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Diseases of 20th Century Society: Erich Fromm on Values, Equality and Happiness
Diseases of 20th Century Society: Erich Fromm on Values, Equality and Happiness

We are publishing an archived recording of an interview with Erich Fromm, in which a German psychologist talks about the diseases of society of the 20th century, the problems of personality that it faces in the era of consumption, people's attitudes towards each other, true values ​​and the dangers that await us in the era of wars and states manipulations.

On the attitude of a person of a consumer society to work:

Mike Wallace:I would like to know your opinion as a psychoanalyst, what happens to us as individuals. For example, what would you say about what happens to a person, an American, in relation to his work?

Erich Fromm:I think his work is largely meaningless to him because he has nothing to do with it. It becomes part of a larger mechanism - a social mechanism governed by a bureaucracy. And I think that an American very often unconsciously hates his job because he feels trapped, imprisoned. He feels like he is wasting most of his life, of his energy, on things that don't make sense to him.

Mike Wallace:It makes sense to him. He uses his job to make a living, so it's worthy, sensible, and necessary.

Erich Fromm:Yes, but this is not enough to make a person happy if he spends eight hours a day doing things that have no meaning or interest for him, except for making money.

Mike Wallace:This is the point. This is also interesting to work with. Maybe I'm too persistent, but what exactly do you mean? When a person works in a factory, for example, with a monkey wrench, what deep sense can this be?

Erich Fromm: There is a creative enjoyment that artisans enjoyed in the Middle Ages and still survives in countries like Mexico. It is the pleasure of creating something specific. You will find very few skilled workers who still enjoy this. Maybe it is familiar to a worker in a steel mill, maybe to a worker whose work involves the use of complex machines - he feels that he is creating something. But if you take a seller who sells a product for no good, he feels like a fraud, and he hates his product like … something …

Mike Wallace: But you are talking about useless goods. And if he sells toothbrushes, cars, TVs or …

Erich Fromm: "Useless" is a relative term. For example, to make his plan, the salesperson must get people to buy them, realizing that they shouldn't buy them. Then, from the point of view of the needs of these people, they are useless, even if the things themselves are in order.

What is "market orientation" and where does it lead

Mike Wallace: In your works, you often talk about "market orientation". What do you mean by "market orientation," Dr. Fromm?

Erich Fromm: I mean, the basic way people relate is the same way people relate to things in the marketplace. We want to change our own personality, or, as they sometimes say, "our personal baggage," for something. Now this does not apply to physical labor. A manual worker should not sell his identity. He doesn't sell his smile. But those whom we call "white collars", that is, all people who deal with numbers, with paper, with people who manipulate - we use the best word - manipulate people, signs and words. Today, they must not only sell their services, but by entering into a deal, they must more or less sell their identity. There are, of course, exceptions.

Mike Wallace: Thus, their sense of self-worth should depend on how much the market is willing to pay for them …

Erich Fromm: Exactly! Just like bags that cannot be sold because there is not enough demand. From an economic point of view, they are useless. And if the bag could feel, then it would be a feeling of terrible inferiority, because no one bought it, which means that it is useless. So is the person who considers himself a thing. And if he is not successful enough to sell himself, he feels that his life has failed.

About responsibility:

Erich Fromm: … We have given responsibility for what is happening in our country to specialists who must take care of it. The individual citizen does not feel that he can have his own opinion. And even that he should do it, and be responsible for it. I think a number of recent events prove this.

Mike Wallace: … When you talk about the need to do something, maybe the problem is that in our amorphous society it is very difficult to develop this feeling. Everyone wanted to do something, but it is very difficult to develop a sense of responsibility.

Erich Fromm: I think you are pointing to one of the major flaws in our system here. A citizen has very little chance of having any influence - to express his opinion in the decision-making process. And I think that this in itself leads to political lethargy and stupidity. It is true that one must first think and then act. But it is also true that if a person is unable to act, his thinking becomes empty and stupid.

About values, equality and happiness

Mike Wallace: The picture of society that you are painting - we are talking now mainly about Western society, about American society - the picture you are painting is very dark. Of course, in this part of the world, our main task is to survive, remain free and realize ourselves. How does all that you have said affect our ability to survive and remain free in this world, which is now in crisis?

Erich Fromm: I think that you have just touched on a very important issue: we must make a decision on values ​​.. If our highest value is the development of the Western tradition - a person for whom the most important is the life of a person for whom love, respect and dignity are the highest values, then we we cannot say, "If this is better for our survival, then we could leave these values." If these are the highest values, then whether we are alive or not, we will not change them. But if we start to say: “Well, maybe we can better cope with the Russians if we also turn ourselves into a controlled society, if we, as someone suggested the other day, will train our soldiers to be like the Turks, who fought so bravely in Korea … ". If we want to change our entire way of life for the sake of so-called "survival", then I think we are doing exactly what threatens our survival. Because our vitality and the vitality of each nation is based on sincerity and a depth of faith in the ideas that it proclaims. I think we are in danger because we say one thing and feel and act differently.

Mike Wallace: What do you have in mind?

Erich Fromm: I mean, we are talking about equality, about happiness, about freedom and the spiritual value of religion, about God, and in our daily life we ​​act according to principles that differ and partially contradict these ideas.

Mike Wallace: Okay, I want to ask you about what you just mentioned: equality, happiness and freedom.

Erich Fromm: Well, I'll try. On the one hand, equality can be understood in the sense that it is in the Bible: that we are all equal because we are created in the image of God. Or, if you do not use theological language: that we are all equal in the sense that no one person should be a means to another person, but each person is an end in itself.Today we talk a lot about equality, but I think that most people understand by this equality. They are all the same - and they are afraid, if they are not alike, they are not equal.

Mike Wallace: And happiness.

Erich Fromm: Happiness is a very proud word in our entire cultural heritage. I think if you ask today what people really consider to be happiness, it will be unlimited consumption - such things Mr. Huxley described in his novel Brave New World. I think if you ask people what heaven is, and if they are honest, they will say that this is kind of a big supermarket with new things every week and enough money to buy new things. I think today, for most people, happiness is forever being a nursing baby: drinking more of this, this or that.

Mike Wallace: And what should be happiness?

Erich Fromm: Happiness should be the result of creative, genuine, deep connections - understanding, responsiveness to everything in life - to people, to nature. Happiness does not exclude sadness - if a person reacts to life, he is sometimes happy, and sometimes he is sad. Depends on what he is reacting to.

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