According to philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, society and technology have a crucial influence on individual happiness. Fromm identifies the “promise of unlimited progress” that drove Western development from the Industrial Revolution up into the 1960s, as one of the fundamental problems of modern capitalist systems. According to Fromm, the dream of endless technological development has led to a depletion of natural resources and the destruction of nature. It has created societies that emphasise material possessions, while, at the same time, making it harder for their citizens to become balanced and happy individuals.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
Fromm on Society, technology and progress
Fromm wants to argue that our societies, as they are now, necessarily create unhappy individuals. This is an important point, for many reasons:
First, if this was true, one could not just blame the unhappiness of people in industrialised societies on accidental events, like a pandemic, a war, unemployment or a disease. All these, of course, tend to make things worse – but, according to Fromm, it is the very fabric of our system that is bound to create unhappy individuals. We cannot hope to get a happy industrial society by, say, raising the taxes or lowering them, by promoting social housing or supporting free enterprise, by regulating against pollution or in favour of big oil. None of these, as necessary as some of them might be, will be able to change the root of the ailment of our societies: that capitalism, as it practised in the Western industrialised world, is just not compatible with human happiness and flourishing.
Second, if this was true, it would mean that we don’t need to individually feel guilty for being depressed, unhappy, plagued by anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. We might be doing nothing wrong and still be victims: victims of a system that we cannot control and that takes away our chances at a full, satisfying human life, a system that cheats us out of our lives without giving us anything of real value back.
Capitalism, as it practised in the Western industrialised world, is just not compatible with human happiness and flourishing.
And third, if this was true, it would mean that the only proper way to deal with human unhappiness would be a revolutionary one. No visits to the psychiatrist would help, no extended holidays, no pay raise. If the society is what is making us sick, then this society must go. In a way, this is the purest form of the legacy of Marx in Fromm: the rebirth of man must happen through a restructuring of the society in which we live.
The promise of unlimited technological progress
In explaining how capitalist societies make people unhappy, Fromm goes back to the beginning of industrialisation and to the height of its promise in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within a hundred years, the time span from grandfather to grandson, we went from essentially agrarian, rural societies to full coverage of every home with electricity; to lighting up cities and streets; to inventing home technology like radios, TV sets, kitchen machines, washing machines, dishwashers and computers; we went from riding horses to flying to the moon on the top of gigantic rockets; from having 6 percent of deaths in childbirth in the mid-19th century to close to zero in the mid-20th; from writing a letter in England that would take weeks to reach a recipient in India to picking up one’s phone and being connected to any point on the planet within seconds.
In a world like that, it is understandable that our own parents and grandparents, who were at the end of that chain in the mid-20th century, would have thought that the wonders of technology would never end. One can still see that optimism in books and movies from 50s America, a happy place of big cars, cheap fuel, fully-automated kitchens and happy people: the land of unlimited ice-cream.
“We were on our way to becoming gods, supreme beings who could create a second world, using the natural world only as building blocks for our new creation,” writes Fromm (To Have or To Be, p.1).
But as industrial progress replaced humans and animals with mechanical and nuclear energy and the human mind with computer power, we began to ask whether the great promise of the industrial age has actually worked out. Did it?
No, says Fromm. The industrial age and its focus on technology has failed to fulfil its promise (p.2/3). One problem is that we began to realise that unrestricted satisfaction of all desires does not lead to happiness. We will have more opportunity to talk about this later this year, when we come to Epicurus and his views on how to achieve happiness. The main point is that material goods, although they may provide us with pleasures, don’t necessarily satisfy our need for a meaningful and productive life
The lost meaning of work
And something else happened: in the process of industrialisation, we lost our independence as creators at work. In the medieval workshop, the master and their apprentices controlled every step of the process of the creation of an artefact – from the selection of the trees from which to make a piece of furniture, to the decoration of the final piece with carvings and paint. The process was one in which the creators had something real to show for their skill and their art, something that they could touch, see, and be proud of and recognised for by others in their society.
The industrial age and its focus on technology has failed to fulfil its promise.
Industry and mass production has done away with all that. Who can still today say that they are responsible for a whole product from start to finish? I see each of my students for three hours a week, for the duration of half a year – and never again. I teach the same course again and again to always new faces, and then they go away and I never see them again. What became of them? Did they become great scientists, good family women and men, gifted artists, deep thinkers? I have no idea. I did my three hours a week and that was that. And almost every job in our world is like that. The factory worker doesn’t make anything alone. They’re performing one small operation again and again on ever new copies of the same thing that are rolling by on an assembly line. The bank clerk is a tiny cog in the machinery of a bank, not himself responsible for anything of what the bank does – most of it he doesn’t even know about except from the news. The employee at a supermarket, the driver of a bus, the nurse in a hospital: they are all just performing a small, repeated action, more or less complex and demanding, but they never see the whole picture, they never see the success and the full impact of their work, and they never get to claim the satisfaction and the recognition for whatever change in the world their lives have brought.
Of course, in return we get cheap clothes, radios and iPhones for all, antibiotics and vaccinations, and a relatively secure supply of food (at least in the industrialised West). But we get these at the price of selling out the meaning of our lives.
Instead of being independent masters of our lives, we became “cogs in the bureaucratic machine,” writes Fromm. Our thoughts, feelings, and tastes are manipulated by government and industry. And then, we should not forget that economic progress is largely restricted to the rich nations. The gap between rich and poor nations is ever widening, and ecological disasters, droughts and famines always hit the countries that are already suffering from mismanagement and wars.
Instead of being independent masters of our lives, we became “cogs in the bureaucratic machine,” writes Fromm.
Fromm hadn’t experienced the whole spectrum of today’s apocalyptic riders, but we could add a whole list of new threats to our survival: rampant surveillance, global heating, extinction of species, global pollution, AI taking our jobs, microplastics, dictatorships and the disastrous effects of social media on our societies.
Erich Fromm on How to Be Happy. Inspiration and Workbook.
In this book, philosophy professor, founder 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.
This is an edited and expanded version of the articles published on tis site.
Get it now on Amazon! Click here!
Why has the promise of unlimited progress failed?
So why didn’t the dream work out? Why didn’t the world go on as it looked like it might in the 50s? Why didn’t we end up in an utopia of pink kitchen appliances and happy citizens on manicured lawns and instead find ourselves increasingly in worlds that resemble those of Mad Max?
According to Erich Fromm, the industrial-capitalist utopia was based on two major premises, Fromm says, and both are terribly wrong:
First, that the aim of life is happiness in the sense of maximum pleasure.
And, second, that egotism, selfishness, and greed in capitalism will eventually lead to harmony and peace.
But hedonism, the unrestricted enjoyment of pleasures, does not lead to happiness. Despite us having unparalleled material comforts, “we are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent — people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save” (To Have or To Be, p.4).
And he goes on:
Ours is the greatest social experiment ever made to solve the question whether pleasure (…) can be a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. For the first time in history the satisfaction of the pleasure drive is not only the privilege of a minority but is possible for more than half the population. The experiment has already answered the question in the negative (p.4)
The second premise is also not true: that egotism and greed will bring harmony and peace.
The reason is that egotism describes not only a particular kind of behaviour but a person’s character. (And in this, Fromm is clearly following Aristotle!) A person who focuses on maximising their enjoyment from pleasures becomes someone who gets pleasure from not sharing, being greedy, fighting to get more than others, and in the end from exploiting workers and customers. Fromm:
I can never be satisfied, because there is no end to my wishes; I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less. But I have to repress all these feelings in order to represent myself (to others as well as to myself) as the smiling, rational, sincere, kind human being everybody pretends to be.
Fromm believes that capitalism and industrialisation are fundamentally at odds with a society that fulfils the basic human needs.
In the end, the concept of unlimited pleasure in a work-based society is based on a contradiction: On the one hand, we have to accept an obsessional work ethic that asks us to work for ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week (see the reasons for Touching Fish, discussed earlier on this blog
. On the other, we hold up an ideal of complete laziness during the rest of the day and during vacations.
That’s obviously a contradiction. No human society before ours had had such a crazy relationship to work. If one goes, even today, to a remote Greek or Italian village, one will find that people don’t usually distinguish sharply between work and leisure: whole families serve food in a tavern, only to sit around, chat and play with the kids while the guests are eating. The supermarket owner will man his shop every day, all day, but much of that time will be spent talking on the phone to friends, reading the newspaper, or drinking coffee with passers-by. And the same is true of most other lives in these places.
But these contradictions, this crazy arrangement of full-power work suddenly replaced by equally frantic doing-nothing is only possible because of the society we’re in and the technologies that determine and control our lives:
“The endless assembly line belt and the bureaucratic routine on the one hand, and television, the automobile, and sex on the other, make the contradictory combination possible. … Besides, both contradictory attitudes correspond to an economic necessity: twentieth-century capitalism is based on maximal consumption of the goods and services produced as well as on routinized teamwork.”
Fromm’s ideas in our lives
So Fromm believes that capitalism and industrialisation are fundamentally at odds with a society that fulfils the basic human needs, especially the immaterial, the psychological needs of human beings: the need for recognition, for meaningful work, for a life that is satisfying and valuable rather than just a replaceable number in an incomprehensibly complex system that is out of the control of any single person. In this, he comes close to some of the softer Luddites we will talk about later, for example Stephanie Mills
This week then, let’s look at how our lives are affected by technologies, and particularly by bureaucratic processes and technologies that tend to take control and satisfaction away from us and degrade us into being appendages of a machine or an institution, instead of giving us room to develop as professionals who do a valuable, creative work.
I don’t expect that anyone in our societies is entirely free of this kind of new slavery, of being cheated out of their freedom and satisfaction by some big machine that they are just a small part of. But, although we are all affected, there might be opportunities for each one of us to try and escape that annihilation of our creative selves.
Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity
In her book “Epicurean Simplicity,” author and activist Stephanie Mills analyses what is wrong with our modern way of life – and she goes back to the philosophy of Epicurus to find a cure. Mills’ book is as beautiful and relaxing as it is inspiring – a passionate plea for a life well-lived, a life that is less wasteful and more meaningful.
As a teacher, I can try to cultivate personal contacts to my students outside of my three hours of teaching. I can make friends with them and watch them grow and find meaning in their lives. As a bus driver, I can perhaps try to make friends with the people I drive every day: a warm greeting, a question, a remark about the weather may be enough to make someone open up to us and create a bond.
As parents, we should not only make sure that our kids tick the boxes of their homework, but take half an hour in the evening to talk to them about our view of the world, our opinions, our fears, our hates, our hopes. And where none of this is possible, if we’re really stuck at a factory assembly like without the prospect of ever getting more meaningful work, then perhaps there’s a way to find some of that outside of that factory or office. Perhaps we can volunteer in the afternoon for an hour to keep elderly people company for a coffee. Or we can serve food to the hungry in our community. Or we can paint, be creative. I recently discovered that I could paint on my phone. I downloaded a free art app and went on to paint for hours on a weekend, surprising myself with how much fun that was. I didn’t become Picasso or Rembrandt – but I certainly became a happier person for these few hours, which I might have otherwise just have spent in front of a TV screen or watching cats on Youtube.
The promise of unlimited progress hasn’t paid off, Fromm says. But this also means that we don’t owe it anything any more. The deal is off, and we are free to find satisfaction and meaning in every way that we can.
And no one has the right to stop us.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.