Fromm, the Intellectuals and a short synopsis
Erich Fromm is a clear writer that would put lots of continental philosophers on its feet. While many try to go beyond the diktatur of grammar and language, Fromm is capable of terminating a phrase without difficult turns, complex terminology and open phrases making it graspable to a wide audience. That is partly why this psychologist is so popular even today in train station bookstores, airports, and just about everywhere you go. It has remained so because it speaks to people and the obscenity of daily life in the West criticising the promise of modernity to make everyone fulfil themselves with possessions, things and just pure stuff.
With the coming of industrialisation and the modern age, people have turned to monsters of their own creation, filled with possessions, possessed by greed, selfishness and false ego posturing geared towards constant capital accumulation, fame and power. We have lost our compass, our sense of direction in the important things whilst at the same time losing our sense of being, enjoyment, our social friends, rich conversations, love and so much more making us seem poor, very poor.
Like many philosophers of the Frankfurt school, the writer attacks without contempt the alienation of society and the fetishism of ‘having’ possessions as the only goal in life, that which, determines your self and meaning. This mode of being, the having mode, disallows us from exploring new avenues of our creativity that can let us live a more fulfilling live.
The cruelest form of being today is based on the dogmatism and religion of the sacred element of private property. Private property is taken so seriously in our daily lives that people would rather let other people starve and die in order to safeguard something that not only pertains to them but reflects their own self. Property in this sense becomes their only sense of being, which permeates their identity fully thus characterising their lives. If we understand this in a fully rational sense, where people only act according to the principle of maximum utility and relating to objects as identities about their own self, we can come up with this formula: I have X therefore I am X. The worry is then that X has me, because without X I am nothing.
It need not be that things, commodities and stuff is a reflection of this having mode, but also non tangible things like knowledge. The use an erudite makes of his/her knowledge and the use that professors, teachers make of their knowledge can be understood in different ways. Some would like to exert their use of oratory power and thinking mode to exert a pedagogical exercise to domesticate people and show-off their egos amongst the ‘ignorant herd’, whilst gaining recognition as a person who owns status, knowledge reference and expertise. Whilst some other people would rather leave that aside and attempt to exert liveness, tell stories and personal meaning passions where giving and enjoyment are not superimposed by the ego-filled having mode, thus projecting a sense of creativity and influential to the extent of leaving the student to find their own way of thinking and reflecting. That is, a life embedded by the being mode.
Repression of our own truth makes people lie about themselves, omitting how much we really know about who we are and what reality is. This fact allows us to move on with our lives at some point, with traumas, affects and difficult moments, but at some point we need to come to terms with them, either by talking about it, thinking or merely looking at it with criticism and self-love. However, not a lot of people have the courage, means, or time to do it. It may well be that this is the case for many people living in utter misery and already ‘disposable lives’, but once again one must also recognise that it is fear above all that is consequential to that angst of knowing thyself and the truth of reality. For that matter many decide to repress their feelings and their truth to themselves (perhaps cynically, as they know everything is crap but they still carry on with their lives and act out the way they live in the same ‘normal’ way as they did before’). The other route is a more difficult one but also a more liberating one, which many are not prepared to take. It is also a very violent act for people who are used to the ‘having mode’ since that would entail a great internal transformation that many are reluctant to carry out.
In essence, Erich Fromm attempts to write for the survival of humanity, not so much to save its essence as such, but rather, to provide those deprived souls of the ‘having mode’ to attempt to live a good life based on the ‘being mode’.
The two modes of existence
Fromm distinguishes two modes of existence: the having mode and the being mode. The having mode corresponds to a relationship to the world understood as possession and ownership, one in which everybody and everything, including one’s own self, is a property. Attachment in this sense of having is prevalent, such as incorporation by a thing, or things in a physical sense -eating or drinking-. Symbolical and magical incorporations also occur by way of god-like fetishism of todays tv images, fame and experts; an authority to venerate and follow. And of course, incorporation includes the bombardment of everyday consumerism and leisure time understood as passivities – alienated forms of living your ego, having things, property, embellishment, etc. Thus the having-mode can succinctly be briefed by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume.
In contrast, the being mode can be defined in two forms. The first one refers to aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world and the second one refers to the true nature, the true reality of the person or a thing doing away with appearances. More deeply, we can refer to this mode of being as living the good life, that is, a freer and more alive mode of living.
Given the vast literature concerning what being means, Fromm echoes George Simmel in stating that being refers to a process, activity and movement as an element in being. That is, plainly a being which is constantly becoming – in a Hegelian and Heraclitus sense-.