Mass Formation and the Danger of Technocracy

Manipulated masses create a paranoid atmosphere, ignore collateral damage

Mass Formation and the Danger of Technocracy
Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism," in New York on Aug. 27, 202. (Otabius Williams/The Epoch Times)
Jan Jekielek
Jeff Minick

“People in the grip of this corona narrative couldn’t see that these measures would ruin their lives, the health of their children, the wealth of their children, and the future of their children,” Mattias Desmet says.

In a recent episode of EpochTV's "American Thought Leaders," host Jan Jekielek discusses the new technocratic totalitarianism and a way of resistance with Desmet, professor of clinical psychology at Belgium’s Ghent University and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” Desmet is one of the world’s leading experts on the concept of mass formation.

 Jan Jekielek: We’re doing a follow-up on our initial interview on your book “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” I’ve been telling people that this is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past few years. So, let’s start with technocracy. What exactly is that?
Mattias Desmet: A technocracy is a system led by technical experts, and not by democratically elected politicians. In a technocratic system, people believe that rational understanding should be the cornerstone of society and that society should be led by the people who have a rational knowledge about certain things.

For instance, in a pandemic, society should be led by people who have a technical knowledge about viruses. In an economic crisis, choices shouldn’t be made by democratically elected politicians, but by people who have a technical knowledge about the economy. That’s the essence of a technocratic system.

Mr. Jekielek: If there’s anything that would tell us that this rule by technical experts is a terrible idea, wouldn’t it be the past two or three years?
Mr. Desmet: I agree. The last two or three years show how irrational so-called rational experts can be. We really need to think about rationality and what rationality is, and the fact that the experts claim that they represent science. The strange thing is that on one hand, you can see science as an accumulation of rational knowledge, but you can also see science as an epistemological practice, which shows us that rationality is limited, and that much of reality cannot be understood in a rational way.

If you try to reduce life just to the rational component, you destroy the essence of life. That’s why a society which believes that its cornerstone is rational understanding, in the end, is always extremely destructive and becomes even more radically irrational.

It’s a strange paradox. If you follow rational understanding, you must be humble and honest enough to admit there will be a limit to that understanding. Your rational mind can never fully grasp the essence of the phenomenon you’re studying. You can lapse into radical, absurd irrationality. I believe that’s what we’ve witnessed in the corona crisis.

For everyone who was not really hypnotized and could take a bit of distance from the narratives of those experts who claimed to represent rationality and science, it was clear that it was utter irrationality. The measures were fundamentally and intrinsically irrational.

For instance, it was clear from the beginning that lockdowns and other corona measures probably would claim more victims than the virus. Many scientists and institutions warned us about that. But we were so blind and so focused on the possible victims that most of us didn’t see that the measures themselves would also claim a lot of victims.

Mr. Jekielek: You argue that this occurred because of people coming into the grips of a mass formation. What is this mass formation, for those unfamiliar with the concept?
Mr. Desmet: The entire society was looking at the virus and didn’t see all the collateral damage. In a strange way, people felt empathy for the victims of the coronavirus, but they couldn’t feel empathy for those who suffered from the collateral damage of the measures.

That’s when I started to develop my theory on mass formation. Mass formation is a kind of group formation that emerges when society is in a specific condition.

In a nutshell, these conditions are met when many people feel socially isolated and suffer from a lack of meaning-making. There have to be high levels of so-called free-floating anxiety, frustration, and aggression, where people don’t know why they feel anxious, frustrated, and aggressive. A population with this specific condition is extremely sensitive to mass formation.

This mass formation usually starts with a narrative being distributed through the mass media indicating an object of anxiety while at the same time providing a strategy to deal with that object. What happens then? All this free-floating anxiety in the population suddenly centers on this object of anxiety provided in the narrative.

People feel that they now know why they are anxious, and that they can control their anxiety by participating in the strategy for dealing with the object of anxiety, for instance, like having lockdowns to deal with the virus. At the same time, because so many people participate in this strategy, they feel connected again. The root cause of the mass formation, which is always the loneliness and disconnectedness that existed before the mass formation started, seems to be solved. People seem to feel connected again. I say, “seem,” because they aren’t really connected.

In a mass formation, each individual connects to a collective ideal, but they don’t connect to each other. On the contrary, in a mass formation, the social bonds between the individuals deteriorate even more. All the solidarity, all the psychological energy, all the love, you could say, between individuals is extracted and injected into the bonds between the individuals and the collective.

That’s why mass formations lead to a paranoid atmosphere in which everyone snitches on everyone to the state. People feel no solidarity with each other anymore, but they feel a lot of solidarity toward the collective ideal.

Mass formation is exactly the same as mass hypnosis. It’s a focusing of attention on one aspect of reality to the extent that the rest of reality seems to disappear.

And that explains why people in the grip of this corona narrative couldn’t see that these measures would ruin their lives, the health of their children, the wealth of their children, and the future of their children.

In a mass formation, people accept everything the group believes. They all believe in the same dogmatic ideals and the same narratives. This always leads to a radical intolerance of dissenting voices, which is typical of totalitarianism.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re not living in a totalitarian society today. But you’re saying that we are, somehow.
Mr. Desmet: What we’re dealing with now is not a communist or fascist totalitarianism. It is the emergence of a technocratic authoritarianism, which nobody feels is totalitarianism.

In 1951, Hannah Arendt warned us that we had seen fascist totalitarianism and communist totalitarianism, and then she said, “Very soon, we will witness the emergence of a new totalitarianism, which is not led by gang leaders like Stalin and Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.” And that’s what is about to happen right now.

Democratic rights are quickly disappearing. Look at how a certain ideology is imposed on society, and how a certain narrative is fanatically believed by a part of the population. They will accept civil rights being suspended because of this narrative.

So, you have this rationalist view of man and the world, and it created a new elite which believed that it should no longer lead society based on truth speech. The new elite believes that society should instead be led based on indoctrination propaganda.

Mr. Jekielek: You just mentioned truth speech. Please explain what that means. And what is indoctrination propaganda?
Mr. Desmet: Truth speech has to do with sharing what you really believe with someone else. You could contrast that to rhetoric, in which you try to convince the other of something you may not really believe yourself. That’s also the case with indoctrination propaganda. It’s a kind of speech in which you try to convince the population of something you ultimately don’t believe yourself.
Mr. Jekielek: How do we help people escape mass formation?
Mr. Desmet: The remedy for mass formation is always the same. It is to speak out. The people who aren’t in the grip of the mass formation must speak out. If we speak out, the mass formation will be constantly disturbed. That’s what I say time, and time, and time again. The most important thing is to speak out.

That is where truth speech starts. It means a kind of courageous speech practiced by individuals who refuse to go along with the narrative of the group. They follow their own feeling of what is sincere and honest and articulate the words that seem to them truthful.

They must also be aware that what they believe may not be entirely true, that it may be wrong. But that doesn’t matter. If, to the best of your own understanding, you believe that something is right, then you have to articulate it, and you have to have the courage to speak out in public space.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show "American Thought Leaders." Jekielek’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009, he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He was an executive producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."