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The Psychology of Totalitarianism Part 2
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Mass Formation
In part 1 of Psychology of Totalitarianism (PT), Mattias Desmet describes how society becomes fragmented and individuals isolated from each other as a result of the mechanistic worldview. Part 2, which deals directly with totalitarianism and its psychological basis, describes the process by which it is reunited. Mass formation creates a pathological caricature of social unity, one not built upon a plurality of individuals but upon a Borg-like collective mentality. This is the subject of Chapter 5, “The Rise of the Masses.”
For Desmet, mass formation explains:
…the willingness of the individuals to blindly sacrifice their personal interests in favor of the collective, radical intolerance of dissident voices, a paranoid informant mentality that allows government to penetrate the very heart of private life, the curious susceptibility to absurd pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda, the blind following of a narrow logic that transcends all ethical boundaries (making totalitarianism incompatible with religion), the loss of all diversity and creativity (making totalitarianism the enemy of art and culture), and intrinsic self-destructiveness (which ensures that totalitarian systems invariable annihilate themselves in the end). (PT, p. 91)
And among the signs of a “new kind of (technocratic) totalitarianism” on the rise today, he refers to the snooping powers of the world security services and move towards a surveillance society, the loss of privacy, rise in snitching, censorship of alternative voices, QR code mania, etc. Unlike the old totalitarianism with its “ring leaders” like Lenin and Hitler, we have rule by “dull bureaucrats and technocrats” (PT, p. 91). He observes that the process has evolved over time—from the age of autocracies when masses were effectively put down by rulers, to the larger-scale and longer-lasting masses of the French Revolution, still more so with the Bolsheviks, and finally, with Covid, “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” (PT, p. 93).
Mass formation is great for equality. It brings everyone who falls under its sway to the same level (and aims to bring the others there by force), which is to say, a basically functioning human animal. Citing Le Bon, Desmet summarizes some key features touched upon in Part 1: “an almost absolute loss of rational thinking and the ability for critical reflection,” “a strong tendency to surrender to impulses that, under normal circumstances, would be considered radically unethical” (PT, p. 92). He then reiterates the four preconditions for macrosocial mass formation:
Generalized loneliness, social isolation, and lack of social bonds.
Lack of meaning in life.
Free-floating anxiety and psychological unease.
Free-floating frustration and aggression.
On that last point, witness the rise of “microaggressions,” though I’d flip the script and argue that the aggression isn’t on the part of those “microaggressing,” but on those perceiving them. They’re itching for a fight (and more than likely to get one, at least on Twitter). Here’s what Lobaczewski had to say about the phenomenon before it was woke (commenting on the U.S. in the 80s):
The emotionalism dominating individual, collective, and political life, as well as the subconscious selection and substitution of data in reasoning, make communication difficult. They are impoverishing the development of a psychological worldview and leading to individual and national egotism. The mania for taking offense at the drop of a hat provokes constant retaliation, taking advantage of hyper-irritability and hypo-criticality on the part of others. This can be considered analogous to the European dueling mania of those times [i.e. pre-WWI Europe]. (Political Ponerology [PP], p. 64)
Providing a target for that anxiety and aggression is how mass formation occurs:
If, under the aforementioned circumstances, a suggestive story is spread through the mass media that indicates an object of anxiety … and at the same time offers a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety, there is a real chance that all the free-flowing anxiety will attach itself to that object and there will be broad social support of the implementation of the strategy to control that object of anxiety. (PT, p. 96)
Sound familiar? Kill the kulaks. Lockdown the planet. Regain your zen calm in three easy steps: 1) wear a mask and get vaccinated (it’s reassuring to know you’re doing your part to Stay Safe), 2) do it for others (we’re all in this together, and doesn’t it feel great to know you’re not only Staying Safe, but also Saving Lives?), 3) throw the anti-vaxxers down the well and laugh at them when they die of Covid (let that aggression out—they really do deserve it).
Mass formation is a bit like mass psychotherapy, only the therapist is a madman, the mental equilibrium it builds has shaky foundations, and the solidarity it produces is the basest form of tribalism. (Additionally, despite this pseudo-solidarity, totalitarian governments fragment and isolate society even further, systematically severing social and family ties, or at least, attempting to do so—there are limits to what they can achieve.) The rules are arbitrary, personally demanding, and function more as rituals—which is ideal, as their function is “to create group cohesion,” not to actually work. And whereas in previous times people might have been able to get along despite their trivial differences, those differences acquire lofty dimensions as those who refuse to participate in the new normal are “accused of lacking solidarity and civic responsibility” (PT, p. 97). They’re just bad people, and therefore deserve to rot in hell.
The message is clear: The individual must at all times show that he submits to the interest of the collective, by performing self-destructive, symbolic (ritualistic) behaviors. … the argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) and the argumentum ad auctoritatum (appeal to authority), known as logical fallacies since ancient times, are enough for most people to accept the story. (PT, p. 98)
There’s a scientific consensus, after all. And the only dissent comes from a group of clearly fringe quacks, hardly worth taking seriously. If you disagree, you’re not only stupid and gullible, but a very bad person to boot. The science is clear. Like, obviously. In Lobaczewski’s terms, paralogic and paramorality reign supreme, and those who have lost their common sense and decency who think it’s those who have retained them who are the idiots.
Desmet briefly discusses Asch’s conformity experiments, observing that the three groups that emerge also appear during mass formation:
There is always a group that is in the grip of mass formation and “believes” the story (this group constitutes the totalitarized part of the population), a second group that does not really believe it but remains quiet and goes along with the masses (or at least, does not oppose them), and a third group that does not believe in the mass-forming story and also speaks or acts out against it. These three groups typically intersect with all pre-existing social groups. (PT, p. 99)
These three groups crop up all over the place, though the proportions vary in different circumstances (more on that in a later installment). I think they’re also present in the Milgram experiments: the minority who consistently refuse to give the lethal shock, the majority who reluctantly follow orders even if it causes them great discomfort to do so, and the other minority who have no problem doing so (some of whom may even enjoy it). Christopher Browning observed something similar among German reserve police battalion 101. Lobaczewski also observed similar phenomena in socialist Poland in the 50s and 60s, though in that context the numbers were skewed heavily toward the refusers (roughly 6% hardliners, 12% active supporters of doubtful sincerity, 82% who opposed the system, even if only privately; see PP, pp. 232-233).
As for intersecting with all pre-existing social groups, Lobaczewski writes this:
[Pathocratic takeover by force] is followed by the shock of something seemingly unthinkable, almost unreal and tragic: some people from every social group, whether disadvantaged paupers, aristocrats, officials, literati, students, scientists, priests, atheists, or nobodies known to no one, suddenly start changing their personality and worldview. Decent people and patriots just yesterday, they now espouse the new ideology and behave contemptuously to anyone still adhering to the old values, faith in God, or patriotism. Only later does it become evident that this ostensibly avalanche-like process has its natural limits. With time, the society becomes stratified based on factors entirely different from the old political convictions, wealth, or social status. (PP, pp. 219-220)
If we treat the former stratification, whose formation was decisively influenced by talent, as horizontal, the new one should be referred to as vertical, because it cuts across all the former social strata, each of which contains people susceptible to transpersonification. It also cuts through levels of talent, because there is little correlation with IQ. (PP, p. 235)
Desmet cites Le Bon’s observation that the effect of mass formation is the same as that of hypnosis (PT, p. 100). Through the voice of the leader (spellbinder, in Lobaczewski’s terms, or agitator, in Lasswell’s), the “population is literally kept on the vibrational frequency of the voice of totalitarian leaders.” The hypnotic voice provides a suggestive story that “focuses attention on a very limited aspect of reality … and makes everything outside of this circle disappear into darkness” (PT, p. 101). As already observed, this narrowing of attention is both cognitive and emotional, thus producing a characteristic emotional insensitivity to the suffering of the target on which latent aggression is vented.
In addition to Lobaczewski’s use of the term “spellbinder” to describe pathocratic agitators and leaders like Lenin (see PP, 146-149), he elsewhere makes reference to hypnotic and suggestive effects, e.g. the suggestive nature of simplistic ideologies (pp. 39, 127, 159) and paranoid paramoralisms (pp. 88, 138-140), in the social contagion phenomenon of hysteria (pp. 136, 169-170), group-level deterioration of common sense and rational thought (pp. 152, 163), and the “inductive siren-call” effect of pathocratic propaganda abroad (p. 223).
Desmet observes that while totalitarian leaders implement strict censorship, it also happens spontaneously, “due to a paranoid informant mentality”; the effect (in the context of Covid) “seems to ensure that mass media, almost intuitively, chooses to perpetuate the mass formation” by only presenting data that supports the official suggestive narrative (PT, p. 100). Lobaczewski ascribes this self-censorship more to the hysterical phase than to the pathocratic ones (self-censorship under pathocracy being more of an adaptation in the service of self-preservation than a self-deception):
Egotistic thought-terrorization is accomplished by the society itself and its processes of conversive, moralistic thinking. This obviates the need for censorship of the press, theater, or broadcasting, as a pathologically hypersensitive censor lives within the citizens themselves. (PP, p. 171)
Lastly for this chapter, a further note on the strange cognitive effects of mass formation. One of the manifestations of clinical hysteria is through conversion disorders, i.e. psychosomatic illness where emotional issues are said to present as physical maladies like hysterical blindness. Desmet briefly mentions psychosomatic complaints in the context of the collateral damage of Covid lockdowns (PT, p. 56), which is what you’d expect in such an anxiety-producing and hysteria-inducing situation. But mass formation not only affects cognition and affect; it can also take sensory forms, leading to actual hallucinations (PT, p. 103).
Lobaczewski’s description of “conversive” (or dissociative) thinking is a great way of understanding these phenomena (see PP, pp. 142-146). From simple denial (subconsciously blocking uncomfortable information) to information selection and substitution, such thinking can lead to absurd scenarios. First, there is the tendency Desmet observes of narrowing the field of attention so that all inconvenient aspects of reality are blocked from awareness (lockdown collateral damage, the feelings of those irresponsible people, those other contradictory interpretations of the data). The deeper the process goes, the stranger it gets: from hallucinating that one’s interlocutor said something they didn’t in fact say (“So what you’re saying is…?!”), to fabricating plausible rationalizations and justifications, and literally rewriting the past (pick any Covid measure and you’ll find a little Winston Smith in the minds of many rewriting the past to justify all the 180s and absurd contradictions).
To those immersed in conversive, paramoralistic thinking, dissent appears “antisocial,” “completely unfounded,” “extremely aversive,” and “extremely frustrating.” They’re literally shocked and offended that anyone could actually disagree with the official narrative, and the fact that such people should be punished is as certain as the fact that child rapists should be (perhaps even more so in that case, disturbingly). Such viewpoints are aversive, Desmet writes, because “they threaten to break the intoxication, and in this way confront the masses again with the negative situation that preceded the mass formation” (PT, p. 103). It is much more comforting to think that dissenters are simply traitors. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I’ll leave the final word to Lobaczewski:
A conclusion thus rejected remains in our subconscious and in a more unconscious way causes the next blocking and selection of this kind. This can be extremely harmful, progressively enslaving a person to his own subconscious, and is often accompanied by a feeling of tension and bitterness. (PP, p. 143)
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