Evolution vs. Devolution (14)

Anticipatory vs Catastrophic Change
by Erich Fromm (from the first chapter of his book, May Man Prevail, 1961)

Societies have lives of their own; they are based on the existence of certain productive forces, geographical and climatic conditions, techniques of production, ideas and values, and a certain type of human character that develops under these conditions. They are organized in such a way that they tend to continue existing in the particular form to which they have adapted themselves. Usually, men in each society believe that the mode in which they exist is natural and inevitable. They hardly see any other possibilities and, in fact, they tend to believe that a basic change in their own mode of existence would lead to chaos and destruction. They are seriously convinced that their way is right, sanctioned by the gods or by the laws of human nature, and that the only alternative to the continuation of the particular form in which they exist is destruction. This belief is not simply the result of indoctrination; it is rooted in the affective part of man, in his character structure, which is molded by all social and cultural arrangements so that man wants to do what he has to do, so that his energy is channeled in such a way as to serve the particular function he has to fulfill as a useful member of a given society. It is for this very reason, namely that the patterns of thought are rooted in patterns of feeling, that patterns of thought are so very persistent and resistant to change.

Yet societies do change. Many factors, like new productive forces, scientific discoveries, political conquests, expansion of population, and so on, make for change. In addition to these objective factors, man’s growing awareness of his needs and of himself and, most of all, of his increasing need for freedom and independence, make for constant change in his historical situation, ranging from the cave dweller’s existence to the space-traveling man of the near future.

How do these changes occur? Most of them have occurred in violent and catastrophic ways. Most societies, leaders and led, have been incapable of adapting themselves voluntarily and peacefully to fundamentally new conditions by anticipating the necessary changes. They have tended to go on and on with what they sometimes poetically called “accomplishing their mission,” trying to continue the basic pattern of their social lives with only small changes and modifications. Even when circumstances that were in complete and flagrant contradiction to their whole structure arose such societies went on blindly trying to continue their modes of living until they could not manage any further. They were then conquered and destroyed by other nations, or they slowly died because of their incapacity to master life any longer in their customary way.

Those most opposed to fundamental change have been the elites, which profited most from the existing order and hence were unwilling to give up their privileges voluntarily. But the material interests of the ruling and privileged groups are not the only reason for the incapacity of many cultures to anticipate necessary changes. Another equally important reason lies in a psychological factor. Leaders and led, having hypostatized and deified their way of Me, their thought concepts, and their formulation of values, become rigidly committed to them. Even only slightly different concepts become intensely disturbing and are looked upon as hostile, devilish, crazy attacks on one’s own ‘normal,’ ‘sound’ thinking.

For the Cromwellians, the Papists were of the Devil; for the Jacobeans, the Girondists; for the Americans, the Communists. Man, in each society, seems to absolutize the way of life and the way of thought produced by his culture and to be willing to die rather than to change, since change, to him, is equated with death. Thus the history of man is a graveyard of great cultures that came to catastrophic ends because of their incapacity for planned, rational, voluntary reaction to challenge.

Yet nonviolent anticipatory change has also occurred in history. The liberation of the working class from the status of objects of ruthless exploitation to that of influential economic partners in Western industrialized society is an example of nonviolent change in the class relations within societies. The willingness of the British Labour Government to grant independence to India before it was forced to do so is an example in the area of international relations. But these anticipatory solutions have been the exceptions rather than the rule in history, so far. Religious peace came to Europe only after the Thirty Years’ War, to England only after violent and cruel mutual persecution by Papists and anti-Papists alike; in the First and Second World Wars, peace came only after the futile slaughter of millions of men and women on both sides and long after the eventual outcome of the war was already clear. Would not mankind have gained if the enforced decisions had been voluntarily accepted by both sides before they were enforced? Would not an anticipatory compromise have averted hideous losses and wholesale brutalization?

( . . . )

The question is: what is it that makes a society viable, allowing it to respond to change? There is no simple answer, but clearly the society must above all be able to discriminate its primary values from its secondary values and institutions. This is difficult because secondary systems generate values of their own, which come to appear as essential as the human and social needs which brought them into being. As people’s lives become intertwined with institutions, organizations, life styles, forms of production and consumption, etc., men become willing to sacrifice themselves and others for the works of their own hands, to transform their own creations into idols and to worship these idols. Furthermore, institutions generally resist change, and thus men who are fully committed to institutions are not free to anticipate change.

( . . . )

The chances that such rational-anticipatory action will occur are bleak. Not because there is no possibility for such an outcome in the realistic circumstances, but because there is a thought barrier built of cliches, ritualistic ideologies, and even a good deal of common craziness that prevents people–leaders and led–from seeing sanely and realistically what the facts are, from separating the facts from the fictions and, as a consequence, from recognizing alternative solutions. It requires also a serious examination of our own biases, and of certain semipathological forms of thinking which govern our behavior.


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