I’m re-reading Durkheim’s Elementary Forms* for a class I’m teaching, and this quote caught my attention:
The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat – just as the believers of so many religious accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives.
While there is something quaint about the idea that there are fixed laws governing societies analogous to those which govern nature, there is simultaneously something very prescient about these words – words which anticipated both the modernist follies so well described by James Scott, as well as the imperialist follies of today’s neoconservatives. Nearly one hundred years after it was written our understanding of the institutions we live in still seems so primitive.
*I’ve not read the Karen Fields translation before, and so far I’m very happy with it. I’ve read that it is much more reliable the the previous one, but my French isn’t good enough too say one way or another.