Why Do People Flee Dictatorship, and Then Flee Freedom?

Years ago, in 1941, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm published a book called “Escape from Freedom”.

Amazon summarizes the book as follows: The pursuit of freedom has indelibly marked Western culture since Renaissance humanism and Protestantism began the fight for individualism and self-determination. This freedom, however, can make people feel unmoored, and is often accompanied by feelings of isolation, fear, and the loss of self, all leading to a desire for authoritarianism, conformity, or destructiveness.

It is not only the question of freedom that makes Fromm’s debut book a timeless classic. In this examination of the roots of Nazism and fascism in Europe, Fromm also explains how economic and social constraints can also lead to authoritarianism.

Fromm wrote his book in the time of Hitler, just as America was about to enter World War II, the war whose purpose (among others) was to defeat Hitler.

Wikipedia writes, summarizing Fromm’s view, In the process of becoming freed from authority, we are often left with feelings of hopelessness (he likens this process to the individuation of infants in the normal course of child development) that will not abate until we use our ‘freedom to’ and develop some form of replacement of the old order.

Fromm was a psychoanalyst. He focused more on attachment issues from childhood than he did fundamental premises and underlying ideas of grown adults. To a psychoanalyst, we are our childhoods — even into our 80s — more than we are our fundamental, underlying ideas. I don’t agree, but that was the prevailing view of his time.

Nevertheless, he made astute points.

Whether we’re talking about societies or individuals, freedom is frightening to some. As Fromm points out, the history of the Western World — after the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance in Europe and culminating in the United States — has been one of individualism and self-determination. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, popular self-help literature focused on self-esteem, “finding oneself” and doing away with neurotic ways of thought such as “codependence” which refers to an unhealthy need to care for others.

Somehow, in more recent times, maybe since 9/11 or maybe earlier, something happened. It’s deeper than politics. We see the political trends we do — toward socialism, militantly and absolutely away from individualism — because of what has happened in the hearts and minds of many people. Political choices are the consequence of individual psychological states, fueled by underlying ideas, and — for better or worse — most people make these political choices with their feelings.

A person who feels frightened and unmoored turns to “powers greater than myself” to moor him. What happens when that “power greater than myself” turns out to be other people? Or society? Or government? That’s when the stage is set for an escape from freedom. Because once freedom no longer appeals to a person — or the majority of a society — then all that’s left is some kind of self-imposed slavery.

The advocates of socialism gaining ground in American politics and culture will claim, “You’re already enslaved to the capitalist state.” Their premise is that someone is forcing you to care about and purchase the items on the mass market we identify with the capitalist system. Yet the unstated premise here is that, “Well, you’re not free anyway, so you might as well not be free under a socialist state.” Instead of voluntarily handing over your money to private enterprise — or not doing so, since it’s a choice — you will now be forced to hand all of your money over to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Elizabeth Warren. For your own good, of course. Only a deeply frightened and alienated person could succumb to such a thing.

Why would anyone wish to escape freedom? Why do so many human beings so often run from despots and tyrants, and then — once free — run from freedom itself? That’s a question that human history will need more time to answer. The greatest example of freedom and liberty — by far — was the United States. Ironically, the United States is a history of people who fled oppression: first the British monarchy, then slavery, then the totalitarian chains threatened by fascism, Nazism and Communism.

How did America morph from a nation of individualists craving and cherishing liberty to a nation where perhaps now half openly embrace totalitarian collectivism, in a bureaucratic state to be run by politicians who deem what’s for their own good?

A part of me still doesn’t believe it. A part of me thinks even the people voting for socialists will rise up and rebel against their own chains once they start to realize what they have done.

But another part of me understands the power of irrational fear. And irrational fear is what leads to this sense of feeling “unmoored” that causes so many to want to escape freedom.

The irony is downright poetic. As our elected leaders fight furiously over how to handle millions who seek to get into the country because of the liberty and prosperity it provides, half the citizenry stands ready to impose on all of us the very kind of dictatorships these immigrants flee.

Imagine how our country must look to some imaginary, advanced being flying in from outer space. “The Americans. What fascinating cases. Everyone wants to get into their country because of the misery of dictatorship in their homelands. But Americans seem ready to install a dictatorship themselves. What an odd bunch of people.”

I am convinced that human beings will eventually embrace freedom and get on with the business of achieving their inconceivably huge potential. What I’m still unsure about is whether most are ready for freedom, and what freedom requires. America’s founders certainly were. But the people cheering the kind of candidates we see running for election today are not the kind of people who founded America. They wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

Contradictions generate fear. Fear generates the desire to escape something rational and necessary for human thriving, such as freedom. That’s not just where America is. It’s where the human race is. Much has yet to unfold.


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