Updated: Feb 12
'You see this person wherever power structures lie; there is always someone willing to submit their freedoms, only so that they can chain someone else down.'
Erich Fromm, a Jewish German-born psychoanalyst who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the USA, is most commonly associated with the historic Frankfurt School of critical theory. He became a household name in 1956 after the publication of his international bestseller The Art of Loving, a book that argues love is a skill actively taught and developed – but it is his earlier, lesser-known work, that is so pertinent today.
Escape from Freedom was published in 1941 and is Fromm’s examination of the psychosocial conditions that facilitated the rise of Nazism. To do this, he had to distinguish between the two types of freedom we experience on a day-to-day basis.
‘Freedom From’ (also known as ‘negative freedom’).
This is the freedom from societal restrictions and social conventions that are placed on individuals by peers or institutions. This concept of freedom is championed by Sartre and his ideals of existentialism. An often fought for freedom that Fromm argues can actually be destructive unless it is accompanied by the second type of freedom.
‘Freedom To’ (also known as ‘positive freedom’).
This is a slightly more complex concept to understand, but it can be reduced simply down into the idea that you have the freedom to do something rather than the freedom from interference.
Perhaps this is easier to understand in the context of eating healthily. You are free to eat well (negative freedom), make your own dinner, and decide exactly what it constitutes. No-one is stopping you from eating healthily or forcing you to get a takeaway. However, you are not free (positive freedom); you are a slave to laziness. It’s far easier and takes much less effort to order food from Deliveroo because it’s convenient (and I’m sure you can pretend to yourself you’re helping a small business at the same time). True freedom would be to seize control of your life and make the most rational choices for yourself.
To Fromm we are experiencing a new level of freedom, able to choose our own adventure every day. We no longer have anything greater than ourselves that we are attached to meaning that we are an individual now, trading higher levels of freedom for lower levels of security. Fromm calls this ‘unbearable’: we have only been guaranteed one half of freedom from our ancestors and it is our own responsibility to create the second half ourselves. In other words, we have cut off all the chains holding us down, but we have nowhere to go. So, what was the point?
In becoming freed from authority, we are left with hopelessness that will not cease until we develop a replacement for the old authority. The easiest way to do this, in Fromm’s opinion, is to submit to a new order that replaces the old order. This new order can be different in looks, yet identical in function to the individual. It eliminates uncertainty by dictating how to think and act. By sacrificing our own individuality, we re-establish our security and no longer have to think for ourselves. Fromm Writes:
‘The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.’
To Fromm, people use coping mechanisms to minimise the effects of the paradoxical nature of positive and negative freedom. The most important one to note is that of the ‘Authoritarian Personality’. Fromm notes these people connect with the world through a type of sadomasochism. Authoritarian people wish to control people and impose their order onto the world, yet they want to submit to the control of some superior force, with Hitler being an example of an extreme authoritarian man to Fromm. He wrote in 1957 that:
‘Hitler insisted that one can and should dominate man but never nature. In him, we find this characteristic mixture of sadistic and masochistic tendencies of an authoritarian personality: the nature is the great power which we have to submit to, but the living being is there to be dominated by us.’
In this state people are no longer free. They have retreated back to a set of social conditions that can tell them how they are supposed to live, what to think and who the enemy is, subsequently allowing them to spend their days limiting the freedom of others and creating chains for people. You see this person wherever power structures lie; there is always someone willing to submit their freedoms, only so that they can chain someone else down.
We see this in the rise of authoritarian and neo-fascist ‘Alt-Right’ political movements. The storming of the Capitol building in America on January 6th shows that the petit bourgeoise – members of the conservative, lower middle class society – will happily sacrifice their freedoms to Donald Trump in so much as they are able to oppress others, be that the left wing or black and ethnic minority groups. Fromm wrote of this sadomasochistic type of person that:
‘This masochistic individual looking for dependency is in his depth frightened -often only subconsciously — a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness, aloneness. Because of this, he is looking for the “leader,” the great power, to feel safe and protected through participation and to overcome his own inferiority. Subconsciously, he feels his own powerlessness and needs the leader to control this feeling. This masochistic and submissive individual, who fears freedom and escapes into idolatry, is the person on which the authoritarian systems — Nazism and Stalinism — rest.’
The neo-fascism that has surfaced comes with a memory of its predecessor. Photographs of a rioter wearing a jumper with ‘Camp Auschwitz’ emblazoned onto it stood in the same crowd as a man flying a ‘Kekistan’ flag shows that ‘new’ movements adopt the old. Indulging in a nostalgia that is almost theatrical. What was repressed now returns in the shadow of itself.
The new ‘Alt-Right’ admired Donald Trump because he gave them protection through participation. Remember Trump telling Proud Boys to ‘stand down and stand by’? And now, with the removal of Trump from power, they are looking for a new leader.