The Pathological Psychology of Western Capitalism

Exploring the psychic distortions that sustain the market system

By Collin Harris
May 31, 2010



The many glaring ills of contemporary Western society have come into sharp focus in the socio-political and philosophical thought of the past two centuries. The cultural pathologies of modern Western society abound, embedded in every dimension of our lives, manifesting themselves in various forms pathological behavior. Within conventional psychological and psychoanalytic frameworks, such matters are often (perhaps mistakenly) treated as essentially individual phenomena. Poor mental health in society is a matter of individual maladjustment. In response to this hopelessly reductionist approach, Erich Fromm proposed the much more radical notion of a fundamental “unadjustment of the culture itself.” Perhaps conceiving of social pathology as an individual deviation from an otherwise healthy and well functioning whole is a false start. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that modern Western society is haunted by what Fromm called a “pathology of normalcy”– – when the “normal” functioning of society is itself a disturbing pattern of collective pathology.

In a culture in which the individual is enmeshed in a myriad of complex social structures, systems, and institutions wielding enormous force and influence over daily life, it is appropriate to at least critically address whether the social order itself is in fact sane. The general theme of the following analysis is that Western society is indeed trapped in this pathology of normalcy, rooted in what are fundamentally anti-human properties of capitalist social relations and economic and cultural institutions. It is both the concrete conditions of these arrangements and the values that underlie them that will shed light on the psychological state of contemporary Western society.

In Sane Society, Fromm highlights two conceptual frameworks, and their guiding assumptions, we should consider in making claims about the collective mental health of a society. Sociological relativism, the doctrine that a given society is “normal” inasmuch as it functions and thus rendering pathology an issue of poor individual adjustment, precludes objective criteria for evaluating the mental health of human beings. The much more bold perspective of normative humanism on the other hand affirms the existence of appropriate universal criteria for evaluating the mental health of all people, irrespective of cultural systems.(Fromm 21) Positing that human beings have natural basic needs and psychic qualities governing their mental and emotional functioning, the satisfaction of which is inherent in any reasonable measure of psychological well-being, normative humanism provides a measure against which we can analyze collective mental health and social pathology. The primary claims put forth above demand such a measure, which lie at the core of Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis. It is, as always, a question of human nature.

Humanistic psychoanalysis insists that an accurate conception of human nature can be deduced from the study of the concrete conditions of human beings and their evolutionary and social development.  The human being represents a unique break in the evolution of life, a qualitative leap constituting a life form fundamentally different from all before it. A transition from the passive existence of the purely instinctual creature to the self-directed consciousness of the modern human: a new, transcendent species when “life became aware of itself.” (30) Nature has thus endowed humanity with the unique faculties for creative expression, free spontaneous activity, self-awareness and reflection, constructive engagement with the world, capacities for empathy and cooperation. Human needs are inherently social; our growth and development is not an isolated, individual phenomenon. Biological survival and social development both depend upon our relations to others, and so it is in our relationships with others that we realize our humanity. However, the emergent psychic properties of self-awareness, reason, and imagination—at once liberating and destabilizing–of this new being disrupts the “harmony” of the natural animal world. The transcendent qualities of humanity paradoxically make it the least fit for the realm of nature, in which instinctual response rules. Humanity can not, as other animals do, live by physiological adaptation and genetic determination alone; rather, we must create our existence for ourselves. Fromm notes that “we are never free from two conflicting tendencies: one to emerge from the womb, from the animal form of existence into a more human existence, from bondage to freedom; another, to return to the womb, to nature, to certainty and security.”(33) It is to find a solution to this fundamental contradiction that motivates human existence.

Our evolutionary, biological origins render the range of potential instincts, traits, and behaviors in human nature seemingly endless; the crucial question is which of these instincts are the social order going to maximize (or minimize). A social system is not simply the sum of its parts; over time, complex systems of interacting institutions take on logics of their own, while the whole develops a dynamism not found in its constitutive parts. To determine the mental health of Western society, we must consider the concrete conditions of our modes of production and forms of social-political organization to come up with a generalizable personaility structure. To do so, Fromm develops the concept of the social character: “the nucleus of the character structure which is shared by most members of the same culture.” (Fromm 76) The social character is a kind of conceptual cultural prototype generated by the institutional and structural foundations of society. For any system to survive, it must develop a means of channeling the human energies within society in accordance with the needs of the system, into cognitions and behaviors that ensure the continued functioning of society. If it becomes a matter of conscious choice whether or not to adhere to dominant social patterns, the system could be endangered. In its purest and most effective form, the character structure operates at the unconscious level, ensuring people “want to act as they have to act, and at the same time finding gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture.”(Fromm 77) As Adorno pointed out, “it is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces.” (Schmookler 118)

What is the social character of modern Western capitalist society? It must be deduced from analysis of the socio-economic institutions that govern our lives. All social institutions incentivize certain types of behavior while discouraging others.(Albert 65) What are the defining institutions of Western society? In capitalist society, the economic sphere is defined by three major institutional forces: private ownership, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. Embedded in a competitive class structure, these institutions dominate peoples’ lives and shape their values, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. Markets are the central institutions in capitalist society, organizing social activity according to their core values and projecting their power onto every dimension of human relationships. Prices and commodities are the language of markets and decisions are determined by a cold logic of material self-interest. Human beings in a market system engage in the social activities of production and consumption as atomized buyers and sellers in competition for scarce income and resources. The drive for profit is the dominant motivational force in market relationships, each actor advancing at the expense of another. Markets systematically subvert collective well-being by externalizing the costs of economic exchange onto others in society and the environment. Market pricing systems “lack concrete qualitative information and the obscuring of social ties and connections in market economies make cooperation difficult, while competitive pressures make cooperation irrational.” (Albert 66).

Private property breeds opposition by dividing society into owners and non-owners, with fundamentally divergent interests. It confers onto owners of capital disproportionate powers of decision making in the collective affairs of society, subordinating others to the interests of private wealth. Inherited wealth and power, disparate access to social resources and means of development, the erosion of cooperative values and common interest are the result of private ownership of productive social assets. Corporate divisions of labor divide the workplace, a central sphere of human activity in capitalist society, into hierarchies of disproportionate empowerment, quality of life, remuneration, and status. Unequal distribution of empowering circumstances, decision-making information, skills, confidence, and well being obstructs the healthy cognitive development of members of a corporate workplace.(Albert 46) The divisions of labor in capitalism fragment the mental and physical development of the human being. Specialization prohibits the worker’s interaction with the fruits of their labor as a whole. Sharp divisions of labor produce “individualism, narrowness of vision, and privatism” and detach people from each other and the public domain. (Benton 112) Holistic cognitive development is stunted by strict adherence to a single productive mode; rote, deadening, obedient work destroys one’s self-esteem and creative faculties. Indeed, the corporation has evolved into the dominant institution in Western capitalist society.

Borrowing from the psychologist Robert Hare, legal scholar Joel Bakan applies a diagnostic checklist of psychological traits to demonstrate, in human terms, the psychopathic nature of the modern corporation. The corporation: is irresponsible by endangering others in its inherently singular pursuit of profit, manipulative towards others in search for greater power and control, shamelessly grandiose in its self-conception, displays antisocial tendencies and a lack of empathy, and is remorseless in its wrongdoing.(Bakan 57) In human, social terms the corporation fails to live up to any reasonable measure of what we would consider to be a psychologically healthy human being. In these contexts, human behavior is molded in accordance with the role requirements (buyer, seller, owner, worker, etc.) of the institutions.

In capitalist society, people are conditioned by the requirements of the system to conceive of themselves and others in terms of economic utility. Production and consumption are heightened as the most natural and essential of human activities. From this develops a proliferation of materialist values; material goods are artificially infused with human dimensions, and life is experienced through the inanimate medium of the commodity. The productivist ideology of capitalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, actually transforming people into the theoretical personality types of laissez-faire, capitalist doctrine. So how do people experience these activities, deceptively elevated to the status of a “natural law” by capitalist ideology (which in itself profoundly impacts our values)? As Michael Albert notes, “hierarchical work leaves different imprints on personalities. For those at the top, it yields an inquisitive, expansive outlook. For those at the bottom [the vast majority of people in capitalist society], it leaves an aggrieved and self-deprecating outlook” and induces hostility and aggression. Production is experienced as an estranged activity of the worker, devoid of any intrinsic value or self-fulfilling properties. For the great majority of society, work becomes a mechanical and mindless activity, and the worker a “perversion of a free being.”  “Labor’s product, confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer…the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.”(Marx 72) Ironically, despite its productivist ideological roots, in capitalist society work is conceived of as an essentially inhuman chore, to be abolished by technological development and automation.