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.

Not all destruction winds up inflicted on the physical world, however; Fromm also observed that, if a person’s desire or ability to destroy is limited by factors in the environment, he or she may redirect it inward. This typically manifests as drug addiction, alcoholism, and other forms of behaviour which appear at first self-indulgent, but ultimately prove harmful to the individual. Fromm in effect reversed the order of Freud’s death instinct, seeing self-destructiveness as frustrated destructiveness, and not vice versa.

  1. Automaton conformity. In many modern societies, equally is highly valued; as such, authoritarians have a hard time finding a hierarchy rigid enough to hide in. Ergo, some of those attempting to escape from freedom wind up hiding in conformity to the dominant culture; they become masters at blending in with the crowd, the ultimate social chameleons.

In being so like their fellows, these people avoid feeling along through a state of perfect homogeneity—but of course, they invariably not true to themselves, and find there is an unsettling discord between their true colours and the mask they show the world. This is inevitable, Fromm believed, because humanity’s true nature is freedom—ultimately, escapes from freedom therefore alienate us from ourselves.


Why do different people choose different methods of escaping from freedom? Why do some people go so far with it, and others not?

Fromm believed that family dysfunction informed one’s choice of escape a great deal. After all, almost all of us must practice how to dominate and submit to function within society, as almost all societies contain hierarchies, and naturally, we first do so in the home, during childhood. He defined two kinds of what he called “unproductive families”, which he felt provoked some of the more extreme forms of escape:

  1. Symbiotic families. Symbiosis—when two organisms have become interdependent and cannot live without each other—may have its place in nature, but within the family, such patterns are inherently destructive.

Symbiotic families are invariably smothering, with some members in effect “swallowing up” others, stunting their personal growth, with the classic example being those children who turn into mere reflections of their parent’s wishes and/or unfulfilled dreams.

There are, however, multiple ways in which this pattern may play out; sometimes, the child “swallows” the parent, managing to either dominate or manipulate the parent into servitude. This is particularly common in societies which encourage masculine authority; little boys may “practice” for adult roles by lording over their mothers.

  1. Withdrawing families. These aloof, controlled families have always existed, but in some societies, have risen to dominance over the last few hundred years. They are marked by demanding parents who have high, rigidly defined standards for their children, and who seldom react with unrestrained anger over failures. Instead, these families punish in a cold, calculated way that is purported to be for the child’s “own good”… Or simply withdraw affection and instill guilt.

This “cold war” style of parenting typically creates children who are strongly driven to succeed in whatever their culture defines as success, but also encourages the absolute reverse of the docile overachiever: The rebellious, destructive escapist.

Fromm also believed in healthy and productive families, of course, which he felt resulted from parents taking on the responsibility to teach their children reason, but doing so in a loving environment. With such an example to follow, children learn to acknowledge their freedom and to take responsibility for themselves, turning into productive members of society.

The social unconscious

Families, of course, do not arise from the ether; they too are subject to influence, and tend to reflect the society and culture around them. Fromm was quick to point out that we “soak up our society with our mother’s milk.”

In doing so, we bring society so close to us that we forget that it is just one of probably infinite ways to deal with the issues of life. We come to intrinsically believe that our way is the right way, the natural way (hence the criticism of so many “divergent” behaviours as being somehow “unnatural” even when, as with homosexuality, they do in fact occur elsewhere in nature).

In this our learning can be said to be so thorough that it has become unconscious: The social unconscious, to be precise.

This form of learning is insidious for the illusion of freedom that it creates; we believe that we are acting according to our own free will because our reactions have become too innate to be felt as products of something external, but we are nevertheless following a script, one which we are so used to we have simply forgotten it is there.

Fromm felt that we could most thoroughly understand our social unconscious by examining our economic systems. As such, his five personality orientations are strongly defined in economic terms:

  1. The receptive orientation. These people wait for the world to come to them, believing that they will get what they need eventually. They see goods and satisfactions as coming from outside themselves, and typically are the product of symbiotic families. These people are generally passive, and as such, associated with the masochistic form of authoritarianism (these individuals inhabit the same niche as Freud’s oral passive, Adler’s leaning-getting, and Horney’s compliant personality). Receptive orientations are not always negative, however; in moderate form, they are accepting and optimistic.
  2. The exploitative orientation. These people believe that if you want something, you need to go out and take it. For them, there is in fact a thrill in the act of taking: Wealth and ideas are better when successfully stolen, and love that is achieved by coercion is all the sweeter. Those of the exploitative orientation were usually on the “swallowing” side of the symbiotic family, and embody the masochistic extreme of authoritarianism (occupying the same niche as Freud’s oral aggressive, Adler’s ruling-dominant, and Horney’s aggressive types).

These individuals are not always aggressive, conceited, and seducing, however; healthier examples of the type are assertive, proud, and captivating—natural leaders.

  1. The hoarding orientation. As the name suggests, these people are obsessed with the idea of keeping what is theirs; their world is one of possessions and potential possessions, and this concept includes loved ones.

People of this orientation typically came from withdrawing families, and are associated with the kind of indulgence that inevitably becomes destructiveness. Freud grouped these people as being of the anal retentive type, Adler the avoiding type, and Horney the withdrawing type.

If one looks beyond the stubbornness and stingy, unimaginative attitude associated with the extremes of this type, it too has positive potential, sometimes creating people who are simply steadfast, economical, and practical.

  1. The marketing orientation. These people are the original masters of self-promotion, seeing selling themselves as the ultimate path to success. They create the perfect “image” for themselves and market it aggressively, treating even love like a sale, a transaction. Marriage contracts are beloved of these individuals.

Fromm believed that this is the major orientation of the modern industrial society, a society which he felt favours the cool withdrawing family, and chooses automatic, all-consuming conformity as its escape from freedom. For this orientation neither Freud, nor Adler or Horney, have an equivalent.

There is, of course, a certain glamour about this orientation—it is purposeful, youthful, and social in its healthiest form. But of course, one does not have to look far to note how the media’s obsession with fashion, fitness, youth, thrills, novelty, and sexuality has damaging consequences.

  1. The productive orientation. Just as Fromm believed in healthy, productive families, he believed in healthy, productive individuals: Those without masks, who work with their biological and social natures without sacrificing freedom and personal responsibility. Typically being the result of the productive family, these people were loved but not smothered, and given reason more than rules, all of which taught them the value of achieving freedom from conformity.

Fromm felt that these families, and individuals, occur only by chance at present as the kind of society that would more predictably create them does not yet exist. Fromm theorized that this society would be a product of what he called humanistic communitarian socialism… Humanistic in the sense that this “ideal” society would be oriented towards human beings, rather than some higher entity (be it God or something man-made).

Fromm felt that the four “negative” orientations were the result of people living in the “having mode”, where all the focus is placed on consuming, obtaining, and possessing, to the point where our possessions end up possessing us.

To be of the productive orientation, Fromm believed that we must exist in what he called the being mode. Those in the being mode are defined by their actions; they eschew living with a mask on, and instead experience life directly through relating to others and practicing individual freedom and responsibility.