An analogy used by Fromm describing the turn to commodified leisure and consumption in an attempt to compensate for a lack of meaningful engagement with the world really drives home his argument about generic needs and how they help us to understand both our own actions and larger social problems. This so-called leisure, he says, only contributes to our alienation, since it’s “fundamentally as boring as work, only less consciously so. Work, man’s exchange with nature, is such a fundamental part of human existence that only when it ceases to be alienated can leisure time be productive” (AoHD, 274-5).
Fromm compares this unsatisfying leisure to the empty calories of junk food:
[I]n the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential faculties and paychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel ‘empty’ and unmoved on a deeper level. He ‘anaesthetizes’ this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, ‘thrill’, ‘fun’, liquor, or sex - but unconsciously he remains bored. (AoHD, 275)
He concludes that making work and leisure respond to human needs would require a transformation of our economic system, placing it in their service.
The comparison to junk food is instructive: We have a basic need for nourishment which can only be met through food, as well as other needs – uniting with other people and with our traditions and the natural world and so on - in whose fulfillment eating plays a role. We can address these needs, as individuals and as a culture, in healthy, ethical, fulfilling ways, or in destructive and unfulfilling ways. As many who’ve written about our contemporary food system have discussed, the way we eat – despite the claims of those who benefit from it – supplies sufficient (often excessive) calories1 but fails to satisfy our real nutritional and emotional needs, and is in fact harmful to ourselves and many others. The system has found a way to capitalize on an evolved weakness for foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, but that does not make this approach satisfying in any genuine, lasting way.
While we can take the comparison only so far, the generic physical need for nourishment parallels the generic needs Fromm discusses. That we eat the way we do in our society doesn’t mean we’re driven to eat that particular way, but in turn recognizing its failure doesn’t mean that no way of eating will satisfy that need or, of course, that the need for nourishment doesn’t exist. What we have to do is to distinguish effective, ethical, positive ways of meeting this need that don’t interfere with our fulfillment of our other needs (or others’ fulfillment of theirs).
“There are many answers which one can give to the problems of existence” (PoN, KL 332), Fromm argues, but not all are equally good. For any need, there can be means to evade it or its consequences or shallow and harmful substitutes for fulfilling it productively. More generally, history can be understood as the story of the ways different societies have made possible the positive, productive fulfilling of these needs or have provided empty and harmful means of addressing or evading them.
It’s useful at this point to note how Fromm’s perspective differed from Freud’s. In Fromm’s view, for example, there was no drive for destruction or death; there was a need for relatedness and effectance that, when loving, creative means weren’t available or recognized, people would attempt to escape or to fulfill through violence or destructiveness. Fromm didn’t regard destructiveness (including self-destructiveness), violence, laziness, and escapist pursuits themselves as stemming from innate drives. Nor did he regard them as lacking psychological depth. Instead, he saw them as tragically hollow and harmful attempts to meet our most basic needs or to evade the consequences of their nonfulfillment. This, significantly, goes beyond individual lives and means that societies are of great importance: they either provide the conditions for the productive and healthy fulfillment of our needs or they obstruct that fulfillment and encourage destructive and harmful responses.
Consider the alleged need for a frame of orientation – for a frame of reference and an object of devotion. This, again, is viewed by Fromm as a generic need that all people and all societies have to tend to somehow:
Unless we are crazy, or unless we repress, as some people do, and many people can do it almost completely, the awareness of the problems of existence by following compulsively a routine of escape, we are bothered with the question of the meaning of life and we need some frame of reference and orientation, which makes sense. (PoN, KL 317-323)
The need itself is universal and unavoidable – “[T]he need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfillment regardless of how this need is fulfilled” - but “[t]he objects of man’s devotion vary” (AoHD, 261). But of course Fromm recognized that “the difference in the objects of devotion,” in the ideals by which people live, is of “immense importance,” and that there were many bad religious, political, and economic idealisms in the cause of which people act in ways harmful to others and to themselves.
So religion defined generically as a “system of orientation” - Fromm had an annoying habit of trying to redefine words like “religion” and “faith” to mean something different from their generally accepted use – includes not just “theistic religion as we are accustomed to the Western world, but Buddhism, Confucius, Taoism, and in the same sense, Stalinism or Fascism because it appeals to those needs in humans, which refer to what in our culture a religion satisfies” (PoN, KL 324-331).
His claim, as discussed in the previous post, was that a “religious vacuum” in the twentieth century was exploited by opportunistic movements like fascism and Stalinism, which provided a political religion and moving rituals. In contemporary capitalist culture, Fromm argued, the religion of production and consumption provides a frame of orientation. We are devoted to serving economic growth and the “machinery of production…that things are bigger and better, that there is more and more” (PoN, KL 525-529). Like production, consumption, in a way “furthered and stimulated by the advertising people,” has “become an aim in itself. We are fascinated by the idea of buying things, without much reference to how useful they are.”
Of course, this is a poor substitute for the real fulfillment of needs, and “We find today very little pleasure in anything people buy” (PoN, KL 531-535). The worship of production and consumption serve the needs of the system, but makes for failed and counterproductive attempts to meet our own needs. Contemporary production and consumption aren’t “related to any reality that makes sense in terms of human existence” (PoN, KL 549-551) or suited to “the real and concrete human needs of anyone” (PoN, KL 562-567).
Fromm rejected the “ready-made patterns that pretend to give meaning to their lives” in our society: “to be successful, to be a ‘bread winner’, to raise a family, to be a good citizen, to consume goods and pleasures.” He claimed that “while for most people this suggestion works on the conscious level, they do not acquire a genuine sense of meaningfulness, they do not make up for the lacking center within themselves. The suggested patterns wear thin and with increasing frequency fail” (AoHD, 299).
Again, the needs themselves are generic in the sense that the specific content of our attempts to fulfill them is open. Any particular “religion” (“religions in the sense in which I define religion, namely a frame of reference, and an object of devotion,” PoN, KL 389-392) can serve this need psychologically:
Whether he believe in sorcery and magic as final explanations of all events, or in the spirit of his ancestors as guiding his life and fate, or in an omnipotent god who will reward or punish him, or in the power of science to give answers to all human problems - from the standpoint of his need for a frame of orientation, it does not make any difference. His world makes sense to him, and he feels certain about his ideas through the consensus with those around him. Even if the map is wrong, it fulfills its psychological function. (AoHD, 259)
As with religion, idealism defined in these generic terms is simply a basic and universal need we should acknowledge, not a particular trait we should admire or disdain - we “all are [idealists], and there is nothing particularly desirable about it because we can’t help it. We are driven to be.” The questions we should ask, therefore, concern the content of the various idealisms: “What are your aims? What are the goals? What are the effects?” (PoN, KL 363-366). (Of course, how well the various frames of reference and idealisms comport with reality is a key issue, which Fromm deftly but ultimately insufficiently sidestepped with a remark that all contain some fraction of truth to enable people to live in their social worlds.)
Related to this, Fromm regarded the absence in modern culture of the sort of genuine dramatic ritual previously provided by Greek drama and Catholicism as a problem (PoN, KL 395-424). He argued that a modern form of ritual, sports, didn’t connect people to anything deeper than themselves and was therefore was a weak and unsatisfying substitute for these life-and-death rituals or the dramatic displays of fascism (PoN, KL 436).2
While Fromm thought that many collective attempts to meet our needs were abortive and unacceptable, he believed that collective action to change the system was necessary. He recognized that the number of individual people able to fulfill their needs and be fully actualized in a society hostile to that project would always be small. To the extent that people tried to fulfill their needs through fascism and Stalinism, they would inevitably fail and cause harm. But Fromm didn’t see any path forward that didn’t involve major social change, and was involved with the democratic socialist movement.
Fromm believed that the goals of the socialist tradition were broadly consistent with his understanding of needs:
The common vision to various Socialists, the schools which arose in the 19th century or even somewhat earlier, was a society where man is an end in himself, where the individual citizen is active, responsible, where he lives with his fellow man in a spirit of cooperation, solidarity, and brotherly love, where he is not used by anybody nor does he use himself for any purpose outside of his own life and the growth of his personality. (PoN, KL 962-966)
He thought it was the responsibility of humanists to develop a humanistic religion, understood in his generic terms. In 1953, he discussed a paper by Julian Huxley presented at the 1952 Humanistic Congress in Amsterdam about the prospects for “a new form of non-theistic humanistic religion” (PoN, KL 1028-1037). According to Fromm, Huxley shared his belief that “we have to recognize that man has to have a frame of reference, an object of devotion, that he has to have meaning to life; we have to have an objective which goes beyond that of producing and reproducing himself” (PoN, KL 1028-1037).
As discussed in my previous post, Fromm regarded many of our activities as attempts to avoid the consequences of the alienation we suffer as a result of our lack of active and productive relatedness. Given the systemic alienation in our culture, depression is a normal condition; but many people engage in “compensatory behavior” (PoN, KL 2103-2107) to stave off the full effects of alienation. “One may state,” he asserted, “that one of the main goals of man today is ‘escape from boredom’” (AoHD, 274).
He believed that beyond the distracting and “anaesthetizing” effects of our leisure activities, we also turn to them in hopes of fulfilling real needs. So Fromm didn’t regard the products of commodified leisure, although ultimately hollow, as merely frivolous pursuits or momentary meaningless pleasures, but as abortive attempts to address our deepest needs – to be authentically related to the world or to defend ourselves against the full experience of alienation. When the defenses fail, we see the terrible effects:
People who get a depression these days are just perhaps not more un-alive and alienated from themselves and out of touch with reality than the rest of us. But we have defenses against it and they do not. There are plenty of defenses against the feeling that comes from not being alive. Our amusement industry, work, our cocktail parties, our chatter, the whole routine that we have, are all so many defenses against that terrible moment when we really feel that we don’t feel anything. That protects us from getting melancholia. There are a few individuals who are not protected, maybe because their sensitivity is greater. Maybe this state of mind, wherein they don’t feel, to them is felt in a more sensitive fashion, and therefore the defenses don’t work so well. (PoN, KL 590-596)
Similarly, destructiveness and cruelty, according to Fromm, didn’t result from innate specific drives but comprised some of the sad, ultimately fruitless, and of course damaging means by which people tried to meet their needs for excitation and stimulation. “I have dealt at such length with the organism’s need for stimulation and excitation,” he writes in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,
because it is one of the many factors generating destructiveness and cruelty. It is much easier to get excited by anger, rage, cruelty, or the passion to destroy than by love and productive and active interest; that first kind of excitation does not require the individual to make an effort - one does not need to have patience and discipline, to learn, to concentrate, to endure frustration, to practice critical thinking, to overcome one’s narcissism and greed. If the person has failed to grow, simple stimuli are always at hand or can be read about in the newspapers, heard about in the radio news reports, or watched on television and in movies. People can also produce them in their own minds by finding reasons to hate, to destroy, and to control others. (AoHD, 272)
Destruction, cruelty, and domination, in other words, are stimulation junk food.
The need for effectance was also presented by Fromm in generic terms – as one that could be met either productively or destructively. He wrote that in
my own work since Escape from Freedom…I have emphasized man’s need for actively grasping the world and for stimulation. In the concept of the “productive orientation” this need has taken a central place as one of man’s basic orientations in the process of relating and assimilating; this orientation of “active relatedness” is the condition for mental health, while its absence, manifested by boredom, constitutes a pathogenic factor, although in milder cases it is compensated by compensatory behavior which prevents the manifestation of conscious boredom.
The need for effectance – through creation or destruction – “expresses itself in interpersonal relations as well as in the relationship to animals, to inanimate nature, and to ideas.” In our relations with “others,” “the fundamental alternative is to feel either the potency to effect love or to effect fear and suffering. Opposite as these alternatives are, they are responses to the same existential need: to effect” (AoHD, 266; my emphasis). (It's unclear here whether he’s putting nonhuman animals in the category of “others” or “things.”)
Fromm believed that our need for unity was an existential one. After birth and our recognition of separateness, he claimed, we want to return to the womb, “or to find a new situation of absolute protection and security. But the way to paradise is blocked by man’s biological, and particularly by his neurophysiological constitution” (AoHD, 261-2). Similarly, we have a need to unite with our fellow people.
Again, he saw these as generic needs that we had to attempt to actively avoid (a costly approach) or to fulfill. “[T]here are many ways of reestablishing unity” with the rest of the world (AoHD, 262), he noted, and these attempts could be divided into regressive and progressive alternatives. There are also productive and harmful classes of attempts to unify with other human beings.
Attempts at “regaining” unity that Fromm classified generally as regressive include: “symbolic dependence on mother (and on symbolic substitutes such as soil, nature, god, the nation, a bureaucracy),” “inducing states of trance or ecstasy, mediated by such means as drugs, sexual orgies, fasting, dancing, and other rituals that abound in various cults,” identifying with or worshipping “the animal” (I’ll have much more to say about this later on), and “subordinating all energies to one all-consuming passion, such as the passion for destruction, power, fame, or property.” These Fromm regarded as “tragic” attempts to regain unity by submerging one’s identity and “anaesthetizing one’s reason” (AoHD, 261-3).
(He believed that people needed to “find new roots in the world” and develop a new “brotherhood” based on reason and love. Fromm held, incorrectly, that this was the project of all of the world’s “great religions”:
Such an attempt was made in the first millennium B.C. in all parts of the world where man had developed a civilization - in China, in India, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Greece. The great religions springing from the soil of these cultures taught that man can achieve unity not by tragic effort to undo the fact of the split, by eliminating reason, but by fully developing human reason and love. Great as are the differences between Taoism, Buddhism, prophetic Judaism, and the Christianity of the Gospels, these religions had one common goal: to arrive at the experience of oneness, not by regressing to animal existence but by becoming fully human - oneness within man, oneness between man and nature, and oneness between man and other men. (AoHD, 263))
Similarly, Fromm recognized sadistic, masochistic, narcissistic, and destructive approaches and relationships as attempts to relate to our fellow human beings, to meet the need for relatedness, unity, and transcendence. Healthy ways of relating to the world, in contrast, are those that are free, independent, and loving (AoHD, 262). If these are unavailable or their development thwarted, they could become their opposites. He described this possibility (using the unfortunate metaphor of “the cripple”):
This capacity for the attraction to death is one which is given in any human being if he fails in development of what I would call his primary potentiality,* namely to be related to life as something which is interesting, something which is joyful, or to develop his powers of love and reason. If all of these things remain incomplete, then man is prone to develop another form of relatedness, that of destroying life. By doing this he also transcends life, because it is as much of a transcendence to destroy life as it is to create it.
…To be able to create life,…we need certain individual and social conditions. But even the most unhappy and impoverished man can destroy, and in destroying he gets even with his own what Unamuno calls his crippledness. You might say necrophilous destructiveness is the transcendence of the cripple, a perverse creation of the cripple, in which he destroys because he cannot create. (PoN, KL 1399-1406; my emphasis)
I’ve presented them in sequence, but as these last several quotations suggest Fromm didn’t consider attempts to meet particular needs separately. He thought our approaches to fulfilling our needs coalesced into basic “character orientations,” which could be divided into productive, ethical, authentic, fulfilling, loving, unalienating orientations (of “active relatedness”) and their opposites. This was true of both individuals and societies: individuals express particular character orientations, and societies foster or subvert them.
You don’t have to accept this classificatory notion, either in the case of specific needs or in general, to appreciate the implications of Fromm’s conceiving of needs as generic. Viewing needs in these terms means that those seeking social change “in the spirit of humanism” or societies guided by humanistic principles have to pay attention not just to the needs themselves but to the healthy and unhealthy means by which people seek to fulfill them, and work to make positive, fulfilling means possible. This notion also has implications for our individual and group relationships and understandings. It’s easy to focus on presumed differences and to assume fundamentally negative motives or drives amongst others, particularly in the case of those who are causing harm. But thinking in terms of basic needs that we all share and the different means and the possibilities for fulfilling them offered to different groups or by a culture can help us to better understand ourselves, prevent problems, and help people to grow.
1This is not to ignore the hundreds of millions of people whose basic caloric needs aren’t met in our wreck of a global food system.
2I’ll discuss Fromm’s views on allegedly positive forms of contemporary ritual drama later on. They’re shocking.
3This slipperiness in using “potentialities” in the context of discussing needs is a problem, but it’s rare for Fromm to fall into it.