To Have or to Be
1976. That was the year of publication. Today, 41 years later, Erich Fromm’s ‘To have or to Be’ continues to be a book which is highly topical and content-wise at the forefront of the transformation towards the preferable and desirable images of the future. But apart from its brilliant observation and argumentation, books like ‘To Have or to Be’ somehow taste bittersweet. Why? Because it appears that we haven’t moved much in our understanding of our role in this world, nor in establishing a consciousness, which could instead of continuing to create new problems, just overcome the glitches in the matrix that perpetuate the misdirection.
The psychological premises of how we spend our lifetime
Erich Fromm starts with the revelation of the failure of two main psychological premises, which have been inherent, since the beginning of industrialism, as features in its socio-economic ideology, namely “(1) that the aim of life is happiness, that is, the maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel (radical hedonism); (2) that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace” (p. 2-3). Both still continue to fuel the Great Promise of the current system, now known as exacerbation and malignancy of capitalistic structure and organization, but still prevailing as perceived forms of allegedly reasonable solutions to our individual and collective desires. I personally haven’t seen much evidence which indicates a trend against this overall direction; pursuit of happiness, and competitive growth. It even, but only if you actually allow this thought to surface, becomes evident that the combination of happiness and harsh competition enters a rather surreal dimension, where we now smile at each other, but only for seeking advantage. Almost as the Game of Thrones has entered the lower milieus for the decreasing number of seats in the lifeboats. But there are no lifeboats on spaceship earth. The illusion that those who prosper and succeed within the current system can buffer themselves from the consequences of their own collective actions, that in accumulation jeopardize the survival of all species, including ours, meaning that we eradicate the possibility to be able to inhabit this planet safely, is quite a joke. The fictional character Edward Blake in Watchmen, commonly known as The Comedian, could help to enlighten us here: “Justice? Justice is coming to all of us, no matter what the fuck we do. You know, mankind’s been trying to kill each other off since the beginning of time. Now, we finally have the power to finish the job.”
Anyways. Back to Erich Fromm. Although, alienating labor or stupefying specialization of labor is physically exhausting and mentally debasing, it is required to keep the current misdirection of the system ongoing. Combine that with the level of entertainment, panem et circenses, similar to the mind-numbing repetitiveness of Groundhog Day, but now immersive and enriched with the thrill and excitement through the suspension of disbelief, and we have the perfect realization of the blueprint of a dystopian world that paralyzes itself into oblivion. “The concept of unlimited pleasure forms a strange contradiction to the ideal of disciplined work, similar to the contradiction between the acceptance of an obsessional work ethic and the ideal of complete laziness during the rest of the day and during vacations. The endless assembly line belt and the bureaucratic routine on the one hand, and television, the automobile, and sex on the other, make the contradictory combination possible. Obsessional work alone would drive people just as crazy as would complete laziness. With the combination, they can live.” (p. 4)
Immortality or what is your legacy?
“The need to have has still another foundation, the biologically given desire to live. Whether we are happy or unhappy, our body impels us to strive for immortality. But since we know by experience that we shall die, we seek for solutions that make us believe that, in spite of the empirical evidence, we are immortal. This wish has taken many forms […] In contemporary society since the eighteenth century, “history” and “the future” have become the substitutes for the Christian heaven: fame, celebrity, even notoriety—anything that seems to guarantee a footnote in the record of history—constitutes a bit of immortality. The craving for fame is not just secular vanity—it has a religious quality for those who do not believe in the traditional hereafter any more. (This is particularly noticeable among political leaders.) Publicity paves the way to immortality, and the public relations agents become the new priests.” (p. 67)
As we can derive from this paragraph, everything that currently happens, and demands social media visibility from you, in order to validate your “success”, is build upon a concept of dealing with a mortal life that actually aims to suggest otherwise; immortality is possible. You will continue to live forever, in the case of the content you published and released into the digital world. While there is literally nothing you can take with you when you die, not your car, not your home, not your favorite shoes, or whatever dead object you are cherishing, your being can theoretically already live forever. So, you can’t take anything with you, especially none of your stuff, as George Carlin knew best. But you can leave yourself, as a virtual being in the digital world, as a sort of legacy of your life. It reminds me of the saying that life can be art as well. So, live your life like a work of art. I personally like the sound of it. The outcome can still be surprising, nevertheless.
Reconstructing the religious dimension of our systemic striving
Erich Fromm writes about the industrial religion, which is not officially recognized as “religion”, but in fact consists of a religious framework that particularly “reduces people to servants of the economy and of the machinery that their own hands build” (p. 119). He furthermore explains that this form of religion centers around “fear of and submission to powerful male authorities, cultivation of the sense of guilt for disobedience, dissolution of the bonds of human solidarity by the supremacy of self-interest and mutual antagonism” (p. 119). What is sacred in such an industrial world, as we all know, is work, property, profit, and power. What can theoretically live forever; are corporations. Mike Daisey illustrates with his critical genius that corporations do not die, that they don’t have a conception of death, while we are paradoxically complicit in their rampant profit-oriented agenda, which can, for obvious reasons, even work against our own individual and collective interests as a species on this planet.
What is suggested in the final chapter as features of the new society, is, “a Humanistic Science of Man as the basis for the Applied Science and Art of Social Reconstruction (p. 142). The technical Utopias are, as Fromm emphasizes, not really our main problem. What we are lagging behind is the form of Utopia that aims at “a united new humankind living in solidarity and peace, free from economic determination and from war and class struggle” (p. 142). He suggests to spend spend “the same energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm on the realization of” (p. 142) these images of social and economic fiction, as we have with the technological ones. One could only speculate, but as also Lewis Mumford theorizes, a different socio-economic framework would also enable a different path for technology, namely, technology that aligns much better with our “true” desires, instead of exploiting and extracting them for its own technological self-perpetuation that ignores and denies a systemic misdirection and tendency towards self-destruction in regard of future possibilities.
There are so many valuable and thoughtful observations and arguments in ‘To Have or to Be’ that I can only urge everyone to really read the book themselves. But as a last notion, to leave an authentic impression, what we are essentially dealing with in our lifetime, I would like to end with a paragraph from Fromm that has to be understood from the perspective of our time, namely, after roughly 2475 nuclear bomb detonations and approximately 20 million industrial chemicals in use.
“Judging present-day society’s chances for salvation from the standpoint of betting or business rather than from the standpoint of life is characteristic of the spirit of a business society. There is little wisdom in the currently fashionable technocratic view that there is nothing seriously wrong in keeping ourselves busy with work or fun, in not feeling, and that even if there is, perhaps technocratic fascism may not be so bad, after all. But this is wishful thinking. Technocratic fascism must necessarily lead to catastrophe. Dehumanized Man will become so mad that he will not be able to sustain a viable society in the long run, and in the short run will not be able to refrain from the suicidal use of nuclear or biological weapons. (p. 160)
Essentially, we already had our nuclear war, while we continue to create even more nuclear waste; we have therefore to live with the time-window of radioactive decay; while the exponential curve of all the chemicals that accumulate towards levels beyond and above our ability to cope with them, is demonstrated in the number of new cancer cases that is expected to rise by about 70% over the next 2 decades according to WHO. Technocratic fascism, is a process in which we are complicit, but only as long as we decide to do so. It is a choice for which form of civilization we essentially work, and what psychological premises we want to see being established in our construction of reality.