Saturday, December 22, 2007

Fromm Me To You


Here's my piece on how Britain's turbo-capitalist system ruins social life and destroys friendship, from The Guardian. And how it was all predicted by Erich Fromm (above) one of the 20th century's most prescient thinkers, many years ago.

As if we didn't know. New research by Ofcom has revealed that Britons spend far more time on social networking sites than their European counterparts. Almost 40% of British adults with internet access were found to use social networking sites compared with 22% in Italy, 17% in France and 12% in Germany. Britons devote 5.3 hours a month to sites such as Facebook and MySpace, visiting them an average of 23 times.

There will be those who see these figures as something to be proud of - claiming that they show how technologically advanced and computer savvy us Brits are, compared to the Luddites in the rest of the continent.

But in fact they show that as far as social interaction is concerned, it's us Brits who are well behind the rest of Europe. The French, Germans, Belgians and Spanish are not spending their spare time on Facebook and MySpace because they are too busy socialising and making friends for real - in the real world. The fact that so many of us are doing our social networking in front of a computer screen is an indictment not only of the poor quality of social life in Britain, but also of the money obsessed turbo-capitalist system we live under.

Let's face it: compared to the continent, social life in Britain is, er ... crap. In Belgium, Spain, France and elsewhere there are a wide range of cafes, bars and pubs to frequent. Many of these establishments are locally/family owned, meaning not only do they have more individual character, but the atmosphere is very different from corresponding establishments back home. Instead of enticing cafes, bars and pubs, in which people of all ages and all walks of life are made to feel welcome, Britain is dominated by bland chain bars, owned by profit-hungry plcs, whose only concern is to cater for younger drinkers, because they spend more. I recently spent a midweek night in Ghent, Belgium. The numerous bars and cafes were heaving with people, of all ages and from all walks of life. I met the town crier, several students, a painter and decorator, a furniture maker and an architect just nearing retirement. You can be sure that very few of the people I met had even heard of Facebook. The citizens of Ghent have too good a social life to spend all their spare time in front of a computer screen.

The particularly aggressive and ultra-materialistic turbo capitalist system we live under in Britain undoubtedly makes it harder for people to make friends, as Erich Fromm, one of the most prescient thinkers of the 20th century, predicted over 50 years ago.

In his book The Sane Society, Fromm advanced his theory of social character - that "every society produces the character it needs". Post-war capitalism, Fromm argued, produces the neurotic "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". 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.

In a society where marketing characters abound, such as Britain today, true friendship will always be at a premium. But in less rapacious, less materialistic societies- ones where productive characters can be found, it will always be easier to make friends. If you are a Facebook addict and are wont to boast about how many friends you have "collected", let me ask you this simple question. How many of your Facebook "friends" would give up a day, or even a whole weekend, to help you move house?

The answer, I suspect, is very few. In a society where marketing characters abound, those we label "friends" are often no more than acquaintances. Yet when I moved to Hungary in the 1990s, old-style friendship - defined by doing things to help people rather than just giving them a "poke" on Facebook - still persisted. I moved house three times and each time, I received offers of help with the moving, with friends sometimes giving up their whole weekend to help me. Hungary taught me what true friendship was all about.

Modern turbo capitalism, by turning everything into a commodity and encouraging us to be selfish and materialistic, destroys trust - the basis for friendship. We live in a society where hardly anyone trusts anyone else, one in which narcissism and the cult of self, instead of being decried, is positively encouraged, by television, the media and by the big corporations who benefit from it.

If we want to have a society where true friendship will flourish again, we need more than a keyboard and a mouse and access to social networking websites. We need a radical overhaul of society itself.

8 comments:

Martin Meenagh said...

and you practise what you preach too my friend! Merry Christmas, thanks for the article

slapheads anonymous said...

If we want to have a society where true friendship will flourish again, we need more than a keyboard and a mouse and access to social networking websites. We need a radical overhaul of society itself.

Well, the logical answer is to shut down this blog (on the grounds that online communication is sterile and impersonal, so you're boycotting it), grab a soapbox and a megaphone, head to the heart of your nearest shopping centre and blare this piece out at the highest volume setting.

If nothing else, this will certainly lead to some kind of social interaction.

Neil Clark said...

same to you Martin: many thanks.
slapheads: the piece is not directed at blogging, or all online activity. It's about 'social networking' and why many Britons' obsession with it is an indictment of the poor level of social interaction. In a society where friendship really flourished I don't think people would see the need to go around boasting how many Facebook 'friends' they have. For the most part, these people are not friends, but acquaintances.

Anonymous said...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7140599.stm

Amazing.

Zhana said...

Really nice, Neil!
You reminded me of my young age when I 'swallowed' books by E. Fromm. Great humanist isn't he?
And his famous question - what is more important in our lives - being or having? Apparently, it's easier to choose 'having'.

Neil, I don't know if I'm right, but I have impression that people who live in countries of liberal capitalism, like USA, UK and similar, have very little interest for social subjects. They are extremely interested in politics (I was really surprised how much) but not for society.
And what also was very surprising for me - in some rare discussions on social themes many debaters use genetics as the only frame to explain cause for social behaviour
(I named them the advocates of theory of 'natural law').

Anyway, Marry Christmas, Neil, as you celebrate it now. We're, in Serbia, as Orthodox and accepting Julian calendar, still waiting for that (on January 7).

Allan Riger-Brown said...

I enjoyed reading your piece on social life in the UK. Everything you say is basically very true but I would add (having lived in Belgium for over ten years)that social life here also leaves something to be desired...

Allan Riger-Brown said...

I enjoyed reading your piece on social life in the UK. Everything you say is basically very true but I would add (having lived in Belgium for over ten years)that social life here also leaves something to be desired...

Allan Riger-Brown said...

I enjoyed reading your piece on social life in the UK. Everything you say is basically very true, but I would add (having lived in Belgium for over ten years) that social life here also leaves something to be desired... Belgium, Germany, Spain, etc. may be free of some obnoxious aspects of turbo-capitalism, as you call it, but other problems associated with the dominent socio-economic system (such as conformism, mindless consumerism, etc.) are just as bad if not worse than in Britain...