Cuba and the Angst of Freedom

EspañolNo, it is not a misprint. I did not mean for the title to be the “Angst ‘for’ Freedom.”

A pioneering 1941 work in social psychology by social scientist Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (also known as The Fear of Freedom), explores our relationship with freedom, and in particular, the personal consequences of its absence under authoritarian rule. Fromm examines how, when freed from authority, we are often left with feelings of confusion.

The insights offered by social scientists in this field are relevant to our understanding of the adaptation challenges of those that have been deprived of individual liberties for decades, and to the challenges faced by post-totalitarian societies.

Post-totalitarism does not imply democracy. In academic jargon, post-totalitarism refers not just to a historical period of time after totalitarian rule. Post-totalitarism is a specific political category for regimes that still seek control over its citizenry after having lost the legitimacy accruing from its official ideology or charismatic leadership.

In this sense, Cuba, with a discredited ideology and elderly historic leadership, may soon enter a post-totalitarian stage.

By definition, totalitarianism pursues total control of political, economic, and social domains. Choice is eliminated. For those not used to exercising freedoms, and inexperienced in the know-how of choosing, an overload of options often leads to poor decisions when suddenly confronted with the extreme stimuli of the plethora of choices available in free societies.

Studies in economics and marketing corroborate the idea of the paralyzing and anxiety-producing effects of having too many choices.

For many recent Cuban immigrants, the initial exposure to the many choices and decisions required by a free society results in increased levels of anxiety and hopelessness. These conditions are also observed in post-totalitarian societies. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous studies have documented this phenomenon of the fear of freedom. When memories of communist repression faded in former Soviet-bloc countries, some longed for the perceived simplicity of communist rule.

Fromm’s early work differentiated between “freedom from” (negative freedom) and “freedom to” (positive freedom). In the political context, negative freedom refers to freedom from institutional oppression. Positive freedom refers to freedom to develop one’s potential. Once free from oppression, we must learn to make responsible choices in the pursuit of our dreams.

It is by choosing that we demonstrate who we are, and what we care about. Cuban immigration attests that, without choice, life is nearly unbearable. This is what I call the angst of freedom.

Fromm’s work suggests that when nations escape from institutional totalitarian rule (when they experience negative freedom), they have a propensity to submit to authoritarian rule; to replace one tyranny for another. He argues that such societies are predisposed to replace the old totalitarian order with an authoritarian regime as a way of coping with the overwhelming choices of positive freedom (“freedom to”).

Post-totalitarian nations often choose a new authoritarian regime that will have a different external appearance but will perform the same function of eliminating the anxiety and uncertainty of having to choose freely. On this basis, some argue that democracy is not so desirable for Cuba and propose governance of enlightened or benevolent despotism. The legitimization of the Castro regime under the new US-Cuba policy offers a subtle example of this view.

As a political category, post-totalitarism is incompatible with civil and political rights. And these rights are fundamental, because without political rights the citizenry cannot assert any rights. Without political rights, economic rights lack foundation and are not rights but permits that can be revoked. Thus, support for a post-totalitarian, non-democratic regime implies allowing the regime to impose an illegitimate order.

The remedy for the anxiety effects of being free to choose is not some form of choice-limiting, “Castro-light” governance. The antidote is a citizenry fully cognizant of, and free to exercise, its political and economic rights.

Democratic governance and free markets are the only systems designed to ensure citizen participation in political and economic affairs. And it is that participation that teaches us to appreciate diversity, to welcome the challenges of our choices, and to transform the angst of freedom into the love of freedom.

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