This year on St Valentine’s Day, it is estimated, we will spend in excess of £40m on flowers, and send 15 million cards and more than 100 million text messages. Worldwide, more than $13bn will be spent. Global capitalism has done for St Valentine’s Day, a relatively low-key event in the Christian calendar, what it had already achieved for Christmas, transforming it into a multimillion-dollar spendfest. Yet the very same forces that are so keen to promote the annual festival of love are largely responsible for the disintegration of love in our society.
This is not a topic with which many on the left have wished to engage. Far safer to discuss relative wage rates, constitutional reform and minor changes to the tax and benefit system than anything as fundamental as love. For a proper exposition of the most serious charge against the economic system we live under, we need to go back 50 years, to the writing of one of the most neglected yet prescient thinkers of the 20th century, Erich Fromm.
Fromm was a German psychoanalyst and social philosopher who fled his homeland when the Nazis came to power. He settled in the US, where he combined clinical practice with lecturing at Columbia University.
Most of his early work was about how totalitarian regimes come to be accepted and supported by the people. In The Fear of Freedom (1942), he argued that such regimes appeal to a deep-seated craving to escape from the freedom of the modern world and return to the womb. But Fromm was under no illusions about the society he had emigrated to. He was among the first to see that 20th-century capitalist democracies offered another form of escape from freedom.
In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm developed the ideas in Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents and argued that capitalist society, in which “consumption has become the de facto goal”, was itself sick. He advanced his theory of social character: that “every society produces the character it needs”.
Early Calvinistic capitalism produced the “hoarding character”, who hoards both possessions and feelings: the classic Victorian man of property. Postwar capi- talism, Fromm argued, produced another, equally neurotic type: the marketing character, who “adapts to the market economy by becoming detached from authentic emotions, truth and conviction”. For the marketing character “everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles”. Such people are not able to care, “not because they are selfish, but because their relationship to each other and to themselves is so thin”.
Global capitalism requires marketing characters in abundance and makes sure it gets them. Meanwhile, Fromm’s ideal character type, the mature “productive character”, the person without a mask, who loves and creates, and for whom being is more important than having, is discouraged.
In The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm identified five types of love, all of them under threat. Brotherly love, “which underlies all others”, was undermined by the reduction of human beings to commodities. Motherly love was threatened by narcissism and possessiveness. Self-love, without which we cannot love others, was destroyed by selfishness. The love of God was regressing “to an idolatric concept of God”. Finally, erotic love was debased by its separation from brotherly love and the absence of tenderness.
Fromm asked if “the social structure of western civilisation and the spirit arising from it are conducive to the development of love”, and concluded that “to raise the question is to answer it in the negative”.
He wrote The Art of Loving at a time of relatively benign, regulated capitalism. Fifty years on, contemporary, turbo-capitalist Britain amply confirms his belief that “a healthy economy is possible only at the price of unhealthy human beings”. The past decade has brought the lowest inflation, interest rates and unemployment for 40 years and an unprecedented period of uninterrupted growth. Yet mental health has declined sharply. More than two million Britons are on antidepressants, half a million on Class A drugs. Binge drinking, and what Fromm called “acts of destruction” – violence, self-abuse and vandalism – have reached record levels.
The media routinely highlight “property gurus” while also reporting on the loneliness and isolation that so many people experience daily, but they never stop to consider the close connection between the two.
While Fromm’s five types of love continue to decline, forms of pseudo-love abound. What Fromm called “egoisme a deux“, in which two self-centred people come together in marriage or partnership to escape loneliness, but never arrive at a “central relationship”, is clearly thriving in a country where more than a third of cohabiting and married couples keep separate bank accounts. Narcissism, which Fromm said we had to overcome if we were ever to achieve true love, is everywhere: when we switch on the television, open a tabloid newspaper or overhear casual conversation in the street or on a bus.
Meanwhile, Fromm’s marketing character has become the dominant personality type of the age. Celebrities sell their opinions to the highest bidder – praising this or that product – and peddle explanations of their innermost feelings and tastes to glossy magazines. Each country, as Aldous Huxley once said, gets the leader it deserves, and it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate prime minister for Britain than Tony Blair, who markets a patently insincere smile to keep his party (or at least himself and his cronies) in power.
Love, as defined by Fromm, can still be found in modern Britain. Millions of Britons enjoy deep and loving relationships, while the generosity shown by many towards those affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster was an outstanding example of brotherly love in action. Yet where love exists, it does so despite an economic system whose underlying principle is inherently hostile to it.
Glossy magazines encourage anti-love sexual permissiveness and the cultivation of selfish and materialistic lifestyles for a new breed of look-after-number-one “metrosexuals”. Multimillion-dollar industries promoting the cult of narcissism have grown up, of which reality television is the latest and crudest manifestation. We are sold advice on “how to flirt” and “how to dump” our partners, and are encouraged to view all human contacts as expendable, to be “traded in” whenever we can get a better deal.
Conservative commentators, yearning for a gentler, kinder age, are, with one or two exceptions, unable to comprehend that the very economic system they defend is, through its destruction of love and its desire to create a population of alienated automatons, responsible for most of the social decay. Matthew Parris, the former Tory MP who spent a week on the dole in Newcastle for a TV documentary, was right to say, on his return, that certain individuals will always be unhappy, no matter what the society in which they find themselves living.
But he failed to see that a society that is driven by rapacious commercialism, which lauds and promotes the cult of self, and which quantifies success in purely material terms, will always produce less love and therefore more unhappy people than one which places human needs first. Global capitalism does many things, but building solidarity is not among them.
Luke Johnson, the millionaire chairman of Channel 4 and epitome of the modern marketing character, believes Britain “would be a better place if we had 500 more Richard Bransons”. We already have more than enough money-makers. What we really need is 500 politicians who have read Erich Fromm.