Book Review: The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Part 2

Read Time:20 Minutes

Phil Shannon continues his review of Mattias Desmet’s ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’ available to buy here and discusses the Covid ‘state of emergency’ parallels to historic totalitarian regimes, the confluence of optimal conditions responsible for outbreak of Covid related mass formation psychosis and why Desmet may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater in assigning a measure of relevant guilt to the Enlightenment values of rationalism and reason.

You can read Part 1 here.


Covid: A kinder, gentler dictatorship?

Thus did our new, thoroughly modern, public health tyranny tiptoe in on the soft shoes of the caring and healing professions, sweeping all of us up in its torrent of damaging consequences.  The Covid response has affected everybody on the planet (other than the Swedes, who nevertheless still had ‘modest’ restrictions, and the Floridians although even they, too, had a, mercifully brief, early-stage lockdown) in the most intimate ways – shuttered businesses and closed schools, compulsory face-masks and shouty signage, injectable invasions of bodily autonomy and entry bans to ‘vaccinated-only’ premises, health screenings fatally deferred and loved ones left lonely in nursing home and hospital bed.

The Covid tyranny stopped short of the behaviour of its more disreputable uncles – the cattle-trucks to the camps full of the unvaxxed, the midnight police knocks at the doors of the ‘vaccine’ dissidents – but the bug-eyed rants of some ‘democratic’ political leaders (Australia had a disproportionate number of these, as did Canada and Germany), militarised police going postal (Australia, again, lead the way but many others joined in), mass job sackings for the ‘vaccine hesitant’ (almost universal) and dark premonitions of mandatory jabbing (Austria, Greece – since withdrawn) betrayed a genetic tyranny link with its antecedent models.  The templates for population control showed a striking similarity, says Desmet, including mass propaganda, the orchestrated promotion of terror, censorship, the suppression of debate, the vilification of dissent, the use of force to prevent protest, the marginalisation and scapegoating of opponents, and the manipulation of science.

Despite the differences in the bodywork, upholstery and trim between the classic tyrannies of old and the ‘public health’ model, it was the same essential motor under the hood – what Desmet terms an “irrational collectivism” – that was driving the Covid jalopy as much as its historical predecessors.  ‘Must Terminate Covid’ became a mass, frenzied endeavour, not only through insane levels of fear but because it provided the psychologically-satisfying group cohesion so lacking in contemporary society by putting the ‘unity’ back in ‘community’ .  Covid’s new-model collectivism had its own symbolic flags, bunting, uniforms and ceremonies which made it highly visible and which continually reinforced the new ‘collectivism’ through ostentatious rituals (sanitiser stations, QR code sign-in, directional arrows, byzantine mask rules, the sinister clapping rituals sanctifying ‘our health heroes’, and signs, signs, everywhere signs) which were zealously followed by the faithful because the measures had been designed by ‘experts’ so surely they must be based on science and would save us from certain death.

Every bit of the communitarian show was hygiene theatre, a ‘social distancing’ comic opera, of course, but all the world did indeed become a stage and all the men and women got a role as (masked) spear-carrier engaged in what Desmet calls “ritualistic submission to the collective” as a demonstration of their adherence to the Covid ideology.

All of the histrionics and dramaturgy of the new Covid street theatre papered over the substantive economic, social, educational, ethical, political and health damage being done by lockdowns and mandates.  People were too terrified of Covid to care, however.  Even at great personal cost, the Covid-obsessed “accepted with remarkable ease measures that destroyed their enjoyment of life, their freedoms, their prosperity”.  What has, indeed, been a real eye-opener for many of us outside the Covid cult is just how fragile our so-called liberal democracies (or what Lenin more accurately termed ‘bourgeois democracies’) proved to be when people’s freedoms and rights evaporated faster than you can say ‘novel coronavirus’ – and all of it without a goose-stepping jackboot in sight.

The radical transformation of normal life that happened seemingly overnight shows just how thin was our presumed attachment to a liberty which was the hard-won fruit of centuries of class struggle and popular political campaigning but which now appear to have been so taken for granted that they were simply surrendered to those whom we wouldn’t normally trust as far as we could throw them.  Of remarkable note was how the lying, conservative politicians who were the target of contemporary leftists’ ire only yesterday were transformed in an instant into truth-telling protectors who merely had to ask us to hand over our freedoms for just a couple of weeks (to ‘flatten the curve!’, to ‘stop the hospitals being overrun!’) but who have taken two years to begrudgingly start returning them but with the precedent now set that we have no absolute right to our rights in this political New Normal of which zombie pandemic policies such as vestigial mask mandates (on public transport, and in health and aged care, and with mooted winter season reruns more broadly) remind us of constantly.

Covid – the breakthrough totalitarian infection

So, why was it that SARS-CoV-2 proved to be the catalyst for a viral-based Mass Formation Psychosis when previous viruses had not pulled the trigger on damaging lockdown and draconian, useless restrictions?  It was not for want of trying by public health fanatics that earlier viruses failed their audition for medical totalitarianism.

As the invaluable Jeffrey Tucker at the (free-market, conservative but Covid-sane) Brownstone Institute has reminded us of the pre-Covid viral alarms, public health zealots had hatched extreme, but still-born, responses similar to those that were to take off so spectacularly with Covid.  The original SARS in 2003, for example, roused them up but the virus failed to tip the scales of WHO’s then-sensible definition of a pandemic (which had to include a large number of deaths) so they had to bide their time until the next candidate virus which duly arrived in 2005 with the Avian flu.

Although this virus still failed to clear the WHO’s definitional bar, the George W. Bush administration in the US proved receptive to plans for a Covid–type policy response, for war-planning on the viral front to mimic Bush’s diabolical Iraq War and its promise of “shock and awe” and “full-spectrum dominance” on the battlefield.  Lockdown and ‘social distancing’ were the public health equivalents of this military vision and they would deliver a hard and fast strike on an exotic pathogen just as the bombs and missiles would take out Saddam Hussein’s exotically evil Arabs.  The odious Anthony Fauci (dubbed “America’s Doctor!” by his media acolytes) was, naturally, involved with his doomsday prediction that the virus would have a 50% mortality rate.

Thus was born a liberty-suppressing plan against the domestic American population, one which contained all the “stay-at-home orders, the school and business closures, the attempt to suppress a virus by force, the travel restrictions – every bit of it was mapped out by 2006”.  Emergency wartime-level powers would be used by the White House in a giant experiment to change the human-viral map just as they had been used to change the Middle East geo-political map in that disastrously wrong-headed millenarian crusade.  The feverishly-modelled Bird Flu Holocaust, however, did not eventuate and the shiny new public health weapons could not be deployed because the virus never successfully jumped from birds to humans.

Similarly, the 2009 Swine Flu panic excited the pandemicists but the politicians remained unmoved because the timing was inconvenient due to a bit of a Global Financial Crisis, which had put up an ‘occupied’ sign in the world’s fiscal cubicles as Treasuries the world over were busy flooding their economies with ‘stimulus’ spending with nothing left over for a virus.  In the US, the old Bush-sponsored lockdown plan remained dormant, still.

With Covid, on the other hand, governments’ favourite method of addressing any problem – throwing buckets of money at it – was available and, politically spooked by the mad professors of epidemiological modelling, the fiscal firehoses could be turned on full to fund the enormous costs of lockdowns.  To precisely zero practical effect, of course – other than fertilising the ground for serious inflation – but it all looked suitably dramatic and politically useful at the time.

SARS-CoV-2 also had the great good fortune to come newly-armed with a revolutionary new PCR test that had spared the previous viruses from statistical hyper-inflation but which could now make a pandemic mountain out of an asymptomatic molehill.

What SARS-CoV-2 also had going for it was its arrival on top of a suite of liberal hyper-panics about Brexit, Trump, all manner of woke obsessions and climate change.  On the latter, for example, half to three quarters of young people aged 14-25 are psychologically wracked by the issue which, with no easy global solutions in sight to a real global problem, creates chronic frustration in a demographic that should normally be in the forefront of political resistance rather than conformism.  These other panics have all stoked a popular desire for ‘responsible’ governments to solve the problems by curbing individual freedoms, civil liberties, free speech and CO2-related economic activity – a “mania for regulation and government control”, says, Desmet, came to be in the ascendant.  ‘Safety First’, whether from the evils of populism or ‘on-line harm’ or, now, disease, has become the order of the day.

Thus did the Mass Formation Psychosis of Covid roar into life, taking on an elemental, unstoppable life of its own, divorced from viral reality and marked by an “absolute loss of rational thinking and ability for critical reflection”.  Emotion ruled reason, and ethical norms were parked for the duration.  Dissenters and rebels were targeted with extreme hostility, including by the intelligentsia, the self-promoting liberal, tolerant intelligentsia whose new favoured status as virus seers and oracles bestowed popularity and power on them beyond their deepest desires.  This influential elite was now part of the Covid crowd – and thus a huge part of the problem.

This number includes quite a few icons of the Covid-deranged left.  Noam Chomsky, for example, now calls the medical tyrannies of the West (which are also engaged in an hysterical, Russophobic NATO offensive against Moscow) “free democratic societies” because it is apparently the new “responsibility of intellectuals” (a term he once used mockingly to describe the “herd of independent minds” in the capitalist West) to now virtuously align with, and provide cover for, the Covid-oppressive, and war-mongering, capitalist state.  Chomsky, the earlier anti-state anarchist could have written a very cutting ‘letter to his future self’ about the reactionary transformation of radical intellectuals when they let fear get the better of them.

The crowd in history (and in Covid)

Desmet’s book draws on earlier socio-political theories of crowd psychology, in particular the work of the late-19th/early-20th century French polymath, Gustave Le Bon.  Le Bon’s insights into the dynamics of the crowd, with its militant fervour, irrational beliefs and aggressive behaviour against outsiders, resonates with the psychological dimension of the mass formation of the Covid crowd and its latent totalitarianism.

Desmet, like Le Bon, however, is averse to crowds in general for being the easily-excitable prey of demagogues and for providing the ‘popular’ consent to elite tyranny.  Le Bon did not at all like the French Revolution, for example, or the Paris Commune (which he experienced first-hand) whilst Desmet’s dislikes also include the French Revolution (the tyrant Robespierre!, the sinister ‘Committee of Public Safety!’) and the Russian Revolution.  Revolutions, says Desmet, “always lead to infernal abyss” just as le Bon says they inevitably “end in inferno” because “crowds are only powerful for destruction”, wrecking civilised society “for the greater good”.  Desmet grants that revolutions may “start from good intentions” but they inevitably turn bloody and always wind up ‘eating their own’.

Le Bon was, without any doubt, a political conservative – and, if you are looking for more evidence of his reactionary politics, consider that he wrote in 1879 that women are “the most inferior forms of evolution… They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic and incapacity to reason” – perfect crowd material, in fact, in Le Bon’s eyes.  Le Bon and Desmet are as one in their politically fastidious distaste for the crowd, the ‘mob’, the ‘herd’ or whatever the pejorative of choice has been for reactionaries down the ages who cling to the, favourable for them, status quo of inequalities of wealth, privilege and power and who fear and despise those below them who ‘don’t know their place’.

Desmet subscribes to a simplistic and ahistorical anti-socialist politics (the French Revolution is reducible to the guillotine, Lenin naturally led to Stalin) because that is what your precious socialism gets you – Stalin, the KGB and the Gulag.  This, note, is the sort of reflex judgement that makes up the Mass Formation Psychosis known as anti-communism that has led to a history of wars and repression of labour movements and freedom struggles the world over under the cover of fighting Bolshevik barbarism.  Desmet does not see his anti-communism as a Mass Formation Psychosis in its own right, of course, because he is very much a part of it, and what its participants see as a noble stance against the Red Menace is, to others unaffected by the psychosis, simply opposition to progressive social and economic change, to what the (pre-Covid) Chomsky acutely called the “threat of a good example”.

If not handled with conceptual rigour and an awareness of personal subjectivities, the very useful analytical concept of Mass Formation Psychosis can be applied in a very slipshod manner as a mere term of political abuse just as other useful political concepts can become crude shorthand vocabulary for ideological name-calling (the Right labelling everything they don’t like as being ‘woke’ or ‘Marxist’, the Left painting all it objects to as ‘far-right’ or ‘racist’).  So, for some on the Right in the anti-restriction/mandate movement, they were able to cast their opposition to lockdown and other social controls as righteous opposition to socialism (which would be an allegation of political allegiance that would greatly surprise Boris or any of the other capitalist friends of lockdown, or any number of centrist lockdown-loving liberals like Justin Trudeau or Jacinda Ardern).

Desmet’s political bias against ‘the masses’ and their revolutionary potential when politically mobilised unfortunately detracts from his theory of Mass Formation Psychosis by zooming in on the ‘mass formation’ component of the concept, on the dynamics of crowds in general, as the problem rather than the psychosis element that marks out the Covid hysteria as so totalitarian in essence.  ’Mass formation’, other than to conservatives of antiquarian political tastes, is actually a neutral phenomenon describing the human instinct for politically uniting in pursuit of common interests.  Capitalists do it and the people they exploit do it.  It is fundamental to politics and it is fundamentally human.  It is the psychosis part of Mass Formation Psychosis that makes for crowd totalitarianism.  It is the Covid hysterics who were psychotic en masse.  The wonderfully sane Covid resistance was the very opposite of psychotic.

The Enlightenment is to blame?

Desmet’s ideological rangefinder also strays to another undeserving target when he attempts to sheet home ultimate blame for the Covid fiasco to the Enlightenment, that 18th century intellectual renaissance that shone blinding shafts of light through the ideological fog of religious, moral and political backwardness that had lingered on since the Middle Ages.  Secularism, freedom of thought, political democratisation and economic equalisation made their systematic way onto the ideological stage during the Enlightenment, directly prepping the ground for both the French revolution and the American revolutionary war of independence both of which advanced all of those ideals.  Karl Marx went on to take the Enlightenment philosophers’ critique (such as that of Denis Diderot) of the antique despotisms of Crown and Church into the new terrain of the despotism of capital.

For Desmet, however, the Enlightenment’s historical legacy has been all negative – it’s intellectual “attachment to rationality and control” created the pre-conditions for totalitarianism which, he asserts with sweeping certainty, is “the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition”.  By elevating “the belief that human intellect can be the guiding principle in life and society”, the Enlightenment promoted the values of rationalism, mechanisation, industrialisation and ‘technologisation’ to top billing and this has led, he argues, directly to the current technocratic and scientistic bossiness by elite bureaucrats who treat human beings as mere objects, human units to be placed, duly socially distanced, on a physical chess board in the best configuration to checkmate Covid.

Desmet’s line of argument (totalitarianism is “the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality”) is not at all convincing.  For the Covid hystericists and the ethical monsters behind the vaxx mandates, reason and intellect have certainly flown the coop but it is precisely the ideals of the Enlightenment, which are hostile to superstition and which are respecting of science and analytical rigour, which have defined the Covid dissidents.  It was the Mass Formation Psychosis of the official, overwrought and politically totalitarian response to the virus that was the vehicle that took society back to the Middle Ages, literally by ‘going medieval’ on the virus with mass hiding from, rather than pragmatic and science-based coexistence with, the pathogen.

It was the Covid resistance, a ‘mass formation’ itself (which was unfortunately not mass enough), that stayed true to Enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality, and ethical considerations, the only human tools that could have averted the self-made disaster of the loopy mass formation of the official response to Covid.  Desmet argues that “all the great scientists and physicists” of history left the “logical-factual discourse of science behind them for a poetic or mystical discourse” in order to fully understand the world by way of the unknowable and the unnameable but, given that it was the Covid regime scientists who fled the “logical-factual” plane for kooky pseudoscience, it seems clear that we need more Enlightenment, not less, starting with the deplatformed, censored and ‘fact-checked’ dissident scientists who stubbornly stuck to logics and facts.

‘What is to be done’ (or ‘Dialectics and Covid’)

Desmet’s book lacks a dialectical element when it comes to changing our Covid policy fate.  Yes, he convincingly argues that we should continue speaking out against the psychotic behaviour and malign virus-control plans of our Covid rulers, but Desmet is averse to the protest dimension of activism because of his conservative political distaste for crowds of all sorts for being precursors of totalitarianism.  The 10%-20%  of the population (his not unreasonable estimate of those who never got caught up in the Covid fever and policy nonsense) must form an oppositional pole-of-attraction, he says, but they must do so “without becoming a crowd themselves”.

The dissidents’ strategic aim, he says, is simply to endure, to merely bear witness to society’s madness, to, as the old and impotent cliché puts it, ‘speak truth to power’, until the Covid Mass Formation Psychosis burns itself out through overreach.  Totalitarianism, he argues, “doesn’t have to be overcome so much as one must somehow survive until it destroys itself”.  This is, however, too fatalist and will allow the medical tyrants an orderly retreat, as they are doing now by ‘temporarily’ suspending hostilities and parking their special emergency powers, still fully loaded, into routine legislation and thus normalising the whole dictatorial lockdown/mask/vaxx process for the next time.

Far better would be for Covid dissidents to engage in activism and protest as well as writing and waiting, from the bread and butter staple of the mass demonstration to the higher stakes civil disobedience, and not forgetting the humble leaflet and the riskier poster paste-up under cover of darkness one step ahead of the cops which used to be a rite of passage for any budding young socialist (like myself) in the days of yore (the 1970s – yes, I’m that ancient) but which appears to have been superseded by the digital post-up which only like-thinkers will see.  Uniting in a democratic and sane ‘mass formation’ to directly challenge an oppressive and psychotic ‘mass formation’ has driven political progress throughout history and is still needed.

Whilst the 30% or so who were deeply hypnotised early doors by the contrived Covid Mass Formation Psychosis (and who are lost to rational argument and must be left to recover in their own time after the panic has subsided), the relatively small vanguard of the Covid Resistance who were always free from the trance must patiently but actively work on the politically inert but potentially receptive mass middle (perhaps 40%-60% of the population) who are less than fervent believers in the official Narrative and who are often obedient to its dotty rules only under the illusion that compliance with their new restricted freedoms need only be temporary and will actually work to restore liberty and the old way of life.  Which is not how tyranny works, of course, even sophisticated ‘public health’ tyranny.

Fight Mass Formation Covid Psychosis with Mass Formation Covid Sanity

People take part in a ‘We Do Not Consent’ rally at Trafalgar Square, organised by Stop New Normal, to protest against coronavirus restrictions, in London, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

An oppositional ‘mass formation’ plays an essential part in breaking the Covid spell.  It makes opposition visible, it shows that Covid-sane individuals are not alone, it puts political pressure on the Covid overseers, it boosts the morale of those taking to the streets and it can win over, by its size and boisterousness and comradeship, the vacillating middle.  The crowds that formed in some of the world’s largest ever historical protest movements were popular, democratic, science-based ‘mass formations’ butting heads with the Establishment’s authoritarian and anti-science Covid ‘mass formation’.

Desmet often drops the ‘Psychosis’ component of his ‘Mass Formation Psychosis’ concept and allows his anti-crowd bias too much free reign but it is the psychosis aspect of the Covid mass formation that is its Achilles heel and it is the sheer sanity of the Covid Resistance that is its ultimate strength.  In individuals, psychosis is a mental disorder which causes abnormal thought processes at odds with reality and the same applies at a mass population level.  Covid tyranny was utterly psychotic but the Covid Resistance was marked by scientific rationality, a sense of proportion in policy response and a thoroughly human hunger for a normality which, concerning our viral companions, has served us well, without any of the unforced errors we committed with Covid, for the entirety of human existence.  If we were to follow Desmet’s quietist prescription for crowd avoidance, the powerless would remain so by abjuring their prime weapon of political mobilisation.

However, you don’t have to agree with Desmet that it is the nature of crowds themselves (including mass protest movements to resist the Covid regimes) that is the problem, or that the Enlightenment’s values of rationality, logic and fact are at the root of all despotisms, to gain important insights from his book into the bizarre, ugly psychosis of the mass panic that was the response to Covid and why it went into such a devastating spiral of unscientific stupidity, metastasising into a public health tyranny the world over.

It is our good fortune that all the best of the dissident Covid intelligentsia have a terrific book in them just waiting to come out – and Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism is one of them.  It will certainly get you thinking, an activity of which there has been a dire dearth these last two psychotic, Covid-deranged years and which may never be completely cured unless we understand, and act on, the individual and mass psychology underlying the world’s disastrous response to a middling virus.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Part 2

  1. While I can appreciate your criticism of Desmet’s tendency to include socialist beliefs in his theory of mass formation psychosis, I believe he does an excellent job of analyzing how enlightenment era epistemology has created the theoretical foundation for a delusional mass formation in regards to the nature of reality and our human existence.
    His book goes far, far beyond simply explaining covid hysteria and totalitarianism. Chapters 9-11 are absolutely brilliant philosophy of the highest order. This wisdom and insight in this work of art surpasses and leaves behind anyone mired in political dogmatism.

  2. Phil is very clearly an intelligent being with excellent writing skills. However, to keep referring to Desmet’s topic as ‘psychosis’ lets him down. Desmet in fact warns against the use of this word.

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