Erich Fromm and the Discontents of Materialism

In his book To Have or to Be, Erich Fromm analyzes the profound sense of dissatisfaction that is present in the materialistic societies of the West. He conceptionalizes the problem as two opposite ways of life: one that is centered around having vs. one that is centered around being.

Fromm begins his book with an analysis of the ideological assumptions that underlie Western capitalist societies. They are:

  1. “The aim of life is happiness, that is, maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel”
  2. “Egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace”

To sum it up, the belief is that pursuit of self-interest makes the system more efficient, which allows more people to satisfy their desires, which is equivalent to increased happiness. What is good for man becomes less and less of an important question, and it is replaced by what is good for the growth of the system. Possible conflicts between the two are covered up by assuming that what is good for the system is also good for the people.

Not only does this ideology fail to make the important distinction between desires aimed at momentary pleasure on the one hand, and legitimate needs that are necessary for well-being on the other, it also introduces a value system that eliminates ethics from economic behavior. As Fromm points out, up to the development of capitalism, economic behavior had always been subject to ethics and morality. In the new ideology, economic growth becomes the only reference frame for judging an action to be “good” or “bad” – irrespective of whether it leads to suffering or if it entails deception or other immoral behaviors.

The pervasive belief that happiness is achieved through accumulating more and more possessions and through the satisfaction of desires leaves many people empty, depressed and dissatisfied. This mode of being, which attempts to deal with life through accumulating possessions, is the mode of having. Opposed to this is the mode of being, which focuses on the development of one’s full human potential. It is characterized by being vibrantly alive, by being engaged in productive activity, rather than in the pursuit of more and more possessions. The mode of having is not limited to material objects and money – almost any aspect of life can be subordinated to the need to possess. Take someone who has a high level of education. If this person is caught in the mode of having, he accumulates knowledge to possess it, to impress others, to feel that he is better than them, and to reach a position of power. Someone who is focused on being, on the other hand, studies out of genuine interest, to question himself, to see things from a new perspective, to enlarge and develop himself, and to teach others, to elevate them and help them grow. Relationships can also be approached from the mode of having or from the mode of being: Am I in a relationship to “have” a partner, or because the relationship fosters growth in myself and my partner? Even asceticism can be a practiced in the mode of having: these are the people who like to have the idea of themselves as spiritual, ascetic people. They may outwardly appear as though they had renounced all possessions, but internally they very much cling to a certain idea of themselves.

As Fromm observes, to the degree that our need to possess decreases, our ability to truly be increasesOnly if we are not driven by the need to possess, we are free to experience joy and to be truly alive. Once again it is the mystics who lead the way: the Buddha, Meister Eckhard, the philosopher Spinoza and many more. They carefully investigated every dimension of the tendency of our mind to become entangled in its need to seek safety in possessions.

Now we can examine ourselves: are we living more in the mode of having or in the mode of being? Is what is currently on our minds an expression of our need to possess, or of a genuine interest in the thing-in-itself? Usually, it is a mixture of the two. We may, for example, learn an instrument, both because we like music, but also because we like the idea of ourselves being able to play an instrument. It is a good indicator of healthy development if our need to possess gradually decreases, and our ability to appreciate beauty and to be creative increases.

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