How can critical theory explain why modern societies do not do more to fight poverty?

An analysis with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School

Essay, 2016

11 Seiten, Note: 1,0




1. The Social Character

2. The Socio-economic System
2.1 Capitalism in the industrial age
2.2 Capitalism in modern society

3. The Social Character and its relation to poverty
3.1 Self-interestedness
3.2 Alienation
3.3 Abstractification
3.4 Lack of Love




Poverty has always been a condition for many human beings throughout history. Advanced societies do not produce poverty, but they also do not make large efforts to overcome it. Today, still around one billion people live below the poverty line of US$ 1.90 per day (World Bank, 2016), although we technically have the resources to reduce this figure drastically (see e.g. Farmer, 2005). Capitalism promises increasing wealth and prosperity for everyone, but for many people this remains an empty promise. In this essay I will demonstrate how the critical theory of the Frankfurt school provides valuable reasons for why people in modern society do not make a larger effort to fight poverty. The protagonists of the Frankfurt school have focused in their writings on how 20th-century Western society fails to meet higher human needs such as freedom, love and a sense of identity. This essay, on the other hand, will explore why society fails to meet the very basic material needs of many people, such as shelter and food.

1. The Social Character

We will try to find an answer to the question of poverty with the help of the concept of the social character. Fromm defines the social character as “the blending of the individual psychical sphere and the socioeconomic structure” (Fromm, 2013, p. 115). The idea is that the socio-economic structure in a given society impacts its members’ characters in such a similar way that a common social character evolves. The social character fulfills an important societal function which is „to mold and channel human energy within a given society for the purpose of the continued functioning of his society“ (Fromm, 1990, p. 79). Human beings thus share a substantial part of character, which they choose not freely, but which is “molded by the demands of the world he has built with his own hands ” (Fromm, 1963, p. 96). In order to examine how our social character responds to the problem of poverty, I will first analyze the dominant socio-economic structure and the social character emerging from it.

2. The Socio-economic System

As this paper is dealing with an economic problem, I will focus mainly on the economic system as the social apparatus influencing our social characters. Capitalism is the dominant economic system in the Western world, and through globalization and international trade it has reached most parts of the earth. According to critical theory, the economic system today is not only one among other systems, but it absorbs most other systems, e.g. the cultural system (Fromm, 1990; Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002). Capitalism is characterized by Erich Fromm as an economic system in which markets regulate exchanges and determine prices. Its underlying assumption is that if each individual seeks to make profits, it will result in the greatest advantage to all (Fromm, 1990, p. 83). Economics, thus, it not merely a descriptive science, but a normative one that tells people what will be in their best interest. Acting self-interestedly is suggested to people as the best guiding principle, not only for themselves, but for the whole system, and hence for their fellow citizens. Selfishness becomes a virtue in capitalism, whereas altruism is regarded as useless or even waste.

Capitalism has legitimized itself through the concept of fairness. The market is claimed as a place of fair exchange, so that its results are per definition just. The idea of justice as fairness, i.e. that an outcome is just when it results from a fair process, has been pushed forward by leading political philosophers of the 20th century like John Rawls (2009) and Robert Nozick (see his Entitlement theory, 1974). It becomes reasonable for people to trust the market and to not worry about making false or unjust decisions: „If the market and the contract regulates relationships, there is no need to know what is right and what is wrong and good and evil“ (Fromm, 1990, p. 109).

2.1 Capitalism in the industrial age

Modern day capitalism, based on industry, mechanization and rationalization, differs substantially from capitalism in the 17th and 18th century. During this era, the economy was still subordinated to man as well as to Christian ethics. For example, competition was partly prevented by prohibitions against underselling, because it was seen as immoral (Fromm, 1990, p. 84). In modern capitalism, however, large-scale industry has switched the relationship between Man and machine: Man works for the apparatus, and not the apparatus for man. According to critical theorist Marcuse, technology has become a social process that humans do not control but form a part of: The influence of the apparatus on human beings has increased to a point where “the individual’s performance is motivated, guided and measured by standards external to him” (Marcuse, 1998, p. 45). Efficiency, the highest value in the economic system, has become the goal of rationality. Stepping out of the system becomes almost impossible, precisely because it seems irrational. To be best off and achieve their goals, molded by the system, the best way for people is to follow the system. The loss of individualistic, critical rationality to technological rationality lies at the heart of critical theory (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002; Marcuse, 1998).

According to Fromm, adopting a frame of orientation is deeply human. The question is whether we remain in a productive relationship with it, or whether it becomes an idol that we submit to (Fromm, 1990, p. 66). The capitalist economic system as the dominant apparatus of modern Western society has become in idol out of our control. It controls us.

2.2 Capitalism in modern society

There are two further characteristics of capitalism specific to the period since the 20th century, which are necessary to understand when dealing with the social character of our time. First, a number of giant companies have emerged which dominate markets and leave smaller enterprises with little chance of survival (Marcuse, 1998, p. 43). Today, this issue has only become more relevant with companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and large banks controlling large parts of the economic system all over the world. This phenomenon has further abolished the “free economic subject” which is actively engaged with his products (Marcuse, 1998, p. 43). In most cases, neither the many shareholders, nor the often-changing managers, nor the many workers are personally connected with their enterprise and its products. Large companies increase alienation to the economic system.

Second, consumerism has become more significant. Whereas people in the 19th century emphasized saving and hoarded property, the fast economic system of today requires rapid spending and consumption (Fromm, 1990, p. 108). Modern capitalism needs people like robots, without their own convictions and easily influenced. The apparatus has grown to run itself and does not need active entrepreneurs, but receptive workers and consumers. Without force the system tries to manipulate people, or as Adlai Stevenson says: “we’re not in danger of becoming slaves anymore, but of becoming robots” (quoted in Fromm, 1990, p. 102).

3. The Social Character and its relation to poverty

Now that we have established characteristics of the economic system, we can look at how exactly it shapes the social character, and how this relates to people’s dealing with the poverty of others.

3.1 Self-interestedness

First, and most obvious, the social character in capitalist society is self-interested. As I said earlier, the economic system makes us believe that selfishness is best for us and for the society. Spinoza already pointed out that we view greedy behavior of people only caring about their own wealth as sane and comprehensible (in Fromm, 1990, p. 16). Furthermore, if everyone behaves this way, selfishness can create a sense of unity among people. Paradoxically, acting altruistically then seems to be harmful regarding social relationships. Self-interest obviously leads people to care about themselves only, ignoring suffering of other human beings. The more selfish a person’s character, the less likely he is to make an effort against poverty of others.


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How can critical theory explain why modern societies do not do more to fight poverty?
An analysis with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School
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Leon Freytag (Autor:in), 2016, How can critical theory explain why modern societies do not do more to fight poverty?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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