The Journey from 1950s Maoist Thought Reform to 21st Century Covid Tyranny – Part I

Read Time:16 Minutes

In this three-part essay Left Lockdown Sceptics’ Rusere Shoniwa discusses the Government’s deployment of psychological warfare techniques to induce compliance with Covid containment policies. Robert Lifton’s 1961 study of ‘brainwashing’ in China elucidates eight psychological themes that characterised 1950s Chinese Communist ideologues’ indoctrination techniques. Using both Sue Parker Hall’s and Lifton’s work as a platform to provide my own perspective, he explores the extent to which UK Government psyops mirrored methods employed by 1950s Chinese Communist ideologues. This is a three part article. Part I discusses the first four themes. Part II discusses themes five to eight. Part III is exploration of the root cause of Covid ideological totalism. You can read all three parts on A Plague on Both Houses, where they were originally published.

“This is not a data war. We won that a long time ago. It’s a psychological war, and it really needs to be thought of that way.” – Dr Mark McDonald, psychiatrist and author of “United States of Fear: How America Fell Victim to Mass Delusional Psychosis.”

In its own benign phrasing, the remit of the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) is to provide “behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts.” 

What it actually ended up doing was made much clearer in a confession by a SPI-B scientist who spoke to Laura Dodsworth, author of A State of Fear. They had “discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear. The way we have used fear is dystopian. The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable.”

It’s more than just “ethically questionable”. The Government’s widespread use of fear and other emotional levers to manipulate behaviour fits the definition of classical military psyops or psychological warfare.

The weaponisation of behavioural psychology did not happen overnight. At the very least, it can be traced back to the formation in 2010 of the Government’s Behavioural Insight Team, whose aim is “finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves”. You do have to wonder about the Orwellian mindset that is unable to see the contradiction between people “mak[ing] better choices for themselves” and a Big Brother government unit being set up to “encourage” and “support” them in this supposedly autonomous decision-making process.

The integration of ideas about mind control into popular culture finds expression in the term ‘brainwashing’ which encapsulates a degree of mind control in the service of a political or other ideological goal. Today, Her Majesty’s brainwashers euphemistically call it ‘nudging’, as if they’re merely setting an alarm for you to make sure you don’t forget to do something you had always intended to do, like wear a mask in public for two years. 

The choice of language for today’s government sponsored brainwashing is in itself an attempt to brainwash. After all, psyops wouldn’t work if your daily ‘nudge’ flashed up in a neon light ticker tape over Piccadilly Circus reading: “Today’s brainwashing message is brought to you by the manipulative controllers at SPI-B. Don’t forget to wear your mask! Mask-wearing makes it easy for you to instantly distinguish the rule breakers from the rule followers, thereby enhancing compliance with idiotic rules by leveraging group normative pressure. Have a nice day!”

Perhaps it’s naïve to think that psychologists would be any less prone to using their powers for evil than other professions, but there is something exceedingly sinister about using an academically acquired understanding of the human psyche to subvert human happiness. Which is why it is heartening to see the emergence of a group of mental health professionals in the UK, Therapists for Medical Freedom (T4MF), which has aligned itself with sound ethics by taking aim at the Government’s use of covert psychological manipulation.

Totalitarianism, like the Government’s weaponisation of psychology, is not something we have accidentally stumbled into. Total control, precisely because of its manipulative intent, is a deliberate, stepwise, and stealthy process. We must get wise to what unscrupulous psychologists in the Government’s service are doing and tell the brainwashers in no uncertain terms that we like our brains dirty, thanks very much!

In early 2021, T4MF wrote to the British Psychological Society (BPS) asking them to explain their position on the Government’s unethical practice of increasing emotional discomfort to influence behaviour and compliance. Shockingly, the BPS saw nothing problematic with the psychologists’ role in the pandemic response, which they felt demonstrated “social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise”. Should we be surprised by such blatant dereliction in light of T4MF’s pertinent observation that the “BPS is impeded by a major conflict of interest on this issue in that several members of the SPI-B are also influential figures within the BPS”?

The rhyme of Maoist thought reform with Covid brainwashing

Robert Jay Lifton’s book Thought Reform (1989) is an academic study of the psychological techniques used by Chinese Communists in the 1950s to politically indoctrinate opponents. ‘Thought reform’ is the term Lifton gave to the Communists’ extremely organised, comprehensive and deliberate methodology of remoulding their opponents’ worldview. It was this apparent dedication to a highly disciplined and carefully thought-out approach that set the Chinese Communists’ approach apart from previous historical attempts at ideological indoctrination.

The wellspring of thought reform is ideological totalism, which Lifton defined as the integration of an “immoderate ideology with equally immoderate individual character traits – an extremist meeting-ground between people and ideas.”[1] Ideological totalism is manifested by an extremist all-or-nothing emotional alignment to a particular ideology. In that sense the term is interchangeable with totalitarianism.

In attempting to provide a vantage point for identifying ideological totalism wherever it might rear its ugly head, Lifton outlined eight psychological themes that dominate an atmosphere of manipulative thought reform. Initially these themes were rapidly picked up by cult researchers because of their relevance to cult psychological indoctrination techniques.

Sue Parker Hall, a member of T4MF’s Steering Group, has published an article which explores how these themes have been mirrored in what has effectively been a government and media psyops campaign. I have taken her up on her invitation “to reflect on how the psychological influence of government and media may have affected [us]”. 

Reading her article together with Lifton’s original elucidation of the themes, I have added my own perspectives and interpretations of how the Government and its media allies may have applied a 21st century thought reform programme since March 2020. A discussion of Lifton’s eight themes, contextualised for Covid containment policies, is laid out in parts I and II of this essay.

When considering these themes in the context of government Covid containment policies, I have found it helpful to view them in two ways: (a) as tactics or methods employed to alter individuals’ perceptions of a problem or situation with a view to directing behaviour towards a desired outcome, and; (b) collectively as a barometer of totalitarianism or a set of criteria for judging an environment that we suspect of ideological totalism. 

In part III of this essay, I will discuss why 21st century Covid totalism was so successfully implemented at such short notice and how Covid totalism is rooted in global capitalism, itself an extremist ideology which, at its current apogee, is entirely compatible with totalitarianism. 

Any celebration of the apparent retreat of Covid totalism, in the UK or anywhere else, should be tempered by the realisation that ideological extremism and its imperative for total control are baked into the system we live under. In England at least, it may feel as though a battle has been won, but the war is by no means over. 

But first a discussion of the themes and how they transfer to Covid containment policies and propaganda.

1) Milieu control

This refers to the control of human communication and is the most basic feature of thought reform upon which all the other elements depend. At the outset, the hands of all mass media communications were tied by Ofcom’s suffocating guidance to broadcasters to avoid “question[ing] or undermin[ing] the advice of public health bodies on the Coronavirus, or otherwise undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information about the disease”. 

The control of external communications as governments around the world sought to be the “single source of truth” has seriously hampered individuals’ ability to gain a balanced perspective on risk factors. The alignment of the interests of Big Tech with Government has seen industrial-scale censorship on social media platforms, with the government now seeking to formalise this censorship by introducing legislation to police these platforms, our public squares for debate, by removing lawful free speech content.

Renowned and eminently qualified experts who dissent from the official narrative on lockdowns, masks, testing and especially vaccines, have had their YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts deleted and their reputations besmirched by Big Media ‘fact-checkers’. The mushrooming of an Orwellian ‘fact-checking’ industry is in fact nothing more than repressive narrative management dressed up as a noble pursuit of truth.

Any reality checking that is typically done through person-to-person social contact was again severely curtailed by the alienation of people from their normal social contacts through the ‘social distancing’ and lockdown measures put in place.

In a more normal world, one in which information is not so tightly managed, competing sources of information compel the individual to inwardly reflect and perform reality checks. This helps to maintain a measure of identity separate from the environment that is under constant assessment. When this lively interaction with the world is severed, the individual is freed from the “incessant struggle with the elusive subtleties of truth”[2]. There is a regression to a childlike state in which ‘reality’ (the Government’s and media’s version of it) is packaged and handed to the individual on a plate. All the risk that goes with judging whether a situation is ‘real’ or not is removed.

The power of milieu control is such that even when information that contradicts the official narrative seeps through the Government’s filter, there is powerful resistance to “realities outside the closed ideological system… until the milieu control is sufficiently diminished for [the individual] to share these realities with others.”[3]

As more and more dissenters continue to speak their truth, alternative realities will make it through this filter, creating disequilibrium in those who have been infantilised into accepting “one truth”. This is no bad thing since, as Lifton points out, the alternative is to be “profoundly hampered in the perpetual human quest for what is true, good, and relevant in the world around [us] and within [us].”[4]  

2) Mystical manipulation

Complete capture and carpet bombing of the information airwaves is essential to the manipulation of the individual’s emotion and behaviour. This manipulation acquires a mystical quality as events directed by the omniscient authority to control the individual appear to arise spontaneously. 

Under Covid containment policies this was achieved by scientism – the debasement of science by giving bad science the imprimatur of scientific authority. Sue Parker Hall defines scientism as:

“the framing of a problematic phenomenon and subsequent interventions, in genuine scientific language, but based on the models and opinions of a few influential individuals, not on a meta-analysis of all the relevant empirical data in the pertinent fields. Further, this closed ideological frame, from where the apparently scientific models, opinions and interventions originate, is created purposefully, in a form of backwards engineering, to justify the particular interventions.”

This is a good start but, for me, scientism is more than just bad science. It is the deployment of science, good or bad, as the sole arbiter of public policy and personal actions. Science is a tool for making sense of the material world. It should never override the imperative of placing an ethical, moral and values-centred framework at the heart of decision-making. Science as a tool may complement it, but we risk dehumanisation when it supersedes ethics and values. Seeing a medical doctor argue with the Secretary for Health against mandated vaccination on the basis of medical expediencies such as vaccine efficacy and immunity from prior exposure rather than on the basis of voluntary informed consent (with the emphasis on voluntary) is a victory for scientism and a defeat of our humanity.

That said, we have witnessed established scientific principles and evidence thrown under the bus on an unimaginable scale: bogus models uncritically used to justify the destruction of livelihoods; enforcing lockdowns with no evidentiary basis; u-turns on masking with no basis in scientific evidence; an overnight change in the definition of the foundational principles of herd immunity; the abandonment of the core medical principle espousing early treatment to save lives in favour of late treatment with instructions from medical authorities not to seek medical treatment until symptoms are unbearable; the abandonment of voluntary informed consent and mandating mass human experimentation on a global scale with novel gene-based therapies labelled as vaccines. And so on. This is a short list of the perversions wrought by apparently spontaneously evolving but, in reality, pre-planned Covid policies. 

Far from sowing doubt, this element of ‘planned spontaneity’ fuels a bizarre mystique and evinces a childlike acceptance of and trust in the manipulations. This is essential to engendering a sense of higher purpose reinforced by the apparent supernatural knowledge of the controlling authorities. This higher purpose yields a sense of virtuous superiority – of being ‘in the vanguard of an advance movement’ – impelling the individual to pursue the imperatives of ‘staying safe’ and stopping the spread of the virus at all costs, zealously jettisoning considerations of decency or immediate human welfare in the process. 

Anyone not aligned with the imperatives of the higher purpose is considered to be in the throes of lower order impulses such as selfishness, backwardness and stupidity, and accordingly denigrated as ‘Covid-denier’, ‘science-denier’, ‘tin foil hatter’, ‘conspiracy theorist’ and ‘disease or misinformation super-spreaders’.

3) The demand for purity

Ideological totalism by its very nature creates a sharp polarisation, both within the individual and society, between the pure and impure, both of which are speciously defined to advance the needs of the ideology. The pure is everything that is in harmony with the ideology while the impure is everything that threatens it.

Failure to achieve purity must necessarily lead to guilt and shame, which are weaponised in the war on impurity. Apostates of the ideology can expect ruthless ostracisation and humiliation.

Purity messaging with its guilt and shame corollary have been hallmarks of Covid policy messaging. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team advised on the role of psychological persuasion in creating guilt and shame to influence people to behave in ways that achieve the desired outcomes as defined by those in authority. If you weren’t committed to saving Granny, you were relegated to the status of a quasi-murderer. 

One of the most perverse outcomes of weaponising guilt was seeing our most emotionally vulnerable group, children, effectively encouraged to believe that getting a vaccine for a disease that posed virtually no risk to them would be a way in which they could protect adults whose job it is to protect children.

Statements antithetical to public health and common decency emanating from the highest offices bear witness to the scale of the moral perversity produced by this demand for purity. The Archbishop of Canterbury debased his office and the entire Christian faith by engaging in vaccine evangelism which moralised a medical choice. New Zealand’s premier expressed a joyous acceptance of a two-tier medical apartheid as the consequence of her vaccine passport policy. And France’s President crudely told the country that it was his aim to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated

A paradox of ideological extremism is that the ideological extremists inevitably end up manifesting the darkest aspects of the impurity they claim to be fighting.

4) The cult of confession

The demand for purity and the accompanying guilt and shame place demands on the individual to make public declarations of the private sphere to either seek absolution for transgression or to confirm continued allegiance to the ideology. 

Totalitarianism (or ideological totalism) seeks to gain private ownership of the mind by stigmatising privacy and, in more extreme cases, making it illegal. Thus, whereas a sincere and heartfelt confession in more normal circumstances might offer the prospect of genuine catharsis, totalism corrupts the confession by rendering it into a ‘command performance’ whose true aim is to reassure fellow believers of continued allegiance to the ideology. The aim of confession under totalism is, paradoxically, not to reveal innermost secrets but to conceal them. 

The most sacred public Covid confessional relates to the injection and provides one example among many of how Covid seeks to normalise the abnormal. Whereas previously, vaccination status was rightly regarded as private medical information, people now declare their jabs on social media as the ultimate symbol of purity, and colleagues think nothing of enquiring about it in the workplace and in social settings. 

Not only does this confessional serve the purpose of maintaining the fervour of official narrative acolytes but I have also witnessed its power to convert doubters. Someone I know who had decided not to get jabbed was asked by workplace managers if he had been jabbed. He had not, but he replied in the affirmative as he felt in that moment unable to cope with the anticipated unfavourable reception to a negative response. Having then lied about receiving the jab to avoid censure, he later explained to me that he would in all probability go on to get jabbed as he foresaw too many negative consequences for his survival at work if he didn’t. 

And so a public demand to ‘confess’ secret truths elicited the exact opposite – a lie – which the confessor then felt compelled to convert to truth in order to resolve the inner conflict that a ‘confessional’ lie had created. This is the power of the cult of confession – not only curbing apostasy but converting doubters.

Part II will complete the discussion of the psychological themes that signpost totalitarianism or totalist ideology. Part  III explores the ultimate cause of Covid ideological totalism.

[1] Robert J Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Ch 22, pg 419

[2] Robert J Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Ch 22, pg 421.

[3] Robert J Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Ch 22, pg 421-422.

[4] Robert J Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Ch 22, pg 422.

2 thoughts on “The Journey from 1950s Maoist Thought Reform to 21st Century Covid Tyranny – Part I

  1. excellent article. keep up the good work! I have previously been fairly apolitical but am glad to hear from the leftist perspective.

  2. I’m not sure this is a true Left/Right debate: rather it is Freedom v Authoritarianism.
    I’ver always been on the liberatarian/ socialist end of the spectrum myself, which is a somewhat lovely place to be as the traditional soft and hard Left parties both espoused Lockdown, perhaps most notoriously the ‘Zero Covid’ utterly unscientific beliefs of Diane Abbot and her ilk.

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