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Step 61: Escape from Freedom (pt 2)

Why would anyone want to escape from Freedom?

Psychologically freedom is a tremendous burden, especially in a competitive society commoditizing your individuality. Erich Fromm in “Escape from Freedom” maps out three means to escape the anxiety, isolation, and doubt of the Modern Age: Sadomasochism (aka authoritarianism), Destruction, and Automaton Conformity.

The burden to be uniquely you within a society demanding submission or conformity leads people to want freedom, and one response is “negative freedom” which is like a man on an island, free from external restraint, governments, or social life. However, if his goal in life is to be beneficial to others, he must re-enter society while finding a way to maintain his individual integrity and find the means to realize his goals. This is “positive freedom,” or internally motivated agency.

People often want both positive and negative freedom, but in a society, the freedoms of others constrain your freedoms. As well, positive freedom often takes the path of libidinal desires being liberated, but if we are manipulated by mimetic desire, then our desires are not truly our own.

In short, how can an individual be assured they are authentic and thinking genuine thoughts, instead of pseudo thoughts? And how do we protect democracy from those escaping freedom? Fromm says it is through integrated individuals practicing spontaneity.

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

Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm (1942)

Part 4: Escape Mechanisms

  • Authoritarianism/Sadomasochism
  • Destructive
  • Automaton Conformity

Part 5: Freedom & democracy

  • Freedom from truth


escape from freedom erich fromm
Step 61: Escape from Freedom (part 2)

PART 4: Escape Mechanisms

The first Escape mechanism from freedom is authoritarianism, which is underpinned by sadomasochism.

To continue our story, our old buddy Reid isn’t doing so well

Since losing Vicky and Valerie, first to his shoe empire ambition and social climbing, and later to diphtheria and scarlet fever, he feels lost and needs something to latch onto.

Fromm says he has a choice, where he can choose “positive freedom:” to relate to the world spontaneously using his full self, sensual emotional and intellectual, to relate to the world without giving up integrity of his self.

Or, in an unbearable state of isolation, aloneness, and insecurity, he may choose to bond or relate to the world by giving away his freedom. Near a state of panic, he may (as Fromm says) try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between his individual self and the world.

Unfortunately, this requires surrendering individuality.

Sure, surrendering assuages the anxiety, fear, and loneliness temporarily, but it does not solve the underlying problem and is paid for by a kind of life that consists only of automatic or compulsive activities.

Reid, exhausted and alone, frustrated, disparaging himself, meets John at church. John is running for political office. He reminds Reid frequently that Reid is a sinner, and to be a better person Reid needs to work harder to do more for others… like John.

And it really is a bother for John to have to waste his time disciplining and berating Reid, he is an important man after all. And though it’s embarrassing, really, John assures him all of this humiliation is for Reid’s own good… so Reid continues to submit, to be exploited and controlled.

Fromm says it is easy enough to understand the SADIST in a world where one lacks control and stability, lacks importance and meaning, that controlling someone else re-asserts their power, and that bolsters their identity. Thus the sadist, though cruel, really needs (and is reliant on) the masochist, forming a strong bond with them.

More difficult to explain maybe the MASOCHIST, but by submitting and releasing (or immolating) their individuality (the self) they tie themselves to another, someone stronger, and feel more secure, more seen, more significant, even if it hurts. The real aim is to forget oneself and release burdens.

For most, both character traits exist in tandem to varying degrees, hence calling it a sadomasochistic character, where the traits that make the sadist authoritarian are also seen in the masochists, who are drawn to strength, authority and power, and if presented with the opportunity would possibly dominate or become sadistic as well.

When Fromm speaks of Hitler, whom he quotes from Mien Kampf, he talks of his fascination with authority, a reverence that hinted at the masochism of needing a power, cozying up to power, and then rebelling against them for perceived weaknesses. In the end, no one is strong enough, the authoritarian invokes the power of fate and destiny so he can keep fighting rather than feeling powerless.

This is common for the authoritarian, to use fate as a tool: it allows him to claim freedom and independence while declaring there is a destiny to which we must submit. That “fate” curtails our freedoms… for our own good, of course. The authoritarian will always lean on a higher power for more power.

The authoritarians (Fromm says they are sadomasochists) are not revolutionaries expanding rights: they are mercenary rebels driven by emotion to diminish others.

Interestingly, if a sadomasochist sees an authority figure they adore apologize or show weakness, they turn on them immediately. The leader they once worshiped may stumble, this “object of their affection” is the source of their own identity’s power and strength, and they react as if the leader betrayed them personally. Everything is a power relation to the authoritarian, nothing else makes sense to them.

Fromm says both sadism and masochism are the outcomes of one basic need: the inability to bear the isolation and weakness of one’s own self.

The next escape mechanism of escape from freedom: Destruction

We touched on the Death Drive during the last episode, where a feeling of unbearable isolation and powerlessness can lead to anxiety, feeling out of control, and wanting to lash out, but without an object to lash out against, some people turn the violence against themselves, which provides stillness and peace, the respite of death.

When you cannot get what you want or desire powerlessness can lead to destruction, not some control or submission dynamic. Rather than attempting symbiosis, like the sadomasochist, those with destructive tendencies seek to eliminate their object or obstacle.

This is when Valerie says to Vicki: “If I can’t have you no one will.” The object of affection has become identified as the path to happiness, and when Vicki trounces away the amount of heartbreak is equal to the amount of destruction.

“It would seem that the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount of which expansiveness of life is curtailed.“

Erich Fromm

Fromm says life has an inner dynamism, it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived.” if that energy is thwarted it is channeled into destruction.

“Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.“

Erich Fromm

The final escape mechanism from the burden of freedom: automaton conformity

Rather than renouncing individual integrity, or destroying others so that the world ceases to be threatening, most normal people become adapted to the cultural patterns of their society. As a matter of fact, they operate too perfectly, precisely as they should, the price of which is also the loss of self.

Remember Reid earlier, a smiling working busybody, who packaged himself for society in fancy shoes and leather? And when he went looking for himself, who he was, he could only rely on how others perceived him? And of course, their view was shallow and based on his occupation.

This is a problem for democracy.

People assume they’re individuals, but often it’s an illusion of incepted desires, also known as Mimetic Desires. Beyond desire, we think we are unique, while we regurgitate thoughts introduced to us from outside. Pressed on it, we claim they were our original ideas.

This is a curious double-bind Allan Watts speaks of, where society tells people to “Act naturally,” which really means act as a “normal person” in your place would act. By acting as a conformist, you reassure society you are willing to forego your unique self.

Here Fromm distinguishes between genuine and pseudo thinking, or genuine ideals and false ideals. Psuedo thinking may be rational, but it’s not original or unique to the person. Thus, like a zombie robot, they remain beholden to social norms for any circumstance on how to behave.

“Every repression illuminates part of one’s real self and enforces the substitution of a pseudo feeling for the one which has been repressed.“

Erih Fromm

Like a mind-invasion horror flick, this loss of identity, as pieces of pseudo thinking and acting replace more and more of the real self, to cover it over, until eventually the image of the pseudo self is all that is left.

To maintain this false image, this pseudo self, they must continuously seek approval from others. Desperately wanting to relive any doubts about their place in society their insecurity makes them readily submit to a popular opinion without thought.

Just pick a team, wear the jersey, and chant the slogans.

Step 61: Escape from Freedom (part 2)

PART 5: Freedom & Democracy

This is the complicated part, where I asked you to picture what our society looks like right now.

On the extremes of the right, we had Brexit and Trump, as a reaction against a system that it disenfranchised or alienated people, and they voted not for logic or reason, but for power and disruption. They also voted for a reversion to nationalism and chose a bully as their mascot. On the left, we had race riots and the flexing of social power to cancel the powerful or at least make them quake. We now have language policing and repressive tolerance demanding submission in the name of solidarity.

Both of these extremes are divisive as if we’re avoiding reason to consolidate power, speeding up, and demanding less individual thought and more tribal conformity.

After reading Fromm, it feels like the burden of making decisions daily, exercising freedom and genuine thinking, with all the manipulation, exploitation, lack of trust, and lack of meaning or true agency, is just too exhausting… better to be a cheerleader than a player. Which is, oddly, a great combo of sadomasochistic and automaton behavior.

Indeed, 80 years ago Fromm said fascism could rise in America.

As a democracy, our strength is the strength of the individual. When the individual is hollowed out, either selfishly sadistic, masochistic, or destructive we are compulsively driven by emotional turmoil, and our democracy will reflect that ‘social character’ of repressed turmoil into a leader.

If we are a nation of group-think automaton drones manipulated by big data and catchy slogans, envision Pleasantville but with guns and Harleys, or maybe it’s Pleasantville with iPhones and athleisure, either way, that level of group-think populism stems from the insecurity of our citizens.

“The right to express our thoughts, however, means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own.“

Erich Fromm

And this is where this podcast has been going for several episodes: if a democracy relies on individuals making intelligent decisions to shape it’s path into the future, we need healthy, whole individuals, not hacked zombie robot cheerleaders.

Escape from Truth

One last authority has been destroyed, granting us tremendous freedom from responsibility: truth. Truth has been discredited.

Fromm, writing in 1942, digs deeper into how “truth” is manipulated into a metaphysical concept, where it becomes relative, kind of like post-truth. Intellectually we take the truth, and focus on linguistic usage and categorization, denuding it of its purpose, abstracting it until it fragments and loses context and meaning: we are forgetting that truth’s use is to aid in the needs of individuals and social groups.

Truth, after all, is the strongest weapon for the weak who have no power. In disempowering truth, we dismantle the ability for us to know the truth of ourselves, which – again- undercuts our strength as a democracy. We, those on the inside, not the foreign states, become the biggest threat to our democracy.

Fromm says of our democracy, that it is the only system that allows for life-affirming full development of the individual, rather than subordinating life to extraneous ends in order to weaken individuality.

The goal is to become a society of integrated whole individuals, capable of spontaneity, of uniting humans with nature. To do this, we need to provide the cultural conditions that allow the individual to remain decentralized rather than subsumed into the apparatus.

But individually, Fromm says the spontaneous act, the action itself “gives strength to the self and forms the basis of integrity.”

“For the self is as strong as it is active.”

To be active, to act organically, spontaneously, not compulsively, is to live, it is to exist in the present moment… the result is not important, it is the experience of acting in the present that relates you to the world, where you reacquire your place in the world moment after moment, requiring no illusions.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now–when?”

Talmudic Saying Mishnah, Abot

My daily habit:

Belly Button Lint

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Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Allan Watts, The Book


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