Escape from Freedom, Revisited

For all the empty ideological rhetoric, most people are afraid of real freedom.  Once needs of sustenance and shelter are met, the average person is at a loss.  Freedom is a scary thing, all those possibilities. What to do with one’s life?  And, heaven forbid, one should make a choice frowned on my one’s peers.

The result is that people retreat into guidance from some other: a church, an ideology, a social group, a fuehrer. Rather than living as free beings, people seem to want to be told what to think and to do, even claiming their subservience is “freedom”.  (A good trick, that one.)

Eighty years ago, we already had insight into this problem.  In 1941, refugee psychoanalyst Erich Fromm published “Escape from Freedom”, setting out the psychological reason why many shy away from freedom, and how this fear enabled the rise of the Nazis.  The book is rather out of fashion these days, being the product of a psychoanalyst, but is yet a valuable resource for understanding what insanity is currently en vogue.

Much as Isiah Berlin, Fromm makes a distinction between “negative freedom” and “positive freedom”. Negative Freedom is lack of restrictions on one’s thoughts, words, and actions, which is primarily the concept embodied in the ancient Common Law, and in such documents as The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  It is also rather Individualist-centered.

Positive Freedom is the freedom to Do something or other.  It is usually associated with a more ethical approach to life, i.e. to help one’s family and friends, to be a good neighbor, to be a good citizen, etc.  Focusing too much on the first, Negative Freedom can lead to anarchy and a sense of isolation. Concentrating too much on the second, Positive Freedom, can actually lead to mob violence.

People do not like feeling isolated, at least most of us do not.  Humans are social beings, and it is considered a great punishment to be sentenced to a term in solitary confinement.  We will do almost anything to avoid that, and will gladly submit to social and mental conformity if it lets us become part of The Group again.

Fromm describes behaviors under categories of Authoritarianism, Conformity, and Destructiveness as means of reducing the tension of having to live under both negative and positive freedom. Freedom is seen as dis-Order, and while Authoritarianism and Conformity may be easily seen as a way to impose Order on chaos, Destructiveness needs some explanation, which is relatively simple. 

Destructiveness asserts one’s control over the object in view.  What you can destroy, you control, and chaos is reduced by one small fraction.

Part, but only part of the cure is when people realize they are normally interconnected, and they normally have control power their environment, and that they have things to do which they want to do, can do, and are about to do. But only part, because once one succumbs to the fear which makes one want to escape their freedom, little amounts of education or propaganda will call them back, but only a trauma which resets their delusions.

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova has an essay up on Escape from Freedom.

Here is a video review of the book.

You can get if from Amazon.