“The fact that millions of people share…so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same mental pathology does not make these people sane.”
– Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 1955.
Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst who escaped Nazi Germany to live in the U.S., looked in vain for sanity among Americans. He pronounced our collective worship of more goods, produced at bigger volume, at faster rates to be a form of regimented mass insanity.
On occasion he could be downright vicious in his views of our insane society, positing that if the robot American – you and me – “dared to articulate” a concept of heaven, it would,
“look like the biggest department store in the world, showing new things and gadgets, and himself having plenty of money with which to buy them. He would wander around open-mouthed in this heaven of gadgets and commodities, provided only that there were ever more and newer things to buy.”
But of course: the American Dream.
“Men are increasingly automatons, who make machines which act like men and produce men who act like machines,” he wrote in 1955. “In spite of increasing production and comfort, man loses more and more the sense of self, feels that his life is meaningless, even though such a feeling is largely unconscious. In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century” – and even more so in the 21st – “the problem is that man is dead.”
What to do?
Fromm’s answer, which then as today has an air of utopian fantasy, was the devolution of mass automated consumerist society into small communities guided by what he called “humanistic communitarian socialism.”
Humanistic: oriented towards human beings, and not towards some higher entity – not the all-powerful State or the Market or a conception of God – and yet – in Fromm’s peculiar vision – oriented also to keep in mind Homo sapiens’ humble place in the cosmos, housed within the natural world as plain member and not lord. Communitarian: organized in small communities relatively self-sufficient, self-governing, autonomous, where no big corporations provide monopoly services and goods, and no big governments oversee all. Socialism: in Fromm’s conception, not merely the redistribution of wealth by a democratic body, and not necessarily redistribution by the state as we know it; but socialism as ethical practice, a way of finding the good by taking responsibility for the welfare of everyone else in your small community — and it must be small because such an endeavor is impossible in a big one (as true empathy, care and connection cannot be scaled up – human nature doesn’t allow it).
Forgotten today, in the 1950s and ‘60s Fromm was a heavy hitter in American intellectual life, a fixture of the Saturday Review magazine and New York Times Book Review, best known for his enormously influential study of authoritarian psychology, Escape from Freedom. The Sane Society is the better book, though it was not as well publicized, probably because it castigated rampant Fifties capitalism in the U.S., hardly the same easy target that Germans under Nazism offered in a victorious post-war America.
My own heaping dose of Fromm recently taken leads to a number of conclusions in the context of the highly developed and complex form of insanity now dominant that can be described as ecocidal mania:
1. Human beings revolt at inhuman scale, at governments and corporations grown too big; public governments and private corporate governments fail to answer to real needs while increasingly they dictate the fate of humanity – literally in the form of control of the food supply, energy supply, means of finance, and on and on. Inhuman organization (a bipartisan affair, directed by Democrats as much as by Republicans) is too centralized to offer individuals a sense of agency, relatedness, participation, a sense of social cohesion and purpose. The tight interlocking of centralized systems – of markets, governments, corporations, labor, media, education, agriculture, and so on – neutralizes even modest individual action, rendering people into mere playthings of the forces of bigness.
2. The ecosphere rebels against our obscene growth in numbers and appetites: the global commons is falling apart from human overshoot. We are alienated from knowledge, understanding and care for the carrying capacity of earth systems.
3. We are trapped in a debt-money matrix that demands growth, because debt requires continual growth in order to be paid off, and continual growth has nothing to do with the real needs of people for community, companionship, love, shelter, food, clean water, clean air (add to the list, readers, please!).
4. We embrace a robotic technophilia, the belief that technology will allow us to continue to expand the human enterprise ad infinitum. Embraced without reserve, deployed without limits, and thus free to rampage, technology asserts monopoly control over society, transforming vast numbers of living breathing people into tech personnel, or algorithm mobs, or members of the hive-mind, or quintessences of digital dust – humans acting like machines (becoming dead, that is) to better act in concert with machines said to be more alive than humans.
5. The United States, Fromm’s heavenly department store, is the world imperial model of technophiliac growthmania to be emulated. But it is a model bound by the laws of nature to self-destruct, as nature dictates limits to the growth of any species, technology be damned. Developing nations now have among their chief goals the replication of the American paradigm of living the Dream, though counsels from prophets in their ranks said this was a bad idea. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Mahatma Gandhi warned India back when it had a mere 300 million people. “If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” India has thrown Gandhi to the garbage heap.
6. We don’t know what to do in answer – we are alienated from real world action. We know we cannot continue growing without cease. To do so invites catastrophe.
7. Some on the fringes of public discourse have a name for what’s likely to be coming absent a radical change in course: it’s called collapse. These thinkers declare themselves collapseniks, in the mocking Slavic diminutive, or collapsitarians, or if inclined to seriousness, collapseologists.
Big picture is that maybe now is the time to start listening to the warnings of the collapseologists. It might be the sane thing to do.