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Ponerologist's Log, Supplemental: Rounding Out the Picture of Mass Formation
The Psychology of Totalitarianism Part 6 - Conclusion
I liked Desmet’s book, and I recommend reading it. But I have a few criticisms in addition to the ones already mentioned in parts 1-5 of my review (like his dismissal of psychopathy)—mainly aspects he neglects. If you haven’t yet read Andrew Lobaczewski’s Political Ponerology (PP), consider this post a supplement to Desmet’s PT, a kind of “10 More Things You DIDN’T NOTICE About Totalitarianism S03E22!” Except there probably won’t be ten points.
First, there’s his sources. I’ve read books with more pages of footnotes than actual text, books where the footnotes were more interesting than the actual text, and scholarly books with relatively few or even no footnotes whatsoever that were nevertheless were amazing, and didn’t need them. Heck, the original manuscript of PP itself barely had any. So I don’t mean to be pedantic. However, I think Desmet would have benefited from a wider reading of the existing literature on the topic.
When it comes to totalitarianism (and mass formation), Desmet’s go-to sources are few in number: Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). He cites Arendt about 45 times, Le Bon 17, and Solzhenitsyn 12.
Now Solzhenitsyn’s great, but he’s not perfect, especially when it comes to the things he couldn’t know about at the time and all he had to go on was rumor and (informed) speculation—like the number of people interned in the camps or executed or otherwise killed by the Soviets. Desmet cites Solzhenitsyn’s execution figures, for example, on page 118. But like his other numerical estimates in the Gulag, however, Solzhenitsyn’s numbers are too high.
I know this is a typical line to take for Solzhenitsyn haters: “His numbers are inflated! The Gulag was a myth! Solzhenitsyn was a liar and a traitor! Stalin was a great guy! The only people sent to the Gulag were traitors who deserved it!” I responded to this form of cognitive dissonance, as exemplified in a paragraph in one of Andrei Martyanov’s books, back in 2018. (When it comes to his comments on Solzhenitsyn and Stalinism, Martyanov himself strikes me as a typical Soviet boomer.) Long story short, yeah, from what we can tell, Solzhenitsyn’s numbers were off, sometimes by a large margin, but that doesn’t make him a liar, or even wrong in the big-picture sense. You should still be careful when citing him on numbers. There are better sources in that department.
The other problem with Solzhenitsyn is simply that he didn’t have the tools to truly understand what was going on scientifically. He was a giant of a man and a genius, but take his oft-cited pearl of wisdom (quoted by Desmet on p. 121) :
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
True enough. It’s only paranoid politics that projects all blame onto some other group as the source of all evil, without ever taking a moment for self-reflection on how you might’ve contributed your fair share to your current position. This line of thought is also especially useful when someone is getting a bit too big for their britches, losing humility, and denying their own very large capacity for evil while projecting all bad qualities onto someone else. Motes and logs and all that.
But let’s get real. Some people have crossed that dividing line in their own hearts so far that it’s hard to blame anyone for calling them for what they are: colloquially—evil bastards. That doesn’t mean it’s possible to identify, separate and destroy them, that it will ever be so simple, or that it will ever be effective (probably not, as discussed in the previous post). But this quote should never be used to deny that yeah, it may not be pretty, but some people are as close to pure evil as you can imagine. (This is another of those both/and, not either/or, situations.) How else would you describe a serial child rapist/murderer with a total lack of remorse?
As for Arendt, sure, she was a smart woman and keen observer of human nature from what I can tell, but her experience with totalitarianism was limited and far from comprehensive. She fled Germany for France in 1933 at the age of 26 or 27. As Michael Rectenwald put it in his foreword to PP:
Łobaczewski argues that an adequate study of totalitarianism had hitherto been impossible because it had been undertaken in the wrong registers. It had been treated in terms of literature, ideology studies, history, religion, political science, and international politics, among other fields. One is reminded of the literary accounts and studies of the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, and Nazi Germany—of the classic works by Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Benda, Václav Havel, and many others. These had made indispensable contributions but had, owing to no fault of their own, necessarily failed to grasp the root of the problem, namely, the psychopathological dimension of the inception and development of “pathocracy,” or rule by psychopaths. (pp. xi-xii)
Desmet still manages to get a lot out of these few sources. But his book would have been even better if he had engaged with any of the other relevant literature on the topic and saved him from that blunder re: psychopathy. There’s a small but important library of works on political psychology that get no mention, even when they’re directly relevant. Like Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics (1930), one of the first to make the connection between paranoia and political agitators (picked up again in the ’90s by Robins and Post). Or Gustave Gilbert’s 1950 work on The Psychology of Dictatorship (quoted in a previous part of this series). Then there are the more recent works by Barbara Oakley and Dean Haycock focusing on Dark Triad traits in political leadership. All have important pieces of the puzzle, even if they’re all flawed in their own ways. (And of course, there’s Ponerology itself, though it was and is still a relatively obscure book, which this Substack hopes to help remedy.) But that’s enough of that.
Second point: variations. As I hope is clear, the phenomenon of totalitarianism is even more complex than Desmet portrays (though thankfully complexity is a key feature of his presentation). There’s more than one path to pathocracy, and depending on that path, different features will be more prevalent than others. For example, what differences might there be between a country where the development of totalitarianism is relatively homegrown (even if given a boost by foreign powers, as was the case with the Bolsheviks) and one on which it is more or less directly imposed, or infected via political/revolutionary warfare? As Gordon Hahn wrote in his recent book:
Most countries that fell to communism were victims of revolutionary meddling, even invasion from abroad. [endnote: The victory of communism in China … was the result of foreign infection from Russia. China and Russia helped communism to power in Korea and Vietnam, and so it went for much of the 20th century. In many cases where strong communist movements developed, for example, in the Third World during the Cold War, this was a direct result of Soviet and other communist states’ interference.] Similarly, early socialism, Marxism, and anarchism were European products imported to neighboring Russia. (The Russian Dilemma, p. 251, endnote: p. 414 n. 34)
Lobaczewski distinguishes these forms (homegrown, imposed by force, artificially infected) in chapter V of his book (esp. pp. 218-229). For example, in a country where pathocracy is imposed (like Poland), mass formation per se might have a much reduced role, if any. As Lobaczewski describes it, there was no bottom-up crowd pushing the revolution in the universities, for instance. Rather, the propagandist-professors attempted to fish out susceptible individuals (Lobaczewski’s “6%”) from the mostly resistant student population. As he puts it, “some people from every social group … suddenly start changing their personality and worldview” (PP, pp. 219-220)—“a spellbinder’s activities ‘husk out’ amenable individuals with an astonishing regularity and psychological accuracy” (p. 149).
This is something different than mass formation ordinarily understood. It’s not a group process per se, though a group is formed (or rather, supplemented with additional members)—just on different principles, fished out of the general population individually based on certain psychological profiles. Retired Lt. Col. David Redman’s observations are relevant here. After watching an interview with him on YouTube (since expunged from the record and sent down the memory hole, but a clip is still on Twitter), I wrote to him. Here’s what he replied (which sums up the point he made in the video):
I found early in my Army career that in every battalion of 800 soldiers, that percent [5%] rang true. In each platoon of 50 soldiers there were 2 or 3 that leaders had to find and deal with. If leaders did not do their job, then there was 15% who would follow them. The other 80% put their heads down, did their jobs and waited for competent leadership to return. Sometimes that took years, and good soldiers then voted with their feet and left Battalion any way they could, unfortunately sometimes by leaving the Army.
On a national level, the 5% can destroy a country if not dealt with. Democracies are fragile and need a well-informed public and competent leaders. I am very afraid of what has happened to Canada in the past two years (as well as many other democracies) as I believe our leaders have proven their incompetence and the public is NOT well informed for many reasons. I also believe that some of this “incompetence” is intentional, or evil. (personal communication)
Spellbinders fish out that 5%. They just wishfully think they can get more than that, and are disappointed when they don’t.
Imposed pathocracies can either deliberately create a mass formation (the typical form of artificial infection through revolutionary warfare, e.g. “color revolution”), or skip it almost entirely (imposition by force). As such, force-imposed pathocracies probably give a better idea of the underlying psychobiological dynamics that get washed out and overshadowed in the hysteria of a mass formation. The pathocrats are operating against popular opinion from the outset in that case, not with it, and those they manage to fish out represent the pathocratic core—pathological to some degree, as a rule.
This leads to some interesting questions about necessary and sufficient conditions and variables. For instance, under what conditions is popular support the greatest? How and when does that support decline? How much, really, does the public support the revolutionaries, for example? How much support is necessary? Maybe they exist, but I have yet to find any reliable numbers for how many Russians actually supported the Bolshevik coup. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were much lower than assumed.1
That brings me to point three: phases. As already discussed in this series, as pathocracy progresses, mass formation seems to become increasingly less important (and less effective), to the point that, as Elena Gorokhova wrote in her novel, A Mountain of Crumbs: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.”
Similarly, are there periods at which a society is most susceptible to mass formation? Periods when they are more protected and relatively immune? Which brings us to…
Point four: cycles (also already introduced in previous posts). Successful revolutions tend to be associated with the tail end of secular cycles—after stagflation and the entering of the crisis period—and psychologically with the hysterical features of the collective spiritual crisis that accompanies this period of the cycle (Lobaczewski’s hysteroidal cycle). For example, the Russian Revolution came at the end of the “Romanov cycle” (1620-1922) following the stagflation which began in the mid-18th century in central regions of Russia (and beginning of the 19th in others), the rise of revolutionary terrorism in the mid to late 19th century, and culminating in the disasters of WWI, the Revolution, and the Civil War.2
Turchin is the guy to read on cycles. (Though Michael A. Alexander sent me a link to his manuscript America in Crisis: What new social science disciplines say about our current path that also seems worth checking out. I haven’t read it yet, but in it he synthesizes Turchin’s work and expands on industrial cycles, which are primarily economic rather than population-based.) For Lobaczewski, pathocracy emerges from within a state of maximal social hysteria (pp. 169, 183). That’s the period to look at for the highest risk of mass formation. Societies in the first stages of a secular cycle are stable and probably highly resistant to potentially revolutionary mass formations.
Final point: the society of normal people. This one isn’t so much a deficit in Desmet’s book, but an expansion on something he does cover: the emergence of a countergroup and the reestablishing of social bonds. It goes along with the Gorokhova quote about lies in the point three above. Lobaczewski calls this the development of a “society of normal people,” and he describes it like this:
During the initial shock, the feeling of social links between normal people fades. After that has been survived, however, the overwhelming majority of people begin to manifest their own phenomenon of psychological immunization. Society simultaneously starts collecting practical knowledge on the subject of this new reality and its psychological properties. Normal people slowly learn to perceive the weak spots of such a system and exploit opportunities to safely influence it for a more expedient arrangement of their lives. They begin to give each other advice in these matters, thus slowly regenerating the feelings of social links and reciprocal trust. A characteristic new phenomenon occurs: separation between the pathocrats and the society of normal people. The latter have an advantage of talent, professional skills, and healthy common sense. They therefore hold certain advantageous cards. The pathocracy finally realizes that it must find some modus vivendi or relations with the majority of society … (PP, pp. 198-199)
He devotes much of Chapter VI to this phenomenon, discussing effects of pathocracy on the vast majority of a population, including the above-mentioned development of practical understanding and skills (for adapting to an inhuman system), a specialized form of language and humor (in reaction to pathocratic newspeak), and natural immunity to the propaganda and psychological influences coming from the leadership (you can see this among a lot of Slavic and Chinese immigrants to America, for example, though not necessarily among their children).
In contrast to the revolutionary phase, when a number of the general population may be caught up in the ideological fervor, once pathocracy stabilizes, this is the normal state of affairs: a sharp division between pathocratic leadership, and a very large segment of society for whom that leadership is alien and anti-human. A stalemate can develop for some time (in the case of the USSR, a couple generations) before the system collapses and depathologization commences (a process that has been proceeding in Russia for the past 30 years, for example).
On this subject, John Carter commented on my last post with this:
One of the things they [Desmet and Weinstein] touched on was precisely the formation of an 'anti-group', and the danger of mass formation happening there, also. The key to avoiding that trap, according to Desmet, is to ensure strong interpersonal bonds in order to provide stability against the personal-group bonds. Horizontal connectivity preventing the purely vertical connectivity that characterizes a ponerogenic mass, in other words. It seems to me that this contains much of the answer to the key question - how to effectively combat this situation. Simply speaking out calmly and rationally is surely important, but much more important I think is participating in and providing fora for the development of organic societal bonds, since it is the latter that will actually solve the underlying issue that led to mass formation in the first place.
Just as Lobaczewski recommends providing some “artificial immunity” against pathocracy in the form of preventative education in these matters, I think we may be able to do the same thing regarding these fora: establish networks of trust and close bonds to ride out the potential disasters coming our way.
So there it is: a handful things that should be taken into account when trying to understand the overlapping phenomena of totalitarianism and pathocracy. There are more, of course, but I think I covered the big ones. For the details, you’ll just have to tune in again for your irregularly scheduled programming.
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Especially given the tiny fraction of revolutionaries who were actually Russian (more precisely, Russian/Ukrainian/Belorussian-speakers, or Slavs)—around 5% in 1906/1907. The nearest census to that time was in 1897, when Slavs/Russian Orthodox believers made up from 67% to 70% of the population. By contrast, Russian Jews made up around 4% of the population but 47% of the revolutionaries (a 12x overrepresentation); Poles around 6% of the population, yet 30% of the revolutionaries (5x overrepresented); Latvians around 1% and 13% (12x overrepresented).
The English Revolution came in the final phase of the Tudor-Stuart cycle (1485-1730), the Chinese Revolution at the end of the 1864-1949 cycle—also the American Civil War, and probably the French Revolution (though I haven’t seen in-depth studies of the latter cycle). These are all agrarian cycles; industrial ones have slightly different dynamics.