July 6, 2015
In The Metropolis and Mental Life Georg Simmel describes cities and those living within them as cold, distant and more concerned with material possessions than creating meaningful connections and establishing relationships. To begin there will be a summary of The Metropolis and Mental Life which outlines Simmel’s key points and concepts followed by a critical analysis of this work. The critical analysis will focus on the concepts of alienation and objectivity in Simmel’s essay and use concepts from theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber to analyse the point of focus critically.
Georg Simmel opens his essay by stating that modern man’s problems come from trying to keep ones freedom and be differentiated in a rapidly changing culture which clashes with tradition (Simmel,  1950, p. 409). By this he is inferring that in the struggle to retain our individuality in modern cities we lose our more traditional approach to living in society, this is characterised by people becoming a cog in the machine so to speak, a cog which specialises in one thing and therefore is isolated by that individual talent yet at the same time as profits from it and makes it dependant on other cogs to continue. Simmel then asks us to think about how a people adjust their personalities to this new way of life which so greatly differs from the traditional small communities of the countryside (Simmel,  1950, p. 409).
Simmel goes on to state that due to the metropolis being so busy and chaotic and people having a threshold for how much stimulation their minds can put up with that they start to block out a substantial amount of this stimulation causing those who live in cities to live in a detached, numbed conscious state which creates a society where a person “reacts with his head instead of his heart” (Simmel,  1950, p. 410).
According to Simmel it is this kind of environment which breeds a certain kind of objectivity in people where intelligence is valued above emotion; he also states that the dominance of intelligence and money are connected in that they both reproduce a “matter of fact” behaviour when people interact with each other and thus creates a rationalised society in which “punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life”. This matter of fact behaviour leads into what Simmel calls a “blasé” attitude in the big cities whereby the value of all things are reduced to how much things cost; this devaluation ultimately leads to the devaluation of the self and of others. The mental detachment of others however does enable the metropolis to offer anonymity to its residents which provides them with a sense of personal freedom and despite the city appearing to be a cold and uninviting place there are small circles in which people socialise however as the individuals in these circles are unvarying there is not much room for an individual to experience unique points of view and therefore create associations which require boundaries to function and thus limits the individuals freedom (Simmel,  1950, pp. 411-418).
The growing division of labour; state Simmel, is directly responsible for the individuals loss of “spirituality, delicacy, and idealism”. As stated previously division of labour; which is rampant in the culture and through various institutions, reduces the individual to a cog who is only objective (Simmel,  1950, p. 422) echoes Karl Marx’ concept of alienation and Max Weber’s concept of the “Iron Cage of reason”.
Ritzer (1983) used Weber’s concept of ongoing rationalisation in his article “the McDonalization of society”. One of the features of a society which embraces rationalisation is Quantity rather than Quality, much like Simmel’s concept that achievement and worth is defined by a number and therefore objective, Ritzer uses the example of politicians who’s quality as a politician come election time is not based on good polices but on numbers; specifically the election polls (Ritzer, 1983, p. 104). Ritzer also comments on how rationality, or valuing intelligence as Simmel would put it, dehumanises people and reduces them to machines, creates disenchantment by creating monotony through supposed efficiency across all institutions and even day to day living as well and does not actually help society and instead creates more social issues. (Ritzer, 1983, p. 106)
Marx also identifies this rationalisation and industrialisation of society and division of labour as the means of alienating the individual. He first states that estrangement is connected to the money system much like Simmel describes money as being connected to emotional detachment of individuals living in the metropolis and from there explains that as the worker is alienated from his labour as he cannot see what it becomes and that the worker puts a bit of themselves in their labour and that labour eventually becomes what they physically leave behind in the material world (Marx,  2012, p. 147). Marx states that “(the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions” however that becomes what it is to be human when the individual engages in forced labour due to having no other option to make a living (Marx,  2012, pp. 149-150) and therefore limits a person’s life to their physical existence (Marx,  2012, p. 151) as ultimately the political economy makes a person into a commodity (Marx,  2012, p. 146).
Ritzer and Simmel are both of the view that this rationalisation of society will be ongoing however Ritzer does conclude that while we cannot break out of this system that we can; by having better control, change it so that it is used effectively and for the betterment of society (Ritzer, 1983, p. 107). Also unlike Simmel, Marx later on using The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) offers hope of the system being overturned by the oppressed masses and giving the individual back their humanity. These theorists all agree however that the rationalisation of our society, the need for all things to be measured and controlled is detrimental to people as people and their value cannot be reduced to numbers nor should their emotions and experiences be limited due to this emphasis on money which society places on them.
Marx, K.,  2012. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In: C. Calhoun, et al. eds. Classical Sociological Theory. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 146-155.
Ritzer, G., 1983. The “McDonaldization” of Society. Journal of American Culture, 6(1), pp. 100-107.
Simmel, G.,  1950. The Metropolis and Mental Life. In: K. H. Wolff, ed. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. London: The Free Press, pp. 409-424.