Affects of capitalist ideology
on the psychology of the individual


With the traditional structures of society breaking down, a new order emerged, one based primarily upon the power relations engendered by capital. To possess it was to possess power, enabling a wider range of movement within a world that had suddenly expanded its borders. His bubble burst, man was faced with freedom.

In reframing man as an individual, capitalism was in many ways the uncompromising parent, giving the boot to its complacent child. It pronounced in no uncertain terms that the time had come for him to stand on his own two feet, prompting, on a societal scale, a process that Fromm refers to as individuation. Akin to the ‘flowering’ of an individual, individuation is essentially a course of maturation, in which the individual emerges from the sanctuary of the family (from what Fromm refers to as ‘primary ties’) into self-sufficiency, relinquishing comforting restrictions in order to face freedom - a freedom that demands they take full ownership of their thoughts, and actions.

In promoting the emergence of the individual and the accompanying severance of primary ties, capitalism can be seen as an important advancement in the maturation of society; not only did it free the individual from traditional bonds, it also contributed tremendously to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self17: as the individual saw the firm ground beneath him gradually begin to crack and give way, he realized he would have to learn to swim or risk drowning.

With the dissolution of pre-capitalist structures, man was offered a range of movement that was formerly unimaginable. Freed from the ties that had held him in place, he was, in theory at least, able to make of his life what he wished. The responsibility for his life was placed firmly into his own hands, his destiny unwritten.

Whilst looking good on paper, this newfound sense of liberation was not without its drawbacks. The security and structure of pre-capitalist society was vanishing along with the inherent sense of purpose and direction that it offered, developments that threatened to constellate anxiety within the individual who was used to the chloroform-comfort of primary ties. Freedom had exposed the individual to the elements, making him feel isolated, insignificant and powerless. Unknown machinations were now taking place around him, the earth rumbling with the new momentum of free trade.

How did man adapt to these new developments, and in what ways did they affect his thinking?

Market Orientation

In freeing man from his ties, capitalism offered the potential of a new, and better, life. His tethers cut, he was free to rise as high as he wished - but this privilege was not his alone. The heights were up for grabs, and in order to gain the best view he would have to ensure that he rose higher than those around him. The road to success – to the most advantageous view – was achieved through selling; if man could sell successfully then he was able to become successful. Instead of selling enough to get along – to maintain an age-old lifestyle – he was prompted to sell as a means to advancement. No longer tied to his place, through selling more he could break with tradition and imagine something new.

With the best views exclusive, the individual was forced to consider his product within a marketplace that was both more expansive and more competitive. Pious concerns were replaced with economic ones; everyday discourse coloured by the language and ideology of the marketplace. This state of affairs has reached its apotheosis in recent times. If something does not sell successfully – if not enough people want it – then it is deemed as a failure. Within this ideology, quantity becomes a key determinant of success; the more people want something, the more successful it is. The notion of success becomes confused with market-values, and success in all domains becomes defined by the ideology of the marketplace. Only a few people turned up to your party, so it was not a success. You only have a few friends, so you are not a success.

It is testament to the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology that we even come to think of ourselves as products, to be carefully crafted to sell to the highest number. Market ideology pervades all aspects of life, its fiction transforming us into commodities, and our relations into a series of marketplaces within which we sell ourselves: as employees, as sex objects, as lovers, as friends.

The concept of the ‘glamour model’ is an obvious example; with her blonde hair, bronzed skin and practiced repertoire of facial expressions, she is as finely-tuned to sell to a specific market as the newest model of executive saloon; she sells herself, and in doing so promotes to the masses the ‘look’ that she is selling – she tells us, on behalf of our collective ideology, ‘this is what the market wants, and this is how you sell yourself to it” - the market, in this instance, being ‘men’ - or at least, the State’s idea of men.

“Flesh is converted into sign”, the body “etched, pummelled, pumped up, shrunk and remoulded”18 in order to sell more effectively. Not only is the specific look of the glamour model pushed, but also the very idea that women must ‘sell’ in the first place, proliferating the mentality of the system. In her role as a tool of the State, the glamour model serves to teach a generation of girls how to kit themselves out to become successful commodities in a competitive marketplace.

Market-orientation is not restricted to glamour-model clones; most of us, at points, feel the pressure to sell ourselves in some way; and with technology increasing the forms through which we communicate, it is also - as a recent article on a “narcissism epidemic” among young girls suggests - proliferating the places in which one is required to self-promote.19

With all this emphasis on selling, we begin to think of the conventions of the system as innate and unavoidable. All motives become inextricably linked with selling and individual gain, and “what are you trying to sell?” becomes the permeating dictum. Our view of humanity is bent and twisted to fit a system that often works to encourage the worst.


In freeing man from the constraints of a stratified system, capitalism appeared to promote the idea of equality; man was free to define himself, and, importantly, to advance himself within society. Yet, through pushing the idea of economic advancement the system also placed emphasis upon the notion of competition, setting one individual against another.

We’ve seen how the ideology of the marketplace can infiltrate numerous aspects of our life, making us conscious of what we are selling, and how well we are selling it. This emphasis on selling inevitably promotes competitive relations, because in selling something - be it a skill, talent, idea or look - there will, more often than not, be others selling the same thing.

As an essential component of capitalist ideology, the notion of competition has suffused the popular consciousness, its influence spreading beyond purely economic relations. To compete seems like a very natural thing to have to do, and we have Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to remind us that competition is in the natural way of things. Yet, whilst it may be an inevitable aspect of human relations, it remains a singular aspect upon many. The emphasis that capitalism places upon this idea, and the way in which it is communicated to us can frequently be problematic.

In many instances a competitive mindset is aroused when it needn’t be, through setting arbitrary limits on desirable resources. Psychologist Ellen Langer refers to this tendency as a ‘belief in limited resources’, and describes the effect that it can have in some of the most unlikely areas of existence. She gives the example of a couple going through a divorce, with both parents competing for custody of their child; “Who will “get” the child? This may be the wrong question. What is actually at stake? Is it the physical presence of the child that the parents want, or is it a certain relationship with the child? Is it the child’s body or the child’s unlimited love they seek? […] A mindful consideration of what is actually being sought might show that there is enough of the so-called limited resource to go around.”20

Langer’s example shows us how a competitive mindset can invade relations beyond the economic, and can become a default mode of exchange where, often, it needn’t be. When the objects of our desire are perceived as limited, it follows that to get what we want we will have to compete for it. Whilst it may be the case that many things are by nature limited, it is often from the emphasis upon the necessity to compete that dysfunction can arise. Fromm describes the effects of a competitive mindset upon the individual; “His relationship to his fellow men, with everyone a potential competitor, has become hostile and estranged; he is free – that is, he is alone, isolated, threatened from all sides.”21

Advancement and Careerism

Whilst allowing the individual to flourish in formerly unthinkable ways, capitalism also unharnessed his urge for power and status. Our example of the Renaissance artist, using his art as a tool of power, offers us an early indicator of a mindset that would become commonplace throughout society.

Our gifts, the things that separate us - be it talent, beauty or intelligence – are instrumentalized, their function as occasions for celebration and communion seconded to their utility as tools of advancement. State ideology urges its citizens to ‘be someone’, a fiction that is communicated and strengthened through stories of success (from the everyday tale of achievement and victory featured in the pages of the local paper, through to the latest celebrity autobiography) and our worship of those who have ‘made it’ (celebrities; those who are top of their field; ‘geniuses’). To progress economically and secure a favourable position within a free-for-all system, the individual is compelled to draw upon whatever resources allow him to achieve this. In this sense, the gift – as long as it is valued by society – takes its place as an element of a wider tyranny; both reason, motivation, and justification for the attainment of power.

The collapse of the static pre-capitalist system, in which every man was guaranteed a place, cast the future in shades of uncertainty. Man was free to define his destiny, and in order to safeguard it he was compelled to consider his prospects within the market. Self-preservation became an important consideration, and careerism a defence against fear of the future. Within the capitalist system man was constantly urged to think of himself, if only to avoid coming a cropper further along the line.

Capitalism promoted rampant self-interest, whilst at the same time directing energies away from something that may have helped man to face his fear of the future: self-development.


We’ve touched upon how, in ousting the individual from the bosom of society into a position of self-responsibility, capitalism marked a milestone in the psychological maturation of society. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that capitalism provided the conditions for growth, laying the responsibility for development at the feet of the individual. Many were simply not ready to accept this responsibility and instead of learning the new steps that were required of them, regained equilibrium through what Fromm refers to as ‘secondary bonds.’ Through these means the individual willingly annihilated himself within the whole, returning once more to a state of reliance.

We achieve self-annihilation in a variety of ways, not least through the denial of self-development. Perversely, self-development is perhaps the very thing that would allow us, following the severance of our primary bonds, a positive equilibrium once again.

But what do we mean when we talk of self-development? It involves, amongst other things, thinking about the self – about our beliefs, our ideas, our ambitions. In thinking about these important things we are able to take responsibility for them, to make the thoughts our own, and thus counteract the assumptive ignorance of received wisdom. We are able to form a personal life-philosophy, regardless of how rudimentary it may be.

It does not mean a wrapping up within the self, or a constant state of navel gazing: self-development is not selfishness. Rather, to think about the self is to learn to know and to love the self – it is an affirmation of who you are. To listen to what you need; to take time to know yourself, and to allow yourself the room to grow, is to turn out towards the world. In loving yourself you are more able to love others, and to be more amenable in your relations. It is an act in service of the community, because through finding and developing the self the individual becomes more able to service the community. Self-development, as perverse as it may seem, involves a relinquishing of the self and is, in the last, an act of turning outwards.

The Flight from Self-development

Thinking about the self is often not a comfortable or easy thing to do, and fortunately the system provides us with a variety of ways in which we can avoid doing this.

The idea of self-development is itself denigrated through a widespread denial of the self, and through watchwords like ‘selfish’ and ‘self-indulgent’ that allow us to circumnavigate other words, like ‘self-analysis’. We deny ourselves - our needs and development - in the interests of society; which, in the last, are the interests of the State. A paradoxical smokescreen is put in place around this denial, with contemporary society seemingly placing more importance on the individual than at any time previously. Ours is, we are frequently reminded, a selfish society: it is an old saw to point out that consumerism is rampant; that we like nothing more than to spend on the latest commodities and indulge in hedonistic abandon, all the while moving further away from so called ‘traditional values’.

But what is really happening here? Is this fiction of the contemporary individual really about self-affirmation? Perhaps what we are affirming is the pseudo-self; a safe assemblage of the self afforded to us by the system, replete with pre-ordained desires, opinions, and ambitions – that confuses its own voice with that of its maker.

Through its distractions - its motion - the system helps keep us from standing still too long, aiding us in our flight from the true self. Work keeps us busy for a large proportion of our time, and when we aren’t busy with work we are offered a variety of activities to help maintain the momentum. Through staying busy we are able to preserve a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity22. Without self-knowledge we remain unaware that our structures rest in water, and the confusion of the depths – with its promise to disorient and inspire - is kept from us.

These distractions are undoubtedly not, in most cases, crafted with this sinister purpose in mind; it is the systems into which they are birthed that are rigged for maximum manipulation. It is the way that we are taught to consume, the compulsions that we learn unconsciously and take as givens – this is where the dysfunction lies.

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