Philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote many popular books throughout the second half of the 20th century analysing the problems of Western, capitalist societies. In this post, we look at his own utopian vision of what a perfect society could look like.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
In the previous posts, we talked about Erich Fromm and Karl Marx, who both believed that our unhappiness is due, to a large extent, to the way our capitalist society is structured. Becoming happier, for them, would require changing society first.
After reading so much about what’s wrong with our societies, today we’ll let Erich Fromm have a last word about how he envisions a happy society — a place in which all people live happy lives in a state of “being” rather than having. And we will see what would be involved in trying to create such a society for ourselves.
Having and being
You remember perhaps that, for Fromm, there is a crucial difference between the two ways of living our lives: in the so-called “mode of having,” we are trying to possess valuable things by incorporating them into our bodies, our homes and our lives. In the “mode of being,” we acquire valuable properties (for example, knowledge or experience) by becoming the kind of person who has these properties.
In the mode of having, the valuable thing remains external to ourselves: it can be lost or stolen and we are ourselves not changed or made any better for having it. In the mode of being, the valuable property becomes a part of who we are: it cannot be lost or stolen, and we do become better persons by living the valuable property and making it part of our own character.
Fromm gives many examples in his book (“To Have Or To Be,” 1976), but one most of us will be familiar with from our everyday lives, is having a conversation with another person.
To Have Or to Be
Erich Fromm distinguishes between two modes of existence. One can live one’s life in the “mode of having” or in the “mode of being”.
In the mode of having, Fromm says, the two people who are talking to each other have different opinions. Each one identifies with their own opinion, and they try to “win” the dispute by finding better arguments than the other person. Neither of the two expects to change their own opinion or that of their opponent. In this mode, one’s opinion is a possession, Fromm writes, and losing it would mean an impoverishment.
In the mode of being, having a conversation would work out very differently. The two partners would approach the debate without an initial opinion. Instead, they would listen at what the other partner says and respond, according to Fromm, “spontaneously and productively.”
Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities (information, knowledge, status) and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right.
In the process of talking, they would focus on the topic and forget about themselves and their previous positions. They would not let their egos stand in their way, but would try to learn and understand what the other person is trying to say. Fromm:
They give birth to new ideas, because they are not holding onto anything and can thus produce and give. (…) Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities (information, knowledge, status) and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right. (p.17)
By the way, this is a nice exercise that everyone can try out: the next time you meet someone and have a talk, try to notice when you are yourself responding in the mode of “I have my own opinion and you have to agree with me!” When this happens, try to listen instead to what the other person says. Often it helps to imagine that the other person is your teacher, someone you respect and whose opinion you value. Instead of losing anything, in this kind of constructive conversation, usually both participants gain much more than they give away: new knowledge, new ideas, and a much better appreciation of the points of the other side.
Fromm’s book *To Have Or To Be* goes into a lot more detail than I could present here. There’s no replacement for reading Fromm himself, as millions of readers have known over the past six decades.
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Conditions for the human character to change
At the end of the book, Fromm develops his concept of a new society that might be constructed by humans in the mode of being, based upon grown-up and constructive interactions between its members.
But first, he has to address the question: Are humans able to change at all?
Fromm identifies four conditions that must be met in order for the human character to change:
- We are suffering and are aware that we are.
- We recognise the origin of our ill-being.
- We recognise that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
- We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life. (p.137)
He himself points out the obvious similarity of these points to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.
We can clearly see here Fromm’s psychoanalytical approach: the way to heal society must begin with the realisation of one’s suffering and one’s insight into the mechanisms that cause that suffering. Only after these have become visible to oneself, one can begin to walk on the path towards healing.
The character of the “new man”
According to Fromm, the character of the “new man” will have the following properties:
First, the willingness to give up all forms of having, in order to fully be.
Second, “security, sense of identity, and confidence based on faith in what one is, on one’s need for relatedness, interest, love, solidarity with the world around one, instead of on one’s desire to have, to possess, to control the world, and thus become the slave of one’s possessions.”
And, finally, “acceptance of the fact that nobody and nothing outside oneself give meaning to life, but that this radical independence and no-thingness can become the condition for the fullest activity devoted to caring and sharing.”
So that “new man” will always be fully present where he or she is. They will experience the joy that comes form sharing rather than from hoarding and exploiting. They will love and respect life, and try to reduce greed, hate and illusions. And, finally, they will develop their capacity for love, “together with one’s capacity for critical, unsentimental thought. Shedding one’s narcissism and accepting the tragic limitations inherent in human existence.”
This last bit is interesting. Influenced by the romantic ideals of love as it is depicted in popular songs, books and movies, we would not expect the capacity to love to be related to one’s capacity for “critical, unsentimental thought.” In our present societies, being critical and unsentimental is a property of nerds – not exactly the people who devour love stories. But Fromm has a point: the romantisation of love is not what love really needs. If love means to engage with the other person, accepting who they really are, then this kind of love requires a clear-sighted evaluation of both ourselves and the other, and then a totally un-romantic commitment to accept the other person as they really are and to work towards their benefit. Romanticising the other necessarily means replacing the real person with a fictional version that we make up – and this cannot be the basis for the responsible love relationship that is Fromm’s ideal.
If love means to engage with the other person, accepting who they really are, then this kind of love requires a clear-sighted evaluation of both ourselves and the other.
The “new society”
The “new society,” finally, would give up the aim of conquering and exploiting nature, according to Fromm. Instead, it would try to understand and cooperate with nature.
Evil and destructiveness, for Fromm, are necessary consequences of a failure to grow. Remember that Fromm traces aggression and destructiveness to our in-born fear of being free, which leads to our attempts to “escape from freedom”, as he puts it.
In the end, happiness is “the process of ever-growing aliveness, whatever the furthest point is that fate permits one to reach, for living as fully as one can is so satisfactory that the concern for what one might or might not attain has little chance to develop.” This, again, sounds very much like Bertrand Russell’s zest for life.
Difficulties a new society would face
Of course, the change towards a utopian society like that would not come easily. Fromm thinks that this new society would have to overcome a number of obstacles.
First, it would have to “solve the problem of how to continue the industrial mode of production without total centralisation.” We saw in the previous post, how Karl Marx thinks that the capitalist mode of production necessarily needs to more and more capital being concentrated in the hands of those who are already rich, and how this leads to widespread alienation in the lives of the working classes.
The Happier Society. Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School.
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This is an edited and expanded version of the articles published on tis site.
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But, of course, nobody would want to completely dismantle industrial society – and Fromm is realist enough to acknowledge that. No matter what we think about Marx and the evils of capitalism, we all would like to keep having access to electricity, the Internet, cheap clothing, safe and available housing, a stable supply of food and other agricultural products and medical technologies.
Such a society, Fromm thinks, would have to “combine overall planning with a high degree of decentralisation, giving up the ‘free-market economy,’ that has become largely a fiction.” As part of that, the new society would have to give up the goal of unlimited growth (and we can see the problems of this paradigm of unlimited growth in our times much clearer than Fromm could in the 1970s). A new society would have to replace this ideal with “selective growth” that focuses perhaps on the things that we really need in order to live good, satisfied lives – and particularly to create a “general spirit in which not material gain but other, psychic satisfactions are effective motivations.”
The new society would have to create the conditions for true happiness and joy, rather than make us chase after material goods and short-term pleasure.
All this could only be achieved by a society that is able to control scientific progress and prevent it “from becoming a danger to the human race by its practical application.” It would have to create the conditions for true happiness and joy, rather than make us chase after material goods and short-term pleasure. And it would have to “give basic security to individuals without making them dependent on a bureaucracy to feed them.”
If all this sounds like a tall order, it is. But then, utopias are supposed to be hard to get. How this ideal world would work economically, Fromm does not say: he is not an economist, after all, but a psychiatrist.
But whether we manage to make Fromm’s vision (or something similar) come true one day is beside the point — and probably Fromm would be the first to say so. He wouldn’t encourage us to go on dreaming about a better world, but, as with his ideal lovers, he would like us to be unsentimental, critical, and clear-eyed. To see what is wrong about our world and to go out, screwdriver, megaphone, pen or ballot in hand, and to fix these things, one by one, until we have created a world that is better than the one we were born into.
This is all one can ask, and perhaps Fromm is right in one point: that this is what we should be doing with out time down here.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.