Erich Fromm and the Freedom to Create a Just Future

Every dominant ideology creates an environment which helps shape the attitudes that foster its growth and continuation. Capitalism is no different. To identify the foundation for the attitudes of everyday individuals in capitalism, I believe the seminal work by Erich Fromm on the Social Character provides an informative perspective.

Erich Fromm was a German social psychologist and psychoanalyst who had ties with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He is credited with developing the idea of the ‘social character’ which gives a different method to understanding individuals from what is commonly practiced today in psychotherapy. According to Fromm, as humans we can only live as social beings, embedded in a specific context, with our economic and social surroundings having the most influence on what we identify as our inherent needs. This specific context in most countries on the planet is shaped by the dominant ideology of capitalism.

No one who takes a set of economics classes is spared the famous quote by Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect dinner but from their regard to their own interest.” This has become a sort of common sense. For quite a long time, self-interest, often masked as self-love, has been held up as the most valuable virtue by all kinds of celebrities and social media gurus that influence popular culture. Fromm tells us that our self-interest does not originate solely from a core source of truth within each one of us but is highly influenced by what our society deems as desirable and worthy. In some sense negating the ‘self’ part of the word and leaving just interest, interest which is often shaped in the image of the agendas that help corporations to maximize their profits.

Erich Fromm wrote on the concept of social character in an appendix to his 1941 book Escape from Freedom.
Erich Fromm wrote on the concept of social character in an appendix to his 1941 book Escape from Freedom.

Each society creates a shared social character which lives in each individual. In a capitalist system the shared character has to promote an acquisitive, individualistic, expansionist and materialistic attitude towards the world, other people and, by extension, to ourselves. I believe that this is at the root of why, faced with widespread alienation, ecological crises, precipitating levels of inequality and an increase in geopolitical conflicts, the most routine reaction is one of indifference. Apathy is a useful tool for materialist capitalism to continue its domination. We have come to believe that it is human nature to be disconnected from community, to have an insatiable appetite for consumer products, to be irresponsible towards the ecological destruction caused by running our economies unsustainably and to have possessive attitudes towards each other and the planet’s resources. This is not our nature. Fromm emphasized that individuals like to behave the way they have to according to economic and social requirements and expectations. What might seem so natural to us today is undoubtedly shaped by what capitalism requires of us for it to continue surviving. This is cause for great optimism, something that is also lacking in today’s world. This social character is not an unchanging fact of history. We can change and, in turn, create a drastically different world, by imagining a different story for ourselves as individuals, for society and for the planet. In the next few paragraphs, we will explore exactly what kind of attitudes capitalism promotes and examine ourselves to see how we manifest the same attitudes in our relations to other human beings and to nature.

Since the economic and social contexts carry the most weight according to Fromm’s ‘Social Character’ let us explore two key characteristics of these contexts in America. A key trait of today’s economic context is an overbearing sense of scarcity. American GDP hit a record high at $27.3 trillion in 2023 and a new billionaire was minted every 30 hours during the covid pandemic in 2020. At the same time about 37.9 million Americans are in poverty with more than 60% of Americans living from paycheck-to-paycheck. This hints at a crisis of extreme inequality that is not being talked about by the political class or given the airtime that it deserves on mass media — because inequality looks amazing from the top. This crisis of inequality will get precipitously worse as home ownership rates among Gen Z and Millennials collapse due to the cost of buying a house now standing at a median value of $400,000. This price tag combined with the current mortgage rates for 30-year fixed mortgages hovering at around 7 percent make the cost of owning a house beyond being attainable for a majority of Americans who do not come from really wealthy families. As most people will be forced to spend ever increasing amounts of their income on rents to the rich, inequality will get even worse. Faced with this financial insecurity a lot of people internalize it as a failure on their part, making them resentful of themselves, and alienated from society.

The social context under capitalism regards the individual as the only thing of worth and dedicates all available resources to gratifying individual needs. This creates a self-reinforcing loop between this individual and the arbiters of capitalism — read corporations — who create new needs by the day and promise the individual that meeting these needs would palliate the deep sense of alienation and loneliness within them. They cannot. Only being embedded in a community that shares interests beyond individual ones and that is striving to create something meaningful can satisfy such needs. As a result of the false solutions offered by capitalism, the individual is stuck in a loop of over-consumption because of the deep sense of frustration resulting from the fleeting sense of fulfillment derived from consuming cheap consumer goods. This creates individuals that are dependent on the system to cater to the fabricated needs created by it but that have now been internalized as true needs. This dependency all but assures the continuation of capitalism.

During these times of crises, there might seem like there’s great reason to despair, but new systems of living and understanding our relationship to each other and to the planet often rise and take hold of the population during crises. Just look into the history of any revolution. The ground is fecund. We just need to imagine a better future and call other people into it. Through joining initiatives such as the mutual aid committee of a local DSA chapter we get to relearn what it feels like to care for the needs of people requiring our assistance and to be part of a group that is using their agency to create a world that centers a sense of concern for thy neighbor. This is a great antidote to cure the apathy and sense of alienation that defines capitalism when faced with injustice. Engaging with the DSA’s international work should be stressed as well. It’s important to create a new social character that has a global identity because it puts a person in their proper context, not simply as an individual but as a part of the web of life that connects them and their actions to the lives of all other human beings across the planet. Creating this global identity is also one of the most effective ways of removing the constraint on our empathy which often is restrained by national identities that make it easier to look away when extreme violence is being visited on our brothers and sisters abroad.

We cannot annihilate the social character but only create different economic and social contexts that nurture a sane one. People have tremendous capacities for change. If anything this is the most human of all traits. We have to learn to reach across the isles of division that promote antagonism between, for example, the climate activist and the coal miner who is against a plant that is her only source of livelihood from being closed down. We also have to reach across the international borders that constrict our empathy. As long as a child in Congo is being exploited to mine cobalt for Tesla’s electric batteries, then the childhood of the American child cannot be secure. After all, forms of exploitation practiced by corporations abroad are in variation eventually visited upon their native populations. In order to dismantle materialist capitalism, we need an international movement centered on not just critiquing what’s wrong with the current system but also creating an alternative story for humanity that allows people to imagine a different world and to move into it.