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The Art of Living:

The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being.

How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

“The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human.

In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being.

At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be? — an inquiry into how the great promise of progress, seeded by the Industrial Revolution, failed us in our most elemental search for meaning and well-being.

But the question proved far too complex to tackle in a single volume, so Fromm left out a significant portion of his manuscript.

Those pages, in many ways even richer and more insightful than the original book, were later published as The Art of Being (public library) — a sort of field guide, all the timelier today, to how we can shift from the having mode of existence, which is systematically syphoning our happiness, to a being mode.

Fromm frames the inquiry:

The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.

But any effort to outline the steps of this breakthrough, Fromm cautions, must begin with the foundational question of what the goal of living is — that is, what we consider the meaning of life to be, beyond its biological purpose. He writes:

It seems that nature — or if you will, the process of evolution — has endowed every living being with the wish to live, and whatever he believes to be his reasons are only secondary thoughts by which he rationalizes this biologically given impulse.

[…]

That we want to live, that we like to live, are facts that require no explanation. (Though experiments to confirm this given is still needed in our current times)

But if we ask how we want to live — what we seek from life, what makes life meaningful for us — then indeed we deal with questions (and they are more or less identical) to which people will give many different answers.

Some will say they want love, others will choose power, others security, others sensuous pleasure and comfort, others fame; but most would probably agree in the statement that what they want is happiness. This is also what most philosophers and theologians have declared to be the aim of human striving.

However, if happiness covers such different, and mostly mutually exclusive, contents as the ones just mentioned, it becomes an abstraction and thus rather useless. What matters is to examine what the term “happiness” means… (Happiness is a new invented term)

Most definitions of happiness, Fromm observes, converge at some version of having our needs met and our wishes fulfilled — but this raises the question of what it is we actually want. (As Milan Kundera memorably wrote, “we can never know what to want.”)

It’s essentially a question about human nature — or, rather, about the interplay of nature and nurture mediated by norms. Adding to the vocabulary of gardening as a metaphor for understanding happiness and making sense of mastery, Fromm illustrates his point:

This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality in the rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed.

The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade.

It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. But even without his help the rosebush tries to provide itself with the optimum of needs. It can do nothing about moisture and soil, but it can do something about sun and temperature by growing “crooked,” in the direction of the sun, provided there is such an opportunity. Why would not the same hold true for the human species?

Even if we had no theoretical knowledge about the reasons for the norms that are conducive to man’s optimal growth and functioning, experience tells us just as much as it tells the gardener.

Therein lies the reason that all great teachers of man have arrived at essentially the same norms for living, the essence of these norms being that the overcoming of greed, illusions, and hate, and the attainment of love and compassion, are the conditions for attaining optimal being.

Drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, even if we cannot explain the evidence theoretically, is a perfectly sound and by no means “unscientific” method, although the scientists’ ideal will remain, to discover the laws behind the empirical evidence. (Confusing: empirical means performing experiments, which is the basis of sciences)

He distills the basic principle of life’s ultimate aim:

The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand.

But one of the essential ingredients of well-being, Fromm notes, has been gruesomely warped by capitalist industrial society — the idea of freedom and its attainment by the individual:

Liberation has been exclusively applied to liberation from outside forces; by the middle class from feudalism, by the working class from capitalism, by the peoples in Africa and Asia from imperialism.

Such external liberation, Fromm argues, is essentially political liberation — an inherently limiting pseudo-liberation, which can obscure the emergence of various forms of imprisonment and entrapment within the political system. He writes:

This is the case in Western democracy, where political liberation hides the fact of dependency in many disguises… Man can be a slave even without being put in chains

The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free.

He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

Any attempt to overcome the possibly fatal crisis of the industrialized part of the world, and perhaps of the human race, must begin with the understanding of the nature of both outer and inner chains; it must be based on the liberation of man in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense…

The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.

The two most pernicious chains keeping us from liberation, Fromm observes, are our culture’s property-driven materialism and our individual intrinsic tendencies toward narcissism. He writes:

If “well-being” — [defined as] functioning well as a person, not as an instrument — is the supreme goal of one’s efforts, two specific ways stand out that lead to the attainment of this goal: Breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.

He offers the crispest definition of narcissism I’ve encountered (something that took Kafka a 47-page letter to articulate):

Narcissism is an orientation in which all one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… For the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real; what is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and for one’s intellect. But it is not real in a deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding.

He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, inasmuch as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgment. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: He is the world.

But because narcissism can come in many guises, Fromm cautions, it can be particularly challenging to detect in oneself in order to then eradicate — and yet without doing so, “the further way to self-completion is blocked.”

A parallel peril to well-being comes from the egotism and selfishness seeded by our ownership-driven society, a culture that prioritizes having over being by making property its primary mode of existence. Fromm writes:

A person living in this mode is not necessarily very narcissistic. He may have broken through the shell of his narcissism, have an adequate appreciation of reality outside himself, not necessarily be “in love with himself”; he knows who he is and who the others are, and can well distinguish between subjective experience and reality.

Nevertheless, he wants everything for himself; has no pleasure in giving, in sharing, in solidarity, in cooperation, in love. He is a closed fortress, suspicious of others, eager to take and most reluctant to give.

Growth, he argues, requires a dual breakthrough — of narcissism and of property-driven existence. Although the first steps toward this breaking from bondage are bound to be anxiety-producing, this initial discomfort is but a paltry price for the larger rewards of well-being awaiting us on the other side of the trying transformation:

If a person has the will and the determination to loosen the bars of his prison of narcissism and selfishness, when he has the courage to tolerate the intermittent anxiety, he experiences the first glimpses of joy and strength that he sometimes attains. And only then a decisive new factor enters into the dynamics of the process.

This new experience becomes the decisive motivation for going ahead and following the path he has charted… [An] experience of well-being — fleeting and small as it may be — … becomes the most powerful motivation for further progress…

Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed. At a certain point the energy and direction of inner forces have changed to the point where an individual’s sense of identity has changed, too. In the property mode of existence the motto is: “I am what I have.” After the breakthrough it is “I am what I do” (in the sense of unalienated activity); or simply, “I am what I am.”

In the remainder of The Art of Being, Fromm explores the subtleties and practicalities of enacting this transformation. Complement it with legendary social scientist John W. Gardner, a contemporary of Fromm’s, on the art of self-renewal, then revisit Fromm’s abiding wisdom on what is keeping us from mastering the art of love.

Young Americans Won’t Fight Back? What Resistance to crush in first place?

Traditionally, young people have energized democratic movements.

The ruling elite have managed another coup and created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken their spirit of resistance to domination

Young Americans appear to have acquiesced to the idea that the corporatocracy can completely screw them and that they are helpless to do anything about it.

A 2010 Gallup poll asked Americans “Do you think the Social Security system will be able to pay you a benefit when you retire?”

Among 18- to 34-years-olds, 76% of them said no.

Despite their lack of confidence in the availability of Social Security for them, few have demanded it be shored up by more fairly payroll-taxing the wealthy; most appear resigned to having more money deducted from their paychecks for Social Security, even though they don’t believe it will be around to benefit them.

Bruce E. Levine republished from alternet.org: 8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back

How exactly has American society subdued young Americans?

1. Student-Loan Debt. Large debt—and the fear it creates—is a pacifying force. There was no tuition at the City University of New York when I attended one of its colleges in the 1970s, a time when tuition at many U.S. public universities was so affordable that it was easy to get a B.A. and even a graduate degree without accruing any student-loan debt. While those days are gone in the United States, public universities continue to be free in the Arab world and are either free or with very low fees in many countries throughout the world. The millions of young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, the millions of young Egyptians who risked their lives earlier this year to eliminate Mubarak, and the millions of young Americans who demonstrated against the Vietnam War all had in common the absence of pacifying huge student-loan debt.

Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. While average undergraduate debt is close to $25,000, I increasingly talk to college graduates with closer to $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.

2. Psychopathologizing and Medicating Noncompliance. 

In 1955, late Erich Fromm, the then widely respected anti-authoritarian leftist psychoanalyst, wrote, “Today the function of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis threatens to become the tool in the manipulation of man.”

Fromm died in 1980, the same year that an increasingly authoritarian America elected Ronald Reagan president, and an increasingly authoritarian American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-III) disruptive mental disorders for children and teenagers such as the increasingly popular “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.”

Many of America’s greatest activists including Saul Alinsky (1909–1972), the organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would today certainly be diagnosed with ODD and other disruptive disorders. Recalling his childhood, Alinsky said,

I never thought of walking on the grass until I saw a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass.’ Then I would stomp all over it.”

Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($16 billion in 2010); a major reason for this, according to theJournal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder (this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients).

3. Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy.

Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.

A generation ago, the problem of compulsory schooling as a vehicle for an authoritarian society was widely discussed, but as this problem has gotten worse, it is seldom discussed.

The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation.

A teacher can lecture about democracy, but schools are essentially undemocratic places, and so democracy is not what is instilled in students. Jonathan Kozol in The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home focused on how school breaks us from courageous actions. Kozol explains how our schools teach us a kind of “inert concern” in which “caring”—in and of itself and without risking the consequences of actual action—is considered “ethical.” School teaches us that we are “moral and mature” if we politely assert our concerns, but the essence of school—its demand for compliance—teaches us not to act in a friction-causing manner.

4. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”

The corporatocracy has figured out a way to make our already authoritarian schools even more authoritarian. Democrat-Republican bipartisanship has resulted in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, NAFTA, the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, the Wall Street bailout, and educational policies such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”

These policies are essentially standardized-testing tyranny that creates fear, which is antithetical to education for a democratic society. Fear forces students and teachers to constantly focus on the demands of test creators; it crushes curiosity, critical thinking, questioning authority, and challenging and resisting illegitimate authority.

In a more democratic and less authoritarian society, one would evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher not by corporatocracy-sanctioned standardized tests but by asking students, parents, and a community if a teacher is inspiring students to be more curious, to read more, to learn independently, to enjoy thinking critically, to question authorities, and to challenge illegitimate authorities.

5. Shaming Young People Who Take EducationBut Not Their SchoolingSeriously. 

In a 2006 survey in the United States, it was found that 40 percent of children between first and third grade read every day, but by fourth grade, that rate declined to 29 percent. Despite the anti-educational impact of standard schools, children and their parents are increasingly propagandized to believe that disliking school means disliking learning. That was not always the case in the United States.

Mark Twain famously said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.”

Toward the end of Twain’s life in 1900, only 6 percent of Americans graduated high school. Today, approximately 85 percent of Americans graduate high school, but this is good enough for Barack Obama who told us in 2009, “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.”

The more schooling Americans get, however, the more politically ignorant they are of America’s ongoing class war, and the more incapable they are of challenging the ruling class. In the 1880s and 1890s, American farmers with little or no schooling created a Populist movement that organized America’s largest-scale working people’s cooperative, formed a People’s Party that received 8 percent of the vote in 1892 presidential election, designed a “subtreasury” plan (that had it been implemented would have allowed easier credit for farmers and broke the power of large banks) and sent 40,000 lecturers across America to articulate it, and evidenced all kinds of sophisticated political ideas, strategies and tactics absent today from America’s well-schooled population.

Today, Americans who lack college degrees are increasingly shamed as “losers”; however, Gore Vidal and George Carlin, two of America’s most astute and articulate critics of the corporatocracy, never went to college, and Carlin dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

6. The Normalization of Surveillance.

The fear of being surveilled makes a population easier to control. While the National Security Agency (NSA) has received publicity for monitoring American citizen’s email and phone conversations, and while employer surveillance has become increasingly common in the United States, young Americans have become increasingly acquiescent to corporatocracy surveillance because, beginning at a young age, surveillance is routine in their lives. Parents routinely check Web sites for their kid’s latest test grades and completed assignments, and just like employers, are monitoring their children’s computers and Facebook pages.

Some parents use the GPS in their children’s cell phones to track their whereabouts, and other parents have video cameras in their homes. Increasingly, I talk with young people who lack the confidence that they can even pull off a party when their parents are out of town, and so how much confidence are they going to have about pulling off a democratic movement below the radar of authorities?

7. Television.

In 2009, the Nielsen Company reported that TV viewing in the United States is at an all-time high if one includes the following “three screens”: a television set, a laptop/personal computer, and a cell phone.

American children average 8 hours a day on TV, video games, movies, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and other technologies (not including school-related use). Many progressives are concerned about the concentrated control of content by the corporate media, but the mere act of watching TV—regardless of the programming—is the primary pacifying agent (private-enterprise prisons have recognized that providing inmates with cable television can be a more economical method to keep them quiet and subdued than it would be to hire more guards).

Television is a dream come true for an authoritarian society: those with the most money own most of what people see; fear-based television programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for the ruling elite who depend on a “divide and conquer” strategy; TV isolates people so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities; and regardless of the programming,

TV viewers’ brainwaves slow down, transforming them closer to a hypnotic state that makes it difficult to think critically. While playing a video games is not as zombifying as passively viewing TV, such games have become for many boys and young men their only experience of potency, and this “virtual potency” is certainly no threat to the ruling elite.

8. Fundamentalist Religion and Fundamentalist Consumerism.

American culture offers young Americans the “choices” of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumerism. All varieties of fundamentalism narrow one’s focus and inhibit critical thinking.

While some progressives are fond of calling fundamentalist religion the “opiate of the masses,” they too often neglect the pacifying nature of America’s other major fundamentalism.

Fundamentalist consumerism pacifies young Americans in a variety of ways. Fundamentalist consumerism destroys self-reliance, creating people who feel completely dependent on others and who are thus more likely to turn over decision-making power to authorities, the precise mind-set that the ruling elite loves to see.

A fundamentalist consumer culture legitimizes advertising, propaganda, and all kinds of manipulations, including lies; and when a society gives legitimacy to lies and manipulativeness, it destroys the capacity of people to trust one another and form democratic movements. Fundamentalist consumerism also promotes self-absorption, which makes it difficult for the solidarity necessary for democratic movements.

These are not the only aspects of our culture that are subduing young Americans and crushing their resistance to domination.

The food-industrial complex has helped create an epidemic of childhood obesity, depression, and passivity. The prison-industrial complex keeps young anti-authoritarians “in line” (now by the fear that they may come before judges such as the two Pennsylvania ones who took $2.6 million from private-industry prisons to ensure that juveniles were incarcerated).

As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite  (Chelsea Green, 2011). His Web site is www.brucelevine


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