Erich Fromm's critism of Western culture

Erich Fromm opens his book, 'The Sane Society' (Fromm, 1991) with statistics about both suicide and homicide to introduce the idea of the pathology of normalcy. The information was gathered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1951 and shows Ireland at the bottom of the table with the lowest levels of suicide. The latest figures available from the WHO show that this has increased dramatically by three times in the last half-century (WHO, 2005). Fromm (1991) argues that suicide levels prove nothing in themselves but probably point to deeper problems. What, then, are these problems and how does Fromm characterise them in Western culture? For the roots of Fromm's critical thinking about Western societies it is first necessary to return to a book that forms the prequel to The Sane Society: The Fear of Freedom (Fromm, 2001).

In the Fear of Freedom, Fromm (2001) acknowledges the balance of factors between social or cultural effects and those of biology on how our personalities are formed. But while a person has many in-built drives, in effect a person has to accept the means of production in the society to which they belong. In attempting to adapt to these cultural requirements, a person develops drives that are used to satisfy these drives. Fromm then takes examples from history and analyses how this adaptation has taken place. Fromm firstly looks at the Reformation and explains that medieval people were given freedom from some of the old bonds of the medieval system so that they had greater independence. He argues, though, that people took this freedom and submitted themselves to compulsive and irrational behaviour as a result. This comes about because the medieval system was the servant of people - literally it allowed them to live by providing food and shelter. On the other hand, the modern capitalist system, that has emerged from changes that have their roots in the Reformation, has, according to Fromm, reversed this system. People are now controlled by the system, striving to amass capital simply for the sake of it, rather than for any particular purpose.

It is through capitalism, then, that Fromm argues people are damaging themselves. In a capitalist society, people's relations with each involve mutual exploitation. Instead of relationships being based on a solid human foundation, they are based on economic principles. Not only do competitors vie with each other in the marketplace, so do colleagues vie with each other within the same organisation, or rather manipulate each other to gain the upper hand. The relationship between people is based on what each can use the other for, and nothing else. The result of this is an emptiness in relationships that breeds alienation. This alienation is seen by Fromm as acting most strongly in the way that people view themselves in relation to their work. Instead of selling commodities, people view themselves as commodities. The sense of a person's self is therefore tightly bound up with the commercial aspects of their life. Qualities that a person has that are not saleable, therefore, lose their utility and even their very being in a capitalist society.

In The Fear of Freedom, Fromm goes on to analyse why these kinds of processes make people cause people to try and escape into totalitarianism, an analysis that is perhaps less relevant now that it has been discarded in the West. But what can Fromm tells us about a modern democracy, such as that in Ireland? Fromm refers to the 'illusion of individuality' that is created in capitalist societies. This results from processes such as the suppression of emotion, the pressure to conform and a kind of gross inauthenticity and insincerity. These come about directly from the lack of a sense of self that in turn results from the emptiness in human relationship described above.

These ideas about empty relationships bring us back to the suicide and homicide figures that Fromm quotes in The Sane Society. Taking up the themes he had begun to elaborate in The Fear of Freedom, Fromm (1991) took the fact that suicide rates are higher in those societies that most exemplify capitalist and democratic ideals to mean that society might not be as sane as is commonly assumed. Again, Fromm places the blame for this presumed malaise on a society which is assumed by its members to be normal but might not be so. Perhaps, Fromm argues, modern Western society fails to fulfil the needs and desires of its members. What might these needs and desires be?

The first need that Fromm deems essential for people is for relatedness. This is a continuation of the arguments in The Fear of Freedom, as Fromm states that Western societies fail to provide this relatedness because of the sense of alienation that is a result of individualism. Other important oppositions are the contrast between creativeness or transcendence and destructiveness, rootedness and brotherliness against incest, a sense of identity versus conformity and, finally, reason against irrationality. Having identified man's requirements, Fromm moves on to discuss the character of modern capitalist societies. He describes a world where the commercial emphasis has shifted from simple production through to the importance of consumption. Fromm acknowledges that the oppression of nineteenth century capitalism has been removed, and replaced with something much more abstract in nature: the subservience to the marketplace, the faceless global corporations that encourage a bland conformity. People, in their role as consumers, simple act passively to consume the things that they are offered, rather than taking an active pleasure in what is offered. The result of this, according to Fromm, is that a person thinks of themselves as being beholden to powers outside themselves, of not having any choice or ability to exercise their will. Again, Fromm talks of the loss of a sense of identity.

These ideas, especially of alienation, are nowhere better illustrated than in big business and government. Fromm sees the managers and politicians largely as bureaucrats who, because of the sheer scale of the system are forced to envisage people as things to be manipulated. They are not people who they either feel positively or negatively towards, as would be inherent on a more individual basis, but are abstractions that must be managed in order to satisfy the requirements of the market economy. And it seems to Fromm, that the big corporations also have a sense of alienation from their own property. This is illustrated in the idea of the stockholder, whose ownership in a company is only materially represented by a piece of paper, if that, while all the other factors normally associated with ownership such as a sense of spiritual connection, are no longer present.

Whilst the process of production leads inevitably, for Fromm, towards alienation, so does the process of consumption. Consumption, Fromm argues, has become alienated from its sensory pleasure, marketing has replaced the taste and smell of food, for example, with emotions and images so that our bodily sensations have been relegated to distant memories. It is a satisfaction with useless possession - having something for the sake of having it. Without relatedness to the objects we are consuming, there is no way in which we can be truly satisfied, which leads to a continuing spiral of consumerism.

The criticism of Fromm's interpretation of Marxist theory is that it does provide a somewhat caricatured view of capitalist societies. It would be difficult to argue that no one's relationship is based on anything else than what one can extract from the other. As Ingelby (1991) argues, Fromm is essentially a moralist, using the scientific arguments to back up his moral position. In addition, many of the concepts Fromm relies on are supposed to come from man's essential nature - if this doesn't come from biology or culture then where does it come from? Still, the characterisations are useful in that it makes the criticism of Western culture clear. Ingelby (1991) states that Fromm's strength is in his ability to connect the psychological level of analysis with the sociological and historical, and the manner in which he cuts across disciplines.

Irish society, like many other Western societies, has seen significant and sustained growth over the last few decades. The very entities, big corporations, that Fromm sees as the most dangerous for human sanity, can clearly be seen to be increasing in modern Ireland. Ireland, the 'celtic tiger', has experienced growth rates of between 6 and 10 per cent, which is around three times the average of European countries. Government deficits have turned into surplices and Irish society is apparently becoming more affluent all the time. And yet, we return to the suicide figures, Fromm's index of a sane society, to find the numbers have also increased dramatically over the last 50 years. Like any association, it is incorrect to imply causation, but the argument is certainly compelling that Fromm's criticisms of Western society in general are extremely relevant for Irish society in particular, along with the idea that, as apparent commercial and economic success increases, so the sanity of Irish society is reduced with its inevitable consequences.


  • Fromm, E. (1991) The Sane Society. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge Classics.
  • Fromm, E. (2001) The Fear of Freedom. London and New York: Routledge Classics.
  • Ingelby, D. (1991) Introduction to the second edition. In E. Fromm, Fear of Freedom. London and New York: Routledge Classics.
  • World Health Organization (2005) World Health Statistics 2005, Geneva, WHO

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