Revolution and Anomie

Bernard Brown




Brief Outline



I.      The Crises of  Modernization


A.    Crisis of legitimacy

B.    Crisis of participation

C.    Crisis of tension management


II.      Anomie


A.    Definition

B.    Causes

C.    Symptoms




In this interesting article, Brown looks more closely at the crises that ensue from the modernization of a society. He identifies three main problems that accompany any process of modernization: legitimacy, participation, and tension management. Brown focuses on the work of the French political philosopher Durkheim and he uses, in particular, the French experience with modernization to support his arguments. He then examines the state of anomie that many individuals and/or social groups go into when they are forced to adapt or put up with a new way of living.


Brown starts with one major event that Europe witnessed which forced it to cope with new conditions. That was the Enlightenment. The Age of Reason destroyed a lot of old superstitions, and the old political and religious foundations were swept away. For example, the concept of Divine Right and the old Feudal societies had to give way to more rational theories of political legitimacy. With modernization came new social groups like the entrepreneurs, the managers and the clerks and, last but not least, the massive working class. The existing political structure had to integrate these new groups into the political system, and inevitably, that led to crises of legitimacy, participation. And tension management. One living example of this situation was France in the eighteenth century. The Revolution of 1789 converted France into a modern state almost overnight. The result was a long period of constitutional instability continuing to this day. The French working and business classes are still to this day reluctant to bargain with each other although they are compelled to do so by circumstances. Distrust and conflict continues to interfere with the smooth functioning of the French political system. Brown continues to expound on the crises of modernization. He points out that not only the working class is distrustful of the political system in France, but the students and the intellectuals. And that he attributes to the intensive, destructive urge that characterizes students and intellectuals in general. He concludes this part of his essay with a pessimistic look at the course of history: that not only the failures, but also the very success of a society in meeting the challenges of modernization may lead to its own downfall.


Next Brown examines a serious problem and social symptom that accompanies modernization: that of Anomie. He examines its symptoms, its “mind” (meaning what it strives to achieve), and its causes. Anomie is the social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; on the personal level it means personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals. Anomie can sprout in different circumstances. For example, when a traditional society breaks up, the family structure and the church are brought into question. New values and new social structures arise (for example science, cults, etc.) but many times, the individual in transition cannot accept the new values and he feels “distanced” from the new ones. Other individuals might welcome the change… The reaction can range from apathy at the social-group level, to suicide at the individual level, to whole political groups raging against established authority. In France in particular, and in Europe in general, Anomie also manifested itself in philosophical and artistic movements as well. Literary movements such as Dada and Surrealism questioned science, rationality and modern society. They longed for and celebrated the glories and the innocence of the village and farm society. They exulted instead of the new values, the gesture of the child, the unpredictable happening, and the immediate gratification of desires. Those values were also  at the heart of the philosophy of some of the greatest Existentialist philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche. Brown asserts that the anomic opposition to modernization is one form of protest against poverty and exploitation. Anomic “rebels” fully accept the concept of modernization though not through capitalism. Their goal is to base socialism on a modern, not a primitive economy.

Then Brown examines one of the “built-in” defects of modern societies whose rationale is to create more wealth. He believes that it is not only poverty that causes protest and revolt in a modern society, but also prosperity. Poverty is lamentable, he agrees, but it’s also a school of discipline. In contrast, prosperity gives people the illusion that they are totally independent of others, that they can overcome by themselves any obstacles that may come along the way. When life is easy, there is no reason to obey commands and the penalty for insubordination seems trivial or non-existent for more powerful individuals. And when an individual successfully defies one authority, he is tempted to defy another, until finally the very notion of authority becomes unbearable. Brown warns that prosperity unaccompanied by a strong sense of responsibility may undo a society. He looks into the psychology that  accompanies individuals that are “struck” by sudden wealth. The struggle for success may be more satisfying that success itself he argues. Many individuals that “make it to the top” become so disappointed with the fruits of success that going on seems pointless. Some of them develop problems of lack of self-confidence - they fear that they cannot repeat their success. Brown sums it up this way: When the “anchors” of society give way, social discipline, political authority, the incentive to produce and sometimes the incentive to live give way. And when these anomie-struck individuals contemplate the “vacuum” for too long, they risk being drawn into it. Once in a condition of anomie, individuals react in different ways. Some of them renounce, withdraw from life and loose their zest for it, and in extreme cases, they commit suicide. The state of  irritated lassitude and exasperation that accompanies Anomie could also turn some individuals against others. Brown sees in Apathy and terrorism related aspects of the same continuing reaction to modernization. Brown offers real-life examples. He quotes from History the May Revolution that happened in France in 1968 after an unprecedented 20 years of economic growth. He pinpoints the fact that the most raucous and undisciplined campus that was involved in the May revolution was that of Nantere whose students are drawn from the comfortable sections of the West of Paris. The French May Revolution highlights, says Brown quoting Durkheim, the existence of a new dimension in the continuing crisis of participation which I mentioned in the beginning of this paper: the crisis of participation or “entry into politics” as Durkheim puts it. Anomie ensued when it became increasingly more difficult to integrate the middle and working classes into the French political system that had previously been dominated by landed aristocracy. The life style of the capitalists was more and more remote from the reality of  workday experience. A point was reached where it was beyond the capacity of workers and capitalists to understand each other…

In later stages of industrial modernization, the social force undergoing the greatest rate of expansion is the intellectual class - the philosophers, thinkers, poets, scientists, engineers, technicians, administrators and so on. The newly massive social class follows in the tradition of its predecessors by making demands upon the political system. To the intellectuals, Liberalism seemed to be a cover for the supremacy of money or numbers. In Durkheim’s sense, many intellectuals are in a condition of anomie because they are increasingly isolated from the rest of society. Just like the new norms affected and revolted the workers of the assembly line, so does the organization of social activity based on the basis of scientific and rational criteria create a feeling of “dehumanization” in many intellectuals.

Brown keeps going deeper and tries to uncover the identity of the “triggers” responsible for the sharp increase of anomie in certain stages of social evolution in modern day societies. He uncovers three.

The first is the greater strain that is imposed on people in modern societies. Many people break under rigorous requirements of education and performance. The amount of knowledge to be mastered is increasing at an enormous rate, and those who cannot cope with acquiring it “crack” under the pressure.


The second trigger of anomie is, paradoxically, the greater freedom that modern man enjoys. The man of primitive-society was merely an extension of  the group. He has no mind of his own. Modern man, however, enjoys greater autonomy and is free to think as he pleases. Unfortunately, the heavy responsibility of making a free choice can be utterly demoralizing leading either to desire to escape or to revolt. In authoritarian regimes, the average individual is relieved of the burden of choice. The ultimate Paradox though, is that, even in the Communist countries of the East Block, where authoritarianism was at its peak, many people were very unhappy… and the end result, we all witnessed: Communism was overthrown.

The third cause of anomie is built into the very construction of modern day society. Simply stated , it is the fact that it’s impossible to please everyone. The capitalists are getting outnumbered and it seems unjust for the rest of society that all power be vested in them. The workers have the advantage of numbers but their role in economy is to obey rather than give orders. Besides, as a class, the workers were unable to direct themselves, let alone the rest of society. The intellectual class is not subject to the same handicaps. They are today an impressively large social force and they have the ability, infixed in them  by their social function, to direct and command. The question is whether democracies like France can cope with the entry of the intellectuals as a massive social force into the political system. The “bad news” is that where freedom of criticism is permitted, the opportunities for exploitation are massive…


Brown concludes by stating that we are living in an era of reversal of values. In a  reference to Hegel (the parable of the servant who, compelled to live by his work, becomes self-reliant, whereas his master comes to depend completely on the servant), he points out that any dominant group may be overturned by the dominated group. Optimistic social scientists postulate that science and reason are sweeping all before them, bringing about the rationalization of social behavior, laying the basis for modern industry, unprecedented prosperity, and the full flowering of human freedom. In this ideal society, it I assumed that the ideological conflict of early industrialization will be transcended and replaced by pragmatic negotiation among claimant groups. The long term trend would thus be toward stability, prosperity and freedom. Ironically, history has shown us that mastery can be converted into dependence, and that political trends may be reversed. In a pessimistic view, Brown closes his magnificent essay by pointing out that a complex economy can be paralyzed by the determined opposition of relatively few people in key positions. From stability may spring instability, from prosperity misery, and freedom may be replaced by  fearful authoritarianism….