Fromm is a social psychologist from the last century, and I’ve been working my way through his works a little at a time. This book attacks the idea that in 1950s America, healthy and normal were interchangeable concepts. Fromm begins by asking the question, are we sane? Is this a sane society? The answer, of course, is no. He determines this by examining the suicide and murder rates, which were already unusually high in the United States.

The next stage could be a bit controversial: determining what a person needs, regardless of culture. Making claims for universality is always a little dodgy, and although a European emigrant to the United States has had experience of several different cultures, his background doesn’t necessarily qualify him to discuss every culture. But since he’s focused on mine, I found his five needs to be relevant.

  1. Love. We need other people; not just any people, we need people who are similar to ourselves who welcome us. We need to feel like we belong. The failure of loving others productively is narcissism.
  2. Creation. He expresses it as transcendence, but I find that any explanation that uses the word ‘transcend’ becomes excessively numinous. We need to make stuff. I used to make blankets and sweaters, but now I’m making brownies and pies and casseroles. Sometimes I make poems or stories. Sometimes I add color to figurines at work. I like to make music. When we lose faith in our ability to create, we destroy. Later on, Fromm uses this need to explain why laziness is a capitalist construct and only exists when the work-life balance is skewed.
  3. Roots. Glancing back at the idea of love, we need to have a sense of our own origins. If we’re successful, we can distill that universal love into a positive feeling for those people we grew up with; if we’re not, then there’s incest to fall back on. Fromm really takes Freud to task here, arguing that his Oedipus complex and incest drives are abnormal, not part of healthy human development. He points out how ridiculous it is to assume that babies and young children have developed the sexual instincts of adults.
  4. Identity. We need to know who we are, apart from all the groups we belong to – family, community, nation, fandom, etc. Failure to establish an identity leads to conformity to the group. When we think back on the 1950s, it’s the conformity that seems most prominent in our cultural memory, but trauma has a way of forcing individuality on us, and World War II led to the expression of a lot of things that people didn’t want to face. If there’s repression, there has to be something trying to break free, and little packets of individual identity were breaking free all over the place. Kerouac’s On the Road was published in the 1950s, though most of those journeys took place in the 1940s, right after the war. He served in the US Navy for about a week.
  5. Belief. He talks in terms of orientation, which again is a little more abstract than is helpful for me. This is where he talks about reason – some people form beliefs based on observation and rational thought. They might be Christians or Muslims or atheists or Hindus, the thing believed in isn’t important, but the important thing is how they arrive at this belief. Less successful people grab onto superstitions and are guided by imagination rather than reason. Yes, a creative imagination is important; but CS Lewis didn’t believe Narnia really existed and that he could find it by poking around in the wardrobes in his home. A bird that is given food at random times will look for a cause to the random times, and will construct a ritual that it believes will produce the food. If it fluffs its wings just right, or whistles the precise tune, it believes it can cause the food to appear, even if it is still random. Even if the rituals don’t work, the belief persists. People aren’t much different.

 

The rest of the book (most of it) looks at the basis of society and asks whether it can promote these needs in the form it took then. There’s a lot of talk about authoritarianism, as in his previous books, but the thing that sticks out to me here is the commodification of people. Foucault would later write about this more extensively, the way that human beings are quantified and reduced to numbers, abstractions. Fromm takes a lot of time to talk about alienation, the way that we become abstractions to ourselves. It’s all right, even necessary, to work with other people, but when you start seeing yourself as a cog in a machine then something’s wrong. Human life is infinitely more complex and more valuable than the machinery we produce, and ignoring all of the value that people have and caring only for a small part of them is a destructive act.

Fromm also gets into Marxism, and the ways that people have distorted what was essentially a good idea. He really gets excited about socialism, of which I approve. He talks about the Russian attempt and explains how communism isn’t socialism (no matter what they name their republics), and all the ways Stalin got it wrong.

I have to admit that I started losing interest in this later part. I don’t have a strong background in understanding economic or political systems, and that made his arguments a little hard to follow. Also, times have changed, and some of his analyses aren’t relevant sixty years later. Some of it is also just depressing, as we in the United States keep clinging to an extreme form of capitalism that has produced an authoritarian president who is doing everything he can to destroy the country and make himself richer. It’s all quantities and numbers without an attention to the humanity being crushed to make blood wine for him and his fellow one-percenters. Trump’s election is a product of the alienation endemic to capitalism, and I could say some similar things about Bolsonaro. I just hope we can get rid of these bastards soon; I’m not trying to rob them of their human complexity (though some people do), I’m just saying that they are making bad decisions and creating unnecessary suffering for millions of people and I’d like it to stop.

I sometimes talk about being in favor of socialism, but to me that’s really only a second-best system. My ideal would be anarchy, people living quietly in peace without needing to be governed by an external authority. The problem with anarchy is, people are horrible, and left to themselves would rape and kill less aggressive people like me and swipe all our stuff. Because people suck, government is necessary. Because politicians suck, government is most effective on a smaller scale. Trying to govern however many millions of people there are in the United States with a single organization is sort of idiotic. Smaller countries, smaller communities, would work better. Fromm’s suggestions for creating a sane society are a little idealistic and unrealistic, given the nature and temperament of Americans, but maybe we could build a new society somewhere else. If Trump’s supporters get what they want and we’re all expelled to Big Gay Island somewhere, I’d like to think we’d make something better than what we’d be leaving. I like the fact that being gay in America means I’m expected to be in touch with my own feelings and respectful of those of others.

Fromm’s book is a little more connected with literature than the previous ones of his I’ve read – he makes a lot of references to Brave New World and 1984, though he spends a lot more time on Brave New World. We sometimes talk about Huxley’s book as instincts gone wild, but the people are much more mechanized (and hence alienated) than in Orwell. He makes frequent references to Kropotkin without explaining any of them, though he is more careful in examining the works of Marx and Engels. He wrote a book about literature before this one, but somehow I skipped it in my chronological reading of Fromm’s works. I’ll circle back to it soon.

It is always impressive to me that books like this can end in hope. People are shitty and create shitty systems to destroy each other, and it takes a lot of imagination and optimism to believe in the possibility of change. I haven’t been feeling the optimism lately. Apparently I read more books in 2018 than in any of the previous five years, and I think it has less to do with self-care and more to do with the need to escape reality. Reading isn’t always productive – it can be a self-comforting, addictive behavior. But I’m not Fromm, and he found hope that the world could improve, and he gave some specific suggestions on how to make it better. I’ll try to make things a little more beautiful where I can, but large-scale social change is beyond me. But if we’d all make things a little more beautiful where we are, it wouldn’t be beyond all of us.

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