Homo Consumens

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a prominent sociologist and psychotherapist and one of the leading critics of late capitalism. Modern life, Fromm thought, is not propitious for the development of human potentialities. In it the profit motive reigns supreme; all things become commodities, including roles and personalities; people accommodate themselves unthinkingly to an overly commercialized and acquisitive social order; work for many is sheer tedium; and the incentives merely to fit in and become like everyone else are too great to be combatted. These ideas are fleshed out in books such as The Sane Society, Man For Himself, Escape From Freedom, and To Have Or To Be?

According to Fromm, one of the symptoms of our collective pathology is the constant urge to consume stuff. We consume everything "with voracity -- liquor, cigarettes, movies, television, lectures, books, art exhibits, sex; everything is transformed into an article of consumption." Behind this consumptive frenzy, he thought, lies an inner vacuity, an incapacity of people to be autonomous, to be truly productive citizens and unique selves. The perennial challenge is to imagine an alternative existence for ourselves -- one that is ever more intelligent, humane and compassionate.

The passages below elaborate upon these themes.

On Disobedience and Other Essays (Seabury Press, 1981):

"Modern society creates a type of man whom I have earlier called the homo consumens -- the consumer man whose main interest becomes, aside from working from nine to five, to consume.

"This is the attitude of the eternal suckling. It is the attitude of the man or the woman with the open mouth who consumes everything with voracity -- liquor, cigarettes, movies, television, lectures, books, art exhibits, sex; everything is transformed into an article of consumption.

"Certainly, for those who sell all these articles, there is nothing wrong with this. They try to promote the consumer spirit as much as they can; but, if I may apply some knowledge of my own profession, there is something very deeply wrong with this, because we know that behind this urge to consume there is an inner vacuity -- a sense of emptiness. There is, in fact, a sense of depression, a sense of loneliness. We find the clinical evidence for this connection in the fact that, very often, overeating and overbuying are the results of states of depression or intense anxiety...

"What we feel as freedom is, to a large extent, the freedom to buy or to consume; that is to say, to choose between many, many different things and to say: 'I want this cigarette. I want this car. I want this thing rather than another.' Precisely because many of the competing brands are not in reality very different, the individual feels the great power of being free to choose. I think many people, if they were honest with their concept of heaven, would imagine heaven to be a tremendous department store in which they could buy something new every day and perhaps a little more than their neighbors.

"There is a certain sickness in this drive for ever-increasing consumption and the danger is that, by being filled with a need for consumption, the person does not really solve the problem of inner passivity, of inner vacuity, of anxiety, of being depressed -- because life in some way doesn't make sense.

"The Old Testament warns that the worst sin of the Hebrews was that they had lived without joy in the midst of plenty. I am afraid the critics of our society could also say that we live with much fun and excitement but with little joy in the midst of plenty...

"What is the opposite of the consumer? What is the opposite of the empty, passive person who spends -- or as I would say, wastes -- his life by killing time?

"This is very difficult to describe, but I would say, in a general way, the main answer is to be interested. Unfortunately, we use this word so often that it has lost a great deal of its meaning, the meaning being how its root is defined in Latin: inter-esse, 'to be in' something; that is to say, to be able to transcend one's ego, to leave the narrow confines of my ego with all my ambitions, with my pride of property, with my pride of what I know and my family and my wife and my husband and my and my and my. It means to forget all these things and to reach out to both that which is opposite me and that which is in front of me, whether that is a child or a flower or a book or an idea or man or whatever it may be.

"Interest means to be active, but to be active in the sense of Aristotle or in the sense of Spinoza, and not to be active in the sense of modern busy-ness where one must do something all the time. Any person who can sit for an hour or two and do nothing is probably more active, in this sense, than most of us are when we are doing something all the time; it is, of course, much more difficult. It is a real problem for the older person to be capable of being active in this inner sense rather than in the outer sense."

On Being Human (Continuum, 1997):

"There are so many things in contemporary society that I dislike that it is difficult to decide with which particular complaint to begin...

"The first the fact that everything and almost everybody is for sale. Not only commodities and services, but ideas, arts, books, persons, convictions, a feeling, a smile -- they all have been transferred into commodities. And so is the whole of man, with all his facilities and potentialities.

"From this follows something else: fewer and fewer people can be trusted. Not necessarily do I mean this in the crude sense of dishonesty in business or underhandedness in personal relations, but in something that goes much deeper. Being for sale, how can one be trusted to be the same tomorrow as one is today? How do I know who he is, in whom I should put my trust? Just that he will not murder or rob me? This, indeed, is reassuring, but it is not much of a trust.

"This is, of course, another way of saying that ever fewer people have convictions. By conviction I mean an opinion rooted in the person's character, in the total personality, and which therefore motivates action. I do not mean simply an idea that remains central and can be easily changed...

"Many of the younger generation tend to have no character at all. By that I do not mean that they are dishonest; on the contrary, one of the few enjoyable things in the modern world is the honesty of a great part of the younger generation. What I mean is that they live, emotionally and intellectually speaking, from hand to mouth. They satisfy every need immediately, have little patience to learn, cannot easily endure frustration, and have no center within themselves, no sense of identity. They suffer from this and question themselves, their identity, and the meaning of life...

"What I dislike most is summed up in the description in Greek mythology of the 'Iron Race' the Greeks saw emerging. This description is -- according to Hesiod's Erga (lines 132-142) -- as follows: 'As generations pass, they grow worse. A time will come when they have grown so wicked that they will worship power; might will be right to them and reverence for the good will cease to be. At last, when no man is angry anymore at wrongdoing or feels shame in the presence of the miserable, Zeus will destroy them too. And yet even then something might be done, if only the common people would rise and put down rulers who oppress them.'"

Further Reading

A Diagnosis of Our Time.