The Psychology of a Hatchet-job
Mattias Desmet has been one of the more renowned and visible critics of Covid totalitarianism. Is this why he became a target for lesser-spotted academics and others claiming to be opposing it too?
Attacks on the Belgian psychologist, Mattias Desmet, continue to emanate from within the Resistance. This is one of the odder aspects of this syndrome of cannibalisation among ‘freedom-fighters’: that he is almost always shot at from what one might assume to be his own side, with these diatribes frequently shared on Resistance channels. To an extent, the reasons are obvious: Those on the side of the establishment know that, in attacking him, they will draw attention to his work, and that is the last thing they want. They leave it to his own side to try to drive him out of the discussion, and there they find many willing agents.
Generally — and all too typically — the attacks seek to suggest that he is ‘controlled opposition’, some kind of shill for the authorities. A related theme is that, in his recent book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, he has sought to ‘blame the victims’ of the continuing tyranny for what is happening, rather than facing down the conspirators against freedom. Even more baffling have been the attempts to suggest that the concept of ‘mass formation’, which has been uppermost in his analysis, is bogus and an instrument for absolving the wrongdoers, despite have been elaborately described and analysed by numerous scientists, psychiatrists and psychologists in the past. He has responded to several of these attacks, and offered to debate the attackers, but has had no takers so far.
These constant attacks are growing tiresome, especially when there are so many legitimate and deserving targets for the anger of the Resistance, and their effect will ultimately be the demoralisation of many of those who have been fighting this war for human survival. Mattias Desmet has been one of the clearest and most effective voices on our side of the argument, spreading a profound awareness of what has been happening to us, explaining in detail the mechanics of the totalitarian method, and coaching us on how to combat and, perhaps, eventually overcome this continuing onslaught. Two years ago, Desmet entered the post-Covid-coup international arena and began delivering expositions and interpretations of what was happening that opened up our understandings in a host of new ways. Drawing on and reinterpreting the work of such as Hannah Arendt and Gustave Le Bon, he explained the outworking of the mass formation process in the present context of a technological mass media society, and offered prescriptions for addressing and, ultimately, dismantling it. Last Summer, he published The Psychology of Totalitarianism, which almost everyone expected would simply summarise what he had been saying. Instead, what we got was a precis of what he had been saying for the previous couple of years, and the most remarkable expansion into an analysis of the deep cultures of modern society, going to the very roots of the conditions that enable mass formations to grow. Here is my description of the book’s thesis in a review from last Summer:
His book offers a description of modern society in the drifts of an escalating mechanistic culture, of which totalitarianism is the ineluctable destination. Gummed up in a congealing mechanistic ideology, man is reduced to a biological organism and subjected to the positivist logic whereby every aspect of thought must be eminently demonstrable. The resulting destruction of the symbolic and ethical elements of human culture, writes Desmet, results in the devastation of relationships and the isolation of the individual, turning the human person into an atomised subject, whose entire existence is as though reduced to elementary particles that interact according to the laws of mechanics. This provides the building block of the modern type of totalitarian state . . .
Centrally, Desmet cites Hannah Arendt’s assertion that totalitarianism is the logical extension of obsession with science, which ‘[has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.’
One might imagine, then, that Mattias Desmet would be venerated throughout the ‘freedom movement’, and to a degree he is. But there has also been this recurring pattern of denigration and misrepresentation, ultimately suggesting itself as rooted in envy or something more sinister. The tendency has not merely been to question his analysis — a valid exercise, and one he welcomes and enters into wholeheartedly and without rancour when it occurs — but to discredit him and, it often seems, take him down. More worrying is that the criticism has frequently been accompanied by grotesque insinuations concerning his motives and loyalties. This has seemed not merely gratuitous and unhelpful to the wider effort, but makes no sense either in its granular content or in yielding up any possible motivation that is not malign. The most recent of these onslaughts to come across my desk is an article, Covid-19 — Mass Formation or Mass Atrocity? by David Hughes, Valerie Kyrie and Daniel Broudy, published last November on unlimitedhangouts.com.
The review is 15,000 words long, but it might be just a tweet, for it has the character and integrity of a shitpost of 240 characters. Its approach, as with previous attacks on Desmet, is to twist and corrupt his statements and meanings to create a certain impression: that he is seeking to use his understanding of the psychological dynamics of totalitarianism to get the evil-doers off the hook.
Mattias Desmet is not ‘blaming the victims’, but seeking to describe the symbiotic process by which manipulators succeed in killing the human spirit. He is certainly not, as another critic has alleged, ‘blinding us to the identity of the true culprits’. Rather, he is trying to convey a more complex understanding: that the contemporary kind of totalitarianism (because of mass media penetration, primarily) differs radically not merely from classical dictatorship but also from the twentieth century forms of totalitarianism. Fuelled by an all-pervasive ideology, this ‘contemporary’ form co-opts the mass in what can seem like a 'voluntary' collaboration with the tyrants. Desmet does not deny the existence of tyrants or their nefarious agendas, but makes the point that they are, as individuals, dispensable and interchangeable within the structure of the trance. The underfoot conditions in the society — mass alienation, free-floating anxiety, anomie, bullshit jobs — create an amenable 'mass' which readily embraces the ideology that seems to offer it some strange kind of relief, including a false form of solidarity, which makes it easier for the manipulators to exercise control. He does not rule out an orchestration, but simply emphasises that this 'top down' understanding is inadequate to understanding the total phenomenon.
The reviewers claim that ‘[t]he chief danger in stretching the Mass Formation theory to cover the realities of Covid-19 is its potential to engender passive bystanding.’ They summarise: ‘[W]here citizens fail to hold their leaders accountable, atrocity thrives. Like patterns of serial murder, patterns of mass atrocity can be expected to repeat and intensify if left unchecked.’ And somehow, (it is unclear), they relate this proposition to another: ‘[Desmet’s] attempt to reduce socio-political phenomena to patterns found in nature is, ironically, a hallmark of the scientism of which he is otherwise rightly critical. Rhetorically, it simultaneously serves to imbue totalitarianism with associations of natural beauty.’ To these points, I would say that the entire thrust of Desmet’s book, and his public work over the two years before it, is highly denunciatory of power abuses. His use of natural metaphors is merely by way of highlighting and illustrating the otherwise mysterious patterns of behaviour that characterise crowds of people under the influence of what Le Bon described as a ‘crowd psychology’ or ‘cloud soul'.
A persistent insinuation of his critics is that Desmet is trying to avoid or downplay the ‘atrocious’ aspects of what is happening, but this amounts to the weaponisation of a false dichotomy with a straw man on its back. Desmet's thesis is not an either/or, but a both/and — manipulation and tyranny, mass formation and atrocity — working together to persuade the 'mass' to do most of the heavy lifting in controlling the population and punishing dissenters, which is exactly what we've been experiencing for the past nearly three years.
In the main, what I address in this ‘review of a review’ is not the points of disagreement between the authors and Mattias Desmet, but rather the reviewers’ twisting and manipulation of his words and explications in order to daub him with a certain colour of distemper, while ducking the responsibility of properly engaging with his thoughts. They are quite entitled to disagree, but not to distort. Since there are three bylines on the review, to avoid repetition of their names, I shall refer to them variously here as ‘the reviewers’, ‘the authors’, ’the troika of reviewers/authors’, or simply ‘the troika’.
The authors state their case as follows:
In this review of Desmet’s book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, we argue that it manifests the psychology of atrocity — and that ‘Mass Formation’ paradoxically serves to legitimize the mass atrocity perpetrated during the Covid-19 era.
The troika will later allege that ‘while psychoanalyzing tyranny, the [mass formation] theory paradoxically serves as an attractive and intellectually satisfying system-justifying veil behind which the architects of atrocity can hide.’
Rather than trace the illusions of Covid-19 to the powerful entities and actors who have dictated and enforced The Science™ from the very beginning . . . The Psychology of Totalitarianism maintains that populations have primarily their own neuroses and auto-oppressive impulses to blame. We, the victims of mass deception, are encouraged to turn the critical lens on ourselves, to contend with our own foolish naïveté.
In the first place, then, the troika’s thesis implies that the leaders are somehow outside the society — as though invaders, occupiers — whereas in fact, invariably, they will have been plucked from the ranks of the populace, a point Desmet repeatedly stresses. Nor is Desmet saying that the ‘victims’ of mass formation are ‘to blame’ for what is happening: He describes a quasi-universal process by which the dynamics of living in community result in unexpected, organic forces and psychological cross-currents, which, under certain conditions, result in mass formation, and hence lead to totalitarianism.
Throughout their review, the troika employs a sly and dubious method to create the effect it desires, conflating sentences from different pages and paragraphs, and mixing meanings from distant contexts to create entirely new meanings. For example, the following abridged/conflated citation contains about half-a-dozen discrete sentences pulled from different sections between pages 127 and 134, without any indication of the detailed exposition of complex arguments that occurs across that section, or the many nuances Desmet intrudes along the way. To cover themselves, they generally provide page references, but these will be useless to a reader who does not have Desmet’s book to hand.
This extract from the troika’s reviews serves to accentuate the point:
Rather than acknowledging the victims of official violence, Desmet casts authorities as victims of their own self-destructive responses to the ‘will’ (p. 126) of the crowd: ‘The totalitarian leader blindly sacrifices his own interests . . . [for instance] in the recklessness with which totalitarian regimes destroy their own economies and wreak economic havoc’ (p. 112), he says. And yet, according to Oxfam, a new billionaire was created every 30 hours during the ‘pandemic.’ What, precisely, were the obscenely wealthy sacrificing?
It is obvious, even from the contorted citation above, that what Desmet (in the generality of these references) is talking about is political leadership, which has indeed appeared to be prepared to sacrifice popularity, by destroying the economies under its stewardship. The ‘obscenely wealthy’ are a different matter, of whom Desmet has much to say elsewhere. The troika declines to allow a distinction between the political drivers of the ‘pandemic’ and those profitting from it. In a further example of such misrepresentation, the troika asserts:
For instance, while Desmet acknowledges that Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset book and pandemic planning exercises by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Johns Hopkins University ‘described how society would go into lockdown as the result of a pandemic, that a bio-passport would be introduced, that people would be tracked and traced with subcutaneous sensors, and so on,’ he argues that any such ‘consistency’ (p. 133) occurs because populations perpetually push their leaders in a totalitarian direction.
This is either wilfully distortionary or downright uncomprehending. The word ‘consistency’ appears once on page 133 of Desmet’s book, in the following paragraph, which comes after a description of the frequent sloppiness of would-be tyrant-experts in presenting their plans to the public. Desmet continues:
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 (the so-called allegiance effect, see chapter 4).
The troika contrives from this the following concoction:
The modern crowd is always pushing in the same direction: the ‘hyper-controlled society,’(p. 127) he contends. As a result, ‘experts’ decisions always move toward a more technologically and biomedically controlled society. . . The leaders of the masses . . . give the people what they want. When fearful, the population wants a more controlled society.’ Leaders, according to Desmet, ‘sense what people crave and they adjust their plans in that direction’ (pp. 133-134)
The troika conclude this paragraph with the disingenuous reductionism:
‘Who knew we were all masochistic serfs seeking to be shackled by digital chains?’
Here, the reviewers have sought to conflate the contents of eight pages of closely-argued analysis into about 150 words, deliberately mixing multiple thoughts together to achieve the snide and misleading impression they convey. Desmet is not in any sense treating here of the desires or responses of the population, but purely of what he sees as a consistent dynamic to be observed in the prescriptions of ‘experts’. He does not use the word ‘serfs’, nor is he talking here about anything like masochism. Above all, he has made clear — as the troika of authors had already acknowledged before succumbing to this cheap shot — that nothing like ‘all’ of the population is implicated in the entranced condition he describes, but just a segment amounting to roughly 30 per cent that, nevertheless, exercises a disproportionate effect by contagion on a broader swathe of the middle-ground.
Sometimes, as though this self-evidently amounted to a case against Desmet, the reviewers list incontrovertible facts of the Covid episode — lockdown, vaccines, attacks on bodily integrity, health passes, et cetera — which they insinuate Desmet has ignored, but which he has nowhere denied, and in fact has many times discussed in minute detail on sundry platforms. What are they arguing against? Often, it seems that it is not just a straw man, but an inert bale of straw.
They refer, for example, to the worldwide protests mounted in various cities in 2020 and 2021, stating:
The protesters have been met with armed police, soldiers, paramilitary squads, armored vehicles, tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons. The acute social tensions and assorted forms of viciousness evident in these scenes go unaddressed in The Psychology of Totalitarianism — save for a fleeting mention of the ’10 to 30 percent’ of the population that ‘actively resists’ [p. 140].
This is a little nonsensical, since the greater part of the book is concerned with moving the discussion beneath the surface of totalitarianism to the conditions generating it from above and below. There are probably many books yet to come that will deal with the civic strife aspects of the Covid episode, but this issue is marginal to Desmet’s thesis. In his interviews over the past couple of years, he has spoken a great deal about the nature of resistance and what is vital about it.
In as far as the troika is addressing a worthwhile central question in its review, this might be summarised as: ‘Are we really looking at mass formation, or is ‘mass atrocity’ a more appropriate term?’ But why not both? I see no necessary conflict between the two approaches, which find their ‘perfect’ symbiosis in the use of indoctrination and mass hypnosis as a means to enable mass atrocity, which has been a distinct feature of what we have been observing since the Spring of 2020.
The troika goes on to advance the ‘mass atrocity’ argument in quite an interesting manner, defining the various relevant terminologies and citing numerous examples of state violence, murder, wrongful discrimination, imposed famine, vaccine injury and death, and many more categories, that arose during the Covid episode. None of what they say can be subject to meaningful dispute, but it is not in any sense a rebuttal of Mattias Desmet’s thesis.
The reviewers claim:
Given the scale of the damage wrought by the disingenuous official measures and official Science™ in the name of Covid-19, it is not difficult to describe Covid countermeasures using the language of mass atrocity . . . In short, applying the lens of atrocity to Covid countermeasures is an obvious imperative. Ignoring it is an obvious oversight.
Here we observe the construction of their straw man: If you do not state the full details of the situation you address, you are not entitled to theorise about its causes. This is nonsense, since the facts of Covid tyranny have already been exhaustively documented — just not on mainstream media platforms, which the troika themselves, incidentally, neglect to critique.
The troika asserts:
In The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the word ‘atrocity’ appears just three times. It is used not to describe the carnage wreaked by the response to Covid-19 but to warn against future harms from untamed populations. Desmet writes that under the thrall of Mass Formation, ‘The masses are inclined to commit atrocities against those who resist them and typically execute them as if it were an ethical, sacred duty’ (p. 104). ‘Don’t underestimate where this could go in the future,’ he warns. ‘We can see what appears on the horizon: random roundups, arbitrary isolation, and discretionary “treatment’”of “infected” people’ (pp. 115-16). It is as though huge numbers of people had not already been told to ‘self-isolate’ based on tests not fit for purpose and prone to false positive results, as well as forced to pay for their own isolation in hotels when traveling between countries. Moreover, it is as though the intense propaganda campaign to demonize the ‘unvaccinated’ as disease carriers (modelled on Nazi treatment of Jews as vermin, and epitomized by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky’s phrase, ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’) had never taken place.
This rather muddled paragraph amounts to a grotesque avoidance of Desmet’s point, which is that the very atrocities the troika attribute to the ‘regime’ are in the vast majority of cases carried out by ‘ordinary’ people (as, indeed, per the very title of Christopher R. Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland, in which precisely such a delegation of extermination is effected). The people who administer the deadly ‘vaccines’ are not politicians, but nurses and doctors; those who police the quarantine camps are not scientists, but policemen and soldiers ‘just doing their jobs’, and so on and on. The ‘leaders’ do not get their hands dirty, but simply create the legal and other conditions by which they can manipulate their underlings to do their dirty work, and this syndrome, too, has been writ large all over the Covid project. Nowhere does Desmet suggest that participants in a mass formation cease to be moral agents. What is at issue here is what Le Bon called ‘the psychology of crowds’, in which the individual surrenders his agency to a group identity, a dangerous state, and rarely a blameless one.
The troika’s attack on Mattias Desmet is in many places disreputable, twisting what he says in order to give the impression that he is seeking to exonerate wrongdoers, when his objective is — quite clearly — the opposite. Nowhere does he seek to exonerate any of the actual perpetrators of wrongdoing or to relieve them of personal responsibility. He seeks to render visible the cultural background radiation that makes episodes of atrocity more likely to happen, propaganda being the primary element. Moreover, the troika’s argument appears to deny any dimension of collective responsibility, a syndrome that — with its corollary, ‘collective guilt’ — has become part of the standard analysis of Nazism and Soviet communism. There is no necessary conflict between the phenomena of leader-culpability and mass manipulation by the promulgation of propaganda.
Then it gets a little crazy, as the troika alleges:
Paradoxically, the Mass Formation thesis itself embodies important psychological aspects of such atrocity-generation, and serves in its own way — however inadvertently — to tune and transmit messages to do harm.
In this context they finger Desmet for ‘system justification’, a syndrome whereby commentators may seek to exonerate the system of government of blame for malfunction or wrongdoing so as to retain faith in the governing class. Desmet, the troika alleges — in what it describes as his ‘depoliticised world’ — is guilty of this offence, by virtue of suggesting that ‘mass hypnosis’ was a factor in the capitulation of whole populations to the tyranny and hardship of lockdown. ‘There is no consideration,’ they claim, ‘of who was telling that “hypnotic story,” to what end, or what perception management techniques were used to sell it.’ This is palpable nonsense, since the entire thrust of Desmet’s contributions, from his emergence into the international arena two years ago, has been directed at describing the imposition of a trance by political and health authorities on whole populations, for the purposes of enslaving them, using techniques of propaganda, manipulation, isolation, induced terror, censorship, abuse of numbers and statistics, mass entrancement by technology and communications media, narrative creation, division-making, and multiple other instruments.
Desmet has explained in graphic detail the conditions required for a mass formation to occur: The first thing totalitarian leaders do is make sure their voices are the only ones left. To a certain extent, this is also what classical dictators do, but they limit the monopoly on the voice to the public sphere. They silence the political opposition. Totalitarian systems operate in a more thorough way. They censor alternative voices in the private sphere as well.
A central fixation of the troika is that it believes ‘mass psychosis’ a more appropriate term for what Desmet is seeking to describe, though mainly on the grounds that it was utilised by Carl Jung to describe Nazism. Desmet, they say, ‘naturalizes, and thereby tacitly legitimizes such mass psychosis as Mass Formation by claiming that it occurs just as complex, dynamic systems organize themselves in nature’. The reviewers make no attempt to analyse this thesis, but simply dismiss it as ‘embodying a morally disengaging strategy known as the “agentless passive voice”, or “exonerative tool”’ — elaborating: ‘It creates the appearance that reprehensible acts are the work of nameless forces, rather than people. It is as though people are moved mechanically but are not really the agents of their own acts’.
Another example of the troika’s dishonest trickery is to be observed in its treatment of the transhumanist question, which Desmet has repeatedly described as the endgame of the tyranny. The authors quote from his book as follows:
‘The fourth industrial revolution, in which man is expected to physically merge with technology — the transhumanist ideal — is increasingly seen as an unavoidable necessity. The entire society has to change into an internet of bodies, in which the human body is digitally monitored, tracked, and traced by a technocratic government. This is the only way we will be able to master the problems of the future. There is no alternative. Anyone who refuses to go along with the technological solution is naive and ‘unscientific’ (p.176).
In introducing this passage, the troika states:
‘Although Desmet seems rightly uneasy about the prospect of these dystopian agendas, he nevertheless appears to accept — inexplicably — their inevitability (and is, to that extent, thus, himself a victim of fear-based propaganda).’
Is it actually possible that three experienced academics, charged with conveying issues of nuance to the next generation, could possibly have read this passage of Desmet’s as something other than a rhetorical paraphrasing of the transhumanists’ position? Do they really think that his couching of the issue in these terms amounts to demonstrating that he ‘appears to accept . . . their inevitability’, et cetera?
They continue: There is no critical commentary on the remarks made. It would be nice to know from whose perspective transhumanism is both an ‘ideal’ to aspire to and precisely why it is an ‘unavoidable necessity.’
The answer is obvious to anyone but a neophyte or a dissembler: the orchestrators of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; Klaus Schwab and his not so merry band of political eunuchs in the WEF; the sponsors of the transhumanist project and the technocratic society, which Desmet has, by that stage of his book, been writing about, explicitly and implicitly, for ten chapters.
This ‘Gotchaism’ is central to the troika’a approach throughout the review, frequently amounting to what reads as pure malevolence. In its Conclusion, for example, the troika states:
Desmet announces early on that totalitarianism represents “the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition” (p. 7).
This is yet another screaming misrepresentation, making it appear that Desmet equates tyranny to enlightenment, and is therefore a fanboy for the totalitarians. In its full and proper context, what Desmet actually writes is this:
Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence. In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human reality. As such [my emphasis, JW] it is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition.’ Thus — it is obvious — Desmet is critiquing not merely totalitarianism, but also ‘mechanistic thinking’ and the ‘delusional beliefs’ that have arisen from the Enlightenment.
It is not the case, as the troika alleges, that Desmet has ignored the Covid-related damage wreaked under headings like lockdowns, state-sponsored euthanasia, eugenics, and ‘vaccines’, or the fact that ‘the entire world has been transformed into a single, giant site of medical experimentation’. In fact he has spoken about these aspects many times. That he does not deal with them in detail in his book is down to the fact that the book has a particular, focused theme: the underlying conditions that give rise to mass formation and totalitarianism. Desmet is, after all, a psychologist. His contributions over the span of the Covid period are well documented and contain none of the lacunae or evasions the troika repeatedly insinuates. For example, there is an extended section in the troika’s critique about the harmful effects of lockdowns, with the assertion that Desmet has expressed no view on these.
Desmet’s position on what he terms ‘conspiracy theory’ has, perhaps understandably, attracted quite a bit of negative commentary from within the Resistance. His position is interesting, complex and nuanced. He does not rule out the existence of supreme machinators, but is at pains to show that this is not necessary for a mass formation to work. He warns against simplistic theories being used to explain complex social processes. In the crowd, he writes, again citing Gustave Le Bon, ‘the individual soul is replaced by a common group soul’:
The crowd acts in a coordinated way and repeats the same slogans. It engages thoughts and expressions that spread through its ranks at lightning speed (Le Bon described the ‘contagiousness’ of thoughts in a crowd). Every segment of society participates in that pensée unique — politicians, academics, the press, experts of all kinds, judges, and police officers. In this way, the masses give the impression of a highly organized phenomenon. Those who, for one reason or another, are not sensitive to the mass formation and who observe this social phenomenon ‘from the outside’ tend to think this must be the result of a large-scale, conscious, and planned coordination.
Desmet does not disparage those who seek to hold powerful actors or interest groups accountable for the deaths, destruction, and tyranny of Covid-19. He does not call them ‘conspiracy theorists’. He simply explores the concept known as ‘conspiracy theory’ in the context of its possible role in mass formation, dividing it into differing categories. He cites Hannah Arendt saying that intuition of conspiracy is a function of most social upheavels, but generally overestimates the issue. Desmet does not brand the views of ‘conspiracy theorists’ about the Covid tyranny as ‘simplistic and caricatural’; he says that the tendency to hypothesis about ‘conspiracies’ ‘shows a tendency to drift off course into theories that are unceasingly distant from a nuanced view of reality and, on a psychological level, often lead to simplistic and caricatural views’. The troika lacerates Desmet for admitting to avoiding ‘conspiracy’ theorising on the grounds that it might cause him to be cancelled, interpreting this as a refusal to speak truth to power. Actually, it is a realistic awareness of the prevailing climate of censorship, which requires prudent tailoring of arguments by those hoping to stay in the game.
The truth here is crisply conveyed by a couple of citations from Desmet’s book:
‘Is there not any steering and manipulation at all then? The answer is a resounding yes, there most certainly is all kinds of manipulation. And with the means available to today's mass media, the possibilities are simply phenomenal. Such steering, however, is primarily not a steering by individuals; the most fundamental steering is impersonal in nature. The steering is first and foremost driven by an ideology — a way of thinking. Ideologies organize and structure society progressively and organically.’ (Page 131)
‘At certain points, however, the aforementioned practices may turn into something that does have the structure of a conspiracy. Large institutions do use all kinds of questionable strategies to impose their ideals on society, and the means to do so have increased spectacularly in recent centuries. The whole mechanization, industrialization, “technologization,” and “media-tization’ of the world has indeed led to the centralization of power, and no sane person can deny that this power is pursued in a relentless way, with a radical lack of ethical and moral awareness.’ (Page 135)
The troika get to these points somewhat later, in another rather muddled paragraph that extends credit for Desmet’s clarification of the point, then promptly withdraws it:
Desmet concedes that ‘there most certainly is all kinds of manipulation’ in today’s world, exacerbated by the ‘’phenomenal’’ power of the media, yet this is ‘primarily not a steering by individuals; the most fundamental steering is impersonal in nature . . . driven by an ideology — a way of thinking’ (p. 131). And again: ‘The ultimate master is the ideology, not the elite’ (p. 134). Thus, no one is to blame. There are no hidden agendas or class forces, no bad actors pulling the strings from off stage.
To say that something (an impersonal force) is ‘the ultimate master’ is not the same as saying that ‘no one is to blame’ or that ‘the elite is in no way to blame.’ Elites manipulate ideology, a fact that Desmet makes repeatedly clear.
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was a creation of the CIA, its purpose being to close off certain areas of reflection or discussion. The term, deftly and cunningly, flips the sinister elements of the word ‘conspiracy’ on to the word ‘theory’, declaring conspirators ipso facto innocent and theorists guilty of paranoid delusion. Being aware of the term’s weaponisation, I would have advised Desmet to avoid using it in the unembellished form he does, but this does not justify alleging — as have several of his critics — that his attempts to parse the process assists governing institutions seeking to gag dissent.
But the troika refuses to let go of its ludicrous thesis, turning again to page 134 of Desmet’s book to allege:
Those caught in the grip of Mass Formation, Desmet argues, ‘still have the ability to make ethical choices’ and so should not be ‘forgiven just like that’ for the crimes they commit (p. 108). In contrast, ‘those who guide the masses’ are so innocent that they are ‘like a child sitting on the bow of a ship and turning a toy steering wheel every time the tanker changes direction.’ (p. 134).
Oh boy! Typically, the two quotations are unrelated and refer to quite different arguments. The point adverted to on Page 108 of Desmet’s book relates to the fact that, even under hypnosis, the individual normally retains his ethical sense, whereas, when caught up in what Gustave Le Bon called a ‘mass psychology’, an individual may let go of such restraint under presumed cover of anonymity. The point of the image of the boy turning the toy steering wheel relates to the fundamental circumstances in which the mass formation is embedded: The conditions of the mechanistic society — in which the human element has become debased by the various characteristics of free-floating anxiety, aggression, monotonous work, et cetera — creating a situation of which an opportunistic elite may take advantage so as to steer the mass without much or any effort — hence the metaphor of the toy steering wheel. It is in no way intended to compare the orchestrators to a child, as implied here; nor is it intended to impute to them ‘innocence’ (the troika’s concept, not Desmet’s) of anything. Desmet’s overriding point is that the mechanics of the totalitarian apparatus need be understood in terms of mass psychology rather than malicious, intentional deception, though none of this serves to mitigate the effects of mass formation or questions of responsibility or blame. In a crowd of individuals forming a mass, he observed, there seems to occur ‘a physical resonance’ that cannot be explained solely on the basis of sharing the same narrative. The phenomenon has direct similarities with the way complex, dynamic systems organise themselves in nature, he says, like the way starlings arrive from all directions to a common point at dusk, and begin to move together in a harmonic pattern:
[T]he lack of critical refection, the irrational allocation of empathy, and the willingness among part of the population to accept great personal loss are an extremely dangerous cocktail. The way in which unvaccinated people are denied access to parts of public spaces, which now even 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.
This is precisely the kind of judgement — commonplace in Desmet’s work — that the troika accuse him of failing to make. The idea of a massive orchestration of events, he says, fills much the same functions as mass formation. Evil orchestrations do occur, and therefore the notion of what he describes as ‘secret, intentional, planned, and malicious’ projects cannot be ruled out, but this can turn into something far bigger than its individual elements might predict. In the Nazi era, he says, the Holocaust came about ‘through a mind-boggling process of mass formation that blinded both the perpetrators and the victims and drew them into an infernal dynamic.’
However, at a certain level, there was also an intentional plan, which systematically aimed to optimize racial purity through sterilization and elimination of all impure elements. There were approximately five people who neatly and systematically prepared the entire Holocaust destruction apparatus, and they managed to make all the rest of the system cooperate with it in total blindness for a long time. Is there not any steering and manipulation at all then? The answer is a resounding yes, there most certainly is all kinds of manipulation. And with the means available to today's mass media, the possibilities are simply phenomenal. Such steering, however, is primarily not a steering by individuals; the most fundamental steering is impersonal in nature [and is] first and foremost driven by an ideology, a way of thinking. Ideologies organize and structure society progressively and organically. As we have described in detail in the previous chapters, the dominant ideology is mechanistic in nature. This ideology typically derives its appeal from the utopian vision of an artificial paradise.
We deal, then, with something like an auto-generating machanism, rather than a conscious contrivance of individual human actors.
The authors disagree with Desmet’s thesis that psychopathy and sociopathy are not (necessarily) issues that relate centrally to the questions of mass formation and totalitarianism, preferring the Andrew M. Lobaczewski style of analysis, which they condense as follows: ‘. . . totalitarian societies, run by psychopaths, criminals, and mass murderers, with the passive acquiescence of the indoctrinated masses, [may be] inherently pathological. Finding a cure for that pathology should be the primary aim of any book about the psychology of totalitarianism, yet in Desmet’s book such problems simply do not arise.’
But Desmet’s point is not that psychopathy never arises: It is that it is not necessary for a mass formation to occur. He is dealing with the conditions which may cause such a phenomenon to erupt in an otherwise ‘normal’ society — societies like those in Europe and America — Belgium, for example, his own country, or Ireland, mine — upon which these conditions descended in the Spring of 2020. It is possible, of course, to look at these phenomena and decide that the perpetrators of wrongdoing are, ipso facto, ‘psychopaths’, but this would amount to a tautologous ‘deduction’, a diagnosis made in advance and then matched to circumstantial evidence, an approach that would shed very little light on the manner in which apparently free and open societies can descend overnight into totalitarian dictatorships.
As it happens, I had previously asked Mattias Desmet this precise question about the role of psychopathy in these contexts, and he answered as follows:
‘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. 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.’
[This is part of an as yet unpublished interview I conducted with Mattias Desmet at the Button Factory in Dublin, in September last. Though unsuitable for broadcast for reasons of sound quality, I plan to publish the full text here in the coming weeks.]
Very often, reading this ‘review’, one gets the impression that it is a prospectus of books that Desmet might have written but did not. The troika appears to demand that Desmet deal with every aspect of the Covid episode, seemingly oblivious that, for the past three years, he has been part of a wide-ranging resistance in which many participants played particular roles and covered off separate areas and disciplines. Desmet’s focus has been on the theme of mass formation and its role in the evolution of the tyranny that continues to envelope us, despite the ostensible signs of relaxation. To suggest that there has been no collaboration or collusion in Covid enforcement by members of the general population would be to deny the experience of virtually everyone who has in any way sought to resist or refuse these impositions over the past three years. Desmet;’s thesis is that, without this cooperation, the tyranny would never have got off the runway. In not a single one of the uses of Desmet’s text in the troika’s review do the reviewers’ frequently noxious imputations survive a closer examination of what he actually wrote. Their assertions are almost invariably fatuous, ignorantly or calculatedly misunderstanding Desmet’s depiction of a symbiotic interaction between leaders and led that provides the totalitarian tyranny a longevity that would be unavailable to mere authoritarianism.
In its final sally, the troika reveals its hand: Its members are Marxist revolutionaries all — (in part, at least) peeved that Desmet has written a book that fails to make their argument for them. And, of course it is rather obvious why Marxists might want to demolish a thesis in which ideology rather than personality is identified as the root cause of tyranny. They accuse him of declining to advocate ‘a worldwide revolution in which 90 percent of the human race asserts its claim to a just world against the other 10 percent.’ They disparagingly cite his rejection of the idea that a violent revolution against an ‘evil elite’ offers the sole answer to the present situation of the world, and his clear assertion in this regard:
Such a revolution . . . would most probably lead to the radical destruction of the ‘freedom movement’ itself. It would, indeed, rather be a Godsent gift for the elite, as it justifies destruction of the opposition through harsh repression.
He offers his own proposal for defeating totalitarian assault: truth-telling, courage and ethical behaviour, even in the face of great injustice. He cites Hannah Arendt's thesis that ultimately totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. Therefore, he writes, ‘the antidote to totalitarianism lies in an attitude to life that is not blinded by a rational understanding of superficial manifestations of life and that seeks to be connected with the principles and figures that are hidden beneath those manifestations.’
The reviewers dispute what they deem to be his conclusion that violence is inevitable in circumstances where the oppressed majority rises up against the elite, pointing out that ‘numerical odds are overwhelmingly in favor of humanity’. They appear not to have noticed that political leaders, right across the West, have for the past two years been demonising as ‘far right’ extremists and ‘domestic terrorists’ those who dare to question what was happening, with a view to turning the generality of their fellow citizens against them — and with manifest success.
The troika continues:
Violence is not a prerequisite for emancipation: it simply takes a critical mass to see what is happening and to refuse to comply with its own enslavement.
But there is a world of distance between violence and refusal, and this latter approach — couched rather differently — has been Desmet’s prescription from the beginning. He has told us that we must, above all, continue to withhold cooperation and speak out, so as to reduce the risk of atrocities and wear down the mass formation.
But the troika does not stop at disingenuous distortion. ‘Note,’ it instucts, ‘Desmet’s claim that “harsh repression” and “destruction of the opposition” by the “elite” is “justifie[d]” in case of insurrection. This sounds fascistic on its face.‘
A reference to the quotation from Desmet’s book cited just above (‘Such a revolution . . . ‘), this is such an utterly underhanded mangling of his words as to make obvious that the true objective of the troika is character assassination. Look again: His use of the word ‘justifies’ is clearly intended to refer to the likely appropriation by a regime of the pretext of violence to ‘justify’ a clampdown on opposition — ‘a Godsent gift for the elite.’ This, indeed, is an issue those who have been resisting the tyranny of the past three years must continually bear in mind: that, if the genie of violence is liberated by our side, the state will use its superior powers of legitimised force to retaliate with extreme prejudice — and, yes, ‘justify’ this on the grounds of the ‘rule of law’. And no — it is not an adequate response to say that such a response by the state would be morally derelict; the point is that it would in most instances be effective and beyond practical challenge or reversal.
In the final three paragraphs, the authors finally get to Mattias Desmet’s actual thesis — the illusory and dangerous nature of the scientistic worldview — dismissing his arguments under this heading as ‘quasi-mystical’ and detached ‘from actually existing . . . socio-political realities.’ . . . Finally, quoting Karl Marx, they put on display the tails of their red shirts: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ — the solutions to totalitarianism do not lie in the philosophy of science, but in ‘the outcome of class conflict’. Then, bizarrely, they acknowledge that Desmet himself has allowed for the possibility that, in the end, the masses may eventually rise up against their oppressors, citing him again, but also asserting that the following quotation from his book amounts to a ‘defense of the system’:
The problem cannot be solved by the violent elimination of an evil elite. The essence of the problem of totalitarianism lies in enormous mass dynamics. This means the elimination of totalitarian leaders will be to no avail; they are utterly replaceable (p. 139).
I would have thought that this quotation amounts to a succinct summary of the seven-decade reign of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union, in which a succession of putsches and purges resulted in an escalatory worsening of the tyranny — each ‘revolution’ proving more counter-productive than the last. Interestingly. the troika declines to continue the quotation, which comprises another direct citation by Desmet from Hannah Arendt:
‘In substance, the totalitarian leader is nothing less than the functionary of the masses he leads; he is not a power-hungry individual imposing a tyrannical and arbitrary will upon his subjects. Being a mere functionary, he can be replaced at any time, and he depends just as much on the masses he embodies as the masses depend upon him.'
Reviewers are entitled to take a view of Mattias Desmet’s book; the question is why so many reviews have been so dishonest, malicious and unfair, why these particular reviewers chose to exercise their academic muscles in constructing a hit-piece rather than a reasoned critique. The troika has penned an appalling review, not so much in that it depicts Desmet’s book in a bad light (the ‘bad light’ is transparent!) but that its ‘badness’, by which I mean its ill-intent and malice, is visible in virtually every sentence in which Desmet or his book is mentioned.
Why put such effort and time into such an attack on someone whose work is essentially on the same side of the argument as their own, and who manifestly arrived on the playing field a considerable time before any of them? (All three of the authors have published critical papers on Covid, but — as far as I can tell — only in the past year or so.) One possible explanation is that Marxists, who were largely invisible in the early stages of the Covid episode (other than, in some instances, supporting the tyrannical regimes) are now beginning to realise that they missed a trick. But might they not more usefully have used the time expended on this ‘review’ in concocting an onslaught on Bill Gates or Anthony Fauci or Justin Trudeau, or any one of the hundreds of malign actors whose actions they — without naming names, and in a review of a book by a named author — implicitly excoriate? A hatchet-job like this makes no sense other than as an attempt to assassinate the reputation of someone they regard as a rival — or perhaps an ideological opponent in a broader context — who has achieved a success in captivating public attention that has thus far eluded them.
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