10 Jan 2008

Oliver James: A thoroughly modern Fromm



He felt so low that he did not care if he lived or died. Taking a friend out for a flight in a Cessna aeroplane, it only became apparent he had not flown one before when they nearly crashed on take-off. Narrowly avoiding stalling a few times, they crash-landed and the friend breathed a sigh of relief - only for Bush to rev up the engine and take off again.

I am just reading 'The Selfish Capitalist' which argues that capitalism makes us mentally ill, I guess I tend to agree. It is by Oliver James who draws strongly on one of my heros Erich Fromm, who drew upon Buddhism and Marxism, but criticised both, to argue that in a capitalist society, we don't consume goods they consume us.

I love his take on George Bush from an essay a couple of years ago, Bush really is scary in a way that even characters like Nixon were not.

Here is some more on Bush from James:

A direct and loutish challenge to his father's posh sensibility came aged 25, after he had drunkenly crashed a car. "I hear you're looking for me," he sneered at his father, "do you want to go mano a mano, right here?"

As he grew older, the fury towards his father was increasingly directed against himself in depressive drinking. But it was not all his father's fault. There was also his insensitive and domineering mother.

Barbara Bush is described by her closest intimates as prone to "withering stares" and "sharply crystalline" retorts. She is also extremely tough. When he was seven, Bush's younger sister, Robin, died of leukaemia and several independent witnesses say he was very upset by this loss. Barbara claims its effect was exaggerated but nobody could accuse her of overreacting: the day after the funeral, she and her husband were on the golf course.

She was the main authority-figure in the home. Jeb describes it as having been, "A kind of matriarchy... when we were growing up, dad wasn't at home. Mom was the one to hand out the goodies and the discipline." A childhood friend recalls that,"She was the one who instilled fear", while Bush put it like this: "Every mother has her own style. Mine was a little like an army drill sergeant's... my mother's always been a very outspoken person who vents very well - she'll just let rip if she's got something on her mind." According to his uncle, the "letting rip" often included slaps and hits. Countless studies show that boys with such mothers are at much higher risk of becoming wild, alcoholic or antisocial.

On top of that, Barbara added substantially to the pressure from his father to be a high achiever by creating a highly competitive family culture. All the children's games, be they tiddlywinks or baseball, were intensely competitive - an actual "family league table" was kept of performance in various pursuits. At least this prepared him for life at Andover, where emotional literacy was definitely not part of the curriculum. Soon after arriving, he was asked to write an essay on a soul-stirring experience in his life to date and he chose the death of his sister. His mother had drilled it into him that it was wrong when writing to repeat words already used. Having employed "tears" once in the essay, he sought a substitute from a thesaurus she had given him and wrote "the lacerates ran down my cheeks". The essay received a fail grade, accompanied by derogatory comments such as "disgraceful".

This incident may be an insight into Bush's strange tendency to find the wrong words in making public pronouncements. "Is our children learning?" he once famously asked. On responding to critics of his intellect he claimed that they had "misunderestimated" him. Perhaps these verbal faux-pas are a barely unconscious way of winding up his bullying mother and waving two fingers at his cultured father's sensibility.

The outcome of this childhood was what psychologists call an authoritarian personality. Authoritarianism was identified shortly after the second world war as part of research to discover the causes of fascism. As the name suggests, authoritarians impose the strictest possible discipline on themselves and others - the sort of regime found in today's White House, where prayers precede daily business, appointments are scheduled in five-minute blocks, women's skirts must be below the knee and Bush rises at 5.45am, invariably fitting in a 21-minute, three-mile jog before lunch.

Authoritarian personalities are organised around rabid hostility to "legitimate" targets, often ones nominated by their parents' prejudices. Intensely moralistic, they direct it towards despised social groups. As people, they avoid introspection or loving displays, preferring toughness and cynicism. They regard others with suspicion, attributing ulterior motives to the most innocent behaviour. They are liable to be superstitious. All these traits have been described in Bush many times, by friends or colleagues.

His moralism is all-encompassing and as passionate as can be. He plans to replace state welfare provision with faith-based charitable organisations that would impose Christian family values.

1 comment:

Chris Morgan said...

I also love Erich Fromm and am interested in his Socialist ideas such as having some sort of basic income for all. I have noticed that this has been a 'Green Party' policy in the past, but I'm not sure if it still is. Is this because of the financial expense of this idea?
I am also currently reading Oliver James' book 'Britain on the Couch'. I find the book a bit depressing in the way he says our feelings of well-being are directly related to social status; unless we can, as humans, choose to stand outside these animal instincts. Perhaps James will explain this later in the book? I think Fromm would have said that we can - but that's just my feeling.

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