The Sane Society by Erich Fromm

The Sane Society was published in 1955 and written by the German social psychologist Erich Fromm. Among theorists such as Marcuse and Adorno, Fromm was a part of the first generation of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. He was interested in the psychological effects that large social systems have on individuals and the increasing sense of alienation that in part seems to characterize modern men. He discussed these subjects in Escape from Freedom (1941) where he analyses our ambiguous relationship to freedom. Fromm argues that we harbour a fear of freedom and, in extension, choices and responsibility, which leads us to try and escape by subordinating ourselves to authorities or by simply conforming ourselves to  society and suppressing critical thinking. Fromm connects these psychological tendencies to what enabled the rise of Nazism.

In The Sane Society, Fromm questions how sane our modern capitalist society really is by tracing its alienating effects on our lives and mental health. Fromm criticizes both  capitalism and communism as dehumanizing ideologies and instead explores the possibilities of structuring a society based on individual freedom.

Our problem is that our motive for production is not social usefulness, not satisfaction in the work process, but the profit derived from the investment. The usefulness of his product to the consumer need not interest the individual capitalist at all. page 89

“We are not in danger of becoming slaves any more, but of becoming robots,” as Adlai Stevenson said so succinctly. There is no overt authority which intimidates us, but we are governed by the fear of the anonymous authority of conformity. We do not submit to anyone personally; we do not go through conflicts with authority, but we have also no convictions of our own, almost no individuality, almost no sense of self. page 102

If the market and the contract regulate relationships, there is no need to know what is right and what is wrong and good and evil. All that is necessary is to know that things are fair – that the exchange is fair, and that things “work” – that they function. page 109

The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concepts of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimensions. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection. The same man would probably be incapable of even slapping, not to speak of killing, a helpless person. In the latter case, the concrete situation arouses in him a conscience reaction common to all normal men; in the former, there is not such reaction, because the act and his object are alienated from the doer, his act is not his any more, but has, so to speak, a life and a responsibility of its own. page 120

The mechanism through which the anonymous authority operates is conformity. I ought to do what everybody does, hence, I must conform, not be different, not “stick out”; I must be ready and willing to change, according to the changes in the pattern; I must not ask whether I am right or wrong, but whether I am adjusted, whether I am not “peculiar,” not different. page 153

Modern man does not know what to do with himself, how to spend his lifetime meaningfully, and he is driven to work in order to avoid an unbearable boredom. page 179

☞  Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart, New York (1955)