Free at Last: Challenges Facing Those Who Are “Liberated”
According to Fromm, five psychic needs are central to any human enterprise: (1) relatedness, (2) transcendence, (3) rootedness, (4) identity, and (5) frame of orientation and devotion. In one way or another, the experience of freedom challenges each of these needs, especially as they are experienced in contemporary life. Freedom usually implies, for instance, that one has a choice of people with whom one wants to affiliate and a choice of the community in which to live. In contemporary America, this has been lived out to an extreme, in what Bennis and Slater (1968) call a “temporary society.” One relates to other people on a temporary and often superficial level and therefore seems to exchange a sense of deep relatedness for the freedom of affiliation.
One’s capacity to transcend one’s own limited existence in time and space (one’s spiritual essence) is also a source of doubt. In addition, the rootedness that one seeks may arise from faith. As I have already noted, it may instead take the form of nationalism, regionalism, or racism to be gratified by a totalitarian state. With political freedom comes a demand that one assume responsibility for one’s own personal actions (individual responsibilities) and abandon one’s deeply embedded and usually unconsciously held roots in a traditional social structure. Once again, freedom and the preservation of personal rights come at great cost: the psychic needs for identity and a frame of orientation and devotion are abandoned, at least initially, when one is offered freedom. A legitimate and enduring frame and object of devotion must be identified deliberately and consciously, rather than through the much easier route of collective propaganda and historical precedence. The freedom of personal identity takes the place of a collectively given and sustained identity, while the freedom of personal commitment takes the place of a more easily acquired collective orientation and devotion.
While Americans, according to Fromm, generally have not escaped to traditional forms of authoritarian rule, we still manifest many characteristics of authoritarianism. Fromm may have been prophetic regarding the conditions now operating in American life—and elsewhere in the world (whether it be Europe or the Mideast) We still are inclined to submit readily (and often unconsciously) to external influences: they may now be the media rather than a despot. We still try to escape from the ultimate responsibility for our own personal actions by settling comfortably into a large, bureaucratized organization or a massive, centralized government. These new forms of authoritarianism may seem to be much more benign—what the social critic, Bertram Gross (1980), called “friendly fascism”. They still rob us of our capacity to make choices rooted in personal convictions. We do not acknowledge our interdependence. We continue to make extensive use of other escape routes, including obsessive consumption of goods and services and the abuse of alcohol and other mind-altering substances