The Frankfurt School and the Allure of Submission
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The Frankfurt School and the Allure of Submission

Matt McManus
Matt McManus
8 min read

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak.
~Erich Fromm

Since at least the advent of modernity and liberalism, tremendous emphasis has been placed on the importance of human freedom. For classical liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, freedom was the fundamental characteristic of human beings; at the center of all our practical moral action. The American and French Revolutionaries both invoked the infringement of liberty to justify the overthrow of existing tyrannical orders. And, today, political culture is saturated with references to the importance of making choices, living life as one see’s fit, and non-coercion by the state. Socialists in the Jacobin and conservatives at the National Review debate what is really necessary to secure freedom, but none disputes its importance.

Each of these positions relies upon the belief that human freedom is either basic to our nature, essential for the realization of our moral potential, or both. But if this is true, then what explains the appeal of totalitarianism? One of the great intellectual efforts undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War was to try and figure out why so many people would willingly surrender their freedom, and even exult in submission, in order to commit murder on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Countless artists, philosophers, sociologists and economists have provided explanations. One of the deepest accounts come from the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, who had a dark and melancholic interpretation of what happened.

The Human Yearning for Submission

I have discussed the Frankfurt School in some detail here before, so will largely refrain from rehearsing their history. Most were refugees from Nazi Germany, particularly Jews such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who fled across Europe or to the United States to avoid persecution and death. As the full horror of Nazi crimes became ever more apparent, they adapted their philosophical synthesis of psychoanalytic and Marxist theory in an effort to understand why millions of Germans and European collaborators submitted with very little resistance to what Hannah Arendt would call “the banality of evil.” Their conclusions are sobering.

For Erich Fromm, author of Escape from Freedom, the mistake many liberal theorists made was to presume that people actually want to be free. At a conscious and public level, they will of course protest that this is the case. But at a deeper psychological level, he argued, there lies a yearning to escape the burdens of liberty. This is in part because, from a very early age, we are inculcated with a sense of dependence on authority figures, ranging from our parents to the state. These are often not malicious forces, and may indeed be motivated by love and the child’s interests. But many of us fail to ever truly outgrow this dependence on various forms of authority to provide us with a sense of direction and purpose. Many of us submit to these authorities because pleasing them provides a profound sense of meaning to life. Gratification of authorities associated with the super-ego becomes a source of pleasure, as we push aside our own desires and submit to the imperatives of our culture or political system. Without such an attachment to authority we feel we are thrown into adulthood with no sense of direction or purpose in life, forced into the most horrible situation of all: having to choose our path for ourselves. This necessary part of individuation (that is, the process of becoming an individual human being) and maturity is extremely alienating and difficult. As Fromm put it:

The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. The primary ties offer security and basic unity with the world outside oneself. To the extent to which the child emerges from that world it becomes aware of being alone, of being an entity separate from all others. This separation from a world, which in comparison with one’s own individual existence is overwhelmingly strong and powerful, and often threatening and dangerous, creates a feeling of powerlessness and anxiety. As long as one was an integral part of that world, unaware of the possibilities and responsibilities of individual action, one did not need to be afraid of it. When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

As we struggle to get through these early periods of alienation integral to individuation, the desire for a simpler period when we were not faced with the “possibilities and responsibilities of individual action” rarely fades entirely. This problem is exacerbated in modern (now post-modern) societies, in which, as Max Horkheimer pointed out in Eclipse of Reason, many of us are educated to think in terms of instrumental reason. That is to say, our education focuses on providing us with intellectual tools to help us better pursue our goals, with little emphasis placed on indicating what goals are actually worth pursuing. This produces individuals who are uncertain and adrift, leading many to seek consolation in the easy pleasures offered by consumerism and the manufactured entertainment of Adorno’s culture industry. They are never fully able to complete the process of individuation because they do not know what to commit their lives to beyond the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the competitive struggle for economic advancement.

In such a situation, we cannot even define who we truly are because we cannot determine what goals to pursue to give genuine form and texture to life. This leads to a yearning—particularly acute in times of personal or socio-political crisis—for the return of an authority which can tell us who were are and what to do. The example these theorists had in mind was of course the economic downturn provoked by the Great Depression and the consequent political instability. These developments wracked the fragile Weimar Republic and created the perfect conditions for this yearning for submission to authority to radicalize.

The Unbearable Nature of Freedom

In such times of crisis, what Fromm calls the “authoritarian personality” begins to emerge, characterized by a combination of sadism and masochism. The authoritarian comes to believe that the reason for their sense of alienation is the fundamental disorder of the world. Reality presents itself as something which is entirely beyond control of individual action—frightening and overwhelming. The authoritarian personality, therefore, wants the power to control existence, but also to be freed of the agony of deciding what to do with that control. Choice just presents more chaotic possibilities, and the authoritarian personality wants no part of such responsibilities. They therefore search for a form of order to which they can submit, which often takes the form of a totalitarian movement. Totalitarians promise to provide the sense of order and purpose missing from the lives of proto-authoritarians by paradoxically liberating them from the burden of freedom with demands for absolute conformity. They also offer them the power to control the world by eliminating all the elements within it that do not conform to the order they demand.

This brings us to the most despairing feature of Frankfurt thinking about freedom; under the right conditions many of us do not want it for ourselves or others. Freedom naturally brings with it the possibility of chaos. If I have to choose for myself what to do, there is always a good chance I will choose incorrectly and make a mess of my life. For a true individual, this possibility is to be accepted or even welcomed since it is our mistakes as much as our successes which define us. That is too high a risk for proto-authoritarians. It is far easier and safer to submit to authority and its promises to order your life for you. Rather like Adolph Eichmann, who Arendt argued had abandoned his will and capacity to think independently entirely to the party he served. The result is, as Herbert Marcuse might have put it, the flattening of the human personality and capacity to reason to one dimension.

Nor does the authoritarian personality want anyone else to have freedom. This is because if other people are free to do as they please, they too are capable of bringing disorder into your life through actions which you cannot control. Such sentiments become especially pronounced when we encounter those who do not look or act like us, and who can trigger acute anxieties about what their intentions. In Nazi Germany, the specter of Jewish and foreign conspiracies was constantly invoked to generate anxiety and a sense of chaotic disintegration. Jewish Germans and foreign elements were blamed for everything that went wrong in society, leading the Nazi party to demand ever more power, and to impose ever greater restrictions on the population to combat their influence. As Slavoj Zizek often points out, this even included making transparently self-contradictory claims about these foreign elements. Jews were simultaneously presented as both sub-human and in control of a vast conspiracy to control the globe. They were both insignificant and a massive threat to German hegemony. Any reasonably individuated person would notice this contradiction and insist that no rational person can accept it. But in a society where even thinking in a manner which did not conform to the interests of the totalitarian party could result in one’s imprisonment and destruction, who would dare express such opinions?

On Death and Love

For Fromm, Horkheimer, and Adorno, this project could only end in a desire for mass death. This is because, in a nihilistic sense, death is the ultimate form of order, stripped of all the anxieties and challenges which come with life. Life, after all, is possibility. And possibility is fundamentally linked to our freedom to decide to change our course, to not conform and take the path less travelled. This is intolerable to the authoritarian personality, who ultimately decides the only way to truly eliminate all dangerous possibilities is to eradicate life itself. One sees this calcified “philosophy” materialized in the mechanical ordering of the Nazi concentration camp system. Endless trains of living beings were efficiently moved across continents to giant factories of death where they could be processed, enslaved, and finally liquidated. In the end, the totalitarian demand for order in death even turned on itself. In the final days of Nazi Germany, when the whole world closed in on Berlin, Hitler demanded the destruction of German infrastructure and ranted about how his people had failed him and deserved to be cast onto the ash heap of history.

For Fromm, the only way to truly individuate and avoid the temptations of authoritarianism is through sincere love for others and the world. One of his great insights was to point out how difficult this can be. In The Art of Loving, Fromm observes that most of us do not truly care for others. We use and manipulate others for our own purposes, even trying to remold those closest to us to better satisfy our needs. This demonstrates how the kernel of the authoritarian personality can be found even in our most subtle and intimate relations with others; it can be intolerable to truly let those we profess to care about be free. And so we waste our own freedom in a vain attempt to control them; often from fear that they will abandon or disappoint us. To truly love, one must be willing to allow other people to be who they are. And it also means accepting our own fundamental inability to remake the world as we wish. This of course means risking a great deal, but the alternative is far more desolate.


Matt McManus

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey.