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Tyranny by Numbers
Book review: ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’ — By Mattias Desmet; Translated into English by Els Vanbrabant; (Chelsea Green Publishing).
An abridged version of this article has been published by First Things magazine here:
In 2018, two years before the world as we knew it came to an end, a Polish academic study, Totalitarianism in the Postmodern Age, led by Catholic priest and scientist Piotr Mazurkiewicz, of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, anticipated the beginnings of a shift in the attitudes towards freedom among European young people.
The focus was on ‘postmodern’ totalitarianism — a ‘progression’ from the 20th century kind — what Pope John Paul II had described as an ‘open’ and ‘thinly disguised’ totalitarianism, a kind built, as Hannah Arendt had predicted, in cooperation with ‘the masses’.
The researchers were looking for signs of belief in the capacity of politics to deliver an ideal world: faith in radical human progress; the unfettered transformation of social values; antipathy towards the ‘old order’ and its guardians; signs of ‘anthropological palingenisis’ — ‘the will to radically change the real, existing man into a ‘new’ man, born out of the desire ‘that man himself should be able to create anything which is important to him, and above all — himself.’ The research canvassed young people from seven EU countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. The survey was conducted in two stages — a series of focus groups in early 2016, and a quantitative analysis carried out in October 2017.
Almost half of those surveyed did not preclude the right of governments to suspend key democratic political freedoms, while one-third were sanguine about governments engaging in political manipulation, or even lying, regarding these as necessary instruments of social control. A similar proportion could identify values for which they would readily forego both freedom and democracy. Slightly more than half indicated their support for democracy, while one-third said they had no clearly formulated views. Young people from the ‘old’ EU — roughly two-thirds — indicated higher degrees of support for democracy. Approval of palingenetic practices — the ‘improvement’ of the human biological structure — was consistently above 50 percent, and in the eastern cohort reached levels of 80 percent, halting only before human-animal hybrids. Just half of those surveyed indicated that they might resist incursions upon their freedom, while one in five appeared to regard freedom as inessential.
Two years later, Mattias Desmet, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, observing the Covid lockdowns rolling out all across the world, began to ponder developments in a similar light. His reading of the writings of Gustave Le Bon on the psychology of crowds, and those of Hannah Arendt on twentieth century totalitarianism, as well as his expertise in statistics, led him to take a deeper interest in what was emerging, and rapidly he came to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has fallen under a kind of spell. In late 2019, visited by some premonition of impending menace, he went to his bank and paid back his mortgage — because he felt that ‘society was moving towards a tipping point.’
In his new book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, he elaborates on these instincts in light of many aspects of what we have been witnessing and experiencing during the Covid episode, including the strange phenomenon of people’s apparent indifference to their own deprivations, hurts and incurred damage arising from the lockdowns: loss of freedoms, work, income, education, human contact, leisure, et cetera.
‘The discourse surrounding the coronavirus crisis shows characteristics that are typical of the type of discourse that led to the emergence of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century:’ he writes, ‘the excessive use of numbers and statistics that show a radical contempt for the facts, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, and a fanatical ideological belief that justifies deception and manipulation and ultimately transgresses all ethical boundaries.’
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 — a world, as Osip Mandelstam once observed, rendered ‘from man, not for.’
‘This epistemological point of departure,’ Desmet writes, ‘has bearing on the ideology's conception of the ideal society. Ideally, society is led by expert technocrats who make decisions based on objective, numerical data. With the coronavirus crisis, this utopian goal seemed very close at hand. For this reason, the coronavirus crisis is a case study par excellence in subjecting the trust in measurements and numbers to critical analysis.’ Before, societies were governed on the basis of stories; now we have tyranny by numbers.
A great deal of the book is therefore concerned with definitions and philosophies of science. What is science? How — if so — is it being misused? He cites Hannah Arendt’s assertion that totalitarianism is ultimately the belief in an artificially created paradise: ‘Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.’
The destination-point of this process is transhumanist man — the merging of the human being with the machine, and the supplanting of the human soul with micro-chips in which all communication will be positivistically constructed.
The key instrument in the creation of a totalitarian state is the application of mass formation, in effect mass hypnosis, imposed by propaganda and intimidation. On the one hand, the population is systematically exposed to the relentless voice of the totalitarian leaders; on the other, every alternative voice is systematically eliminated. Fear is the grease of this process.
‘When fearful, the population wants a more controlled society: the lockdowns were, for many, a liberation from the unbearable and meaningless routine of working life, fragmented society was in need of a common enemy . . .’
The essence of mass formation amounts to the insinuation of a tangible basis for otherwise unexplainable — ’free-floating’ — anxieties, frustrations and aggression. The appropriate conditions, he says, existed in Western societies long before the Covid crisis. There was ‘an epidemic of burnout’ — something between 40 and 70 per cent of people in modern societies experience their jobs as senseless. He points also to the escalating use of psycho-pharmaceutical medicines to treat anxiety and depression. By offering a strategy to deal with the specific anxieties imposed by the ‘crisis’, the would-be controllers were able to create a bogus solidarity in a society that has destroyed true solidarity. Under these conditions ‘A society saturated with individualism and rationalism suddenly tilts towards the radically opposite condition, towards radically irrational collectivism.’
When, writes Desmet, ‘a suggestive story is spread through the mass media that indicates an object of anxiety — for example, the aristocracy under Stalinism, the Jews under Nazism, the virus, and, later the anti-vaxxers, during the coronavirus crisis — and at the same time offers a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety, there is a real chance that all the free-flowing anxiety will attach itself to that object and there will be broad social support for the implementation of the strategy to control that object of anxiety.’
The hypnotised members of a mass formation are enabled to close out everything but that which the hypnotist tells them is important. They become not just indifferent to the losses of others, but insensitive to losses of their own — willing, in fact, to sacrifice everything under the attrition of the collective imperatives.
‘This process yields a psychological gain. Firstly, the anxiety that previously roamed through society as a tenebrous fog is now linked to a specific cause and can be mentally controlled via the strategy put forward in the story.
‘Secondly, through a common struggle with ‘the enemy’, the disintegrating society regains its coherence, energy, and rudimentary meaning. For this reason, the fight against the object of anxiety then becomes a mission, laden with pathos and group heroism.
‘Thirdly, in this fight all latent brewing frustration and aggression is taken out, especially on the group that refuses to go along with the story and the mass formation. This brings an enormous release and satisfaction to the masses . . .’
He is at pains to underline that, in a mass formation, the leaders and the led operate in symbiotic manner: the process is as much a pandering to the mob as a manipulation of it, and the hypnotist/leader can himself fall under the spell of his own trance. Those who guide the masses are not ‘leaders’ in the sense of determining where the masses go. Instead they sense what people crave and adjust their plans opportunistically in that direction. He warns against deploying simplistic theories to explain complex social processes. 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.
In the crowd, he writes, 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 . . . . 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.
‘The phenomenon has direct similarities with the way complex, dynamic systems organize themselves in nature, like the way starlings arrive from all directions to a common point at dusk, and begin to move together in a harmonic pattern.’ This does not mean that there is no one steering the process; there is, but on the basis of a common set of convictions: ‘The steering is first and foremost driven by an ideology, a way of thinking.’
In situations of mass formation, says Desmet, three distinct groups manifest themselves. Only 30 per cent, he says, are hypnotised beyond reach. Another 40 per cent will from the outset go along with that 30 per cent of total believers. Another cohort of about 30 per cent, who are not hypnotised, will try to speak out and resist. This group, he says, is extremely heterogeneous and disunited. If they could unite, he says, they could bring the whole thing quickly to an end, but this seldom proves possible.
The slightly better news is that mass formation totalitarianism inevitably self-destructs in time, though by then the cost may be enormous. This is because the leaders need continuously to invent new sources of anxiety and introduce new measures to attack these. At the moment of total control, the leader’s mania enters its most fanatical stage, pursuing enemies perceived and imagined — as with Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. This can only lead to absolute destruction, and yet in the short run is essential to the maintenance of the fear that sustains the mass formation.
Professor Desmet says that a mass formation can only be combatted by an insistence on the part of those who are immune to it on telling the truth at all costs. The continued presence of alternative voices serves to curb the viciousness of the rulers and constrains the mob in its excesses. In spite of the growing menace of the times, we have to continue to share rational counter-arguments, in the hope of breaking the link between the inculcated narrative and the pre-existing free-floating anxiety. He stresses also the importance of the maintenance of ethical principles as an antidote to totalitarianism.
The Psychology of Totalitarianism pulls together understandings from a multiplicity of surprising bedfellow disciplines, shifting from psychology via quantum physics to philosophy and back again. The book’s proffered ‘solution’ — preventative as opposed to curative — might be placed somewhere between the poetic viewfinder and the religious impulse in man.
First, humanity needs to move beyond its positivistic obsessions. Quantum theory, Desmet asserts, has changed everything. Science is no longer what it once seemed, and yet our cultures, for all their supercilious assertions of scientistic superiority, are way behind the vanguard. Quantum mechanics, as a science of elementary material particles, he says, ‘showed that it makes no sense to try to fully explain the domain of consciousness at the level of material knowledge. To a certain extent, elementary particles themselves are determined by the domain of consciousness — for example, by the mental act of perception during experiments. As inconceivable as this may seem, it is a fact that, if a particle is observed by two people at the same time, this same particle can be in two places at the same time.’
The journey of science does not end in superior knowledge, he says, ‘but in a kind of Socratic modesty. ‘
His book contains a fascinating refection on Lorenz's chaotic waterwheel — a mechanical device that makes movements that show direct similarities with the dynamics of convection patterns in liquid and gas. The waterwheel was designed by MIT professor Willem Malkus in 1972 to illustrate the work of Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist and one of the founders of chaos theory.
The device consists of a rotating wheel to which small buckets, each containing a hole in its bottom, are attached. At the top, there is a tap providing water flow into the top bucket. At a very low influx, the wheel does not move, because the water flows out of the hole in the bottom of the bucket faster than it flows in. At a slightly higher influx, the bucket fills up and the wheel starts to move, sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other. Once the wheel has ‘chosen’ a certain direction, its behavior becomes regular and predictable, and directly correlated with the influx of water: The greater the influx, the faster it turns.
‘We cannot predict the specific behaviors of the waterwheel (at least not in its chaotic phase),’ Desmet outlines, ‘but we can learn the principles by which it behaves and learn to sense the sublime aesthetic figures hidden beneath the chaotic surface of those behaviours. Hence, there is no rational predictability, but there is a certain degree of intuitive predictability.’
He cites Hannah Arendt's thesis that ultimately totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. Therefore, Desmet 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.’
‘In this respect, the wheel teaches us something that applies to a far broader extent to the human being, society, life, and nature. Just like the wheel, most phenomena in nature are complex and dynamic and, in their complexity, are rather unpredictable. But like the wheel, life follows certain principles and sublime phenomena are hidden beneath its seemingly chaotic surface. And this is perhaps a person's task: to discover the timeless principles of life, in and through all the complexity of existence. The better we can sense those principles, the more we feel that we start to understand some of the essence of life and that we are connected with the majestic, ordering principle that speaks to us from across the universe.’
We live in a world that is not so much beyond our comprehension but that it all the while speaks to us about how our comprehension is not what we imagine — that is, it may be capable of far greater stretches than the forbidding logic of a spurious rationalism allows.
He cites Max Planck: ‘Both religion and science require a belief in God,’ and adds: ‘Most are of the opinion that science consists of making dry, logical connections between “objectively” observable facts. However, science is, in fact, characterised by empathy, a resonant affinity between the observer and the phenomenon under investigation. As such, science stumbles upon an unknowable and mysterious essence that escapes logical explanation and which can be described only in the language of poetry and metaphor. Encounters with that essence often result in what we might describe as the seminal religious experience, a religious experience that precedes and is untainted by religious institutions or dogma. Max Planck testified to that experience, in perhaps the most direct and vulnerable way: Science eventually arrives where religion once started, in a personal contact with the Unnameable.’
‘The ultimate knowledge lies outside of man. It vibrates in all things. And man is able to receive it, by tuning his vibrations, like a string, to the frequency of things. And the more man is able to set aside prejudices and beliefs, the more purely he will vibrate with the things around him and receive new knowledge.’
‘The same applies at the societal level: A society primarily has to stay connected with a number of principles and fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, the right to self-determination, and the right to freedom of religion or belief. If a society fails to respect these fundamental rights of the individual, if it allows fear to escalate to such an extent that every form of individuality, intimacy, privacy, and personal initiative is regarded as an intolerable threat to “the collective well-being,” it will decay into chaos and absurdity.’
At the core of all this flirting with catastrophe is a misunderstanding of the ‘common good’, which is increasingly seen as some kind of aggregate of the collective, with only interests so defined being regarded as vital. In this schema, individual rights dissolve in a mess of mass demands, delusions and diktats, leading to a dabbling in forces that by definition threaten to return us to Belsen and Baikal-Amur — forms of collectivised understanding that elevate some twisted notion of the security of the group far above the liberty of the individual — the historically lethal notion of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’.
Perhaps we need to resume seeing the ‘common good’ for what it truly is: a mutually-held interest in the protection of the rights and freedoms of each one and everyone. In the Preamble of our Irish Constitution, the aim of promoting the ‘common good’ is not defined as any kind of collectivist project, but the guaranteeing of 'the dignity and freedom of the individual’ so that ‘true social order’ may be achieved. In this, the classical liberal, common-law model, the purpose of the political community — the polis, in Grecian terms — is not collectivisation, but social cooperation under headings like ‘the material’, ‘the cultural’ and ‘the moral’ — always in the interests of the maximised development of each individual human person as social being. In this model, no collective entity is deemed deserving of legal protection, and this for the very good reason that such a dispensation invariably promises a fast train to tragedy beyond imagination.
As Professor Desmet attests, the long-cherished quantities associated with individual freedoms are not expendable adornments, nor cosseting luxuries, nor optional extras. If it loses its intuition of the absolute necessity for these ‘principled fundamentals’, a society will lose the sense and memory of how its own equilibrium has been arrived at, and thereafter descend into a collectivised chaos.
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