Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society

This is a very interesting, albeit long, discourse extracted from Erich Fromm’s renowned book The Art of Loving, on the effects of capitalism on Western society and the concept of love. For brevity, I’ll provide a summary of the main points broached by Fromm;

  • Capitalism has created a commodity-mindset where everything is appraised based on exchange value
  • Loss of individuality and human feelings
  • Herd mentality and consumerism
  • Love is approached in a mechanical and formulaic manner, void of real interaction.

 

IF LOVE IS THE CAPACITY of the mature, productive character, it follows that the capacity to love in an individual living in any given culture depends on the influence this culture has on the character of the average person. If we speak about love in contemporary Western culture, we mean to ask whether the social structure of Western civilization and the spirit resulting from it are conducive to the development of love. To raise the question is to answer it in the negative. No objective observer of our Western life can doubt that love -brotherly love, motherly love, and erotic love- is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that its place is taken by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of the disintegration of love.

Capitalistic society is based on the principle of political freedom on the one hand, and of the market as the regulator of all economic, hence social relations, on the other. The commodity market determines the conditions under which commodities are exchanged, the labor market regulates the acquisition and the sale of labor. Both useful things and useful human energy and skill are transformed into commodities which are exchanged without the use of force and without fraud under the conditions of the market. Shoes, useful and needed as they may be, have no economic value (exchange value) if there is no demand for them on the market; human energy and skill are without exchange value if there is no demand for them under existing market conditions. The owner of capital can buy labor and command it to work for the profitable investment of his capital. The owner of labor must sell it to capitalists under the existing market conditions, unless he is to starve. This economic structure is reflected in a hierarchy of values. Capital commands labor; amassed things, that which is dead, are of superior value to labor, to human powers, to that which is alive.

This has been the basic structure of capitalism since its beginning. But while it is still characteristic of modern capitalism, a number of factors have changed which give contemporary capitalism its specific qualities and which have a profound influence on the character structure of modern man. As the result of the development of capitalism we witness and ever-increasing process of centralization and concentration of capital. The large enterprises grow in size continuously, the smaller ones are squeezed out. The ownership of capital invested in these enterprises is more and more separated from tile function of managing them. Hundreds of thousands of stockholders “own” the enterprise; a managerial bureaucracy which is well paid, but which does not own the enterprise, manages it. This bureaucracy is less interested in making maximum profits than in the expansion of the enterprise, and in their own power. The increasing concentration of capital and the emergence of a powerful managerial bureaucracy are paralleled by the development of the labor movement. Through the unionization of labor, the individual worker does not have to bargain on the labor market by and for himself; he is united in big labor unions, also led by a powerful bureaucracy which represents him vis-à-vis the industrial colossi. The initiative has been shifted, for better or worse, in the fields of capital as well as in those of labor, from the individual to the bureaucracy. An increasing number of people cease to be independent, and become dependent on the managers of the great economic empires.

Another decisive feature resulting from this concentration of capital, and characteristic of modern capitalism, lies in the specific way of the organization of work. Vastly centralized enterprises with a radical division of labor lead to an organization of work where the individual loses his individuality, where he becomes an expendable cog in the machine. The human problem of modern capitalism can be formulated in this way:

Modern capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly, and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience- yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction;who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim- except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.

What is the outcome? Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human 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. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness: first of all the strict routine of bureaucratized, mechanical work, which helps people to remain unaware of their most fundamental human desires, of the longing for transcendence and unity. Inasmuch as the routine alone does not succeed in this, man overcomes his unconscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; furthermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others. Modern man is actually close to the picture Huxley describes in his Brave New World: well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men, guided by the slogans which Huxley formulated so succinctly, such as: ” When the individual feels, the community reels”; or ” Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today,” or, as the crowning statement: ” Everybody is happy nowadays.”

Man’s happiness today consists in “having fun”. Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and “taking in” commodities,sights,food,drinks,cigarettes,people,lectures,books,movies- all are consumed,swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones- and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.

***

The situation as far as love is concerned corresponds, as it has to by necessity, to this social character of modern man. Automatons cannot love; they can exchange their “personality packages” and hope for a fair bargain. One of the most significant expressions of love, and especially of marriage with this alienated structure, is the idea of the “team”. In any number of articles on happy marriage, the ideal described is that of the smoothly functioning team. This description is not too different from the idea of a smoothly functioning employee; he should be “reasonably independent,” co-operative, tolerant, and at the same time ambitious and aggressive. Thus, the marriage counselor tells us, the husband should “understand” his wife and be helpful. He should comment favorably on her new dress, and on a tasty dish. She, in turn, should understand when he comes home tired and disgruntled, she should listen attentively when he talks about his business troubles, should not be angry but understanding when he forgets her birthday. All this kind of relationship amounts to is the well-oiled relationship between two persons who remain strangers all their lives, who never arrive at a “central relationship,” but who treat each other with courtesy and who attempt to make each other feel better.

In this concept of love and marriage the main emphasis is on finding a refuge from an otherwise unbearable sense of aloneness. In “love” one has found, at last, a haven from aloneness. One forms an alliance of two against the world, and this egoism à deux is mistaken for love and intimacy.


“Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society.” The Art of Loving. New York: Open Road Media, 2013. 87-90. Print.

3 responses to Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society

  1. Capitalism is a type of Physicalism — a universe of objects. If a key tenant of morality is “don’t treat people like objects” then any Physicalist philosophy risks being immoral. Unfettered Capitalism is a positive-feedback mechanism that can only grow until it collapses under its own weight.

    Speaking as someone who has managed to remain single most of nearly 60 years, perhaps love most amounts to wanting to understand someone, to be understood by them, and to share life together. It’s more than a duo against the world, it’s a duo through the world… a mirror that reflects parts of life you can’t see… a way of “looking both ways at once.”

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    • Midnight Blahs – Author

      Man am I gobsmacked! That went so far above my head, I don’t dare to understand it haha. It sounds so exciting though. I tried reading on physicalism, but it was like reading in a language that I hadn’t even learnt yet.

      That was really, really profound, what you said about love and viewing the world. I’ve been thinking about the point of marriage and relationships lately. I mean, the way I understand the conventional concept of love and marriage is one akin to mutual exploitation and dependence. One where love is based on what one can get out of the other party, how the partner can act like a crutch for one’s underdeveloped traits.

      But this that you broached on, having a central relationship based on mutual growth by gaining each other’s unique perspectives on life, is key to a healthy, interdependent relationship, methinks.

      Thank you, once again, for sharing your invaluable insight. You sure do keep me on my toes ! 😀

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      • There is, no doubt, an element of self-interest in all relationships, large and small, personal and business.

        But if you believe in self-fulfillment — if you believe that’s a real thing and, further, a worthy goal — then the question is whether you can do that within yourself alone. Some can or have to, but there seems no question we can find fulfillment in (positive, constructive) relationships with others.

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