Friday, June 22, 2007

Totalitarian regimes Vs societies, is it another chicken and egg dilemma?

"The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority..The battlefield is also accordingly here--within ourselves and our institutions" John Dewey

This post is the first part of series of posts where I am going to examine the concepts of freedom and democracy from a psychological perspective. I do believe that totalitarian regimes do not come out of the blue; there are many factors in the society that foster such outcome. In these posts, I am going to study these factors specifically the ones related to the Arabic societies.

I will start this thread by reviewing Erich Fromm’s book Escape from freedom , it is a unique book since very few psychoanalysts have ventured to write about group psychology trying to explain sociological phenomena from psychodynamic point of view.

Fromm's theory is a rather unique blend of Freud and Marx. Freud, of course, emphasized the unconscious, instinctual drives (libido and death instincts) and repression (as a psychological mechanism) in determining our character. Marx, on the other hand, saw people as determined by their society, and most especially by their economic systems. (However, I do not agree on this distinction since Freud emphasized the role of society represented by the super ego agency in shaping our character, more accurate distinction can be based on Freud emphasis on the internal psychic life importance versus Marx emphasis on the role of the society as separate from our psychic)

In both highly deterministic systems, the concept of freedom is quite tricky to define. Maybe the closest definition will be using Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative freedom where Freud’s view fit nicely with the negative type i.e. an individual's liberty from being subjected to the authority of others, and Marx’s theory embraces the positive freedom concept i.e. the opportunity and ability to act to fulfill one's own potential, (I will examine this issue in detail in separate essay).

Escape to Freedom by Armagan Bice

Fromm’s novel contribution was his suggestion that freedom is a central characteristic of human nature but then he adds that there maybe an instinctive wish for submission as well. I think put it in dynamic terms will capture the essence of Fromm’s idea i.e. our swing between the wish of being “free” and being in a “submissive” state is a distinctive human behavior.

There are examples, Fromm points out, where determinism alone operates. A good example of nearly pure biological determinism is animals (at least simple ones). Animals don't worry about freedom -- their instincts take care of everything. Ants, for example, don't need career counseling to decide what they are going to be when they grow up: They are going to be Ants!

A good example of socioeconomic determinism is the traditional society of the middle ages. Just like Ants, few people in the Middle Ages needed career counseling: They had fate, the king or the owner of their land, to tell them what to do. Basically, if your father was a peasant, you'd be a peasant. If your father was a king, that's what you'd become. And if you were a woman, well, there was only one role for women.

in his review to Fromm's book C. George Boeree stated that Historically speaking, this simple, if hard, life began to get shaken up with the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, people started to see humanity as the centre of the universe, instead of God. In other words, we didn't just look to the church (and other traditional establishments) for the path we were to take. Then came the reformation e.g. Calvinism, which introduced the idea of each of us being individually responsible for our own soul's salvation. Democratic revolutions where to follow in USA and France, all of a sudden we were supposed to govern ourselves!

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
Musée du Louvre, Paris

At the same time the industrial revolution and emerged with it a new wealthy and powerful upper class, "filled with a spirit of initiative, power and ambition." (Fromm 1941) These classes destroyed the medieval social structure and stimulated the emergence of a more modern individual. "The masses who did not share the wealth and power of the ruling group had lost the security of their former status and had become a shapeless mass." (ibid) all these changes gave the individual a feeling of independence but, "at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into a new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity." (ibid)

After the bonds of security had been severed as a result of revolutionary changes in the social structure, human beings had to find means to overcome the feelings of powerlessness and aloneness. "By one course he can progress to 'positive freedom'; he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities... The other course open to him is to fall back, to give up his freedom, and to try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between himself and the world... This course of escape is characterized by its compulsive character, like every escape from threatening panic it is also characterized by the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self. Thus it is not a solution which leads to happiness and positive freedom."(ibid)

In the next post, we are going to examine the three defenses people use to “escape from freedom”. We are going to focus on particular form which is widely used in the Arabic world, explain the link between the use of these defences and the type of family structures that predispose to such defences use, and based on this model, explain Fromm’s account for the reasons behind the strive of the Nazis in Germany post WWI.

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom first published by Holt, Rineheart and Winston, New York, 1941.
C. George Boeree, Personality theories, e-text (


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this well sited introduction, Andre. I have few questions, which might be answered in the following posts.
Excellent site guys, I added your site to my reader.
best of luck.

Anonymous said...

The frequently asked question is why did these changes to the sense of social (and existential) determinism arise in the Europe of the Renaissance era.
i.e why did so called enlightenment occure there and then.

And why were Arab and Islamic societies generally immune to it?Is it a specificity of Islam or the different socio-economical structure, or both?


Dr.Mad said...

@ Cham
you could post your questions and i will try to answer them in the coming posts,
chou kam cham 3anna ;)

you have raised many important questions, i will give a quick answer here, and i will definetly write a post on this issue soon.
Thomas Kuhn proposed a model called "paradigm shift" which can explain the reasons behind any scientific revolution e.g. the reannaisance.

for the religion influence, i don't have a clear answer, but Christian authorities and figures in the renaissance time were very hostile to these new ideas,meanwhile in the Islamic world "scientific research" was striving.
Arabs were doing okay till the end of the Abassyiin era when we started to go downhill, and i think we have not stopped yet!

i think it is people's understanding to a religion which counts and not the religion as such

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