Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

A leader may use this authority and the power of wisdom, courage or vision to achieve good for the group and for society. Alternatively, the leader can use this power to satisfy needs for personal ego-gratification and/or acquisition of financial or physical resources. If the latter is the case, then neither the group nor society will be well served by this leader. The subordination of self to an external power leads to a loss of self-esteem and to further tendencies to debase oneself. “The courage of the authoritarian character,” according to Fromm, “is essentially a courage to suffer what fate or its personal representative or ‘leader’ may have destined him for” (Fromm, 1941, p. 172).

The loyalist, an authoritarian character, is expected to suffer without complaining, to comply without questioning, to love without considering the source and basis for this love. Fromm suggests that the most important thing we sacrifice in moving to authoritarianism and to the projection of our power onto an outside authority is our genuine love for other people and, even more importantly, love for ourselves. Fromm takes a step further in his analysis of this unswerving loyalty. He describes this loyalty as a “masochistic” (self-punishing) tendency in the authoritarian character. It is also a collective regression for all those who declare this loyalty.

The individual and collective cognitive functioning of the loyalists becomes more primitive. The social system regresses to one or more of the assumptive states identified by Bion. Myths rather than reality prevail. Habitual thinking (what the behavioral economists call simplistic “heuristics”) become dominant. Slow, reflective thinking is replaced by fast thinking (Kahneman, 2011), with the loyalists accepting the “truths” offered by the leader in an uncritical manner. Reality is being constructed by the revered leader, rather than through the processes of collective higher-order dialogue. (Berger and Luchmann, 1966; Gergen and Gergen, 2004). As I will note when turning to a new fifth element, there is now only one centralized reality and very little room for consideration of alternative perspectives on reality. The state is the provider not just of control, but also a collectively shared and reinforced version of the truth.

As we put together Fromm’s masochism with the dynamics of collective projection and regression, we find that the loyalists are not only accepting the truths offered by the leader–but are diminishing the credibility of their own ability to formulate and test reality. They self-punish by declaring themselves as unworthy (supposedly) of the attention being devoted to them by their beloved leader. Their leader deserves the unswerving devotion precisely because they pale, as followers by comparison to their leader.


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About the Author

William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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