The October Quadrant has a piece by Mervyn Bendle on the life and career of Erich Fromm, who started as a senior researcher in the Marxist Frankfurt School during its stay in the US during WW2. The School went from Germany to the US instead of London because Hayek got to the director, Robbins, just in time to abort a plan by Beveridge to invite them to take refuge at the London School of Economics. Key figures were Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, initially Fromm and later Habermas . Their most famous publication was a gigantic four volume work on The Authoritarian Personality which attempted to explain the rise of fascism by a mixture of econonomic and psychological theories.
Fromm’s major contribution was a series of books that played on the theme of pervasive anxiety in modern life. The Fear of Freedom was his classic and there was a whole genre of literature along the same lines including The Age of Anxiety (Auden) and the revival of existentialism in philosphy, sociology and theology (Sartre, Niebuhr, Tillich). He also wrote a book The Art of Loving that was supposed to be an antidote and this was very popular among the flower people of the ’60s and ’70s. You probably had to be there, or nearby, to appreciate it. Very occasionally you might turn up tattered copies at garage sales in inner city locations.
Fromm wanted to explain “the anxiety of the age” using a combination of ideas from Marx and Freud. Some of the anxiety had a rational basis in the threat of nuclear war but the other part was more interesting and profitable for the psychologists or at least the psychoanalysts. Cross-cultural studies of anxiety using physiological measures found that people in less developed countries had higher levels of anxiety, which is not surprising when you contemplate the living conditions in most places outside the western democracies. But under the influence of Freud the educated US public embraced their neuroses with the passion of lovers and flaunted them as fashion statements.
Popper also anlysed the rise of totalitarian regimes in modern times, and part of the story was a socio-psychological problem that he called “the strain of civilization”. This is in chapter 10 of The Open Society, after the previous chapters described how Plato laid down the ground plans for totalitarian rule in the guise of the humanitarian and well-ordered “Republic”. The chapter on collectivist justice is especially helpful, anticipating both the rule of fascism/communism and also the more benign but equally coercive and ultimately dangerous nanny state. And chapter 8 on The Philosoher King has a section on the way to use Noble Lies as instrument of power over the masses.
“In what follows [chapter 10], the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society.”
The chapter begins with Popper’s quest for some mitigating factor that might have been missing from his analysis of Plato as “a totalitarian party-politician”. He identified this in Plato’s genuine hatred to tyranny and his desire to make the people happy by relieving the strain of social and political change.
The origin of western civilisation in the Greek states is depicted as a transition from a closed or tribal society in the direction of an open society. This transition caused strain and distress which Popper called the “strain of civilisation”, a problem that is liable to intensify at any time of social or political dislocation. Popper suggested that the possibility of reducing this strain by taking refuge in a more settled community is the hook that attracts people to fundamentalism and to cults and sects of all kinds. The believer hopes that this affiliation will eliminate the problems of freedom and individual responsibility that arise in dynamic and multicultural societies.
Despite the obvious overlap of Popper’s work with the “age of anxiety” literature, Popper’s approach, and The Open Society at large, gained no traction in the academies, presumably because it was anathema to both traditional conservatives who adored Plato and the modern progressives who followed Marx. Berlin described the the second half of The Open Society as the most devastating critique of Marx in the English language. Roger Sandall, a great student of anthropologists and social scientists, speculated that Popper’s talk of progress from “tribal” societies to the modern world was not politically correct in the postwar social sciences.
Now that classical liberalism is seriously on the march, it is time to demand that vital works like The Open Society and others of similar ilk, like von Mises on Liberalism and Oakeshott are on reading lists in university courses on politics and government.