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Erich Fromm, Social Media, and a 'Sane Society'

July 1, 2018


This classic interview with Neo-Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm is interesting not only for its relevance to psychology but also as a piece of cultural history. It is fascinating to hear Fromm's thoughts about social psychology set against the backdrop of Cold War America. What stands out right away is how applicable this conversation is to current events as well. Often, we like to think that so much has changed about our culture that we essentially live in a different world from, say, the 1950s. As Fromm's words remind us, a lot hasn't changed about human nature, society or politics.


Fromm's discussion of what he calls "marketing orientation" is one such similarity. The idea that we "sell ourselves" as a product will be quite familiar to anyone who has worked in social media, and will resonate with many who use these platforms. I would argue that social media are a natural outcome of this behavioral trend Fromm describes, and that these social networks have solidified the marketing orientation in our culture. For better or worse (almost certainly for worse), social media provide an efficient marketplace for such exchanges. 


In my psychological study of social media, it is clear that the ability to craft an external image of oneself is a powerful draw, particularly for narcissists. The social comparisons, interactions and disappointments that come from social media engagement are also a significant source of anxiety for many. As Fromm noted with remarkable prescience, these failures to sell one's personality will lead to a perception of low self-worth.


Also, interesting -- and true -- is Fromm's assertion that man has become disconnected from his work, finding no meaning in it, and often feeling trapped by it. However, I don't think this is a product of "consumption" culture alone, as he seems to believe. Certainly, our product-oriented society reflects this feature, but we are not alone in that. One could travel back a long, long time in the Western world and never find a society where the common man feels connected and fulfilled by his work, if you can find it at all.


Indeed, Fromm agrees that man has yet to formulate this type of "sane society" and has only glimpsed at it during those rare moments when artisans, philosophers and a few lucky ones throughout history have had a chance to do work they loved and the time to ponder it deeply. Often, those folks had that opportunity because they benefitted from the labor and support of others who did not enjoy such luxuries. As Fromm points out, we know this kind of lifestyle feels good to us, but no one seems to have the creativity to devise a functioning society around these ideas -- not even Fromm himself. Perhaps it isn't even possible.


Fromm's views of Socialism are intriguing but, like those of any socialist, are ultimately flawed. He is correct to note that Russia didn't implement socialism -- but rather Communism -- and there is indeed a difference, though not a significant one. A more pure approach to Marxism, which Fromm imagines, would likely fare no better than the many attempts at socialism piled upon the trash heap of history, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, to present-day Venezuela.


The trouble with socialism isn't a problem of implementation. It's a problem of humanity. Unless and until human beings cease to exist as animal beings with instincts and behaviors that stand in conflict with the idealism of Marx, the peaceful and abundant bliss imagined by socialists would be difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. Perhaps this is why it's never happened, but not for lack of trying. In the end, these systems fall because of the flaws of man, whether those who desire more from life than the authoritarian state can provide or those who exploit the public trust to hoard a larger share of power and resources for themselves. In all cases, these are natural outcomes of human drives. These results are a foregone conclusion.


For this reason, I believe Marx was writing a happy fiction -- and Fromm is imagining a fairy tale as well -- in which people govern themselves, share equally in the work and the reward, consume only what they need and nothing more. However, until some future technology allows our resources to be limitlessly available, for competition and want to be eliminated, and so on, human nature and basic survival instinct will conflict with the socialist ideals and inevitably the system will collapse under that weight. Even if these advances should be achieved, and all basic needs satisfied, I doubt it would last. Human behavior is not rational, and our drives are are not subject to our social ideals.


But Fromm's ideas cannot be simply dismissed as the musings of a idealistic socialist. There is one quote from his interview with Wallace that highlights not only his understanding of these inherent challenges, but also the vast distance between his interpretation of social equality and the current, postmodern understanding of Marxist ideology. From says:


"Today we talk about equality but what most people mean is sameness, and we are afraid that if we are not the same then we are not equal."


This notion of sameness has not gone away since Fromm spoke these worlds. On the contrary, it has spread rapidly in Western culture I would argue that it is the poison which infects our current culture - and politics -- and which threatens to undo us entirely.


Somehow, in our noble quest for equality, many have decided that equal opportunity is not the goal.  Rather, it is equal outcome they seek. They have, as Fromm says, taken sameness as the standard, and often this idea is expressed in the name of Marx.


This fallacy is present in the postmodern insistence that men and women are exactly alike (which is scientifically false). It shows up as well in the belief that there should be an equal number of all races and genders represented in every facet of life. This is not only illogical but impossible, and, frankly, quite boring.


Equality of outcome, as enforced as a social policy, is another word for tyranny. It is also a great way to produce the disenchantment and disillusionment Fromm describes among the many problems of man.  In this, In this regard, it would seem that Fromm recognizes what ours has still not understood. It is in the freedom to pursue of our unique, creative selves, which produces a "sane society."



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