How We Forgot the Art of Loving: There's No Room for True Love in the Age of the "Marketing Character", Who Trades on Emotions and Even Smiles. but We Were All Warned 50 Years Ago, Says Neil Clark

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This year on St Valentine's Day, it is estimated, we will spend in excess of [pounds sterling]40m on flowers, and send 15 million cards and more than 100 million text messages. Worldwide, more than $13bn will be spent. Global capitalism has done for St Valentine's Day, a relatively low-key event in the Christian calendar, what it had already achieved for Christmas, transforming it into a multimillion-dollar spendfest. Yet the very same forces that are so keen to promote the annual festival of love are largely responsible for the disintegration of love in our society.

This is not a topic with which many on the left have wished to engage. Far safer to discuss relative wage rates, constitutional reform and minor changes to the tax and benefit system than anything as fundamental as love. For a proper exposition of the most serious charge against the economic system we live under, we need to go back 50 years, to the writing of one of the most neglected yet prescient thinkers of the 20th century, Erich Fromm.

Fromm was a German psychoanalyst and social philosopher who fled his homeland when the Nazis came to power. He settled in the US, where he combined clinical practice with lecturing at Columbia University.

Most of his early work was about how totalitarian regimes come to be accepted and supported by the people. In The Fear of Freedom (1942), he argued that such regimes appeal to a deep-seated craving to escape from the freedom of the modern world and return to the womb. But Fromm was under no illusions about the society he had emigrated to. He was among the first to see that 20th-century capitalist democracies offered another form of escape from freedom.

In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm developed the ideas in Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents and argued that capitalist society, in which "consumption has become the de facto goal", was itself sick. He advanced his theory of social character: that "every society produces the character it needs".

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Early Calvinistic capitalism produced the "hoarding character", who hoards both possessions and feelings: the classic Victorian man of property. Postwar capitalism, Fromm argued, produced another, equally neurotic type: the marketing character, who "adapts to the market economy by becoming detached from authentic emotions, truth and conviction". For the marketing character "everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles". Such people are not able to care, "not because they are selfish, but because their relationship to each other and to themselves is so thin".

Global capitalism requires marketing characters in abundance and makes sure it gets them. Meanwhile, Fromm's ideal character type, the mature "productive character", the person without a mask, who loves and creates, and for whom being is more important than having, is discouraged.

In The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm identified five types of love, all of them under threat. Brotherly love, "which underlies all others", was undermined by the reduction of human beings to commodities. Motherly love was threatened by narcissism and possessiveness. Self-love, without which we cannot love others, was destroyed by selfishness. The love of God was regressing "to an idolatric concept of God". Finally, erotic love was debased by its separation from brotherly love and the absence of tenderness.

Fromm asked if "the social structure of western civilisation and the spirit arising from it are conducive to the development of love", and concluded that "to raise the question is to answer it in the negative".

He wrote The Art of Loving at a time of relatively benign, regulated capitalism. Fifty years on, contemporary, turbo-capitalist Britain amply confirms his belief that "a healthy economy is possible only at the price of unhealthy human beings". …