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The Psychology of Totalitarianism
by mattias desmet
translated into english by els vanbrabant
chelsea green publishing, 256 pages, $53.25  

In 2018, a Polish academic study called Totalitarianism in the Postmodern Age anticipated a shift in attitudes toward freedom among young Europeans. The research canvassed young people from seven E.U. countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. Almost half of those surveyed did not preclude the right of governments to suspend key democratic political freedoms, while one-third were sanguine about governments engaging in political manipulation, or even lying. A similar proportion could identify values for which they would readily forgo both freedom and democracy. Slightly more than half indicated their support for democracy, while one-third said they had no clearly formulated views. Just half of those surveyed indicated that they might resist incursions upon their freedom, while one in five appeared to regard freedom as inessential.

Two years later, Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, began to ponder developments in a similar light as he observed the COVID lockdowns rolling out all across the world. His reading of the writings of Gustave Le Bon on the psychology of crowds, and those of Hannah Arendt on twentieth-century totalitarianism, as well as his expertise in statistics, led him to take a deeper interest in what was emerging, and rapidly he came to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the world had fallen under a kind of spell. In late 2019, visited by some premonition of impending menace, he went to his bank and paid back his mortgage—because he felt that “society was moving towards a tipping point.”

In his new book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, he elaborates on these instincts in light of what he witnessed during COVID, including the strange phenomenon of people’s apparent indifference to their own deprivations, hurts, and incurred damage from the lockdowns: loss of freedoms, work, income, education, human contact, leisure, etc. “The discourse surrounding the coronavirus crisis shows characteristics that are typical of the type of discourse that led to the emergence of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century,” he writes. “The excessive use of numbers and statistics that show a radical contempt for the facts, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, and a fanatical ideological belief that justifies deception and manipulation and ultimately transgresses all ethical boundaries.”

His book offers a description of modern society in the drifts of a mechanistic culture.  Totalitarianism is the ineluctable destination. Gummed up in a congealing ideology, man is reduced to a biological organism and subjected to the positivist logic whereby every aspect of thought must be eminently demonstrable. The human person becomes an atomized subject whose entire existence is as though reduced to elementary particles that interact according to the laws of mechanics. This provides the building block of the modern totalitarian state—a world, as Osip Mandelstam once observed, rendered “from man, not for.”   

In such a culture, the goal is for society to be “led by expert technocrats who make decisions based on objective, numerical data.” “With the coronavirus crisis,” Desmet write, “this utopian goal seemed very close at hand. For this reason, the coronavirus crisis is a case study par excellence in subjecting the trust in measurements and numbers to critical analysis.” Before, societies were governed on the basis of stories; now, we have tyranny by numbers.

He cites Hannah Arendt’s assertion that totalitarianism is ultimately the belief in an artificially created paradise: “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.” The destination of this process is transhumanist man—the merging of the human being with the machine, and the supplanting of the human soul with micro-chips in which all communication will be positivistically constructed.

The key instrument in the creation of a totalitarian state is mass formation—in effect, mass hypnosis—imposed by propaganda and intimidation. On the one hand, the population is systematically exposed to the relentless voice of the totalitarian leaders; on the other, every alternative voice is systematically eliminated. Fear is the grease of this process. “When fearful, the population wants a more controlled society.”

The essence of mass formation involves proposing a tangible basis for otherwise unexplainable—“free-floating”—anxieties, frustrations, and aggression. The appropriate conditions, he says, existed in Western societies long before the COVID crisis. There was “an epidemic of burnout”—something between 40 and 70 percent of people in modern societies experience their jobs as senseless. He points also to the escalating use of psycho-pharmaceutical medicines to treat anxiety and depression. By offering a strategy to deal with the specific anxieties imposed by the coronavirus “crisis,” the would-be controllers were able to create a bogus solidarity in a society that has destroyed true solidarity. Under these conditions “A society saturated with individualism and rationalism suddenly tilts towards the radically opposite condition, towards radically irrational collectivism.”

When, writes Desmet, “a suggestive story is spread through the mass media that indicates an object of anxiety—for example, the aristocracy under Stalinism, the Jews under Nazism, the virus, and, later the anti-vaxxers, during the coronavirus crisis—and at the same time offers a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety, there is a real chance that all the free-flowing anxiety will attach itself to that object and there will be broad social support for the implementation of the strategy to control that object of anxiety.”

The hypnotized members of a mass formation close out everything but that which the hypnotist tells them is important. They become not just indifferent to the losses of others, but insensitive to losses of their own—willing, in fact, to sacrifice everything.

This process yields a psychological gain. Firstly, the anxiety that previously roamed through society as a tenebrous fog is now linked to a specific cause and can be mentally controlled via the strategy put forward in the story. Secondly, through a common struggle with “the enemy,” the disintegrating society regains its coherence, energy, and rudimentary meaning. For this reason, the fight against the object of anxiety then becomes a mission, laden with pathos and group heroism. Thirdly, in this fight all latent brewing frustration and aggression is taken out, especially on the group that refuses to go along with the story and the mass formation. This brings an enormous release and satisfaction to the masses.

Desmet is at pains to underline that, in a mass formation, the leaders and the led operate in symbiotic manner: The process is as much a pandering to the mob as a manipulation of it, and the hypnotist/leader can himself fall under the spell of his own trance. 

In situations of mass formation, says Desmet, three distinct groups manifest themselves. Only 30 percent, he says, are hypnotized beyond reach. Another 40 percent will from the outset go along with that 30 percent of total believers. Another cohort of about 30 percent, who are not hypnotized, will try to speak out and resist. This group, he says, is extremely heterogeneous and disunited. If they could unite, he says, they could bring the whole thing quickly to an end, but this seldom proves possible.

The slightly better news is that mass formation totalitarianism inevitably self-destructs in time, though by then the cost may be enormous. This is because the leaders need continuously to invent new sources of anxiety and introduce new measures to attack these. At the moment of total control, the leader’s mania enters its most fanatical stage, pursuing enemies perceived and imagined—as with Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. This can only lead to absolute destruction, and yet in the short run is essential to the maintenance of the fear that sustains the mass formation. 

Professor Desmet writes that a mass formation can only be combatted by an insistence by those who are immune to it upon telling the truth at all costs. The continued presence of alternative voices serves to curb the viciousness of the rulers and constrains the mob in its excesses. In spite of the growing menace of the times, we have to continue to share rational counter-arguments, in the hope of breaking the link of free-floating anxiety.

He stresses also the importance of the maintenance of ethical principles as an antidote to totalitarianism. The book’s proffered “solution” is preventative as opposed to curative. Desmet pursues a fascinating refection on a waterwheel designed by MIT professor Willem Malkus in 1972 to illustrate the work of Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist and one of the founders of chaos theory. The device consists of a rotating wheel to which small buckets with a bottom hole are attached. At the top, there is a tap releasing water into the top bucket. At a very low influx, the wheel does not move, because the water flows out of the hole in the bottom of the bucket faster than it flows in. At a slightly higher influx, the bucket fills up and the wheel starts to move, sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other. Once the wheel has “chosen” a certain direction, its behavior becomes regular and predictable: The greater the influx, the faster it turns.

“We cannot predict the specific behaviors of the waterwheel (at least not in its chaotic phase),” Desmet outlines, “but we can learn the principles by which it behaves. . . . Hence, there is no rational predictability, but there is a certain degree of intuitive predictability.” Therefore, Desmet writes, “the antidote to totalitarianism lies in an attitude to life that is not blinded by a rational understanding of superficial manifestations of life and that seeks to be connected with the principles and figures that are hidden beneath those manifestations.”

Just like the wheel, most phenomena in nature are complex and dynamic. . . . But like the wheel, life follows certain principles and sublime phenomena are hidden beneath its seemingly chaotic surface. And this is perhaps a person's task: to discover the timeless principles of life. . . . The better we can sense those principles, the more we feel that we start to understand some of the essence of life and that we are connected with the majestic, ordering principle that speaks to us from across the universe. . . . The ultimate knowledge lies outside of man. It vibrates in all things. And man is able to receive it, by tuning his vibrations, like a string, to the frequency of things.

And as Desmet rightly points out, this also applies at the societal level: “A society primarily has to stay connected with a number of principles and fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, the right to self-determination, and the right to freedom of religion or belief.” These quantities are not expendable adornments, nor cosseting luxuries, nor optional extras. If it loses its intuition of the absolute necessity for these “principled fundamentals,” a society will lose the sense and memory of how its own equilibrium has been arrived at, and thereafter descend into chaos.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.

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Photo by Jonathan McIntosh via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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