Quo vadis America? Second part: Anomia and cracks

In today’s world, there is no one global order, neither old nor new, but rather a fight of all against all barely sweetened with words of collaboration. This is due in large part to the social disarticulation and confusion of the normative system (anomie) inside many countries, both central and emergent. USA is one of them.

How can we study disorder? Sociologists have a concept that is  worth considering: it is called anomie. Despite its etymological roots, anomie does not mean a lack of norms, but rather their dysfunction. In sociology, the use of the word dates back to Emile Durkheim’s work at the end of the XIX century. In his typological analysis of the etiology of suicide as a social fact (that is, its statistical incidence), Durkheim discovered that in modern society the rapid social change and, in particular, the speedy social mobility both upward and downward, produce a confusion in the reference system of actors, what leads to destructive and especially self-destructive behaviors.

It is important to remember that for all sociologists from Durkheim on, the concept is reduced to some kind of disorder in the social regulation system. Disorder is multifarious and thus we can build a typology of anomic behaviors and situations. Among the different typologies of anomie, the most famous is from the 1940s devised by Robert K. Merton, one of the founders of American modern sociology with a functionalist approach. Merton built a four-type typology of adaptation to the norms in a national society (in his time, society and nation-state coincided), of which only one was functional (i.e. “normal”) and the other three were anomic.

Before reviewing his typology, it is worth highlighting the two large variables subjacent to his framework. The first one is the symmetric proportion between ends (or more generally shared values) and means (recipes accepted as appropriate for the realization of those ends and/or values). A banal example would be having a successful company following the legal and moral rules of a market (paying taxes, fair competition, acceptance of job security and protection norms, environmental care according to current legislation, etc.). When the symmetry is broken, and in the name of an alleged “full market freedom,” actors focus almost exclusively on the objective (profit) without caring for the means, this is an anomic adaptation, which in turn has two variants: innovation (search for new technical or entrepreneurial means) or violation of current norms and laws (such as organized crime, black market, tax evasion towards tax havens).

The second subjacent variable in Merton’s framework is the “fit” between the normative order (means and ends) and the social or structural order (the roadmap of opportunities and obstacles that a society offers to those who accept the normative order). What is the point of accepting or believing in the “American dream” if one is born in a social or racial class with huge initial disadvantages? In such a case, the incentive is pursuing “success” through illegal paths. Drug and human trafficking are examples of the latter. In this way, Merton produced a quadripartite framework (with a fifth box that runs out of the grid to found a new type of society with different means and ends):


Here is another representation of Merton’s scheme:

Merton’s framework applied to the United States in the middle of the last century as a nation-state that was quite integrated and with basic values shared by almost the entire population. Conformists and Innovators included the vast majority of the population. Political differences between the two large parties were differences in shades not in foundations. Political struggle was not an existential fight.

That is no longer the case now. There is no consensus regarding values and the country is now divided into at least four different “nations” that do not understand each other, share few ends and means, and thus have strong separatist tendencies.

Today, conformists are a powerful and privileged minority that has gone global. It is a cosmopolitan minority. It uses the country as a base, but it feels free to follow its (generally financial) interests anywhere in the world. Innovators are “emergent” elites that ride on new technological inventions in various areas. They are not conformists like the old “establishment” like a Rockefeller, a Morgan, or a Buffet, but rather types like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, followed by very intelligent and smart troops in Silicon Valley in California, Wall Street in New York, or route 128 in Massachusetts.

Ritualists are the followers of the old middle and working classes that have lost their hope of enhancing their life conditions for themselves and their descendants. Their incomes and abilities keep losing ground in front of the obscene accumulation of resources by the conformists and the speed in action and opportunism of innovators. They have resentment and nostalgia for a country that no longer exists and that they idealize as the old powerful USA. They are a mass in secondary mobilization faced with a (particularly, a generational) downward social mobility. They are ready to follow demagogic leaders that promise them the return to the old American splendor with opportunities for all (“Make America Great Again” or MAGA, Donald Trump’s slogan). In this case, they become “retreatists” (Brexiters in the UK), champions of a reactionary return.

Finally, the fifth box (already outside the original framework) is composed of sectors with many ideological colors and fantasy flags that want a radical change of society. Some are aligned behind the slogan of racial and social justice, while others want to overthrow the political system to establish an authoritarian regime to stop the advance of different social sectors, seen as “foreigners” by them, such as immigrants, racial minorities, sexual minorities, academic intellectuals and cultural and/or financial elites. An example was the failed coup d’état of January 6, 2021, encouraged by an outgoing president that tried a “self-coup.”

In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, George Packer divided USA into four different and uncommunicated parts: (1) a “free” America (i.e. privileged and unregulated) heir of Ronald Reagan, supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism and of economists from the Austrian and Chicago schools; (2) a “smart” America (i.e. innovative, well-educated, and smart in technical and financial management); (3) a ”real or deep” America (i.e. the old middle-class today going downward on the social scale); and (4) a “fair” America (i.e. renegades that reject the entire system as irretrievably corrupt or unfair).

We see that there is a partial overlap and a certain correspondence between Merton’s boxes and Packer’s boxes. Both interpretative frameworks present a detailed diagnosis of current anomie.

The American situation I have described is not limited to this particular country. It can also be found with different shades in almost all the rest—except for strong and repressive autocracies or extremely refined totalitarian systems, whose example is the People’s Republic of China. In China, huge technical and social progress is accompanied by a thorough and daily control of the entire population, with a massive single party (92 million followers) whose main function is vigilance and surveillance.

At this moment, we are facing a pressing geopolitical question: what are the consequences that this anomie –so widespread in many central or emergent countries– has in the field of international relations? I will try to answer this question in a future article for Opinion Sur.

If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English Edition.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *