Issue 129: The Degradation of Freedom
In 1942, Erich Fromm wrote of the pseudo-freedom of western industrialised people, and in today's Sunday Letters, I'm asking whether anything has changed.
Welcome to Issue 129 of Sunday Letters. If you’re wondering what happened to the previous SL format and you missed the announcement, we’ve moved house and done up the place a bit. You can read about the move here.
This week, I’m examining freedom or the absence thereof. The subject is current and apt, given that protests seem commonplace in every major city of the industrialised world these days. Whether it’s outrage at the unlawful death of black Americans, support for an outgoing narcissistic president, riots against the threat to Hong Kong democracy, or demonstrations against Covid restrictions, populations globally are up in arms over infringements to their civil liberty and sense of freedom.
Regarding Covid, the majority seem accepting, albeit reluctantly, of restrictions to free movement and are toeing the line. But many are not. Much to the consternation of the political classes and the conformist middle ground, there is dissent. What is it about this group of people that takes them to the streets in protest in the middle of a pandemic? Are they prepared to risk their lives for their voice to be heard? Is the pandemic a hoax, or are they simply misinformed? (I’m not going to try to answer that one today). Perhaps they are already marginalised, frustrated and ordinarily at odds with the society in which they live, and now Covid has broken their will to patience.
What about the rest of us occupying the middle ground? Maybe we’ve become too soft, too docile, manipulated by media organisations and political actors and pacified by consumerism so much that we can’t see the prison bars. Maybe our comfort has not yet been disrupted to sufficient extents to take us to the streets. What if you were on the bread line and have been there all your life; would you think differently about what’s going on? What’s true is that if we are unwilling to challenge official lines and accept the actions of those who do as fulfilling an important purpose, then we are at risk of becoming what Erich Fromm called “automatised people.” Maybe we are already.
This week on Sunday Letters, I’m bringing you social psychologist, Erich Fromm’s perspective of the human condition from a time when the world was at war and asking, has anything changed? Fashion has changed, our work is different, and living standards are arguably higher than our early 20th Century predecessors, but has our psychology, in fact, changed?
The Fear of Freedom
In 1942 at the peak of European conflict, from his US vantage point, Erich Fromm wrote that on the surface, the majority of people seemed to operate successfully under all economic and social measures1. However, scratch the surface, he said, and there’s deep-seated psychological unhappiness, unconscious suffering on the part of “automatised” people. In Europe, this unhappiness surfaced, was amplified by propaganda, and overtook ordinary people's minds to devastating effects. We want to assume that today, we have learned from our mistakes, that we are more aware of our own psychological state and the external forces that would seek to command it. But when I examine popular culture and observe how things are on the ground where I live, I see that’s not true.
Fascism and its violent intolerance for anything outside its dogmatic ideals was the overwhelming threat to social stability in Fromm’s time. Or, indeed, we could say that it was society’s response to it. Regardless, its rise was experienced in Europe as a pronounced sense of nationalism and prejudice towards minorities, with main protagonists Germany, Spain and Italy sharing political ideologies. Fromm says that at the heart of the Fascist movement and society’s willingness to adopt it, was feelings of powerlessness, isolation and lack of identity on the part of individuals. At a collective level, these needs gravitated towards an extreme ideal to which people could belong. With the collapse of the old-world powers of Europe, Fromm argued, people were finally free of an oppressive order and could embrace democratic systems. They had the opportunity to construct a new representative social system, but they didn’t. Instead, they ran straight into the arms of autocratic rulers.
In today’s society, we believe ourselves to be more advanced and mature than our contemporaries of that time. We consider our democratic society free and prosperous, that it supports everyone relatively equally, allows us to pursue our sense of individuality, and upholds our right to demonstrate and bring authorities to account for inhuman and often illegal decisions. But I wonder if that’s true (no, I don’t, I know it’s not). Erich Fromm suggested that feelings of insignificance and powerlessness of the individual are the greatest threat to freedom. To me, that’s no less apparent today than it was one hundred years ago. Not since Fromm’s time have generations of people on a global scale been under the weight of multiple threats at once, and the pressure is intense.
As I read Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom, it appears it was written yesterday, and it is clear to me that humanity has not progressed at all. Progressed perhaps scientifically, economically, and technologically, but not emotionally or psychologically. There are so many examples of this it doesn’t bear making an account here. Western industrialised culture has, it seems, regressed, or at best, stagnated from the perspective of individual freedom. We broke free from monarchies and into the arms of the Church. We broke free from the Church and into the arms of totalitarianism. We find freedom from that, and then we enslave ourselves to Capitalism. We seem not to want freedom at all, and now we have the added complication of a global pandemic that has taken us further away from our ideals of a free society. The cracks in our social structures are very much on show.
"No, nothing makes sense, nothing seems to fit. I know you'd hit out, if you only knew who to hit. And I'd join the movement, if there was one I could believe in. Yeah I'd break bread and wine, if there was a church I could receive in."- Paul Hewson
The Inherent Social Dysfunction
In many ways, we are formed by the culture of our birth, and in that, we have no choice. We rarely question it. Attend school, get a job, learn the ropes, find a partner, get married, and perhaps raise a family; that’s the script. Although the details change through the generations, it pretty much remains the same from culture to culture. I’m born into a family, and that family represents what Fromm called the “psychic agency” of society. I learn from my family what is expected of me in the big bad world and take the neurosis of that experience with me. All the while, the world extends its tentacles into my developing self, telling me how to live and work, what ideals to strive for, who to be and so on, always constructing in me in the socially typical character.
The social character on which Fromm wrote throughout his career2 seems not to have become healthier but sicker as the decades passed. I look around at the world in which I live, and I see no real change for the better. In fact, our reliance on material gain, status, and social reinforcement of self has arguably become more profound and damaging. Browse Instagram, for example, take in an hour or two of reality TV, or read the most popular advice online, and we can see the depths of the depravity. The media, recognising our deep-seated desires, enhance the most destructive aspects of the human character to get our attention and sell us shit we don’t need. To further anaesthetise ourselves, we become immersed in the fake lives of others. Is it no wonder that people feel so lost and at odds with their existence under these conditions? We are apparently wealthy, but we are not free.
I reject the view that restrictions on movement due to Covid are the cause of the current unease and dissent in society. The dysfunction has existed for a long time; it’s just Covid became the piss in our tea. It brought down the house. It revealed the flaw in our armour. The restrictions that became necessary due to the pandemic brought to the surface those feelings of insecurity and helplessness that from spoke of in 1942. Up until recently, we self-medicated with a variety of treatments that are now out of reach. The current crisis has highlighted our deep-seated insecurities and reliance on a system that serves only to reinforce the reality that we’re not in control of our lives. Some people have become more anxious and depressed as a result; others have decided to fight about it. I can’t say which is the right or wrong response, only that both are valid.
Work & The Loss of Freedom
In Fromm’s theory of the ideal social character, the average 1940s person had become an automaton under the control of an invisible authority. However, at the same time, they felt they were a free and conscious agent. In a newly developing technological society, work provided a sort of pseudo-freedom, Fromm suggested, whereby individuals adopted dominant thought patterns and made them their own. They were not thinking for themselves but rather thinking what they are taught to think, all the while sensing that something wasn’t quite right. It is a kind of “cognitive unawareness”, and today therapists offer treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to combat its effect. The real pandemic in our so-called developed society is a psychological discordance with oneself which Covid has amplified.
What we experience in today’s neo-capitalist society is the same phenomenon for which Fromm accounted. Through the drive towards personal wealth and individuality, which according to Fromm’s argument, reinforces personal insecurity and powerlessness, we experience a loss of self. Work has become the means by which we express our false freedom, and our sense of self has become entirely wrapped up in it. How does that fit now for those who have lost their job, not to mention incurring the restrictions imposed on their movement? I can only imagine the turmoil, so many people are feeling. For the rest of us who can still work, our employers have invaded our private space like never before, and there is no longer separation.
We used to compartmentalise our working lives, which helped us cope with the challenges it presented. But in the current pandemic, it occupies the same physical and psychological space. Add to this the vast swathes of people who already feel lost and at odds with their work, and we have a real problem. I know this because they’ve told me. 32% of people responding to an ad hoc survey I’ve been running for about six months now rate themselves between 1 and 6 on a ten-point scale of happiness with their daily work (1 = low happiness, 10 = high happiness).
In my somewhat unscientific analysis, I set 7 as the benchmark for what I term entry-level happiness sufficient to sustain our interest in any work for long periods. In other words, if respondents were hitting a 6 or lower, they should strongly reconsider what constitutes their working life. My own personal experience backs up my contention that work, for many people, has become a soul-destroying, unsatisfactory, means-to-an-end existence. The way of life into which we have been born, the one that promised so much, insisted success and happiness are at the other side of material gain, has failed.
This is old news. Generations have been enslaved by an ageing ideology that says we must go to college, get a job, work hard, and everything will work out just fine. We are in financial debt to corporations to crippling extents; we work meaningless jobs3 and labour more hours today than our parents and grandparents did in the 1960s. And this comes despite optimistic predictions from influential economist John Maynard Keynes in 19304, that by 2000 we’d be working less than twenty hours per week and filling our days with leisure activities.
What happened there?
It’s All A Bit Depressing.
I realise I’m presenting a dark picture here, but in fairness, it can’t get much darker for a lot of people. The bottom line is that how we live really doesn’t serve us very well, nor does it serve the planet. We walk our world pretending to be someone but never our authentic selves. To be authentic, to speak our minds is an impossible feat. We might do a good job at maintaining the facade, even convincing ourselves in the process that we are free, but as Fromm said, it’s a kind of pseudo-freedom.
Sean St. Jean writes5 that, similar to Fromm, Sigmund Freud believed we veil ourselves beneath elaborate illusions to mask or dilute what he called “the misery of life.” However, Freud believed that if we can bring into awareness the fictitious character we have assigned this misery, we could transform our lives. The truth is that every one of us is hurting and so none of us is free. We carry with us perhaps an unresolvable pain that we hide deep inside us, and often we don’t even know it’s there, we just see the effect of it. In difficult times it becomes increasingly difficult to keep it hidden.
Now, you might criticise me for weighing in on the negative side of life a little too much here, but the fact is, there’s no benefit in denying that we are bleeding from the neck. We have been for some time, and it’s only so long before we bleed-out. We carry with us the psychic blueprint of a disorder handed down from generation to generation. Unless we find out how to resolve our own inner conflict, society’s conflicts will continue unabated, and we will never be truly free. We might wear our hair differently, drive nicer cars, and have faster internet, but the same fundamental problems remain.
Fromm, E. (2021). The fear of freedom. Routledge.
Fromm, E. (2013). Man for himself: An inquiry into the psychology of ethics (Vol. 102). Routledge.
Graeber, D. (2013). On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.strike.coop/bullshit-jobs/
Maynard Keynes, J. (1930), “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in Essays in Persuasion (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), 358-373
St Jean, S. (2016). Lessons from the Late Erich Fromm: Novel Ideas for Social Work Theory and Practice That Were Ahead of Their Time. Canadian Social Work Review/Revue canadienne de service social, 33(2), 255-271.