19 Dec 2007

Homo Consumens

I was going to blog a bit on the virtues of disobedience and thought of Erich Fromm who was an inspiring ecosocialist writer before the term was coined, famous for his books like To Have or To Be?

Neil Clarke of course had an excellent Comment is Free on him here.

found this passage on the web but it is better on the evils of a society obssessed with consumption, rather than consuming we are consumed by the addictive system...

Well something else to chat about next time David Cameron phones....seriously I think all sorts of unlike people can see that every increasing economic growth...does not neatly increase prosperity, is ecologically suspect and diminishes 'happiness'.

Cameron has argued:

It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being," Cameron will say.

"Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It is about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.”

the obvious response is when pensioners throw things at him because they have no buses or proper social services cos of the Thatcher legacy...Trade Unions? Trident? Neo-liberal globalisation?

Even Protestant work ethic obssessed Labour figures are saying interesting things.

Labour Lord and economist Richard Layard:
points out that while wealth is a factor in happiness, it is subject to diminishing returns, with happiness failing to keep pace with the growth of income, notably in the prosperous postwar years. Economics, he argues, has focused too exclusively on wealth maximisation.

This might look like a critique of the monetarist Chicago school, but Layard notes that both Milton Friedman and Gary Becker were well aware of other considerations: "They believed very strongly that economics was a potentially positive force in dealing with problems like family breakdown and suicide. Their fatal flaw was a belief that all human interaction could be reduced to the exchange of value."

If adopted as a governing principle, happiness would create some striking changes: "We would need to drop gross domestic product as a measure of progress, to start with."

More here

All well and good but A) Gordon Brown is 'Mr higher growth marketisation at any cost' and there are slightly sinster aspects to the Layard approach in terms of his take on therepy (as I understand it...I do to read carefully and critique).

any way lets get some seasonal good cheer from Dr Fromm...

Homo Consumens

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a prominent sociologist and psychotherapist and one of the leading critics of late capitalism. Modern life, Fromm thought, is not propitious for the development of human potentialities. In it the profit motive reigns supreme; all things become commodities, including roles and personalities; people accommodate themselves unthinkingly to an overly commercialized and acquisitive social order; work for many is sheer tedium; and the incentives merely to fit in and become like everyone else are too great to be combatted. These ideas are fleshed out in books such as The Sane Society, Man For Himself, Escape From Freedom, and To Have Or To Be?

According to Fromm, one of the symptoms of our collective pathology is the constant urge to consume stuff. We consume everything "with voracity -- liquor, cigarettes, movies, television, lectures, books, art exhibits, sex; everything is transformed into an article of consumption." Behind this consumptive frenzy, he thought, lies an inner vacuity, an incapacity of people to be autonomous, to be truly productive citizens and unique selves. The perennial challenge is to imagine an alternative existence for ourselves -- one that is ever more intelligent, humane and compassionate.

The passages below have been culled from On Disobedience And Other Essays (Seabury Press, 1981) and On Being Human (Continuum, 1997).

"Modern society creates a type of man whom I have earlier called the homo consumens -- the consumer man whose main interest becomes, aside from working from nine to five, to consume.

"This is the attitude of the eternal suckling. It is the attitude of the man or the woman with the open mouth who consumes everything with voracity -- liquor, cigarettes, movies, television, lectures, books, art exhibits, sex; everything is transformed into an article of consumption.

"Certainly, for those who sell all these articles, there is nothing wrong with this. They try to promote the consumer spirit as much as they can; but, if I may apply some knowledge of my own profession, there is something very deeply wrong with this, because we know that behind this urge to consume there is an inner vacuity -- a sense of emptiness. There is, in fact, a sense of depression, a sense of loneliness. We find the clinical evidence for this connection in the fact that, very often, overeating and overbuying are the results of states of depression or intense anxiety...

"What we feel as freedom is, to a large extent, the freedom to buy or to consume; that is to say, to choose between many, many different things and to say: 'I want this cigarette. I want this car. I want this thing rather than another.' Precisely because many of the competing brands are not in reality very different, the individual feels the great power of being free to choose. I think many people, if they were honest with their concept of heaven, would imagine heaven to be a tremendous department store in which they could buy something new every day and perhaps a little more than their neighbors.

"There is a certain sickness in this drive for ever-increasing consumption and the danger is that, by being filled with a need for consumption, the person does not really solve the problem of inner passivity, of inner vacuity, of anxiety, of being depressed -- because life in some way doesn't make sense.

"The Old Testament warns that the worst sin of the Hebrews was that they had lived without joy in the midst of plenty. I am afraid the critics of our society could also say that we live with much fun and excitement but with little joy in the midst of plenty...

"What is the opposite of the consumer? What is the opposite of the empty, passive person who spends -- or as I would say, wastes -- his life by killing time?

"This is very difficult to describe, but I would say, in a general way, the main answer is to be interested. Unfortunately, we use this word so often that it has lost a great deal of its meaning, the meaning being how its root is defined in Latin: inter-esse, 'to be in' something; that is to say, to be able to transcend one's ego, to leave the narrow confines of my ego with all my ambitions, with my pride of property, with my pride of what I know and my family and my wife and my husband and my and my and my. It means to forget all these things and to reach out to both that which is opposite me and that which is in front of me, whether that is a child or a flower or a book or an idea or man or whatever it may be.

"Interest means to be active, but to be active in the sense of Aristotle or in the sense of Spinoza, and not to be active in the sense of modern busy-ness where one must do something all the time. Any person who can sit for an hour or two and do nothing is probably more active, in this sense, than most of us are when we are doing something all the time; it is, of course, much more difficult. It is a real problem for the older person to be capable of being active in this inner sense rather than in the outer sense."

(On Disobedience And Other Essays)

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