“The Psychology of Totalitarianism” by Mattias Desmet. A Book Review
In a word: Brilliant. In a sentence: Desmet answers compelling questions that we have been asking since day one of this Covid fiasco, and some of us asking quite a bit before that. No one else has, in my opinion, come close to fulfilling this task.
Let me start with a quote directly from the horse’s mouth:
Mass formation is, in essence, a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals’ ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically. This process is insidious in nature; populations fall prey to it unsuspectingly. To put it in the words of Yuval Noah Harari: Most people wouldn’t even notice the shift towards a totalitarian regime. We associate totalitarianism mainly with labour, concentration, and extermination camps, but those are merely the final, bewildering stage of a long process.
This quote, found in the earlier pages of this excellent book, sets the stage for what is yet to come. Not only does this book answer the question foremost on everyone’s mind, “WTF?” it does so in a very organized, straightforward, and detailed way. The above quote illustrates what many of us have used in articles and commentaries for quite some time, the “boiling frog” analogy: put a frog in a pot of water on the stove, turn up the heat slowly, and he will be cooked (and quite dead) before he realizes any danger. Although many have triumphantly pointed out that in real life this simply is not true, I stick by the analogy, and besides, who said this is “real life”?
Desmet lays out his book the following way. It is divided into three parts, each part with detailed chapters. Part 1 is “Science and its Psychological Effects,” Part 2 is “Mass Formation and Totalitarianism,” Part 3, the final part, is “Beyond the Mechanistic Worldview.” Right off the bat Desmet dives into the “set up” for the mess we are currently in (as well as the many messes the world has already experienced throughout the ages). To put it bluntly, the soil in which the seeds of totalitarianism are planted contains a fundamental corruption: the limitations set on science and the scientific method. In a word, this would be materialism (in a mechanistic cause and effect universe). And more succinctly, an insistence that the universe can be thoroughly, rigidly, and definitively, described through a quantitative and reductionist method. Desmet describes this confusion through the evolution of science in wonderful detail, coming to a modern conclusion when chaos theory was first introduced: “Chaos theory showed in a truly revolutionary way that matter is constantly organizing itself in ways that cannot possibly be explained in mechanistic terms.”
Another quote from the book:
Most are of the opinion that science consists of making dry, logical connections between “objectively” observable facts. However, science is, in fact, characterized by empathy, a resonant affinity between the observer and the phenomenon under investigation. As such, 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.
At this point some may be asking, “What does this have to do with mass formation psychosis?” Be patient. Desmet writes his book like a mystery novel building suspense as he slowly reveals the mysterious ways of the human psyche and the community of humans within it resides.
It is important to note that the rigidity of materialism and a mechanised universe causes a “deadness” and “meaninglessness” to life and to nature. All subjectivity is wiped out and is relegated to the “non real” garbage heap of zero significance.
Man may not realize it, but his humanity does not really matter, it is nothing essential. His whole existence, his longing and his lust, his romantic lamentations and his most superficial needs, his joy and his sorrow, his doubt and his choices, his anger and unreasonableness, his pleasure and his suffering, his deepest aversion and his most lofty aesthetic appreciations, in short, the entire drama of his existence, can ultimately be reduced to elementary particles that interact according to the laws of mechanics.
This is the credo of materialism.
Desmet continues with this theme of rigid materialism leading to a breakdown of human connection, not only a disconnection with fellow humans, but a disconnection with nature, and a disconnection with life itself.
Social connections were also transformed beyond recognition. The invention of radio and television led to the rise of the mass media and a corresponding decline in direct human interactions with a merely social function. Evening meetings between neighbours, pub gatherings, harvest festivals, rituals, and celebrations—they were progressively replaced by consumption of what the media presented. This seduced us into certain social laziness. It was no longer necessary to make the effort that is required for interaction with fellow human beings.
We are starting to see where this is going, eh?
More from Desmet:
To summarize, science led to a formidable ability to alter the material world through industrialization and mechanization. But this also gave rise to problems, especially regarding our relationships, both with each other, and with nature. Furthermore, we’re faced with problems that are caused by the fact that science—or that which passes for science today—is often neither accurate nor reliable.
Of course there is a lot more from Desmet than what I am quoting here, but this should give the reader of this review an idea of the flavour of his narrative. He continues with an explanation of the consequences of these sorts of disconnections and isolation and how it leads to a human state of loneliness, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, and meaninglessness. Bringing these observations to our current time and how they relate to the Covid crises Desmet explains:
With the coronavirus crisis, the trend towards a digital society made a big leap forward. Teleworking became the norm, student life took place online, aperitif and coffee were consumed in front of a television or computer screen, even sex was mediated through technological machinery and the death penalty was carried out from a safe digital distance. Initially, it was mainly seen as a necessity and occasionally as an advantage. People felt protected from the virus, saved time, avoided traffic jams, reduced their ecological footprint, and spared themselves the stress and discomfort that can characterize human encounters.
Desmet goes on to explain that this “digitalization” of life leads to “digital depression” and a myriad of other deep psychological and soulful assaults. The result is a disconnection to the things that make us human, and this condition, in fact, leads to totalitarianism, a centralized control by an all knowing entity. “Why is mankind so hopelessly seduced by the mechanistic ideology? Partly because it’s under the influence of the following illusion: that one is able to remove the discomforts of existence without having to question oneself at all.” The authority knows all. Desmet explains, “totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science, the belief in an artificially created paradise.”
There is a lot of detail in this book regarding how authority affects the person, or mass, falling under the spell of “science obsession.” He cites numerous references to the Covid situation so those of you anxious to read about how Desmet’s theories illuminate the current situation, you will have plenty to mull over.
Desmet explains that there are four conditions for mass formation: 1. Generalized loneliness, social isolation, and lack of social bonds among the population. 2. Lack of meaning in life. 3. Widespread presence of free-floating anxiety and psychological unease within a population. 4. Free floating frustration and aggression. It is relatively easy to see how these four conditions can come about after understanding the foundation that creates them. Conformity abounds due to ritualistic behaviour in service to the collective (as per instructions from the totalitarian focal point).
Totalitarian systems typically make it nearly impossible for people to gather in larger groups, and they strive to sever all social and family ties and replace them with the only allowable bond: the one between the individual and the totalitarian system (that is, the collective).
After chapter 5 there is a little summation that the author offers us that helps with a more thorough understanding of what has just been read. These little summations appear throughout the book, and this reader found them very helpful in tying everything together. Dr. Desmet must certainly be a fine teacher!
Here it is:
In the first five chapters of this book, I described how the emergence of the mechanistic worldview brought society into a specific psychological condition over the past centuries. Society was increasingly gripped by a fanatical, mechanistic ideology that degenerated into dogma and blind belief (chapter 1); experiences of meaninglessness and social isolation increased hand over fist (chapter 2); hopes were increasingly placed on a utopian, technological solution to the problems inherent in human existence (chapter 3); public space was increasingly dominated by a pseudoscientific discourse of numbers, data, and statistics that completely blurred the line between scientific facts and fiction (chapter 4); and epidemic fear and uncertainty made the population yearn for absolute authority (chapter 5). In the present chapter, I’ll describe how, from here, the socially fragmented population suddenly reunites into a unit through the process of mass formation.
The final chapters contain suggestions regarding our future path, and investigates the efficacy of a particular approach in confronting this mass formation and the totalitarian regime being formed as a result (or was already present). The purpose of this review is to whet your appetite and to encourage you to have a read of this book’s entirety yourself. For anyone interested in the psychology at the heart of this Covid insanity, this is a must read.