Psychology of Fascism- 1941 and Now, and How To Fight It

In his book, Escape From Freedom, written in 1941 at the height of Nazism and World War II, Erich Fromm, an American psychologist and philosopher, discusses the collective psyche of a country conducive to a Fascist leader taking control. Important stuff for us to know in this day and age!

In a nutshell, he concludes that feelings of powerlessness and insignificancecreate unbearable anxiety and a desire for people to find comfort in a power bigger than themselves, ultimately creating fertile ground for an authoritarian regime and a ruthless leader to take control. Fromm shows that a leader like Hitler doesn’t “force” control over a population: rather, these leaders are opportunists, taking advantage of an anxious population yearning to escape from their own selves.

For Fromm, this collective psyche revolves around freedom. In his words:

“Freedom, though it has brought [man] independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.”

Fromm discusses two types of freedom: positive freedom, defined as “active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world….as a free and independent individual,” and negative freedom, where the anxiety and feelings of individual insignificance cause him to seek submission or shelter in a greater power. To further emphasize the idea of negative freedom, Fromm says, “Unless his life had some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overcome by his individual insignificance. He would not be able to relate himself to any system which would give meaning and direction to his life, he would be filled with doubt, and this doubt eventually would paralyze his ability to act — that is, to live. “

In the case of Nazism and Fascism gaining strength during WW2, more people in Europe felt engulfed bythis type of negative freedom. The economic and political situation in Germany, in particular, created the perfect storm for this collective sense of negative freedom for the population. Interestingly, Fromm points to capitalism as the biggest driver of positive freedom while also the biggest driving force of the sense of isolation and helplessness found in negative freedom.

Speaking to the history of capitalism, Fromm says, “In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.”

Okay, negative freedom is bad, whatever, so why should we care?

Well, Fromm’s words and ideas back at the height of WW2 and authoritarianism control around the globe ring as a cautionary tale for today. Despite the freedoms we have in the West, more people than ever feel a sense of isolation, powerlessness, anxiety, and uncertainty in an age of pervasive income inequality, job automation, and an increasingly globalized and changing economy. In fact, some point to this sense of powerlessness among a majority of the US population to help explain Trump’s rise to the presidency, as Eurasia group founder Ian Bremmer discusses here.

As an antidote, many on the opposite side call for more government intervention: more welfare, free college, guaranteed jobs. In reality, increased government involvement in the lives of individuals might actually exacerbatethe feelings of negative freedom, and through attacks on anti-Fascism, might actually create the perfect psychological environment for Fascism to thrive in. Let’s not forget that Fascism sits under Socialism; according to Fromm, “To be a socialist….is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.” In essence: these calls for more government intervention in people’s lives would make them feel less like an an individual, and even more confused about their place in the world.

So what’s the answer here? In Fromm’s view, there’s only one path forward:

“Only if man masters society and subordinates the economic machine to the purposes of human happiness and only if he actively participates in the social process, can he overcome what now drives him into despair — his aloneness and his feeling of powerlessness. Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.”

Here, he calls for a different type of capitalism. One where people feel engaged in their society, can earn their own keep, and make decisions about their life on their own terms. In order to create a thriving society and avoid the perils of Fascism rampant in the mid part of the 20th Century, we need to drastically change our social psyche and economic fabric.

2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has some interesting ideas on driving these changes. He calls for “Human Capitalism”, where we use existing competitive markets to maximize human welfare rather than economic efficiency. In this scenario, he calls for different ways to measure the economy, focusing on maximizing metrics like mental health, economic and social mobility, and childhood success rates, rather than pure GDP growth.

The book Radical Marketsby Eric Glen Weyl and Eric Posner also propose new ways of structuring our society to revolve around increased power to the individual without eliminating capitalism. For instance, they discuss a “Quadratic Voting” system; under this system, citizens receive credits with which to vote on issues they care deeply about, like the environment or health care. The more you care about an issue, the more credits you can use to vote on that issue.

From the authors: “This system enables people to cast votes that reflect the strength of their preferences. The key defect of the current system — that one can effectively register only three preferences: yes, no, indifferent — is eliminated. This makes two important things possible. First, a passionate minority can outvote an indifferent majority, solving the problem of the tyranny of the majority. Second, the outcome of the vote should maximize the well-being of the entire group, not the well-being of one subset at the expense of that of another.”

It’s a proposed solution to increase civil and political engagement and tangibly strengthen the power individuals have over their own society.

But (in my mind) Fromm’s most powerful idea towards a world of maximized positive freedom remains:

“…active solidarity with all men.”

Solidarity: unity of agreement of feeling or action. In this case, not agreement on policy, politics, or religion. Rather, a unity of mutual respect and open mindedness. Taking the time to recognize (if you’re a Liberal) that not all Republicans want to see the world burn and grab every dollar for themselves, or if you’re a Republican, understanding that not every Liberal wants to limit your freedoms and intrude on your life. Exerting the effort to find other people or ideas NOT LIKE YOU, escaping your filter bubble, and discovering that, damn, people different than me are still good people and definitely NOTevil, they’re people who want to see others flourish and succeed too. I personally used to only read about ideas or interact with people that confirmed my existing beliefs, creating an inner tribe mentality. I felt my group had it right and everyone else had destructive motives and dangerous values and morals. However, once I started seeking out people, ideas, and articles that presented compelling evidence contradictory to my worldview, I felt more connected and empathetic to those individuals around me. Our means might have differed greatly, but our ultimate ends remained the same: creating and living in a world where everyone has the opportunity to live a dignified, successful life with an abundance of positive freedom.

While not easy to build (and incredibly painful to do so!), this mindset can provide hope and understanding: the antithesis to a world of hopelessness and insignificance. And with that hope comes an optimistic outlook, along with a feeling of power and control within your own life. Finally, as icing on the cake, you develop a deep respect for the uniqueness of other people, and thus, a deeper respect for your own self.

These proposed solutions or ideas might seem, well, radical, but any changes to push our society towards more positive freedom should be examined and discussed. As Fromm poignantly concludes,

“..although foreign and internal threats of Fascism must be taken seriously, there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.”

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