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Fear and the sacrifice of our freedoms
‘Totalitarianism and technocracy like to present themselves as the pinnacle of rationality and science.’ Prof Mattias Desmet
I’ve already made reference, in two previous articles recently, to the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet and his cogent theory of mass formation, but here I want to discuss his indispensable book The Psychology of Totalitarianism (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022), in which the theory is presented, in more detail.
This is because I feel that The Psychology of Totalitarianism, in its grave implications for the not-too-distant future of the Western world, could be the most important book of the decade in its explanation for the extraordinary state of affairs in which we find ourselves today. Here are links to my previous related articles, ‘Can the West turn the tide of tyranny’ and ‘The god of madness is back with a vengeance’.
Prof Desmet’s basic premise is that we are witnessing the failure of the ‘grand narrative’ of our society, that of mechanistic science, which can be traced back to the seventeenth century and Europe’s scientific revolution, the ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Age of Reason’, following which the nature of the human being came to be reduced to a biological organism.
It’s been a narrative that has ignored the psychological, ethical and symbolic dimensions of human beings, and has had a devastating effect on human relationships, causing people to become isolated from one another and from nature. Scientifically, the mechanistic-materialistic worldview is outdated, but remains virulent and contains within it the very real threat of totalitarianism.
To recap, Prof Desmet is recognised internationally for his theory of mass formation as it applies to the covid-19 phenomenon when whole populations were, in his view, in the grip of a kind of collective hypnosis arising from fear, loneliness and ‘free-floating’ anxiety which attached itself to the event. This gave way to censorship, loss of privacy and surrendered rights and freedoms — all triggered by ‘a singular, focused crisis narrative that forbids dissident views and relies on destructive groupthink’.
With the coronavirus crisis, ‘we have, for the first time in history, reached a point where the entire world population is in the grip of a mass formation over a prolonged period of time’. The crisis offered an unexpected window of opportunity for the mechanistic ideology, such ideology causing people to lose contact with their environment and become atomised subjects, essential components of the totalitarian state.
Prof Desmet says: ‘The transition from a democracy to a totalitarian technocracy, in which the coronavirus crisis was a Great Leap forward, actually formed part of the logic of the mechanistic ideology from the very beginning.’
Totalitarianism is the belief that human intellect can be the guiding principle in life and society: ‘It aims to create a utopian, artificial society led by technocrats or experts … the individual is completely subordinated to the collective, reduced to being a cog in the machine of society … Nazism, and even more so Stalinism, are the most ambitious historical attempts to put totalitarian ideology into practice.’
Advance of the surveillance society
There are several signs that a new kind of technocratic totalitarianism is on the rise today: the increase in intrusive actions by security agencies, the advance of the surveillance society, pressure on the right to privacy, increased censorship and suppression of alternative voices, loss of support for basic democratic principles, and an experimental vaccination programme.
Certain factors leading to societal mass formation are identified:
- An overall sense of loneliness and lack of social connections and bonds.
- A lack of meaning and purpose in life.
- Anxiety and discontent arising from loneliness and lack of meaning.
- Manifestation of frustration and aggression engendered by anxiety.
- Emergence of a consistent narrative from government and mass media which exploits and channels frustration and anxiety.
During the coronavirus episode, people accepted with remarkable ease measures that destroyed their enjoyment of life, freedom and prosperity — ‘the most astonishing observation for chroniclers of twentieth-century totalitarianism: the almost limitless tolerance for the enormous personal damage the population endured’.
The coronavirus did not come out of the blue, Prof Desmet says, but fits into ‘a series of increasingly desperate and self-destructive responses to objects of fear’ including terrorism and global warming. The only response in our current way of thinking is increased control: ‘Coercive control leads to fear and fear leads to more coercive control.’
Society then falls victim to a vicious circle inevitably leading to totalitarianism, resulting eventually in ‘the radical destruction of both the psychological and physical integrity of human beings’.
Prof Desmet warns that the totalitarian state is grounded in the social-psychological process of mass formation. Taking this process into account helps us to understand the willingness of individuals to blindly sacrifice personal interests in favour of the collective, the radical intolerance of dissident voices, a paranoid informant mentality, susceptibility to absurd pseudoscientific indoctrination and propaganda, and the loss of diversity and creativity, making totalitarianism the enemy of art and culture.
Elements of the scientific community have degenerated into ideology, belief and dogma. People no longer know the difference between pseudoscientific fiction and reality: ‘Never before were there so many such people as in the beginning of the twenty-first century; never before were the societal conditions so prone to totalitarianism.’
‘Expert’ commentary always moves toward a more technologically and biomedically controlled society: toward the realisation of the mechanistic ideology, resulting in ’a maze of errors, sloppiness and forced conclusions in which researchers unconsciously confirm their ideological principles’.
Indeed, I’d say, concept affirmation, as opposed to referential accuracy, indicates the power of transmitted beliefs and dogmas to overpower simple observation of what might be under one’s nose, or hiding in plain sight.
Dull bureaucrats and technocrats
With the historian and political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) — Prof Desmet’s touchstone writer, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) — he situates an undercurrent of totalitarianism in a naive belief that a flawless humanoid being and a utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge. A moment that Arendt anticipated in 1951 seems to be rapidly approaching: a new totalitarian system led not by ‘ring-leaders’ like Stalin and Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.
Arising from the mechanistic ideology, institutions were created that make plans about what future society should look like and how the ideal future society should respond to crisis situations. Operation Lockstep from the Rockefeller Foundation, Event 201 of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (in collaboration with John Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation), and Covid-19: The Great Reset by Klaus Schwab are examples of such endeavours. (See my articles, ‘Another “dress rehearsal” for a pandemic’ and ‘Why we should be wary of a smart future’).
Most interestingly, Prof Desmet says: ‘The ultimate master is the ideology, not the elite.’ At first, this key statement in The Psychology of Totalitarianism seems counter-intuitive, for where does an ideology originate other than in human discourse? Also, an ideology, such as totalitarianism, can be, and is, manipulated and imposed by institutional forces.
Yet the suggestion is that, due to the prevailing mechanistic-materialist worldview, a propensity in the populace towards totalitarianism waits to be activated — and, clearly, seized upon by affluent oligarchic influencers with their own agendas.
But it would be a mistake to identify the phenomenon only in regimes, Prof Desmet points out: ‘There is an ever-present totalitarian undercurrent that consists of a fanatical attempt to steer and control life in far-reaching ways on the basis of technical, scientific knowledge.’
The mechanistic ideology has put more and more individuals into a state of social isolation, unsettled by a lack of meaning, free-floating anxiety and uneasiness as well as latent frustration and aggression. These conditions lead to large-scale and long-lasting mass formation, and this mass formation in turn leads to the emergence of totalitarian state systems.
‘Therefore, mass formation and totalitarianism are in fact symptoms of the mechanistic ideology … these social symptoms signal an underlying problem … they transform the experiences of social isolation and fear into an illusion of connectedness.’ (Prof Desmet’s italics).
Societies are primarily besieged by ideas, he says (his italics). The most fundamental change that society needs to aim for is not a change in practical terms but a change in consciousness (my italics).
A new foundation for our identity
Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, The Psychology of Totalitarianism does explore, with optimism, possible ways out of the ‘cultural impasse’ in which we find ourselves, saying that the real task facing us is to construct ‘a new view of man and the world, to find a new foundation for our identity, to formulate new principles for living together with others, and to reappraise a timely human capacity — speaking the truth’.
Indeed, Prof Desmet states: ‘The reappraisal of the phenomenon of truth-telling will be the indicator par excellence of the progress of the revolution which is necessary to overcome the tendency toward totalitarianism inherent in the Enlightenment tradition.’
Essentially, he asks: ‘Do we view man as a biochemical machine that has to be technologically monitored and pharmaceutically adjusted, or as a being that finds its destination in mystical resonance with the Other and with the eternal language of nature?’
Towards the end of his book, he writes: ‘The essence of things is not rationally knowable. And reality cannot be reduced to mechanistic frameworks. When realising this, we can finally start to look for the essence of life where it truly can be found: in that which always escapes rationalisation and mechanisation …’
All rational knowledge is relative and remains alien to the essence of the object which one is trying to understand. Great minds of science have testified to this: Albert Einstein spoke of the elusive mystery he found everywhere in the universe; Neils Bohr understood that poetry had more grip on all things Real than logic; Max Planck said that all matter was grounded in a conscious and intelligent Mind.
Contemplative founders of science left the rationalistic worldview behind: Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Louis de Broglie, Wolfgang Pauli, Sir Arthur Eddington, Sir James Jeans — ‘all of them had a mystical worldview because they were confronted in their research objects with an irresolvable mystery’.
This does not minimise the importance of rationale and logic, Prof Desmet says, but rationality is not humanity’s final destination: ‘Humanity has to step firmly on to the path of logic in order to ultimately transcend rationality.’
The further the logical analysis of the phenomenon under investigation is carried, the more clearly one sees the emergence of a core that is intrinsically illogical and inaccessible to the human mind: ‘that moment gives rise to an awareness of the relativity of all logic as well as a heightened sensitivity to forms of language that don’t aim to be logically understood but lead to a more direct affinity, to resonance with the object (poetry, mysticism, etc.)’.
An unknowable and mysterious essence
Already, in the opening pages of The Psychology of Totalitarianism, we read that science ‘stumbles upon an unknowable and mysterious essence that escapes logical explanation and which can be described only in the language of poetry and metaphor’. Encounters with that essence often result in the seminal religious experience — an experience that precedes and is untainted by religious institutions and dogma.
To me, there’s a secret poetry in mysticism, and Prof Desmet’s references to poetry and mysticism immediately bring to mind the English philosopher Colin Wilson (1931–2013) who, in his book with the very title Poetry and Mysticism (1970), opined that the psychological mechanisms behind mystical and aesthetic experience were identical, although he was not suggesting that mysticism could be reduced to a matter of psychological mechanisms: ‘Where the mechanisms end, the mystery begins,’ he adds.
Like Prof Desmet today, Wilson was concerned greatly with the lack of meaning and purpose in human existence and how this situation could be rectified by changes to, and a raising of, human consciousness.
By ‘aesthetic experience’ Wilson means specifically a spontaneous uplifting or inspirational moment brought about by an artform, for example, literature, music or visual art, or by the natural world, rather than critical reflection on an object or objects — indeed, a level of epiphany affording a sudden insight or revelation, something more profound than the intellectual aesthetic response or attitude.
Moments of heightened awareness induced by poetry, Wilson asserts, are really no different from the visions of the mystics. Great poetry strikes the reader at a level deeper than conscious thought; its message frees us from the ‘gaoler in our minds’ and makes us aware of possibilities hidden by everyday common sense (or everyday rationality and logic).
Wilson was sure we could share in what great artists (and scientists) communicated and thereby sharpen our sensibilities so as to experience such moments more often and more intensely. Poetry was one of the most important means of tapping ‘vast sources of power’ within us, of providing insights into the very processes of creativity and revealing the full meaning of our humanity.
Well, we can’t all be mystics but we can investigate and possibly cultivate this aesthetic experience. Necessarily, it would give rise to crucial questions of value, questions which are being overridden constantly in today’s world — most strongly evidenced by the way in which the proponents of establishment and mainstream narratives suppress valid and viable alternative viewpoints.
It seems to me that realisation of the aesthetic experience, of that particular awareness for which Prof Desmet hopes, would improve the condition of society, and also involve an elevation of the status of art, currently under attack by ‘woke’ extremism.
Poetry begins where philosophy ends.
Some of many aphoristic statements which can be found in The Psychology of Totalitarianism:
‘Totalitarianism is not about monstrous people — it is about normal people who stick to a morbid, dehumanising way of thinking or “logic”.’
‘The euthanasia machine — a box in which you can relieve yourself of life painlessly with helium gas — will be the ultimate consequence of mechanistic thinking.’
‘Chaos theory heralds, maybe even more than quantum mechanics, the era that historically and logically follows the Enlightenment; an era when the universe is once again pregnant with meaning.’
‘The essence of things is not rationally knowable and reality cannot be reduced to mechanistic frameworks.’
‘The epidemiological-statistical discourse sounds sophisticated and looks impressive with its acronyms, calculations to four decimal places and mathematical modelling of the course of the pandemic, but it is mostly an impressive demonstration of fake accuracy and pseudo-objectivity.’
Mattias Desmet is a professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium, and a practising psychotherapist. His previous books include The Pursuit of Objectivity in Psychology and Lacan’s Logic of Subjectivity: A Walk on the Graph of Desire, and he is the author of more than a hundred peer-reviewed academic papers. In 2018, he received the Evidence-Based Psychoanalytic Case Study Prize of the Association for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, and in 2019 he received the Wim Trijsburg Prize of the Dutch Association of Psychotherapy. He also has a degree in statistics.
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