Where is the love? Could we get it from Fromm with wisdom 60 years after?
As luck would have it, David Cameron has become Barack Obama’s proper ‘pal’. To be fair-minded, let us start thinking about this alleged brotherly love by not being distracted by speculative journalism in the hands of which Britain’s Prime Minister looks like a college boy who has ‘a major man crush’ on the US president. For even if it is so, let them be; the love, whatever love means, is well-reciprocated by Obama. Or so it seems. The very personal support and admiration from a Democrat President for a conservative Prime Minister couldn’t be more transparent than during their most recent meeting at the White House late last week, much to Labour’s dismay back in the UK. Obama’s timely pre-election boast to the UK Prime Minister, his public statement that Britain’s economic recovery is proof that Cameron is ‘doing something right’, is the kind of thing brothers do for each other, after all.
Evidently, Cameron is doing something right, to Obama at least. Even if Labour’s complaints that we have good reasons for not crediting Cameron for the falling oil prices, the prospect of business wages increasing, and more generally for helping restore economic growth are all well-grounded, Obama is convinced otherwise. And this is what counts most. With all that good masculine chemistry between the two men who are so ‘comfortable working together’, mesmerised by the tantalizing lures of global politics, they do perhaps in some peculiar way exemplify what Erich Fromm once called ‘the most fundamental kind of love’ – brotherly love. Except this is far from the truth.
60 years after publication, Fromm’s seminal work The Art of Loving serves as a pertinent reminder of the love that isn’t there. In the book, the renowned social psychologist, psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher conceptualises brotherly love as the kind of love that is for all human beings, characterised by its very lack of exclusiveness, and which involves the sense of responsibility, care and respect for any other human being. This cannot be what Obama has for Cameron. For President Obama, Cameron is not just any human being; he is a super human being who has a lot to offer. A mighty British leader who promises progress on the ‘new threat’ of cyber security, with reference to the recent cyber attack allegedly launched by North Korea against Sony Pictures, Cameron is someone who has what it takes to join President Obama in a much needed anti-terror and global economy push. Cameron is a very good deal. As Fromm would have said, Obama perceives Cameron as an ‘attractive package’. From Fromm’s point of view both leaders are but splendid examples of what he termed a ‘modern man’, and this is far from being a compliment.
For Fromm, ‘modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature’. Fromm’s modern man has been transformed from a human being into a mere commodity. He is an automaton whose self-understanding, as well as understanding of the world around him, is reduced to investments, market shares, profit maximisation and the wisdom of fair exchange. A man like that cannot properly think for himself, let alone love, for love as Fromm argues requires maturity of the hart, the acquisition of which has been hindered by our social conditioning, and in particular by the Western life grounded in capitalist conditions and values. A man like that confuses love with many forms of ‘pseudo-love’ all of which represent no more than ‘disintegration of love’.
No traces of the relevant confusion can be found in a dignified wisdom characteristic of the native American Indian Chief of the Duwamish People. In his 1854 Treaty Oration, Chief Seattle made it clear that whilst he accepts the Big Chief at Washington’s offer to buy the land of his people in return for protection against the Haidas and Tsimshians who will no longer be able to frighten Seattle’s women, children and old men, his soul and the soul of his people cannot be part of the bargain. Yes, we can accept your ‘warm’ welcome to the Hobbesian world our good White Chief, but don’t try and blind us by your pretence of a fatherly love, protection and care. We, unlike your people, haven’t forgotten how to love.
Naive hopes they are that Mr. Cameron himself has the Kantian good will and an interest in drawing from Chief Seattle’s wisdom, and that he will pull himself together and save his facial expression of a decent man and his blushes for more private occasions. As Fromm reminds us, he is not quite Obama’s ‘pal’. Nevertheless, we may wonder what Obama and Cameron really do talk about in quiet moments away from the public eye. Do they ever, like good palls do, get it off their chests and admit that the glaring predicaments of their shared ambitions and Western ideals at some deeper level do get to them? Do they, for example, ever talk about their well-fed and love-starved overweight nations?
Of course, they can’t know what it really feels like for those who watch the last burger and the last fat chip of the night disappear inside their own insatiable jaws, and who desperately hope for just one more Face Book like for their new widely shared selfie, while playing Roberta Flack’s 1972, or even more recent Black Eyed Peas’, version of ‘Where is the love’? It’s a McFB world, as Professor Anis Bajrektarevic terms it and poignantly describes in this 2013 book Is There Life After Facebook?. And it is not a world which took us by surprise since ‘in a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and it which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labour market.’ (Fromm)
But it is also a world of many inconsistencies matched with our incredible capacity for complacency and tolerance. It should be obvious to Cameron and Obama, as much as it should be obvious to any human being capable of critical reflection, that modern capitalism needs people who self-destructively want to consume more and more and whose uncontrollable appetites, in some cases at least, lead to life-threatening diseases. It would be inconsistent to endorse capitalism and at the same time deny this crude fact.
However an acceptance of this fact about what capitalism needs inevitably entice a paradoxical nature of capitalism to emerge, and this in turn places a new demand on ‘modern man’: ditch the typically Freudian post Victorian-capitalist doom, ditch the self-deceptive leaders who lack internal consistency let alone egalitarian consciousness, and least but not last, being awaken by Fromm think a bit more about what love really means. Raising properly the very question – ‘where is the love’ – is not exclusively a romantic idea; it is also a rational requirement. Once fulfilled it is sufficient to show that it is not true that capitalism correspond to the natural needs of man.
Amna Whiston is a London-based writer specialising in moral philosophy. As a PhD candidate at Reading University, UK, her main research interests are in ethics, rationality, and moral psychology.