Monday, August 29, 2011

Anonymous Authority

Every so often I run across something (usually in a book) that expresses perfectly thoughts that have remained rather unformed in my consciousness. I have just picked up A.S. Neill's Summerhill and have begun reading the Foreword, which was written by the socialist humanist Erich Fromm. Neill's book was published in 1961.

Here is what Fromm has to say about "our modern industrial society":

The change from the overt authority of the nineteenth century to the anonymous authority of the twentieth was determined by the organizational needs of  our modern industrial society. The concentration of capital led to the formation of giant enterprises managed by hierarchically organized bureaucracies. Large conglomerations of workers and clerks work together, each individual a part of a vast organized production machine, which in order to run at all, must run smoothly and without interruption. The individual worker becomes merely a cog in this machine. In such a production organization, the individual is managed and manipulated.

And in the sphere of consumption (in which the individual allegedly expresses his free choice) he is likewise managed and manipulated. Whether it be the consumption of food, clothing, liquor, cigarettes, movies, or television programs, a powerful suggestion apparatus is at work with two purposes: first, to constantly increase the individual's appetite for new commodities; and secondly, to direct these appetites into the channels most profitable for industry. Man is transformed into the consumer, the eternal suckling, whose one wish is to consume more and "better" things.


It is not that authority has disappeared, or even that it has lost its strength, but that it has been transformed from the overt authority of force to the anonymous authority of persuasion and suggestion. In other words, in order to be adaptable, modern man is obliged to nourish the illusion that everything is done with his consent, even though such consent be extracted from him by subtle manipulation. His consent is obtained, as it were, behind his back, or behind his consciousness.

This manipulation has been going on for so long now that the corporations have become country-sized economies, and the gap between rich and poor in the so-called industrialized countries and in the post-industrial economies has become nothing less than obscene. The question I ask is whether the manipulation of which Fromm speaks really does take place "behind our consciousness" and if it does, are we then victims of the system or are we responsible for a condition that has been facilitated by our own narrow consciousness?

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