The Psychology of Totalitarianism
A Review-Essay of Dr. Mattias Desmet's new book on Covid totalitarianism
The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Dr Mattias Desmet
Chelsea Green Publishing, 240 pages, 2022, USD$28
‘What the hell was that all about?’ is the question that many of us have been scratching our heads about concerning the insane level of virus hysteria and utter policy madness that gripped elite and popular levels of society for two years over a middling virus with a fatality rate equivalent to an average flu season and which targeted only the very unhealthy/very sick who were already at or beyond average life expectancy.
Yet, for the first time in the history of humanity and our viral companions, there arose the Great Covid Panic, as governments ratcheted up the fear levels, turning their duly terrified subjects into hysterical Olive Oils shrieking ‘save me, Popeye, save me!’ thus allowing heroic governments to come to the rescue with Perspex screens, sanitiser, temperature guns, high-rotation North-Korean-style ‘public safety announcements’, ‘social distancing’ gospel, mask mantras, test-track-and-trace exhortations, Covid Marshals sporting Hi-Viz vests, curfews, travel restrictions, border closures, ‘fact-checkers’ and other censors, the almighty lockdown and, finally, with deltoids pumped full of vaxx juice, the Popeye-the-Sailor-Man magical spinach to defeat the virus from hell.
Theatrical placebos all (which the desperate thought would be effective but which did no earthly good at all) which, on top of the nocebo effect (where the misplaced fear of the virus turned every sniffle into a life-threatening symptom or sent people scurrying into unhealthy isolation) created a perfect storm of stupidity which turned society inside out at phenomenal economic, social and political cost. Ethical boundaries collapsed (medical apartheid, compulsory medical experimentation, and, in Australia, quarantine camps and a keenness to ‘throw another anti-vaxxer on the barbie, mate’ ), the social fabric frayed as people’s livelihoods were put on ice, pleasure was placed in an induced coma, human contact outside your permitted ‘bubble’ was criminalised and a caste of ‘public health’ technocrats was elevated to control all aspects of life right down to the most minute (like disallowing the handshake and the hug). It was sheer madness, and the virus went ahead and did what all viruses do anyway – spread with Gompertz-curve regularity as naturally-acquired herd immunity got its inevitable act together against variants of ever-decreasing virulence.
As the policy disaster unfolded, the Good Covid Citizen developed a blind faith in The Science whilst treating the daily diet of data, presented with faux precision courtesy of Excel and PowerPoint, as Holy Writ portending a Covid Holocaust faux. Medical law ruled the land.
The most amazing, but distressing, thing of all was how almost every man and his dog went along with every iteration of every absurd, useless, yet damaging, restriction and mandate, with every superstitious, anti-scientific ritual to wipe out the Beast of Covid. Often, this meant sacrificing their own personal interests for the ‘common good’, a goal which also meant turning the Covid regimes’ political intolerance of dissidents into snitching on, and estrangement of, their own family members, lifelong friends or neighbours.
Nowhere is the collective cognitive malfunctioning that engulfed the Covid-obsessive world more evident than with the ‘miracle’ Covid vaccines, the ‘safe and effective’ (in Covid Newspeak) vaccines for which any and all evidence that they don’t work or are risky is waved away as ‘misinformation’ or ‘adverse reaction by coincidence’ and for which, if the jabbees say that they felt like death after the shot, is really evidence that “it’s working” (“Heart Attacks, Blood Clots, and Strokes? That means the vaccine is working!”) or for which, when the jabbed continue to ‘get Covid’, often repeatedly and lingeringly, proves the unprovable that it ‘would have been worse without the vaccine’. None of this makes any actual sense to anyone who has not been made mentally ill from the Covid hysteria and there is, certainly, no rational explanation for the desire of so many Covid-terrorised parents (one in five of whom still say they are “eager” to vaccinate their babies and toddlers) to shoot up their kiddies with a dangerous, fraudulently-tested experimental hooch in an age group which faces absolutely zero risk of harm from the virus.
Those of us who were not susceptible to the collective freak-out watched on with horrified bemusement as ‘expert’-led panic and government authoritarianism accelerated in a wild policy ride of draconian and often disastrous Public Health Orders which were willingly obeyed by nearly all. That terrible virus of the mind, fear, invited tyranny and Covid fear delivered it in spades as people turned to their great protectors in parliaments and the public health establishment to ‘keep us all safe’.
How we got here – Professor Mattias Desmet and The Psychology of Totalitarianism
So, why did this Covid craziness take off like a rocket and stay in orbit for so long? Individual and small group psychology (for example, social conformity, obedience to authority, certain personality traits) can explain, at a molecular level, the psychological processes of why so many people bought into the Great Crusade against Covid cooked up by people we don’t normally care all that much for (politicians, government bureaucrats, preachy journalists) but what, psychologically, was going on at a society-wide, indeed global, level? Previous viruses have not provoked such global panic resulting in unprecedented lockdowns, stifling mask mandates, the surrender of freedom and the abdication of reason, so why this virus and why now?
Dr. Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ghent in Belgium (and practising psychoanalyst), has had a go at an answer - ‘mass formation psychosis’ – in his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism and it fits the Covid phenomenon quite well.
‘Mass formation’ – as old as the hills
‘Mass formation psychosis’ is, Desmet argues, a type of collective hypnosis of large numbers of the population that mobilises them in organised forms of irrational behaviour at odds with objective reality. It is a type of psychopathology, at the population level, which thrives under, and reinforces, the political phenomenon of totalitarianism. ‘Mass formation’, he says, is as old as humanity itself – from the localised and ephemeral manifestations such as witch-burning or sundry religious manias (including the Crusades) of the mediaeval era, to the more modern, international and sustained cultural-political eruptions of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and, now, the all-encompassing Covid hysteria. In all such manifestations, whole populations, or significant parts of them, come to believe arrant nonsense and to fervently support the ruling elite which promises a ‘final’ solution to the specified problem. Hatred, aggression and sometimes violence feature and are directed at designated enemies (witches, Jews, communists, Trotskyist ‘saboteur-wreckers’) whilst receiving social sanction from the highest level. The people who make up the ‘mass formation’ become psychologically invested in what Desmet calls ‘the story’ of the official threat and its resolution (what the more cynical of us call the official ‘Narrative’).
The old-fashioned military-political autocracy of the past (led by an out-and-out dictator who, nevertheless, has substantial sectors of popular support) has been reengineered under Covid into an iatrarchy (technocratic rule by physicians, medical ‘experts’ and dull ‘public health’ bureaucrats) with often fanatical support from a heavily propagandised population which has been scared witless by pseudo-scientific indoctrination. Despite their different external trappings, the common binding glue of both types of tyranny is fear and both types of mass formation qualify as politically totalitarian.
Social preconditions for Covid mass formation psychosis
A Covid ‘mass formation psychosis’ didn’t just happen out of the blue all because of an unremarkable pathogen over-egged by some slick, fear-mongering PR, however. The over-the-top mass Covid hysteria had to meet a number of broad societal preconditions for clearing the bar of a genuine mass formation psychosis. Desmet itemises these as (1) the existence of a widespread state of generalised loneliness and a lack of social connection, (2) a lack of real meaning in people’s lives (especially in work), (3) a free-floating anxiety unmoored from a specific cause and (4) unrelieved frustration and aggression resulting from that anxiety.
All these conditions have deepened and become chronic in recent years as social atomisation, alienation, and ‘anomie’ (lack of purpose or ideals or ideological listlessness), which have all been part of the decline of traditional community bonds and a disengagement with traditional institutions and practices, have long been the stuff of sociologists and political theorists (including Marx), whilst an epidemic of narcissistic and isolating screentime has made for further degradation of real-life human connection but Desmet says that these underlying trends were given a major boost with the arrival of a suite of contemporary issues (climate change, terrorism, the weird world of woke) creating a political mood of fevered social catastrophisation which has in turn prompted a desire for increasing state regulation and control over everything we do as a key element of a ‘safetyist’ culture.
This social environment was just ripe for a supposed mega-death event (and who knows, or cares, whether it was an escaped novel coronavirus from the bio-warfare labs in China, or a species-hopping natural virus that thrived in fetid ‘wet markets’ - SARS-CoV-2 is not a terrifyingly unique virus that demands tough measures and even if the virus was what it said on the tin the measures wouldn’t work and even if they did work they would still fail on cost-benefit grounds and even if they didn’t destroy the economy and did save more lives than they cost they would still be unethical).
And so the Great Virus of Death myth grew wings and rode the updraft of our age-old fear of disease and suffering. All the background political hysterias coalesced into a single-minded global existential crisis that, unlike the other issues, threatened every single one of us with imminent doom and motivated otherwise disparate individuals in a new community spirit (‘We’re all in this together’) to mitigate the new hyper-anxiety against an invisible enemy.
The pandemic crisis managers who have directed this new, wacko, social force have been central to fueling the anxiety produced by the fantasy pandemic (and to maintain their new prestigious position as humanity’s saviours. Their chief weapon has been an armory of meaningless, pseudo-objective statistics (Desmet performs an excellent dissection of the deliberate conflation of ‘deaths with’ and ‘deaths from’ Covid, the gigantic ‘cases’ deception and the giant PCR con) and a “narrowing of the field of attention to one overriding issue” (Covid, Covid, Covid!), a blinkering of vision which is “central to the social-psychological process of mass formation”.
The rank and file of the new Covid Mass Formation Psychosis are mesmerised by propaganda, made gullible to indoctrination and enslaved to Covid pseudoscience, who are then prepared to sacrifice their own interests, comfort and well-being for the collective good (‘Your Country Needs You!’, ‘Facemasks must be worn here!’, ‘Get you booster now!’). They have developed a religious fervour for deliverance by the silver bullets of lockdown and experimental ‘vaccine’, and they display a “radical intolerance” of dissidents who threaten the totalitarisation of behaviour and conformity of ideas about Covid - outsiders who do not submit to the Covid crowd are seen as anti-social and undermining the collective, and their very free-thinking, rule-defying existence threatens to undermine the belief system central to the Covid crowd and against whom it is therefore an ethical duty to inform against, abuse in supermarket aisles and generally exclude from life. That’s how traitors to the collective should be dealt with, by community vigilantes as well as governments - “in all major mass formations”, says Desmet, “those who refuse to participate are typically accused of lacking solidarity and civic responsibility”.
Mass Formation Psychosis is a form of “social hypnosis” not just of the footsoldiers, however, but one where the master hypnotist is also in its grip. Those Covid managers who are genuinely sincere in their beliefs and policies are particularly dangerous because nothing, no empirical, real-world data or scientific knowledge can get through to them but the weavers of the spell don’t have to necessarily be fanatical believers in the ideological narrative about a deadly virus being bravely held at bay by lockdowns, restrictions and mandates (Hitler was a true believer in all he said and did but the drinking, maskless, partying pollies at No. 10 during lockdown, and their political advisers and maniacal modellers who broke the rules of their own devising, showed that they really didn’t believe in either the exaggerated threat of the virus or the alleged efficacy of its counter-measures) but that did not obviate them remaining true to the political and reputational importance of the narrative they imposed over everyone else and the compliance with its rules that they demanded on pain of prosecution. At least with these, they know the Covid debacle to be a fraud and are more likely to roll back the restrictions and ease off the pedal of hysteria, as we have seen in most countries.
Calling all conspiracy theorists!
For all those not caught up in it, says Desmet, the mass formation psychosis of Covid can appear so absurd and bewildering, so spookily orchestrated in city after city, state after state, country after country, that the belief can arise that there must be some grand conspiracy behind it all, some cabal of supervillains pulling the strings in the background to further their pet project of ‘transhumanism’, depopulation or some other nefarious Gates/WEF goal.
Desmet does not think this holds water (the hermetic secrecy needed for such plots is not tenable, for example, whilst incompetency amongst the ‘conspirators’, who include many moronic politicians amongst their number, is not exactly in short supply). For Desmet, the Covid craziness is more plausibly the result of boringly routine political posturing (‘we must be seen to be doing something; it would be political suicide to just let it rip) in response to a wild-eyed and hungry-for-power faction of epidemiological modellers egged on and funded by a never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste Big Pharma. The basic crowd psychology of Mass Formation Psychosis did the rest. For Desmet, the why of the global insanity lies in mass psychology not elite conspiracy.
It was monumentally rank stupidity by public health ‘experts’, and political posturing by gullible, short-sighted governments, rather than an evil plot by Klaus and Bill, which kicked off a contagious mass insanity, says Desmet. The current easing of Covid restrictions (which post-dates Desmet’s book) also supports the unviability of a calculated plot to reconfigure life on the planet for good. ‘Covid’ is being systematically memory-holed, whilst its strictures are being steadily unwound or totally abolished in jurisdiction after jurisdiction and this development reflects a desire by the architects of jerry-built Covid lunacy to avid having to the disastrously stupid errors they made or to pretend that their bonkers policy response was the height of wisdom and that it all worked so splendidly so that everyone can now talk about the ‘post-Covid’ world.
If there was some higher purpose to it all, it was not conspiracy but a hubristic belief that the novel response to the virus, never before tried, could finally unlock the key to get rid of humanity’s viral scourge forever. Just close things. Force people to stay apart. Don’t let them gather. Shut the schools. Lockup businesses. Close the borders. Cancel sports and concerts. Then, this ‘thinking’ went, a virus would lose interest, its superpowers wane in the presence of ‘social distancing’ kryptonite and just give up. It was crank science of the highest order but it did speak to the fevered dreams of certain public health ‘experts’ who imagined that an all-wise, technocratic, credentialed, medical elite could re-engineer human behaviour to eliminate all risk of pathogenic infection in the war between human and virus.
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 unlike the brute force of classic dictatorships. Common, and essential, to both, however, is the generation of fear and it is fear that is the impetus to tyranny – ‘We demand protection!’. ‘At any cost!’. Including the cost of being human, as it turns out.
And, so, fear-driven Covid was mass formation psychosis in full flood, sweeping all of us up in its torrent of malignant consequences. It has affected everybody on the planet (other than the Swedes, who still had ‘modest’ restrictions, and the Floridians although they too had a, mercifully brief, 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 deferred and loved ones left lonely in nursing home and hospital bed.
Covid 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 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) hinted at possible excesses from these earlier models of tyranny.
What Desmet terms an “irrational collectivism” took over because the new, society-wide ‘Must Terminate Covid’ endeavour provided the psychologically-satisfying group cohesion so lacking in contemporary society. Covid’s new-model collectivism was made highly visible and continually reinforced through ostentatious rituals (sanitiser stations, QR code sign-in, directional arrows, byzantine mask rules, and signs, signs, everywhere signs) which were zealously followed by the faithful because the symbolic measures had been designed by ‘experts’ so surely they must be based on science and would save us from certain death.
It 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 spear-carrier engaged in what Desmet calls “ritualistic submission to the collective” as a demonstration of their adherence to the Covid ideology. Even at great personal cost, the Covid-obsessive population “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 proved to be when people’s freedom 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, a New Normal which vestigial mask mandates and other zombie pandemic policies remind us of constantly.
Covid – the virus key to 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
SARS-CoV-1 in 2003, for example, failed because it didn’t tip the scales of WHO’s then-sensible definition of a pandemic (which had to include a large number of deaths). Neither did the Avian flu scare of 2005, although, in the wake of the George W. Bush administration’s diabolical Iraq War with its promise of “shock and awe” and “full-spectrum dominance” on the battlefield, lockdown and ‘social distancing’ and emergency wartime-level powers became the key public health equivalents of this military vision in a plan for a national war on the bird flu ordered by Bush but remained shelved because the feverishly-modelled Bird Flu Holocaust never actually eventuated 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 bad 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.
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.
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 of their incidence and virulence but which could now make a pandemic mountain out of an asymptomatic molehill. What it 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 of climate change which, with no easy global solutions in sight, creates chronic frustration in a demographic that should have been in the forefront of resistance, rather than converts to, the Covid regimes. 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 populism or ‘on-line harm’ or disease, has now become the order of the day.
Thus did the Mass Formation Psychosis of Covid roar into life, taking on an elemental, unstoppable and mentally-ill 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 famously liberal, tolerant intelligentsia whose new favoured status as virus seers and oracles bestowed popularity and power on them beyond their wildest dreams. This influential elite was now part of the Covid crowd – and thus a huge part of the problem.
‘What is to be done’ (or ‘Dialectics and Covid’)
Desmet’s book lacks a more 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 not caught up in the Covid Mass Formation Psychosis) 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 ‘speak truth to power’, an impotent wait 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 too fatalist and will allow the medico-fascists 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 bug of concern or even the ordinary flu.
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, or 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 ‘mass formation’ to directly challenge an oppressive ‘mass formation’ has driven political progress throughout history.
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 start and remain free of the trance must patiently but actively work on the 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’ tyrannies.
Fight Mass Formation Psychosis with Mass Formation Sanity
An oppositional, sanity-based ‘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 (which he shares with his 19th century intellectual mentor, Gustave Le Bon) 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 normal 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.
You don’t have to agree that lockdown was all a CCP plot for world communist domination, or that the restriction/mandate Covid regimes are all about communism because communism is all about social control, or that the Enlightenment is at the root of all despotisms including Covid, to gain valuable insights from Desmet’s 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 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 psychology – as well as the politics – of the world’s disastrous response to a middling virus.