Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Erich Fromm on American Consumerism and Marketing Characters

Erich Fromm, a German intellect who moved to the USA in 1934, was a Marxist, psychoanalyst and Buddhist. He argued above all things for joy in life rather than the living death that he perceived around him in the affluent post-war USA.

Identity Crisis: To Have or To Be?

For him, the choice in Fifties America was 'To Have or To Be'. Citing Marx's notion that 'a man is the one who is much, not the one who has much', Fromm emphasised the extent to which material possessions end up controlling us. He claimed that we have become Marketing Characters, 'based on experiencing oneself as a commodity, and one's value not as ''use value'' but ''exchange value''...his value depends on his success, depends on his saleability, depends on approval by others'.

The identity crisis of modern society is actually the crisis produced by the fact that its members have become selfless instruments, whose identity rests upon their participation in the corporations. Studies show that just being bright does not predict success: it must be accompanied by characteristics such as Machiavellianism and chameleonism. This way of being is liable to corrupt personal relationships beyond the office.

"What matters to the marketing character...is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.''

Necrophiliac Marketing Character

Many years before the birth of Bridget Jones or her male equivalent, he put his finger on the damage this did to intimate relationships: 'A great deal of what goes under the name of love is a seeking for success, for approval. One needs someone to tell one not only at four o'clock in the afternoon but also at eight and at ten and at twelve: ''You're fine, you're alright, you are doing well''...One also proves one's value by choosing the right person; one needs to be the latest model oneself, but one then has a right and duty to fall in love with the latest model...People do not see that the main question is not: ''Am I loved?'' Which is to a larger extent the question: ''Am I approved of? Am I protected? Am I admired?'' The main question is: ''Can I love?''

This character is a recipe for emotional distress. It creates someone who, unconsciously according to Fromm, is 'a passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning and who is profoundly alienated and bored. If one asks these people...whether they feel unhappy and bored they answer, ''Not at all, we're completely happy. We go on trips, we drink, we eat, we buy more and more for ourselves. You aren't bored doing that!''...in fact, the anxious, bored alienated person compensates for his anxiety [and depression] by a compulsive consumption.''

It is a dreadfully dull form of non-existence. 'Boredom comes from the fact that man has become purely an instrument, that he cultivates no initiative, that he feels not responsible, that he feels like a cog in a machine that someone could replace with another at any time...he tries to compensate for it - through consumption.'

Fromm maintained that the tedium is worsened by the mechanisation of domestic and manufacturing life. 'He does indeed save time with his machines, but after he has saved time, then he does not know what to do with it. Then he is embarrassed and tries to kill this saved time in a respectable way. To a large extent our entertainment industry, our parties and leisure activities are nothing but an attempt to do away with the boredom of waiting in a respectable manner...necrophilia...is the state of being attracted to that which is dead.' People who live to Have become emotionally necrophile.

The consumption and emotional pathology (anxiety and depression) feed off each other: 'The more anxious he becomes, the more he must consume, and the more he consumes, the more anxious he becomes.' Consumption causes the pathology partly because it holds up the false promise that fixing an internal lack can be done by external means, and partly because the process of working, by which we earn the money to pay for the goods, is itself alienating. 

We are liable to be rendered helpless and small by the larger processes in the organisation for which we work; participation in society is blocked by workaholia and by the carapaces beneath which the Marketing Character hides. We become addicted to status symbols, so that 'there is an enormous fear in many social circles of not moving up, of losing the position that one has attained. The fear that one's own wife and friends will judge one as a "failure" if one does not reach what the others reach.'

The Insanely Bottomless Pit

Although evolutionary psychology has sought to present addiction to this sliding scale of power, status and wealth as natural and inevitable, Fromm believes it is nothing of the kind. It just creates the bottomless pit of needs which keeps economic growth going: 'By their nature, [socially generated] greed and the desire to have are characterized by their limitlessness. Physiological needs are limited by nature. We might be a little hungry or tremendously hungry, but at some point we are full.'

"What the economy needs most of all for its own operation is that people buy, buy and buy again, since there is otherwise no constantly growing demand for goods that industry can produce and must produce to an ever growing degree if it wants to multiply its capital. For that reason, industry compels people by all means of temptation to consume more."      
Fromm follows this analysis through to its logical conclusion: that we live in a profoundly sick society. Whereas psychiatry measure emotional distress as deviation from the social norm, Fromm maintains that it should be analysed according to universal criteria. He proposes a definition of sanity which is applicable to individuals in all societies: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, morality based on realistic rather than mythical ideas, and first-hand experiencing rather than the depersonalized, second-hand living that is so common in our society.

If someones is living in a society which derides these ways of Being in favour of Having, then deviation from that crazy norm is not mad - it's the society that needs fixing. Emotional well-being, writes Fromm, 'cannot be defined in terms of the adjustment of the individual to his society, but on the contrary...must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man'.

"Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of emotional distress produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our emotional well-being. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our emotional well-being, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane. Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself. Many a severe neurotic believes that his compulsive rituals or his hysterical outbursts are normal reactions to somewhat abnormal circumstances. What about ourselves?"   

Fromm goes on to adduce, as evidence of our collective insanity, the fact that we killed about one hundred million people in wars during the twentieth century. He points to the increases in suicide, alcoholism, and homicide that accompany urbanisation. He also casts doubt on the emotional well-being of our economics: 'We live in an economic system in which a particularly good crop is often an economic disaster, and we restrict some of our agricultural productivity in order to "stabilise the market", although there are millions of people who do not have the very things we restrict, and who need them badly. Right now our economic system is functioning very well, because, amongst other reasons, we spend billions of dollars per year to produce armaments. Economists look with some apprehension to the time when we stop producing armaments, and the idea that the state should produce houses and other useful and needed things instead of weapons, easily provokes accusations of endangering freedom and individual initiative.'

How true of today are Fromm's claims about the USA in 1955?

From The Selfish Capitalist, copyright 2008 by Oliver James.      

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