The moment Arendt had anticipated in 1951 seems to be rapidly approaching: the emergence of a new totalitarian system led, not by ‘ring leaders’ like Stalin and Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.
—Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism
One scene in Netflix’s noir detective series Babylon Berlin, set against the backdrop of Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s, struck a particularly uneasy chord for a viewer living through the government response to Covid-19. A player in the recently formed National Socialist German Workers’ Party proposes to a group of high-placed Nazi sympathizers that they use Germany’s youth to foment civil unrest. This, he foretold, would generate fear among the people, making them more susceptible to – or even welcoming of – authoritarian rule.
Tyrannical rulers wielding fear as a crude tool of control is an ancient and sadly familiar tale, but coldly planning the systematic application of fear to achieve sustained psychological manipulation is another story. It is one about which I had grown apprehensive since the appearance of Covid-19. Although fear is a sometimes useful emotion (among other benefits, it keeps most of us away from the edge of cliffs), the eruption of official fear in the weeks following the declaration of a global pandemic seemed greatly out of proportion.
And it was strangely combined with incomplete or contradictory factual information. Every information source blared that Covid-19 cases were proliferating, yet no one explained what a “case” comprised. People were dying and being hospitalized, we heard, but what about the rest? What was their status? And what categories were truly at risk? Statistics without context was fearmongering, some began to point out, but to little avail as fear quickly took over nearly everything.
The Psychology of Totalitarianism, a newly published book by academic Mattias Desmet, provides a systematic theoretical framework for this worrying dynamic and what has followed. Desmet’s analysis is highly plausible – and, accordingly, somewhat fear-inducing in its own right.
For Desmet’s book comes as something of a sequel to Hannah Arendt’s seminal The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. The German-born political scientist and philosopher had been a fugitive from Nazism, finding refuge in America before the Second World War, where her ongoing studies of imperialism, racism and anti-Semitism culminated in a world-famous report on Nazi war-criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Israel. Arendt portrayed Eichmann, who helped carry out the Holocaust, as an unreflective but ambitious bureaucrat essentially unaware of the enormity of his actions in the mass extermination of Jews. Thus, Arendt famously concluded, Eichmann exemplified the “banality of evil.” Although her interpretation was hotly contested, her description of a mere bureaucrat capable of executing monstrosities without conscience never lost its resonance.
Desmet’s work suggests that Arendt’s insights remain acutely relevant. Arendt took pains to point out that Nazism and Stalinism held no monopoly on the evil methodology they employed to rule: totalitarianism. “All ideologies contain totalitarian elements,” was how she put it, “But these are fully developed only by totalitarian movements, and this creates the deceptive impression that only racism [sic Nazism] and communism are totalitarian in character.” This is an essential idea for understanding the times in which we live, and Desmet builds upon it.
The Psychology of Totalitarianism raises profound questions about the uses, abuses and limitations of rationality, science and technology in our fraught times and their role in creating a deeply disturbing mass psychological phenomenon. Desmet’s analysis of the response to Covid-19 seeks to fill the gap left by the exclusion of psychological factors from the existing scholarship on totalitarianism. In so doing, he shows how whole populations, atomized by but collectively caught in a technological mindset that sees science as the answer to everything, can be overtaken by totalitarianism. Desmet believes this was occurring in the pandemic’s earliest days and continues today.
A professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium, as well as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Desmet has over 100 peer-reviewed publications and over 1,000 citations to his credit, as well as a master’s degree in statistics. He is author of two books and the recipient of awards from the Association for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and, in 2019, the Dutch Association of Psychotherapy.
The idea for The Psychology of Totalitarianism predates Covid-19 by two years, Desmet explains in the book’s introduction, conceived through his academic interest in crowd psychology and his concerns about increasing government intrusion on individual life, which “was growing tremendously fast.” Privacy rights were eroding, dissenting voices were being suppressed in multiple areas (especially, in his view, on climate change), and state security forces were acting against their own populations.
What was taking place outside government also worried Desmet: the proliferation of “woke” culture and the growing calls for “strict government controls from within the population itself” (Desmet’s emphasis). On issue after issue – “terrorists, climate changes, heterosexual men, and, later, viruses considered too dangerous to be tackled with old fashion[ed] means” – society’s response was the same: massive government programs and/or draconian laws and regulations.
Desmet came to believe that the ingredients were in place for “the emergence of a new totalitarianism, no longer led by flamboyant ‘mob leaders’ such as Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.” This is why the book’s focus is not “concentration camps, indoctrination or propaganda” but the “totalitarianism that arises from evolutions and tendencies that take place in our day-to day lives.”
The Seeds of 21st Century Totalitarianism
Desmet perceived a number of signs pointing to a society slipping into such a fearsome vulnerability. He had grown worried about the failing competence of scientific research. “For example, in economics research, replication failed about 50 percent of the time, in cancer research about 60 percent of the time, and in biomedical research no less than 85 percent of the time,” he writes in Chapter 1. “The quality of research was so atrocious that the world-renowned statistician John Ioannidis [in 2005] published an article bluntly entitled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’.”
In Desmet’s view, the degradation of science nearly 250 years after its rise during the European Enlightenment was facilitating the nesting of ideology within it, in turn threatening to render science basically just another instrument of politics. The open-mindedness, rigour and truth-seeking necessary for real scientific enquiry were slipping away or being discarded. Science was becoming a cluttered bazaar of career-building (“publish or perish”), promotion of products, spreading of deception, furtherance of political agendas and the belittling and stigmatizing of those who disagreed. Colluding in or even leading the manipulation of the masses will still seem too monstrous an accusation for many – but Desmet is convinced this is what has befallen science.
Other important things were occurring at the same time. On the positive side, prosperity-enhancing technological transformations were underway. But so too were social and workplace structures being transformed, as was humanity’s relationship with nature. The proliferation of meaningless work (although often for longer hours) and the growing social isolation of individuals – what Arendt had termed “atomisation” – were increasingly addressed through what Desmet calls “regulation mania,” a government-created web that was not only stifling but itself anxiety-inducing.
The paradox of regulation, however, is to make human interactions not smoother and more predictable, but more precarious. “The more we attempt to eliminate the fear and uncertainty through rationality and rules, the more we collide with failure,” Desmet writes. Rather than admit failure and change course, modern-day governments typically double-down, generating still more ineffective and disquieting regulations. While some individuals resent the erosion of their freedom, much of the population becomes inured or even grateful. There is a gathering yearning for an authoritarian institution that relieves us of “the burden of freedom and [its] associated insecurities.”
Desmet’s expertise as a statistician made the connection between his underlying concerns and the governmental response to Covid-19. Chapter 4 explores the key examples. In Sweden, which outraged the rest of Europe when it chose to avoid lockdowns and school closures, academic modelling predicted 80,000 Covid-19 deaths. When the number reached only 6,000, Desmet concluded not only that the modelling was unreliable but that current statistical analysis was “extremely relative.”
He was also among those noticing how the widely applied PCR test, hailed as the gold standard, was generating prodigious false positives, multiplying the number of reported “cases.” Hospitals (or public health agencies) also began reporting anyone testing positive as a Covid-19 “case” even when admitted for other conditions. But under rigorous statistical scrutiny, hospitals in Scotland for example “were left with 13 percent of the original number of COVID-19 patients.” (Desmet’s emphasis.)
And then there was the inexplicable failure of governments and public health agencies to recognize and properly weigh the predictable collateral damage in terms of economic disruption, higher suicide and addiction rates, or delayed hospital treatments and surgery. “And so,” Desmet writes, “We see that an entire society can completely ignore what is undoubtedly the most basic question in medicine: is the cure not worse than the disease?” The cause, his book argues, is a psychological phenomenon known as mass formation.
Understanding Mass Formation
Like Arendt, Desmet clarifies the key distinction between totalitarianism and mere dictatorship. Dictatorships retain power by bestowing favour or creating fear based on direct brutality. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, “has its roots in the insidious psychological process…a kind of group hypnosis that destroys ethical awareness robbing [people] of their ability to think critically.” It develops within, engages and envelopes the better part of society – the masses. Initiating this process is mass formation.
The term “mass formation” apparently stems from the French polymath Gustav Le Bon, whose influential book The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind, published in 1895, warned that the “masses could take hold of society, leading to the emergence of a new form of governance.” The phenomenon itself goes back even farther. Early examples were Medieval witch hunts, which denuded whole villages of their women, although were localized and ephemeral. Much larger in scale and effect was the French Revolution. Then came Fascism, Stalinism and Nazism, which not only took hold of leading nations but would ruin whole continents and threaten civilization itself. Today, argues Desmet, “We have with the coronavirus crisis…reached a point where the entire world population is in the grip of a mass formation over a prolonged period of time.”
Mass formation arises from the meeting of four psychological conditions at the population level, Desmet explains: feelings of social isolation, the absence of meaning in life, free-floating anxiety (lacking a clear object) and free-floating anger and frustration.
Signs of social isolation have been apparent for some time. The UK, for example, appointed a “Loneliness Minister” in 2018 (as did Japan in 2021). The digital society has been a big factor. Online interaction is no substitute for the subtleties and dynamics of real human contact, Desmet argues, but “dehumanizes the conversation.” And while economist John Maynard Keynes long ago predicted that technological advances would reduce the average work week to 15 hours, Keynes “failed to consider the creation of meaningless and useless work on an incredible scale” – a phenomenon described by anthropologist David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs. All of this contributes to robbing life of meaning.
Social isolation and diminished meaning cause widespread “free floating anxiety,” a form of deep psychological discontentment. Belgium, a country of 11 million, uses an astounding 300 million doses of antidepressants yearly. The World Health Organisation estimates that 20 percent of the world’s population has some kind of anxiety disorder. Anger, of course, is frequently triggered by isolation or anxiety.
The ingredients are thus present for mass formation. Still missing is the catalyst: a narrative which heightens fear while providing an object against which anxiety can be directed – perhaps rationalized using the latest scientific “advances.” Suddenly the lonely, lost and anxious individual can contribute meaningfully to a (seemingly) worthy project. Many thus regain a sense of purpose and feeling of fellowship from doing right by their fellow citizens. A new social bond, even a new kind of citizenship, can emerge, says Desmet. This is the most important aspect of mass formation. It is maintained by indoctrination and propaganda “injected on a daily basis via mass media,” even as alternative voices are systematically silenced.
Populations are typically not uniform in their mass formation response, Desmet finds. About one-third fully internalize the process, become completely committed and willingly promote the narrative. A middle 40-50 percent may not be entirely convinced but go along to get along, especially if a job, key relationship or other asset is at risk. The final 10-30 percent remain independent in their thinking and some engage in outright dissent.
Intelligence and education are no protection; to the contrary, the highly educated can be the most receptive, especially when science is enlisted in the cause. Physicians, according to Ashley K. Fernandez in Why Did So Many Doctors Become Nazis?, joined up in droves, “nearly 50% by 1945, much higher than any other profession.” Also worth recalling is that for decades, socialism was constantly described as “scientific.”
“It is here that we, together with Hannah Arendt, situate the undercurrent of totalitarianism,” Desmet writes, “A naïve belief that a flawless, humanoid being and utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge. The Nazi idea of creating a purebred superman based on eugenics and social Darwinism, and the Stalinist ideal of a proletarian society based on historical-materialism are prototypical examples.”
It does seem like quite a leap from Nazism to the WHO and the media availabilities of Anthony Fauci, Theresa Tam or Bonnie Henry. Yet Desmet seeks – and, in my opinion, succeeds convincingly – to demonstrate how the arrival of SARS CoV-2 provided an opportunity for policies that triggered or accelerated all the psychological conditions for mass formation as well as adding the catalyst. The declaration of a global pandemic and the hourly drumbeat of cases and deaths accentuated fear. The lockdowns greatly worsened social isolation, robbed uncounted lives of meaning and further heightened fear and free-floating anxiety and anger. The “fight” or “war” against Covid-19 offered the necessary object. The individual’s “contribution” – compliance with regulations (especially masking and distancing) and willingness to receive experimental vaccines – provided a sense of purpose.
How far might this carry us? Important is our era’s near-universal belief that science and technology can address all our needs. In Desmet’s view, this is a grave conceit powering a “mechanist” ideology that threatens civilization itself. Unless we dramatically change course, the pandemic will prove merely a step in the process towards a “transhumanist paradise”: a human race that under the governance of a technocratic/expert class achieves mental and physical perfection – perhaps even immortality – by means of science and technology.
Totalitarian Behaviour and its Victims
More immediately, mass formation generates what Desmet calls the “astounding” characteristics of totalitarian behaviour among the population: the sacrifice of the personal to the (alleged) good of the collective, intolerance of dissident voices, an informant mentality, susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda, and the blind following of a narrow logic impervious to counter-evidence and transcending ethical boundaries. “The crowd acts in a coordinated way and repeats the same slogans,” Desmet notes. “It engages thoughts and expressions that spread through its ranks at lightning speed.” This occurred in Nazi Germany – and during Covid-19.
Desmet is especially worried by the widespread intolerance shown towards dissenting voices. “The way in which unvaccinated people are denied access to parts of public spaces, which even now engenders support within the population for denying them access to grocery stores and hospitals, evokes the most unpleasant reminiscences and may indeed become the first step of an infernal cycle of dehumanization,” he writes.
And while the earlier rise of free-floating anxiety and aggression has notoriously found some release on social media in recent years, he warns that “what accelerates mass formation…is the potential of unvented aggression present in the population – aggression that is still looking for an object.” (Desmet’s emphasis.) Historically, this object has been the group that refuses to go along with the narrative. We should not underestimate where this could go.
Critics, skeptics and others who depart from the Covid-19 narrative have been routinely dismissed as conspiracy theorists (or even saboteurs). Yet it is no conspiracy theory to point out that scenarios anticipating (possibly even planning) events around the pandemic exist, as does the BBC-initiated Trusted News Initiative. Or that mainstream news media, leading social media platforms and search engines cooperated with governments to counter purportedly harmful vaccine discussion and encourage compliance. Or that public health establishments in most Western countries behaved in lockstep and vilified Sweden for choosing its own approach.
But was this undertaken in a calculated or even malevolent way? Perhaps surprisingly, while Desmet does not absolve our elites of their many mistakes, failings, ethical breaches and even criminal acts, he thinks they are themselves victims of the mechanistic totalitarian mindset, becoming its cheerleaders and enablers. Their problem is not malevolence but a “way of thinking that created the elite and the psychological state of the population.” One outcome was a powerful globalized tendency to gradually supersede democracy with a technocratic governance model. Another was a population “who believed that technological control would be the only solution to all the problems that imposed themselves such as climate change and terrorism and all kinds of viral attacks and so on.”
Given the course of previous totalitarian movements, Desmet is greatly concerned that our world is at risk of a truly horrific next step. Well-developed totalitarian systems have all used scapegoats as objects for disgrace and opprobrium by the masses, or marginalization, imprisonment and murder at the hands of the state. The Nazis and Communists levied a toll in the tens of millions of innocent lives – often including their own supporters. Hannah Arendt observed that by turning on its own, the totalitarian system “devours its own” and ultimately fails. But not, of course, without exacting an apocalyptic cost in societal and human terms.
A New Beginning
Desmet’s roughly 200-page, ably translated and well-constructed book concludes with an offer of hope that, out of our incipient totalitarian mire, a new beginning is possible. He also provides criteria by which we can assess our own level of totalitarian engagement as citizens or technocrats, and as governments.
His conclusions take the reader into dense, arcane territory as he deems chaos theory and quantum mechanics logical and necessary heirs to the Enlightenment Era. Despite its recent abuses and degeneration, Western science has taken us far – but still only to the edge of the physical world’s greatest mysteries. These, Desmet argues, are still to be unlocked, and he believes chaos theory and quantum mechanics are the path to doing so.
This respect for and optimism about science make it all the more remarkable to read that Desmet believes the most important questions with which humanity must grapple are not scientific ones but philosophical, ethical and ideological: “Do we view man as a biochemical machine that has to be technologically monitored and pharmaceutically adjusted, or as a being that finds its destination in mystical resonance with the Other and with the eternal language of nature?” In his mind, the answer is plain as day – and also offers the path away from totalitarianism.
Uncertainty and risk will always be with us, Desmet writes. But by recognizing that uncertainty is inherent in the human condition and by defying the associated anxiety, we can create the conditions for the re-emergence of creativity, individuality and human connectedness and lives based, finally, on ethical and moral choices tried and tested in our communities and civil society. “On this path, society becomes a space in which connectedness and individual differences mutually reinforce one another – as opposed to totalitarian systems in which the collectivity radically encroaches upon the individual liberty of every person and where all diversity disappears and is replaced by a monotonous state identity,” Desmet writes hopefully.
We should not expect or attempt returning to the old normal, for it led us to where we are. But out of the chaos and complexity of our times, a system leap is possible. Dissidents and critical thinkers must not lose heart. “Everything stands or falls with the act of speaking out,” Desmet says. The dedicated totalitarians will surely remain unmoved, but the “go along to get along” types may just decide the leap is worth it.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.