Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

It is a matter of shifting power to the leader as a way of displaying one’s own power onto someone else. The loyalist finds their own power to be scary. With power comes responsibility. Responsibility, in turn, requires free-will and a hint of freedom. As we have already seen, the freedom is not always desired. Thus, the loyalist denies that this power is ultimately their own. Members of an authoritarian group will transfer their personal power onto the leader and hold this person responsible for the enactment of roles and behaviors that they are themselves unwilling to perform for fear of failure, embarrassment, or even success.

The key ingredient in this authoritarian dynamic is the psychological process called projection. This is the process of displacement of power onto another person (or institution) that I just described. Fromm speaks of the power of projection in the establishment of authority in groups. He notes (Fromm, 1941, p. 174) that authority is often vested in the “magic helper,” a person who is conceived by the group “as God, as a principle, or as real persons such as one’s parents, husband, wife, or superior.” Jung’s archetypes come into play here. The group members, in essence, “fall in love” with the group leader and invest this person with miraculous and numinous powers.

The psychodynamic theorist, Wilfred Bion (1961), would identify these powers as being of one or more of three types. First there is the power of wisdom. There is a shared assumption of dependency on the part of group members. Only the leader has sufficient experience and proven success to direct our future actions. A second Bionian source of power is courage. This source is based on an assumption that there is an enemy against which we must defend ourselves. Only the leader has sufficient commitment and strength to successful defeat this threatening outside force. The third source of power from a leader, according to Bion, is vision. The dominant assumption is that only the leader has a compelling narrative to share regarding where we can find an ideal state—a new Jerusalem from which flows all healing and beneficent waters.

We project our own wisdom, courage and vision onto the leader because these personal sources of power (and responsibility) are much too frightening. They are ingredients of a psychic storm. Furthermore, with the assignment of power to the leader, we avoid the process that Bion (1995) (and his fellow object-relations based psychoanalysts) call the process of metabolism. This somewhat obscure term is used to label the psychological dynamics associated with making more manageable the anxiety associated with what I am calling the psychic storm.


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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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