Identity without agreement. Foundations and effects of the social character
Naturally, modern man strives to define himself as an individual and to be able to live and express his own unique identity. In western societies of the modern world, however, this rational and emotional claim in most cases leads to the exact opposite. The alienation from one’s ego, the necessary self-marketing and, as a result, the loss of one’s identity shape human existence in today’s Western world.
The so-called social character, a term coined by the German-American philosopher, humanist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, is more relevant than ever in this context. The theory of man formulated by Fromm in the first half of the 20th century, whose behavior is decisively influenced by social structures, can be traced back to his analytically critical view of the ever-changing society.
In today’s late capitalist economic system, which is mainly characterized by economic values, digitization and the concomitant permanent staging of everyday life, human alienation as a result of the social character is a central sociological development. The social character of Erich Fromm can be considered as a dynamic concept which, depending on the development of society, constantly has to be reflected and interpreted anew.
From Marx and Freud to the social character
The theory of social character or social character came about through Fromm’s intensive examination of the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Already with Marx the alienation of the human being, the loss of the own ego, by social structures is a central topic. However, Marx attributes alienation to a single factor: an industrialized society with its capitalist system. He, therefore, places the basic economic structures of society at the center of his theory. The exploited worker, who exists only as an object, could, according to Marx, take on a productive role as a subject through economic change. When the worker becomes the owner, he escapes alienation and defines his own identity.
Erich Fromm builds on the theses of Karl Marx with his formulation of the social character. Although basic features of his reflections are well preserved in Fromm’s psychoanalytic theory, he critically opposes the monocausal influences of human alienation, which are only of importance to Marx as economic factors. In contrast to economic factors, the social character of Erich Fromm defines religious, political, cultural and technological influences and changes as important conditions for the character of human beings.
Fromm develops the theses of Sigmund Freud in the question of orientations and traits of human beings. In doing so, Fromm clearly distinguishes himself from Freud’s instinctual theory, which places the physiological, or more precisely, the instinctual sexual, at the center of the human character structure. For Fromm, indeed, not only physiology but the entire process of life in a historical context defines the psychological conditioning of every human being. From Fromm’s analysis of Marx and Freud, the social character emerges, that is, the person who is modified by the interplay of all aspects of his environment.
Man as a reflection of his society
According to Erich Fromm, the character of a person is primarily defined by the interaction between the human individual and society. Both sides of this dynamic relationship are self-contained systems that shape each other. The behavior and the qualities of a person are, according to Fromm, fundamentally determined by impulses, which develop mainly through socialization processes in childhood. In this context, the family plays an essential role in the social character. The structure, dynamics and social traits of a family evolve because of the demands of society, which forces them to a certain degree of adaptation.
In addition to the familial and thus also indirectly social influences on the character of a human being, two further factors play an important role from a certain point in childhood and also in adult life: the school system and later the working world. These require a further and usually an even greater adaptation of every human individual to the social conditions.
As a result, the individual gradually becomes the mirror image of his society, which in turn ensures its survival through precisely this adaptation. Fromm’s concept of the social character thus means that the continued existence of every society depends crucially on how the common character of all members is shaped and their energies are channeled.
The passionate pursuit of the individual, which is significantly influenced by the structures of the society, experiences a subdivision into two forms with Fromm. The productive aspirations are all actions, ways of thinking and emotions that man builds on his powers. The non-productive or alienated aspirations arise when people project, deny or replace their forces with external influences. This behavior can manifest itself on several levels. In interpersonal relationships, they shape either a loving and respectful approach or destructive behavior. The acquisition of possessions and goods can be characterized either by productive and creative activities or non-productive by passive reception or theft.
The social character and its influence on the individual
Fromm has recognized that the alienation of man arises from the fact that once trained character structures to resist the historical change for a long time. This explains why non-productive processes and behaviors in society tend to be very persistent. Regardless of whether people act and think predominantly productively or non-productively, the character of society forces them, in almost all situations of life, to do all they can with alleged conviction and desire, which ensures the continuity of social structures. In this context, it becomes clear why authoritarian political systems often last for many years or decades, although their negative effects are perceptible to each individual. Wherever a political or socio-economic system finally changes, a new social character has emerged in the phase of upheaval.
The social character in the modern world
If the social character constantly urges the individual to adopt certain patterns of behavior, alienation from one’s ego is virtually inevitable, regardless of how social structures are pronounced. Man has to adapt himself to a given social structure, to classify himself to stabilize the respective social character. He thus becomes a medium whose behavior is only slightly influenced by conscious and arbitrary decisions. The individual must always act, think and feel as he should.
The problem of the social character is, therefore, above all, that man is practically compelled to always feel satisfaction in behaving according to the latest cultural achievements. Simply put: historical frameworks form the mental basis, the action and the personal development of a person, without its actual identity playing an essential role.
Especially in the context of postmodern society, Fromm’s theory of human community character has a special significance. After the end of the Second World War, the transition to the economic miracle in the Western world also led to the formation of a completely new social character, which still decisively determines human existence today. With the marketing orientation that became an important scientific subject for Fromm in the 1950s, the social interaction between dominance and subjugation gradually deviated from that between the seller and the consumer. This relationship continues to take on ever more extreme forms. This is mainly due to the digital revolution, which also brought about a new orientation of the social character within the marketing principle.
Normal human behavior today is determined by the staging of life in the virtual world. The social character of private and professional life is characterized by a partial commercial relationship between creators and consumers of staged environments. The mass media have in recent decades brought with them a largely narcissistic social character, which has put the marketing of the ego at the center of human existence. Its effects on the individual range from impaired or impaired attachment to regressive communication patterns.
Due to the anonymity of authorities such as trends, public opinions, and media campaigns, an additional alienation of man from his perspectives, instincts, and sensations takes place. The social character believes, knows and feels what the media define. As a result, the common character traits in society become a significant threat to the personal freedom of the individual – without this fact is aware of this fact.
Fromm’s character as a society is not only significant as a theory but is still of great practical applicability when it comes to the interpretation and analysis of social structures and their development. The social character can hold together a social structure such as cement and ensure its continued existence. In the postmodern world dominated and defined by digital media, however, it must increasingly be seen as an attack on the creativity and spontaneity of the individual. In this context, the social character is in stark contradiction to identity. Man no longer agrees with what makes him. Rather, it is a projection surface on which different social influences create an overall picture. In this picture, the degree of human alienation can be seen as clearly as the constancy of the social structure in which the alienation takes place.
Fromm’s theory is, therefore, a sociological concept that critically questions the “normal” behavior of humans in every context. It can be rewritten in every historical phase and can continue to serve as a valuable instrument for the analysis of social interaction in the future.