Hail to the City of Being

The Tower of Babel

As we enter a new decade (unless you think it doesn’t actually start until 2021 of course) it might be useful to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. Party politics can be a messy affair, so sometimes it’s good to stand back and ponder.

But to know what sort of society we want we have to know what sort of society we have now. Many will argue that what is often called neoliberalism is still the dominant ideology. This is the economic model based at it’s most extreme on the mythical Homo Economicus, an attenuated vision of human nature which assumes that we all act in our own rational self-interest. This is often accompanied by a world view that encompasses lower tax, deregulation and a much reduced public sphere. Many would argue, of course, that Homo Economicus is a false view of humanity and that we are, rather, a more social animal than it allows. Nevertheless, with the rise of the gig economy in which employers buy discrete packages of time rather than the person, and now draws in nearly five million people, this does seem to be an age of increasing atomization and alienation. What sort of society is this?

According to the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm it is the ‘have’ society, which he contrasts with the ‘being’ society. The former is about an obsession with possessing and consumption, the latter is a process of living and growing. He gives many examples of what he means but the simplest involves types of knowledge: “Optimum knowledge in the being mode is to know more deeply. In the having mode it’s to have more knowledge.” It is sobering to think that the following words were written in the mid-1970s in his book To have or to be: “To acquire, to own and to make a profit are the sacred and unalienable rights of the individual in the industrial society.” What would he think of our society as we enter the world of the Internet of Things and our experience and data have become the new raw material of what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism? And again, his analysis of the threat to representative government is also of relevance today “For even the remnant of democracy that still exists is doomed to technocratic fascism – the very type of society that was so much feared under the name of ‘communism’ – unless the giant corporations’ big hold on the government (which grows stronger daily) and on the population (via thought control through brainwashing) is broken.”

Fromm claims, among other things, that the ‘have’ society has encouraged and embedded an intellectually passive ‘spectator democracy’ and argues that we should foster an active ‘participatory democracy’ replacing Homo Economicus with the critically engaged citizen. To this end he is an advocate of exactly the kind of deliberative democracy that Salisbury Democracy Alliance is campaigning for with its democracy cafés and so far failed attempts to create a Citizens’ Jury in the city. Even in the 1970s Fromm sees elections as degenerating into ‘exciting soap opera, with the hopes and aspirations of the candidates – not political issues – at stake’. Genuine conviction, he writes, requires two elements – ‘adequate information and the knowledge that one’s decision has an effect’. Wiltshire Council and Salisbury City Council take note!

Among his many recommendations is the creation of a Universal Basic Income, although he doesn’t call it that. “Many of the evils of present-day capitalism and communist societies would disappear with the introduction of a guaranteed yearly income. ” And again: “The guaranteed yearly income would ensure real freedom and independence.”

In what today, with the benefit of hindsight, seems to be unduly quixotic Fromm is optimistic about the emergence of the being society. He sees Medieval culture flourishing because ‘people followed the vision of the City of God’ and the Age of Enlightenment energised people with the ‘vision of the growth of the Earthly City of Progress’. The 20th century has deteriorated into the Tower of Babel. But he concludes: “If the City of God and the Earthly City were thesis and antithesis, a new synthesis is the only alternative to chaos: the synthesis between the spiritual core of the Late Medieval world and the development of the rational thought and science since the Renaissance. This synthesis is The City of Being.” It seems that we still have a long time to wait! But at least we can carry on trying.

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  1. It seems to me obvious that the basic flaw in the “Having “ society is a matter of Time. Not Time – When, but Time During which.
    “Having” is spoken of in the piece as though it were of infinite duration. Eg I have this potato, now and forever. I have this Information, which we can rename News, now and forever. I have these Rights, now and forever. It is clearly non-reality. Do I have Life forever?
    Whereas “Being” makes perfect sense of this problem: While I am “Being”, I have Life, though not forever. The problem is simply one of recognizing our individual mortality.
    Christopher Browne.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Christopher, and thanks for responding to this article. You are absolutely right! The way Fromm puts it is this: “Being is not necessarily outside time, but time is not the dimension that governs being.” As an artist you will appreciate his argument that the artist may have to wrestle with colour, canvas and brushes etc but the ‘creative act, their vision of what they are going to create, transcends time’ and becomes being. But in the having mode ‘this respect for time becomes submission when the having mode predominates’. Thanks for raising this very important aspect of Fromm’s thinking.


  2. I enjoyed the blog and the comment above about ‘time’ that it has elicited. The observation I’d like to make is that in order for ‘being’ and ‘having’ to have meaning I’d argue that there has to be a reference point provided by either a time dimension or by comparison of oneself with others in the society being observed. So maybe in addition to ‘being’ and ‘having’ there is a 3rd and necessary perspective which maybe needs to recognised that might be called ‘relative to what’. This would help explain why even within a social or Homo Economicus view of the behaviour of people there will still be as many different views of ‘what good look like (or contains)’ as there are individuals in the society being judged. So I’m not sure that a Universal Basic Income is a good as solution as maybe we would like it to be as there will continue to be differences in how this income is spent and how others value the result of this spend (including the acquisition or not of knowledge).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gary, massive questions being raised here but I would just like to pick up on your observation about different views of the good. The issue seems to be whether or not we are able to have ideas of the good beyond our subjective selves. For this to be true we would have to hold that we are isolated individuals but the contrary view, sometimes called communitarianism, is that we are social animals for whom some degree of cooperation and mutual understanding is essential, even if it is conflict with our more egoistic tendencies. Indeed, some evolutionary scientists argue that altruism is part of our DNA because it has evolutionary benefits, at least within the group (I’m not getting into group moral relativism here!). The great Russian anarchist Prince Petr Kropotkin was much influenced by the zoologist Prof Kessler who argued that ‘besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid’. Indeed, he was moved to write Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution as a result. Of course, we are not talking here about absolutes only more or less tenable or plausible arguments and I hope that this blog will act as a forum in this spirit.


      1. Thanks for the response Bergolts. Fish swim in shoals for a reason … I guess because there is value derived from being part of a community. Which I suspect is the basis for your inclusion of references to Kessler and Kropotkin above. So can I also second your final point above and say that this blog and the Democracy cafe community is an example of community in action, even though at this time the action is largely in the realm of discussion and exchanging ideas and knowledge. And as well as liking it personally I think it’s an important contribution to the wider community in and around Salisbury. Keep it up.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Gary, many thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I shall endeavour to do so.
    Best wishes,


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