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Thursday, June 4, 2015

REVIEW: Erich Fromm


Fromm's theory is a rather unique blend of Freud and Marx. Freud, of course, emphasized the unconscious, biological drives, repression, and so on. In other words, Freud postulated that our characters were determined by biology. Marx, on the other hand, saw people as determined by their society, and most especially by their economic systems.

He added to this mix of two deterministic systems something quite foreign to them: The idea of freedom. He allows people to transcend the determinisms that Freud and Marx attribute to them. In fact, Fromm makes freedom the central characteristic of human nature!

Fromm describes three ways in which we escape from freedom:
1. Authoritarianism. We seek to avoid freedom by fusing ourselves with others, by becoming a part of an authoritarian system like the society of the Middle Ages. There are two ways to approach this. One is to submit to the power of others, becoming passive and compliant. The other is to become an authority yourself, a person who applies structure to others. Either way, you escape your separate identity.
Fromm referred to the extreme version of authoritarianism as masochism and sadism, and points out that both feel compelled to play their separate roles, so that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist, is not free to choose his actions. But milder versions of authoritarianism are everywhere. In many classes, for example, there is an implicit contract between students and professors: Students demand structure, and the professor sticks to his notes. It seems innocuous and even natural, but this way the students avoid taking any responsibility for their learning, and the professor can avoid taking on the real issues of his field.
2. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by, in a sense, eliminating themselves: If there is no me, how can anything hurt me? But others respond to pain by striking out against the world: If I destroy the world, how can it hurt me? It is this escape from freedom that accounts for much of the indiscriminate nastiness of life -- brutality, vandalism, humiliation, vandalism, crime, terrorism....
Fromm adds that, if a person's desire to destroy is blocked by circumstances, he or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of self-destructiveness is, of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses, drug addiction, alcoholism, even the joys of passive entertainment. He turns Freud's death instinct upside down: Self-destructiveness is frustrated destructiveness, not the other way around.
3. Automaton conformity. Authoritarians escape by hiding within an authoritarian hierarchy. But our society emphasizes equality! There is less hierarchy to hide in (though plenty remains for anyone who wants it, and some who don't). When we need to hide, we hide in our mass culture instead. When I get dressed in the morning, there are so many decisions! But I only need to look at what you are wearing, and my frustrations disappear. Or I can look at the television, which, like a horoscope, will tell me quickly and effectively what to do. If I look like, talk like, think like, feel like... everyone else in my society, then I disappear into the crowd, and I don't need to acknowledge my freedom or take responsibility. It is the horizontal counterpart to authoritarianism.
The person who uses automaton conformity is like a social chameleon: He takes on the coloring of his surroundings. Since he looks like a million other people, he no longer feels alone. He isn't alone, perhaps, but he's not himself either. The automaton conformist experiences a split between his genuine feelings and the colors he shows the world, very much along the lines of Horney's theory.


1. Symbiotic families. Symbiosis is the relationship two organisms have who cannot live without each other. In a symbiotic family, some members of the family are "swallowed up" by other members, so that they do not fully develop personalities of their own. The more obvious example is the case where the parent "swallows" the child, so that the child's personality is merely a reflection of the parent's wishes. In many traditional societies, this is the case with many children, especially girls.

2. Withdrawing families. In fact, the main alternative is most notable for its cool indifference, if not cold hatefulness. Although withdrawal as a family style has always been around, it has come to dominate some societies only in the last few hundred years, that is, since the bourgeoisie -- the merchant class -- arrive on the scene in force.

The social unconscious

1. The receptive orientation. These are people who expect to get what they need. if they don't get it immediately, they wait for it. They believe that all goods and satisfactions come from outside themselves. This type is most common among peasant populations. It is also found in cultures that have particularly abundant natural resources, so that one need not work hard for one's sustenance (although nature may also suddenly withdraw its bounty!). it is also found at the very bottom of any society: Slaves, serfs, welfare families, migrant workers... all are at the mercy of others.

2. The exploitative orientation. These people expect to have to take what they need. In fact, things increase in value to the extent that they are taken from others: Wealth is preferably stolen, ideas plagiarized, love achieved by coercion. This type is prevalent among history's aristocracies, and in the upper classes of colonial empires. Think of the English in India for example: Their position was based entirely on their power to take from the indigenous population. Among their characteristic qualities is the ability to be comfortable ordering others around! We can also see it in pastoral barbarians and populations who rely on raiding (such as the Vikings).

3. The hoarding orientation. hoarding people expect to keep. They see the world as possessions and potential possessions. Even loved ones are things to possess, to keep, or to buy. Fromm, drawing on Karl Marx, relates this type to the bourgeoisie, the merchant middle class, as well as richer peasants and crafts people. He associates it particularly with the Protestant work ethic and such groups as our own Puritans.

4. The marketing orientation. The marketing orientation expects to sell. Success is a matter of how well I can sell myself, package myself, advertise myself. My family, my schooling, my jobs, my clothes -- all are an advertisement, and must be "right." Even love is thought of as a transaction. Only the marketing orientation thinks up the marriage contract, wherein we agree that I shall provide such and such, and you in return shall provide this and that. If one of us fails to hold up our end of the arrangement, the marriage is null and void -- no hard feelings (perhaps we can still be best of friends!) This, according to Fromm, is the orientation of the modern industrial society. This is our orientation!

5. The productive orientation. There is a healthy personality as well, which Fromm occasionally refers to as the person without a mask. This is the person who, without disavowing his or her biological and social nature, nevertheless does not shirk away from freedom and responsibility. This person comes out of a family that loves without overwhelming the individual, that prefers reason to rules, and freedom to conformity.

The society that gives rise to the productive type (on more than a chance basis) doesn't exist yet, according to Fromm. He does, of course, have some ideas about what it will be like. He calls it humanistic communitarian socialism.

Fromm says that the first four orientations (which others might call neurotic) are living in the having mode. They focus on consuming, obtaining, possessing.... They are defined by what they have. Fromm says that "I have it" tends to become "it has me," and we become driven by our possessions!
The productive orientation , on the other hand, lives in the being mode. What you are is defined by your actions in this world. You live without a mask, experiencing life, relating to people, being yourself.

Like Horney, Fromm believed that even the most miserable neurotic is at the least trying to cope with life. They are, to use his word, biophilous, life-loving.

But there is another type of person he calls necrophilous -- the lovers of death. They have the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion "to tear apart living structures."

Human Needs

Erich Fromm, like many others, believed that we have needs that go far beyond the basic, physiological ones that some people, like Freud and many behaviorists, think explain all of our behavior.  He calls these human needs, in contrast to the more basic animal needs.  And he suggests that the human needs can be expressed in one simple statement:  The human being needs to find an answer to his existence.

Fromm says that helping us to answer this question is perhaps the major purpose of culture.  In a way, he says, all cultures are like religions, trying to explain the meaning of life.  Some, of course, do so better than others.

A more negative way of expressing this need is to say that we need to avoid insanity, and he defines neurosis as an effort to satisfy the need for answers that doesn't work for us.  He says that every neurosis is a sort of private religion, one we turn to when our culture no longer satisfies.

He lists five human needs:

1. Relatedness
As human beings, we are aware of our separateness from each other, and seek to overcome it.  Fromm calls this our need for relatedness, and views it as love in the broadest sense.  Love, he says, "is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one's own self." (p 37 of The Sane Society).  It allows us to transcend our separateness without denying us our uniqueness.

The opposite of relatedness is what Fromm calls narcissism.  Narcissism -- the love of self -- is natural in infants, in that they don't perceive themselves as separate from the world and others to begin with.  But in adults, it is a source of pathology.  Like the schizophrenic, the narcissist has only one reality:  the world of his own thoughts, feelings, and needs.  His world becomes what he wants it to be, and he loses contact with reality.

2. Creativity
Fromm believes that we all desire to overcome, to transcend, another fact of our being:  Our sense of being passive creatures.  We want to be creators.  There are many ways to be creative: We give birth, we plant seeds, we make pots, we paint pictures, we write books, we love each other.  Creativity is, in fact, an expression of love

Unfortunately, some don't find an avenue for creativity.  Frustrated, they attempt to transcend their passivity by becoming destroyers instead.  Destroying puts me "above" the things -- or people -- I destroy.  It makes me feel powerful.  We can hate as well as love.  But in the end, it fails to bring us that sense of transcendence we need.

3. Rootedness

We also need roots.  We need to feel at home in the universe, even though, as human beings, we are somewhat alienated from the natural world.

The simplest version is to maintain our ties to our mothers.  But to grow up means we have to leave the warmth of our mothers' love.  To stay would be what Fromm calls a kind of psychological incest.  In order to manage in the difficult world of adulthood, we need to find new, boader roots.  We need to discover our brotherhood (and sisterhood) with humanity.

This, too has its pathological side:  For example, the schhizophrenic tries to retreat into a womb-like existence, one where, you might say, the umbilical cord has never been cut.  There is also the neurotic who is afraid to leave his home, even to get the mail.  And there's the fanatic who sees his tribe, his country, his church... as the only good one, the only real one.  Everyone else is a dangerous outsider, to be avoided or even destroyed.

4.  A sense of identity

"Man may be defined as the animal that can say 'I.'" (p 62 of The Sane Society)  Fromm believes that we need to have a sense of identity, of individuality, in order to stay sane.

This need is so powerful that we are sometimes driven to find it, for example by doing anything for signs of status, or by trying desperately to conform.  We sometimes will even give up our lives in order to remain a part of our group.  But this is only pretend identity, an identity we take from others, instead of one we develop ourselves, and it fails to satisfy our need.

5. A frame of orientation

Finally, we need to understand the world and our place in it.  Again, our society -- and especially the religious aspects of our culture -- often attempts to provide us with this understanding.  Things like our myths, our philosophies, and our sciences provide us with structure.

Fromm says this is really two needs:  First, we need a frame of orientation -- almost anything will do.  Even a bad one is better than none!  And so people are generally quite gullible.  We want to believe, sometimes even desperately.  If we don't have an explanation handy, we will make one up, via rationalization.

The second aspect is that we want to have a good frame of orientation, one that is useful, accurate.  This is where reason comes in.  It is nice that our parents and others provide us with explanations for the world and our lives, but if they don't hold up, what good are they?  A frame of orientation needs to be rational.

Fromm adds one more thing:  He says we don't just want a cold philosophy or material science.  We want a frame of orientation that provides us with meaning.  We want understanding, but we want a warm, human understanding.

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