Gifts under a tree.

Photo by Kelvin Kay. From the Wikimedia Commons.

Consumerism. Wish you could escape it? Particularly at this time of the year, when hopes of holiday cheer frequently seem to disappear in a frenzy of shopping madness? Well, already over a half a century ago, famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was laying the very foundation for how to do this in his most famous book, The Art of Loving.

How does he do this? Well, in a nutshell, he achieves this by wisely noting, consumerism has come to be used as a substitute for love.

Admittedly this is not the central point of the book. (And I would highly recommend a slow and thoughtful read over this wide-ranging but short and to-the-point work). Nonetheless I believe Fromm has a firm handle on this ill of society, that quite arguably has even a stronger hold on us today. For as he insightfully states, consumerism takes many forms including “sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies…”

What is more, the products that we consume have been standardized. This is because modern capitalism needs men “whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated.” Of course, there are some variations in the products that we consume, like different initials on a handbag or sweater; however, these serve only to create a feeling of difference “when in reality there is very little left.”

These circumstances become even more concerning when combined with the radical division of labour that has led to the routinized nature of work. Placing a greater value on the production of goods over human life, modern capitalism has required the expectation that “men” be willing to “fit into the social machine without friction.” As a result, “[h]uman relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling, or action [emphasis added].”

(To drive home the point as to why this is so alarming, Fromm frighteningly reflects on how “modern man” closely reflects the picture that Huxley describes in “Brave New World.” In this book, physically well looked after, but emotionally bereft characters are bombarded with slogans like “‘When the individual feels, the community reels’” and “‘Everybody is happy nowadays.’”)

What is the alternative to all of this? Well, as Fromm repeatedly states, we can form truly loving relationships where we get to know the center of a person, or in other words achieve “central relatedness”.

By reviewing his exploration of the nature of love, one learns that achieving this will require:

  1. careful attention to the needs of other individuals,
  2. readiness to act to promote their welfare,
  3. respect for their unique individuality, and
  4. an effort to get to know them.

One also must be willing to grow in maturity to see others and oneself as we truly are (something which Fromm refers to as “objectivity”) as well as to have faith that humankind (or “mankind” as he states) including oneself can become better.

No small order of course. But Fromm at least provides us with something worthy to aim for. And in the process, maps out at least some of the course we need to follow to leave consumerism behind us.

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