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The Psychology of Totalitarianism Part 4
On the Fractal Nature of Conspiracy
Chapter 8 of Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism (PT) continues his discussion of the nature of totalitarian leadership, specifically his contention that the causality of totalitarianism is not best explained by either greed or deliberate conspiracy.1 Rather it is a complex process, the results of which may be conditioned by certain facts on the ground (e.g. technocratic ideology), but which are not intended in the manner many may suppose, i.e. a grand plan agreed upon by a group of conspirators and rationally and systematically put into effect, the results matching more or less with the original goals.
Desmet starts the chapter with the example of the Sierpinski triangle—a fractal where a type of order emerges from seemingly random steps. Here’s a video demonstration of how it works:
Totalitarianism is like the final fractal: “Nobody needs to know or have ever even seen this pattern. It is enough that all people independently follow the same simple rules as they place their points” (PT, p. 122). So Desmet is most definitely not in the “conspiracy theory” camp. By that, I don’t mean he denies the existence of conspiracies, or that he doesn’t have convictions that would be labeled conspiracy theories by detractors.2 Rather, he argues against what I would call a maximalist conspiracist position, which somewhat cartoonishly imagines a sinister human group guiding and controlling all major world events along a rational and deliberate plan for nefarious purposes. By contrast, the minimalist position acknowledges the obvious and common reality of not-so-grand conspiracies and the conspirators involved in them.3
Grand conspiracy theories (like the Protocols of Zion, sprawling Masonic, Illuminati and Jesuit plots, communist perceptions of capitalism, or more recently, Icke-inspired royalty-as-Reptilians, and QAnon) are “typically used to explain [what are in reality] complex social processes and mass formations” (PT, p. 123). Again, that is not to deny any actual conspiracies perhaps resembling those mentioned above, just the actual extent and effectiveness of such conspiracies.
For example, the Russian Empire saw its fair share of clandestine revolutionary terrorist groups in the generation or two before the German-backed Bolshevik coup of 1917: the clandestine “Hell” (an appropriate name) and “Liberty or Death” cells being just two, of the Organizatsiya (The Organization) and Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom) socialist revolutionary groups, respectively, the latter of which gave birth to the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) terrorist organization, whose own secretive executive committee successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Several of the big revolutionary terror groups in Russia at the time had such “inner cells,” where they planned and carried out terror-type stuff, while the outer group engaged in more vanilla public activities.
I see this chapter as Desmet trying to disentangle the process of mass formation (and its results) from what we see in actual conspiracies. For instance, crowds act in ways that seem coordinated. Slogans spread at a remarkable speed, disparate actions seem harmonize. From the outside, the crowd’s actions look planned, but they’re not. Rather, crowds are complex dynamic social phenomena, like murmurations of starlings. Whatever is going on, it isn’t conscious or rationally developed, but rather follows certain implicit rules. As Desmet writes, “the individual soul is replaced by a common group soul” (PT, p. 125). I suspect this might be literally true. Crowds operate on an almost preternatural level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were non-local elements involved in their operation, a psychic forced resonance that causes their participants to coordinate their actions on a level that is very real, but not conscious. Desmet quotes Elias Canetti:
It seems as if the movement of one transmits itself to the others. But that is not all; they also have one goal, which is there before they can find words for it. (PT, p. 126)
For Desmet, this blind but effective unity of mass formation is equally applicable to the emergence and maintenance of a complete totalitarian system, which is one possible effect of a mass formation (perhaps the pinnacle of what it can do). And because of the link between mass formation and the genesis of totalitarianism, Desmet argues that the dynamics are the same. So naturally, people will tend to see agency where there is just emergent self-organization on a large scale.
Crowds do exist with a purpose, after all: to impose their will on and to control society. “The modern crowd is always pushing in the same direction: the hyper-controlled society” (PT, p. 127). However, these tendencies are part of a general trend of people who think the same way, thus moving in the same direction. Sure, there may be some level of coordination here and there, but it is not necessary in order to see the results we do see. They simply need to be thinking and acting in the same direction, akin to following the rule for placement of the next dot in the Sierpinksi triangle, unaware of the final form their actions will take.4
Remember what Lobaczewski said about the “internal censor” in a hystericized society. There is no (or very little) overt totalitarian censorship, because individuals and institutions do it on their own. (Though heavy-handed overt censorship does come, eventually.) For Desmet, the primary steering agent of the overall process isn’t a secretive inner cell—a “central committee” with a post-revolution ten-point policy and five-year plan—but the ideology itself, which exerts its influence on each cog in the machine. And the primary motivating factor of any such ideology is its utopian vision (PT, p. 131). It’s that nebulous vision of something better—the ideal future—that acts as an attractor for the hopes and thus actions of those under its spell.
As with drawing the Sierpinski triangle, if everyone follows the same rules, it results in strictly regular patterns emerging in society. Like iron filings scattered in the force field of a magnet, individuals arrange themselves in a perfect pattern under the influence of these forces. … The whole evolution toward a hyper-controlled technological society—the surveillance society—is simply unavoidable as long as the human mind remains trapped in that logic and is (to a large extent unconsciously) controlled by those attractors. (PT, p. 132)
In the context of the seemingly conspiratorial Covid response developments, he writes:
The only consistency within the experts’ discourse is that the decisions always move toward a more technologically and biomedically controlled society, in other words, toward the realization of the mechanistic ideology. As such, we see exactly the same problems in the coronavirus crisis as those revealed by the replication crisis in academic research: a maze of errors, sloppiness, and forced conclusions, in which researchers unconsciously confirm their ideological principles … In the whole process of exercising power … there usually is little need to make secret plans and agreements. … The dominant ideology selects who ends up in key positions. (PT, p. 133)
It’s easy to see many of the expert “powers that be” as omniscient evil geniuses, until you actually meet them and realize that yes, they really can be that stupid. Anyone who has worked in government or moved in those kinds of circles will tell you that, as Desmet relates of his encounters with the “experts” in the context of Covid (see PT, pp. 129-130). But the fact is, when they are all in the pull of the same attractors, they will “all succumb to the same logical fallacies and the same absurd behavior” because they are all following the same pseudo-logic.
Those plans and visions for the future are not so much “forced” on the population. In many ways, the leaders of the masses … give the people what they want. … The “plans” do not precede the developments, as a conspiracy logic likes to suggest. They rather follow them. … [The leaders] sense what people crave and they adjust their plans in that direction, in an opportunistic way. They wallow in the narcissism of one who controls and directs the chain of events, but they are more like a child sitting on the bow of a ship and turning a toy steering wheel every time the tanker changes direction. … Ironically, conspiracy thinking confirms the leaders’ narcissism by taking them seriously and believing that they are truly steering the ship, or causing the waves to recede. (PT, p. 134)
Examples: the large degree to which Covid policy was determined by mid-level bureaucrats slavishly following public opinion polls (e.g. in Canada), and the fact that it was the students who first demanded woke totalitarianism on campus, not administrations.
But again, that’s not to say that conspiracies don’t exist, even within this process:
At certain points, however, the aforementioned practices may turn into something that does have the structure of a conspiracy. … no sane person can deny that this [centralization of] power is pursued in a relentless way, with a radical lack of ethnical and moral awareness. … In their endeavors to impose their ideals on society, institutions and people do indeed cross ethical boundaries, and when this goes far enough, their strategies may indeed devolve into a full-fledged conspiracy: a secret, intentional, planned, and malicious project. It is also well known that, as the process of totalitarianization continues, the totalitarian regime is increasingly organized as a full-fledged “secret society.” (PT, pp. 135-136)
Unfortunately, Desmet doesn’t delve into this distinction in much detail. (Luckily, Lobaczewski does.)
Desmet makes one final point before getting into his proposed solutions (which I’ll deal with in the next installment, along with the final three chapters). Due to the insane polarization of such times, which sees the mainstream discourse dismiss any dissent as “crazy conspiracy theories,” and actual paranoid conspiracy theorists tar more nuanced approaches with the same brush, “This makes it difficult for everyone to assess the presence and extent of malicious manipulation. Either it is completely ignored or it is perceived to be everywhere” (PT, p. 137). I’m sure we all know someone who is convinced everything is a conspiracy. That level of paranoia and simplistic, caricatural thinking is just as much a sign of the spiritual decline and atomization that leads people into the mass formation in the first place. It can also lead to its own mass formation (I already mentioned QAnon).
Anyways, those are Desmet’s views. How do they compare with Political Ponerology [PP]? Pretty well, on the whole. On the last point, Lobaczewski warns: “oversimplification of the causal picture as regards the genesis of evil—often to a single, easily understood cause or perpetrator—itself becomes a cause in this genesis” (PP, p. 132). More generally pathocracy is a “complex causal system” (PP, p. 79) that emerges largely unconsciously, as a result primarily of psychobiological factors. Here are some quotes that get across the point:
… in leaving behind our old natural method of comprehension and learning to track the internal causality of the phenomenon, we marvel at the surprising exactness with which the latter turns out to be subjected to its own regular laws. … The entirety is … clearly subject to causative determination to a degree that the researcher could not have anticipated. (PP, p. 235)
… the system is rigidly causative and lacking in natural and rational freedom of choice. (PP, p. 256)
… the image of the phenomenon is so dominated by psychological causation that there is not much room left for free choice. (PP, p. 316)
The range of causal factors Lobaczewski brings to bear is extensive (more extensive than Desmet’s). His account involves a number of what he calls “pathological factors” (specific personality disorders and disturbances, whether primarily genetic, organic, or functional, of varying severity), “ponerogenic phenomena” (like pathological narcissism, paramoralisms, reversive blockades, conversive thinking, spellbinders), and “ponerogenic processes” (like hystericization and ponerization of groups) that proceed roughly in stereotypical sequences, utilizing ideologies. All of these form a complex mosaic structure that makes up the macrosocial phenomenon of pathocracy, much like the fractal of Desmet’s description.
For Desmet, “The whole of society has a part in [totalitarianism’s] rise in one way or another; every person bears a responsibility in it” (PT, p. 139). Similarly, for Lobaczewski,
In ponerogenic processes, moral deficiencies, intellectual failings, and pathological factors intersect in a spatio-temporal causative network giving rise to individual and national suffering. (PP, p. 224, cf. p. 78)
He often repeats that one kind of evil (“normal” human weaknesses and failings) “opens the door” to another (psychopathic). In this regard, the people most responsible for the early stages of ponerogenesis are not evil per se. They are just weak. And that weakness provides the opening for unimaginable evil.
Desmet thinks that ideology is what selects for position in totalitarianism. Here, Lobaczewski would disagree, arguing that ideology becomes increasingly irrelevant and essentially window dressing as pathocracy takes on its dissimulative form. In an ordinary society, a social structure forms as a result of many factors (see PP, pp. 38-48). The resulting structure is in no way planned, but a kind of self-organizing superorganism that develops out of all the individual and group interactions, cooperation and competition of the people that constitute it.
Pathocracy is a demented Bizarro-world version of this process (OK, he doesn’t use those terms precisely). Ideology may provide the initial impetus and outer clothing, but the ultimate selection process, like the causality, is psychobiological in nature. In terms of ponerogenic groups like the Bolsheviks, “Rigorous selective measures of a clearly psychological kind are applied to new members” (PP, p. 165), resulting in a “pathological social structure.” (The same dynamic applies to the periodic purges of Party and society.) Just as humans tend to self-select into suitable roles based on their unique cognitive repertoires, a similar process plays itself out in ponerogenic groups and, ultimately, in a pathocracy.
Within each ponerogenic association, a psychological and organizational structure is created which can be considered a counterpart or caricature of the normal structure of society and its organizations. Individuals with various psychological aberrations complement each other’s talents and characteristics. (PP, p. 154)
You need sadistic torturers, cold-blooded executioners, fanatic and unscrupulous propagandists, loyal and effective bosses and sub-bosses, obsessive-compulsive bureaucrats, etc.
After a typical pathocratic structure has been formed, the population is effectively divided according to completely different lines from what someone raised outside the purview of this phenomenon might imagine, and in a manner whose actual conditions are also impossible to comprehend for someone lacking essential specialized training in psychopathology. However, an intuitive sense for these causes gradually forms among the majority of society in a country affected by the phenomenon. (PP, p. 235)
As for top-down conspiracies vs. bottom-up emergence, here the matter isn’t either/or, but both/and. While the overall process is psychobiologically determined, it’s in the nature of some individuals to conspire.
… such people easily interpenetrate the social structure with a rapidly spreading, branched network of mutual pathological conspiracies poorly connected to the main social structure—its pathological underbelly. These people and their networks participate in the genesis of that evil which spares no nation. This substructure gives birth to dreams of obtaining power and imposing its will upon society, as well as its mode of experiencing and conceptualizing. (PP, p. 47)
Think organized crime (of which mafias and drug cartels are only two examples). But even this doesn’t mean that such groups plan exactly what their utopia is going to look like. As Igor Shafarevich wrote:
… Marxism does not set itself any goal other than that of preparing for the seizure of power. The state system established as a result is therefore defined and shaped by the necessity of holding power. Since these tasks are entirely different, the official theory and the actual implementation have nothing in common. (The Socialist Phenomenon, p. 3)
What Shafarevich didn’t realize: the shape of that resulting system and social structure is determined by the cognitive repertoires of its advocates, those willing to do whatever is necessary to take and hold power. This shape shifts gradually through its hysterical-ideological and emotionally volatile “characteropathic” phases to its final psychopathic phase (which inevitably deteriorates). The hidden order of the Sierpinksi triangle is in its rules. So what determines the type of rules followed to get to pathocracy? The pattern forms as a result of specific psychological types doing what comes naturally to them.
So it’s not just both/and. It’s combinations in varying proportions depending on the phase in question. In the example of censorship, unconscious self-censorship (with very little overt censorship) to start out with, eventually giving way to a system of total censorship and scripted news everyone knows is fake (even those writing it). First it’s loosely coordinated conspiracies, dominated by simple goals and unconscious group-psychological phenomena, eventually consolidating into the psychopathic “secret society” of dissimulative, Machiavellian pathocratic leadership. And to reiterate the point made by Gilbert in the quote from the last installment, Lobaczewski states the same idea more generally and more categorically: “[psychopathy] is catalytically and causatively essential for the genesis and survival of large-scale social evil” (PP, p. 7).
Finally, a note on the utopian attractor function of ideology, as the motivating force for the “change agents” bringing totalitarian revolution. The vagueness of the notion is its greatest strength—like a societal Rorschach test. The masses latch on to it as the means to end their anxiety, vent their aggression, and achieve the “justice” they feel they have been denied. The attractor is simple: a better world, otherwise undefined. The details don’t need to be clear, but goal is noble, in their minds. But different people turn their inner gaze toward different attractors. “Better” is open to interpretation:
To individuals with various psychological deviations, such a social structure [i.e. law-based] dominated by normal people and their conceptual world appears to be a “system of force and oppression.” Psychopaths reach such a conclusion as a rule. (PP, p. 127)
In such people, a dream emerges like some utopia of a “happy” world and a social system which will not reject them or force them to submit to laws and customs whose meaning is incomprehensible to them. They dream of a world in which their simple and radical way of experiencing and perceiving reality would dominate—where they would, of course, be assured safety and prosperity. (PP, p. 125)
Here’s how I summarized the psychopathic worldview in PP, borrowed from Thomson’s recent book on psychopathy: “I can do whatever I want because I have been wronged in the past; everyone else is dishonorable, selfish, weak and manipulative; therefore, I am justified to take advantage of them.” That’s the psychopathic vision in a nutshell: total “freedom,” free stuff (money, women, prestige), and slaves. How they get there is inconsequential. But they’re more than willing to exploit a mass formation to do so, and make sure they’re the ones who end up on top, which is easy for them, since they’re more ruthless than 95+% of the population. And once they win, helped along by a society that has lost its moral compass and its ability to distinguish saints from psychopaths, everything else falls into place.
Next up: Part 5: Dissolutions and Solutions
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Pet peeve: conspiracy theorists and the “cui bono” method of discerning perpetrators of some misdeed. At the very best, asking “who benefits” can help you narrow down a pool of (possible) suspects. But to conclude that because someone benefited from some event (e.g. some world event that makes the headlines), they must be responsible, is just dumb. If person A murders person B, any number of people will benefit. The more enemies that person has, the more people will benefit. If that person actually dies by accident, the same pool of people will still benefit. But that won’t stop many from speculating, and even stating categorically that person B “must have” been killed by so-and-so. That kind of certainty is fine when you’re ranting to family members around the kitchen table, but that’s about all it’s good for. (Same goes for “means, motive, and opportunity.”)
Desmet is well aware of how the term has been weaponized against dissent and any plausible or factual counter-narratives, and that the dominant discourse is pumped full of what would be otherwise dismissed as “crazy conspiracy theories” if they weren’t part of that consensus (e.g. Russiagate).
And this manner of thinking is a typically left-hemisphere-dominant way of thinking. See Winston Smith’s “The Master Betrayed” series, e.g., parts eight and nine, for the flavor of this, and its results. Note the significant overlap between McGilchrist’s take and Desmet’s description of the result of mechanistic thinking.