Rich Man, Poor Man

January 17, 1984

Rich Man, Poor Man

A Review of Paul Wachtel’s The Poverty of Affluence

By Alfie Kohn

Psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm had a talent for making other thinkers angry. In part it may have been a function of his personality (B.F. Skinner in his autobiography described Fromm as an irritating know-it-all), but it is the substance of his writings that infuriated critics from Herbert Marcuse to Harvey Cox, from Otto Fenichel to Paul Goodman. Fromm might be called a “synthetic revisionist”: He tried to integrate the lessons of Marx and Freud, and in so doing he reformed the work of each. This endeavor earned him the wrath of both orthodox Marxists and orthodox Freudians — and especially those who belonged to both camps.

Fromm was impatient with social scientists, particularly Marxist social scientists, whose description of the hu­man condition omitted the individual self. He also criticized psychologists, particularly Freudians, who focused on the person devoid of social context. His own critical theory did not seek a happy medium so much as try to locate the self in a world. To understand social and economic forces required a psychology, but the psychology had to be one that addressed relationships. And for those interested in change (as he was), mental health was inextricably bound up with social well-being. “The analysis of love is social criticism,” he wrote in a critique of Marcuse.

We may be able to ignore Fromm’s message for certain problems, remaining exclusively within the realm of politics here, or intrapsychic analysis there. But some issues cry out for his synthetic style. One such issue is economic growth — the “need” to earn more, produce more, and generally make bigger numbers this year than last. Economists and psychoanalysts talk two different languages. What is needed is the recog­nition that our appetite for more com­modities (and, collectively, for a higher GNP) has as much to do with vulner­ability and identity as with purchasing power or ineluctable market forces. Yet this analysis of issues close to the self must not lose sight of the social field.

Paul Wachtel, a professional psycholo­gist and an amateur economist, presents just such an analysis — one located squarely in the tradition of Fromm and other neo-Freudians. In The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life (Free Press), he offers a readable polemic on the problem of wanting more. His twofold task is to show that economic forces are rooted in attitudes (thus, that psychology is relevant) and that some traditions within psychology are too individualistic in their orientation to be of any help. To social scientists, then, he says: “Without a change in values…political and institutional changes will…leave the basic structure of life unchanged.” And: “At the root of our present malaise…is our tendency to try to use economics to solve what are really psychological problems.” But with his fellow psychologists — not only Freudians but also humanists like Abraham Maslow — his emphasis is on the need for a “view of ‘inner’ experience that understands experience in terms of the real interactions in which the person is engaged.”

Wachtel’s argument, which is laid out in admirably straightforward fashion, will be of interest to anyone who feels he or she needs to be making more money. But it is especially relevant to those on the left. Specifically, his dual emphasis is directed at two influential factions seek­ing social change: economists and radical Freudians.

It is not surprising that Reaganauts and trickle-downers swear by economic growth. It is unsettling that economists from Lester Thurow leftward share this goal and differ only on how best to achieve it. Wachtel offers the refreshing heresy that economic growth plus an equitable reapportionment of wealth does not equal satisfaction. First, he argues, growth entails enormous social costs (like poisoning ourselves). Second, the consumers who allegedly benefit from affluence are also the producers whose lives are impoverished by the ceaseless demand for more. Finally, our needs are actually psychological-existen­tial in nature: They are rooted in the evaporation of both community and a secure source of identity. Improvement in the “bottom line” not only fails to address these needs but creates an addiction to things material. It’s like drinking salt water to quench a thirst: The more you have, the more you have to have. (This circle is not only similar to the vicious circles that characterize neurosis — it’s partly explicable in terms of them.)

Getting everyone a job and enough io eat is a compelling goal; I don’t mean to dismiss its importance, and neither does Wachtel. But beyond subsistence, the true role played by economic growth is in­visible to many radical eco­nomists. As a result, they fail not only as psychologists (which is, after all, not their profession) but as social critics. They even fail at their own game, undermining their cogency as economists by misunderstanding the dynamics of things economic.

Take Ronald Reagan’s classic 1980 debate challenge: “Ask yourself whether you’re better off today than you were four years ago.” This ploy was effective and is sure to be used by economics-minded politicians this year — against Reagan. But Wachtel’s contribution to the discussion is much more trenchant. Why is it, he asks in effect, that our answer will almost always be no, ir­respective of the objective state of the economy? (Real per capita income rose 28 percent during the 1970s.) More important, “better off” in what way? To answer the second question is to answer the first. “So long as we persist in defining well-being pre­dominantly in economic terms and in relying on economic con­siderations to provide us with our primary frame of reference for personal and social policy deci­sions, we will remain un­satisfied,” he says.

For most Marxists, the problem is that resources are in the wrong hands, and the solution lies in the discipline of political economy. For Wachtel, any purely econom­ic solution will fail to recognize the psychological underpinnings of the problem and thus will only perpetuate it. Economists, along with most of the rest of us, need to recognize that now-trite characterizations of our culture as overly materialistic were on the mark, “Faced with the loneliness and vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encom­passing community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our possessions.” In­deed, the New York Times’ R.W. Apple, back for a tour of the States after being in London for several years, wrote last month that “the average American still seems to me to be able to afford more, even in recession, than his counterpart anywhere else. Whether Americans have as good a life is another matter.” The disparity between material goods and quality of life has never been greater, and The Poverty of Af­fluence is a fine guide through the intricacies of that disparity.

Note that Wachtel’s identifi­cation of psychological forces that lead us to want more things is really an identification of psy­chosocial forces. He insists on a psychology that takes account of social milieu, and so his book belongs on the same shelf with

Harry Stack Sullivan’s almost Buberian emphasis on the inter-human as the locus of human development, Karen Horney’s treatment of growth and self-alienation, and, of course, Fromm’s discussions of meaning and freedom in their social con­text. These neo-Freudians re­jected Freud’s mechanistic de­terminism, his view that people (like all other organisms) prima­rily seek to lower tension, and his reduction of human complexity to basic biological forces. But they also objected to Freud’s un­conscious forces as being mostly independent of the world. Ac­cording to this model, Fromm wrote, “man is primarily un­related to others and is only secondarily forced — or seduced — into relationships with others.”

Wachtel’s affirmation of the neo-Freudian position is tan­tamount to a criticism of several other traditions: orthodox psy­choanalysis (whose partisans look upon the revisionists rather as Jerry Falwell regards Unitari­ans) as well as much of the human-potential movement. Wachtel finds in the latter the same individualistic world view that limited Freud: “Notions of psychological growth are at once an alternative to the destructive features of our culture and but one more expression of them.”

But there is one more group that comes in for criticism: the radical Freudians. Surprisingly, the orthodox psychoanalysts have found themselves in the same primal bed with a group of Marxists who see in Freud’s thought the potential for a radical social criticism. This position is found in Paul Goodman and Norman 0. Brown; most recently it has been articulated by Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia and, this year, The Repression of Psy­choanalysis), Juliet Mitchell (Psy­choanalysis and Feminism), and Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism). These writers have argued that the neo-Freud­ians are not intellectually rigor­ous enough, and that in any case they are liberal reformists rather than bona fide socialist critics. Even if such arguments have merit, they do not demonstrate that unreconstructed Freu­dianism is a promising basis for a theory of social change. Social transformation can’t be expected to do much against the force of instinctually derived neuroses. In fact, Freud sets up an ir­remediable conflict between na­ture and culture, noting at one point that “aggressiveness was not created by property.”

Wachtel’s neo-Freudian bias offers a mostly tacit rejoinder to the radical Freudians, but he reserves one chapter for Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, which in his view combines all the intellectual shabbiness of bad journalism with all the pretentiousness of academic scholarship. Lasch’s favorite technique, as Wachtel sees it, is to blur several lines of thought — often reducing them to straw men in the process —and then disparage them with loaded language. That is the extent of his treatment of leftist educational critics, self-aware­ness groups, and much else. Those who don’t like what Lasch likes have a “fear” of it; those who like what Lasch doesn’t like a “fascination” or “preoccupation” with it. Wachtel not only calls Lasch on the substitution of rhetoric for argument but skewers the man’s self-styled radicalism. “With enemies like this,” he comments, “capitalism doesn’t need friends.”

Wachtel’s challenge to the economists on the one hand and the Freudians on the other re­solves into a two-part solution: a psychology rescued from its crip­pling infatuation with in­dividualism and a decentralized democratic socialism that empowers citizens rather than simp­ly spreading around the VCRs. If Wachtel’s dream is realized, there may be fewer VCRs produced, but fewer people will want them — after all, attitudes will be changed along with economic circum­stance. It’s true that his portrait of the new society is fuzzy; as with Marx, there is more indictment than blueprint. More serious, though, is his failure to achieve a Frommian synthesis. The de­mands of offering two briefs at once, one emphasizing the pri­macy of values over social struc­tures and one underlining the need for psychology to be con­cerned with social structures, leads to confusion. On which level do we break the cycle and initiate change? Wachtel acknowledges the problem, but his call for a “multifaceted effort” that addresses both individuals and institutions falls short. Most of the book is concerned with one or the other; there is very little on how to effect the proper methodological and practical integration.

I have other complaints — Wachtel’s disorganization, his tendency to skim, his occasional cuteness — but also a great liking for The Poverty of Affluence. Wachtel is a good thinker and an honest one; he has the in­telligence to anticipate objections and the integrity to acknowledge their merits. And his earnestness helps to mitigate the melodrama of his message. Which is just right, since we need to be re­minded of the seriousness of our plight (“We continue to insist on ‘more, more,’ while, like a child’s tower of blocks to which too much has been added, the entire edifice sways menacingly”) in a tone that will not discourage.

It is, of course, not only the economists who need to under­stand the limitations of economic growth and the hollowness of what Marx called “commodity fetishism.” Neither is it only the psychologists who need to per­ceive the inadequacy of a model that places the individual in a vacuum. These issues are ad­dressed to all of us, because they concern assumptions that have suffused all of our lives. Without so much as a single case history — an unprecedented instance of self-restraint for a psy­chotherapist author — Paul Wachtel has written a book that not only can but should be widely read.

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