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Stjepan Mestrovic: On Barbarism
By Frank W. Elwell
Mestrovic is a Durkheimian. But before applying Durkheim’s theory to modern society, he must first rehabilitate it from the ruins of Parsons’ and Merton’s functionalism. Mestrovic states that Durkheim conceived of humans as having a strong ego or will. In fact, individuals can be conceived as having two natures; in Durkheim's terminology they are homo duplex, having the dual nature of an angel and a beast, the beast being the stronger of the two. Without strong integration into social groups—not just normative consensus on the rules of behavior and common values, but a love and commitment to these groups—the individual will lack strong moral guidance from their society and the ego is set loose upon the world. In such situations, men and women essentially exploit their fellow humans.
It is important to note that Mestrovic does not believe the needed morality can come from a rational source; in fact, rationality tends to erode the moral authority needed to restrain exploitive behavior. Rather, what is needed is a revival of traditional and emotional structures that are capable of fully integrating people into society to keep them in check; love and commitment most of all. Lacking this integration, the will is left to its own devices and engages in barbarism and other exploitive behaviors to satisfy its whims.
According to Mestrovic, the world is in crisis and sociology is having a difficult time in apprehending that crisis. “Nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and fundamentalism —the leading ‘isms’ that Durkheim tried to apprehend sociologically—are still causing turmoil in the world” (1988, p. ix). The West is without a comprehensive system of morality, each individual is left to her own devices, there is little restraint on individual will. Without a moral system that truly binds individuals to the social order, crime has reached epidemic levels; politics has become a game of power and dominance rather than governance and consensus; economic competition has become unrestrained and often counter to the good of the social whole. Violence in pursuit of individual “happiness” has become a way of life; suffering and discontent despite material abundance has become the norm.
Durkheim saw anomie as a “pervasive discontent” afflicting modern society, a “collective derangement” brought about by the loosening of social bonds upon people—the rise of individualism, the weakening of family, of religion, as well as of professional groups and associations. According to Mestrovic, modern economic systems—whether they be capitalist, communist, or socialist—fail to provide moral guidance to the individual, instead promoting consumerism and economic self-interest.
The western world is living at the height of civilization and barbarism.
Human knowledge today is greater than ever before; our understanding of
nature and our universe has never been so accurate. Literacy has been
spread to the masses; higher education is increasingly available to
wider segments of the population.
Civilization, or the creation of rational institutions to contain barbarism, is simply not effective. Barbarism, or the will of the individual, cannot be constrained by such rationally constructed systems. The “heart” (egoism) is always stronger than the “mind” (society); the constraining of the barbaric will can only be accomplished by other “habits of the heart” that are equally powerful. These habits of the heart are feelings of altruism and compassion, the other side of human nature that must be cultivated and given expression in our culture. But, altruism cannot be systematized: “The moment one tries to systematize compassion into socialism, for example, one has converted a benign trait into its opposite. This is because, according to Durkheim, any time we act from duty, fear, or any sort of compulsion, we are really acting on the basis of egoistic self-interest, which is the basis of barbarism…Durkheim claims over and over again in his writings that genuine human goodness must be sought spontaneously, for its own sake” (1993, p. 47).
The problem becomes how can we foster the development of such empathy
and compassion within the individual? This problem becomes particularly
acute in that the development of civilization seems to be eliminating
the basis for empathy by weakening traditional institutions such as
family and community and instilling the values of the marketplace which
inflame the egoistic will. Both Durkheim and Mestrovic argue strongly
that compassion cannot be learned, it can only be transmitted through
example. To do this, Durkheim advanced “the revival of guild-like
associations and the family” to model compassion and foster its
development within individuals; such development would bind the
individual to others with bonds of love and commitment.
Durkheim’s aphorism that “The gods are growing old or are already dead, and others are not yet born” remains true today. As a consequence, Western societies are in danger of disintegration. Seeking identity, values, direction, and meaning in the modern nation state and failing to find it, millions have turned to sectarian religions and ideologies that glorify folk identity and advocate “suspicion, paranoia, and sometimes even hate of neighbors” (1994, p. 8). Perhaps in reaction to the decline of traditional religion which was universal in nature and preached love and brotherhood, these fundamentalist faiths have attached themselves to political movements that seek to separate from the dominant culture and establish a more homogenous social order. “The important point is that modernity produces its own nemesis. In seeking to establish order and eliminate sentiment, modernity paradoxically produces disorder, fragmentation, and heightened passions—in a word, the anti-modern (or the genuinely postmodern)” (1994, p. 137).
It was Durkheim who encompassed all of this within his sociology; Durkheim who made religion and the sacred a center-piece of his thought; Durkheim who pointed to the increasing division of labor as the key to economic development as well as the root cause of anomie and widespread discontent. According to Mestrovic, the key insight of Durkheim and other early social scientists that society is held together by irrational feelings of love, affection, attachment, empathy, and devotion to one another has been lost to most modern sociologists. This loss, according to Mestrovic, has had tragic consequences for sociology and for western society.
For a more extensive discussion of Mestrovic's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1988/1993). Emile Durkheim and the Reformation of Sociology. Boston: Rowman & Littlefiedl Publishers.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1997). Postemotional Society. London: Sage Publications.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1994). The Balkanization of the West: The Confluence of Postmodernism and Postcommunism. New York: Routledge.
Mestrovic, S. G. (1993). The Barbarian Temperment: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory. New York: Routledge.
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