Barbara Ehrenreich did not earn her reputation as one of America's most incisive social analysts by walking, still less dancing, on the sunny side of the street. In her celebrated book Nickel and Dimed, she worked her way through the US minimum-wage economy, learning that the pay of waitresses, Wal-Mart shelf-stackers and cleaners could buy you only the meanest living accommodation and the nastiest food. More recently, in Global Woman: nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy, she berated middle-class women for the plight of women from developing countries, forced to leave their own children to care for the families of rich Americans and Europeans. Last year, she softened towards the middle classes when she walked many miles in their shoes and wrote Bait and Switch, about trying to find work in the new economy as a professional woman over 50. She is not an author you would immediately look to for a history of collective joy.
In Dancing in the Streets, Ehrenreich's thesis is, broadly, that humankind is instinctively and irrepressibly drawn to celebration, feasting and, in particular, dancing. We have, she argues, a deep need, largely unsatisfied in modern society, to lose ourselves in ego-dissolving communal exultation. But, since the Enlightenment, our primary shared emotion, heavily reinforced by Protestant ideals, has been depression. We have been ejected from a communitarian Eden into alienation, loneliness and addiction.
None of this is entirely new. As she acknowledges, the father of modern sociology, Émile Durkheim, coined the phrase "collective effervescence" almost a century ago, while Max Weber wrote of "the unprecedented inner loneliness" that accompanied the onward march of Calvinism and capitalism.
Ehrenreich goes further, though. The new religious and economic order not only forced individuals into isolated misery; by outlawing dancing and feasting, it also withdrew the cure.
The subversive nature, even today, of collective joy (rock concerts, raves, some spectator sports) is entertainingly argued and documented. But, as poets and novelists have always found, there is richer material in tales of un happiness than in those of happiness. Thus one of Ehrenreich's most compelling chapters - ironically, in an account of collective joy - is "An Epidemic of Melancholy", her account of the great gloom that overtook Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries, with the growth of Protestantism. It was, she quotes Lionel Trilling as saying, "something like a mutation in human nature".
The Calvinist version of Protestantism had brought in its wake an intensification of the notion of self and, with it, isolation and uncertainty about identity. "The newly self-centred individual," writes Ehrenreich, "is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them: 'How am I doing?' the supposedly autonomous 'self' wants to know. 'What kind of an impression am I making?'"
The European melancholia epidemic was much talked of and written about at the time, becoming the subject of treatises such as Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. But Ehren- reich's most interesting example is the lugubrious John Bunyan.
"John Bunyan seems to have been a jolly fellow in his youth," she writes, "much given to dancing and sports on the village green, but with the onset of his religious crisis these pleasures had to be put aside. Dancing was the hardest to relinquish . . . but [after a year of trying] he eventually managed to achieve a fun-free life." Bunyan fell into deep depression, evident in his Pilgrim's Progress, says Ehrenreich. She explains that he rarely mentions other people and appears totally unable to empathise with them. At one point, he notes with surprise that they mourn "outward losses, as of husband, wife, child . . . Lord, thought I, what a do is here about such little things as these."
Bunyan's isolating melancholia stands as a paradigm for her thesis. But, scholarly though Ehrenreich is, that thesis teeters occasionally towards the brink of banality: modern life brings autonomy, but also isolation, anxiety and insufficient opportunities to dance. And few would quarrel with her weariness at the compensations of modernity: hyper-consumerism, prescription and recreational drugs, iPods and television, spectator sports and today's "faiths" (her own, slightly puzzling, quotation marks).
But there is, surely, much territory between the Bacchanalian ecstasy of the type she mourns and solipsistic attachment to an iPod. True, sport gets a chapter of its own and Ehrenreich notes with approval the subversion that fans have brought to spectator sports by introducing "carnival-like activities [such as] costuming, masking, singing, and indulging in rhythmically synchronous behaviour".
But, England fans notwithstanding, is she right that we are all doomed to depressive in dividualism within small family units, relying on ersatz carnivals to revive faint memories of our real selves? What of more mundane and widespread collective activities such as choir-singing, weddings, anniversaries and celebration dinners with friends and families? Children do, after all, still play together, teenagers hang out, groups get together at allotments, book clubs thrive, chaps banter in pubs, neighbours occasionally work together on local projects, and groups of friends sail, ski and even shop together. These, too, can be activities in which the ego is subsumed to the group.
Maybe, too, there are many who believe they have gained more from autonomy than they have lost in connectedness. Joyous as manifestations of shared ecstasy might be, many of us rightly distrust the idea of subjugating personal judgement to that of the crowd, and not necessarily because we are irredeemably repressed by capitalism. What of the free spirits in this lost paradise? What pleasure did it bring to loners - there must have been some - or dissidents, or forthright strong-minded women such as Ehrenreich herself? What if you simply didn't want to dance?