The Opposite of Escaping Freedom

A number of years ago I read 'Escape From Freedom' by Erich Fromm. The longer I think about it, the more I realize how important and fundamental the problems that Fromm lays out in that book are.

"It is the thesis of this book," Fromm states in the forward, "that modern man, freed from the bonds of preindividualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of this freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man."

This is a major decision that everyone is confronted with in complex civilizations. History has shown that a large number of individuals, and thus society, don't react that well to the situation. Fromm doesn't do well at identifying a solution, but he does great at identifying the problem, that freedom releases us from "political, economic, and spiritual shackles", but liberated from these constraints we are also disoriented and alone. We're going to take the bad reactions to the isolation of freedom that he identifies and reverse them, and see what we end up with.

What Fromm means by isolation is "moral aloneness" from a "lack of relatedness to values, symbols, patterns" which leads to "mental disintegration." The person then lacking security and belonging feels not only alone, but because they are alone they also feel powerless, just a tiny piece that will exist for a short time in a gigantic universe. People try to grow to overcome this, to become the person that can face the overwhelming reality of existence, but it's overwhelming. The greatness and tragedy of human potentiality is a double-sided blade: the free individual, and the insignificant individual.

Fromm focuses on three main mechanisms of escape from this overwhelming experience of human freedom: authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automaton conformity. To reverse these seems simple at first: libertarianism, constructiveness, and individualistic defiance. But, that's too simplistic. Authoritarianism actually involves two different roles, and there are some other mechanisms of escape that Fromm only lightly mentions. We need to look at what the mechanisms really are, not just their labels, and see what the true inverse is, not just a catchy phrase.

First, let's break down authoritarianism. We'll pull heavily from the insights in the book on this. Fromm says authoritarianism is, "the tendency to give up the independence of one's own individual self and to fuse one's self with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking." There are two sides to this coin. Domination needs submission, sadism needs masochism.

The masochistic tendencies are: feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, and individual insignificance; belittling the self, making oneself weak, and not mastering things; dependence on powers outside of oneself including people, institutions, and nature; not asserting oneself, not doing what one wants, and submitting to factual or alleged orders of outside forces; not feeling "I want" or "I am"; life feeling overwhelmingly powerful which one can't master or control; hurting oneself or making oneself suffer; self-accusation and self-criticism; torturing oneself with compulsive rites and thoughts; a tendency to become physically ill or wait for illness as like a gift; a tendency for accidents; struggling to answer questions one knows; antagonizing those one loves or is dependent on and not intending to. "The masochistic trends are often felt as plainly pathological or irrational. More frequently they are rationalized. Masochistic dependency is conceived as love or loyalty, inferiority feelings as an adequate expression of actual shortcomings, and one's suffering as being entirely due to unchangeable circumstances."

"Besides these masochistic trends, the very opposite of them, namely, sadistic tendencies, are regularly to be found in the same kind of characters. They vary in strength, are more or less conscious, yet they are never missing. We find three kinds of sadistic tendencies, more or less closely knit together. One is to make others dependent on oneself and to have absolute and unrestricted power over them, so as to make of them nothing but instruments, “clay in the potter’s hand.” Another consists of the impulse not only to rule over others in this absolute fashion, but to exploit them, to use them, to steal from them, to disembowel them, and, so to speak, to incorporate anything eatable in them. This desire can refer to material things as well as to immaterial ones, such as the emotional or intellectual qualities a person has to offer. A third kind of sadistic tendency is the wish to make others suffer or to see them suffer. This suffering can be physical, but more often it is mental suffering. Its aim is to hurt actively, to humiliate, embarrass others, or to see them in embarrassing and humiliating situations." These sadistic tendencies are justified as for the goodness of the other, or concern for the other, or payback for what is owed, or as retaliation for previous hurt, or as defense against being hurt. The sadist cannot destroy the other person however, because they are dependent on their existence to continue the relationship.

In the masochist feelings of "terror of aloneness and insignificance" are often "covered by compensatory feelings of eminence and perfection." The masochist tries to find someone or something bigger and attach to them. One way to help with this is to make the self smaller. "As long as I struggle between my desire to be independent and strong and my feeling of insignificance or powerlessness I am caught in a tormenting conflict. If I succeed in reducing my individual self to nothing, if I can overcome the awareness of my separateness as an individual, I may save myself from this conflict. To feel utterly small and helpless is one way toward this aim; to be overwhelmed by pain and agony another; to be overcome by the effects of intoxication still another. The phantasy of suicide is the last hope if all other means have not succeeded in bringing relief from the burden of aloneness."

"The annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of the masochistic strivings. The other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person, an institution, God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion. By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. One gains also security against the torture of doubt."

The other side of authoritarianism is sadism. "What is the essence of the sadistic drives? Again, the wish to inflict pain on others is not the essence. All the different forms of sadism which we can observe go back to one essential impulse, namely, to have complete mastery over another person, to make of him a helpless object of our will, to become the absolute ruler over him, to become his God, to do with him as one pleases. To humiliate him, to enslave him, are means to this end and the most radical aim is to make him suffer, since there is no greater power over another person than that of inflicting pain on him, to force him to undergo suffering without his being able to defend himself. The pleasure in the complete domination over another person (or other animate objects) is the very essence of the sadistic drive."

Even though there are these two aspects, and they complement each other when they operate in different people in a relationship, at root masochism and sadism share a base element. Fromm calls this symbiosis. "Symbiosis, in this psychological sense, means the union of one individual self with another self (or any other power outside of the own self) in such a way as to make each lose the integrity of its own self and to make them completely dependent on each other. The sadistic person needs his object just as much as the masochistic needs his. Only instead of seeking security by being swallowed, he gains it by swallowing somebody else. In both cases the integrity of the individual self is lost. In one case I dissolve myself in an outside power; I lose myself. In the other case I enlarge myself by making another being part of myself and thereby I gain the strength I lack as an independent self. It is always the inability to stand the aloneness of one’s individual self that leads to the drive to enter into a symbiotic relationship with someone else. It is evident from this why masochistic and sadistic trends are always blended with each other. Although on the surface they seem contradictions, they are essentially rooted in the same basic need. People are not sadistic or masochistic, but there is a constant oscillation between the active and the passive side of the symbiotic complex, so that it is often difficult to determine which side of it is operating at a given moment. In both cases individuality and freedom are lost."

Fromm has more good insights in this section about power, authority, and attachment to a magical helper. But, let's see if we can discern the essence of this type of escape from freedom and what the inverse is, then we'll move on to the next method. Essentially, there's a fusion, a symbiosis, a desperate connection to an other that's needed, which can happen in two ways. One is by being the smaller being that latches onto the larger being. One part of this is making oneself small, and the other part is building up someone or something else as big. Two is by attaching smaller beings to oneself. One part of that is making others smaller, and the other part is trying to pump oneself up.

To flip all of that we need to not make ourselves smaller than we are, not make others bigger than they are, not make others smaller than they are, and not make ourselves bigger than we are. That sounds great, but it's really just a prescription for being sane and seeing reality in the correct proportions, which I'm not sure is very actionable when we're feeling overwhelmed by existence and reacting against it. Nevertheless, we do know the end result of the outlook we would want.

Let's look at destructiveness next. It springs from that same weakness in isolation. To express it Fromm says, "I can escape the feeling of my own powerlessness in comparison with the world outside of myself by destroying it.", and "The destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it." He talks about it being a reaction against non-expanding in life. "In other words: the drive for life and the drive for destruction are not mutually independent factors but are in a reversed interdependence. The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life."

Fromm already points the way to the inverse. Obviously the opposite of destroying is building. Destructiveness seems to already be a reaction against. The opposite of being crushed by the world is to crush the world. The opposite of crushing the world is to expand the world.

As Fromm begins talking about automaton conformity he quickly mentions two other mechanisms. "Other mechanisms of escape are the withdrawal from the world so completely that it loses its threat (the picture we find in certain psychotic states), and the inflation of oneself psychologically to such an extent that the world outside becomes small in comparison." The opposite of withdrawing from the world is to be immersed in the world. The opposite of inflating oneself is to remain humble.

The last mechanism of escape that Fromm talks about is automaton conformity, and he says that this is what most people do, and this is essentially what we consider the normal person. They repress their own independent thoughts and feelings, and then this becomes self-reinforcing. "The loss of the self and its substitution by a pseudo self leave the individual in an intense state of insecurity. He is obsessed by doubt since, being essentially a reflex of other people’s expectation of him, he has in a measure lost his identity. In order to overcome the panic resulting from such loss of identity, he is compelled to conform, to seek his identity by continuous approval and recognition by others. Since he does not know who he is, at least the others will know—if he acts according to their expectation; if they know, he will know too, if he only takes their word for it." To reverse this you need to not build your identity based on recognition and approval, but be independent. That's easier said than done for a social animal like humans.

Let's assess where we've landed. There are four aspects to the inverse of authoritarianism: we need to not make ourselves smaller than we are, not make others bigger than they are, not make others smaller than they are, and not make ourselves bigger than we are. The inverse of destructiveness is to build, expand, or grow. The inverse of withdrawing from the world is to be engaged with the world. The inverse of inflating the self is to deflate the self. The inverse of conformity is to discover and create your identity independently of other people's recognition or approval.

Let's see if we can put it into one sentence. The inflated self part seems like a repeat of a portion of authoritarianism, so that can be left out. To not escape freedom: don't make yourself or others smaller nor larger than you and they truly are, work to grow something in the world, engage with the world, and make your own identity separate from other people's expectations of you.

Let's see if I can smooth it out. Discover your own identity by engaging with the world, growing something, and seeing both yourself and others as neither smaller nor larger than you and they really are.

That does sound pretty good. Fromm covers a lot of other good information and insights in the book, but for the portion we've focused on here let me see if I can digest the key theme and express it from my own viewpoint.

A person lacking the social support necessary for them to go through the steps to become the fully developed individual that they have the potential of being seeks that support by becoming like everyone else through conforming with equals, or by becoming subservient and following the directives of a more powerful other, or by garnering support from others who are willing to submit and become subservient, or giving up on the possibility of the needed social support and becoming destructive. Escape from isolation, which feels like aloneness and powerlessness, results from a lack of adequate social support for the individual development of the capacity for independent responsibility of feelings, thoughts, and deeds. It's an escape from the experience of being an individual. The opposite of escaping isolation is to be comfortable being and standing alone. The opposite of copying someone else's experience is to have your own experience.



Popular posts from this blog

Why is Slytherin House Bad?

Fighting Local Government Corruption - Part 1 of ?

Pro-Global Warming

Donate to Jeff's Work