The human problem of capitalism or Being on the winning team

April 10th, 2009

I am enjoying reading Fromm very much. He formulates the human problem of modern capitalism (circa 1950s) this way:

“Modern capitalism needs men who cooperate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience—yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim—except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.

What is the outcome? Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome.”

Fromm adds that capitalist society offers numerous palliatives to  help people deal with their devastating aloneness, their unconscious despair: the routine of monotonous work; the routine of amusement and the unsatisfiable satisfaction of buying new things. In this way, contemporary society is close to Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are “well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men.”

“The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones—and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.”

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