Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Erich Fromm and The Quest for Solidarity - Lawrence Wilde

Today I present you with the review of a book that I recently finished reading. I loved it and wanted to share some of the great ideas put forth by Fromm, but which do not seem to have aroused too much interest in the international panorama. I apologize for the mistakes that I may have made and for the inaccuracies I might have fallen into, being as I am a laywoman on the subject of political sciences.

There does not seem to be any apparent sound reason why the theories and ideas put forward by Erich Fromm should have fallen into oblivion. Luckily for us, Lawrence Wilde, Professor of Political Theory at the Nottingham Trent University, has rescued Fromm's work, and set forth a thorough analysis of the latter's major works.

As the title suggests, Wilde takes as a starting point, and actually as a basis for his whole study, Fromm's idea of solidarity. He examines in depth Fromm's framework for the construction of a humanistic society relying on human solidarity, going over the theory concerning the potential implementation of Fromm's humanistic ethics.

Concepts of great relevance in current society were already on Fromm's agenda, even as early as the 1960's. It could be said, that in this and many other respects, Fromm was a visionary, since he was very much ahead of his time, especially regarding social issues, with which we was deeply concerned. Thus, in his work, he tried to tackle major problems in the world of work, introducing in the American political arena the idea of a guaranteed income. Moreover, he did not put so much stress on the potentiality of ownership of the means of production —like other political theorists did— as on the control of (the process of) production itself, in which, he claimed, workers should play an important part. He was further inclined to think that, if provided with the fulfilment of basic needs, workers would willingly carry out their jobs —a guaranteed income that is already a reality in some European countries, while others (we might say), are still waiting for (or have completely given up on) the welfare state to take on such measures.

Emphasis fell on the fact that the whole labour market would undergo a dramatical change if a basic guaranteed income was granted, whereby employers would have to make the work they offer much more appealing to the potential employee. Additionally, not feeling compelled to work, we would undertake our professional duties quite freely and would incorporate an element of creativity into what we do, into what we create. This suggests quite a distant picture from what the current labour market is like, as a whole.

As a matter of fact, that last feature is the key element that Fromm introduces in his theory of character. On the one hand, there is the marketing character, the type of personality that is mostly valued in present-day society. The marketing character places a great deal of importance on having, rather than being, which is the basic distinction between the kind of behavioural model that Fromm promoted, the being mode, and the one that he rejected, the having mode. The latter mode, then, on which the marketing character greatly relies, attaches too much value to the acquisition of material and non-material products. Thus, human beings are valued in terms of the qualities that they can offer —as well as the objects that they possess— as if advertising their selves as a consumer product. This is incidentally exactly what the labour market seems to require of potential employees nowadays, that they display an array of qualities that they will be able to take advantage of in their jobs. The being mode, on the other hand, along with the productive character put forward by Fromm, centres on creativity and somewhat conceives of life as an end in itself, instead of conceiving of it as a means to an end, as the having mode does.

Fromm argued that human beings can attain happiness and freedom, and this could only be achieved, according to him, by means of a transformation of society, through a humanistic ethics that puts an end to alienation. Only through human solidarity and fulfilment of our potentialities, Fromm asserts, can we achieve the happiness and freedom to which we naturally aspire.

One of the elements that prevent us from achieving freedom is consumerism, a key concept in Fromm's work, as Wilde explains. We, our society and economy, need to find a balance between what we acquire (as consumers) and produce (in more general terms, as an economy), on the one hand, and our real needs, i.e. what we really would need to buy and produce, on the other hand. Furthermore, Fromm criticises the aggressive advertising industry, which entices us to purchase as many consumer goods as our standard of living will allow for. In other words, the economic system should shift priorities, from the maximum gain and production towards a more humanistic and environmentally-aware model of production; towards more social-orientated practices with a specific, clearly defined goal, to simply serve the people, as Wilde concludes. These and other considerations dealt with by Fromm have incredibly immediate relevance in present-day society, although they aimed to address socio-political issues at Fromm's time. The magnitude of the problem of consumerism and extensive production has, nonetheless, greatly aggravated in the latest decades. "What can we expect from a society where economy is the prevailing force?" we might ask ourselves; a society in which man is increasingly more dependent on external forces and actual human will and aspirations are completely subjected to economic powers; a society where man is subjected to the "economic machine" that he himself created.

According to Fromm, and contrary to the views held by other theorists with whom Wilde draws a comparison, human beings can transform society and shape it into a more humanistic and humane kind of system. Fromm was a philanthropist. He displayed quite a lot of faith in the human being and clearly advocated for the construction of a society having solidarity at its core. He believed that it is possible for us to come together and join forces in order to realize this idea.

Wilde also examines Fromm's conception of the notion of Globalisation, which was still at a relatively early stage of development at Fromm's time. He emphasizes that Fromm was not in favour of the homogenisation of cultures but that he firmly rejected the idea of nationalism and advocated for, one could say, cosmopolitanism. Thus, maintaining their own cultural traits, communities need not hide behind their national standards and automatically oppose what is foreign to them. Emphasis should fall, then, on what we share, rather than on what divides us.

Wilde touches on several other issues tackled by Fromm in his major works, introducing his own critiques and those produced by other academics and critics. He dwells on women emancipation, the work experience and the role of trades unions, as well as on alienation, consumerism and the potential role of consumer movements.

Finally, Wilde pertinently draws the conclusion that Fromm's work provides a sound basis for the transformation of society and ourselves (as well as our "selves") into a more humanistic and humane world and people. As responsible citizens, it is up to us to get down to work.

Work of reference:
Wilde, Lawrence. Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Credit for the photo