The Psychology of Totalitarianism Part 3
Totalitarian Leaders: Greedy, Evil, Fanatic—or a Bit of Each?
Chapter 7 of Mattias Desmet’s Psychology of Totalitarianism (PT) is titled “The Leaders of the Masses.” In it, he provides his answer to the question as to the nature of totalitarian leadership. Is it best to characterize them as a cabal of conspirators carrying out a nefarious plan? Are they just hungry for power and driven by greed? Or are they psychologically deranged in some manner—sadistic psychopaths who have angled their way into power?
Desmet rejects all these explanations, opting instead to argue that the leaders are themselves in the grip of the hypnotic narrative behind the mass formation. Unlike the hypnotist, the totalitarian spellbinder himself “fanatically believes in the ideological basis of the narrative (not in the narrative itself!) that controls the masses.” “In fact, this person’s field of attention is usually even more narrow than that of the masses” (PT, p. 105).
In this view, the main driver is ideology, and the overall dynamics “should be understood in terms of mass psychology rather than malicious, intentional deception” (PT, p. 115). The “facts,” as presented in the hypnotic narrative (most often in terms of numbers and charts), justify the stigmatization and oppression of a target group (the focus of aggression, the elimination of which acts as anti-anxiety medication on the emotional preconditions of the mass formation, discussed in Part 1), the logic of which is gradually institutionalized and imposed on society, typically “in a fanatical, blind, and merciless way” (PT, p. 106). For the leaders, “Reality must and will be adjusted to the ideological fiction” (PT, p. 107). And this, for Desmet, is what produces the “mental and emotional blindness” that characterizes such regimes.
Money and power only constitute intermediate ends. The ultimate goal is to realize an ideological fiction, and the totalitarian leader blindly sacrifices his own interests to achieve it. … This anti-utilitarian nature is also reflected in the recklessness with which totalitarian regimes destroy their own economies and wreak economic havoc. … Experimentation on humans [e.g. in the inefficient and unprofitable labor camps] is the prototypical activity of totalitarianism. It is the ultimate submission of reality to the pseudoscientific, ideological fiction. (PT, p. 112)
Baked into the ideology is an inescapable pseudo-logic: “Once one has accepted the premise of the logic, everything else inevitably follows from there.” The hyperactive drive to impose this logic shows itself in the obsession with “signs and stigmas”—the uniforms, badges, medals, logos, prison tattoos, etc. “At this point, we are able to pinpoint the psychological essence of totalitarianism: an attempt to reduce the polysemy of human language to the monosemy of a sign system” (PT, p. 113).
Totalitarianism is the ultimate attempt to rid ourselves of this uncertainty by withdrawing into a (pseudo)scientific certainty and merciless logic, by trying to reduce symbols to signs, and by trying to annihilate all variety in cultural expression. (PT, p. 114)
As evidence that the leaders are just as hypnotized as the masses, he cites the experience of some Nazi officials who snapped out of it after spending some time stationed in foreign countries (Denmark and Bulgaria, in the examples he cites from Arendt): “In other words, they woke up. This shows that the leaders are not only hypnotized by their ideology but also by the masses. … Between the psychological condition of the masses and their leaders, there is a kind of circular causality” (PT, p. 110). In sum:
…the real masters of the predicament are not the leaders of totalitarian systems but the stories and their underlying ideology; these ideologies take possession of everyone and belong to no one; everyone plays a part, nobody knows the full script (PT, pp. 119-120)
While there is much I agree with in both chapters 7 and 8 (which will be discussed in the next installment), these are also the chapters in which I find the most problems. To begin with the point made just above about Nazi officials “waking up” in foreign nations. I have no doubt this is true, but the most that can be concluded from this example is that at least some of the leaders are thus hypnotized. The evidence is not enough to suggest all leaders would do so. Despite Desmet’s recognition of different reactions among the population to mass formation (e.g. the three responses of belief, reluctant compliance, and dissent), he otherwise tends to view these groups as more uniform than they are, without their own internal variation.
By way of contrast, within-group variation is a central feature of Lobaczewski’s analysis, one of the “indispensable concepts” that go together to form an objective psychological worldview. The three typical reactions mentioned above can be broken down even further: the cynical exploiters of ideology, the true-believer activists, the half-hearted supporters, the inner-dissenting but outer-conforming non-supporters, the outspoken dissenters who risk their lives. And each of these groups will have their own internal variations.
Desmet doesn’t consider not only that there may be different totalitarian leadership types (according to Lobaczewski there are), but also that those chosen for foreign service may be selected by different criteria than those operating solely within the country in question. Lobaczewski argued that this was precisely the case, writing:
…especially during the dissimulative phase, individuals with obvious pathological traits must be removed from certain areas of activity, namely political posts with international exposure, where such personalities could betray the pathological contents of the system. Such individuals would also be limited in their ability to perform diplomatic functions or to comprehend the political and economic landscape of normal countries. Therefore, the persons selected for such positions have thought processes more similar to the world of normal people; in general, they are sufficiently connected to the pathological system to provide a guarantee of loyalty. (Political Ponerology [PP], p. 200)
But let’s return to the early phases of pathocracy, since that is where Desmet places his focus (though without clearly differentiating this from later phases). According to Lobaczewski, this is when leadership is still occupied primarily by “spellbinders,” and this is where his and Desmet’s descriptions are closest. Lobaczewski, too, describes the fanatical spellbinder as being under his own spell, to the point that he cannot perceive reality accurately (PP, p. 148). But unlike Desmet, who seems to think that such individuals are as normal as anyone else (despite the fact that they are also more fanatical and their field of vision is even narrower than their followers), for Lobaczewski “a spellbinder is always a pathological [often paranoid] individual” (PP, p. 149):
Such a person is forced by some internal causes to make an early choice between two possibilities: the first is forcing other people to think and experience things in a manner similar to his own; the second is a feeling of being lonely and different, a pathological misfit in social life. Sometimes the choice is either snake-charming or suicide. (PP, p. 147)
Yes, their goal is “to realize an ideological fiction,” but this is not the ultimate goal, in the psychological sense. Just as mass formation serves to calm the anxieties of the susceptible masses, spellbinders are particularly susceptible to ideology, because their own anxieties are particularly deep-rooted due to their malformed, egotistical characters:
…if we analyze the exact functions of such an ideology in the spellbinder’s personality, we perceive that it is a means of self-charming, useful for repressing those tormenting self-critical associations into the subconscious. (PP, p. 147)
…ideologies do not need spellbinders. Spellbinders need ideologies in order to subject them to their own deviant goals. (PP, p. 160)
Whether it’s the influence of mechanistic thinking or just (normal) society in general (or both), these individuals have extreme feelings of disconnection and not belonging. And their dream of reforming the world is personal—to create a new world where they belong—a world which the majority would find small comfort in.
Desmet dismisses the psychopathy hypothesis perfunctorily, citing Arendt with the statement: “The head of the Nazi party had a reluctant attitude toward illicit profits, and personalities with tendencies toward perversion and psychopathy were systematically excluded from recruitment.” He presents a variation on her “banality of evil” argument: “Totalitarianism is not about monstrous people—it is about normal people who stick to a morbid, dehumanizing way of thinking or ‘logic’” (PT, p. 106). Yet just a handful of pages later, he writes:
[The leader] differs from an idealist in that he shows a radical, fanatical blindness but definitely also because of a remarkable lack of principle and aversion to laws. … The only law he really upholds is that there are no laws. (PT, p. 112)
What accounts for this “radical,” “remarkable” difference compared to your average “cell” in the mass formation?It’s personal psychopathology, as Lasswell argued back in 1930. (Like Lobaczewski, Lasswell identified spellbinders/agitators as primarily paranoid.)
While I can’t find the precise location of the Arendt citation regarding the Nazis systematically excluding tendencies toward psychopathy (Desmet cites the Dutch translation of Eichmann in Jerusalem), I don’t doubt it. The Soviets too had certain moral criteria for Party membership. But so did the Chilean armed forces under Pinochet, and Robert Hare et al.’s recent study shows that those convicted of crimes against humanity had a remarkably high prevalence of psychopathy. But here’s the catch: while their overall levels of psychopathy were similar to that of the general criminal population, they were of the “conning-manipulative” subtype, not that of the antisocial career criminal. If you’re looking to exclude antisocial criminals, you’ll screen out many of the psychopaths, but not all of them.
This is the problem with limiting such a statement to a single source like Arendt. Gustave Gilbert was one of the Nuremberg psychologists and diagnosed Goering as a clinical psychopath. Obviously, Goering slipped in despite any recruitment criteria.
But there’s also this to consider: the clinical criteria for and understanding of psychopathy were still in their infancy in the 1910’s, 1920’s, and 1930’s, the key decades for the social and political developments in question in Russia and Germany. Hervey Cleckley didn’t publish his groundbreaking work on the subject, The Mask of Sanity, until 1941. So to think that Soviet or Nazi bureaucrats and management had any reliable criteria for detecting and excluding manipulative psychopaths from their ranks strikes me as unfounded. And even if they did have a rudimentary understanding of such (which I’d argue most cultures do, regardless of the state of psychology), psychopaths are notorious for gaming the system. Not only that, there is at least one psychologist (Gilbert) who had direct access to some of the top Nazi leadership and is on record providing counter-evidence to the claim. At the very least, to the extent that it existed and was consistently put into practice, any such screening wasn’t foolproof.
Here’s what Gilbert had to say in his study of Nazism published in 1950:
Psychopathic personalities undoubtedly play an important part in major manifestations of social pathology, particularly when they achieve positions of leadership in social groups and movements. It is all too clear that they played a decisive role in the revolutionary nucleus of the Nazi movement, and thus determined the complexion of the government of Nazi Germany. (Psychology of Dictatorship, p. 286)
Desmet gets close when he describes the anonymity of mass formation allowing for the expression of hidden, suppressed, or latent compulsions, the phenomenon temporarily suspending the concealment of a lack of actual ethical awareness (PT, p. 108). In other words, circumstances expose someone’s true nature—a weak character, the ethics of which were only ever skin deep. Yet that is not the only possible response. The same circumstances can reveal not only a shallow character, but a disturbed or disordered character, even a sadistic one.
To the extent that Desmet focuses on mass psychology and the effects on otherwise “normal” people (including spellbinders, whom I would consider “almost normal,” at least compared to psychopaths), I think his analysis is excellent. But after acknowledging the existence of psychopaths (only to dismiss that they play any meaningful role in totalitarianism), he then carries on as if they don’t exist. What role do they play in such a society? If mass formation makes some normal people lose their conscience (“mental and emotional blindness”), what role do those who already lack one play in such circumstances? The question remains unanswered. Same goes for all other forms of personal psychopathology aside from relatively “normal” anxiety and suggestibility.
This is unfortunate, because as readers of this substack will know, Lobaczewski, through his own clinical observations while living under a fully developed totalitarian system for almost thirty years, identified personal psychopathologies (specifically, personality disorders) as the most important factors in relation to totalitarian leadership, and ponerogenesis in general (that is, the origin and dynamics of interpersonal evil, no matter what the social level).
One of the things he hypothesized, based on his ponerological reading of the early history of the development of totalitarianism, was that the initial stages are more characterized by what I would term “emotionally hot” psychopathologies (emotional dysregulation, reactive aggression), while in the later stages “emotionally cold” psychopathologies (psychopathic manipulation, instrumental aggression) take the lead. Paranoid spellbinders fall under the first category. Lobaczewski writes:
A spellbinder at first simultaneously plays the role of leader in a ponerogenic group. Later there appears another kind of “leadership talent,” a more vital individual who often joined the organization later, once it has already succumbed to ponerization. The spellbinding individual, being weaker, is forced to come to terms with being shunted into the shadows and recognizing the new leader’s “genius,” or accept the threat of total failure. Roles are parceled out. The spellbinder needs support from the primitive but decisive leader, who in turn needs the spellbinder to uphold the association’s ideology, so essential in maintaining the proper attitude on the part of those members of the rank and file who betray a tendency to criticism and doubt of the moral variety. The spellbinder must then repackage the ideology appropriately, sliding in new contents under old titles, so that it can continue fulfilling its propaganda function under ever-changing conditions. He also has to uphold the leader’s mystique inside and outside the association. Complete trust cannot exist between the two, however, since the leader secretly has contempt for the spellbinder and his ideology, whereas the spellbinder despises the leader for being such a coarse individual. A showdown is always probable; whoever is weaker becomes the loser. (PP, pp. 155-156)
So Desmet’s analysis is, in my opinion, perfectly well and good when it comes to describing the effects of mass formation on normal people during the early stages of pathocracy, and further on in its development (though with diminishing returns as it loses its effectiveness over time). But when it comes to those disorders Lobaczewski calls “pathological factors” of ponerogenesis, it is lacking.
The Decisive Purge
My last point on this chapter concerns the “intrinsic self-destructiveness” of totalitarianism, or pathocracy. Desmet writes:
There are many reasons to assume that totalitarianism starts from megalomaniac albeit “good” intentions. It aspires to no less than a total transformation of society into an ideological ideal … However the creation of the paradise typically ends in an inferno. (PT, p. 118)
Desmet provides an intriguing take on why revolutions come to devour their own children. It’s because they are successful in reaching the point where dissent is effectively crushed and silenced. While dictatorships tend to moderate their repression after gaining and holding power, totalitarians defy common sense, taking their mad logic to its limit, eliminating even those deemed capable of dissent. If they were to stop, they would cease to provide a means of feeding on the anxiety and aggression that accompanies mass formation, the masses would wake up, and turn that aggression on the leaders (PT, p. 116-117).
I’ll present Lobaczewski’s take on these phenomena, noting that I don’t think the two interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive. Lobaczewski describes the violent purges of early-phase pathocracy (such as Stalin’s Great Terror) as follows:
Such [psychopathic] leadership eventually engenders a wholesale showdown: the adherents of the original ideology are shunted aside or terminated. … The old ideological motivations and the doublespeak based on them will then serve to hide the actual, new contents of the phenomenon. From this time on, using the ideological name of the movement in order to understand its essence becomes the keystone of mistakes. (PP, p. 192)
An ever-strengthening network of psychopathic and related individuals gradually starts to dominate, overshadowing the others. Characteropathic individuals [especially the paranoid varieties] who played an essential role in ponerizing the movement and preparing for revolution are also eliminated. Adherents of the revolutionary ideology are unscrupulously “pushed into a counter-revolutionary position.” They are now condemned for “moral” reasons in the name of new criteria whose paramoralistic essence they are not in a position to comprehend. Violent negative selection of the original group now ensues. The inspirational role of essential psychopathy is now also consolidated; it remains characteristic for the entire future of this macrosocial pathological phenomenon. (PP, p. 194)
Defining the moment at which an ideological movement has been transformed into something we can call a pathocracy as a result of the ponerogenic process is a matter of convention. The process is temporally cumulative and reaches a point of no return at some particular moment. Eventually, however, internal confrontation with the adherents of the original ideology occurs, thus finally affixing the seal of the pathocratic character of the phenomenon. Nazism most certainly passed this point of no return, but was prevented from all-out confrontation with the adherents of the original ideology, as well as the downward-extending pathologization of life and the economy, because the Allied armies smashed its entire military might. (PP, p. 202)
On this last point, Desmet makes a similar observation: “The tempestuous, destructive dynamics of totalitarian systems also occurred in Nazi Germany but did not develop all the way to their ominous end [as they did in the USSR]” (p. 118).
For Lobaczewski, it is this violent negative selection that eliminates whatever remaining influence the more normal ideological adherents may have had, and provides the decisive moment from which point on totalitarianism can truly be called pathocratic. This is one reason for the paradise coming to resemble an inferno. For a very few people, the inferno is a paradise.
Next up: Part 4: On the Fractal Nature of Conspiracy
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There’s another hint. Spellbinders aren’t only more fanatical, more spellbound, more unprincipled, and more law-averse than the average person. They’re also more Machiavellian, showing a capacity for manipulation lacking in most. For example, channeling anxiety for an ideological purpose is an example of manipulation, what Lobaczewski calls a “para-appropriate response,” which is premised on the skillful exploitation of an emotional tendency or weakness (see PP, pp. 133-134).
We are all walking on eggs! They always come for the intellectuals, artists,(whatever) that see through the cracks. But as a man who has spent enough time in jails - there are people without conscience whatsoever and they should be put out of commission. Blank! It is revolting, it is a mistake of nature, for what that's worth. So what you gonna do? (I hope you're smiling) It's here yesterday, what do we say, where can we help? Maybe a big Z campaign for Zombies? It's on lasses and lads, what do we do? Great article, very enlightening, and at the level of my heart I wish Desmet to be wrong (wink), but we are still going to get it, especially in North Amerdica. That being said have a great weekend. Powerful work, thank you!
>“a spellbinder is always a pathological [often paranoid] individual
Funny how a certain group of self-styled chosen people that run everything nowadays and who sparked all those totalitarian movements in the first place are quite well-known for their extraordinarily high levels of paranoia and a persistent persecution complex. The picture that you provided in the header depicts one of them, no less!
All this talk about the Nazis. And yet, the picture used was of the Bolsheviks. Funny how it's OK to psychoanalyze one group but not the other.