For many years before Michel Foucault and Erich Fromm put forward their respective theories on social analysis, Karl Marx’s concepts on the contradiction between social classes based on the relations of production were dominant in providing theoretical and practical guidance of forces promoting social change. As a result, revolutions were waged by the forces of social change, which later on gave birth to the world’s biggest socialist countries, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China.
Other countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America followed suit, with leading revolutionary organizations also espousing basic Marxist doctrines. Due to the successes achieved by such revolutions, many sociologists and academics began accepting the correctness of Marxism and socialism as an alternative social system to capitalism. However, even before the 1950’s, major weaknesses in the socialist systems as practiced by the Soviet Union and China began to emerge. Such weaknesses led sociologists to reconsider their admiration of Marxism without necessarily compromising their stand for social change.
Erich Fromm, who belonged to the Frankfurt School which advocated the adaptation of Marxism to the realities of the 20th century, observed the excesses of the Soviet Union under Stalin and became critical of the model of social change advocated by the Soviets as well as radical socialist revolutionaries. Michel Foucault, on the other hand, who was a member of the French Communist Party, became disillusioned with the party’s continuing support of the Soviet Union and with its position in France’s national politics.
Both Foucault and Fromm, at one point, considered themselves adherents to Marxist social analysis and its theory and practice of social change. This does not, however, mean that they can be compared to Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theoreticians in terms of strictly adhering to the concepts of dialectical materialism, socialist revolution, and communism as the ultimate objective. They upheld only essential part of Marxism that is characterized by humanism and its stand for progressive social change in order to achieve humanist concerns.
In doing so, both Fromm and Foucault managed to develop respectively their own distinct perspectives on the methods of analyzing society. Such theories were not truly devoid of Marxist elements but, nevertheless, these were meant to be applications of some of Marx’s ideas to the more contemporary social issues. Consequently, they also proposed novel concepts on how social change must be achieved, all of which essentially do not espouse violent revolutions or the authoritarian one-party state structure that socialism in practice has been known for.
Because of this, both Fromm and Foucault were criticized by Marxists and socialists even within the academic circles to which they belong. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison is a study on the social foundations and the theoretical concepts in the establishment of the modern prison systems. The study focuses on the Foucault’s observation and historical research on the development of the penal system in his native France. However, his findings and conclusions are proven to be relevant not just for his particular society alone but for all modern societies in Europe and North America.
Before Foucault came out with his ideas in Discipline and Punish, most of the conclusions regarding the development of the prison system were based on the notion that reformists within the state were decisive in introducing more humane forms of punishment. The reformists, allegedly, just happened to become more compassionate through time and had determined that criminals and other deviants should no longer be subjected with corporal punishments done in full view of the public.
Foucault argued that the invention of the prison was the decisive factor why such public corporal punishments were no longer the preferred mode of penalizing criminals. In this regard, he asserted on the idea that that it was not the government or the powerful bloc of people running it that grew the moral conscience which prompted them to discard corporal punishments but the introduction of a new form technology that allows disciplinary measures instead. Foucault cited the Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as the embodiment of such technological advance.
With this concept, he subscribed to the Marxist theory that man’s ideas are not independent of material objects but is influenced by it. Here lies the essence of Foucault’s view on social change; that it cannot be achieved merely because man’s ideas willed it but that it should be based on material conditions. Foucault explained that society is itself a prison. He wrote that “prison continues, on those who are entrusted to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline” (Discipline and Punish).
With the state above it and with the existence of different forms of hierarchies in schools, churches, and organizations, society is essentially held together by a structure of disciplines. Because of this, it is necessary for penal systems to be established in order for society to survive. Without it, there will be chaos that can lead to the disintegration of society itself. To this effect, it appears that Foucault is an apologist for the existence of prisons or the maintenance of status quo.
In his book, he pointed out that “in its function, the power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating” (Discipline and Punish). Thus, he insisted that the state is necessary. The coercive apparatuses of the government must be maintained. This does not, however, mean that Foucault had departed from the progressive standpoint of social change. He explained that it prisons are indispensable facilities but these are also subject to changes.
However, such changes should not lead to the elimination of the prison system but to the improvement of its conditions in order to make it more effective in disciplining and rehabilitating the incarcerated. Since society is like prison, it is clear that Foucault advocate social change but not the extent of destroying the state and ultimately the concept of modern society itself. For him, the key to social change is clearly not revolutionary cataclysm but discourse. Intellectual discourse is the venue in which social issues are addressed and solutions that encourage the transformation of society are achieved.
He placed emphasis on the importance of intellectuals in social change, whose work is “is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play)” (Green 1997 p. vii). Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, which came out in 1941, was influential in introducing a new perspective on analyzing society.
While most of the earlier methods of social analysis were based on observations of human interaction within a society, Fromm focused on the psychological and philosophical aspects of individuals. Consequently, his analysis on society is primarily dependent of the individual’s mental and moral state and not on the structures or hierarchies in the political, economic, and cultural spheres. In this sense, he deviates from the Marxist theory that man’s ideas are shaped by forces beyond his subjective control.
In Escape from Freedom, Fromm explained that man is inherently an advocate of his own freedom but he also seeks a particular order or hierarchy of power that would guarantee the advancement or the defense of such freedom. While he was critical of capitalism, he was also disillusioned with the socialist alternative as practiced by the Soviet Union. Because of this, he found the medieval societies more beneficial towards man than either capitalism or socialism. He articulated that medieval societies were indeed inadequate in providing freedom to the individual along contemporary definitions but then the individual was also not alienated.
Instead, “in having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt…There was comparatively little competition” (Escape from Freedom). Fromm believed that people did not sense any form of exploitation or oppression during the medieval era because an individual “was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy” (Escape from Freedom).
It is clear Fromm places so much emphasis on the human being’s psychological factor in analyzing society and even in achieving social change. Contrary to Marx who stressed on the conflict or hatred between social classes and the inevitability of social transformation through revolutions, Fromm stated that “love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence” (Art of Loving 1956 p. 133). In elucidating about freedom, he wrote in Escape from Freedom that human beings naturally desire freedom but they also fear it so much.
The excesses in the capitalist culture are proofs how such abuse of freedom has become detrimental to society. Because of this, Fromm does see the necessity of social change. However, his eclectic mix religious eastern and western religious mysticism with social critique has resulted into a standpoint for social change without the necessary concrete exposition on how this can be achieved. Both Michel Foucault and Erich Fromm stood for the necessity of social change. However, they differ in the means of analyzing society. Foucault based his on the premise of power relations in society while Fromm on the innate human nature of freedom and love.
Foucault considers the material structures as the principal factors that affect social change. Fromm, on the other hand, points out that it is the will of human beings that is decisive. What is common to both, however, is the necessity for dialogue. Foucault sees the importance of intellectual discourse in order for social reforms to be initiated. For Fromm, such dialogues are necessary so that men will come to agree on the vital changes that should be achieved. For the left, however, especially the Marxists from which they were associated in their earlier years, both are reformists or even conformists.
For them, the theories of Foucault and Fromm only serve as an excuse for the continuation of the status quo. References Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish. Retrieved 12 May, 2010. http://www. sparknotes. com/philosophy/disciplinepunish. Fromm, E. (1956). The Art of Loving. New York, NY: Harper. Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from Freedom. Retrieved 12 May, 2010. http://www. scholierenliefde. nl/Frommenglisch. html. Green, R. L. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London, UK: Routledge.
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