The Social Crisis of 2017: Causes and Solutions

The current international social crisis is now recognisable by the masses but few, even professionals, can explain the exact causes, predict the timetable, and offer possible resolutions. With Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., and the potential rise to power of Marie de la Pen in France, the current period reminds us very much of the instability of the 1930’s. However, there are reasons for hope, such as the initiation of mass movements for democratic social change in various countries. Nevertheless, these actions are difficult for social scientists to predict, so it behoves us to complement the tools of social science with those of art and intuition. Therefore, we would like to make an analysis that benefits not only from the work of sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim but the Danish author of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen.

Weber’s contribution came at the beginning of the 20th century, just before WWI, and involved the study of bureaucracy as a result of industrialisation. Basically, Weber predicted that advanced industrialisation inevitably results in increasing bureaucratization for the sake of organisational efficiency, which in turn reaches a point where an increase turns out to be actually inefficient, especially regarding the social good provided. He labelled this condition “the iron cage” and spoke of “a polar night of icy darkness” that would descend over the industrialised world. It is clear that the industrialised world as of the year 2017 has reached that point, which is corroborated by the opinion of the masses that nothing works anymore, that they are alienated in their jobs, paralysed in taking care of everyday activities which involve bureaucracy and alienated in many of their personal relationships. Furthermore, there is a greater fear of wide-spread disaster, such as world war, catastrophic climate change, economic depression, political turmoil, and social decline, than at any time since the 1930’s.

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The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, also at the beginning of the 20th century, spoke of this incipient condition as “anomie” (alienation or estrangement from self and others) caused by a mismatch between the social aspirations conditioned by society versus what was actually achievable. According to Durkheim, even suicide could be interpreted as often largely due to this mismatch, which deviated from the classical view that suicide was solely determined by negative events in an individual’s life and the consequent depression or by biogenetic influences. Regarding literature, this feeling of alienation was expressed by Camus and Dostoyevsky as a lack of moral compass, which leads to apathy and detachment. Finally, the type of suicide associated with “anomie” seems to be increasing dramatically in the industrialised world. In the United States, the rate of suicide for people reaching retirement age and beyond has recently escalated, especially for females who lose their husbands early and end up with an inadequate economic safety net.

It is no coincidence that both of the above social scientists made their predictions in the period preceding WWI since that period can be marked as the initiation of the modern crisis that now is visibly reaching a peak. But the WWI period was in many ways just a repetition of a cycle that had been established in the 19th century. After a period of revolution in Europe from the 1840’s to the 1870’s, the industrialised world entered into a period of economic depression that lasted a quarter of a century and the solution for which was sought by the New Imperialism of the 1880’s. The outcome of the New Imperialism was WWI since the industrialised nations had tried to use the scramble for Africa and later the Middle East to solve their economic problems and distract their own populations from problems at home.

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Since the social sciences were not well developed in the period preceding the depression which started in the 1870’s, artists such as Hans Christian Andersen served the role of prophets of crisis. In The Snow Queen of 1845, Andersen tells a story in which an evil troll and his pupils try to lift a magic mirror so far into the sky (social megalomania and narcissism) that it bursts, splinters, and spreads tiny grains of sand from the small shards all over the world, which get into the eyes and hearts of people, freezing their hearts (depression) and making their eyes see only the bad and ugly (alienation). Thus, it takes the purity and innocence of a little girl to unfreeze the heart of the little boy who has been her childhood playmate and, through him, the heart of all of the world’s population.

Since these characters were the original ones for the recent popular movie Frozen, what seems to have been only a Disney-created obsession is actually a classic of world literature that accurately predicted the longest economic depression in the industrialised world, at least in the subtext. The similarity of the language and topics of the writer Andersen and the social scientists Durkheim and Weber is fascinating and hitherto unnoticed by observers, especially in the use of ice as the symbol of frozen emotions.

Thus, we have Andersen speaking of the freezing of the collective heart, Durkheim speaking of the depression of suicides caused by alienation, and Weber referring to “a polar night of icy darkness” that would descend on the industrialised world. However, each author allows for hope and prescribes a remedy for this collective social malady. Andersen encourages us to emulate the purity and innocence of children, symbolised by the rose and its bloom, which is an animistic symbol in turn for nature and rebirth. Durkheim recommends that we allow for social reform that will permit more flexibility in the application of social norms, a more just and creative division of labour, and the return of organic self-regulation in society. Weber recommends that we recover enchantment, ritual, and lost traditions. None of these suggestions can take the place of activism for social change but can rather enhance and inspire it. As a matter of fact, it may be art rather than science that has the most poignant suggestion to offer, that of Andersen to emulate children, for in a period of social crisis, things get reversed so that in addition to being their models we perhaps should also become their pupils!

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