...perhaps the most important and the most devastating instance of this spirit of instrumentality and alienation is the individual's relationship to his own self. Man does not only sell commodities, he sells himself and feels himself to be a commodity. The manual laborer sells his physical energy; the businessman, the physician, the clerical employee, sell their "personality." They have to have a "personality" if they are to sell their products or services. This personality should be pleasing, but besides that its possessor should meet a number of other requirements: he should have energy, initiative, this, that, or the other, as his particular position may require.
As with any other commodity it is the market which decides the value of these human qualities, yes, even their very existence. If there is no use for the qualities a person offers, he has none; just as an unsalable commodity is valueless though it might have its use value. Thus, the self-confidence, the "feeling of self," is merely an indication of what others think of the person. It is not he who is convinced of his value regardless of popularity and his success on the market. If he is sought after, he is somebody; if he is not popular, he is simply nobody. This dependence of self-esteem on the success of the "personality" is the reason why for modern man popularity has this tremendous importance. On it depends not only whether or not one goes ahead in practical matters, but also whether one can keep up one's self-esteem or whether one falls into the abyss of inferiority feelings.
We have tried to show that the new freedom which capitalism brought for the individual added to the effect which the religious freedom of Protestantism already had had upon him. The individual became more alone, isolated, became an instrument in the hands of overwhelmingly strong forces outside of himself; he became an "individual," but a bewildered and insecure individual. There are factors to help him overcome the overt manifestations of this underlying insecurity. In the first place his self was backed up by the possession of property. "He" as a person and the property he owned could not be separated. A man's clothes or his house were parts of this self just as much as his body. The less he felt he was being somebody the more he needed to have possessions. If the individual had no property or lost it, he was lacking an important part of his "self" and to a certain extent was not considered to be a full-fledged person, either by others or by himself.
Other factors backing up the self were prestige and power. They are partly the outcome of the possession of property, partly the direct result of success in the fields of competition. The admiration by others and the power over them, added to the support which property gave, backed up the insecure individual self.
For those who had little property and social prestige, the family was a source of individual prestige. There the individual could feel like "somebody." He was obeyed by wife and children, he was the center of the stage, and he naively accepted his role as his natural right. He might be a nobody in his social relations, but he was a king at home. Aside from the family, the national pride gave him a sense of importance too. Even if he was nobody personally, he was proud to belong to a group which he could feel was superior to other comparable groups.
These factors supporting the weakened self must be distinguished from those factors which we spoke of at the beginning of this chapter: the factual economic and political freedom, the opportunity for individual initiative, the growing rational enlightenment. These latter factors actually strengthened the self and led to the development of individuality, independence, and rationality. The supporting factors, on the other hand, only helped to compensate for insecurity and anxiety. They did not uproot them but covered them up, and thus helped the individual to feel secure consciously; but this feeling was partly only on the surface and lasted only to the extent to which the supporting factors were present.
excerpt from: Erich Fromm (1941) Escape from Freedom.