Free at Last: Challenges Facing Those Who Are “Liberated”
In Freedom (Bergquist and Weiss, 1993), Weiss and I similarly described the edginess of men and women in an emerging postmodern world. We observed that late 20th Century societies had become fragmented, ambiguous, and demanding of new skills and attitudes. Humans were living in a postmodern world that could be characterized by the collapse of two prominent “cultural fictions”—namely, the truth and pragmatic value inherent in science and the pretense or ability to discover universal principles and truths (Rundell, 1992, p. 14).
In our observation of post-Soviet life in Estonia and Hungary, Weiss and I could add a third cultural fiction to this list: the in fallibility of Marxist doctrine. Some social critics would also add traditional notions of free market capitalism to this growing list. People’s ability to distinguish between reality and fictions is diminished and “a fictionalization of reality takes place”(Rundell, 1992, p. 140). This sets the stage for an escape from freedom and, in particular, creation of an illusion that true freedom exists in one’s life. One of the foremost postmodernists, Lyotard (1984), joined with many of his postmodernist colleagues in identified this postmodern condition as the end of the grand narrative. One can readily see how such a condition could be perceived and felt by postmodern man and woman as a state of living on the edge of an abyss that cannot even be clearly seen, let alone comprehended or bridged.
The Nature of Freedom: Erich Fromm
A precise, extended, and compelling analysis of the impact of freedom was offered more than seventy years ago by Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom (1941). In this analysis, Fromm focused on the experience of freedom in Germany immediately prior to and during the Third Reich. In trying to make sense of the rise of fascism in Germany, Fromm contrasted external limitations (freedom from) and internal restrictions (freedom to). He noted that the simple fact of being given several options in life and being given the opportunity to make choices does not automatically mean that we have either the willingness or the capacity to make full use of this freedom in making informed, personally congruent choices. Fromm (p. 32) suggested that “human existence and freedom are from the beginning inseparable.” Freedom is always a bit frightening for us, and, as I have noted throughout this essay, we tend to flee from it, typically through a return to primitive reliance on authority and a submission to powerful forces that reside outside ourselves—a process that psychoanalysts call “regression.”.
About fifteen years after publishing Escape from Freedom, Fromm (1955) once again addressed the issue of freedom in The Sane Society (1955). In this second book, Fromm addresses the issue primarily from the perspective of a country that had grown much more powerful as a result of the defeat of Nazi Germany; this country, of course, is the United States. Fromm proposed that freedom was frightening to Americans because of a much deeper and more enduring form of insecurity than fear of economic uncertainty (like that experienced in Germany during the 1930s). This was instead the fear that arises (as I noted at the start of this essay) from human beings’ transcendent ability to see themselves limited on a time and space continuum. From this existential perspective, Fromm suggested that 1950s Americans, and most others in the West, were just as frightened of freedom as the Germans were during the 1930s.