Tuesday, 24 April 2018

We're all sick

Speaking about the development of values in the early modern period, Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom writes that "The individualistic relationship to God was the psychological preparation for the individualistic character of man's secular activities." Obviously, there are shades of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism here, and not surprisingly Fromm cites Weber with sympathy (although he is more fully dependent upon Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but that said it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tawney himself was quite rightly cognizant that the whole discussion was labouring in Weber's shadow). But what interests me more than the Weberian resonances and the ongoing questions about Protestant Ethic is that Fromm explicitly apprehends two distinct domains of human experience, what we might call the psychological ("the individualistic relationship to God") and the social ("the individualistic character of man's secular activities"). But I would in fact argue that Fromm implicitly apprehends three distinct domains in this quotation and certainly throughout Escape from Freedom, with "the individualistic relationship to God" properly defined as cultural and "psychological preparation" as a distinct matter of psychological appropriation. Put otherwise, I think that Fromm in 1941 apprehended at least in part the insight that Doran would make explicit in 1990's Theology and the Dialectics of History: that culture serves as the domain mutually mediating between the personal and the social.

If Doran is correct, then we should not be surprised by Fromm's argument that the psychological and the social are essentially isomorphic, and I would again make explicit the implicit presence of the cultural. Socially, the human animal under capitalism--arguably "late capitalism" all the more so than early modern)--is an atom, defined not by the force it exerts upon or experiences from other such atoms but rather by its wholly autonomous self; this can only be sustained of course if persons living under such an social regime psychologically adapt by accepting themselves as such atoms; and such widespread adaptation can only be achieved if a culture emerges that presents the person as standing in such an atomistic relationship with foundational reality. Only persons who believe themselves to be atoms because everything around them tells them that they are atoms can function fully as an atomistic social regime needs if it is to sustain itself. Isomorphism between society, culture, and person seems necessary for any community--from the smallest units up to the largest states and institutions--to sustain itself long-term.

This insight has tremendous value for those of us whose primary research interest is in a period other than the modern, for if such isomorphism is necessary to sustain any community then we now have the basis for a powerful set of analytical tools. When we see long-term sustainability of a given social arrangement, we have reason to suspect that such isomorphism existed. Perhaps the best example of this from the ancient world is ancient Egypt, whose pharaonic model of government survived in its broad outlines for three millennia; even in the interregnums between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, it seems that in general this pharaonic model of government persisted, albeit less effective at meeting its own intended ends than at other times in Egyptian history. We might also cite the endurance of the Confucian model in East Asia up until modern times, or perhaps the Indian caste system. Conversely, when we see a community rapidly disintegrate, we have reason to suspect that isomorphism has not been sustained or alternatively has not been maintained. This probably helps in part to account for the collapse of various twentieth-century communist regimes: never able to develop communist cultures as deeply embedded as the capitalist culture of "the west," these regimes were plagued by various instabilities as person's psychic lives were seriously out of step with their social lives. (By contrast, capitalism's capacity to sustain itself despite the clear evidence that it is facilitating gross inequality unparalleled in human history, and that--by reducing the nature upon which we depend to a set of resources that we might pillage for profit--it has in fact become an existential threat to the human species, can probably only be explained by the high degree of isomorphism between society, culture, and person that it has managed to achieve. The problem is that in the face of these clear dysfunctions such isomorphism is itself dysfunctional: a fact that no doubt helps in no small part to explain the deepening mental health crisis. One rather suspects that much--one also suspects far from all--that we define as mental illness is the normative response of healthy psyches to profoundly unhealthy situations).

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