community and Society”

[v] See Colin Crouch, “Postdemocracy”

[vi] See Wolfgang Streeck, “Die gekaufte Zeit”

[vii] See Raymond Williams, “Culture and Society”

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