Erich Fromm on Being Productive
Are we active, or just busy?
5 minutes read - 983 words
For Erich Fromm, true activity means to fully use one’s talents and abilities in order to grow as a person. The mere display of being busy is, in Fromm’s opinion, not a sign of productive work. Modern society, which relies on hierarchy and alienated work, tends to favour busy-ness over productive activity.
“Activity in the modern sense refers only to behavior, not to the person behind the behavior. It makes no difference whether people are active because they are driven by external force, like a slave, or by internal compulsion, like a person driven by anxiety. It does not matter whether they are interested in their work, like a carpenter or a creative writer, or a scientist or a gardener; or whether they have no inner relation to and satisfaction in what they are doing, like the worker on the assembly line or the postal clerk.” — Erich Fromm, To Have Or To Be (1976)
Modern busyness (and business) is all too often only about showing off how busy one is, about “hustling,” which, interestingly, today has become a synonym for freelance work.
But how productive is such busyness really?
For Fromm, to be active…
… means to give expression to one’s faculties, talents, to the wealth of human gifts with which — though in varying degrees — every human being is endowed. It means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, … to give. Yet none of these experiences can be fully expressed in words. (p.40)
Richard Taylor (1919–2003) thought that it’s creativity that makes us feel happy and fulfilled. According to Taylor, a life lived without exercising one’s creativity is a wasted life.
Alienated activity and productive work
Unfortunately, work in today’s offices and factories, in our highly hierarchical and automated business world, is not like that. Most often, we feel separated from the fruits of our labour, and the work becomes something we dread, an experience that is forced and empty of meaning for us:
“In alienated activity I do not experience myself as the acting subject of my activity; rather, I experience the outcome of my activity—and that as something “over there,” separated from me and standing above and against me. In alienated activity I do not really act; I am acted upon by external or internal forces. I have become separated from the result of my activity” (p. 41)
Non-alienated activity is a luxury in today’s world of work. Perhaps artists can experience it, and sometimes scientists or small artisans in their workshop, where they create a product from start to finish:
In nonalienated activity, I experience myself as the subject of my activity. Nonalienated activity is a process of giving birth to something, of producing something and remaining related to what I produce. This also implies that my activity is a manifestation of my powers, that I and my activity and the result of my activity are one. I call this nonalienated activity productive activity.
Many of the problems that we have as a society today are, for Fromm, a result of forcing human beings to live their lives in an unproductive, alienated way. Without the pleasure and the meaning that comes from truly productive work, we lose our interest in life and work, we don’t feel personally responsible for our work, we produce inferior products that damage the environment and ourselves, and eventually, we descend into cynicism about life, or we try to find artificial excitements to replace the meaning of life that we lost.
Fromm wrote this in 1976. Today, we see more and more clearly that unchecked capitalism and our consumerist society do not only destroy the planet we live on, but also us as human beings. Anxiety, mental disorders, hate crimes, terrorism and feelings of helplessness and the meaninglessness of life are on the rise everywhere. The pandemic has put these phenomena into an even harsher light. Lockdowns have often forced us to sit back and to reflect on our lives more than we were used to, and often more than we could handle.
The philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883) has been hugely influential throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One of his best known concepts is the idea of “alienation” that describes how, in capitalist societies, human beings get estranged from their work and from themselves because of the way the production of goods is organised.
But Fromm is not out to scare us. He was a humanist, which properly means: someone who believes in the human spirit. It was his belief that we can change both ourselves and the societies we live in. If we decide to create a better world for us and our children, we can. We just have to take back control from those who profit from our busyness, from our alienated work, and we have to demand to be treated like what we really are: free human beings, creative, powerful, and able to truly rule the world in peace and respect for all life.
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