Erich Fromm: Emancipation as Repression
Fromm describes very nicely how the modern understanding of emancipation as the most uninhibited satisfaction of desire ends up supporting the regime it was supposed to challenge.
He makes the point in a critique of the popular reading of Freud, according to which the repression of desire must lead to psychological harm – the principle implicit, for instance, in an approach to child-rearing that anxiously gives the child everything it wants.
To set this approach in a historical context: All civilisation hitherto has involved the sublimation of desire – trying to raise desire from the bestial to the fully human. What the modern emancipators have in mind is the ditching of that project, desublimating desire, reducing as far as possible the obstructions to its satisfaction.
In describing the pseudo charcter of this emancipation, Fromm reminds us of its inclusion in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Among the slogans by which the adolescents in the Brave New World are conditioned, one of the most important ones is “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today“. It is hammered into them, “Two hundred repetitions, twice a week from fourteen to sixteen and a half.” This instant realization of wishes is felt as happiness. “Everybody’s happy nowadays” is another of the Brave New World slogas; people “get what they want and they never want what they can’t get.”
The hallmark of desublimation is seen in what happens to love. The ideal of instinctive emancipation reduces love to sexual desire, as happens in Brave New World, where the permissive morality forbids people from keeping a “love” partner beyond the short-lived desire. “The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving anyone too much.”
In effect, love is repressed for the sake of the emancipation of desire.
Fromm sums up the repressive consequences of this emancipation thus:
This lack of inhibition of desires leads to the paralysis and eventually the destruction of the self. If I do not postpone the satisfaction of my wish (and am conditioned only to wish for what I can get), I have no conflicts, no doubts; no decision has to be made; I am never alone with myself, because I am always busy – either working, or having fun. I have no need to be aware of myself as myself because I am constantly absorbed having pleasure. I am a system of desires and satisfactions; I have to work in order to fulfill my desires – and these very desires are constantly stimulated and directed by the economic machine. Most of these appetites are synthetic; even sexual appetite is by far not as “natural” as it is made out to be. It is to some extent stimulated artificially. And it needs to be if we want to have people as the contemporary system needs them: people who feel “happy”, who have no conflicts, who are guided without the use of force.
An implication of the above: A more meaningful theory of emancipation requires that we drop the crude biologism of desire and satisfaction, and consider instead the phenomenon of love, and consider how to encourage people to love more, not less.
1. There is no freedom without love.
2. There is no freedom without a deeper awareness of how even our instincts are products of the society to which we belong.
3. The discussion of emancipation has to include a discussion of advertising.
The above is based on Erich Fromm’s essay The Human Implications of Instinctivist “Radicalism”