Thursday, September 15, 2011

Erich Fromm and Wendell Berry

Erich Fromm was a brilliant psychologist, visionary and critic of twentieth century fascism, communism, industrial society, capitalism and burocracy. He was typical of liberals who are convinced that industrial production is the most advanced form of production the human race has ever seen and that somehow it can be humanized. I just reread  his "The Sane Society", which I had read as a teenager and which has been a formative influence in my life. So much of that book has been internalized in my worldview. In neither of his chapters "Various Diagnoses" and "Various Answers" does he mention Gandhi (or american anabaptist communities). He does mention Thoreau and Tolstoy, but does not seriously consider the (obvious!) possibility (which Thoreau and Tolstoy considered) that the solution to many of his diagnosed problems might be to abandon the industrial mode of production in favor of an agrarian, craft-based one. Such an oversight would be a great mystery for me, were it not for the historical and spiritual perspective on how most people like Fromm who come from the humanistic philosophical tradition have actually adopted a religion, which blinds them to certain possibilities, as do all religions. This is not to say that religions are bad. They are useful and needed and can provide inspiration, but they can also get one in a conceptual rut. Fromm was able to diagnose most of the problems of industrial society, and yet unable to come up with a working solution.

Two other major oversights in Fromm's thinking:

1. His claim that the problem of production is solved has been disputed by environmentalists and leftists. Production has only been solved at the cost of destroying nature and the natural basis of production (forests, soils, oceans, rivers, human health), while employing non-renewable resources(so it can't go on much longer, and puts our progenitors in debt). It also keeps many in the third world in conditions that we would never want to produce under. Fromm uses the term "mastery over nature" and similar patriarchal language. Any production which includes aspirations to mastery over nature, must lead to alienation from nature, and all that is wild and soulful in humans. Better to work in cooperation with nature, within natural limits, to learn from nature.

2. He did not understand community as a necessary-for-sane-life form of organization, intermediate between individuals and states. He didn't understand the connection between land-stewardship and community and the connection between physical place and concretization (an antidote to the abstractification which he brilliantly diagnoses).

He mentions (as an example of the kind of human-scale socialism that he espouses) the Communities of Work in France which lasted no more than 30 years, and whose dissolution I could have predicted based on their total dependence on the global economy, and probably other things such as lack of communication technologies (e.g. NVC) and insufficient spiritual values to bind them together.

All three of Fromm's oversights have been expounded on by Wendell Berry.

On the other hand, based on my reading so far, W. Berry seems almost (but not totally) oblivious to the fact that small town USA has been largely parochial and xenophobic, while also benefiting from the exploits of the military and corporations (and not so long ago explicit slavery) which are ensuring mostly a one-way flow of resources from the third world into the nearby hardware stores and mechanic shoppes that he mistakenly identifies as being part of a local economy. He also does not address the problem of land distribution in the US, where most private land is left idle and most people do not have access to either land or training on how to use it wisely. So few people own so much of the land, and use it mostly for recreation, while so many are suffering from lack of meaningful work in cities (but also in rural places). What are you doing about that, Mr Berry? Can you show by example that land can be shared and stewardship can be taught?

At its core this is an example of a Hegelian dialectic of two conflicting ideologies: humanism and (neo) tribalism. Humanism at its best is about tolerance, valuing diversity, inclusiveness and treating everyone we come into contact with (not just our neighbor) as we would wish to be treated. But humanism has a dark side as well, which Wendell Berry and others have pointed to: by being a one world "village", we loses the depth of connection with land and family/tribe, and the rich culture that depends concretely on those connections. We get a dilute, abstract, bland McWorld where it is easy to have a disconnect between environmental stewardship and one's actual lifestyle, or between work that contributes directly to one's community, and work that just makes money (and likey hurts people and environment elsewehre).

Tribalism at its best is about deep connection between people and people and land, a lush culture of concrete connections, metaphors and work that is rooted in place and community. What Erich Fromm derogatorily called "blood and soil" is both the best and worse of tribalism. It is the worse because it can lead to parochialism, intolerance, racism and even fascism. One can treat one's neighbors badly because they are not part of the tribe, and one can make enemy-creation a big part of one's life and raison d'etre.

The dark sides of both humanism and tribalism have contributed  and continue to contribute to conflict and hypocrisy. The liberal-conservative conflict is partly at its core a conflict between these two value systems, though liberal neo-primitivists and hippies take more of the tribalist side, whereas pro-globalization (neo) conservatives take more of the humanist side. Wendell Berry is a (paleo) conservative, whereas Erich Fromm was a liberal. Urban liberals can espouse tolerance and diversity, while most of their basic needs are provided by people who are treated with intolerance and are not of a diverse ethnic background, nature is raped to provide those needs, and their children and grandchildren are robbed of meaningful work. Rural conservatives espouse self-reliance and community, but their "self"-reliance is government and military-subsidized (roads, hardware, tools, materials from all parts of the globe), and their community is anemic (because it is not based on the complex web of local production that can exist without industrial production). They are mostly anglo-saxon in the US (lack of ethnic diversity).
It must by now be obvious that like all dialectics, this one is just waiting for a synthesis, a marriage of the best parts of both and a transcendence of the worse. Actually, this synthesis has already started. Gandhi was a prime example of it seeing the best and worse parts of both western humanism and the indian villages (read J.C. Kumarappa's "Why The Village Movement"). Jesus saw the same in Romanism and tribal Judaism. In modern times John Michael Greer has identified a dysfunctional humanist "head of the 3-headed god of Progress" and suggested a more adaptive response to the decline of our civilization based on a synthesis between humanistic values (such as democracy and scholarship), and tribalistic ones (such as self-reliance, appropriate technology, nature worship and local economies).

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