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Erich Fromm, Social Media, and a 'Sane Society'

This classic interview with Neo-Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm is interesting not only for its relevance to psychology but also as a piece of cultural history. It is fascinating to hear Fromm's thoughts about social psychology set against the backdrop of Cold War America. What stands out right away is how applicable this conversation is to current events as well. Often, we like to think that so much has changed about our culture that we essentially live in a different world from, say, the 1950s. As Fromm's words remind us, a lot hasn't changed about human nature, society or politics.

Fromm’s discussion of what he calls “marketing orientation” is one such similarity. The idea that we “sell ourselves” as a product will be quite familiar to anyone who has worked in social media, and will resonate with many who use these platforms. I would argue that social media are a natural outcome of this behavioral trend Fromm describes, and that these social networks have solidified the marketing orientation in our culture. For better or worse, social media provide an efficient marketplace for such exchanges.

There is plenty of evidence that using social media craft an external image of oneself is a powerful draw of these technologies, particularly for narcissists. The social comparisons, interactions and disappointments that come from social media engagement are also a significant source of anxiety for many. As Fromm noted with remarkable prescience, these failures to sell one’s personality will lead to a perception of low self-worth.

Also, interesting — and true — is Fromm’s assertion that man has become disconnected from his [or her] work, finding no meaning in it, and often feeling trapped by it. However, this is not a product of “consumption” culture alone, as Fromm expressed at the time. Certainly, our product-oriented society reflects this feature, but we are not alone in that. One could travel back a long, long time and still not find a point where average people felt connected and fulfilled by their work.

Indeed, Fromm agrees that man has yet to formulate this type of “sane society” and has only glimpsed at it during those rare moments when artisans, philosophers and a few lucky ones throughout history have had a chance to do work they loved and the time to ponder it deeply. Often, those folks had that opportunity because they benefitted from the labor and support of others who did not enjoy such luxuries. As Fromm points out, we know this kind of lifestyle feels good to us, but no one seems to have the creativity to devise a functioning society around these ideas — not even Fromm himself. Perhaps it isn’t even possible.

Fromm’s idea that socialism could bring on that future is intriguing but inherently flawed. Like many Marxists today, Fromm points out that Russia did not implement socialism but rather Communism. Perhaps, but that distinction was lost on Lenin and Stalin (who called what they did socialism), and also on Marx (who titled his manifest ‘Communist’). Whatever version Fromm imagined would likely fare no better because the trouble with socialism isn’t a problem of implementation. It’s a problem of humanity. Such systems always fail because humans desire more from life than an authoritarian state can provide (or impose). Until some future technology allows resources to be limitlessly available, competition and want to be eliminated, and so on, human nature and basic survival instinct will always win out. Of course, if need and want were to be eliminated, socialism would no longer be a meaningful concept.

But Fromm’s ideas can’t be simply dismissed as the musings of an idealistic socialist. There is one quote from his interview with Wallace that highlights not only his understanding of these inherent challenges, but also the vast distance between his interpretation of social equality and the current, postmodern understanding of Marxist ideology. From says:

"Today we talk about equality but what most people mean is sameness, and we are afraid that if we are not the same then we are not equal."

This notion of sameness has not gone away since Fromm spoke these worlds. On the contrary, it has spread rapidly in the Western world. It is the poison which infects the current culture and threatens to undo us entirely. Somehow, in our noble quest for equality, many have decided that equal opportunity is not the goal. Rather, it is equal outcome they seek. They have, as Fromm says, taken sameness as the standard.

Here, Fromm recognizes what many today do not: It isn’t a sense of sameness but the freedom to pursue our uniqueness that produces a “sane society.”

This kind of freedom can actually be found in social media.

Even though the downsides of Internet culture often get more attention, it has to be recognized that today we can share ideas, experiences, and talents like never before. Through social media, we can derive fulfillment from our creations and contributions, and perhaps even make a living from them. In doing so, we experience a slice of that future society Fromm imagined. It is these qualities of social media, rather than the shallow and divisive ones, that should be our focus and goal.

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