Escape from Freedom


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Our period of late modernity is a time of shifting perspectives and rapidly changing natural and social environment. The decisions made in one part of the world possess the ability to heavily influence the state of affairs in other states, continents or markets. The information became a modern currency, the control over it a new and very influential form of power. And yet, even in those novel times, people still are governed by emotions and beliefs that have existed long before.

Foremost among them seems the universal and age-old dilemma between security and freedom.


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In our times of rapid, thorough change sociology is often accused of using outdated terminology and theories which have long outlived its usefulness. Sometimes the accusations seem well grounded. But then and again, when one looks closely at the traditions and the heritage of past sociologies, one can find rare gems of startling insightfulness, acutely compelling social commentary, moral and philosophical analyses which deal with contemporary problems with a clarity born from the advantage of distance.

Historia magistra vitae est , claimed Cicero. History can really be a teacher, but the real question is, are we apt enough students? Rooted deeply in the critical theory paradigm of Frankfurt School Held, , the book delved into different aspects of freedom and the historical changes in the reception of this very idea. Needless to say that it did so mainly from the Western European point of view, drawing from historical examples in order to better understand the unexpected lure of totalitarian ideologies. Fromm starts his analysis with a differentiation between two distinct categories of freedom: positive and negative.

There have been many attempts to overcome this division, the most notable coming from Gerald C. MacCallum, who proposes to look at freedom as a triadic relation between agent, certain preventing conditions, and certain actions of the agent Carter, People freed themselves from the constraints of old beliefs and traditions, from the constant scrutiny of tightly bound communities. In such a world a person seems indeed free from old obligations, from old values, traditional loyalties and set ways of life, but for a price. The choice was made for one, not by one.

Once these structures, or, to put it in more phenomenological terms, these frames of reference, perceived as real by their users, have been dismantled, this sense of security disappeared as well, leaving behind feelings of anxiety, loss and solitude. According to Fromm, the increase in the levels of individual negative freedom has not been followed by a corresponding rise in positive liberty. Fromm looks for an explanation of this process into the history of the Western world — in the emergence of capitalism and Protestantism, in the birth of the social and cultural movement of Enlightenment.

He creates a parallel between the individual human growth and the changes in the European culture in an effort of demonstrating how the negative human freedom is gained in a painful process of emancipation. Instead, I would like to concentrate on the universal facets of his theory. Thus, a need arises to similarly consider the meaning of security. It could be justly defined as freedom from danger, from fear or anxiety Merriam-Webster, Defined as such, security may be seen as a particular instance of negative freedom. How, then, freedom may be the opposite of itself?

In this view, freedom, both negative and positive, is an ability to choose, to act without constraints.

Even more than that, in a contemporary world deprived of traditional structures this possibility becomes a necessity, a compulsion of choice. Old, set-in-stone ways of life have crumbled, leaving us in a world with almost no tangible limits, no everlasting, universally accepted authorities, routines, or rules; we live in liquid modernity, to use the term proposed by Bauman Bauman, We have now become our own creators, forced to choosing our ways of life, our identities and values, from immeasurable multitude of possibilities.

But this almost unlimited freedom of choice is weighed down by the awareness of inescapable responsibilities and of increasing risk, which is inseparable from the choice itself. Each possibility carries its own risk. Each choice is steeped in the ultimate uncertainty of the outcome. And so to us, the act of making a choice, any choice, is in essence an act of a deliberate choosing of risk, without full knowledge required for an informed decision, without full understanding of the responsibility entailed.

Ulrich Beck claims that risk has become such an irremovable trait of contemporary times that it is a defining characteristic of modern society Beck, The compulsion of choice breeds anxiety and uncertainty; this act of free human will for many becomes something to be dreaded rather than treasured. Security, on the other hand, is a state where choice is irrelevant and risk almost nonexistent. Security can indeed be interpreted as a form of freedom — a freedom from choice.

Freedom from uncertainty, from fear and anxiety. In a secure environment most of the choices are already made for us and in these that are still to be made the risk is substantially mitigated. There are things one is no longer able to do, there are other things which he must do in order to remain safe. For every tiny piece of gained security we have to pay with freedom, as evidenced e.

Escape From Freedom | Rafael Perez Evans

After all, the most famous wall in the world is the one in China, built for over two millennia Britannica, Among the other, secondary needs, there is also the need for self-actualization. From the psychological standpoint it would seem that the continuing tug of war between security and freedom should easily be won by security as the embodiment of a more basic need. And indeed, Erich Fromm listed several most common ways of escape from freedom. The three main modes of action available to a modern man are: authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automaton conformity. All of them have one thing in common: a desperate need for security.

The sadistic impulse reveals itself in the attempts to gain control over others, to impose a resemblance of order on the reality surrounding an individual. At the same time the supplementing masochistic urge translates into a willingness to submit oneself to a superior force, one able to control an individual, to give him meaning and purpose. The second form of this urge is the need for faith in permanence of human values. This faith is inextricably interlinked with the belief that there must be such aspects of human existence which last longer than an individual life-span and which are intersubjective.

And on the heels of this belief comes the third version of the need — the desire to see the world as continuous.


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  7. People are aware of the inescapable nature of change; this awareness prompts them to look for a gateway from this transient state; they wish to see the world at least partly immune to change. To be in control. To comprehend. To own, in a biblical sense of mastery over the world. This need is fulfilled — although never completely — by myth; and nowadays the myth appears most often in the form of various ideologies. At the root of the universal human urge to mythologize the reality we can find the fear of a total freedom.

    Without structures, without stability, without continuity, the man is left with chaos; a reality which one cannot interpret in a meaningful way, a reality which deprives one of his own sense of existence.

    The Mike Wallace Interview: Erich Fromm (1958-05-25)

    The authoritarian character, combining sadistic and masochistic impulses in his drive to become whole once more, to dissolve oneself in something greater than just a sum of parts, finds some solace in the communal act of imposing structure on reality. More often than not in our times this act becomes political in the original, ancient Greek meaning of this world — as something related to polis , to what concerns all citizens of the community.

    Incidentally, this is exactly the mechanism of action for political myths as described by Ernst Cassirer in his book The Myth of the State , in which he analyzed the rise of Nazism through the lenses of history and philosophy. According to Cassirer, the myths and mythical rituals are an entirely communal effort — they bind all the members of society together, giving them all one common identity and taking away any remaining traces of individual responsibility. The group becomes the only real moral actor, and its collective responsibility the only responsibility there is.

    The form of the myth, the promises of stability and security, of some higher sense of existence, that myth offers, is to its followers more important than its actual content. A political myth is a peculiar attempt at imposition of order on the social reality. It needs to bring with it an order imposed on the chaos of reality, especially the chaos resulting from a rapid change. Cassirer focused his analysis on the mythology of Nazism, but even today we may see many such myths at play — from the classical myths of the state being re-created and re-told at present by modern Russia or Hungary, through the rise of nationalistic ideologies throughout Europe and the U.

    Insecurity is the new reality, in which we all must find ourselves, must make ourselves anew. In this protean world political myths and collective identities promise salvation: security and belonging. If there is not, how can we account for the attraction which submission to a leader has for so many today? Is submission always to an overt authority, or is there also submission to internalized authorities, such as duty or conscience, to inner compulsions or to anonymous authorities like public opinion? Is there a hidden satisfaction in submitting, and what is its essence?

    What is it that creates in men an insatiable lust for power? Is it the strength of their vital energy—or is it a fundamental weakness and inability to experience life spontaneously and lovingly? What are the psychological conditions that make for the strength of these strivings? What are the social conditions upon which such psychological conditions in turn are based?

    Analysis of the human aspect of freedom and of authoritarianism forces us to consider a general problem, namely, that of the role which psychological factors play as active forces in the social process; and this eventually leads to the problem of the interaction of psychological, economic, and ideological factors in the social process.

    Any attempt to understand the attraction which Fascism exercises upon great nations compels us to recognize the role of psychological factors. For we are dealing here with a political system which, essentially, does not appeal to rational forces of self-interest, but which arouses and mobilizes diabolical forces in man which we had believed to be nonexistent, or at least to have died out long ago. The familiar picture of man in the last centuries was one of a rational being whose actions were determined by his self-interest and the ability to act according to it.

    Even writers like Hobbes, who recognized lust for power and hostility as driving forces in man, explained the existence of these forces as a logical result of self-interest: since men are equal and thus have the same wish for happiness, and since there is not enough wealth to satisfy them all to the same extent, they necessarily fight against each other and want power to secure the future enjoyment of what they have at present. But Hobbes's picture became outmoded. The more the middle class succeeded in breaking down the power of the former political or religious rulers, the more men succeeded in mastering nature, and the more millions of individuals became economically independent, the more did one come to believe in a rational world and in man as an essentially rational being.

    The dark and diabolical forces of man's nature were relegated to the Middle Ages and to still earlier periods of history, and they were explained by lack of knowledge or by the cunning schemes of deceitful kings and priests. One looked back upon these periods as one might at a volcano which for a long time has ceased to be a menace. One felt secure and confident that the achievements of modern democracy had wiped out all sinister forces; the world looked bright and safe like the well-lit streets of a modern city.

    Wars were supposed to be the last relics of older times and one needed just one more war to end war; economic crises were supposed to be accidents, even though these accidents continued to happen with a certain regularity. When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission.

    Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak. Nietzsche had disturbed the complacent optimism of the nineteenth century; so had Marx in a different way. Another warning had come somewhat later from Freud. To be sure, he and most of his disciples had only a very naive notion of what goes on in society, and most of his applications of psychology to social problems were misleading constructions; yet, by devoting his interest to the phenomena of individual emotional and mental disturbances, he led us to the top of the volcano and made us look into the boiling crater.

    Freud went further than anybody before him in directing attention to the observation and analysis of the irrational and unconscious forces which determine parts of human behavior. He and his followers in modern psychology not only uncovered the irrational and unconscious sector of man's nature, the existence of which had been neglected by modern rationalism; he also showed that these irrational phenomena followed certain laws and therefore could be understood rationally.

    He taught us to understand the language of dreams and somatic symptoms as well as the irrationalities in human behavior. He discovered that these irrationalities as well as the whole character structure of an individual were reactions to the influences exercised by the outside world and particularly by those occurring in early childhood.

    Escape From Freedom

    But Freud was so imbued with the spirit of his culture that he could not go beyond certain limits which were set by it. These very limits became limitations for his understanding even of the sick individual; they handicapped his understanding of the normal individual and of the irrational phenomena operating in social life. Since this book stresses the role of psychological factors in the whole of the social process and since this analysis is based on some of the fundamental discoveries of Freud—particularly those concerning the operation of unconscious forces in man's character and their dependence on external influences—I think it will be helpful to the reader to know from the outset some of the general principles of our approach, and also the main differences between this approach and the classical Freudian concepts.

    Freud accepted the traditional belief in a basic dichotomy between man and society, as well as the traditional doctrine of the evilness of human nature. Man, to him, is fundamentally antisocial. Society must domesticate him, must allow some direct satisfaction of biological—and hence, ineradicable—drives; but for the most part society must refine and adroitly check man's basic impulses.

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    In consequence of this suppression of natural impulses by society something miraculous happens: the suppressed drives turn into strivings that are culturally valuable and thus become the human basis for culture. Freud chose the word sublimation for this strange transformation from suppression into civilized behavior. If the amount of suppression is greater than the capacity for sublimation, individuals become neurotic and it is necessary to allow the lessening of suppression.

    Generally, however, there is a reverse relation between satisfaction of man's drives and culture: the more suppression, the more culture and the more danger of neurotic disturbances.

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    The relation of the individual to society in Freud's theory is essentially a static one: the individual remains virtually the same and becomes changed only in so far as society exercises greater pressure on his natural drives and thus enforces more sublimation or allows more satisfaction and thus sacrifices culture. Like the so-called basic instincts of man which earlier psychologists accepted, Freud's conception of human nature was essentially a reflection of the most important drives to be seen in modern man. For Freud, the individual of his culture represented "man," and those passions and anxieties that are characteristic for man in modern society were looked upon as eternal forces rooted in the biological constitution of man.

    While we could give many illustrations of this point as, for instance, the social basis for the hostility prevalent today in modern man, the Oedipus complex, the so-called castration complex in women , I want only to give one more illustration which is particularly important because it concerns the whole concept of man as a social being. Freud always considers the individual in his relations to others. These relations as Freud sees them, however, are similar to the economic relations to others which are characteristic of the individual in capitalist society. Each person works for himself, individualistically, at his own risk, and not primarily in co-operation with others.

    But he is not a Robinson Crusoe; he needs others, as customers, as employees, or as employers. He must buy and sell, give and take. The market, whether it is the commodity or the labor market, regulates these relations. Thus the individual, primarily-alone and self-sufficient, enters into economic relations with others as means to one end: to sell and to buy. Freud's concept of human relations is essentially the same: the individual appears fully equipped with biologically given drives, which need to be satisfied.

    In order to satisfy them, the individual enters into relations with other "objects. The field of human relations in Freud's sense is similar to the market—it is an exchange of satisfaction of biologically given needs, in which the relationship to the other individual is always a means to an end but never an end in itself. Contrary to Freud's viewpoint, the analysis offered in this book is based on the assumption that the key problem of psychology is that of the specific kind of relatedness of the individual towards the world and not that of the satisfaction or frustration of this or that instinctual need per se; furthermore, on the assumption that the relationship between man and society is not a static one.

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