The fear of freedom



Freed from previous shackles, the individual now does not know what to do with his new condition, feeling anguished and afraid.

Especially after the 2008 global crisis, the world was taken over by an authoritarian spirit, which finds specific conformations in each country, which needs to consider national historical inequalities. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are, in this sense, excellent examples coming from very different historical realities.

When observing the reasons that led to the rise and fall and that can lead to the re-ascension of such leaders, we can notice several common factors. Among them, the difficulties in the nation's economic life, which means especially the increase in precariousness and the specter of indignity in the popular classes, will always be the first aspect to be observed. It was nothing else that Erich Fromm did in his time, in seeking to understand the deep reasons for fascism.

However, for him, the psychological reasons were of greater importance, which is also fundamental for us to understand the new forms of current authoritarianism. This does not mean falling into psychologism, which Erich Fromm makes very clear in his reading of Freud and his break with the master. For Fromm, human nature is dynamic, being modified throughout the historical process, at the same time that it modifies it.

Such insight can be found in his beautiful book The fear of freedom (Fromm, 1974). In it, the author seeks to understand human difficulties in modernity in their relationship with freedom. Freed from previous ties, the individual now does not know what to do with his new condition, feeling anguished and afraid. We would thus have the perfect condition for surrendering to the influence of authoritarian leaders.

This was fundamental to understanding classical fascism. However, at present, we need to pay attention to some specific aspects. Fromm did not witness, for example, what the current technological machine is capable of doing with the production of fake news and the change of consciousness in people. Without this mechanism of power Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would simply not exist. I mention these two specific cases because I consider the similarities of the action of neo-fascism in gigantic mass societies like Brazil and the United States, marked by strong structural inequalities. We will find other specific aspects in Europe and the Asian world.

Thinking especially about the Brazilian case, Jair Bolsonaro was a somewhat unexpected response to the failure of a certain political, economic, moral and symbolic system to promote social justice and meet the deepest existential yearnings of Brazilian society and especially of the popular classes. I am referring to a system that took shape in the 2000s and that we normally define as “progressive”.

At that moment, Lula's election incorporated and symbolized this movement, in line with the global scenario. This will be a decade that will witness a great effort on the part of the PT governments to promote justice and social inclusion, which was, however, much less than the government's discourse. This collided with Brazil's structural inequality and the unlimited power of its elite.

As a result, the great discrepancy between the promises of the progressive system and the effective possibilities for social change generated a series of difficulties in the political field and, on the other hand, a series of frustrations within society. In this sense, Fromm's theoretical perspective fits like a glove. Outlining an interpretation, we can say that the efforts of the progressive system generated unrealistic expectations, seeking to provoke an equally progressive, tolerant and inclusive social character. To a large extent, we cannot deny the emergence of a social character with good expectations of justice and equality, considering that several government actions actually promoted some inclusion and social justice in the popular layers.

However, the discrepancy between the progressive “great promise” and the structural reality of Brazil was a major obstacle. At this point, we cannot ignore the global reality promoted by “flexible” capitalism, which I prefer to define as “unworthy”. With that, we need to go beyond methodological nationalism and break with the mistaken interpretation that Brazil and Latin America have authoritarian cultures rooted in their history, which would explain the current authoritarian phenomena. Indeed, a close look at the current scenario can perceive the existence of an authoritarian culture on a global scale, including here in Europe, which can be clearly seen in the growing degree of intolerance towards immigrants.

I understand this phenomenon as a late result of the rise of an undignified and authoritarian capitalism, on a global scale, since the 1970s. of the last few decades. Inconsistent with reality, this promise only omitted the real action of unworthy capitalism, whose true face is authoritarian, promoting inequality and social injustice like never before, now on a global scale. In this sense, the bankruptcy of welfare state in countries like Germany, France and England is one of the main empirical proofs of the existence of this new type of capitalism and its intrinsic logic of action.

Of course, if we compare countries like Germany and Brazil, we will see that, in the former, the State still has massive resources to defend the country from the “great failure” of the progressive system. Take, for example, the gas crisis caused by the context of the war in Ukraine. On the other hand, all the progressive commitment of leftist governments in Brazil was not enough to face our structural inequality. As a result, in the 2010s we will begin to see the effects of this failure and its specificities in the Brazilian case.

The 2013 demonstrations, which are now ten years old, demonstrated a certain revolt contained in the popular layers, which was quickly manipulated by power groups, creating a deep crisis in the governments of Dilma Rousseff and leading to her impeachment in 2016. he is re-elected in 2014, which reveals both his party's crisis and the greater failure of the global progressive system.

Again, Erich Fromm's theory appears to be very propitious. For him, the social character means the type or profile of humanity predominant in a specific time or historical context. In simple terms, it is necessary to understand the social character of the average Brazilian who voted and believed in the progressive governments of the workers' party of Lula and Rousseff. An extremely important fact here is that a large number of people voted twice for Lula, twice for Dilma and then for Jair Bolsonaro. This is not by chance and is largely explained by the generalized frustration in the face of the great promise that will turn into disbelief, apathy, animosity and intolerance in a large part of the population, in addition to hatred and aggressiveness on a worrying scale. 

We thus have a full plate for the neo-fascist discourse, which will understand and instrumentalize this frustration and collective dissatisfaction, largely translated into generalized resentment towards institutions and a feeling of non-recognition by them. This explains the success of Jair Bolsonaro's anti-system speech, similar to Trump's and adapted to the Brazilian scenario. It is worth mentioning that this speech has an ultra meritocratic tone, manipulating the feelings and the ideal of individual freedom to justify and legitimize the campaign and later the actions of the Jair Bolsonaro government.

Here, the abstract discourse of freedom will succeed in countering the discourse and consequent failure of the progressive system, which promised inclusion and justice from above. With this, the extreme right takes advantage of the progressive failure with the discourse that justice and inclusion can only come from below, from society itself, through the defense of individual freedom of action in the market, which would depend on an equally ultraliberal government. The emblematic speech of Jair Bolsonaro, at the height of the pandemic, that “the people need to work”, is quite enlightening in this sense. At the same time, the far-right government will maintain left-wing social policies as an effective populist resource.

With that, returning to Erich Fromm, what we witness is a gradual change in the recent Brazilian social character. Such change, as Fromm realized, is dynamic, typical of capitalist culture that both shapes and is shaped by social character. Different from the dominant and mistaken interpretation that Brazilians are essentially authoritarian, what we witnessed during leftist governments was the gradual construction of a context of more tolerance, acceptance and belief in progressive proposals for justice and inclusion, which began to be modified in the face of of the failure of such promises. With this, the political system at the same time modifies and is modified by the ways of thinking, acting and feeling of society as a whole.

Now, Jair Bolsonaro lost the last election and Lula returns to power, in a very atypical and difficult situation to interpret. Here, some partial considerations are worthwhile. At first, Jair Bolsonaro attempted a coup, on the fateful January 8th, which can be understood from another part of Erich Fromm's work. As was widely reported in the media, the main symbols of power in Brasilia were vandalized in an act of vandalism of unprecedented dimensions in our history.

There, we could see the impulses of individual aggressiveness and destructiveness channeled against a supposed external oppressor who, after being loved, at the height of the progressive promise, is now hated. The intrinsic ambiguity, which expresses the instrumental content of the manipulation carried out on most individuals in the act, lies in the fact of wielding the Brazilian flag and at the same time destroying its symbols of power. In other words, an unresolved love-hate relationship with the external authority of the political system is expressed here.

In practice, we know that a good part of the people involved in the act acted in a purely instrumental way, even being financed for that. In other words, a militia of the extreme right. On the other hand, many individuals present there, which we could also see in all the action of extreme right militancy throughout the Bolsonaro government, representing their electorate, were moved by beliefs and ideals that infiltrated or maximized the recent Brazilian character in recent years. times.

Here, as a conclusion, we can seek a dialogue with Erich Fromm's reading of the flight from freedom and its difficulties. If he were alive, Erich Fromm would certainly not ignore the moral imperatives imposed by flexible capitalism, which promises success and happiness, while offering, on the material level, instability and precariousness, as well as anguish, instability and suffering, on the existential level.

With that, we need a new theory of alienation and new searches for its overcoming. To a large extent, Erich Fromm psychologized Karl Marx's theory of alienation, based on his influence on Sigmund Freud, going beyond him as well, by showing that the individual, in his dynamic human nature, can be a vector of both reproduction and overcoming of alienation.

For Erich Fromm, overcoming alienation would depend on the altruistic construction of healthy relationships with the other, different from those prevalent in the insane society of his time, very similar to what we live in today. In this sense, the search for a transforming humanism and even for a humanist socialism can be a serious project to be socially constructed. If Erich Fromm is correct, society and the social character change dynamically, which allows us room for hope and not for simple surrender to conformism, pessimism or melancholy. However, this change also depends on the action of the political-economic system, which needs to be creatively reconstructed.

In his third term, Lula encounters new difficulties, more obtuse and complex than the previous ones. In a sense, the presence of Jair Bolsonaro in power made it clear who was the enemy to be deposed. Even though Jair Bolsonaro was, as an individual, only an instrument of a conservative counter-system, considering that his career now seems doomed to failure, he made explicit, like Donald Trump, the darkest ideals of modernity, denied by the progressive system.

Now, conservative action has migrated to more complex mechanisms, such as those led by the current president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, who has managed to prevent progressive government actions, murdering him in his cradle. As a result, the prospects for the coming years are not very promising. On the other hand, with Lula's election, the Brazilian social character seems to have softened their spirits a little and regained some breath. With that, we can perhaps still have some hope.

* Fabricio Maciel is a professor of sociological theory at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of O Brasil-nation as ideology. The rhetorical and sociopolitical construction of national identity (Ed. Autography).

Modified version of presentation at the 3rd International Research Conference on Erich Fromm, held at International Psychoanalytic University in Berlin.


FROMM, Erich. The fear of freedom. 9th Edition. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1974.

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