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Eric Fromm and the Social Unconscious

Eric Fromm and the Social Unconscious

The truth is often realized through balance, found in the middle ground between opposing extremes—a reality Fromm embraced when developing his theory of the unconscious. Fromm blended the ideas of both Freud and Marx, creating a compromise between the Freudian emphasis on the unconscious, biological drives, repression, etc. (the belief that the character is determined by biology), and Marx’s belief that people are a product of their society (particularly the economic systems therein).
Fromm’s theory was no mere derivative, however; he added the revolutionary concept of freedom to these deterministic systems, granting people the ability to transcend the various determinisms described by Freud and Marx. To Fromm, freedom was central to human nature.

Humans, according to Fromm, actually try to escape from this freedom through the following ways:

  1. Authoritarianism. Freedom, for all its promise of excitement, is also a lonely prospect; true freedom is associated with having no commitments, and nothing to lose—it is marked by a profound separateness. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we seek to escape this freedom by fusing ourselves with others. One of the more primitive ways in which we do this is by becoming a part of an authoritarian system, either by submitting to it (joining an existing structure) or by becoming authoritarian (applying structure to others). Regardless of your chosen method, the result is the same: you escape your separate identity.

Fromm used the terms masochism and sadism to denote the extreme versions of authoritarianism, and observed that the sadist, no matter his apparent power, feels as compelled to act out his role as the masochist, and is thus not free to choose his actions.

Authoritarianism is by no means limited to dictatorships and other extreme examples, however; mild versions of it are found in many places—think of the relationship between students and professors, for instance: Students seek structure, and the professor adheres to his notes. As harmless and natural as this interaction may seem, for the students, it’s a means to avoid taking any responsibility for their learning, and for the professor, it’s a way of eschewing the real, challenging, and perhaps controversial issues of his field.

  1. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by effectively erasing themselves via the systems they inhabit; destroyers, on the other hand, try to erase the world around them so it cannot cause pain. Many seemingly random acts of brutality, vandalism, humiliation, crime, terrorism, and so on, can be accounted for by this manner of escape from freedom.