Eric Fromm’s “To Have or To Be?”
Last week I read a fascinating book by Eric Fromm, To Have or To Be? (Bloomsbury Revelations).
In this book, written in 1976, famous psychologist and social critic Eric Fromm provides a deeply critical assessment of modern Western, and particularly US, society. He blends biblical, Buddhist, Enlightment, Marxist, and contemporary psychoanalytical philosophies to suggest that we are living unfulfilled, materialistic lives.
The “Having” Mentality
Fromm describes the having mentality as the personal and social focus on acquiring or possessing physical things, people, statuses, knowledge, and even our own lives. He uses linguistic analyses, some of which were inspired by Noam Chomsky, to suggest that contemporary language uses more of such “possessing” language than historical written English, (e.g., “I have a wife” versus “I am a husband”). Because we assess our standing in the world by what we buy/own, we are incredibly anxious about losing our identity in these items. Because we must sell ourselves on the labor market to make money, we are alienated in our work since we have little individual self-direction in the modern industrial labor system.
The “Being” Mentality
Fromm counters the “having” mentality with the “being” mentality. In describing this way of “being,” Fromm borrows heavily from Buddhist philosophy in describing a state of “being” present in the moment – not focusing on past or present, and not having attachment to things, people, or even one’s own life. Interestingly, Fromm also provides a theological analysis in which he suggests that this state of being was the state of “one-ness” that existed before the consumption from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He posits that our alienation starts when man (or woman) realizes the self, and that he is a separate entity from all others.
Being, then, takes on the highest goal that man can seek and possibly achieve. This could be described as “self-actualizing,” or a state in which we as individuals can express our truest selves using our intellect, creativity, emotions, and personality in unrestricted productive capacities. It is clear that this is severely restricted in an industrialized economy, capitalist or socialist, and Fromm laments the loss of individual craftsman professions in our economy of industrial mass-production.
Fromm’s Social Solution
“To Have or To Be” was written as social commentary, and Fromm laid out a social utopia that is a sort of direct democracy guided by an intellectual elite with individuals working under anarcho-syndicalist worker cooperatives. Fromm also stressed that the myopic focus of personal energies towards production and consumption would need to be curtailed for more individuals to achieve “being” states. I wonder what Fromm would think of our society nearly 40 years after he wrote this work? Certainly there are more individuals focused on a post-materialist lifestyle (e.g., hipsters, intentional communities, etc.), but our mainstream society is perhaps the most materialist-focused it has ever been. It is as if we as individuals and a society have not been able to step above the material stage of our social evolution to focus on the important work of self-actualization.
I do think our society is making a bit of progress towards Fromm’s vision. Broader access to healthcare as an individual will hopefully allow more people to work independently of full-time employment, and many younger people are less focused on material affluence than in past generations (perhaps out of necessity). However, our society is still generally focused on the material. Given that Fromm’s humanist utopia is no where in sight, I propose that individual efforts may be more appropriate for those who want to move beyond the material phases of existence.
In my personal solution to the post-materialist problem, I think individuals can take the path that Fromm hoped of society. We can shift our personal values away from consumption, and use our paid work to build up assets to provide passive investment income. Once a baseline of economic security is provided for (a “nest egg” accumulated perhaps in one’s 20’s through mid-30’s), one can pivot towards more self-actualized forms of being. This could take the form of freelance work in one’s field or a creative crafts-person production (e.g., carpentry, pottery, writing, even welding).
As a good friend of mine who is a working artist once told me, “you can whittle down your economic needs to nearly nothing so that you can focus on your creative drive that is truly important.” I think his advice is in the spirit of “being” more than I realized at the time he gave it. Also, I think this is the path that we must all eventually pursue if we are to achieve our highest potential as human beings.