The charge list against modern global capitalism is a long one. It propels us to deceitful wars, it pollutes the environment, it dumbs down our cultural life. But for a searing and profound exposition of the most serious charge against the economic system we live under, we have to go back over fifty years - to the work of the brilliant German psycho-analyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm. Fromm has long been one of my heroes and with St Valentine's Day not long off I am posting this article I wrote on the great man- and his thoughts on how modern capitalism destroys love and human solidarity- for the New Statesman a couple of years back.
Any other fans of Erich Fromm out there? I'd like to hear from you.
HOW WE LOST THE ART OF LOVING
This year on St Valentine’s Day, it is estimated that we will spend over £25m on flowers, send 15 million cards and more than 500m text messages. Worldwide, over $500m will be spent. The hijacking by global capitalism of a relatively low key event in the Christian calendar and its transformation into a multi-million dollar spendfest is of course only part of a wider trend which has seen the invasion of commercial values into all aspects of our lives. Yet the very same forces that are so keen to promote the annual festival of love, are themselves, largely responsible for the disintegration of love in our society.
The way in which modern capitalism destroys love is not a topic that many on the left have wished to engage. Far safer to discuss relative wage rates, constitutional reform and tinkering with the tax and benefit system than anything as fundamental as love. For a searing and profound exposition of the most serious charge against the economic system we all live under, we need to go back almost fifty years, to the writing of one of the most neglected, yet prescient thinkers of the 20th Century, Erich Fromm.
Fromm was a German psychoanalyst and social philosopher who fled his homeland when the Nazis came to power. Settling in the U.S. where he combined clinical practice with lecturing at Columbia University, most of Fromm’s earlier works were an attempt to reach some understanding on how totalitarian regimes could come to be accepted and supported by the people. In ‘Fear of Freedom’ 1937, he argued that such regimes, appealed to a deep-seated craving to escape from the freedom of the modern world and return to the womb. But having escaped from the horrors of Nazi Germany, Fromm was under no illusions about that the society he had emigrated to. He was among the first to see that life in twentieth century Western capitalist democracy, constituted in many ways, another escape from freedom.
In ‘The Sane Society’ (1955), Fromm took the ideas Freud had advanced in ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ one stage further and argued that capitalist society, in which ‘consumption has become the de facto goal’, was itself sick. He developed his theory of social character- the idea that ‘every society produces the character it needs’. Early, Calvanistic capitalism produced the ‘hoarding character’, who hoards possessions and feelings- the classic Victorian man of property. Modern post-war capitalism, Fromm argued was producing another equally neurotic type- the marketing character- who ‘adapts to the market economy by becoming detached from authentic emotions, truth and conviction’. For the marketing character, ‘everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles’. Such people are not able to care, ‘not because they are selfish, but because their relationship to each other and to themselves is so thin’.
Global capitalism requires marketing characters in abundance and makes sure it gets them. Meanwhile, Fromm’s ideal character type- the mature ‘productive character’- the person without a mask, who loves and creates’, and for whom being is more important than having, is discouraged.
In ‘The Art of Loving’(1956), Fromm identified five types of love- all of which he believed were under attack in modern society. Brotherly love, ‘the most fundamental kind of love which underlies all others’, was undermined by the reduction of all human beings to commodities. Motherly love, ‘the most difficult love to achieve’ was threatened by narcissism and possessiveness. Self-love, without which we cannot love others- is destroyed by its polar opposite- selfishness, and the love of God, by the regression ‘to an idolatric concept of God’ and the transformation of the love of God into a relationship fitting into an alienated character structure. Finally, erotic love, which Fromm sees ‘as the most deceptive’ of all forms of love is debased by its separation from brotherly love and the absence of tenderness.
‘If love is a capacity of the mature productive character, it follows that the capacity to love in an individual living in any given culture depends on the influence this culture has on the average person’, wrote Fromm. ‘If we speak about love in contemporary Western culture, we mean to ask whether the social structure of Western civilisation and the spirit arising from it are conducive to the development of love. To raise the question is to answer it in the negative’.
Fromm wrote ‘The Art of Loving’ at a time of relatively benign regulated capitalism. Fifty years on, whatever would he have made of modern turbo capitalism ? His belief that ‘a healthy economy is possible only at the price of unhealthy human beings’ could hardly be better proved than by looking at contemporary Britain. Over the last decade we have witnessed the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth and seen the lowest inflation, interest rates and unemployment for forty years. Yet we have also witnessed an unparalleled decline in our society’s collective mental health.
Over 2 million Britons are on anti-depressants, half a million on Class A drugs. Binge drinking, and what Fromm described as ‘destructive acts’ , crime, violence and vandalism, have reached record levels. Newspapers which carry features glorifying self-styled ‘property gurus’ run on the very next page articles reflecting on the loneliness and isolation experienced by vast swathes of the population - failing to understanding that the two phenomena of modern life are inextricably connected.
While the five types of love Fromm identified flounder, forms of pseudo-love abound in the Britain of 2004. ‘Egoism a deux’, in which two, self-centred people come together in marriage or partnership- to escape loneliness, but never arrive at a ‘central relationship’ is clearly thriving in a country where over one third of co-habiting and married couples keep separate bank accounts. And the narcissistic orientation, the overcoming of which is, for Fromm the main condition for achieving love, can now be witnessed everywhere: when we switch on the television, open a tabloid newspaper or overhear casual conversation in the street or on a bus. Meanwhile, Fromm’s marketing character, gaining in ground since the 1950s and given a huge forward push in the 1980s, has become the dominant personality type of the age. Each country, as Aldous Huxley one said, gets the leader it deserves, and in a time and a place where the marketing character rules supreme, it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate Prime Minister for Britain than Anthony Linton Blair, a man who oozes insincerity from every pore. Love, as defined by Fromm, can of course still be found in modern Britain.
But where it exists, it does so in spite of an economic system whose underlying principle is inherently hostile to it.
A plethora of glossy magazines encourage anti-love sexual permissiveness and the cultivation of selfish and materialistic lifestyles for a new breed of look after number one ‘Metrosexuals’. Multi-million dollar industries promoting the cult of narcissism have grown up, of which reality television is the latest and crudest manifestation. We are sold advice on ‘how to flirt’ and ‘how to dump’ our partners and are encouraged to view all human contacts as expendable, to be ‘traded in’ whenever we can get a better deal.
Conservative commentators, yearning for a gentler, kinder age, are, with one or two exceptions, unable to comprehend that the very economic system they defend, is, through its destruction of love and its desire to create a population of alienated automatons, responsible for most of the social debris. Matthew Parris, who recently spent a week on the dole in Newcastle, was right to say, on his return, that certain individuals will always be unhappy in whatever society they find themselves living in. But he failed to see that a society that is driven by rapacious commercialism, which lauds and promotes the cult of self and which quantifies success in purely material terms, will always produce less love and therefore more unhappy people than one which places human needs first. Global capitalism does many things, but building solidarity is not among them. The challenge for all those who concerned with the seemingly irreversible atomisation of our society is to construct a society where Fromm’s productive orientation becomes the end to which all social arrangements serve, and in which man, and not economics, profit and capital is the centre of all things. Then and only then can love, - ‘the only sane and satisfactory answer to the question of human existence’ flourish.
Luke Johnson, the newly appointed Chairman of Channel Four and the epitome of the modern marketing character has said that Britain ‘would be a better place if we had 500 more Richard Bransons’. But we already have more than enough money makers. What Britain really needs is 500 politicians who have read Erich Fromm.
Copyright N.Clark/New Statesman 2004