Misery is Poverty, Not Capitalism


The School of life recently published an article on 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim under its “great philosophers” category. It focuses on his work Suicide, published in 1897, which theorizes as to the causes of an increase in suicide rates shortly after or during the “immense, rapid transformation of France from a largely traditional agricultural society to an urban, industrial economy.”

Durkheim, along with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and first professor of sociology.

The author begins by claiming that:

“Emile Durkheim is the philosopher who can best help us to understand why Capitalism makes us richer and yet frequently more miserable; even – far too often – suicidal.”

And that:

“Durkheim’s focus on suicide was intended to shed light on a more general level of unhappiness and despair at large in society. Suicide was the horrific tip of the iceberg of mental distress created by Capitalism.”

I found these damning beliefs about the supposed effects of capitalism on psychological well-being, apparently based on Durkheim’s work, rather curious and so was compelled to offer a short critique, below. In it I address the modern statistical evidence against the argument that capitalism leads to increased suicide rates; the necessary limitations of Durkheim’s study and the danger of drawing conclusions about capitalism per se based upon them; I explain that Durkheim was essentially arguing that liberty led to misery and refute this by showing how individual freedom, material abundance and choice (i.e. the absence of constraints on liberty and the absence of poverty) encourages people to develop virtues such as will power, self-discipline and self-knowledge – which are ultimately paths to contentment and happiness.

Emile Durkheim’s theory that capitalism by its nature has a negative effect on the psychological well-being of people and makes them more likely to commit suicide breaks down when we consider the fact that since 1990 suicide rates have been in decline for most of Europe. Particularly damaging to the theory is how suicide rates declined sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system of communism (the opposite of capitalism). According to Durkheim’s theory, more people should have been committing suicide, not less.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to conclude on the basis of Durkheim’s work that capitalism, wherever it exists, necessarily makes us “frequently more miserable” and leads to more suicides. This is an argument that doesn’t fit the facts.

At most, Durkheim showed that the transition period from agricultural/rural to industrial/urban was traumatic for some of the people caught up in it. It’s human nature to resist change. Perhaps many people at the time felt that their land, their way of life, their traditions and their culture were being swept aside for no good reason; like the world was rejecting them. No one wants to leave behind a way of life that they are satisfied with for one that is hard to fathom and seems to promise very little. Those who understood the larger economic forces bringing about the transformation and the enormous economic and social benefits that would soon result would have been less traumatized by events, and better able to cope.

Nearly 1 billion people have hauled themselves out of extreme poverty through capitalism in the last 20 years – just two decades. If this trend continues, then global poverty will be eradicated, which is a truly astonishing achievement. A dream come true. No other economic system has ever come close to achieving this.

Is it not rather perverse, then, to believe that capitalism, which is actually nothing more than the spontaneous order that emerges within large groups of human beings who are free from coercion, makes us frequently miserable? For this is to claim that poverty, i.e. an insufficient level of wealth, has a positive effect on our psychological well-being and is therefore a state that should be desired. Let us not forget that, prior to the industrial revolution, life for the vast majority of people on earth was miserable and short; starvation and disease were commonplace. Production by the masses for the masses swept aside all that misery in a remarkably short period of time.

Capitalism happens because when human beings are free they pursue courses of action aimed at achieving their desires; they act to replace a less satisfactory state with a more satisfactory one. Industrialisation happened because human beings always seek to achieve their aims in ways that require the least outlay of time and effort.

Capitalism is liberty, the freedom for individuals to peacefully pursue any course of action. With freedom, then, comes the requirement for will power, self-discipline, moderation, restraint, critical thinking skills and, most importantly, self-knowledge – which is knowing what you want and why you want it.

An individual’s lack or deficit of these essential attributes and skills, not the economic system of capitalism, is what negatively impacts the individual’s psychological well-being in established capitalist environments, all other things being equal. If you have little or no will power, self-restraint or ability to moderate your consumption, then a world of material abundance will appear to be a torture chamber of temptation. If you lack self-knowledge and don’t know what you want or why you want it, then you’ll probably want everything and not know why. It’s very easy then to blame the world of capitalism for torturing you with ‘excessive’ hope and freedom because it offers such an incredible amount of it. Yes, capitalism promises everything and can actually give it you, but that doesn’t mean you have to pursue everything and have everything.

Capitalism wasn’t conceived in the minds of a few men under the delusion that they know what makes all men happy better than the individuals themselves, like socialism/communism was, it is simply what happens when people are free. This is why capitalism is so good at creating wealth and thus eradicating poverty, unlike communism/socialism which achieves the opposite. Its spontaneous nature is also why, I suspect, that it seems to trouble and befuddle many people because it seems like capitalism is a system designed with the purpose of making them happy. It’s not, but it certainly can remove misery resulting from poverty and the negative experiences associated with it. And that’s a wonderful start.

Capitalism can give you whatever you want, but you must know what you want. It’s the same with liberty. When you are free, you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. But you must know what you want to be, otherwise freedom can appear to be a miserable state – at least until you realise or decide who or what you want to be. And believing freedom is misery is surely the single most tragic and tortuous conviction for a human being, who is free by nature, to arrive at.

In order for people to be attracted into a system where they will have no liberty and scant material wealth (e.g. communism), they must be convinced by others that social and economic freedom, material abundance and choice leads to misery – and the works of 19th century sociologists like Emile Durkheim’s can be used very effectively to that end.

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