The Anxiety of Freedom

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893) / Expressing the anxiety of the modern world


John Fraim 

Freedom is a modern phenomenon with little presence in ancient periods of history. While many positive things are related to the idea of freedom, it has also brought about a modern phenomenon of isolation and loneliness never experienced before. The politics of freedom has been discussed by many, the inner psychology of freedom has received far less attention. 

There was no greater inquisitor of the modern psychology of freedom than Marxist scholar Eric Fromm. In his book Escape from Freedom he asked a question few others had dared to ask: Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? One can see that this is a good argument for a Marxist scholar. 

Yet Fromm’s interest went far beyond promoting Marxism and the experience he had lived through in Nazi Germany. His main interest was not on how to recruit new Marxists into the world but rather to understand what power made so many Germans willing accept the totalitarianism system of Hitler. Fromm concluded, the Germans of the 30s did not desire freedom. Conversely, they desired to “escape from freedom.” 

Other scholars studied ways and methods the Nazis used to control the German population. Fromm was interested in little of this. His focus was on why German people ran to the ideology of Hitler’s totalitarianism at the time. Certainly, the ways and methods used for Nazi ideology were important to study and learn from. Yet, Fromm’s important diversion was to focus less on methods of totalitarianism than the psychological need for it within a certain nation, at a certain time in history. 

Original Edition of Escape from Freedom

But Fromm’s ideas needed some historical basis. A major part of his thesis in Escape from Freedom was to locate in modern man a new freedom in mankind. A freedom never experienced before. Like all important yet invisible ideas, freedom is one of the least studied ideas in the world. It’s rise to power in the 20th century is perhaps one of the great under-reported and understood events in history. All write about the benefits of freedom and to question them almost immediately labels one a Marxist in our quick-to-point culture these days. 

Yet the new experience of freedom and individualism in the 20th century created much more than the words of traditional American history. To Fromm’s mind (if he was still around) I imagine it created a scenario like that in Germany he wrote about (and escaped from) in Escape from Freedom. There are the words freedom and individualism as founding tenets of our nation. They are almost sacrilegious for anyone to question. Perhaps it is because of the power of this nation symbol centered on freedom has never really been looked at. We know so many benefits of freedom. But few discuss the problems that have come with our 20th century freedom. It is an unusual type of freedom. Fromm argues that millions around the world tried to escape from this freedom into totalitarianism in the 30s and 40s. 

He discovered a historical base to anchor his theory in Medieval feudal culture. Their society lacked individual freedom with its rigid structure and obligations required of members of it. As he writes in Escape from Freedom:

“What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom … But altogether a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt …There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy.” 

Central to Fromm’s analysis is the notion that totalitarianism stems from several root causes linked to the full emergence of modern individualism in the aftermath of the Reformation. Medieval social psychology was strongly transcendental in its emphasis of the secondary character of secular authority under God, and thus it inhibited the development of the sense of loneliness and isolation that characterized Western history from about the sixteenth century onwards.

There was a steady growth of individualism and freedom into modern America and periods like Protestantism. The new religion stimulated the development of individualism in its stress on individual success and good works, dutiful submission to God, thrift, and a significant sphere for secular authority. A self-reinforcing causal mechanism became increasingly apparent, especially among the middle classes of modern capitalist society, as the new form of Christianity helped to create the modern individual and was in turn strengthened by the resultant socio-economic psychology in America and modern European society.

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What is little studied are the psychological effects of the entry of freedom into the world. In other words, what baggage did the idea of freedom bring with it. In so many ways, the new idea offered many wonderful new things for mankind.  Such as James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe. Yet this freedom had something else that came with it. Never really seen or wanted to be seen. But internal to the idea of freedom. Something that came with it. 

What was grafted onto this vine of freedom? Was there something in the modern version of this word that might make many want to escape from it? It seems at least a question worthy of a few moments of thought. 

The history of the modern world is the history of the rise of freedom and individualism as well as the rise of modern internal psychological states associated with this rise. The main state associated with the rise of freedom is anxiety. The modern world beginning in the 20th century brought many wonderful things to mankind. It also brought new psychological challenges in the ideas of isolation and loneliness. And, with these feelings most importantly, anxiety. 

The grand challenge brought into the world by the new individual of freedom, the freeperson, America in fact, is the idea of anxiety. With this grand freedom has come a grand anxiety. This anxiety is the great vampire of one’s life. It attracts all attention to the fear of the future until it envelops the person. 

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Today, the real challenge, it seems to me, is to understand that grand edifice no one has really studied before called the idea of freedom. America was founded at the paradoxical intersection of freedom and equality.

Freedom has brought many wonderful things into the world. But it has come with a price. We all know the price in lives freedom has cost. Yet few understand the psychological price of freedom. The great psychological price freedom has brought with it is the growth of anxiety and a fear of the future. There have been few times in history when the future seems unknown on a global scale. Certainly not in my lifetime. The National Alliance on Mental Disorders reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. They note that over 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1% of the population) have an anxiety disorder.

We’re aware of the outward signs of the pandemic: the lock-downs, the masks, the mandates. We’re much less aware of the inward signs of the pandemic and its creation of a global epidemic of anxiety.

Is one of the real goals of the globalists during the pandemic to create greater anxiety in world populations? People have been isolated on a global scale more than at any time in history. There is the forced isolation but there is also the isolation by a world moving towards less human action thanks to social media and the digital world.

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In all of this, one has to wonder whether the new loneliness and isolation brought about by pandemic has similarities to the world situation of the 30s and 40s that saw the rise of totalitarianism. The world that Fromm wrote about in Escape from Freedom. Loneliness and isolation brings with fear and anxiety. Might the new totalitarianism of globalism offer a safe harbor for many today? And, might anxiety reduction be the real subliminal pull of the movement of the world populace towards totalitarianism? Does modern totalitarianism/globalism operate as an anxiety reduction system? It is a question that all those who believe in freedom need to ask.


For those interested in knowing more about Eric Fromm, see our previous article titled Escape from Freedom

Pandemic Stress Weighs Heavily on Gen Z

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm

Covid-19 Anxiety Syndrome from Medical News

Unprecedented: On the Novelty of Our Cultural Predicament

History of Anxiety from The National Institute of Health

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