In the last six months we’ve seen an alarming desire for tyranny spread through many so-called liberal democracies based on freedom. At the same time, we’re being conditioned to believe that freedom is selfish and that thinking for yourself is dangerous. Margaret Thatcher once said:
“When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.”
Maybe that’s true, but the real question is: Are people free to choose? Many don’t appear to want freedom and have willingly given it up in exchange for a politician’s promise and false sense of security. We have a rampant case of blind obedience to authority running through society and it’s chilling to watch.
So I’ve been re-reading Fear of Freedom by Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom in the US), looking for answers. He wrote it during the second world war and it was published in 1942. It includes a whole chapter on the psychology of Nazism, but its insight into this way of thinking is still relevant. And becoming more relevant by the day, as he explains:
“…there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.”
Freedom usually means being able to assert your individuality and be who you are, free from political, economic or social constraints. This is what Fromm calls positive freedom, or ‘freedom to’. It doesn’t mean doing whatever you want regardless of the consequences to others because true freedom is motivated by love, not selfishness.
Positive freedom is dependent on negative freedom, or ‘freedom from’, and that includes freedom from the selfishness of egotism which is based on a sense of lack or loss of self.
Your individuality develops in stages through childhood so you can gradually free yourself from the tribe and family to become an individual in your own right in the world. Freedom means different things at each stage of this process, and increases as you get older and become more independent. But this creates its own problems.
On the one hand you become stronger in yourself as an individual, but you also become more alone. This aloneness creates anxiety and insecurity which feeds into a desire to escape from the pressures of being an individual.
“…growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.”
Our experience of freedom is ambiguous. As human beings, we don’t have any choice but to embrace negative freedom, to become free from instinctual determination – we’re condemned to be free, as Sartre said. But this opens up the existential abyss, and rather than learn how to grow past it, many simply give up or don’t try.
“…if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realisation of individuality… while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.”
The roots of our Western ideas about freedom can be found in the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance, which fed into the development of capitalism and competition. Fromm describes Martin Luther as an “authoritarian character” and says his teachings and beliefs laid the foundations for the mess we’re in today:
“In making the individual feel worthless and insignificant as far as his own merits are concerned, in making him feel like a powerless tool in the hands of God, he deprived man of the self-confidence and of the feeling of human dignity which is the premise for any firm stand against oppressing secular authorities.”
Although the deeper roots go much further back, Luther’s reforms started the rollercoaster that shaped our ideas about freedom, giving rise to the myth of progress, the overthrow of religion and the Church, and the development of democracy. This allowed many more people to become self-determining and live their lives free of oppression. But then it all went to shit with two world wars and the rise of fascism and the authoritarian state.
This happened because we lost our spiritual roots:
“Once the individual had lost his sense of pride and dignity, he was psychologically prepared to lose the feeling which had been characteristic of the medieval thinking, namely, that man, his spiritual salvation, and his spiritual aims, were the purpose of life; he was prepared to accept a role in which his life became a means to purposes outside himself, those of economic productivity and accumulation of capital.”
Luther wouldn’t have approved of man’s life being reduced to an economic end, but he opened to the door to it nevertheless:
“…while his thinking on economic matters was the traditional one, his emphasis on the nothingness of the individual was in contrast to, and paved the way for, a development in which man not only was to obey secular authorities but had to subordinate his life to the ends of economic achievements. In our day this trend has reached a peak in the Fascist emphasis that it is the aim of life to be sacrificed for ‘higher’ powers, for the leader or the racial community.”
Today that sacrifice has descended into the depths of nihilism and catabolic capitalism where everything and everyone has a price on its head. Witness the beginnings of the new ‘religion’ of the Green New Deal and Communitarianism. And get ready to sacrifice your individual freedom in the name of ‘saving the planet’ – code for: saving the system and the uber-rich.
Our postmodern society has been hollowed out and emptied of all meaning. We have the freedom to believe whatever we want – even total absurdities – and many can’t stand the pressure. It’s a collective existential crisis and people are responding to it by begging for tyranny. That’s a regression and it won’t end well.
There’s only one healthy way to deal with this crisis and that’s to embrace real freedom. However, the aloneness, anxiety, insecurity and powerlessness created by ‘freedom from’ are unbearable, so most of us try to escape from freedom at least some, or all, of the time. We don’t want the responsibility of developing our individuality because the doubt it causes makes us too uncomfortable.
The main ways people escape from freedom are:
- Mental illness, such as psychosis and schizophrenia – your mind cracks under the pressure and implodes and you withdraw from the world
- Authoritarianism – you give up your individual self and fuse it with somebody or something else, including co-dependency, neurosis, masochism, sadism, a will to power, submission to fate, defiance and rebelliousness
- Destructiveness – you deal with powerlessness by destroying its cause, either by turning outwards against others and the world or inwards towards yourself, especially where life is thwarted
- Automaton conformity – you conform to social norms and lose yourself in the crowd so you no longer feel isolated because you’re not an individual
All these responses represent an attempt to control anxiety and find certainty or security. So avoidance of freedom is connected to the avoidance of uncertainty and doubt. We do this by repressing the doubt, ignoring it, pretending the problem has been solved, chasing unlimited knowledge, accumulating facts and data, and following leaders (or a system or set of ideas) who promise certainty. But it never works.
It doesn’t work because you can’t force reality to submit to your fantasy about the way reality should work. You can’t escape uncertainty because life is fundamentally uncertain and risky.
The only way to deal with this is to learn how to live with uncertainty and you do that by growing from negative to positive freedom. You either go forward into the greater freedom found in the true Self, or you regress and give up your freedom for imagined safety and security.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to make the effort involved in growing up. It’s too hard and too scary and it’s easier not to bother – especially when you’re surrounded by distractions galore. Fromm was warning about the consequences of people turning into automatons almost eighty years ago. But our current technologies make it even worse.
“The automatisation of the individual in modern society has increased the helplessness and insecurity of the average individual. Thus, he is ready to submit to new authorities which offer him security and relief from doubt.”
And those ‘new authorities’ are as likely to be an algorithm as a despotic lunatic. Freedom is always in a precarious state and we’re in danger of losing even more ground than we already have.
“We forget that, although each of the liberties which have been won must be defended with utmost vigour, the problem of freedom is not only a quantitative one, but a qualitative one; that we not only have to preserve and increase the traditional freedom, but that we have to gain a new kind of freedom, one which enables us to realise our own individual self; to have faith in this self and in life.”
To put this in simple terms, we have three basic choices in how to organise society:
- Totalitarianism – you do what you’re told
- Conformism – you do what everybody else does
- Authenticity – you live according to your true Self
I’ve never been able to tell the difference between the first two – they amount to the same thing, at least from the perspective of authenticity, because they’re both ego-based structures. Obviously, authenticity is the way to go, but how do we get there?
It’s all very well talking about having the freedom to develop your individuality but how do you know who you are? Are you free to know who you are in the first place?
Becoming a fully awake individual is a complicated business and you’re embedded in a system that distorts your perception of who you are and actively discourages you from waking up (see Mind War).
Not only that, but there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to wake up – it wants to stay asleep because it’s easier. You want to be fooled and that’s why you fall for the spell.
Next time we’ll explore why this happens…