Fromm, Arendt, and Today’s Authoritarian Moment

Image by Jon Tyson.

“The crisis of democracy,” wrote German émigré and philosopher Erich Fromm near the height of Nazi atrocities, “is…one confronting every modern state”. Today, one year after the January 6 insurrection, as reports emerge of continuing far-right mobilization in the US, it’s apparent that he was right. Authoritarianism’s global rise – and its creeping advance here at home, underscored by the January 6 attempted putsch – has spawned a slew of “thought” pieces filled with handwringing; ahistorical analyses; and vigorous, ill-considered bandying about of words like “populism.”<

Articles that judiciously compare the world’s experience of twentieth-century authoritarianism to our contemporary situation to see what lessons we can apply are few and far between (although one appeared recently in CounterPunch+). Given the dangers of allowing festering authoritarianism to go unchecked, this is a void that must be filled. Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) are accessible studies of authoritarianism written by refugees directly affected by the crises they examined. They make the perfect lens to ask ourselves to what extent our current trajectory resembles that of the pre-WWII West, where our current moment differs, and what we should do to stave off calamity and eliminate authoritarianism permanently.

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Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.

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