In my Honors course we’re reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, one of my favorite books. It raises questions about the nature of freedom and life in the modern world, essentially arguing that the enlightenment goal of human liberation is far more difficult to achieve than the enlightenment philosophers believed.
The problem comes from the fact humans are, by nature, not completely discrete separate individuals. Humans have individual identity, but also rely on “primary bonds” connecting the individual to both nature and community. How we think, our psychological well being, and our sense of security of self relies on these bonds. Up until the time of the enlightenment this was not problematic. Humans lived with, relied on and were connected to both nature and community.
Enlightenment thinkers, however, took as their mission human liberation. Humans have been tied down by religion, tradition, irrational cultural norms and wealthy leaders for too long, they argued. Humans should be free to use reason and rational thought to make their own choices, freely acting in the world, responsible for the lives they lead. In theory this sounds great, but human liberation in these terms also meant destroying the bonds of community and nature that are so important in providing meaning to human life.
Simply, the enlightenment’s quest for liberation over simplified the task by thinking all that was necessary was to break free of constraints on liberty. They didn’t recognize the psychological impact of that move, and how breaking these bonds actually creates real hardship for individuals. Yet Fromm and others from the Frankfurt school don’t want to reject the enlightenment project. Human liberation is still the goal. But “freedom from constraint” is not enough to achieve it. Unless we can find a way to replace or compensate for the loss of those bonds (nature and community), the psychological cost of “freedom from constraint” is so high that it often creates negative personal and social consequences. Fromm’s focus was the rise of Nazism, as the fascists provided an apparent answer to those psychological dilemmas — ultimately a false answer.
I’ve already discussed how identity is not just individual, but also a social construct. This leads to at least three problems associated with the nature of modern freedom.
First, our actions, driven by subconscious drives spurred by the alienation and anxiety caused by having our bonds with nature and community broken, create a system that in some ways is above us, a new kind of God. We conform to the system, and what gets defined as normal and acceptable gets taken as natural and true; we lose our critical insight, we think that the world as we experience — our “common sense” — is valid. Other ideas (or cultures) are thus strange and bizarre. As with hypnosis society’s suggestions can form the way we think, what our preferences are, and even our core values. We think we are free rational choosing individuals, but can become (in varying degrees) conforming automatons, programmed by a society created by those who came before us.
Second, we construct our own “magic helpers” as Fromm calls them, to place our faith in and to find meaning from. This doesn’t have to be a religion, but can be an ideology or principle. If you use an abstract set of principles or an ideology to make decisions and determine life’s meaning, you’ve counteracted the impact of freedom by creating a new “truth/God” to adhere to. Unlike the original bonds of nature and community, this truth is abstract and subjective (even if one thinks the principles are universal and objective). It can lead to extremes, and exert itself as an authoritarian personality. My principle is right, all others should adhere to it or they are wrong, and thus need to be stopped! I will follow my party, leader, nation, religion, or whatever authority I now hold high, wherever it leads! This is the core cause of fascism, as well as religious and ideological extremism.
Finally, we are easily manipulated by those who possess wealth and power to think a certain way. Just as the system’s “common sense” can program us, marketers, political leaders, media outlets and others can actively construct a world view. For instance, Fox viewers in a recent poll are twice as likely as others to fear Sharia law. Now, there is absolutely no threat that sharia law could be imposed in the US for a variety of reasons. But over 40% of Fox viewers fear it because that media outlet has people on who paint it as a real threat. That statistic alone shows how powerful the media can be in shaping opinions! The manipulation is often subtle. Most marketing is NOT directed at affecting your rational choice — giving information to help you decide what to buy. Rather, the goal is to tug at your emotions and get you to feel a certain way. When you drive buy McDonalds with your family the emotions generated by the feel good family commercials for McDonalds, hardly mentioning the food at all, can create a certain “will” to choose to eat there with the family. They know that, marketers admit that is what they go for, and yet most people believe their choices to be rational and objective.
The solution — re-establish bonds with nature and with community (others) — seems simple enough. Indeed the rise of social media seems to come from that desire to have community. But the bonds need to be positive (they help us have security and a sense of wholeness) rather than negative (driven by anxiety and insecurity). That’s what is difficult. The modern world can be cold and isolating, our consumer culture defines value in material terms, and success by the money you make and the products you own. With unnatural and even manipulative bonds being offered (such as ‘branding’ – identifying with a brand name) it’s easy to get lost in a culture in which the freedom to define yourself is a herculean task.
In my next post, I want to address possibilities along those lines. We can’t go back to pre-modern communal structures and cultural authority. Indeed, I would not want to go back there. I am an individualist, I want to be liberated, not manipulated or forced to follow traditional cultural norms. Yet I am a human, and as John Donne noted, “no man is an island.” I am not fully human if disconnected form nature or others around me. The key both for individual peace of mind as well as for having a stable society is to find a way to have healthy “natural” bonds replace those destroyed by modernism.