This piece of mine appears on The Guardian's Comment is Free website.
"A healthy economy is only possible at the expense of unhealthy human beings".
I wonder what the social philosopher and psychoanalyst Dr Erich Fromm, the man who wrote those words over 30 years ago, would make of Britain today.
Over the past decade we have witnessed an unprecedented period of uninterrupted economic growth. Yet our collective mental health has declined sharply. More than two million Britons are on antidepressants, a million on Class A drugs. Binge drinking, and what Fromm called "acts of destruction" - violence, self-abuse and vandalism - have reached record levels. The Samaritans report that five million people are "extremely stressed". Oliver James' new book, Affluenza, and last week's Unicef report, which listed Britain's children as the unhappiest in Europe, are powerful indictments of the society we have become.
For solutions to our predicament, don't look to neo-liberal politicians such as Ed Vaizey, and other members of the political parties bankrolled by big business. And don't look either to short-term fixes like the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) advocated by Richard Layard.
Instead, turn to the work of Erich Fromm, one of the 20th century's most prescient - yet sadly neglected - thinkers.
In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm argued that a society, in which "consumption has become the de facto goal", was itself sick. He advanced his theory of social character: that "every society produces the character it needs". Early Calvinistic capitalism produced the "hoarding character", who hoards both possessions and feelings: the classic Victorian man of property.
Post-war capitalism, Fromm argued, produced 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". (For a perfect example of a "marketing character", just think of the current inhabitant of No 10 Downing Street).
Modern 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.
Fromm was also deeply concerned with the way that love, "the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence" was undermined by an economic system which rewards greed and selfishness.
In The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm identified five types of love, all of which were endangered. Brotherly love, the most important, "the one which underlies all others", was undermined by the reduction of human beings to commodities. Motherly love was threatened by narcissism and possessiveness. Self-love, without which we cannot love others, was destroyed by selfishness. The love of God was regressing "to an idolatric concept of God". Finally, erotic love was debased by its separation from brotherly love and the absence of tenderness.
In the turbo-capitalist Britain of 2007, the war against love which Erich Fromm warned of, has gone into overdrive. Glossy magazines encourage anti-love sexual permissiveness and the cultivation of selfish and materialistic lifestyles. Multimillion dollar industries promoting the cult of narcissism have grown up, in which reality television is the latest and crudest manifestation. We are encouraged to view all human contacts as expendable, to be "traded-in" whenever we can get a better deal. Hire and fire rules not just in the business world, but in our personal lives too. And we wonder why we are so unhappy.
Erich Fromm shows us how we can fight back. The good doctor didn't just diagnose the disease, he put forward the remedies. There could be no improvement in our collective health unless society changed from the "having" to the "being" mode of existence.
The brainwashing methods used in modern advertising, described by Fromm as the "poison of mass suggestion" must be prohibited. The gap between rich and poor must be closed. A new, participatory form of democracy, "in which the well-being of the community becomes each citizen's private concern", must be introduced. There should be maximum decentralisation throughout industry and politics. And most importantly of all, ''the right of stockholders and management of big enterprises to determine their production solely on the basis of profit and expansion" must be drastically curbed. Fromm was unequivocal: the needs of people must come before the needs of capital.
The measures that Fromm put forward will no doubt be dismissed by some as unworkable or too left-wing, (as indeed similar, sensible measures put forward by Oliver James have been). And as Fromm himself, warned big business would use all its "tremendous power" to fight such changes. But if we are serious about constructing a society in which solidarity and brotherly love come to the fore, nothing less than a complete overhaul of our economic system will do.
A healthy economy or healthy human beings? I vote for the latter.
How about you?