Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Shifting to External Locus of Control

First, there is the negation of one’s own sense of self-effectiveness and control. Fromm suggests that we escape from the responsibilities of freedom by giving up the independence of our own individual selves. As I just noted regarding the dynamics of a numinous enthrallment, the external takes control of the internal. We are no longer the “masters of our own souls” but have instead assigned this responsibility to some other persona or agency. As Christopher Lasch (1984) would suggest, under these conditions we diminish our sense of self (soul and all). We become a “minimal” self with very little in the way of a personal sense of identity or worth. We are ripe for authoritarian rule by an external entity that we perceive as being much bigger and more powerful than we are (a numinous authority).

Returning to the concept of locus of control, we find a clear and profound shift from an internal locus to an external locus. There is often an almost mythic sense that some powerful force in the world (or outside the world) is now propelling our personal and collective fate. Jung’s archetypes come to play again. We are aligned with some primate image (archetype) to which we donate our personal agency and soul. In the loss of our sense of internal control, we are led to the diminution of our own sense of self and look instead for an externally-derived sense of a collective self—a widening of the pathway to authoritarianism.

Abandoning Individual Identity

The second element leads directly from the first. As I just noted, there is the projection of one’s own power onto another. Having abandoned our own individual identity, we fuse with the identity of a leader, a group, or an institution. This may be a church, an educational institution, a philosophy, a political party, or a national leader. During the early years of World War II, Fromm focuses, in Escape from Freedom (1941), primarily on the authoritarianism of Nazi Germany. His analysis was still appropriate in the early 1990s, when considering the reformation of authoritarianism in Russia and many other countries following collapse of the Soviet Union.

In his later work, The Sane Society, Fromm (1960) recognizes that the authoritarian dynamic is not restricted to right-wing politics—though he seems to have had something of a blind spot regarding the authoritarian orientation to be found in many socialist and communist regimes. The issue of political orientation and authoritarianism has been a source of considerable debate among social scientists since Fromm first described the authoritarian personality in 1941.


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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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