Mattias Desmet: ‘Mass Formation’ Hypnosis and the Rise of Technocratic Totalitarianism
Why did large swaths of society suddenly buy into masking toddlers or restricting people from visiting their loved ones, even as they lay on their deathbeds?
I sit down with Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” Desmet is one of the world’s leading experts on the phenomenon known as “mass formation,” which can occur when people are isolated from one another and free-floating anxiety is prevalent.
“The real reason why they buy into the narrative is always because it leads to this new social bond, because it frees them from their anxiety, because it enables them to direct their frustration and aggression at something,” Desmet says.
Jan Jekielek: Professor Mattias Desmet, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Prof. Mattias Desmet: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Quite a number of people have been talking to me about your work. When I learned that you were writing a book,” The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” I was very excited to read it. You’re writing about it in a context of what’s happening around coronavirus policy or coronavirus mania, as you describe it, but you were actually thinking about these things well before COVID was around.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, that’s right. I started to think about it in 2017, actually, and maybe even before that. But in 2017, I started to take notes to gather all kinds of ideas and thoughts about totalitarianism. I noticed in 2017 that a new kind of totalitarianism was slowly emerging in our society. Not a fascist or a communist totalitarianism, but what we might call a technocratic totalitarianism. That means you are heading for a society which relies more and more on technological control to tackle the emerging objects of anxiety in society like terrorism and climate change. It seems that a major part of the population and many leaders in society were inclined to accept that only technological control, which also controlled private space and private life, would be sufficient or would be necessary to deal with all the emerging problems in our society, either real or imagined.
Mr. Jekielek: That is fascinating. Why don’t we start there? Please tell me about your field of study and how you started thinking about these things?
Prof. Desmet: Yes. I’m a clinical psychologist. I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Later on in my career, I also received a master’s degree in statistics, just because I became interested in the problems with academic research in general. In 2005, it became clear that most academic research is flawed. For instance, John Ioannidis, professor of medical statistics at Stanford University, somewhere back in 2007 wrote this wonderful paper titled, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
I was immediately fascinated by the problem of flawed research, and started to study it. I tried to explain to people what the problems were at the level of research that usually lead to wrong conclusions. From there on, I also started to become interested in all kinds of flawed information that circulates in society, either intentionally or unintentionally misleading information, which nevertheless has a huge grip on society and has a huge impact on society.
Together with that, I was also fascinated by the fact that most people, in a very strange way, actually continue to believe in narratives and in information that is utterly absurd in many respects. Most people or many people are radically incapable of having any critical perspective on what society believes in, and are incapable of seeing that this narrative or disinformation they believe in cannot be true.
That stimulated my interest in this phenomenon of mass formation, the phenomenon that I have been studying now for about 10 years. It is the only explanation of why people can continue to believe in narratives that are often blatantly wrong, and that are always highly damaging to their individual interests. It explains why they can believe so fanatically in a narrative that they become radically intolerant of dissonant voices. In the end, they also stigmatize and ultimately try to destroy the people who do not go along with the narrative.
Typically, they do so as if it is their ethical duty to do so. That’s the phenomenon of mass formation. Mass formation is a specific kind of group formation, which has a very specific impact at the level of individual psychological functioning. It makes the individuals that are in the grip of it radically blind to the absurd characteristics of what the group believes in. It makes them willing to sacrifice everything that was once important to them, and also makes them radically intolerant to all dissonant voices. Ultimately, it makes them stigmatize and eventually commit cruelties towards the people that do not buy into the narrative.
Throughout my career, I became more fascinated with this phenomenon, because I noticed how absurd narratives were circulating in society, and had a huge impact on society. And because I also noticed that many people, in a strange way, were incapable of noticing that something absurd was going on.
I started to think of that much earlier. I was also aware of the fact that it is exactly this kind of mass formation that leads to the emergence of totalitarian states. When the corona crisis started, I just knew this was exactly what was going on in our society. I observed how absurd statistics were circulating in the public space. I saw how everybody seemed to be in the grip of statistical information that was, by my observation, radically wrong.
And again, I noticed how society seemed to be completely blind to all counter-arguments and to all the observations that could have made clear that the narrative they believed in was wrong. I also noticed how a major part of the population indeed stigmatized everyone who didn’t buy into the narrative, and was willing to exclude a large part of the population from public space if they did not conform to the dominant ideology.
So, in a strange way, I noticed that everything that I had been studying in recent years was now happening in the public space. I decided to speak out, and to publish some opinion papers about this, and eventually, to write my book, “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” which tries to explain how this phenomenon of mass formation works. I try to explain why it is becoming stronger and stronger throughout the last few hundred years, and then specifically what we can do to make sure that it doesn’t lead to the destruction of the majority of the population, not only the people who do not go along with the majority of the people, but also to the destruction of all people.. Because what is so typical of mass formation, is that in the end, it is radically self-destructive.
Mr. Jekielek: What I really found fascinating is that you talk about how it’s actually very difficult to measure things. But that is not what we’re taught in school, or even in university. I was studying evolutionary biology. We are not taught this kind of idea, but we are taught that measurement is very, very definitive, and that is what we have come to expect. I remember something from when I was studying and doing experimental design, and I was very disturbed by this idea. If I adjust certain parameters in an experiment, I can almost always get the results I want. Of course, this could be very convenient if you’re looking for grants in certain areas, but I found this profoundly disturbing. Please explain this to me, because this is not obvious to most of us at all.
Prof. Desmet: Yes. Of course, measurements and quantifications are objective in a limited sense. They measure and quantify a limited set of objects. Only characteristics that are strictly unidimensional can be measured adequately. In measuring an object, we actually always compare it to the unidimensional scale of the real numbers multiplied by a measurement unit. That means only strictly unidimensional characteristics of phenomena can be adequately measured. Most things in nature and in life are not strictly unidimensional.
One of the best examples is that if you want to count or measure the number of people who are dying from COVID, then you are dealing with a multidimensional phenomenon. Someone never dies for one reason. There are always a combination of factors that play a role when someone dies—his immune system, a virus, and all kinds of other medical conditions that he may or may not have.
So, deciding whether or not we will count someone as a corona victim is, in the end, more of a philosophical question. We have to deliberate about, “Okay, what was the condition of this person? Does it make sense to consider him as someone who died from the virus, or rather as someone who died from old age, or from a certain comorbidity, or another medical condition?” Almost all the variables in the corona crisis were multidimensional in nature.
That explains, of course, why all the figures and numbers were so subjective. It became clear, for instance, that over 90 per cent of the people who were considered corona victims, in the end, had three or more other medical conditions. The same was true for the number of contaminations, and the number of hospitalizations. While all these figures were highly subjective in one way or another, the dominant mainstream narrative always chose the most dramatic and most exagerrated way of counting the number of contaminations, hospitalizations, and victims claimed by the virus.
In my book, I write about that. All of chapter four is devoted to problems at the level of measurement, and the methodological problems in scientific research. For instance, in the medical sciences, over 85 per cent of all publications are radically flawed and [the results] cannot be reproduced, which means that they are actually not objective. That shows the extent of the problems at the level of academic research in our society. This is highly troublesome, because our society considers academic research and science to be the most important guiding principle to organize our society and to organize our human life.
That is one of the major problems of our Western culture and of the tradition of enlightenment. We need to look for other principles to organize a society. If we don’t, we will end up in an extremely destructive chaos, which will lead, in the end, to the destruction of humanity.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. You talk about how this mechanistic view of the world leads down the path to totalitarianism. The case you make is that it almost inevitably ends up there. Let’s discuss this very briefly, because this not obvious to many of us. We know there have been dictatorships in society since time immemorial. But totalitarianism is a very specific kind of dictatorship, or a very specific type of government. Based on Hannah Arendt’s work,you take time to explain what that means. Can you reprise that for us?
Prof. Desmet: Yes. People often confuse a totalitarian state with a classical dictatorship, when actually it is something completely different. A classical dictatorship is based on a very simple and primitive psychological mechanism. It is a population that is scared of the aggressive potential of a small group, the so-called dictatorial regime. People are scared of them and they just accept that this dictatorial regime will impose its social contract in a one-sided way.
But in a totalitarian state, we are dealing with something completely different. A totalitarian state is always based on the so-called phenomenon of mass formation. In a totalitarian state, there is a segment of the population, usually 20, 25, 30 per cent of the population, which becomes fanatically convinced of a certain narrative and of a certain ideology, like for instance, the dominant racist ideology of Nazi Germany, or the historical materialist ideology of Marxism in the Soviet Union.
In the end, it is this part of the population which is fanatically convinced of a certain ideology or of a certain narrative. Together, with a few leaders, they succeed in taking control over the state and this leads to the emergence of a very specific kind of state system, which has a huge impact on private life as well. In a classical dictatorship, the point of gravity of the system is in the dictatorial regime.
If you succeed in eliminating a part of the regime, usually the dictatorial system will collapse. In a totalitarian system, the point of gravity is not so much in the elite. It’s situated in the masses themselves. Then, if a part of the totalitarian elite is destroyed, the system just continues as if nothing happened. For instance, that is why Stalin realized that he could easliy eliminate 60 per cent of his own communist party, and his system would not collapse. The people who were eliminated were just replaced, and the system continued as if nothing happened.
So, we see this strange difference between a classical dictatorship and a totalitarian system. A totalitarian system is actually quite new. It emerged for the first time in the 20th century. Before that, there were classical dictatorships and tyrannies, but there were no totalitarian regimes. That is one of the questions that I pose in my book, “Why did the totalitarian state emerge for the first time in the 20th century?”
There is only one answer to that question. It is because the phenomenon of mass formation, which has indeed existed for time immemorial, or for as long as mankind has existed. It became increasingly stronger, and lasted longer and longer throughout the last three centuries. Mass formation became so strong in the beginning of the 20th century that the masses could seize control in society, helped by their leaders.
That led to this new state system, which not only controls the public space and the political space, as a classical dictatorships does, but also controls the private space, which a classical dictatorship usually cannot control. A totalitarian system can control private life, because it has a huge secret police, as Hannah Arendt said. Namely, it is this part of the population that so fanatically believes in this narrative that led to the mass formation that it is willing to report everyone, even their closest family members, to the state. This is exactly what happens every time a large scale mass formation emerges.
A woman in Iran, Shorif Ishtari, told me two months ago, and this conversation is available on the internet, how she lived in Iran during the revolution in 1979, if I’m not mistaken. The revolution actually was this large scale phenomenon of mass formation. She witnessed with her own eyes how a mother reported her son to the government and how she hung the rope, with her own hands, around his neck, just before he was hung. Then she claimed to be a heroine for doing so. That seems absurd, and it is absurd, of course. But once you really understand the mechanism of mass formation, you also understand why it leads to this kind of cruel behavior.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk about two things, and you can tell me which way you want to go, because they’re connected. The first one is; there are five critical elements, and I want you to reprise them here, of how mass formation is achieved. Please especially talk about this one element, the atomization of the individual, and the individual being pulled out of the normal part of society or the traditional part of society. That’s one piece. The second piece, and this is also very important, is the critical importance of Hannah Arendt’s work, which is very underappreciated today, especially around totalitarianism and the whole concept of the banality of evil, which you mention as well.
Prof. Desmet: Mass formation emerges when very specific conditions are met in a society. The most crucial condition, and the root cause of mass formation, is that many people in society have to feel disconnected from their natural and social environment. It’s the most crucial precondition. For mass formation to emerge, a large segment of the population feels lonely and disconnected from its natural and social environment.
The number of people who felt disconnected was huge. Throughout history, it had never been as high as just before the corona crisis. Worldwide, 30 per cent of the population claimed to have no meaningful relationships at all, and only connected to other people through the internet. The number of lonely people increased throughout the last two or three centuries as a consequence of the rise of the mechanistic human in the world, the industrialization of the world, and the use of technology.
All these factors are related to each other, of course. But I give many examples in my book showing how mechanistic, rationalist thinking, in itself, leads to a certain isolation of people from their environment. I also cover how the industrialization of the world, the mechanization of the world, and the use of technology typically leads to this disconnection between human beings and their environment.
Once people are in this disconnected state, they will typically start to experience purposelessness or lack of meaning-making in life. It was also very clear, just before the corona crisis, that over 60 per cent of people worldwide considered their jobs to be meaningless. They thought that their jobs didn’t have any meaning at all. And only 15 per cent reported that they considered their job to be meaningful. So, that’s the second step. First, you have this disconnection, this loneliness, and then you have the experience of the lack of meaning-making.
Then in a third step, which is also very important, people typically develop a so-called free-floating anxiety, frustration, or aggression. People are confronted with a kind of anxiety, frustration, or aggression that is not connected to a mental representation. In other words, people feel anxious, frustrated, or aggressive, without knowing why they feel anxious, frustrated, or aggressive.
This is a highly aversive mental state, because it makes people feel as if they are out of control. If you are anxious, but you don’t know what you’re anxious for, and you typically cannot control your anxiety, you really don’t know what you should protect yourself from. In this mental state, something very typical might happen. Under these conditions, a narrative is distributed through the mass media indicating an object of anxiety, and at the same time, providing a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety.
There might be a huge willingness to participate in this strategy, just to deal with the object of anxiety. That’s the first step of every major kind of mass formation, whether we are talking about the Crusades, or the witch-hunts, or the French Revolution, or the communism of the Soviet Union, or the rise of Nazism in Nazi Germany. We always see the same thing. First, someone formulates this narrative indicating an object of anxiety.
It can be the Jews, the witches, the Muslims, the aristocracy, it doesn’t matter. First, someone indicates an object of anxiety, and provides a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety. Then you see this radical willingness in the population to participate in a strategy to deal with the object of anxiety. The advantage, of course, is that from then on, people have a sense of control. They have the feeling that through the strategy, they can control their anxiety. At the same time, they also have an object which they can direct their aggression and frustration on.
In a second step, something even more important happens, and it’s the most important thing. Because many people participate in this strategy to deal with the object of anxiety, at the same time, people start to feel connected again. They start to feel connected. A new kind of social bond emerges.
But, this crucial, new social bond, this new group that emerges, is not formed because individuals connect to other individuals. This new group is formed because individuals connect to the collective separately. Meaning that, this typical solidarity that exists in a mass or in a crowd is not a solidarity between individuals. It is a solidarity of every separate individual to the collective. Even more, the longer the mass formation exists, the more all the energy is sucked away from the bonds between individuals, and is invested and infused in the bond between the individual and the collective.
That explains why during the corona crisis, people were all full of solidarity, and at the same time, they accepted that if their neighbor got an accident on the street, they were no longer allowed to help him unless they had surgical gloves or a surgical mask at their disposal. They accepted that if their parents were dying, that they were not allowed to visit them. And all that was in the name of solidarity.
So, that’s also why in a totalitarian state, the population typically ends up in a radically paranoid atmosphere in which the bonds between individuals are so weak, and the bond with the collective is so strong, that everybody is willing to report each other if they think that someone else is not loyal enough to the collective. That also explains why in the end, mothers report their sons to the state if they think their sons are not loyal enough to the state. That is the strange, baffling, mind-boggling mechanism of mass formation, which is extremely strong, and which is identical to hypnosis.
It is hypnosis. It is exactly the same as hypnosis. Exactly. Which also explains why people continue to buy into the narrative, even if it becomes radically absurd. People don’t buy into the narrative because they think it’s accurate, or because they think it’s scientific. No. Unconsciously, the real reason why they buy into the narrative is because it always leads to this new social bond, it frees them from their anxiety, and it enables them to direct their frustration and aggression at something. Those are the real reasons for the mass formation.
No matter how absurd the narrative becomes, people will continue to buy into it. There is at least 20 or 30 per cent of the population that is really in the grip of it, and that is really hypnotized. Because that’s what it truly is. It’s a process of hypnosis for certain people. Hypnosis is something very simple, actually. It’s just someone who can withdraw attention, or can take attention away from reality or from the environment and focus all the attention and all the psychological energy on one small aspect of reality. Consequently, something very strange happens, and it is as if the rest of reality doesn’t exist anymore.
This mechanism is so strong that even strong physical pain is not felt anymore under hypnosis, It appears time and time again every time hypnosis is used as a way to make someone insensitive to pain and to sedate someone during a surgical operation. I have seen it happen. A simple hypnotic procedure is sufficient to make someone so insensitive to pain that the surgeon can cut through the skin and even straight through the breast bone to perform an open heart operation without the patient even noticing it. This explains how strong this mechanism of the focusing of attention is in hypnosis, in illusionism, and also in mass formation.
Mr. Jekielek: Mattias, at this point, it would be best if you could lay out how you see these five elements or stages manifesting with coronavirus. Because, again, many people watching might have seen some of these elements. Could you please lay it out for us?
Prof. Desmet: Yes. I will start a little bit earlier the beginning of the crisis. In December 2019, two or three months before the corona crisis started, I really had this intuition that something dramatic or that something fundamental would happen in society. I noticed how all the negative psychological parameters, such stress, depression, anxiety, and burnouts all started to rise and increase exponentially. And in December 2019, during a holiday, I told my friends, “You will see that one of these days, we will wake up in a different society.” This intuition was so concrete that I decided to go to the bank to pay back my mortgage. The bank director was asking me time and time again, “How can you be so sure that something will happen that you will actually decide to pay back your mortgage?”
He talked for one-and-a-half hours. Of course, I couldn’t explain exactly why I had this intuition, but I had this intuition. Then two months later, the corona crisis started. I was really having the feeling that, “Okay, yes, this was what I had been expecting.” I noticed just before the corona crisis how this social disconnectedness, this social isolation, these psychological problems, and these feelings about lack of meaning-making, how they were constantly increasing, exponentially increasing. I already had a feeling that society was ready for a large scale mass formation. Then I saw how the statistics started to circulate in public in the mainstream media. I almost immediately noticed that it was highly probable the statistics were dramatically overrating the dangers of the virus.
At the same time, they were underestimating the dangers of the measures being taken. Actually, I noticed that nowhere in the mainstream media was there a simple, elementary, cost-benefit analysis being made. Because that is the first thing you would do in a situation where you are considering using drastic, dramatic measures to counter a virus. You would expect that the first thing you would do is to make a proper cost-benefit analysis.
You would just think, “Okay, how many victims can the virus claim, and how many victims can the corona measures and these lockdowns claim?” Actually, many scientists, academics, and some institutions warned society that it was highly probable that the corona measures would claim many more victims than the coronavirus would claim, even if no measures were taken at all.
In a strange way, this didn’t happen. Nobody seemed to be interested in this cost-benefit analysis. For me, that was a typical example of how the attention of an entire population was focused so much on one small aspect of reality, namely, the coronavirus and the corona measures, that it seemed incapable to take into account other aspects of reality, such as all the children that would starve in the developing countries as a consequence of the deregulation of the economy from the lockdowns. I tried several times to show people, “Look, we have the victims claimed by the coronavirus, but we have all these other victims. Don’t you see these other victims as well?” All these counter-arguments didn’t have any impact on their mental functioning and on their decision making.
That was a clear cut sign. It was one of the clearest signs that a large scale mass formation was happening. Suddenly, in society, there seemed to be two camps, two groups. There was the one group who went along, who bought into the mainstream narrative, and then the other group, who felt that the mainstream narrative was absurd. The dividing line between these two groups ran straight through all previously existing group formations. It was as if society was completely reorganized into two entirely new camps. That is what typically happens during a mass formation.
From then on, once I realized that fact, I decided to stop trying to convince the other people by showing them how absurd statistics were. I did from time to time, however, and I think we have to continue to do so. But from then on, I focused on trying to tell people what psychological mechanisms were going on in society and what they could lead to, namely, to the emergence of a new kind of totalitarianism, which is a technocratic totalitarianism. Which, in a strange way, is demanded by a certain part of the population, and of course, a certain part of the leaders. Already for several decades, and maybe even for longer, they have believed that democracy should be replaced by technocracy, and that society should be led by technical experts, rather than by democratically-elected politicians.
Mr. Jekielek: The thing that I found incredible at the beginning of your book was your discussion around how measurement is so imprecise, and actually, in a lot of ways, so subjective, and also in a lot of ways, erroneous. Because one of the things that has come out as an outcome of watching the COVID response and the use of various technocratic means is that most of the decision-making has been very, very, very flawed. The people that are pushing these decisions out and imposing them on populations just keep doubling down, irrespective of the evidence which is provided. If you ever thought that technocracy was a good idea, now we have a case study demonstrating why it should never happen.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, definitely. That’s the problem, of course. Rationality is always blind. If we believe we are rational, we usually become blind to all the subjective factors that play a role in rational thinking. That’s also the reason why I believe that rationality or rational understanding can never be the basis of human living. The only thing that can really organize society and human living in a fruitful way and in a humane way is ethical principles. It is our ethical principles, the eternal principles of humanity. That should be the basis of humanity living together. We can be rational. We have to think rationally, of course. But we should understand that rationality, in itself, can never grasp the essence of our human existence and can never grasp the essence of everything around us.
That is exactly what science showed us so clearly. We often think that there is a mechanist, materialist, rationalist view of the world, which believes that the entire universe is a material system of molecules and atoms which interact with each other according to the laws of mechanics, and which can be completely understood in a rational way.
We often believe that this rationalist human in the world equals the scientific human in the world. But that’s actually not true. That’s exactly what all the major scientists showed us, namely, that in the end, the essence of life, the essence of nature around us, and the essence of the world is irrational. That’s something that was proven by complex dynamic systems theory, which showed, paradoxically, in a strictly rational way, that the essence of all complex dynamic systems, which applies to most of nature, is strictly irrational.
It show that complex systems behave in the same way as irrational numbers, in a non-periodic way. That is when you can start to understand why Niels Bohr, the famous physicist who won the Nobel Prize, said, “When it comes to elementary particles and atoms, language can only be used as poetry.”
He meant that the behavior of elementary particles is fundamentally irrational, and the only kind of language that can capture the essence of their behavior is not a logical language, it is a poetic, symbolic, mystical language. And in the same vein, someone like René Thom, one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century said, “The part of reality that can be understood in a rational way is very limited. We can only know the rest of reality by empathically resonating with it.” That is something that I experienced in my own life very well until I was 35 years old. I really believed that nature and everything around me could be understood in a rational way. I couldn’t see how the facts and everything around us could behave irrationally.
Facts are logical. For me, that was something that could not be doubted. When I was about 35 years old, I started to understand that it was not true. Because of systems theory, I started to understand that nature and the things around me are intrinsically irrational, and that we can never know them. We can never reduce the things around us, the plants, the trees, the animals, the human beings, and all nature, we can never reduce them into the categories of our own logical understanding. That for me was also the moment in which I really started to succeed in opening up, really, and almost literally.
When you think logically, you connect one logical idea to the other, and this forms like a closed system. When you can accept and become aware that there is a limit to your rational understanding, and that you will never be able to reduce the things around you to the categories of your own rational thinking, at that moment, almost literally, it is as if all these ideas that were connected to each other start to open up a little bit.
It is as if the vibration, the eternal music of the things around you, can enter your being and can touch the strings of your being. In my book, I literally compare the human being to a stringed instrument. I think that is true. If we hide behind a closed system of logical ideas, we stop resonating with the mystery of the things around us, with the eternal music of life. It is at the moment when we open up that we can start resonating and really getting in touch with the eternal around us. It is at that moment that we can start to feel these principles, the eternal principles of life and of humanity, which tremble in everything around us. We have always renewed our awareness of these principles, which we can never articulate in a definitive way.
We have to reinvent them time and time again. Only these principles can allow us to organize humanity living together in a truly human and humane way. These principles, as I said, are extremely important. This resonating knowledge, which leads to the awareness of the principles of humanity, is extremely important. We can expect everything of that.
For instance, I could refer to, as I do in the last chapter of my book, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for his writings on the gulags of Stalin, where he stayed for about 15 years. He describes how, in the gulags, most prisoners started to behave in a radically beast-like manner. They lost all ethical awareness. They crushed each other’s skulls during the night. They became even more terrible to each other than the guards already were to them.
Solzhenitsyn describes how in this pool of darkness, a small number of the prisoners went in exactly the opposite direction. The more inhumane the world around them became, the more they became determined to stick to ethical principles themselves. Solzhenitsyn describes something wonderful. In particular, he describes how one of his fellow prisoners, Ivanovic Grigoriev, entered the gulag a little bit sick, suffering from several medical conditions. He refused, time and time again, to do something that was not in harmony with his ethical principles. If someone stole his food or his clothes, he just went outside without having eaten. He worked in temperatures of minus 40, 50 degrees Celsius, clothed in only a cotton sack or something with four holes in it.
When the guards commanded him to do something that he considered unethical, he refused to do it, no matter what the punishment was. Solzhenitsyn describes how this man became stronger and stronger physically, and how finally, he survived the gulags for 15 years. Solzhenitsyn says that if you start from a materialist, mechanistic, rationalist human understanding of the world, you can never understand something like that.
But if you were in the gulags, and if you have experienced yourself what the impact of sticking to ethical principles is under the most difficult conditions, then you can understand what the fundamental value and importance of ethical principles is for the human being—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—and also for society and for humanity living together. In my opinion, we are on the verge of discovering that this tradition of enlightenment and the ideology of reason is highly limited.
This rational understanding is extremely limited, and can never be the basis of society. Throughout the last few centuries, we have been thinking that rational understanding is crucial, and that it is the basis of humanity living together. The entire tradition of enlightenment actually believed that a society should be organized according to rational knowledge and rational understanding, and that we should try to manipulate the world around us in a rational way, in such a way that it becomes more friendly to the human being.
But we should do our utmost best to open up, to become aware of the limitations of logical and rational understanding, and to develop a different connection with our environment, a different way of knowing the things around us, which is much more based on resonance and on empathic resonance with the things around us in such a way that we discover these eternal principles of humanity, and that we can use them, or that we can base humanity living together on these ethical principles, rather than on a kind of rational analysis, which is always, in the end, based on factors that are radically irrational.
That’s the point. If we think that the rational understanding is the basis of everything, in the end, we arrive in a completely irrational society. That’s what I think the corona crisis shows us now. People think that they behave rationally, but upon closer consideration, it is clear, I think, that their behavior at most respects is radically irrational and self-destructive.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an incredibly optimistic and humane vision of the world. And I’m very, very happy to hear that you are so passionate about it. That is one of the things that gave me a lot to think about in reading your book. You said that this phenomenon of mass formation basically became a much phenomenon recently. None of what you described around corona could have happened without the strong participation of legacy, or corporate, or establishment media, and also social media, basically pushing this kind of messaging out.
We know, for example, in Nazi Germany, they were experts at this kind of propaganda and imagery. Please comment on this. It seems like technology is actually an important element here.
Prof. Desmet: Technology is an important element, of course. Mass formation can emerge without technology or without mass media, but it will never last very long. It typically ceases to exist after a certain while. It’s only when the same narrative is repeated time and time again through mass media, and is recirculated time and time again through mass media, that the mass formation can last so long that it is capable of seizing and taking control of a society.
So, that is very well known. It has been described from the 19th century onwards. Many people are aware of the fact that through the mass media and through technological machinery and devices, they have the capacity and to control society. Someone like Edward Bernays, I don’t know if you know him, he was considered to be the father of public relations. He’s the nephew of Sigmund Freud, but of a completely different nature.
Sigmund Freud was someone with a strong, ethical awareness. Bernays tried to have an ethical awareness, but I don’t think he succeeded in being very ethical. Someone like Bernays already describes that the masses are extremely dangerous, that they are irrational and self-destructive. Okay, that’s right, I think. But then he concludes that, that is exactly why we should develop all kinds of strategies to control them and to manipulate them.
He also refers to the fact that it is exactly technological developments that allow us to do so. His entire public relations discourse is actually a demonstration or description of all the techniques and strategies you can use to manipulate and control the masses. And that’s the problem, of course. Initially, propaganda and public relations and all kinds of media started from the idea that they had to control the masses just to make sure that society doesn’t fall prey to the destructiveness of the masses. But in the end, they use the destructiveness of the masses to seize control over the state system, and they became mass destructors like the masses themselves.
That’s what Hannah Arendt calls, in the end, a diabolic pact between the masses and the elite, which led to the emergence of the totalitarian state machinery. There are other ways to make sure that a society doesn’t fall prey to the aggression and the irrationality and the destructiveness of the masses. And it is exactly the opposite of what propaganda is and misinformation and manipulation is.
It is that we have to re-appreciate the value of what the ancient Greeks, the ancient Jews, the ancient Japanese culture called truth speech. If you want to avoid that masses emerge and that the masses become highly destructive and irrational, then the first thing you have to make sure of is that people reconnect with their environment. That means we have to move on to a society with much more local production of all kinds of the things we need to survive.
That’s one thing. We also have to cultivate and to promote truthful speech in society. We have to make sure that these conditions of social isolation, lack of meaning-making, free-floating anxiety, frustration, and aggression are avoided. There are other things we can do to truly solve the problem of mass formation, much more than believing that the solution would be that the minor elite would control and manipulate the masses in a more efficient way. Because the minor elite itself is in the grip of mass hypnosis. It will become exactly as self-destructive and as irrational as the masses tend to become. So, that’s the big problem, of course.
Mr. Jekielek: That is something actually very interesting that you say in the book. You said there are 10 to 30 per cent that absolutely do not accept the dominant narrative around corona. Many people imagine that there is basically some grand conspiracy to control the world, and there are different variations of this. Indeed, there are all sorts of people that are looking to take advantage of the situation—large multinational corporations, and possibly large think tanks. Anyhow, something that you said struck me very strongly. You said, “The ultimate master is the ideology, not the elites.” You were just talking about this earlier. That’s fascinating.
Prof. Desmet: One of the problems with an extreme conspiracy thinking is that it seems to believe that if you would destroy the elite, the evil elite, then the problem would be solved. That would definitely not be the case. First of all, I doubt whether the elite is much more evil than the population. Solzhenitsyn also said, “The dividing line between good and evil runs through every heart.”
It doesn’t run between people, the one group being evil and the other group being good. No, not at all. Everybody knows there is good and evil in everyone’s heart. That’s the first problem. This extreme conspiracy thinking localizes all the evil in one small group, suggesting that the destruction of this group would be sufficient to solve the problem.
That’s not true at all. As long as the society is in the grip of this mechanistic, rationalistic thinking, it will recreate the same elite over and over again. The only profound solution to the problem is that there is a sufficient number of people who become aware of the relativity of mechanistic, rationalist thinking, and who move on to a different way of knowing the world. As I just explained, that’s the only true solution.
In that case, if we can start to think differently, we will see that a new elite is formed in a spontaneous way, and the elite that now exists will cease to exist. And that’s the true solution to these things. The years to come might be very difficult years for everyone, for the people who don’t go along with the mainstream media, and also for the people who do go along with the mainstream narrative. It might become difficult for everyone.
We will never be able to predict exactly what might happen in the years to come. Never. Because it is just not ours to predict such things. Society is a complex dynamic system. The characteristic of such a system is that even if you have the mathematical formula in your hand that describes the behavior, you can never, ever predict the behavior. That’s one of the characteristics.
We should not lose too much energy in trying to predict exactly what will happen. What we should do instead is focus and invest our energy in trying to live up, as I said before, to the principles of humanity, trying to rediscover them, and then sharing them. The first and most important principle of a human being is that they should try to articulate the words that seem sincere.
We should invest all our energy in this. The only thing that we can be sure of in this that we ourselves can remain human, live up to human principles in a world that is increasingly becoming inhumane. If we do that, all the rest will happen automatically. All the rest will be done for us. We don’t have to do much more than that, which in itself will be extremely difficult. I’m aware of that. It’s not just because it’s simple, that it cannot also be highly difficult. I’m aware of that.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. So far, we have talked about two groups in society. But as you describe it in your book, there are actually three groups. One group is the group that is in the grip of the mass formation. Another group is opposed to that vision of the world. And the third group is the one that is just going along with things. So, that group is more susceptible to being influenced, and they can change their thinking more easily.
The second piece is, we keep talking about Hannah Arendt. Please tell us why she’s so important to your thinking. Her observation is that nonviolent resistance is the thing that has the greatest impact on shifting the mass, so to speak.
Prof. Desmet: Yes. Non-violent resistance is crucial. Resistance from within a totalitarian system can only be successful if it sticks to the principle of nonviolent resistance. Of course, external enemies of a totalitarian system can destroy a totalitarian system. That’s what happened to Nazi Germany, for instance. But internal resistance should always stick to the principles of nonviolent resistance. Because every use of violence will have an effect on the masses, and will justify, and even necessitate destroying the people who do go against the system.
So, it’s very clear Hannah Arendt has been describing how non-violent resistance is the only thing that can be successful. Non-violent resistance can happen in many ways. It is a good time now to start to study the way in which people such as Gandhi proceeded it in India. But in any case, non-violent resistance is what we should definitely try to realize.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned this approach of truth speaking as the way to behave in the future, the necessary way to act in the future paradigm that you envision. That is something a little deeper than might be entirely obvious. Of course, it has to do with speaking honestly and speaking truthfully, but it’s something deeper than that. As we finish up, can you speak to that?
Prof. Desmet: Yes. It is very hard to define what truth is. That’s logical because you can never say the ultimate truth about the truth. You always lack words to define what truth is. But indeed, I’m writing a new book now and it’s all about the art of speech and the difference between rhetoric and propaganda on one hand, and truth speech on the other hand. The ancient Greeks distinguished between four kinds of truth speaking; prophecy, wisdom, technique, which is technically correct knowledge, and then something called parrhesia.
Parrhesia, is bold and courageous speech from an individual which defies the thinking of the group. The ancient Greeks distinguish between these four types of truth speaking. In particular, the latter one, this courageous speech of individuals, even if they put themselves at risk because they go against the current and go against the group with this kind of truth speaking, they are considered crucial for a society.
It’s quite hard to define these four types of truth speaking in a concise way. But in any case, what is important for now is that we appreciate the value of human speech and particularly the value of truth speaking in every respect. It’s important for society, in order to prevent society from becoming utterly destructive and self-destructive, but also for our existence as human beings. Truth speaking is the most important way if we want to evolve as a human being, and if we want to become stronger and pure as a human being.
It is sufficient, in times such as the ones we are living in now, to try to continue to speak out in a quiet, sincere, and honest way in order to naturally go through a process of evolution as a human being. If we continue to do that, we will do the most important thing that we can do in these times. We might be able to prevent that all the humanity radically ceases to exist because of the emerging totalitarianism.
Mr. Jekielek: Mattias Desmet, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Prof. Desmet: Thank you. It was great talking to you, and thank you for inviting me.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining professor Mattias Desmet and I on this episode of American Thought Leaders. His book is “The Psychology Of Totalitarianism.” I’m your host Jan Jekielek.
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