What is capitalism like?

Capitalistic society is based on the principle of political freedom on the one hand, and of the market as the regulator of all economic, hence social relations, on the other. The commodity market determines the conditions under which commodities are exchanged, the labor market regulates the acquisition and sales of labor. Both useful things and useful human energy and skill are transformed into commodities which are exchanged without use of force and without fraud under the conditions of the market. Shoes, useful and needed as they may be, have no economic value (exchange value) if there is no demand for them on the market; human energy and skill are without exchange value if there is no demand for them under existing market conditions. The owner of capital can buy labor and command it to work from the profitable investment of his capital. The owner of labor must sell it to capitalists under the existing market conditions, unless he is to starve. This economic structure is reflected in a hierarchy of values. Capital commands labor; amassed things, that which is dead, are of superior value to labor, to human powers, to that which is alive.

Modern capitalism needs men who cooperate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience - yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim - except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.

The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones - and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.

Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature. His aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his "personality package" with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.

Just because man is forced for eight hours a day to spend his energy for purposes not his own, in ways not his own, but prescribed for him by rhythm of the work, he rebels and his rebelliousness takes the form of an infantile self-indulgence. In addition, in the battle against authoritarianism he has become distrustful of all discipline, of that enforced by irrational authority, as well as of rational discipline imposed by himself. Without such discipline, however, life becomes shattered, chaotic, and lacks in concentration.

But, as in so many other aspects, human values have become determined by economic values. What is good for machines must be good for man - so goes the logic. Modern man thinks he loses something - time - when he does not do things quickly; yet he does not now what to do with the time he gains - except kill it.

In previous epochs of our own culture, or in China and India, the man most highly values was the person with outstanding spiritual qualities. Even the teacher was not only, or even primarily, a source of information, but his function was to convey certain human attitudes. In contemporary capitalistic society - and the same holds true for Russian Communism - the men suggested for admiration and emulation are everything but bearers of significant spiritual qualities.

--Erich Fromm