Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

We can bring Jung and Otto back into our analysis. As I noted above, the power (wisdom, courage, vision) manifest by their leader becomes a numinous experience. At a very deep, unconscious level, the numinous experience is founded in a primitive architype that leaves the loyalist’s own personal psyche self-wounded and shrunk in size—creating the minimal self (Lasch, 1984) I mentioned above. Any kind of appreciative perspective regarding self is lost in the self-appraisal of deficiency. We are only saved, as unworthy recipient of forgiveness (for our sinful self), by the grace offered by the esteemed (and self-sacrificing) leader.

Identifying the Other

I turn now to Fromm’s fourth element: we escape into authoritarianism by distinguishing ourselves from people who are devoted to different ideologies or agencies or are in some other way different from oneself. We typically exhibit hostility toward these other people (the “sadistic” tendency in the authoritarian character) and often project negative aspects of ourselves (or our own group or leader) onto them, using them as scapegoats and passive victims of our own personal self-hatred.

Barry Oshry (2018) has recently offers important insights regarding the identification of the “other” in authoritarian societies. Aligning with Thomas Freedman’s (2007) description of the “flat world”, Oshry notes many of us are being exposed every day to many cultures that may look strange to us. Furthermore, many of these cultures do not look strange to the “others”. Conversely, our own culture may look strange to the “others” but not to us. It gets particularly challenging if our life is filled with diffuse anxiety and uncertainty—and if our own culture seems to be under attack. Many other cultures are likely to seem strange if our own culture is being challenged and our own version of reality is no longer the only viable alternative. As the postmodernists have noted, the grand narrative (Western version of reality) is now collapsing. These are ideal conditions for an authoritarian differentiation of and discrimination against anyone viewed as the “other” and any culture that is home to the “other.”

I noted above that under these conditions, we desperately want the social constructions offered by our revered leader to be accepted as reality. Under conditions of uncertainty and anxiety, we want to feel, as Oshry suggested, “that our culture is simply the way things have been, are, and ought to be.” We want our leader to provide us with the assurance that our own social construction is now and will always be dominant.


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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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