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Step 60: Escape from Freedom (pt 1)

Why would anyone want to escape from Freedom?

Well, in a complex system, any move will produce countermanding forces, and humans are slow-evolving creatures, and by merely shouting “you are free” we encounter some problems: 1) now what? and 2) it doesn’t line up with the reality of working every day and still falling behind.

While freedom is held up as an ideological holy grail, the reality on the ground is different: People do want to escape from freedom because having to “know who you are” is a tremendous strain when you are supposed to be an “authentic autonomous individual.” The strain to be free conversely leaves us feeling like frauds, isolated and alone, which hurts our socially evolved self. 

Written around 1941, Erich Fromm‘s “Escape from Freedom” compares Socialist, Fascist Nazism and Hitler to America’s Liberal Democracy and the types of people it produces and those, in turn, who produce those systems. But he starts out with some history, so we can see what it looks like to move from (as Karl Popper calls it) a tribal ‘closed society‘ to a free ‘open society’ and why that move causes so many problems. 

In the next episode, Escape from Freedom (pt 2), we will look at these “escape mechanisms” and Fromm’s solution: which is to be a genuine individual, an authentic self, which involves independent thinking (which most of us don’t do) and spontaneity (which I have some arguments against.) But until then, this episode maps a historical path that lays the groundwork for why modern man has so many problems. 

FYI: As a refresher on Positive and Negative Liberty: Step 11.

Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm (1942)

Part 1: Medieval Times

Part 2: Modern Man

Part 3: Mickey Mouse


escape from freedom erich fromm


Step 60: Escape from Freedom

PART 1: Medieval times 

A long time ago sitting in the muck of a squalid Village, a little boy named Reid was playing with scraps of leather from his dad’s workbench.  His dad, named Valerie, was the village cobbler. 

Valerie look down upon his son and said, “one day you will take over my job and you will do it for the rest of your life.   It’s not an easy job or very fun, but it is necessary, and you will be protected by the King, unless you mouth off and then he will have you impaled.” 

Then he hit Reid in the head because apparently, that’s what you do in feudal societies.  Just randomly smack people around or poke sharp objects into them. 

Soon his mom, Vicki, comes in to stop Reid from squalling.   She hits him too.   This was a tough-love family. 

Vickie precedes to gossip about the seamstress and something to do with chickens and a priest.   After some circumlocutions, Vicki tells Valerie: “this is your big chance to move up in the guild” 

Valerie nervously blinks and swallows, afraid of this ambition stuff all the kids were talking about.   The church says God wants you to work on your soul, not chase gold, and Valerie knew, as many people have forgotten, that money was less important than your soul.   And wasn’t there something about eating humble pie in heaven? He didn’t want to pass up a chance at that pie. 

But Vicki pointed to Reid sitting in the mud sucking leather scraps and said “don’t you want a better life for your son than sucking leather, daddy?” 

And Valerie says “Hey, We have a good life, Reid will have a good life, right? Right?” 

Thus, the middle class arises from the muck and squalor to become merchants and Traders through ambition and competition.   Trades unionized through powerful guilds and petty bureaucracy and tyrants abound, which all made money for the kingdoms, and brought in fancy stuff, which kings like. 

But this middle class was full of “presumptuous upstarts” who were smart enough to position themselves and take risks to better their condition, but these middle classes had to pretend to be servile to the king, down-playing the idiocy of patriarchal lineage as a means to govern, lest the spoiled king just flays them alive and takes their stuff.  So they exist between squalor and a sociopathic tyrant. Equally, they relied on the labor of the trades, so you can’t get too uppity with the workers, but thank God there were still plenty of kids, cats, and peasants to smack around. 

Erich Fromm, in “Escape from Freedom” spends two chapters mapping out the transition from a relatively ‘stable’ closed society- where you had only small freedoms, limited relations, and a fixed role socially- to the burgeoning middle class, fraught with new anxieties, instability, and worse… veiled condescension. 

Fromm says “with the beginning of capitalism all classes of society started to move.   There ceased to be a fixed place in the economic order which could be considered a natural, an unquestionable one.   The individual was left alone; everything depended on his own effort, not on the security of his traditional status.” 

In other words “his was the risk, and his was the gain.” 

This is a new kind of freedom but at the cost of stability. We have talked before about Otto von Bismarck‘s social pyramid, which gave everyone a place in society.   It was a hierarchy mapped over from the military, and with this fixed social stability, people practiced “Bildung” – life-long learning and integration of philosophy and self-education to cultivate learning of one’s self. 

This stability also allowed businesses to thrive, and flourishing capitalism opens up new freedoms to become something more: these are positive freedoms.  Along the way, the dynamic of capitalist potential and ambition, not to mention the scientific revolution, dissolves traditional institutions, such as the church and eventually the monarchy, which of course was probably done by impaling a king’s head on a stake.  Probably after smacking him.

In this new era of freedoms, rationality, and competition, there were frictions with stabilizing traditional authorities who just wanted people to do what they said. However, the social character, shaped by the individual psychology of a burgeoning middle class, cried out for reform.

The protestant reformation used the increasingly individualistic shifts in societal thinking, freedom through cutting out authority, wanting a voice, and mapping them onto your salvation, where you now had direct access (a “personal relationship”) to God.

Fromm quotes Martin Luther often since his ‘individual character’ was representative of the ‘social character’ of the times. The image portrayed is of a tormented man: 

“He hated others, especially the rebel, he hated himself, he hated life; and out of all this hatred came of passionate and desperate striving to be loved.   His whole being was provided by fear, doubt, and inner isolation, and on this personal basis he was to become the champion of social groups which were in a very similar position psychologically.” 

 Martin Luther spoke of submission to God as voluntary, resulting from Love, yet was prodded by a feeling of powerlessness and wickedness…

“God-ward man has no ‘free will,’ but is a captive, slave and servant either to the will of God or to the will of Satan.” 

Martin Luther

So, the Reformation was freedom from the church, but man is not free. Your newfound freedom from authority is used to voluntarily submit to a higher authority… but of course, it is voluntary submission out of love, even if there are lots of threats of burning in hell. 

The burgeoning middle class didn’t want the authority over them, they wanted freedom. But they were told (by Martin Luther) that they can’t earn their salvation from God, the way they earned their place in society. Luther says you are tainted from birth. 

This all echoes the middle-class socio-economic conundrum: you escape one set of rules only to be forced to submit to another more complicated set where you are supposed to love your oppressor. 

Of course, while the peasants had nothing to lose in the Reformation revolution and their souls to gain, the middle class had wealth and position to lose. And interestingly, a stable society NEEDS a large middle-class because if citizens have nothing to defend, only anxiety, precarity, and Ressentiment, they might as well burn down the society. 

Hint hint: economic inequality leads to revolution. 

Overall Luther found a solution to the doubt and uncertainty that plagued him: becoming an instrument in the hands of an overwhelmingly strong power outside of himself.   He uses his free will to give away his freedom… Fromm calls this masochism: rejecting your freedom of choice because the burden is too heavy. 

And, that friends and foes, is the conclusion of the history + religion lesson, but it leads us nimbly into the framework of doubt and insecurity that creates the sadomasochists of the 20th century. 

Step 60: Escape from Freedom

PART II: Modern Times 

“Doubt is the starting point of modern philosophy, the need to silence it had a most powerful stimulus on the development of modern philosophy and science.”

Erich Fromm

 Science, the scientific method just screams rational modernity.   Science used to be nature observation and experiments to prove things false, and it got all rigorous, and categorical, and of course, philosophers wanted to be rigorous and right, and weren’t they observing things too and proving them wrong? 

As we have mentioned before, and as Iris Murdoch says, “Philosophy in the past has played the game of science partly because it thought it was science.”

 Since science is predicated upon doubt (falsification) the debunking of world view, led to a debunking of authority, led to the debunking of the social order, all the way to a debunking of self: doubt everything. 

This newly minted intellectualism, this modern doubt, granted freedom from tradition, and the scientific revolution granted freedom from things like blood-letting and leaches. However, along the way it was a social wrecking ball, leaving a previously well-mapped-out life in turmoil. 

In our family scenario earlier, while Vicky and Valerie had ambitious options, they also began to doubt their place and security as tradespeople.   The doubt forced them to compete or fall behind.   And one look at grubby little leather-sucking Reid wallowing around and they began to have lots of doubts about their future. 

This strain produces a ‘social character’ spread across society, and if you look at Modern Man Erich Fromm says he

“attempts to silence doubt in a compulsive striving for success and the belief that unlimited knowledge of facts can answer the question of certainty, or in the submission to a leader who assumes the responsibility for certainty, all these Solutions can only eliminate the awareness of doubt.”

Erich Fromm

But success and facts do not eliminate the doubt itself… so it festers. Fromm goes on to say doubt itself will not disappear until man overcomes his isolation and his place in the world becomes meaningful

Overcoming isolation to find your meaningful place in the world is difficult, to say the least. Is it any wonder that after attempting to find your personal meaning, while working in a factory 60 hours a week, you are drained and more isolated than ever, and you just want to shed this burden? The “burden” is to be unique and to responsibly use this gift of freedom, on top of simply surviving an increasingly chaotic, competitive world.

Martin Luther is a good example of Freedom getting warped because while he tore down the external authority of the church, cutting out the middle man between you and salvation, his God was an uncaring tyrant you were supposed to love, which immediately deprived these newly freed people of their self-confidence and human dignity.

So they did (choose to be unfree) and freshly stripped of confidence and dignity, the people had no spine to fight the secular authority either, choosing to be unfree at work as well.  To feel better about it, they created elaborate fictions linking wealth with being among God’s chosen (see Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”) or hung onto national myths to make sense of their exploitation and labor. 

As Max Weber says, man became his own slave driver, as the once external compulsion of work became internalized

And in this economic system that is intensely individualistic, driven almost solely by self-interest, individuals are in competition, making them feel even more alone and isolated. Yet we must not forget, man is a social creature, and isolation is possibly the worst pain imaginable, driving people mad. 

In the name of pursuing his individuality and freedom, our once little Reid had gotten a taste for leather… and he entered the shoe business with a passion, proving to be a good shoe merchant.   Too busy to spend time with decrepit Valeri and Vicki, he isolates them as he isolated himself, attempting to climb up and into the pious class by earning more money and wearing tight leather and fashionable shoes. 

He is definitely exercising his strong willpower, and places utmost value on his intellect, as good ole Immanuel Kant suggests.   You must vigilantly control yourself now that the external authorities are absent. Still, the will and intellect alone do not make for a total person.   They may be good watchdogs, but those sensual emotions tied up in there are starting to act up more and more. 

And Reid wonders why his self is acting out against his self? 

But Reid, too busy for much inward contemplation, looks to his social self, the way others view him, for who he is.   Heck, who they say he is is who he is: he a shoe man. 

As disheartening as this is, it is understandable that in a Marxian or Hegelian fashion our despairing Reid feels insignificant, powerless, and alienated, a cog in the machine he helped build, but does not control.   There is a truth here too jarring to look at directly, but in a capitalist manufacturing economic society, all his relationships have become transactions, and even his relationship to himself- the way he treats himself- is as if he is a commodity. 

His social self, that forced jocular vitality wearing nice shoes, sure… it makes him likable.   He is his own advertisement for himself as a product, gauging others’ reactions as a means to assess his own self-esteem. 

Thus Reid is perpetually plagued by doubt and insignificance… in a new world free of all those stifling authorities, with new technology and commodities to empower your freedom, the people are becoming more hollow, less whole, more enmeshed in more dependencies that are less fulfilling. 

More frantic, more trapped, in a world demanding you gleefully (manically) embrace your freedoms. We find the modern man with all these freedoms doesn’t know how to be or find his genuine self.   And out of frustration and despair, a dark shadow underlies the lies of material and social progress: Progress has left the individual behind

And just so you know, it wasn’t as if there weren’t canaries in the mine tweeting the approaching nihilism and plight of the individual: 

Nietzsche offered the concept of the Superman, the [[Übermensch]], as the negation of this insignificant directionless individual. 

Kierkegaard described the helpless individual tormented by doubt and overwhelmed by loneliness. 

Kafka, in his surrealist fashion, described the plight of the modern man in “the castle,” where a man wants to get in touch with the mysterious inhabitants who will show him his place in the world, but he never succeeds, wandering alone and lost until he dies. 

But in a more popular vein, we should look at Mickey Mouse… 

Step 60: Escape from Freedom

Part 3: Micky Mouse

 Remember Matthew Crawford a couple of episodes ago talked about The Mickey Mouse Club show and the Mousekedoer? He mentioned that in older cartoons the world was a dangerous place that fought back against you, objects had a mind of Their Own and were animated and full of Vitality. 

Erich Fromm discusses Walt Disney’s choice of a mouse, Mickey Mouse, as the hero/protagonist of his cartoons. 

Considering the times, this is a strange mascot to relate to, because in general mice are vermin to be eradicated.   This isn’t a hypogrif or lion, but rather something that scurries in the dark. Yet in a time where the world is chaotic and people feel powerless, under attack, and perhaps dreaming of a dark hole into which they could escape to survive, the public could relate to the mouse, and cheer his narrow escapes from the brutal forces of nature, or wicked predators. 

Through the mouse, they were finding some sort of heartening solidarity: they too may find relief from an uncaring world that found them insignificant, powerless, and was busily attempting to squash and eradicate them. 

The question is: Who are we attuned to now in media? What character do we, not worship, but identify with?

Step 59: Gambling, the Death Drive, & Libertarian manufactured experiences,” which pale in comparison.   

(This is part seven of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

My daily habit:

Belly Button Lint

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Natasha Dow Schüll, “Addiction by Design” 2014

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link

personal technologies examples: https://simplicable.com/en/personal-technology

manufacturing certainty, blog post: https://radicaluncertainty.com/2015/12/27/manufacturing-certainty/

Deaths of Despair, Angus Deaton and Anne Case (2020)


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