21 Comments

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!

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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. ;-)

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A helpful distinction, Michael. Some of my best friends are evolutionary biologists! ;-D

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I am glad I have found your review from such a unique perspective! Particularly resonated with your quote, "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)."

There is so much that I agreed with when reading this book, it was an absolute pleasure to read. But it also unveiled a few pretty fundamental differences, which makes your reviews all the more thought-provoking if I do decide to pen a critique in the future. The psychology of evil running rampant in our institutional structures needs to be openly discussed, but epistemic considerations of testimony should have been treated with a lot more care than it is expressed by Desmet.

Look forward to reading the rest. Thank you.

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Thanks, Kim. Looking forward to reading your take on it. If you end up writing it, let me know!

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Thanks for doing this Harrison and for making the links to Lobaczewski's work as well - very useful.

It will be a while before I get around to Desmet so really appreciating the summary.

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Jun 23, 2022Liked by Harrison Koehli

Fantastic piece, looking forward to the next one! Glad to see that Desmet goes so deep into the roots of what's wrong with our civilization. Regarding the number games, this is indeed a plague and the height of intellectual impoverishment. You see this in the business world too, with this whole cottage industry of pseudo-scientific "studies" that provide stupid numbers which then end up in headlines and board rooms. Reminds me of Haffner's description of the WWI obsession with numbers, which, of course, didn't provide any insights whatsoever.

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Interesting interpretation of Desmet. My take is different.

Let me ask a simple question. Prior to Covid, does Desmet's description of society, below, apply to you or anyone you know?

"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."

Or further, as Desmet states elsewhere, are you or is anyone you know "saturated with fear"?

Are you atomized? Are you or the people you know devoid of meaningful human relationships? Are you a mechanistic thinker? Do you and your friends long for a technocratic future wherein technology gives us meaning through the internet or virtual reality?

Have you and the people you know discarded all spirituality, all art and music and literature? You don't go to concerts? No movies, no plays? Simply atomized yearning for that technological utopia, and when you go to restaurants and bars, that's all you talk about? Technocratic utopia?

It seems to me that Desmet is describing a world prior to Covid that simply didn't exist. , Why does he do that? I think I know why, but first:

What's he talking about, exactly? Who exactly is he referring to?

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I think Covid only brought these things to the surface. Lobaczewski made some similar observations about American society in the 80s. He was not impressed with the state of American "society."

That said, some of those descriptions do sound better when applied to post-Covid. Rather than saturated with fear, I would say saturated with stress, which is a type of fear - for several decades at least now. Then there was post 9/11 which was a fearful time. Atomization - yes. Remember when people knew their neighbors? Some still do - many do not. Spirituality? I see a lot of people doing yoga... Mechanistic thinking? Yep, been seeing that also for decades, and the trend goes back further. There are always exceptions, but on the whole, I don't disagree with this take, even pre-Covid. McGilchrist makes similar observations, and he was writing in the Before Times.

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Desmet is making comparisons to Arendt. That's why he could say something along the lines of, "the ideal subject for totalitarian rule isn't the committed Nazi but the person for whom the distinction from fact and fiction no longer applies." I discussed this in my post. https://jimreagen.substack.com/p/on-the-psychology-of-totalitarianism Basically, the comparison Desmet is making between pre-Nazi totalitarianism and pre-Covid society is false.

I simply don't see the world Desmet says we lived in prior to Covid; I don't see it now in February, 2023, either. Perhaps in an academic way we can project our ideas about society onto society but to me this is akin to, "to a hammer everything looks like a nail."

Once again: are you, personally, a mechanistic thinker? Do you personally know anyone who is, as described by Desmet? I don't. I've never even met anyone like that, and I've lived all over the US and in rural areas and in very large cities. But maybe I live in another world?

Have we abandoned literature and the arts? Is what we watch on TV just utopian dreams of a technocracy? No one listens to music anymore? Our children are just automatons, mouths we resentfully and fearfully feed?

Stop and think about the empirical reality of what Desmet is saying. Look at the real world.

Desmet says, "saturated with fear." That was us, pre-Covid, and we selected the most fearful data about Covid because that's who we are: the fearful data confirmed our fearful being. Is that really what happened?

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"Once again: are you, personally, a mechanistic thinker?"

No.

"Do you personally know anyone who is, as described by Desmet? I don't.

I do.

"I've never even met anyone like that, and I've lived all over the US and in rural areas and in very large cities. But maybe I live in another world?"

We must.

"Have we abandoned literature and the arts? Is what we watch on TV just utopian dreams of a technocracy? No one listens to music anymore?"

Where does he say this? I don't see it in my copy of the book.

"Our children are just automatons, mouths we resentfully and fearfully feed?"

Trans kids.

"Stop and think about the empirical reality of what Desmet is saying. Look at the real world."

I am, and I'm not impressed by what I see.

"Desmet says, "saturated with fear." That was us, pre-Covid, and we selected the most fearful data about Covid because that's who we are: the fearful data confirmed our fearful being. Is that really what happened?"

Partially, but it's not the whole picture.

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Yes, I did make a caricature of Desmet's characterization of society.

Regardless of how imperfect we are as a society-- and we are-- I see zero evidence of widespread anxiety and fear and social isolation. Go to any ballgame, any concert, play, restaurant, bar, college, etc., and you'll not see what Desmet says we are.

Desmet minimizes the role of censorship and propaganda and greatly exaggerates societal atomization, and makes a false comparison between pre-Covid society and pre-Nazi society as Arendt described it. Why does he do this? Because his entire program is to "prove" that fear and anxiety weren't induced during High Covid through a massive conspiracy of censorship and propaganda but rather arose naturally through our own saturated fear, and one would assume our saturated atomization as well. There was no conspiracy! This is the entire point of Desmet's book; this idea isn't peripheral, it's what his entire argument is leading toward.

In any case I find your take on things interesting and look forward to reading the other parts when I have some free time.

Exactly how many mechanistic thinkers do you know, in percentage terms, who fit exactly the profile that Desmet gives? Longing for technocratic utopia, unable to think in terms other than those of mechanistic thinking? Alienated because of their demand for certainty that can't be satisfied in mechanistic terms? I've met lots of people. No one fits the bill.

Regarding my question about the arts, Desmet by implication says that we've abandoned anything but mechanistic thinking and that meaning for us isn't given by the arts or by life or our children, but by our yearning for technocratic utopia, the frustration of which yearning leads to fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.

"Partially, but not the whole picture" is my point. Desmet dismisses completely any notion of decades-long, even centuries-long evil conspiracy, and instead says that the fear and anxiety during Covid were the end results of Enlightenment thinking. He downplays the role of massive censorship and propaganda and exaggerates the anxiety that any society might have as individuals figure out how to make their way in the world and answer challenges. Death, illness, poverty, and taxes have always been with us.

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Aug 18, 2022Liked by Harrison Koehli

You are the first person writing about this (that I know of) who has connected the work of Desmet to the work of Lobaczewski, though anyone following this subject closely would be aware of the latter.

For me, what academic psychology misses is filled in by the work of Hubbard. Hubbard is considered a pariah and a fake by most of academia, yet if you read his first book, and perhaps a few of his later essays, you might perhaps come to a different conclusion. When he offered his work to academia, it turned its back on him. So he turned to publishing "popular" works. Not the first or last to do so.

With Hubbard's finding that the personality is actually an immortal spiritual being, we begin to get a fuller grasp of what we are up against and why it has been so difficult to conquer our “chronic avoidance of the crux of the matter.” Hubbard also writes about psychopaths (which he refers to as Suppressive Persons or Anti-Social Personalities) as such people almost destroyed several of his organizations in the early years.

I feel blessed to have found three different perspectives on the same basic phenomenon. I have concentrated on studying Hubbard. I downloaded Political Ponerology, but found it extremely difficult reading. With Desmet, I am familiar with his ideas mostly through his interviews. One key objective is to find an "antidote" or protective skill that can keep us sane when facing the insane. If we can face them, I am confident that we could, at some point, disarm them.

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Thanks for sharing, Larry. I haven't read any Hubbard - just familiar with the stuff that has made it into mainstream culture. There are definitely some correspondences, and I think an intelligent person would be able to make good use of some of those concepts, like "suppressive persons" (and prevent turning it into a form of doublespeak).

As for PP, the new edition is much easier to read that the original. I recommend you check it out again!

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I was excited to see that you had made a connection with Desmet's and Iain McGilchrist's work. I have also made such a connection, but perhaps even more strongly. I recently wrote:

Combining the ideas of Mattias Desmet and Iain McGilchrist, I propose the following hypothesis: the mechanism by which the mass psychosis works is via a form of societal level hypnosis that literally puts peoples right brain hemisphere to sleep or into a state of hibernation.

This model predicts, for example, that since the evolutionary role of the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world is the open sustained vigilance needed to look out for threats and predators, those under the spell will be left totally exposed to predatory forces.

They will be completely blind to clear and present dangers and warning signs, and will be unable to heed the warnings of those around them, until it is too late, even when it comes to the children.

Since the left hemisphere is intrinsically disconnected, and without empathy, people under the spell will be highly to susceptible and willing to engage in dehumanization and othering.

They will “lack appropriate emotional depth, or concern, tending to be irritable or facetious, especially when challenged”, “disown problems, and pass the responsibility to others”, be overconfident about what they cannot in the nature of things know much about; fabricates (often improbable) stories to cover ignorance”, “see parts at the expense of wholes”, “have an affinity for the inanimate, and for technological solutions”.

Then the “waking up of the masses” becomes the task of literally waking up the right hemispheres of people under the spell of mass psychosis. This cannot be simply achieved by argumentation with facts and logic, because this just feeds the left hemisphere over-activation, but must be done by appealing to the right hemisphere via re-connection to love and common humanity, through metaphor, comedy, poetry, music, awe and beauty."

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"This model predicts, for example, that since the evolutionary role of the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world is the open sustained vigilance needed to look out for threats and predators, those under the spell will be left totally exposed to predatory forces."

Just want to highlight this. What a stunning connection.

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Thanks, and thanks for covering these topics in so much depth. I am huge fan of Iain McGilchrist, his work literally changed my life. One starts to see the predictions of his model playing out everywhere in humans, and I had lots of "ah ha" moments when listening to Mattias's podcast interviews. [McGilchrist even helped me understand my Parkinson's diagnosis, and predicted the changes I needed to make to reduce my symptoms https://www.outthinkingparkinsons.com/articles/divided-brain-1 . I asked Mattias if he was aware of Iain, and he replied that Iain had recently been in touch, and that they may doing a podcast episode together. That would really be something!

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Beautifully put, Gary. Thank you!

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Jun 29, 2022Liked by Harrison Koehli

Really interesting and informative write-uo, thank you.

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You're very welcome! Part 3 will go up tomorrow.

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Jun 23, 2022·edited Jun 23, 2022

Remarkably good analysis of an excellent book that contributes significantly to the conversation about human nature.

May I propose that our relatively recent discovery of concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels laid the foundation for the latest round of totalitarianism? It provided human beings, and scientists in particular with the power and affluence to invent completely new tools to exploit nature's resources and human resources to the point of exhaustion while simultaneously toxifying our ecosphere and making ourselves profoundly sick physically, emotionally and spiritually. Collectively, we've lost our way.

We are not really an intelligent species because we could easily have seen this coming. Many Cassandras came forward, but we wanted our houses, cars, boats and devices more than our health, peace of mind and connection to our communities. Oh well. It will all be over soon and our Mother Earth will begin an entirely new cycle of death and rebirth. If we don't completely sterilize the planet or burn it up. So sad.

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