Fromm Frankfurt With Love (Part 2)


Part 1 can be found here.


The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.

– Marx, Capital vol.1, Chapter 1, Section 4

It is an historical irony that, though they today seem to embody a view of life dear to the moralistic Right, the Puritans were the ‘Left’ in the great political debates of the era of the European transition from feudalism to capitalism.  But, while ironic, this is hardly accidental.  They were expressing the views and imperatives of the rising class of bourgeois, this class being both product and inheritor of what is now the capitalist system.  This is, of course, the very market system the Austrians (and those like them, because they are by no means as distinct as they might like to think) are committed to defending as ‘moral’.  

In the essay from which we have been drawing, ‘Nietzsche’s Marginal Children’, Corey Robin quotes Hayek saying:

Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.

Ironically, for all his ostensible rejection of authority, Hayek is revealed as subscribing to the Protestant Misery Ethic, and for very good historical reasons which (in yet another delicious irony) are revealed by the Marxist class-based view of the Reformation and the rise of capitalism.

Robin also quotes Hayek thus:

So long as we can freely dispose over our income and all our possessions, economic loss will always deprive us only of what we regard as the least important of the desires we were able to satisfy. A “merely” economic loss is thus one whose effect we can still make fall on our less important needs…. Economic changes, in other words, usually affect only the fringe, the “margin,” of our needs. There are many things which are more important than anything which economic gains or losses are likely to affect, which for us stand high above the amenities and even above many of the necessities of life which are affected by the economic ups and downs.

A fascinating paragraph, which reveals staggering complacency amongst other things.  He essentially disregards either the existence or the moral sentience of those portions of the human race who can never regard economic losses as “merely” anything.

Meanwhile, Hayek’s loathing of government intervention (at least in the interests of the propertyless) stems from this idea of values, ends, and morals.  Government’s interference to make provision can only deprive us of the choice of ends and means to pursue on the market, and thus of our opportunity to create subjective values (what we value highly, what is lowly, etc), and thus of our very capacity to be moral.

Robin goes on to suggest correspondences – or “elective affinities” – with Freud and Nietzsche, which needn’t detain us here… except to note that both, like Mises and Hayek et al, emerge from the fin de siècle bourgeois intellectual culture of Western mitteleuropa… a culture which responded to the fractured modernity of the early 20th century with a version of modernism based on a reactionary form of relativism, and which ultimately gave rise to the counter-revolutionary forms of postmodernism in the late 20th century.  As Daniel Zamora has contended, Foucault, for all his criticisms, was ultimately a friend to neoliberalism.  ‘Postmodernism’ isn’t all one thing, and some of what is gathered under that umbrella term is insightful, even radical.  But for all that, and contra the blithering claims of an ignoramus like Jordan Peterson (who is himself just the latest in a line of people, whose ideas he regurgitates), the main import of, say, Foucault is profound anti-Marxism.  It wouldn’t be going too far to call Foucault the most influential anti-Marxist thinker – at least in the academy – of the 20th century.  Far more influential than any Austrian.

But we digress.

For Hayek, then, the market is analogous to life itself in the old Christian response to theodicy.  It is by evil that we may have free will, and only be free will that we may be good at all.  Just as God supposedly allows us to do evil so that our good actions may have meaning, so the market allows us to pursue that which we want and thus create goodness itself.  (Just as ‘free will’ is actually a very poor response to evil as a devastating objection to the idea of a moral God, so is Hayek’s response very unsatisfactory… and for the similar reason that, just as ‘God’, who is presumably cleverer than us, ought to have been able to devise a better moral system, so should humans be able to devise a better economic one.)  It’s worth remembering, in connection with the idea that Hayekian thought is theodicic, the Austrian School’s obsession with Marxism.  Marx is literally forced into the role of their Satan, eternally advocating against the market – but at the market’s behest, and so that the market may ultimately work its purposes out.

Robin notes that this business about the market being the bedrock of morality is a distinctively Austrian position because, unlike most mainline marginalist economists (many of whom really do seem to buy their own rhetoric about informed consumers and rational actors, etc), the Austrians have tended to understand (at least formally) that humans are irrational, capricious, opaque to others and to themselves.  In the same way that their ideas of ‘the roundaboutness of production’ supposedly give them a greater awareness of temporality than mainstream marginalism, so also their view of the market as an information-carrying system supposedly gives them a greater ability to incorporate human irrationality.  Both are, in fact, little more than trivial and retrofitted ‘add-ons’ to marginalism, containing little that meaningfully helps marginalism escape its static and idealist (in the philosophical sense) view.

Rather, these Austrian elaborations are recoded versions of Protestant ideas (which were, in the Reformation, the rising expression of individualist, atomised, marketised, bourgeois relations as against the old feudal ideas of the great and integrated chain of obligations).  Roundaboutness boils down (eventually) to a notion that profit is a reward for deferred gratification and faith.  Meanwhile, we are radically separated from each other, as are the individuals of Protestantism, and our essential moral relationship must be an individual one with a higher power.  In the case of the Austrians, this higher power is the market.  Protestantism squared the circle by rejecting the established power of the feudal Roman Catholic Church, which was also communal and familial; substituting for it the individual’s personal relationship with God.  So, similarly, the Austrian School ostensibly rejects the state, with its potential for communal provision; substituting for it the individual’s personal relationship with the market.  

It’s of no use to point out that Protestantism had - and has - its own institutions and establishments, even its own authoritarianism (as Fromm and Engels and others pointed out).  Of course it did… and so did Hayek smile upon Pinochet, and Mises ally himself with the Austro-Fascism of Dollfuss, etc.  In the cause of individual freedom, its powerful champions are justified in putting down communal rebellion.  Luther championed the violent suppression of rebellious peasants when they threatened the interests of the rising classes his ideas represented.  It is no surprise that this correspondence should exist, precisely because Protestantism originated as an expression of the decline of feudalism and the ascendancy of market relations in Europe.

That Hayek should choose ‘serfdom’ as the ultimate horror, to which socialism might return us, is deeply revealing.

As we’ve seen previously, Rothbard and Hayek insisted with peculiar intensity on their intellectual origins lying with Catholic medieval theologians, the ‘late scholastics’ of Salamanca.  This is an attempt to evade the actual origins of their tradition in the fearful, authoritarian, bourgeois Protestantism of the Reformation.  

In his MRA-esque tirades about the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill case, Rothbard railed at feminists and the “Monstrous Regiment” of women in general. He got the term from Reformation-era Protestant woman-hater John Knox.  Rothbard once described himself as a “a pro-Christian Jew who thinks that everything good in Western Civilization is traceable to Christianity”.  When he says “everything good in Western Civilization” he means capitalism, so the “Christianity” to which he thinks it is traceable is the Christianity which arose with it and helped it ascend.  In his way, he is reiterating Weber’s claim that capitalism arose from the ‘Protestant ethos’, which of course puts the cart before the horse.  Rothbard's entire moral philosophy is based not on Mises' utilitarianism (that's one bit of Mises he rejects) but on Locke's idea of 'natural rights' or 'natural law', and we've already seen that this puts Rothbard in an implicitly Christian tradition.  Locke's upbringing was Puritan.

Moreover, if we go back to Fromm and remember Calvinism, then we see even more fundamental correspondences.  In the Calvinist ‘Doctrine of the Elect’, the saved and the damned are already chosen, the fate of each preordained.  If we believe Fromm (and we may accept some his analysis here without necessarily also accepting all his conclusions or assumptions), this authoritarian and determinist view is chosen as a comforting refuge from the ‘fear of freedom’… but may also, in Fromm’s dialectical analysis, express the very rising individualism against which it then becomes a refuge.  Indeed, it may only be capable of the former because it can do the latter.  As noted, individualism can be expressed, but within the confines of a comforting authoritarianism.  It is not part of Calvinism that one simply accepts one’s fate, whatever it turns out to be.  Rather, one must labour with all one’s might to discover the limits of one’s holiness.  It is one’s duty to fulfil the judgement already made, not to simply accept it and wait for it to materialise.  It is precisely this aspect of Calvinism – which stresses desert and worth – which made it arise from, and be ideologically useful to, a rising economic system based on relative social mobility, destruction of fixed feudal relations, market activity, etc.  A hierarchy is enforced and justified – because this is still a class system – but by reference to work and earned desert.  Clearly, then, there is something of Calvinism in the Austrian worldview – and, as noted in passing above, for solid reasons best illuminated by historical materialism.  The choices one makes, the ends one uses, the values one thus expresses, lead to success or failure – so impersonally handed-out that the judgements may as well be coming, at great length, from a God.  The judgements are impersonal and unknowable in advance.  One’s success (or otherwise) on the market is how one knows the extent to which one’s choices and ends are realisable, and thus the extent of one’s own value.  As noted, it’s a neat way of having one’s inborn superiority and eating one’s meritocracy cake as well.

To the extent, then, that Fromm has a point about the fear of freedom – especially the atomised and alienated individual freedom offered by bourgeois society - leading us to embrace authoritarianism, destructiveness, and conformity, it is tempting to see the Austrians as fleeing from the very liberty they claim to champion, back – furtively – into an encoded form of obeisance to destructive tyranny.  It is just that the God they have chosen to flee to is the market.  All-powerful, destructive, creative, apparently immortal, the source and bearer of all information, harbouring preordained judgements that are only revealed to those who have practiced the self-denial of investment and thus worshipped to the best of their ability.

Really, when it comes right down to it, this is just another form of commodity fetishism.  (The opening quote is from Marx’s chapter on the fetishism of commodities.)  It might be unfair to single out the Austrians among the ranks of free-marketeers and capitalist apologists; any such orientation could be seen as inherently based on treating the market like an (omni)potent creature.  As noted, the Austrians have less distinctness than they’d like to believe. 

Yet, as usual, the Austrians take it further.  They don’t just fetishize commodities, or even the market, but the value form itself.  As marginalists, they are radically subjectivist about value (i.e. economic value is purely based on subjective, individual wants), but their emphasis upon human irrationality (our flawedness as actors in the world) puts much of the onus of subjectivity onto value rather than onto us.  They alienate value again, to the extent that rather than us judging it, it judges us.  Value becomes the mechanism whereby human actions achieve the possibility of morality.  Being forced to choose between values on the market, and in the lower things of life too, we are thus forced to have free will, and thus to be capable of goodness.  It is the watchful gaze of God, evaluating us according to our choices.  Not our ‘good works’ (nothing so Catholic), but rather by our faith to the value god.  That faith, in the face of the fallenness of the world (and the Austrian version of human unpredictability is ultimately pessimistic rather than optimistic), is whence our savedness or damnedness arises.

Of course, such a subscription to the Protestant Misery Ethic does not imply that all must suffer.  It is enough that the suffering be there as a possibility, endured by many, but not by the Elect (whom we shall know precisely by their success, as in Calvinism).  Hayek, like Mises, is quite clear that it is the wealthy, the successful, the well-heeled, the educated, the ‘independent’ who create and preserve culture.  So, of course the Austrians find themselves bound to Marxism from the very beginning, constantly tearing and snapping and biting at it, growing up in response to it, always trying to kill it - though it is the host upon which the Austrian School lives and feeds.  The project of Marxism is nothing less than the destruction of value, of the value form.  This is the problem, far more than any issue anyone has with where value comes from, and far more than any issue the Austrians supposedly have with ‘statism’ or curtailment of ‘liberty’.  

And we’re left with the suspicion that the great Austrian anti-Marxists understood this on some deep level, that it lurked beneath their surface misunderstanding of socialism as capitalism-with-managers.  Maybe they (wrongly) assumed, with the Stalinists, that the attempted authoritarian management of value was itself the destruction of value.  Maybe, as some Marxists and socialists thought, capitalism-with-managers was a way to get to the destruction of value.  Maybe they were fooled by the greatest trick commodity fetishism ever pulled, much like most of the 20th century’s state socialists… including, in a mordant irony, Salvador Allende.

The abolition of the law of value (the domination of society by value as exploitation of labour) that Marx hoped for, presents, for some, nothing less than the extinction of all morality, all possibility of goodness, through the destruction of scarcity, the abolition of the abstraction of labour and hence the subjection of human time to productivity, and thus of the compulsion of the market.  The misery of forced decision-making is annulled, and thus is our free will – just as if, in some views, God were to intervene to prevent evil.  The socialist manager displaces the market-god as the boss of moral life.  Rather than there being a moral objection, the problem is actually that he just isn’t very good at it.  He’s inefficiently godlike.  

I don’t wish to stray into idealism, and imagine that the Austrian School is fundamentally and consciously motivated by such high-flown considerations.  It is true that, looked at one way, the Austrian view of value is almost magical.  But even this quasi-magical view of value arises unconsciously from hard, solid, social-material-historical processes – namely, the ideological expression of the ideas of the rising bourgeois class during the process of epochal transition in Europe.  Austrian economics is ultimately nothing less than a historically-grounded form of counter-revolutionary class-war conservatism, an ideological expression of the material interests of the capitalist ruling class, inflected through one of its branches.  But that doesn’t preclude the Austrian School having interior dimensions of their own.  One of the dimensions of the Austrian School is surely its lineage, from which it inherits an occluded religiose view of the value form itself.  This is the basic organising principle of its objection to Marxism, the node around which its antagonism revolves.  The surest sign of its mystical view of value (which Rothbard, for instance, projects onto Marxism… thus pulling the quintessential reactionary move of projecting one’s own monstrousness onto one’s enemy) is surely its inability to conceive of socialism as the destruction of the value form, even though this possibility terrifies it.  It persistently views socialism as the ascendancy of state control of an essentially capitalist economy rather than a fundamentally different kind of economy, while imagining it to be a fundamentally different kind of economy.  The socialism it forever attacks is not socialism at all but state capitalism, precisely because actual socialism – the destruction of the value form, owing to the destruction of the social relations which give rise to the value form – is inconceivable to it.  

And yet that which is inconceivable to it is there, lurking in its subconscious, being projected onto the interventionist state.  For the Austrians, the value form – expression, as it is, of human free will, of our tragic coercion to make hard choices and to thus find value and the possibility of goodness – is eternal.  It must be.  How can it be otherwise?  Yet they fear its death.  The very prospect they recoil from in terror is one which they choose to be incapable of conceptualising. But, of course, in order to choose to be incapable of conceptualising something, you have to already have some idea of it.  

The Austrian heterodoxy is economics’ version of the Weird.


But what of Fromm?  

We can infer his idea of ‘freedom to’ as the absence of what he lists in the above passage about alienation.  But he gives a fuller picture of his idea of real freedom in Fear of Freedom.  Viewing the growth of freedom as inherently dialectical, involving the growth of isolation concomitant upon the growth of freedom from constraints and weakness, Fromm says that

once paradise is lost, man cannot return to it. There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.

However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden.

He goes on to elaborate a view of real freedom connected to the full realisation of the individual; he does this through the concept of spontaneity.

Does our analysis lend itself to the conclusion that there is an inevitable circle that leads from freedom into new dependence?

Does freedom from all primary ties make the individual so alone and isolated that inevitably he must escape into new bondage? Are independence and freedom identical with isolation and fear? Or is there a state of positive freedom in which the individual exists as an independent self and yet is not isolated but united with the world, with other men, and nature?

We believe that there is a positive answer, that the process of growing freedom does not constitute a vicious circle, and that man can be free and yet not alone, critical and yet not filled with doubts, independent and yet an integral part of mankind. This freedom man can attain by the realization of his self, by being himself. What is realization of the self? Idealistic philosophers have believed that self-realization can be achieved by intellectual insight alone. They have insisted upon splitting human personality, so that man's nature may be suppressed and guarded by his reason. The result of this split, however, has been that not only the emotional life of man but also his intellectual faculties have been crippled. Reason, by becoming a guard set to watch its prisoner, nature, has become a prisoner itself; and thus both sides of human personality, reason and emotion, were crippled. We believe that the realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man's total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality. 

We approach here one of the most difficult problems of psychology: the problem of spontaneity. An attempt to discuss this problem adequately would require another volume. However, on the basis of what we have said so far, it is possible to arrive at an understanding of the essential quality of spontaneous activity by means of contrast. Spontaneous activity is not compulsive activity, to which the individual is driven by his isolation and powerlessness; it is not the activity of the automaton, which is the uncritical adoption of patterns suggested from the outside. Spontaneous activity is free activity of the self and implies, psychologically, what the Latin root of the word, sponte, means literally: of one's free will. By activity we do not mean "doing something", but the quality of creative activity that can operate in one's emotional, intellectual, and sensuous experiences and in one's will as well. One premise for this spontaneity is the acceptance of the total personality and the elimination of the split between "reason" and "nature"; for only if man does not repress essential parts of his self, only if he has become transparent to himself, and only if the different spheres of life have reached a fundamental integration, is spontaneous activity possible.

Fromm’s discussion of spontaneity is quite long and involved, but the most basic things to notice are that it is based upon an unconstrained individualism which can only be reached through a different kind of social existence.

There are three points I want to bring out:

  1. Fromm’s spontaneous individualism is the negation of alienation as he elsewhere describes it,

  2. It is startling the extent to which the “compulsive activity, to which the individual is driven by his isolation and powerlessness... the activity of the automaton, which is the uncritical adoption of patterns suggested from the outside” resembles the kind of spontaneous individualism promoted - even necessitated - by being part of a market society, and is thus the kind of activity that some (see above) see as giving meaning to life,

  3. Fromm’s idea of freedom is one possible iteration of Marx’s idea that socialism is the state in which “the free development of each becomes the condition of the free development of all” and in which a development of the productive forces finally permits the free expression of the “powers and capacities” of all people, rather than of some at the expense of others.

The great myth about Marx is that he was a ruthless collectivist.  In fact he was deeply enamoured of individual freedom.  He simply refused to accept the limited view of individual freedom offered by bourgeois civilisation, individual freedom as freedom from direct coercion for most and freedom to develop oneself creatively for only a few.  He saw no reason why, the productive forces being developed to the point where they can satisfy all human needs (thanks to capitalism), they cannot be made to do so if directed democratically.  This situation would then lead not only to freedom from direct coercion but from indirect coercion, and thus to the generalised and collective freedom to develop our individual potential.

Marx’s idea of unalienated humanity - free of value, of the reduction of labour to a homogenous and abstract substance that is entailed by the time discipline of the market - involves the end of the compartmentalisation that Fromm talks about.  This would have to be the end of class society, based on a lower development of the productive forces.  In one of the places where he hints at what socialism or communism (he uses the terms interchangeably) would be like, Marx says that

as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Well, where’s the virtue in that?  To a certain kind of mind, there’s none.  No frugality, no self-denial, no testing of oneself, no sharp rocks below to make you cling on all the harder, no hierarchy to show you when you’re of the Elect.  No negative sanctions built into social life to force you to decide what you value and how much you value it.  There’s just the free expression of human powers and capacities.  Fromm’s spontaneity.  Profound individualism stripped of egoism because it’s no longer based on coercion and hierarchy.  Freedom so extreme it could seem terrifying.

 Of course, Marx is working from an earlier view of morals, a pre-bourgeois one inherited from Aristotle, which sees virtue as being about living the good and fulfilling life.  Marx just refuses it until it is generalised, until everybody gets that life - whatever they think it is.

 There is also a story to be told here about the various meanings, permutations, and transformations of humanism... but that will have to wait for another time.



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