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Escape from Freedom Paperback – September 15, 1994
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“An analysis par excellence of our cultural neurosis. -The Nation” ―The Nation
“An important and challenging work.” ―The New York Herald Tribune
“Fromm's thought merits the critical attention of all concerned with the human condition and its future.” ―The Washington Post
About the Author
Erich Fromm was a German-born U.S. psychoanalyst and social philosopher who explored the interaction between psychology and society. His works include The Art of Loving, Psychoanalysis and Religion, and Man for Himself. He died in 1980.
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Essentially, he views the rise of capitalism in the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance to be the beginning of man's conflict with the modern sense of freedom. Within the Feudal system of the Middle Ages, man was shackled to his social position for his entire life. This was before the idea of economic competition was introduced, and man of the Middle Ages had not to worry about climbing the ladder of success. Although the restriction is obvious, Fromm argues that there was also much security in this system that allowed for man to live a life unburdened by the idea of prosperity. However, by the end of the Middle Ages, "the unity and centralization of the medieval society became weaker...In Italy, for the first time, the individual emerged from feudal society and broke ties which had been giving him security and narrowing him at one in the same time." The Renaissance was a splendid time for those who profited, but it also gave birth to the frustrated masses. "The masses who did not share the wealth and power of the ruling group had lost the security of their former status and had become a shapeless mass, to be flattered or threatened - but always to be manipulated and exploited." Although the economic freedom allowed one the ability to gain as much capital as their efforts rewarded, the very idea of capitalism cheapened life. "All human relationships were poisoned by this fierce life-and-death struggle for the maintenance of wealth and power. Solidarity with one's fellow men - or at least with the members of one's own class - was replaced by a cynical, detached attitude; other individuals were looked upon as 'objects' to be used and manipulated, or they were ruthlessly destroyed if it suited one's own ends. The individual was absorbed by a passionate egocentricity, an insatiable greed for power and wealth." Man is inseparable from his possessions. He is willing to betray his own moral standings in order to continue in the game of capital. The middle and lower classes have become a mere fake smile to sell their services.
Whereas capitalism only covers freedom in the economic sense, Fromm also devotes a great deal of his book to the relationship between freedom and authoritarianism. This idea can be broken down into two sub-groups: religion and fascism. Although these deal more with the death of individuality in a spiritual sense, they too are intertwined with economic status. In the Feudal system of the Middle Ages, before all of the competition and unrest, Catholicism reigned supreme. "There was much suffering and pain [in the Middle Ages], but there was also the church which made this suffering more tolerable by explaining it as a result of the sin of Adam and the individual sins of each person. While the church fostered a sense of guilt, it also assured the individual of her unconditional love to all her children and offered a way to acquire the conviction of being forgiven and loved by God." However, during the rise of capitalism in the Renaissance, money became the new God in a sense, the supra-personal force that determined personal fate. This left the middle and lower classes dissatisfied, disillusioned, and in search of meaning beyond capital. Thus began the period of reformation, when Calvinism and Lutheranism came into popularity. "The new religions were not the religions of a wealthy upper class but the urban middle class, the poor in cities, and the peasants. They carried an appeal to these groups because they gave expression to a new feeling of freedom and independence as well as to the feeling of powerlessness and anxiety by which their members were pervaded." Martin Luther, described by Fromm as a hate-filled man, championed a religion based on total submission to the authority of God, one widely adopted by persons of similar woe. Luther's ideology offered salvation "by giving up every vestige of individual will, by renouncing and denouncing [one's] individual strength." John Calvin took submission to a new level, introducing a God based in the idea of predestination. In Calvinism, one is destined to Heaven or Hell before birth, accentuating the helplessness exhibited in Lutheranism. Both religions are based in the feelings of vulnerability of their founders, and both took power away from the dollar and placed it back in the hands of a much more cruel and indifferent God. "This picture of a despotic God, who wants unrestricted power over men and their submission and humiliation, was the projection of the middle class's own hostility and envy." Ever since the rise of capitalism over 500 years ago, religion and economic struggle have gone hand in hand. In a world of personal gains, why praise God if you have all of the worldly possessions you could ask for?
Fascism, the other half of authoritarianism, is essentially the same as religion, except man takes the place of God. Fromm, who fled the Nazi's, chose to make them and Adolf Hitler the face of his chapter on fascism. He describes Hitler as the epitome of the sado-masochistic character, someone who loved and despised the German masses. He hungered for complete control of Germany (and eventually the world), and this hunger stemmed from anger and frustration. "He felt very intensely the role of being an outcast. He often speaks in Mein Kampf of himself as the 'nobody,' the 'unknown man' he was in his youth." As a young man, he played the role of the masochist until the submission became too much to bear. Hitler took on the role of the sadist and promoted himself as the savior of the German masses who were shattered by the loss of WWI. His Nazi ideals are shockingly similar to that of Luther or Calvin. "The masochistic side of the Nazi ideology and practice is most obvious with respect to the masses. They are told again and again: the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept this personal insignificance, dissolve himself in a higher power, and then feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power." Naziism wasn't based solely on submission, however; Hitler created a hierarchy in which "everybody has somebody above him to submit to and somebody beneath him to feel power over." His racism and anti-Semitism gave the members of the Nazi party a false sense of superiority that religions didn't offer. This aspect is what sold the German masses on Naziism. It offered them the confidence they sorely needed, but in exchange for their individual identity and sense of universal brotherhood.
Religion and fascism were overtly obvious ways to escape the hells of freedom and all of the anxieties that come along with it, but Fromm also investigates how the 'modern man,' with all his freedom, conforms to more hidden forms of authority. In his segment entitled 'Automaton Conformity,' he sheds light on just how highly suggestible humans are to outside opinion. In earlier chapters, he explained how what we view as our conscience, or moral compass, is made up entirely of what authorities around us deem to be acceptable. In saying that, Fromm refutes the ideas that humans are born inherently good or bad, instead stating that any morality that exists within us was instilled in us at a young age. If our individual ethics are a sham, why not all of our thoughts and opinions? Fromm compares the size of the Democratic and Republican parties to that of 'mammoth organizations of industry.' People are frightened of the magnitude and impersonality of the candidates up for election, yet are pressured by the system to vote for one or the other. He refers to the relationship between the candidate and the voter as 'abstract.' Political propaganda misinforms and shapes how the voters think. "[T]hey flatter the individual by making him appear important, and by pretending that they appeal to his critical judgment, to his sense of discrimination. But these pretenses are essentially a method to dull the individual's suspicion's and to help him fool himself as to the individual character of his decision." Fromm likens this kind of manipulation to hypnosis, the implantation of ideas or feelings thought to be genuine to each person. "Ask an average newspaper reader what he thinks about a certain political question. He will give you as 'his' opinion a more or less exact account of what he has read, and yet - and this is the essential point - he believes that what he is saying is the result of his own thinking." Fromm goes so far as to say "for many people an experience which they have had, an artistic performance or a political meeting they have attended, becomes real to them only after they have read about it in the newspaper." Replace 'newspaper' with 'online' or 'television' and he's right on the money. Adopting opinions from outside sources begins in the suppression of critical thinking in a person's youth. We are taught what is right and wrong with no room for doubt. A major problem in the school system is that it teaches students to retain random, disjointed facts in favor of critical thinking. Because the mind becomes so bloated with all of these little pieces of information, it clouds the child's ability to use independent reason. Also in a person's journey to becoming an automaton, our sexuality and emotions are suppressed as well. Children are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and urges, and "[t]o be 'emotional' has become synonymous with being unsound or unbalanced. By the acceptance of this standard the individual has become has become greatly weakened; his thinking is impoverished and flattened." Although the trend of shaming sexuality is at an all-time low, the suppression of emotion has debatably worsened as time has passed. As he points out in a section about the bastardization of serious news, we see dire political situations interrupted for advertisements of soap or wine. "Because of all this we cease to be genuinely related to what we hear. We cease to be excited, our emotions and our critical judgment become hampered, and eventually our attitude to what is going on in the world assumes a quality of flatness and indifference." In summation, Fromm, while still pointing out the small points of why we Americans are free in the popular sense (wide varieties of choices in almost every aspect of our lives), focuses on how our actions, emotions, opinions, and thoughts are either consciously or subconsciously ruled by our feeling of isolation and will to conform. Although he offers a solution to our sense of hopelessness ("Only if man masters society and subordinates the economic machine to the purpose of human happiness and only if he actively participates in the social process, can he overcome what now drives him into despair."), it comes off as an impossibility that not even Fromm believes is feasible.
Escape from Freedom is a seriously thought-provoking work by a great mind, but I actually hesitated in giving it a five-star rating. While the only aspect that bothered me about the actual book was its repetition, I couldn't ignore the fact that much of what he had to say has become typical, almost trite, over the years. We as a species have moved into the postmodernist phase where essentially everything has become a joke or a 'meme.' Fromm's once revelatory ideas are now being spouted out of the mouths of every fedora-tipping Redditor or the stereotypical first-year psychology majors. To avoid allowing my judgment to be clouded by my prejudices, I chose to rate this book on its relevance in the year 1941 when it was published. Although it's still an informative read in the year 2015, Escape from Freedom must have been quite a jolt to the armchair thinkers of the 1940s.
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