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6.5: Our Relationship to Society

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    Fromm was a prolific writer, whose interests included psychoanalysis, economics, religion, ethics, culture, and societal systems. He evaluated both Freud the man and Freud’s theories in Sigmund Freud’s Mission (Fromm, 1978) and Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (Fromm, 1980). His religious works include such provocative titles as The Dogma of Christ (Fromm, 1955b) and You Shall Be as Gods (Fromm, 1966). He addressed the person’s place within society in books such as The Sane Society (1955a) and The Revolution of Hope (1968). And a collection of his works on gender psychology, Love, Sexuality, and Matriarchy, was edited by Rainer Funk (1977). The unifying theme throughout Fromm’s writings is each person’s relationship to society, which he addressed most directly in Escape from Freedom (Fromm, 1941).

    Fromm interpreted Freud’s theories on the satisfaction of drives as necessarily involving other people, but for Freud those relationships are only a means to an end. Although hunger, thirst, and sex may be common needs, Fromm suggested that the needs that lead to differences in people’s character, such as love and hatred, lusting for power or yearning to submit, or the enjoyment of sensuous pleasure as well as the fear of it, are all the result of social processes. One’s very nature is a product of the interaction between the individual and their cultural setting. We are the creation and achievement of human history, and at the same time we influence the course of that history and culture. In modern times, particularly in the Western world, our pursuit of individuality has alienated us from others, from the very social structure that is inherent to our nature. Consequently, our freedom has become a psychological problem, it has isolated us from the connections necessary for our survival and development (Fromm, 1941). The danger with this situation, according to Fromm, is that when an entire society is suffering from feelings of isolation and disconnection with the natural order (from nature itself, in Fromm’s view), the members of that society may seek connection with a societal structure that destroys their freedom and, thus, integrates their self into the whole (albeit in a dysfunctional way). The three ways in which individuals escape from freedom are authoritarianism, or giving oneself up to some authority in order to gain the strength that the individual lacks, destructiveness, in which the individual tries to destroy the object causing anxiety (e.g., society), and automaton conformity, in which the person renounces their individual integrity. Fromm believed that these phenomena provided an explanation for the development of dictatorships, such as the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. For the leaders of these societies, these processes are such a deeply ingrained aspect of their character that Fromm actually described Adolf Hitler’s destructiveness as evidence of a necrophilous character (a necrophiliac is someone sexually attracted to the dead; Fromm, 1973).

    In order to approach a solution for this problem, Fromm pursued an overall integration of the person and society. He believed that psychology cannot be divorced from philosophy, sociology, economics, or ethics. The moral problem facing people in the modern world is their indifference to themselves. Although democracy and individuality seem to offer freedom, it is only a promise of freedom. When our insecurities and anxieties lead us to submit to some source of power, be it a political party, church, club, whatever, we surrender our personal power (Fromm, 1947). Consequently, we become subject to the undue influence of others (and in extreme situations, to a Hitler or a Stalin). The solution may be as simple as love, but Fromm suggests that love is by no means an easy task, and it is not simply a relationship between two people:

    …love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It [Fromm’s book] wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. (pg. xxi; Fromm, 1956)

    An individual’s capacity for love is a reflection of the extent to which their culture encourages the development of the capacity for love as part of the character of each person. Capitalist societies, according to Fromm, emphasize individual freedom and economic relations. Thus, a capitalist society values economic gain (amassed wealth) over labor (the power of people). And yet, such an economy needs large groups of people working together (the labor force). As individuals become anxious in their pursuit of life, they become psychologically invested in the capitalist system, they surrender themselves to capitalism, and become the labor force that leads to the wealth of those who own the company. Fromm believed this alienated us from ourselves, from others, and from nature (or, the natural order). In order to regain our connection to others in a healthy way, we need to practice the art of love, love both for ourselves and for others. Doing so requires discipline, concentration, and patience, personal strengths that are all taught in the practice of Zen. Indeed, Fromm recommends one of Horney’s favorite books: Zen in the Art of Archery (Herrigel, 1953). We will examine the relationship between Zen and the approaches of Horney and Fromm to solving society’s problems in more detail in “Personality Theory in Real Life.” But first, Fromm chose to examine whether the principles of psychoanalysis could be used to examine the relationship between individuals and society. He and his colleagues addressed this question in a Mexican village, a study we will examine in the next section.

    Discussion Question: Fromm believed that the freedom we have in modern, Western societies actually separates and alienates us from others, becoming a source of great anxiety. Can you agree that freedom can become a problem? Can you agree that people within an entire society could become so anxious that they support the rise of a dictator?

    This page titled 6.5: Our Relationship to Society is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.