Mattias Desmet, a public conversation: The 100th Hungry Heart & the Sweet Potato of Freedom
This is the transcript of an exchange between Dr Mattias Desmet and me before an audience at the Button Factory in Dublin, last September, exploring his latest book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism.
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JW: There’s a question I want to ask you about [the mass formation concept of] ‘the crowd’, because it’s something I don’t think we fully understand: the difference between the human as individual and the human in a crowd. And there is a quote here from your book [The Psychology of Totalitarianism] — and I apologise, because I always hate when people quote from something I’ve written but then quote somebody else from within what I’ve written! But this is a very beautiful citation from Elias Canatti:
The crowd, suddenly there, where there was nothing before, is a mysterious and universal phenomenon. A few people may have been standing together: five, ten or twelve, not more. Nothing has been announced. Nothing’s expected. Suddenly, everything is swarming with people, and more come streaming from all sides, as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what has happened, and if questioned have no answer, but they hurry to be there where most other people are. There is a determination in their movement that is different from ordinary curiosity. 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. The goal is the most intense darkness where the most people are gathered.
JW: This is an amazing thing that I don’t think we really understand. That the crowd is . . . we can be in a crowd, we are a crowd, you know, like this we can become a crowd. And it’s an entirely different thing to each one of us or even the sum of all of us, isn’t it?
MD: Yes, it is, definitely. You can compare it probably to starling swarms, swarming starlings. I think that, at a certain level, you can really consider it a complex dynamical system, in which the system itself is much more than the parts that constitute the system. Definitely. And also people also really change — their psychological functioning changes completely, once they are in the grip of an emerging crowd.
JW: And you were talking about the comparison between animals and humans, and a phrase that came into my mind was ‘a murder of crows’ — the way that crows congregate in the grass, suddenly, to no audible signal, move in the same direction at the same moment. And the word ‘murder’ in that context is very interesting, because the crowd is capable of dastardly acts.
MD: Yes, the emergence of the crowd always means that the individual psychology disappears. And it’s an extremely strange phenomenon. It is as if the collective soul replaces the individual soul. So the emergence of the crowd, in one way or another, always destroys — murders — the individual souls. It’s a very well known phenomenon, which has been described since Gustave Le Bon studied ‘the masses’, or ‘the crowds’, which is one of the most remarkable phenomena in human psychology. It’s extremely hard to understand. You can understand it, as long as you understand the mechanism of mass formation. But it’s hard to understand that a mother is prepared to kill her son, once she is in the grip of mass formation. Or if the mother is prepared to report her son to the state, knowing that he will probably be sentenced to death — she is in the grip of a mass formation. That’s exactly because all the normal bonds between people disappear in the crowd, spontaneously or intentionally.
JW: Is there some dynamic, some fundamental need in the individual that is fulfilled by that — a need to be admired, to be approved of, to be loved?
MD: I think that the fundamental need that is satisfied in the crowd is that people want to belong to a collective. People want to transcend themselves, they want to be freed of the limits of their own individual existence, without realising it. That’s what you do in a crowd. People suddenly . . . usually — before the large scale mass formations of modern times — people were in the grip of an extreme individualism. They got sick of it. And then suddenly, without knowing it, they had only one desire: to sacrifice themselves in order to belong to a collective, to sacrifice themselves for the collective. So an emerging mass and totalitarianism usually means that extreme individualism suddenly changes and switches to extreme collectivism. In one way or another, in modern times, many people have a hard time keeping the balance between individualism and collectivism. That’s what is needed, as a human being, to live a life worthy of a human being, to not be too individualistic, but also not to be too collectivistic, because in both instances there is something destructive at the level of your humanity.
JW: A concept that you rarely mention, but which comes up in other discussions of totalitarianism quite a lot, is the concept of psychopathy. There’s a Polish psychologist, Andrew M. Lobaczewski who wrote the book, Political Ponerology: a science in the nature of evil for political purposes (2006).
[N.B. ‘Ponerology,’ from the Greek word ‘poneros’, is the name of a division of theology dealing with evil. But Lobaczewski is not concerned with theological definitions — his work relates to the formulation of a clinical classification and deconstruction of the concept of political wickedness. Before, evil was almost solely a ‘moral’ question, but he turned it into something like a scientific category. ‘Experience,’ he writes, ‘has taught the author that evil is similar to disease in nature, although possibly more complex and elusive to our understanding.’
For more about Lobaczewski’s book, see my March 2022 article ‘Narcissists in Lockstep’:
MD: Yes, I know it. You probably sent me the book . . Someone sent me the book! I even read it!
JW: It’s a difficult book to read, but very interesting in this context. Is this something that you see in this context — that there is some kind of psychopathic tendency in those who seek to manipulate these forces to control people, to move people in a certain direction?
MD: That’s a good question, and as a psychologist I should be careful in answering it, I think. I should answer it in a careful way. because, first of all, I think it is unethical to diagnose someone without having spoken to him personally. I think you have to know someone in order to be capable to say something about his personality. Usually, people like Joost Meerloo, whom you might know — the author of The Rape of the Mind — and Hannah Arendt, said — and I tend to agree with them, I think — that among totalitarian leaders you have all kinds of personality types. They are very heterogeneous at the level of personality. If, as a psychologist, I talk about psychopathy, I need something very specific. Many people use the term ‘psychopathy’ about someone just because they believe he is evil, for instance, but that’s not enough to call someone a psychopath, I think. The psychopath is a very specific psychological structure, characterised by extreme narcissism, which makes the person completely incapable of empathy, and so on and so on and so on. There are very specific characteristics. And, you know, there will be psychopaths among the leaders of totalitarian systems, but I doubt whether they are all psychopaths.
JW: Within the model of mass formation that you see and have described — that kind of symbiotic model of the hypnotised masses and the leaders who are themselves self-hypnotised, or ideologically hypnotised - do you believe that, separately or above that, there may be a kind of super elite which may be purely manipulative, that is not hypnotised, that is using all of its knowledge of these forces in order to effect something that it understands implicitly and intimately?
MD: Ah, that’s a very good question. I always talk about the public leaders of the narrative — so, the people who articulate the particulars of the narrative in public space. It’s those people who have hypnotised themselves — by their ideology. And also [have been hypnotised] by the masses, because the leader of the masses hypnotised the masses by his voice, by the resonance of his voice. But the masses also have a voice that resonates with the voice of the leaders, so that there’s a mutual hypnotic effect, I think, between the masses and the leaders. But I don’t think there are just those [leaders] publicly visible to the masses. You could suppose that there are people who are not speaking out in public space, who manipulate the masses in society, from behind the screens. It might be the case. Yes, definitely. it will be the case. There are such people, I think. But it can be quite difficult to know, I think, what people we are dealing with here. Are they also hypnotised by their ideology? I wouldn’t be surprised. I think they are. I think they also believe in the transformative vision, for instance, in this case. I think they are really one hundred per cent pure, meticulous, mechanist thinkers.
JW: And do you think they regard themselves as ‘good’. This is something that many people struggle with: that such people might imagine that they are engaged in some kind of valorous activity?
MF: Yes, I think so. I think they believe that they can become godlike, yes. I think that’s their ambition.
JW: At great cost to others.
MD: Of course, yes. That’s the point. Totalitarianism is always characterised by an extreme, blind, fanatical belief, an ideological belief. The totalitarian leaders believe so fanatically that they will create the new artificial paradise that they think it’s justified to cheat, manipulate, eliminate, kill, murder, torture — and so on — everyone, to realise that paradise, to make the paradise real. That’s why Hannah Arendt says, ‘The only problem with the totalitarian paradise is that it always looks very much like Hell!’ That’s exactly the problem with these totalitarian leaders: They are so convinced that they will — in the end — create a paradise where, of course, they will be the leaders, they really think that justifies everything.
JW: You said earlier that, in some sense, we need to go through this, and, in fact earlier, when we were speaking and I gave you a book [of essays: Stories and Totalitarianism] by Vaclav Havel, there was a quotation that drew your attention — to that same effect: that this is a process in history that we need to move through:
'I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no more than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the human spirit. More probably it represents a necessary phase that man and humanity must go through, one that man — if he survives — will ultimately, and on some higher level (unthinkable, of course, without the present phase), transcend.’ — Václav Havel
JW: And you said to me earlier something also about this being something like ‘the last stages’ of the totalitarian phenomenon, that we’re working through now, which is a very interesting thing. And you were saying also that you had come to the end of the process of rationality, when you were 35 — that you had gone through that process via mathematics, irrational numbers, and so on, which I imagine was an intensely absorbing and difficult process. So, I’m wondering . . . in that process, which a society might need to go through — which is something similar, something analogous . . . Is it possible for a society to go through that? Is it possible for a culture to ’learn’ something like that? Or is that something that only the individual can do?
MD: I think it’s possible for . . . maybe not for the entire society, but for a group of people in society, to go through that process, And maybe everyone will become aware of the limits of rationality, and maybe get in touch with this more resonating knowledge in his own way. Maybe not everyone has to walk the walk of science to realise, and to really stumble upon this limit of rationality, and to get to the point where he or she is capable to transcend rationality, and to get in touch with a different kind of knowledge, a different awareness of life, which is much more resonating and empathic in nature. But I do believe that there will be a group who goes to the next level, yes. I think so, I also feel that . . . It’s my personal experience that, as more and more people become aware of this new kind of connection — or this new kind of awareness — the effect is stronger with a group of people who all start in the grip of the same transcendent knowledge rather than when you are [individually] aware, having this awareness.
JW: Do you think it’s possible to . . . Because there’s this legend of the ‘100th Monkey’ — have you heard about this?
JW: The concept whereby . . .
[Background note: The Hundredth Monkey is a ‘hypothetical’ phenomenon in which a new behaviour or idea appears to be spread rapidly by unexplained means from one group to all related groups, after an indeterminate but critical number of members of one group exhibit the new behaviour or acknowledge the new idea. The behaviour is said to propagate even within groups physically remote from one another, having no apparent means of communicating. The concept results from a behavioural study experiment conducted by primatologists in the late 1940s/early 1950s on a colony of Japanese monkeys — Macaca fuscata on the island of Koshima (Kōjima), in the Sea of Hyūga off the shore of the city of Kushima, Japan. In his book The Hundredtb Monkey, Ken Keyes Jr. writes about this phenomenon which, he believes, may be our only hope as a species. He describes how the scientist fed the monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped on the sand. The monkeys liked the sweet potatoes, but not the sand in which they were coated. There was a problem: how to make the potatoes palatable. An 18-month-old monkey called Imo came up with the answer. The story goes that, one day, she accidentally dropped a sweet potato into a stream. When she took it out, the sand had all been washed from it and, having eaten it, she afterwards dipped all her sweet potatoes in the water, and taught her mother to do the same. Likewise her playmates, who also passed the trick on to their mothers. Scientists watched as this discovery was relayed through the colony of monkeys. In the course of the next six years, all the young monkeys learned to wash the potatoes in this way. Only those adults who imitated their young learned to wash the potatoes; the remainder continued eating them with their coating of sand. Then, wrote Keyes, something startling occurred: ‘In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes — the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let's further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes. Then it happened.' By that evening almost every member of the colony was washing the potatoes prior to eating. The point of the story? ‘The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough.’ In other words, with the winning over of the hundredth monkey, some kind of critical mass point had been reached.
There was more. ‘The most surprising thing observed by these scientists', wrote Keyes, 'was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then spontaneously jumped over the sea — colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Tàkasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes.’
The meaning of this? When a certain number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind, even among those who have had no direct conscious knowledge of the phenomenon in question.
The ‘hundredth’ aspect is random and somewhat arbitrary: Although the exact number may vary, the ‘Hundredth Monkey’ phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which, if one more person tunes into a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness reaches almost everyone.’]
JW: Do you think there is something in this?
MD: Of course! You know, Rupert Sheldrake described this very evocatively and in a very concrete way in his book, The New Science of Life. And it shows experimentally also, that if a set of animals learns to solve a certain problem — in Japan, for instance — the same animal in America will be capable of learning in a faster way to solve the same problem, just because, according to him, the first group of animals changed something in the morphogenetic field, and the other animals in one way or another can use the information that is in the morphogenetic field to solve the same problem in a quicker way. I’m inclined to think that this is true. Sheldrake studied this in a very experimental . . . in a very rationalist way, actually. And he also showed that these characteristics really seem to exist.
JW: And it strikes me that there is a possibility that, at the moment, we are blocked from perceiving these realities by the mechanistic thinking you talk about in The Psychology of Totalitarianism . . . ?
MD: Yes that’s true. Yes.
JW: One final question — about your profession, psychology, You use the science of psychology to great effect, in a very positive way. But at the same time, the same science is being used in the most negative way by health agencies, governments and media, who use techniques which are deliberately calculated to manipulate people and enslave them, actually. What is your view of the moral status of psychology in this context. I understand that it is a naive question in a way, because all professions, all sciences, have negative aspects and we cannot hold each practitioner responsible for the wronging of others. Nevertheless, isn’t it the case that the behavioural sciences, as they have developed in the past century, the manipulation of minds through marketing and so on, the capacity now to reach into people’s homes and grab them in a way that, really, they’re imprisoned by — that is something that is very dangerous, and needs to be addressed — if we ever get out of this [situation]— almost as a priority.
MD: Yes, I agree, of course. Like Gustave Le Bon described the mechanism of mass formation‚ or certain aspects of the mechanism of mass formation — at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it was used by people like Edward Bernays as the basis of modern propaganda and indoctrination. So, I think, indeed — that it is an abuse of the science of psychology. In my opinion, the unethical thing about propaganda and manipulation is exactly that it uses psychology to reduce and destroy the space in which the human being can become its own master. And, to the contrary, it uses psychology just to enslave people, even without [them] knowing it, to a master, to someone else, who will become their master. Psychology should always be used to free people, to give people the capacity to become the masters of their own lives.
JW: Clearly, it has shown politicians et cetera that they can have this power. We really cannot afford to allow it to go any further, can we? We have to address this really rapidly, as soon as we get an opportunity.
MD: Yes. Definitely
JW: Your next book — what is it about? How is it progressing, and when might we expect it?
MD: In my next book, I will first describe how our entire public space is saturated with indoctrination and propaganda, very often without us realising it. Even our entire educational system, the school system, is a kind of indoctrination. And I will then try to reintroduce the concept of truth-speech and truth-telling. Because, in one way or another, it seems as if people have forgotten what truth means for human beings — how crucial it is. The ancient Greeks knew how crucial it is. They distinguished between four types of truth-speech: something they called tekhnê, and then wisdom, prophecy, and something they called parrhêsia,
[For more on this topic, read this.
And they were all very necessary. Without people practicing these four types of truth-speech, the ancient Greeks believed that a society could not continue to exist. And truth-speech is exactly the opposite to indoctrination and propaganda. So that’s one thing my [forthcoming] book is all about. It’s all about the question of why we seem to have forgotten that truth-speech is crucial to us. And then I also try to address the question of what is the difference between the two: What distinguishes truth-speech from indoctrination and propaganda? And also, at the same time, I will critically examine transhumanist ideology, which is very much related to the same ideology as is at the basis of indoctrination and propaganda. Indoctrination/propaganda in itself is just a part of the mechanist/rationalist view of man in the world. Indoctrination and propaganda starts from the idea that you first have to rationally understand the psychological processes in society, and then try to manipulate and control them. Indoctrination and propaganda starts from a certain interpretation, a certain theoretical understanding, of mass psychology, of group psychology, and it then, on the basis of this understanding, tries to use all kinds of linguistic techniques to control and manipulate these psychological processes. This is exactly what mechanist/rationalist science always tries to do. It tries to understand the reality . . . and that’s not a problem in itself — the understanding is a good thing — but then the scientist tries to use that rational language to manipulate and control reality, or a certain phenomenon, for instance mass psychology. So, it’s exactly, in this respect, that the transhumanist ideology is exactly the ultimate kind of mechanist/rationalist thinking. It is the idea that, through all kinds of technological devices, we will be capable of controlling, manipulating, the entire human being, both at the mental and the physical level. So it’s all part of the same ideology: this indoctrination, propaganda, brainwashing, and this transhumanist idea. It’s all part of the same rationalist ideology. It’s part of the same delusional belief that through rationalist understanding we’ll be capable of controlling our human existence, of controlling our society to the extent that it will become like a paradise, where there is no suffering or dying anymore.
JW: The way you set it out seems to be bang-on, a necessary task. But that undertaking also goes against the grain of recent history. We’ve gone in the opposite direction for a very long time. The propaganda, all the dumbing down of people, this official patronising, condescending to people’s intelligence, while at the same time driving everyone further and further down into a pit of banality. Do you think it’s possible? It strikes me that what you’re talking about — moving through rationalism to beyond, transcending rationality in some kind of intellectual and emotional experience at once — is somewhat analogous to learning to play an instrument, a musical instrument
MD: Yes, it is. Yes.
JW: That you learn the techniques with great difficulty, you go through all that, and then, at a certain point, you become airborne . . .
MD: Yes. Yes.
JW: . . . in your instrument.
MD: Yes, exactly, yes,. You become airborne, yes. (Laughs.)
JW: But do you think that’s possible, in this context, for the human race? I know what you set out is necessary, desirable, that we transcend this mechanistic way of thinking. But aren’t we really up against it, more than ever before? Even in my lifetime — I’m 67 years of age, and when I look back at the span of my lifetime, I find that, in a certain sense now, in 2022, it’s almost as though we are behind the 1980s . . .
MD: Well, of course! We certainly are! Because that’s the problem. When you . . this fanatical belief in the power of the human rational mind — it leads to exactly the opposite. It leads to an absurd irrationality. So, when you follow rationality — step by step by step by step — some people will become airborne at a certain moment, but others won’t. It is as if they climb a tree first [his hand rises into the air], and when they arrive at the top, and they cannot transcend the tree, they cannot spread their wings and fly, they return [his hand, finger pointing downwards, comes down] to the bottom, and they become completely irrational and absurd. And that’s what we have seen in the corona crisis, because the people — those experts who believe that they represent rationality and science, they are completely irrational and completely unscientific. So I really believe that we are now more irrational than we were 50 years ago. Definitely. Because the quality of scientific research, of academic research, is also deplorable. It’s a disaster!
JW: And also, most of us, frankly — you talked about your journey in mathematics to this point of understanding. But for most of us that’s kind of impossible. I did ‘pass maths’ in my Leaving Cert, so I’m not going to make that leap! So we’re kind of imprisoned by our own incapacities and our own ignorances, and so on. And, therefore, to an extent, we are dependent on that Hundreth monkey. You are the 100th monkey, and we’re dependent on your transcendence in order to be rescued from it.
MD: I don’t think we are . . . I think we all transcend rationality and our rational mind in our own way. I believe we do. It’s not because . . . Not everyone needs to understand what irrational numbers mean, not at all. I think, in one way or another, we all do it in our own way — as you said, someone who wants to play an instrument. He will first go through this technical stage, and maybe he will start to repeat and repeat and repeat the same techniques, and then suddenly he starts to feel something and will suddenly be capable of playing his instrument in a creative way, without having to think about his technique. I think we all go through the same process in many different ways, and we all have to go through it in our own way.
JW: Yes, And before you do it, it seems impossible, doesn't it?
MD: Yes. Absolutely.
Further reading and exploration of the work of Mattias Desmet:
• A condensation of some of his early interviews about mass formation:
• A review of The Psychology of Totalitarianism:
• An in-depth interview about the mechanistic society and other matters:
• A videoed conversation about his current book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, and his next one:
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