“They have their great, constantly changing I, but none of them has a self, a core, an experience of identity (…) Where there is no real self, there can be no identity” (1). Without awareness of and confidence in his own self, man, Fromm argues, is disconnected from both himself and his environment. He believes neither in what he is nor in what surrounds him.
Persons without a center
A solidified identity would be an effective protection against foreign interests that can harm us.
By Lilly Gebert
[This article posted on 4/1/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/menschen-ohne-mitte.]
How do we develop a sense of self that provides identity, even when we live in a mass society and are weighed down by its pressures? Existential needs and the need to belong to a group all too often overshadow real engagement with this question – and thus prevent genuine becoming human. One thing is clear: the solution does not lie in materialism, because the possession of things can only ever fill the gap of a formed and consolidated identity in the short term and illusorily. Youth editor Lilly Gebert embarks on a philosophical search for the conditions of personal freedom with Erich Fromm.
“Everyone is the other and no one is himself. The Man, with which the question of the Who of everyday Dasein is answered, is the Nobody to whom all Dasein in Untereinanderein has ever already surrendered itself.”
– Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Mass or man? While some perceive it as security, others perceive its presence as a threat. How can this be? Why does one side as well as the other feel threatened in its own knowing of the existence of the respective counterpart? Why can both – individual and mass – not exist without each other and yet perish from each other? Are there existentials, fundamental feelings of being human, which can only be lived in solitude? How can a human being be so little consolidated in himself that he feels attacked in his own being, when this stands even in the slightest contrast to that of his environment? When did we forget to grow from difference?
People without a center
The “identity crisis” of modern societies was already attributed by Erich Fromm in 1979 in Haben oder Sein (To Have or To Be) to the self-lessness of their members: “They have their great, constantly changing I, but none of them has a self, a core, an experience of identity (…) Where there is no real self, there can be no identity” (1). Without awareness of and confidence in his own self, man, Fromm argues, is disconnected from both himself and his environment. He believes neither in what he is nor in what surrounds him. Where once interest, love, and solidarity were present, now the desire “to have, to possess, and to dominate the world, and thus to become a slave to one’s own possessions” prevails, he said.
The human being oriented exclusively to having thus possesses “neither convictions nor real goals”. Unlike the being-oriented person, who lives out of “an inner activity” and whose “humanistic religiosity” is “directed against every kind of reification, calculability and idolatry of man”, the “having-oriented person is determined by a peculiar passivity”:
By seeking to realize his self-development, the meaning of his existence, no longer in difference but in conformity to his environment, he misses himself.
He “has become an enterprise, must function and allow himself to be exploited”. In the perpetual struggle against the threatening loss of self, he flees into a narcissistically shaped activism. Henceforth, his sense of identity no longer aims at entering into a lively, productive exchange between himself and his fellow world – the increasing experience of inner emptiness forces him to compensate for his lack of selfhood and subjecthood by having objects.
No matter how much he tries to repress it with this, however: Man has a panic fear of being alone. He cannot bear the isolation. As a social being, he depends on being related to the world outside himself. It is not his desire for cooperation but his compelling need to avoid mental as well as physical isolation that drives him into the arms of his fellow human beings (2). He needs at least the feeling of identity and belonging. But insofar as he is unable to locate this in himself, he has no choice but to escape the freedom he feels as a burden and to ground his sense of I in something that lies outside his own responsibility: the sense of we.
In the we, we believe we feel something “which in reality we do not feel at all – simply because we act according to what is suggested to us by public opinion or the like.” We stop being ourselves and become a reflection of what our environment tells us is “right” and “accepted.” The discrepancy between our “self” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of being alone (3).
“All our evil comes from the fact that we cannot be alone.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Between external determination and self-sacrifice
“We do not know, but we can guess, how many people, recognizing their growing inability to bear the burden of life under modern conditions, would willingly submit to a system that, along with self-determination, would relieve them of responsibility for their own lives.”
– Hannah Arendt, Elements and Origins
If one considers the increasing discord within and between people, the equally increasing power imbalance between citizen and state suggests that, contrary to what psychoanalysis long believed, it is not the contradictory nature of human beings that causes difficulties for society, but rather, the other way around, it is society that has learned to stabilize itself by not allowing the hidden inner selves of its members to emerge. Their newfound “individuation process” may have freed them from their traditional shackles and contributed to their independence and rationality; but it has also isolated them, making them fearful and powerless (4).
Erich Fromm first saw the conditions for the individual to rise and fall in the mass more or less voluntarily in Protestantism and the compensatory faith of Martin Luther and John Calvin: After medieval society, in which every citizen had his fixed role and all suffering and pain was compensated by the church, sometimes collapsed as a result of their theses, man not only ceased to see the church as a link between himself and God; he also no longer saw himself as a firmly integrated member within a structure of meaning.
As the ensuing existential hardship of the middle class (5) triggered feelings of insignificance and powerlessness in people, it seemed inevitable to the majority of the population – overwhelmed with their sudden exposure to God – to seek henceforth security and salvation in “eliminating their isolated selves and becoming a tool in the hands of an overwhelmingly powerful power outside themselves” (6).
In The Fear of Freedom, Fromm described this readiness of the individual “to want to be nothing but a means for the glorification of a God who represented neither justice nor love” (7) not only as preparation for “accepting the role of servant of an economic machinery” (8) – in the “despair of the automaton-like conformist” he saw at the same time the breeding ground for the political goals of fascism (9): Insofar as the self-denial and ascetic attitude anchored in Protestantism urged man “to subordinate his life exclusively to purposes that were not his own” (10), its religious “freedom” was for him nothing more than another precursor of that false sense of individuality that a few centuries later was once again fueled by capitalism, as well as its intensified form, totalitarianism:
“The individual man became even more lonely, even more isolated, and became a tool in the hands of overwhelmingly powerful forces outside himself; he became an ‘individual,’ but a confused and insecure individual. There were things that helped him get over the overt manifestations of this inner insecurity. Above all, possessions were a support of his self (…) The less he felt he was someone, the more urgently he needed possessions” (11).
In short, the inner non-being of modern societies is conditioned by their inversion into the outside. As long as man is able to be absorbed in the collective or to ascribe value to himself on the basis of things, he does not have to give meaning to his own life. But what if it is precisely “the presence of this void” (12) that ensures social cohesion?
The double face of freedom
The end of monarchist rule, the Enlightenment and its decentralization of knowledge and information: “modern” man is convinced that he has fought for his freedom. Yet he has only created new conditions for the same constraints: What was once due to open personal obedience to a leader is now due to submission to the organization. What changed was not the fact of dependence, but its form. Until today, man is not in the position to implement and use his freedom to develop his true self. And yet he lives in the belief that he is no longer subject to external authorities.
He is proud to be a responsible citizen. So proud that he fails to recognize the power that anonymous authorities such as public opinion or his “common sense” exercise over him.
Thoroughly willing to behave according to their expectations, he does not sense that in truth it is not an inner conviction but his own fear that prevents him from distinguishing himself from them.
This inability to recognize that the “self” for which he believes he is acting is ultimately the “social self,” which “essentially coincides with the role the person has to play according to what others expect of him and which is in reality only a subjective camouflage of his objective function in society” (13), is described by Erich Fromm as follows:
“We are excited by the increase of our freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blind to the inner constraints and fears that threaten to undermine the significance of the victories that freedom has won against its traditional enemies. Therefore, we tend to think that the problem of freedom is exclusively about acquiring even more of that freedom which we have already won in the course of modern history, and that we have nothing more to do than to defend freedom against all those powers which want to deny us this kind of freedom.
We forget that while any freedom already won must be defended with the utmost energy, the problem of freedom is not only a quantitative one but also a qualitative one; that we must not only preserve and extend traditional freedom, but also win for ourselves a new kind of freedom that will enable us to realize our individual selves and to have confidence in that self and in life” (14).
Despite his development of a more critical and responsible self, man, Fromm argues, has never reached the stage where he is able to recognize the gap between “freedom from something” and “freedom to something,” let alone overcome it. By never learning to emancipate himself from his primary attachments in a healthy way and, as a result, to calibrate his inner compass on the basis of his own values, he would remain susceptible throughout his life to foreign orientations, for example in the form of compulsive conformity or submission to a leader. For Fromm it was clear:
“The right of freedom of thought means something only if we are also capable of having our own thoughts. Freedom from an external authority is a lasting gain only if our inner psychological conditions are such that we are also able to assert our individuality” (15).
The dangers of meaningless self-indulgence.
“The serious danger to our democracy does not consist in the existence of totalitarian foreign states. It consists in the existence of conditions in our own personal attitudes and in our own institutions which help authority from without, discipline, uniformity, and dependence on the leader to triumph in these countries. Accordingly, the battlefield is here – within ourselves and within our institutions.”
– John Dewey, Freedom and Culture
For lack of a true sense of freedom, man flees from himself and submits to an external authority whose definition of “freedom” he then takes for his own. This is actually a very simple – if sad – game: A person who works only under the pressure of external necessities would too quickly reach the point of inner exhaustion. Because he still feels himself, he would rebel against the imposition of renunciation and resist his repressor. He would not be able to bear the inner contradiction in the long run and would find ways and means to put into practice what he believes would be more in line with his nature.
For the repressive system an inherent impossibility: If renunciation and obedience are indispensable structural elements for it, it is necessary – in order to maintain the necessity that is considered meaningful and its image of the lack of alternatives – to create an inner necessity in man. The latter must be induced to devote himself henceforth out of an inner dynamism to the “social requirements” and to “behave in accordance with the particular economic necessities. Such a person need no longer be forced to work as hard as possible: Having replaced his obedience to an external authority with “an inner authority in the form of conscience and duty,” he is henceforth driven to work by “an inner compulsion” that “keeps him more effectively under control than an external authority could ever do” (16).
It was Bruno Bettelheim who, like Erich Fromm, examined how the compulsion encompassing ever wider spheres of life and the modern “automation of the individual” not only increased his insecurity and helplessness, but at the same time contributed to his willingness to “submit to new authorities that offer him security and reduce his doubts” (17). Consequently, he saw the “feeling of not really knowing who one actually is, the sense of being limited in one’s autonomy” as being rooted in modern mass society in that
it makes it difficult for the individual to develop his own standards for his life and to live according to them, its multitude of possibilities arouse in him the feeling “that it is not so important which path he chooses, and that it is therefore not necessary to develop the ability to pursue this path consistently,” it suggests to him “the illusion of greater freedom,” and thus disappointment, failure or failure only cause greater harm, its array of possibilities represents not only the agony of choice but also its impossibility, it does not provide guiding principles that help individuals to recognize their own desires and needs and to fulfill them in their own way (18).
According to Bettelheim, a person socialized accordingly by mass society will never learn to recognize his problems independently, let alone solve them himself. He is “accustomed to being guided by society in almost everything he does.” The less he is able to recognize that his inner conflicts “arise from the opposition between his own desires and the demands of the environment, the more he expects society to supply him with their solution at the same time as it presents him with problems” (19). For Bettelheim, this is a vicious circle: those who have become accustomed to having external decisions made by others will soon extend this to their internal problems as well. And those who are no longer able to react spontaneously and autonomously to the whims of life are also prepared to “uncritically accept what others offer them as a solution” (20).
Confronted with his own existential fears, the “individual” has no choice but to hope “that the powerful will get it right.
Unable to orient his own conscience to his own self or reason, and prevented from participating in decision-making about matters of great importance to him, the sense of utter dependence not only undermines his self-respect, it also intensifies his powerlessness-the sense of being “at the mercy, for better or worse, of powers which man cannot understand or at least cannot influence in any way” (21). The mass triumphs over the individual. Again.
But for how much longer?
That is the question. Luther may have succeeded in silencing his doubts to some extent with his unqualified submission to God. However, he was apparently never able to eliminate the roots of his discord: Until the end of his life he fell again and again prey to new insecurities, which he then had to fight by renewed submission (22).
But what kind of faith is this that is able to keep one in the eternal struggle with oneself and the world? Can freedom also become a burden that weighs a person down so heavily that he tries to escape from it? Is there an inevitable vicious circle “that leads from freedom into a new dependence? Does freedom from all primary ties make man so lonely and isolated that he must inevitably flee into a new bondage? Are independence and freedom synonymous with isolation and fear?
Or is there a state of positive freedom in which the individual exists as an independent self and yet is not isolated, but is united with the world, with other people, and with nature?” (23). I wonder: when do we stop escaping “the burden of freedom” and move from negative to positive, in short, to our own freedom?