Monday, 27 March 2017

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselvesby Maria Popova, Brain Picking:
“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” 
But could what is true of the individual also be true of society - could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? 
And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?
That’s what the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 - March 18, 1980) explores in his timely 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library).
Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential - the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”
Erich Fromm
Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:
Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.”

In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:
We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.
Art by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn
Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:
We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over … society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.
Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.”

Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism - a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
One key source of that tension between sanity and insanity, Fromm argues, is our misconception of “human nature” as a single, static monolith, when in fact the nature of the human experience is varied and dynamic. In a sentiment which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert would echo half a century later in his famous aphorism that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Fromm writes:
Just as man* transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.
The most pernicious effect of any given social order, Fromm suggests, is that it breeds a culture of truth by consensus rather than truth by evidence, truth relative to collective opinion rather than absolute truth - the sort of relativism which Karl Popper memorably admonished is “a betrayal of reason and of humanity.”

In another passage of astounding pertinence today, as we witness a global groupthink elect destructive ideas to the status of truth and therefore power, Fromm observes something as true of religious delusions as it is of ruinous political ideologies:
What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health … the fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.
Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity
More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the individual vs. society, why we conform, and the power of the minority, Fromm writes:
For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work … there are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”
He considers what a sane society actually means:
A sane society is that which corresponds to the needs of man - not necessarily to what he feels to be his needs, because even the most pathological aims can be felt subjectively as that which the person wants most; but to what his needs are objectively, as they can be ascertained by the study of man. It is our first task then, to ascertain what is the nature of man, and what are the needs which stem from this nature.
A decade after Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization atop his foundational hierarchy of needs, Fromm illustrates our ultimate need as analogous to the development of children:
Physical birth, if we think of the individual, is by no means as decisive and singular an act as it appears to be … in many respects the infant after birth is not different from the infant before birth; it cannot perceive things outside, cannot feed itself; it is completely dependent on the mother, and would perish without her help. Actually, the process of birth continues. The child begins to recognize outside objects, to react affectively, to grasp things and to co-ordinate his movements, to walk. But birth continues. The child learns to speak, it learns to know the use and function of things, it learns to relate itself to others, to avoid punishment and gain praise and liking. Slowly, the growing person learns to love, to develop reason, to look at the world objectively. He begins to develop his powers; to acquire a sense of identity, to overcome the seduction of his senses for the sake of an integrated life. Birth then, in the conventional meaning of the word, is only the beginning of birth in the broader sense. The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die - although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.
Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being
A sane society, Fromm suggests, is one which helps the individual continually give birth to herself, whereas a society which is not sane stymies that ongoing rebirth and renders the individual in a state of alienation. He outlines the consequences:
The psychological results of alienation are [that] man regresses to a receptive and marketing orientation and ceases to be productive; that he loses his sense of self, becomes dependent on approval, hence tends to conform and yet to feel insecure; he is dissatisfied, bored, and anxious, and spends most of his energy in the attempt to compensate for or just to cover up this anxiety. His intelligence is excellent, his reason deteriorates and in view of his technical powers he is seriously endangering the existence of civilization, and even of the human race.
Reason deteriorates while their intelligence rises, thus creating the dangerous situation of equipping man with the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it. This alienation and automatization leads to an ever-increasing insanity. Life has no meaning, there is no joy, no faith, no reality.
Throughout history, Fromm observes, various thinkers have attempted to identify the root of alienation and to propose alternatives - while Marxists pointed to economic factors, thinkers like Tolstoy pointed to the spiritual and moral impoverishment of humanity. Fromm himself points to “robotism” - the mindless automation of our lives - as the seedbed of modern alienation, and proposes what he calls “humanistic democratic socialism” as the antidote. He writes:
The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes
Noting that the gravest dangers of his time - which are equally the dangers of our time - are war and robotism, Fromm offers his best recipe for a sane society:
[The alternative is] to get out of the rut in which we are moving, and to take the next step in the birth and self-realization of humanity. The first condition is the abolishment of the war threat hanging over all of us now and paralyzing faith and initiative. We must take the responsibility for the life of all men, and develop on an international scale what all great countries have developed internally, a relative sharing of wealth and a new and more just division of economic resources. This must lead eventually to forms of international economic co-operation and planning, to forms of world government and to complete disarmament. We must retain the industrial method. But we must decentralize work and state so as to give it human proportions, and permit centralization only to an optimal point which is necessary because of the requirements of industry. In the economic sphere we need co-management of all who work in an enterprise, to permit their active and responsible participation. The new forms for such participation can be found. In the political sphere, return to the town meetings, by creating thousands of small face-to-face groups, which are well informed, which discuss, and whose decisions are integrated in a new “lower house.” A cultural renaissance must combine work education for the young, adult education and a new system of popular art and secular ritual…
Holding up what he calls “humanistic communitarianism” as our only hope for protecting ourselves from the alienation of robotism, Fromm writes:
Man can protect himself from the consequences of his own madness only by creating a sane society which conforms with the needs of man, needs which are rooted in the very conditions of his existence. A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.
Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not that between Capitalism or Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and the communist variety), or Humanistic Communitarian Socialism. Most facts seem to indicate that he is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope. But, indeed, the shadows are lengthening; the voices of insanity are becoming louder. We are in reach of achieving a state of humanity which corresponds to the vision of our great teachers; yet we are in danger of the destruction of all civilization, or of robotization. A small tribe was told thousands of years ago: “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse - and you chose life.” This is our choice too.
Complement Fromm’s stimulatingly sane-making The Sane Society with H.L. Mencken on reclaiming democracy from the mob mentality that masquerades for it and Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, then revisit Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism.

Friday, 3 March 2017

TimeBanking: A Revolutionary Model for Building Community Resilience
by Bailey Mead, Praxis Managing Editor:

In this new political climate which brings daily assaults to the vitality of our communities and the safety and well-being of ourselves and our neighbors, knowing who you can trust and who you can call on feels more important than ever before.

We’ve seen our neighbors terrorized in recent weeks by ICE raids and the Muslim Ban during just the first month of the Trump administration. In this time when many may be afraid to take bold actions to protect their neighbors, it is imperative to build solidarity between communities, and especially with immigrant communities.

We need each other, but what if we don’t know each other? Or maybe we know each other, but how do we begin to work together?

Our survival requires active resistance, but our future requires us to simultaneously build resilience and create sustainable new ways of being that allow all of us to live and thrive. We know that effective resistance requires connection, and connection helps build resilience. So how do we truly connect?

TimeBanks, an alternative currency model that helps create strong community relationships, are active in at least 34 countries throughout the world. TimeBanking reinforces the inherent and equal value of every person and allows people to access services they might not otherwise afford. It is not bartering, which is subject to income tax, but rather a circle of giving or a skill exchange.

A TimeBank consists of members who agree to exchange services - individuals, organizations and businesses can all be members. You do something for someone else for an hour and you earn an hour time credit to spend later on a service from anyone in the TimeBank.

For example, if you drive someone to the airport, you earn an hour of credit, which you can then spend by having someone mow your lawn. That person who mowed your lawn will also earn an hour credit and can spend it getting their computer fixed. TimeBanks foster a culture and cycle of ongoing reciprocity; the concept is simple but the implications are huge.

Circles of Giving Image courtesy of Timebanks USA

Our ancestors knew that cooperation and exchange were essential to health and survival, but the legacy of colonialism, capitalism and racism has left us so isolated from each that we often don’t even know our neighbors.

Building on this ancestral knowledge about the strength of community and the work of 19th century socialists who introduced time-based currencies, Edgar Cahn, former legal counsel and speechwriter to Robert F. Kennedy, formalized the idea of TimeBanking in his book, Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Hidden Resource-Time-Into Personal Security & Community Renewal, a book co-authored with Jonathan Rowe in 1992.

He also introduced five core values of TimeBanking in his book, No More Throwaway People:
  • Asset: Every one of us has something of value to share with someone else.
  • Redefining Work: There are some forms of work that money will not easily pay for, like building strong families, revitalizing neighborhoods, making democracy work, advancing social justice. Time credits were designed to reward, recognize and honor that work.
  • Reciprocity: Helping that works as a two-way street empowers everyone involved - the receiver as well as the giver. The question: “How can I help you?” needs to change so we ask: “Will you help someone too?”  Paying it forward ensures that, together, we help each other build the world we all will live in.
  • Social Networks: Helping each other, we reweave communities of support, strength and trust. Community is built by sinking roots, building trust, creating networks. By using timebanking, we can strengthen and support these activities.
  • Respect: Respect underlies freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and everything we value. Respect supplies the heart and soul of democracy. We strive to respect where people are in the moment, not where we hope they will be at some future point.
I first learned about TimeBanking almost a decade ago when I met Kim Hodge, former labor organizer and Executive Director of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks. I worked at the Area Agency on Aging and she wanted to explore the possibility of integrating a TimeBank into the aging services network in southeast Michigan.

While that particular TimeBank never got any traction, I was intrigued by the concept and the possibilities for my own Southwest Detroit neighborhood, home to a large immigrant population where the average household income is lower than the rest of Detroit.

I was involved in our community garden and knew many of the neighbors on my own block, but didn’t know many of them well. Our Hubbard Farms neighborhood had an email listserv where we shared information about everything from local crime and negligent suburban landlords to cultural events, politics, and annual strolling dinners. We were connected, but at least in my case, I didn’t feel like we had meaningful relationships.

Kim knew another woman in my neighborhood who was interested in starting a TimeBank. The three of us met and very slowly began to organize the Southwest Detroit TimeBank in 2009, which is now called Unity in Our Community and has grown to 690 members.

The beginning was slow, full of stops and starts, but it wasn’t long before we assembled a “Kitchen Cabinet” to lead the TimeBank. We elected a treasurer and a secretary, collected $20 from each person to print business cards, put up a website, and subscribed to hOurworld, software specifically designed to track TimeBank hours.

In hOurworld, members can set up profile pages and list offers and requests, which can be scrolled through by other members. When someone offers to perform a service, the two members negotiate how it will be done and how much time it is likely to take. In order to assure accountability, the member performing the service logs the time, and the member receiving the service has to approve it before the time credit is transferred from one account to the other. If the service has not been performed as expected or did not take as much time as the giver indicated, they can negotiate how to make it right.

However, because the nature of TimeBank transactions are relational rather than consumerist, problems like this rarely arise. When they do, the TimeBank leadership is there to help mediate the situation.

Lathrup Village TimeBank members working in the Lathrup Village Children’s Garden. Image courtesy of MI Alliance of TimeBanks

Instead, when starting the Southwest Detroit TimeBank, we found ourselves faced with other challenges. It turns out that people have a really hard time asking for and accepting help. While we had many offers, we had very few takers.

On top of that, when a TimeBank first begins, there are typically only a handful of members so the offers are not very diverse. In our case, all of our original members had to commit to taking each other up on one or two offers every week so that we could begin to earn time credits and get experience TimeBanking.

To help us grow, we also employed another common practice in TimeBanking, allowing members to earn credit for attending meetings, handing out flyers or recruiting new members. We began holding group events and inviting neighbors.

We held a BBQ at the park and a group painting party at the home of two retired nuns, both Kitchen Cabinet members, and together painted the walls of their entryway and front room. Another member offered Mexican cooking classes. These kinds of group projects gave us opportunities to introduce new people to our TimeBank and we slowly began to grow.

Within a few years, the TimeBank had grown to 150 members, which is the number recommended for a group with enough diversity in skills to keep people engaged. Bridging Communities, a nonprofit serving seniors in Southwest Detroit, agreed to host the TimeBank and dedicate staff time to it. This made all the difference for our future.

Finding a host organization is an important step for sustainability with any TimeBank. It not only makes it possible to seek grant funding, but because volunteer leaders eventually tire out or move on, a paid staff position insures consistency and stability.

In 2012, when I moved across the state to Kalamazoo, I sought out the small local TimeBank, but it ceased to operate soon after I arrived. Like many volunteer-run start-ups, a short life span is common, and it is the reason that the MI Alliance of Timebanks exists: to offer support, training and connection to TimeBanks and to share best practices for start-ups.

Fortunately, the Unity in Our Community TimeBank has continued to grow and make a tangible difference in members’ lives. For example, a mechanic joined the time bank, making car repairs accessible to those who might otherwise be stranded in a city with unreliable public transportation.

Members also recently helped Musid Ali rebuild his house after his family of twelve survived a house fire as a result of arson. These are just a couple examples of the more than 25,000 hours members have exchanged with each other since the TimeBank began. Early on, the neighborhood health clinic joined, creating the possibility for uninsured and/or undocumented members to access health care using time credits, but I was disappointed to learn that they never became a fully active member in the TimeBank.

Pontiac SUN TimeBank members removing old carpeting from a member’s home. Image courtesy of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks

TimeBanks can be a way of meeting basic needs, but they can also be a way of building skills. Say you have always wanted to start a catering service, but you want to give it a try before launching a business. You could offer to cater a party or teach a cooking class and see how you like it. Or maybe you have always wanted to learn Spanish. You can spend your time credits taking classes or being tutored by another member.

An especially humanizing aspect of TimeBanking is the common agreement that everyone’s hour has the same value, and that people of all ages and abilities are valued equally. A physician’s hour spent performing a physical exam is worth the same as a child’s hour spent pulling dandelions from someone’s lawn. An accountant’s time spent preparing taxes is worth the same as someone’s time spent returning bottles for refunds. All work is valued equally, based on a negotiation between giver and receiver. This redefinition of work breaks down class constructs and turns the capitalist idea of work on its head.

Another benefit is that TimeBanks value the contributions of senior citizens. In a society that assigns human value to a person’s ability to produce, older adults are burdened with a diminished perception of their worth. When this is internalized in combination with social isolation, and a decreased physical ability to perform household work, many elders succumb to depression and illness.

In a TimeBank, the inherent value and wisdom of our elders can be received and valued while allowing them to access necessary services they can no longer physically perform themselves. For example, they can teach skills like knitting or reading in exchange for window washing, oven cleaning, or home repairs. It may even be possible to earn and save time credits as a way of preparing for retirement.

Beyond members exchanging services with each other, TimeBanks are responding in creative ways to local needs and connecting members in personal ways to global issues. The Pontiac Sun TimeBank in Pontiac, Michigan is working on an innovative project with the local hospital.

“Many patients need follow-up care after being discharged from the hospital,” Kim Hodge explained. “Whether this is a ride home, shopping and cooking, or friendly calls to check on them, TimeBank members can provide those services.” She also said, “A member of the Lathrup Village TimeBank whose relatives were being killed in Syria offered a class to educate other members about what was happening there.”

Unity in Our Community TimeBank members teaching a Yemeni 
breadmaking class. Image courtesy of MI Alliance of TimeBanks

Perhaps the most powerful reason for TimeBanking is the real strength and safety in knowing and trusting your neighbors. It takes vulnerability and openness to let someone help you, and the reward is getting to really know and trust each other. In my case, I was reluctant to let strangers into my home. So, if I didn’t know someone, I began by asking for help with things like mowing the lawn or teaching me something at the local coffeehouse. Also, as an introvert, I found that it took real effort to interact with new people, but it was well worth it. At the very least, people who know each other are less afraid of each other, less likely to call the police on each other, and less likely to vote and act against each other’s interests.

On a practical level, you know who to call when your car battery is dead or you want to borrow a tool. At best, you build nurturing relationships and begin to work together to make your neighborhood and your community becomes a better place. For instance, in the Unity in Our Community TimeBank, members can earn time credits for working with Welcoming Michigan, an immigrant rights organization.

For every benefit of TimeBanking, there are questions about things like liability, reliability, and trustworthiness. Hodge says, “TimeBanks just don’t attract the kinds of people that are looking to pull one over on anyone. You have to do your own gut-check, just like you would if you were hiring anyone to come into your home and perform a service. In the years that the MI Alliance of TimeBanks has been in operation, we have not heard of a single issue with liability.”

She said, “the single biggest challenge is keeping people engaged and in the habit of asking each other for help. Most successful TimeBanks have a dedicated organizer who knows the members and reaches out to make matches between people’s offers and requests.”

These are just a few of the possibilities and examples of TimeBanking, but communities across the globe are creating new ways to use this model every day. The time is ripe for finding ways to lessen our dependence on consumerism and strengthen our connection to each other. 

For more information on starting a TimeBank or to connect with an existing one in your area, visit hOurworld and TimeBanks USA.