Fascism is as American as Henry Ford. And Donald Trump.
1. Anomalous and intrinsic
Why is it that Henry Ford is regarded as an intrinsic part of US history and industrial-economic processes but his demonstrably fascist politics are conventionally regarded as anomalous?
This is the question I keep turning around, because it raises issues that I think are crucial in analyses of fascism, both in history and today. What is post-Fordist fascism?
I don’t have an answer to my own question as yet. What I do have are scattered thoughts and notes that touch on this while reading commentary on Trump’s fascism, much of which has been bizarre (see notes 5 and 6).
Not all of that commentary has been annoying. If you prefer a quick read, I recommend this, over at Gavin’s Point of Production. It elegantly responds to exceptionalism arguments, from both angles (that of American exceptionalism and that fascism is exceptional). Also Justin Mueller‘s “Trumph of the Will: Taking Donald Trump’s Fascism Seriously,” with which I generally agree, but (for me) still leaves a question hanging.
2. Assembly-lines and the hotel-entertainment industry
Hitler called Henry Ford “My inspiration.” Not surprising, given passages in Mein Kampf were lifted from Ford’s steady stream of texts denouncing the Jewish conspiracy, most of them written before Hitler had become leader of the National Socialist party, many of them circulated in Europe, some of them on the ‘Jewish problem’ in Germany. Like Trump, Ford was a billionaire mogul. Like Trump, Ford had considered running for the US presidency. What there was of polling then put a prospective Ford presidency at around 35%, though no doubt the polling was undertaken as part of an effort to promote a possible run. I am unsure why Ford’s nomination never eventuated, but I leave that to the historians.
What interest me far more is what fascism means or would look like when it is not embedded within the seemingly paradoxical nexus of assembly-line efficiency and nationalist mysticism that shaped the ‘reactionary modernism’ of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism. What would the combination of nationalist myth and the affective labour processes of the entertainment industry mean for the politics and techniques of fascism. Here too I am unsure I have a ready answer, though I think we can begin to discern the shape of it.
Perhaps Trump’s fascist appeal is that he promises to make racist violence enjoyable and entertaining again. Perhaps this is where the shift between the assembly-line and the entertainment-hotel industry can be registered. I do not mean to diminish the importance of this point. The step between the labour camp and death camp was written in the language of an assembly-line efficiency ‘solution’ to a problem conjured up by productivist fantasies. I do mean to underline the importance of understanding the character and shape of fascist violence, including how it might change.
So rather than engage in protracted, faux-scholarly disputes over whether Trump is a fascist because fascism presumably (and ironically) has an unchanging essence (see note 5 below), this seems to me the more important question. And by ‘seemingly paradoxical’ I mean that the apparent contradictions between adherence to the foundational mysticism of a national essence (reproducible through sexuality and racialised properties) and the tenets of calculating reason are not a contradiction when understood as a dynamic of oikopolitics (see note 7 below).
3. Europe and its colonies
My view on fascism in history, briefly noted elsewhere recently, is that “European fascism has always taken its cues from the techniques of control and subjugation that were previously exported from Europe in the process of colonisation and wars of conquest.” There are no good reasons to accept the sway of methodological nationalism, Eurocentrism or the thesis of American exceptionalism – and many good reasons to not do so when seeking to understand fascism.
4. Fascism and the restoration of the demos
I do not think that democracy and fascism, or populism and fascism, are as distant as many might like to suppose, neither according to historical record nor in terms of political views and dynamics. This is not only because figures such as Hitler and Mussolini and the parties they represented came to power through constitutional means. Nor, though Mueller‘s piece is worth underlining, is it just a mistake to think of fascism as politically exceptional, “emerging out of nothing and returning to that nothing.” Though I agree that is a mistake. Fascism is often rendered inexplicable by opponents and shallow critics alike, thus extending its own mythology of the ineffable, foundational origins (or causes) of racist affection.
The fascist call to suspend democratic processes is not only a call to insurgency or revolution, as some have suggested. It is a call for the suspension of democracy or constitutionality so as to restore politics to its purportedly true and authentic order. The call to suspend so as to save and restore the true essence of the nation is integral to fascism. It is this dynamic that distinguishes fascism from other revolutionary movements, insurgencies or radicalism. So I partly agree with Steigmann-Gall:
When fascism departs from normal political methods, it does so to restore the prerogatives of the beleaguered, once-dominant majority — defined ethnically or racially — who believes that the nation is “slipping away” from them.
But, while nuanced by reference to the Oath Keepers, I think he overstates the existence of a paramilitary as the crucial criteria of analysis or definition. A fascist with no followers or no small army of goons is still a fascist. A fascist who has not been elected is still a fascist. A fascist who has not become fuhrer is still a fascist. Those things tell us something about how to respond, but they have no bearing on whether someone’s politics can accurately be described as fascistic. Moreover, if the point of arguments such as these is to not take fascism seriously unless there are identifiable ‘brownshirts,’ then surely by that point it is almost too late – and no one making these kinds of cartoonish arguments should be taken seriously when it comes to anti-fascism.
Still, I have no doubt that the Trump rallies in Alabama and so on were frequented by Klan, Oath Keepers and other groups prepared to resort to violence against anti-Trump protesters. But what is more important here than identification is the question of significance, and here, the way in which both Trump supporters and Trump himself has already responded to questions about violence is crucial. And this is the reason to be concerned in a sustained way – irrespective of whether Trump succeeds in winning the nomination or presidency, this incitement to and unqualified embrace of overt racist violence has already extended beyond Trump.
Elsewhere, Berlet’s suggestion that the term ‘fascism’ should be reserved for those who want to “restore the Third Reich” is as superficial and misplaced as the suggestion that Trump is not a fascist because Trump is not “a European import.” Well, the United States is a European import. ‘Nativism’ is a European import. Methodological nationalism is no more able to offer a critical view of fascism than it can offer historical accuracy. The links between Henry Ford and European fascism being a case point.
As to this dynamic of suspension-restoration, Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is accompanied by the message that
We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. … but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.
If that is not clear enough, the abolition of birthright citizenship (which both Trump and Cruz have hinted might just be a temporary measure until some vague moment) is indeed a call for the temporary suspension of the Fourteenth Amendment in the US Constitution so as to, well, “Make America Great Again,” no?
5. Where commentators dismiss suggestions of fascism through recourse to faux-scientific essences
There are ironies in abundance. To assert that fascism is never Anglophone, as many (Anglophone) Leftists are inclined to tacitly do, is ironic to say the least. The distinction being drawn between ‘racist populism’ and fascism is a faux-intellectual version of this assertion. Even Aristotle – though not the Medieval Scholars perhaps – thought that the use of taxonomies in matters of politics did not furnish anything like an objective knowledge.
Similarly ironic, then, is the insistence on deriving a definition of fascism, its presumably eternal and unchanging essence, from the comparison of past instances. This may well be the conventional method of comparative sociology, but it is also the method from which the concept of race was derived. It is not a method that contemporary biology (or any science) uses, so why use it as a sociological or philosophical method for discussing (let alone analyzing) fascism? The number of commentators peddling their presumed expertise and scholarship on the basis of this recourse to classical taxonomy, and mostly so as to dismiss those who say that Trump is a fascist is, to be blunt, laughable and pathetic.
The implication that any politics will always exhibit the same features, even though we already know that German National Socialism differed from Italian fascism for instance, everywhere and forever is not just superficial and ironic though. It is ahistorical and essentialist – ie, mythic – in the extreme.
6. Where the opportunists read history, poorly
As with the above, debates over whether Trump is or is not a fascist tend to illustrate some seriously odd ideas about what counts as a reasoned argument or analysis. It’s difficult to take people seriously when they use criteria such as “no brownshirts” or the (non-)existence of mass parties, “backward agrarian sectors,” or any other costume or socio-economic metric culled from the 1930s. This is not an analysis. It is the worst kind of history, the succession of facts, presented as if they served as explanations of anything. From those who confuse the calculus of their own groupuscule’s political opportunities with analysis, there’s the ‘if the US ruling class don’t support undemocratic measures’ this implies that Trump is not a fascist and we should not be distracted from the ‘real fight’ against the Democrats. This is not an argument that Trump is not a fascist. It tells us that the intended reader/recruit of this argument is, according to its author, perceived as being incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. Enough said.
7. Fascism and the oikos
As per the conventions of Western philosophy, democracy is the rule of equality whereas the oikos is a space of a natural, or qualitative hierarchy (or domestic tyranny). Fascism has always taken place within democracies. This is the problem for those who attempt to define it as if the call for an exception means it is indeed exceptional and anomalous. Yet fascism is what happens when the norms of the rule of the demos are violently suspended by the hierarchical rules of the oikos so as to restore the equality among those who are deemed to be rightfully equal by nature.
Fascism is what happens when ‘domestic violence’ goes public and political, is justified through elaborate forms of victim-blaming and an inverted view of victimisation, enjoyed and encouraged without limit, spills out from the privatised spaces of the home and into the streets, or halls, restoring the purportedly true order and measure of things, the balance between and separation of qualitative rankings (construed as race, gender) and a quantitative equality where ‘all men are born equal.’
It is not possible to explain fascism as if this were the expression of a single individual. But nor is it possible to understate the importance of a singular figure who seemingly floats outside and above ‘regular politics’ and, at the same time, in that singularity represents an indivisible, unmediated political-affective connection between ‘a person’ and ‘a people’ (or demos). The brutal father-fuhrer is pivotal to fascism’s conflation between nation and family, the figure that promises to restore the mythical coherence of the polity when that unique coherence is perceived as endangered.
The difficulty that some have with seeing the fascism in Trump’s politics has little to do with whether or not Trump is a fascist. Obviously he is a fascist. It is that they have no concept of how racism, sexism, homophobia are part of the same processes and dynamics within capitalism – and, by implication, no theory of either Fordist capitalism in the 1930s, or the Trumpist capitalism of the early 21st century.
6 thoughts on “Fascism, from Fordism to Trumpism”
Donald Trump is a neo-fascist whose political ideas – particularly those relating to immigrants and the followers of the prophet Muhammad – certainly can be characterized as “fascist”. Yet he belongs to a political party which is not a fascist party, but a simple conservative capitalist party. The public repudiation of Trump’s more repulsive political ideas by the leading candidates of the Republican Party indicate that his political “philosophy” places him outside of the mainstream of conservative Republican political thought. The Republican party is the party of the big bourgeoisie in the United States and has been since its creation in the late 1850s. They’re not a fascist party – though they do contain a number of fascists and fascist-leaning people. Fascism is a political ideology founded on the petit-bourgeoisie (small proprietors) of the middle class. Trump can hardly be called a champion of the small businessman at this time; but he may find, as he campaigns, that he is receiving the strongest support from precisely this section of the class structure of US capitalist society. For Trump to head out on the fascist road, he would most likely have to break ranks with the party of the big bourgeoisie and set up his own independent party based on the petit-bourgeoisie. He hasn’t done this yet; the reasons are, we believe, first, the idea has not yet occurred to him; and secondly that in the absence of any kind of organized revolutionary opposition among the US working class to the continued rule of the capitalist class of the US, the US ruling class sees no need for a fascist movement at this time. This was also true in the 1930s, when Ford was sending up fascist trial zeppelins; though there were many members of the US capitalist class deeply sympathetic to Hitler’s regime, they did not feel the need to jettison bourgeois democracy in favor of a fascist dictatorship. This was IN SPITE OF the fact that in the 1930s the US working class was undergoing a major radicalization of its trade union leadership in the direction of a communist leadership. If the US ruling class could hold on to power in the face of that tremendous challenge at that time, it would seem very unlikely that they would feel the need to head down the fascist road today in the complete absence of such a challenge. All of these parameters we speak of, of course, could change with rapidity and are no guarantee that the organization of an openly fascist party in the USA is relegated to the distant future.
To understand what fascism is and what it isn’t is crucially important. For revolutionary socialist members and leaders of the working class, political clarity on this question is absolutely necessary; without it, the workers are powerless to defend themselves against the rise and triumph of fascism. The Stalinists paved the road for the rise of Hitler by calling all their political enemies by the name of “fascist”: the German Social Democrats were called “social fascists” and therefore the Stalinists refused to make a political and military bloc with them against Hitler. This tragic error ultimately betrayed the most powerful working class in Europe into the hands of the Fuhrer.
Leon Trotsky fought tirelessly against this bogus and reactionary Stalinist analysis of fascism. In order to understand what Fascism is, it is really necessary to read what Trotsky wrote on this subject during the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Here are some excerpts we hope you’ll find helpful.
1) Selection from “What Is National Socialism?” by Leon Trotsky (1933) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330610.htm
[We believe that this description of Hitler’s early career contains interesting parallels to the current stage of Trump’s political development – IWPCHI]
“At the start of his political career, Hitler stood out only because of his big temperament, a voice much louder than others, and an intellectual mediocrity much more self-assured. He did not bring into the movement any ready-made program, if one disregards the insulted soldier’s thirst for vengeance. Hitler began with grievances and complaints about the Versailles terms, the high cost of living, the lack of respect for a meritorious non-commissioned officer, and the plots of bankers and journalists of the Mosaic persuasion. There were in the country plenty of ruined and drowning people with scars and fresh bruises. They all wanted to thump with their fists on the table. This Hitler could do better than others. True, he knew not how to cure the evil. But his harangues resounded, now like commands and now like prayers addressed to inexorable fate. Doomed classes, like those fatally ill, never tire of making variations on their plaints nor of listening to consolations. Hitler’s speeches were all attuned to this pitch. Sentimental formlessness, absence of disciplined thought, ignorance along with gaudy erudition – all these minuses turned into pluses. They supplied him with the possibility of uniting all types of dissatisfaction in the beggar’s bowl of National Socialism, and of leading the mass in the direction in which it pushed him. In the mind of the agitator was preserved, from among his early improvisations, whatever had met with approbation. His political thoughts were the fruits of oratorical acoustics. That is how the selection of slogans went on. That is how the program was consolidated. That is how the ‘leader’ took shape out of the raw material.”
“The petty bourgeois is hostile to the idea of development, for development goes immutably against him; progress has brought him nothing except irredeemable debts. National Socialism rejects not only Marxism but Darwinism. The Nazis curse materialism because the victories of technology over nature have signified the triumph of large capital over small. The leaders of the movement are liquidating “intellectualism” because they themselves possess second- and third-rate intellects, and above all because their historic role does not permit them to pursue a single thought to its conclusion. The petty bourgeois needs a higher authority, which stands above matter and above history, and which is safeguarded from competition, inflation, crisis, and the auction block. To evolution, materialist thought, and rationalism – of the twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth centuries – is counterposed in his mind national idealism as the source of heroic inspiration. Hitler’s nation is the mythological shadow of the petty bourgeoisie itself, a pathetic delirium of a thousand-year Reich.
“In order to raise it above history, the nation is given the support of the race. History is viewed as the emanation of the race. The qualities of the race are construed without relation to changing social conditions. Rejecting “economic thought” as base, National Socialism descends a stage lower: from economic materialism it appeals to zoologic materialism.”
2) From “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat” by Leon Trotsky (1932)
[This succinct description of fascism should dispel any doubts as to whether or not Trump is at this stage to be considered a fascist of the Hitler type. Not only does he not lead a party based on the petit-bourgeoisie; he also espouses no particular desire to do away with the trappings of bourgeois democracy, i.e. elections, separation of powers under the Constitution, etc. This is very un-fascistic, but perhaps a typical and perhaps even a necessary stage in the development of a Hitler-like politician. – IWPCHI]
“The Social Democracy, which is today the chief representative of the parliamentary-bourgeois regime, derives its support from the workers. Fascism is supported by the petty bourgeoisie. The Social Democracy without the mass organizations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot entrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organizations. Parliament is the main arena of the Social Democracy. The system of fascism is based upon the destruction of parliamentarism. For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of dominion; it has recourse to one or the other, depending upon the historical conditions. But for both the Social Democracy and fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle has an independent significance; more than that, for them it is a question of political life or death.
“At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium – the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy. From fascism the bourgeoisie demands a thorough job; once it has resorted to methods of civil war, it insists on having peace for a period of years. And the fascist agency, by utilizing the petty bourgeoisie as a battering ram, by overwhelming all obstacles in its path, does a thorough job. After fascism is victorious, finance capital gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, directly and immediately, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty, the executive, administrative, and educational powers of the state: the entire state apparatus together with the army, the municipalities, the universities, the schools, the press, the trade unions, and the cooperatives. When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.”
We would aver that though the United States government is veering towards a fascist dictatorship, we do not believe that we are there yet. The main reason why the US capitalist class has no organized fascist party at this time is that there is no revolutionary movement of the US working class aiming towards the seizure of power. The US trade union leadership is completely in the pockets of the capitalist class via the capitalists’ wholly-owned and operated Democratic Party. Union membership continues to decline; the unionized working class is so backward that they don’t even consider themselves to BE “working class”; they are barely class-conscious at all. The revolutionary socialist parties in the United States are very small and have almost no influence over even the leading elements of the trade union movement at all. There is simply no NEED – at this time – for the bourgeoisie to throw off the mask of bourgeois democracy and to don the steel helmets and armor of a fascist dictatorship. That does not mean that a sudden lurch of the ruling class in that direction is impossible; in fact, the re-legalization of torture and the assertion of the Democratic Party President that he has the “right” to order the assassination of US citizens whenever he so desires is definitely a move in that direction. The threat of fascism is always present and will always BE present everywhere so long as the capitalist class rules anywhere. This is why we call for the organized workers of the US to jettison their support for the Democratic Party and their union leaders who have lashed themselves to the Democratic donkey-cart of the capitalist class enemy and to organize revolutionary socialist workers parties to overthrow the capitalist system here and around the world. Every day that the working class abstains from doing so brings us closer to a fascist USA and to World War III. Whether or not Donald Trump turns out to be the “next Hitler” remains to be seen. Let’s not wait for this experiment to run its course!
Workers of the World, Unite!
Independent Workers Party of Chicago
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Fascism is an epithet thrown around a lot by politicos. I think it’s best to go to the source for a definition of what fascism is/was. Fascism isn’t just any sort of authoritarian rule, it’s a specific form of dictatorship which has private capitalists and workers forced by State law to collaborate in what Mussolini called “corporations”, all for the good of the nation. Fascists all think that class struggle is a communist, anarchist, socialist ideological invention used by internationalist revolutionaries to destroy the fabric of a strong nation. Oh fascists know that there are classes; yes indeed they do. But fascists don’t like the marketplace for commodities when it comes to labour power. Fascists think that both the employing class and the working class should do their moral duty to work together in ‘corporations’. Fascists make it illegal to see the social relation between classes and class interests any other way. Fascists don’t like ‘flabby’ liberals who endanger the nation by saying workers should have the right to organise in their own class interests to negotiate the price (aka wages) of their time, skills and working conditions with the employing class. Fascists don’t like class conscious workers who organise to pursue their own material interests.
If this kind of rhetoric has a familiar ring to your ears, perhaps you’ve listened to people who have been influenced by fascist-nationalist thinking and who like the idea of restricting or even eliminating the rights of workers to strike, organise and the right of workers to be in classwide solidarity with their fellow workers in their negotiations with the employing class over wages and conditions. These people will say, “We must put restrictions on workers’ ability to combine as a class or they will become too powerful and upset the national interests. After all, what’s good for employers is good for workers too; they have common interests.” Maybe these people didn’t even know that they have been espousing the fundamental doctrine of the fascist State.
Benito Mussolini wrote:
32: “Fascist corporate economy is the economy of individuals of
associated groups and of the State.”
47-8: “This fond of economy is regulated, strengthened and
harmonized for the sake of collective utility, by the producers
themselves — be they employers, technicians or workers —
by means of the corporations created by the State which,
representing as it does the whole nation.”From: Mussolini, Benito. 1936. The Corporate State (Firenze: Vallecchi).****************************************************
8. Outside the State there can be neither individuals nor groups (political parties, associations, syndicates, classes). Therefore, Fascism is opposed to Socialism, which confines the movement of history within the class struggle and ignores the unity of classes established in one economic and moral reality in the State: and analogously it is opposed to class syndicalism. (my MB interjection: class syndicalism is like the sort of unionism which the IWW promotes) Fascism recognizes the real exigencies for which the socialist and syndicalist movement arose, but while recognizing them wishes to bring them under the control of the State and give them a purpose within the corporative system of interests reconciled within the unity of the State.
and later in this piece…
…It might be said against this programme that it is a return to the corporations. It doesn’t matter!….I should like, nevertheless, the Assembly to accept the claims of national syndicalism from the point of view of economics…
Is it not surprising that from the first day in the Piazza San Sepolcro there should resound the word ‘Corporation’ which was destined in the creations at the base of the regime?
But when one says liberalism, one says the individual; when one says Fascism, one says the State. But the Fascist State is unique; it is an original creation. It is not reactionary but revolutionary in that it anticipates the solutions of certain universal problems. These problems are no longer seen in the same light: in the sphere of politics they are removed from party rivalries, from the supreme power of parliament, from the irresponsibility of assemblies; in the sphere of economics they are removed from the sphere of the syndicates’ activities—activities that were ever widening their scope and increasing their power, both on the workers’ side and on the employers’—removed from their struggles and their designs; in the moral sphere they are divorced from ideas of the need for order, discipline and obedience, and lifted into the plane of moral commandments of the fatherland…..
From “The Doctrine of Fascism” written by Benito Mussolini in 1932 in collaboration with Giovanni Gentile.
Eric Fromm on the social psychology of fascism:
The love for the powerful and the hatred for the powerless which is so typical for the sado-masochistic character explains a great deal of Hitler’s and his follower’s political actions. While the Republican government thought they could “appease” the Nazis by treating them leniently, they not only failed to appease them but aroused their hatred by the very lack of power and firmness they showed.
–Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 256-257
Hitler’s — and for that matter, Mussolini’s — “revolution” happened under protection of existing power and their favorite objects were those who could not defend themselves. One might even venture to assume that Hitler’s attitude toward Great Britain was determined, among other factors, by this psychological complex. As long he felt Britain to be powerful, he loved and admired her. His book gives expression to this love for Britain. When he recognized the weakness of the British position before and after Munich his love changed into hatred and the wish to destroy it. From this viewpoint “appeasement” was a policy which for a personality like Hitler was bound to arouse hatred, not friendship.
–Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 257
Hitler recognizes clearly that his philosophy of self-denial and sacrifice is meant for those whose economic situation does not allow them any happiness. He does not want to bring about a social order which would make personal happiness possible for very individual; he wants to exploit the very poverty of the masses in order to make them believe in his evangelism of self-annihilation.
–Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 259
Given the psychological conditions, does Nazism not fulfill the emotional needs of the population, and is this psychological function not one factor that makes for its growing stability?
From all that has been said so far, it is evident that the answer to this question is in the negative. The fact of human individuation, of the destruction of all “primary bonds,” cannot be reversed. The process of the destruction of the medieval world has taken four hundred years and is being completed in our era. Unless the whole industrial system, the whole mode of production, should be destroyed and changed to the preindustrial level, man will remain an individual who has completely emerged from the world surrounding him. We have seen that man cannot endure this negative freedom; that he tries to escape into new bondage which he has given up. But these new bonds do not constitute real union with the world. He pays for the new security by giving up the integrity of his self.
–Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, pg 262-263