The Psychology of Totalitarianism Part 1
Reviewing Mattias Desmet's New Book
I’ve been eagerly awaiting Mattias Desmet’s new book ever since his podcast appearances delineating the “mass formation” hypothesis regarding COVID-19 and the subsequent announcement the book’s English translation: The Psychology of Totalitarianism (PT). Desmet is a practicing psychoanalyst and professor of clinical psychology in Belgium, and he brings a level of insight to his analysis that is sorely lacking in many other commentators. I highly recommend readers get the book. It’s an essential addition to the library of ponerology.
In this and subsequent posts I will be summarizing the book’s main points, correlating and comparing them to ideas from Lobaczewski, and responding to the very few bits I take issue with.
The book itself is divided into three sections: “Science and Its Psychological Effects,” “Mass Formation and Totalitarianism,” and “Beyond the Mechanistic Worldview.” As Desmet points out in the Introduction:
…part 1 and part 3 of this book only marginally refer to totalitarianism. It is not my aim with this book to focus on that which is usually associated with totalitarianism—concentration camps, indoctrination, propaganda—but rather the broader, cultural-historical processes from which totalitarianism emerges. This approach allows us to focus on what matters most: Totalitarianism arises from evolutions and tendencies that take place in our day-to-day lives. (PT, p. 8)
I thought this would be the case when writing this in the Introduction to Political Ponerology (PP):
Clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet’s work on mass formation (with reference to Gusave le Bon’s The Crowd ) is also worth checking out, as it pertains to the transition from mass hystericization to totalitarianism, or pathocracy. (PP, p. l)
One of Political Ponerology’s weaknesses, acknowledged by its author, is that he did not live through the long processes leading up to the emergence of the last great totalitarian saltations in the early 20th century and had to reconstruct them using a historical approach. Lobaczewski was born in 1921, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and only twelve before Hitler gained power in Germany. He wrote:
An appropriately ponerological reading of history is a necessary condition for understanding macrosocial ponerogenic phenomena whose duration exceeds the observational capabilities of a single person or which appear centuries apart. The author utilized this method in the following chapter [Chapter V: Pathocracy, pp. 191-192], reconstructing the phase wherein characteropathic factors dominated in the initial period of the creation of pathocracy, which he could not observe for himself. (PP, p. 176)
The same can be said for the period preceding pathocracy, to which he devotes Chapter III, “The Hysteroidal Cycle.” This is why I consider Desmet’s book so important: it rounds out the picture of the development of pathocracy in its earliest stages, written by someone with a similar level of psychological insight and who has lived through it firsthand. Thus Desmet brings a similar level of personal experience and clinical insight to this period as that which Lobaczewski brought to its mature, developed forms (e.g. the “dissimulative phase”), the very periods Desmet does not focus on.
Desmet contrasts traditional dictatorships, which rely on “the creation of a climate of fear amongst the population,” to totalitarianism, which, having its roots in mass formation, produces “totalitarized” behaviors such as “an exaggerated willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own personal interests out of solidarity with the collective (i.e., the masses), a profound intolerance of dissident voices, and pronounced susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda” (PT, p. 2). He continues:
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. … We associate totalitarianism mainly with labor, concentration, and extermination camps, but those are merely the final, bewildering stage of a long process. (PT, p. 2)
I’ll have more to say about Lobaczewski’s take on these phenomena later, so for now I’ll just quote what he has to say about the emergence of pathocracy out of a state of societal hystericization (which I would more or less equate with mass formation):
In such times, the capacity for logical and disciplined thought, born of necessity during difficult times, begins to fade. When communities lose the capacity for psychological reason and moral criticism, the processes of the generation of evil are intensified at every social scale, whether individual or macrosocial, until they give rise to “bad” times. (PP, p. 57)
…let us here attempt to differentiate two pathological states of societies [i.e. societal hystericization and pathocracy]; their essence and contents appear different enough, but they can operate sequentially in such a way that the first opens the door to the second. (PP, p. 169)
If a given society does not manage to overcome the state of hystericization under its ethnological and political circumstances, a huge bloody tragedy can be the result. One variation of such a tragedy can be pathocracy, though its appearance is also conditioned by other long-term causes. (PP, p. 172)
Resonant with Iain McGilchrist’s work (which I’ve highlighted here, on MindMatters, and in the notes to Ponerology), Desmet highlights the central role of a particular kind of science in the creation of “a fictitious new reality” (p. 3), one that at least partially results from all the many intentional and unintentional errors, biases, sloppiness, and deliberate fraud in the scientific research literature—errors and shortcomings that have been known for years but which are still as prevalent as ever. With reference to the work of Hannah Arendt, Desmet sees the “blind belief in a kind of statistical-numerical ‘scientific fiction’” as the substratum of the new totalitarianism.
This is the narrative of mechanistic science, in which man is reduced to a biological organism. A narrative that ignores the psychological, symbolic, and ethical dimensions of human beings and thereby has a devastating effect at the level of human relationships. (PT, p. 7)
That is, it produces the “atomized subjects” of Arendt’s analysis.
Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence. In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. As such, totalitarianism is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition. (PT, p. 7)
In Lobaczewski’s terms: the emotionally impoverished “schizoidal worldview” writ large, and which has played a formative role in all modern political systems.
Each of the first five chapters describes a psychological effect produced by the mechanistic “Grand Narrative,” and which prepares the ground for totalitarianism’s emergence.
Chapter 1 focuses on the modern scientific ideology and how open-minded Science (with a capital S, as practiced by the actual scientific innovators of yesteryear) has degenerated into fanatical dogma and belief. This produces what Arendt considered the ideal subject of totalitarianism: someone who cannot separate fact from (scientific) fiction.
Commenting on the decline in proper thinking that precedes and promotes periods of mass hystericization, Lobaczewski wrote:
During “good” times, the search for truth becomes uncomfortable because it reveals inconvenient facts. [See Desmet’s discussion of truth-telling on p. 13 of PT.] It is better to think about easier and more pleasant things. Unconscious elimination of data which are, or appear to be, inexpedient gradually turns into habit, and then becomes a custom accepted by society at large. However, any thought process based on such truncated information cannot possibly give rise to correct conclusions; it further leads to subconscious substitution of inconvenient premises by more convenient ones, thereby approaching the boundaries of psychopathology. …
When a few generations’ worth of “good-time” insouciance and increasing hysterics result in a societal deficit regarding psychological skill and moral criticism, this paves the way for pathological plotters, spellbinders, even more primitive impostors, and their organized systems of social and moral destruction to act and merge into the processes of the origination of evil. …
Those times which many people later recall as the “good old days” thus provide fertile soil for future tragedy because of the progressive devolution of moral, intellectual, and personality values which gives rise to Rasputin-like eras—times of deceit, bitterness, and lawlessness. (PP, pp. 57-58)
Chapter 2, on science’s practical applications, highlights the disconnection it promotes from the natural and social environment, resulting in a sense of meaninglessness and social isolation. Rigid traditional social structures, despite their flaws, at least provided “a psychological basis and frame of reference” (PT, p. 27). The anonymity of the new mode of mass production weakened and broke existing social bonds, mediated by the “visible, subtle physical effects” of direct human interaction.
The rise of meaningless professions [“bullshit jobs”] shows us that the real problem of humanity lies in human relationships, more so than in the struggle with natural forces or in the physical demands of work. Simply put, in a society in which human relationships are satisfying, life will be bearable even if it has only primitive means of production. Whereas in a society where human relationships are impoverished and toxic, life will be difficult and unbearable, however “advanced” such society may be in terms of mechanical-technological evolutions. (PT, p. 31)
Lobaczewski writes: “our existence is contingent upon necessary links with those who lived before, those who presently make up our families and society, and those who shall exist in the future. Our existence only assumes meaning as a function of societal bonds; hedonistic isolation causes us to lose ourselves” (PP, p. 38). And on the hysteroidal phase which can lead to the emergence of totalitarianism:
[This phase] is represented by a period of spiritual crisis in a society, which historiosophy associates with exhausting of the ideational, moral, and religious values heretofore nourishing the society in question. Egoism among individuals and social groups increases, and the links of moral duty and social networks are felt to be loosening. Trifling matters thereupon dominate human minds to such an extent that there is no room left for thinking about public matters or a feeling of commitment to the future. An atrophy of the hierarchy of values within the perception of personal and social reality is an indication thereof … (PP, pp. 167-168)
Desmet writes of the centralization of economic and psychological power following industrialization and technologization, and how the promise of the Enlightenment for greater personal power and freedom only led to greater “(feelings of) dependence and powerlessness,” a distrust of those in power, and a sense of no longer being connected to the “whole of society, no longer belonging to a meaningful social group”:
Humans have found themselves in a state of solitude, cut off from nature, and existing apart from social structures and connections, feeling powerless due to a deep sense of meaninglessness, living under clouds that are pregnant with an inconceivable, destructive potential, all while psychologically and materially depending on the happy few, whom he does not trust and with whom he cannot identify. (PT, p. 35)
In Chapter 3, Desmet discusses the problems with abstractions and models, which always leave something out because they can never fully capture reality. The same goes for the artificial interactions that have replaced those subtle bodily exchanges mentioned above. When human interactions are digitalized, something essential gets left out. Yet many see this as progress. The modern utopian vision of mechanistic ideology is a dystopian nightmare of transhumanism, an “internet of bodies,” a life “spent indoors, on an intravenous drip” (PT, p. 45). All this because we believe the fiction “that one is able to remove the discomforts of existence without having to question oneself at all.” This all stems from a totalitarian assumption: the “naive belief that a flawless, humanoid being and a utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge” (PT, p. 47). He quotes Arendt on this delusion: “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man” (PT, p. 48).
Desmet writes that it is a misconception to think that such ideologies (Stalinism, Nazism, transhumanism) “are the products of deranged minds.” But that depends on what you consider deranged. I would argue that such ideologies are, ultimately, the product of a particular type of derangement: an emotionally detached, hyper-rational mind—the schizoidal (per Lobaczewski) or the schizo-autistic (per Sass and McGilchrist). (Which isn’t to say that all people who come to believe in such ideologies are necessarily deranged—see Lobaczewski’s discussion on the possible responses to schizoidal philosophy on PP, pp. 185-190.)
Chapter 4 tackles the problem of measurement and the myth of technocracy—that objective measurements and numerical data can be adequately parsed to provide the metrics allowing for effective decision-making on the part of highly rational technocrats. “Numbers have a unique psychological effect. They create an almost irresistible illusion of objectivity” (PT, p. 52). His discussion of this phenomenon in the context of COVID-19 is excellent and highlights the “conversive thinking” (Lobaczewski’s term) that has typified the past two years. For example:
And so we see that an entire society can completely ignore what is undoubtedly the most basic question in medicine: Are we sure that the cure is not worse than the disease? (PT, p. 59)
Lobaczewski calls this narrowing of the field of attention “chronic avoidance of the crux of the matter,” which was a common phenomenon in Europe during its last period of peak hysteria prior to WWI (PP, pp. 63).
Our fascination and trust in numbers can lead us to believe anything, and to be convinced of our own rightness. In the context of COVID:
A society saturated with fear and unease selects from the myriad of numbers those that confirm its fear. The chosen numbers then reinforce the fear. … if you’re convinced that your own subjective fiction is reality, you will also think your reality is superior to the fiction of others. This is how we become convinced that our fiction can be imposed on the other by any means possible. (PT, pp. 63-64)
Also how a fanatical ideological belief can come about “that justifies deception and manipulation and ultimately transgresses all ethical boundaries,” as we see happening all around us.
Finally, Chapter 5 deals with why we cling to the fictional realities provided by numbers, and it is the most psychoanalytic chapter so far, tracing the developmental origins of narcissism and what Desmet calls regulation mania. Commenting on the Enlightenment’s vision of liberating man “from his anxiety and insecurity and his moral commandments and prohibitions” (PT, p. 65), Desmet writes:
Somehow, however, this process turned in the opposite direction. The idealization of the human intellect eventually led to an intensification of fear of disease and suffering, while interhuman relationships were marked by uncertainty and confusion. The old commandments and prohibitions were eventually replaced by a jungle of rules and regulations and a new, hyper-strict morality. (PT, p. 66)
We are at once less resilient, less risk tolerant, more prone to narcissism and aggression. Why? Desmet tracks the process developmentally, from our first awareness as ourselves as separate objects who exist in relation to and for others (our mothers) to the uncertainty and incompleteness inherent in language and thus our first symbolic interactions as children. We see the first signs of aggression in our efforts to secure our place as the one object of our mother’s attention, the first signs of the urge to better, take down, and destroy our rivals. And with the acquisition of language, we see the first desire to know the rules, and eventually (and ideally) the acceptance of uncertainty (our parents are not omniscient, and no one has all the answers). (I may end up devoting a post to Desmet’s description of narcissism and its relation to the body, which strikes me as resonant with a certain interpretation of the apostle Paul’s take on “the flesh.” Also Dabrowski’s “second and third” factors, as they relate to rules and an autonomous, creative turn in self-development.)
Desmet observes that over the past years, “we have seen that, along with an increase in fear and insecurity, narcissism is also on the rise” as well as “experiences of loneliness and inner emptiness, and of feeling consumed by an exhausting competition with others” (PT, p. 73). The death of spontaneity in real, human-to-human interactions is suffocating:
It is precisely those moments … that nourish the social bond from within. Without those moments, the social fabric shrivels, and it is only a matter of time until society disintegrates into a loose collection of atomized individuals. (PT, p. 80)
Lobaczewski made similar observations, again in relation to the hystericized state:
When three “egos” govern—egoism, egotism, and egocentrism—the feeling of social links and responsibility disappears, and the society in question splinters into groups ever more hostile to each other. (PP, p. 171)
The hyper-strict morality we see today is, for Desmet, “a frantic attempt to contain the surge of fear and insecurity in human relationships” (PT, p. 75). As examples, he lists woke culture, BLM, the climate movement, the coronavirus response, the rules for which are “excessive, inconsistent, and counterproductive” (PT, p. 77), not the stable and categorical rules of traditional systems.
It is a vicious circle of more and more rules to contain the destructive emotions, which only make us more miserable. They are “fallacious solutions,” ultimately counterproductive—and self-destructive. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try—harder and harder—creating even more rules to stamp out the last element of anxiety-producing uncertainty.
Regulation mania, as manifested in government bureaucracy, attempts to render social interactions rational and logical by squeezing them into preformed templates. … We are confronted with a mechanical Other who is in no way sensitive to our individuality as human beings. (PT, p. 81).
Lobaczewski traces this tendency all the way back to Roman influence on Western civilization and their reduction of human complexity for the purposes of regulation and administration, dismissing “matters of a more subtle nature” and thus leaving Romans’ fate to be largely decided “based on premises having little to do with their actual [individual] psychological properties” (PP, p. 10). He continued:
Christianity inherited Roman habits of legal thinking, including its schemes for simplifying the human personality and its indifference to human nature and its variety. … Thus was born a civilization hampered by a serious deficiency in an area which both can and does play the creative role of fostering human connection and understanding … This civilization developed formulations in the area of law, whether national, civil, criminal, or finally canon, which were conceived for invented and simplified beings—the philosophical “cardboard cut-outs” of humanity. (PP, pp. 12-13)
Wrapping up the chapter, Desmet writes:
The more we attempt to eliminate the fear and uncertainty through rationality and rules, the more we collide with failure. … it is precisely at this point that man turns to the opposite of what he pursued in his desire for freedom: the absolute master—the totalitarian leader—who claims to have the last word.
This sheds a different light on social phenomena such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the climate movements, and the coronavirus crisis. They are related to real problems, but those problems are not the real reason for the existence for these phenomena. They arise mainly from the pressing need among the population for an authoritarian institution that provides direction to take the burden of freedom and the associated insecurity off their shoulders. (PT, p. 84)
And thus the ground is prepared for the means by which the totalitarian state comes to being: the masses. Stay tuned for Part 2: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Mass Formation.
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Thanks for this. I've seen Desmet give interviews several times, most recently on Colbert's podcast. He had a far deeper understanding, and covered far more ground, than I'd expected. Very few have the level of perspective Desmet does.
Speaking of podcasts, thanks for the shout-out on the last Mind Matters! It was weird (in a good way) listening to my essay being discussed so much!
Harrison, thanks for this helpful introduction to the conflicts and intersections in ideas of these two thinkers.
I will, of course, as usual, object that anyone who thinks that evolutionary biology ignores the psychological, symbolic, and ethical dimensions of human beings isn't doing it right. But that's a different discussion. ;-)