If we want to declutter, we must, according to Erich Fromm, first change our relationship to the world. We must change who we are and how we relate to our families, to our friends, to our possessions – and even to the language we use. We will have to leave the mode of having and switch our whole existence to the mode of being.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
Welcome back to another instalment in our series about (this month) Erich Fromm, German/American psychologist and philosopher, and his theory of happiness. According to Fromm, it’s no wonder that we often live unhappy lives, since the whole society is not geared towards making us balanced and happy people. So every attempt at improving our lives must aim at radically changing our approach to the world around us.
We talked already about what Fromm calls our need to “escape from freedom,” about the failed promises of technology since the 19th century, and about how we could reduce our reliance on household appliances in order to give more meaning to our everyday lives and their rituals. Last time, we saw how Fromm thinks that there are two different ways of approaching our lives: a mode of having and a mode of being. This week, we want to see in a more practical sense how these two modes of existence affect our lives.
Erich Fromm (1900-1980)
Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German social psychologist and philosopher who had enormous popular success from the 1950s all the way to the end of his life in 1980. We discuss his work and his relation to Marxism and Freud.
The mode of having
Fromm says about the two modes of being: “The difference is … between a society centered around persons and one centered around things.” (To Have or To Be, p.11)
But the mode of having does not stop at the possession of things. If we are not careful, it tends to take over our person. If that happens, we will see more and more of the world in the perspective of “having,” as things to be possessed rather than experiences to be lived and enjoyed. The most striking example is probably a statement like: “I have great love for you.”
Of course, this is completely meaningless. “Love is not a thing that one can have, but a process, an inner activity that one is the subject of. I can love, I can be in love, but in loving, I have … nothing.”
Since Fromm is, at heart, a psychologist, he goes back to childhood to find the roots of this fixation that makes many of us live our lives in the mode of having. Small children, he observes, initially relate to the world by taking things into their mouths, licking them, swallowing them, which is an “archaic form of possessing.” (p.14) Children do this as long as their development, both in body and mind, does not allow them to experience other forms of possessing, or even other, better forms of relating to the world. The same archaic pattern we can see, according to Fromm, in cannibalism: “By eating another human being, I acquire that person’s powers.” (p14)
The Happier Society. Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School.
In this book, philosophy professor, popular author and editor of the Daily Philosophy web magazine, Dr Andreas Matthias takes the reader on a tour, looking at how society influences our happiness. Following Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School, Aldous Huxley and other thinkers, we go in search of wisdom and guidance on how we can live better, happier and more satisfying lives today.
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The ambiguity of consuming
Consuming things, initially by incorporating them into one’s own body, later in life continues on a bigger scale. We may rent or, ideally, buy a house, which becomes an extension of ourselves, and in which we can store many more things, “incorporating” them into this extended self of ours.
This is both good and bad for us. On the one hand, possessing things, consuming them, hoarding them relieves the anxiety of not having them. What one has eaten and digested cannot be taken away. On the other hand, the consumed thing soon loses its satisfactory character, In the same way that, a few hours after eating, we are hungry again, we also again and again return to being hungry for the consumption of things. Fromm: “Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume.” (p.14)
Thus, the satisfaction that comes from consumption is never complete, never final. It is always only a gateway to more consumption, to ever bigger appetites and perceived needs.
The nature of “having”
And there are more problems associated with having. As opposed to properties of my character, which can never be taken away from me, I may lose my possessions: my house can burn down, my car can crash, my money may get robbed, my company may go bankrupt. Everyone has experienced the loss of material things and no one can think that they are truly safe against such loss.
Also, private property, as something to be “had,” does not invite actually using those things that I have accumulated.
“In this mode of existence, all that matters is my acquisition of property and my unlimited wish to keep what I have acquired. The having mode excludes others; it does not require any further effort on my part to keep my property or to make productive use of it.” (p.35)
This is why we consider it immoral that only a small number of people today control most of the world’s wealth: “While the richest 10% of adults in the world own 85% of global household wealth, the bottom half collectively owns barely 1%.”  If we did make good use of it in order to benefit others, we might have a reason to control so much of the world’s resources. But by storing it away in our houses and our bank accounts, we deprive everyone else from accessing that wealth, although we ourselves also don’t have any real use for it.
In the having mode, there is no alive relationship between me and what I have. It and I have become things, and I have it, because I have the force to make it mine. But there is also a reverse relationship: it has me, because my sense of identity, i.e., of sanity, rests upon my having it (and as many things as possible). The having mode of existence is not established by an alive, productive process between subject and object; it makes things of both object and subject. The relationship is one of deadness, not aliveness. (p.35)
“Deadness” here means a relationship that is static and that does not bring about anything new or creative, does not grow the owner of the possessed thing as a person – and does not use the thing in order to bring about any new and better state of the world.
The most obvious form of “having” in today’s homes is probably clutter.
We have developed a huge industry that has the sole purpose of helping us control that clutter and prevent it from taking over what remains of our lives. Clutter can be physical, as in the stuff that fills our homes and for which we usually have no use – only we also don’t want to throw it away. But clutter can also be the amassing of useless qualifications in education, the starting (but not finishing) of endless projects at work, the pursuit of many simultaneous hobbies that leave us no time to do one thing right, the waste of time in front of the TV or social media that don’t contribute to our growth… and so on.
If Fromm’s diagnosis is correct, then decluttering a la Marie Kondo is doomed to fail. As long as we are psychologically stuck in the mode of having, forcing us to throw things away will only be experienced as painful and traumatic, but it will not lead to us becoming better, more free and productive persons. And this is why Marie Kondo, after having helped us to get rid of the stuff in our homes, immediately wants to sell us new stuff from her online shop: to replace what we lost, to quiet our anxieties, and to keep us further firmly in the mode of having.
If Fromm’s diagnosis is correct, then decluttering a la Marie Kondo is doomed to fail.
If we want to declutter, we must, according to Fromm, first change our relationship to the world. We must slowly change who we are and how we relate to our families, to our friends, to our possessions – and even to the language we use (see this post). Only when we have switched our existence to the mode of being, will we naturally become able to let go of things. Instead of incorporating them, like babies do, we will reach the stage of truly grown-up, productive human beings who don’t need to possess things in order to feel valuable and secure. And then the problem of clutter will not present itself as a problem anymore. Because if I am not attached to possessions, if it is easy for me to throw or give things away, then I won’t have a clutter issue. It will more or less automatically have solved itself.
But how can we reach that stage in our lives? How can we progress from the mode of having to the mode of being?
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.