My Book Review of Part I (Chs. 1-5) of "The Psychology of Totalitarianism" by Mattias Desmet

Part I (Chapters 1-5)

Mattias Desmet's book is an interesting and honest look at the totalitarian tendencies that have made themselves visible in the West during recent years, especially during the COVID pandemic. These ideologies have been in the background of Western culture for some time now masquerading as certain "cultural movements," but now many are beginning to see behind the benign veil that has been put up into the depth of darkness that awaits behind it. And so I believe that we need brave thinkers like Desmet to unpack and make sense of the fundamental changes that Western society is currently being subjected to. 

In Part I, which covers chapters one through five, Desmet introduces a few major themes and ideas which he sees as foundational to understand the totalitarian tendency of the current situation. He introduces the idea of "science" versus "Science," or an Enlightenment science which was open to truth and evidence regardless of where it led, and the emergence of an ideologically driven Science which must reach its Materialist and mechanistic conclusions. In calling out this new Science, he makes a devastating point about the failure of the current "data" culture where mathematical numbers are somehow presented as translatable into objective facts for human governance, psychology, and health. He also gives an interesting and practical account of how technology is changing and globalizing human society into a "mass" culture, and the disadvantages of this in regard to the human component of each of us which deeply longs for personal and local interactions in the shaping our identity. In so many words, Part I makes the argument that in the absence of traditional religion and philosophy, the ideologically driven Science has left society with a sincere problem of how to act and deal with major decisions, such as pandemic response. Without any real guidance, society has resorted to a psychologically dependent state equivalent to that of an infant to its mother. We seek to please her (the government) yet with her not even knowing how she wants to be pleased. 

The shortcomings of Part I are clear in that there seems to be a contradictory message about the nature of reality coming from Desmet. On the one hand, he laments the Scientifically driven nihilism in the wake of traditional belief. And yet, on the other hand, he celebrates the fall of Christianity (with some serious misconceptions about Christianity added in there which reveal a certain ignorance about Christianity). In chapter two he hints at the necessity for the metaphysical realm, and the incompleteness of Mechanistic worldviews, yet he then adheres to a Post-Modern relativist notion of truth and language (taken from Michel Foucault) which explicitly denies the metaphysical. I can certainly appreciate the project that he is advancing here, but the foundation on which its formed seems confused to me. That being said, I'm looking forward to Part II of the book. 

Here's a more in depth summary of Part I of Desmet's book. 

Enlightenment Science Versus Dogma

Desmet begins the book with a contrast, the dogmatic and religious Middle Ages with the fresh crackling of Enlightenment thinking. He views the Enlightenment as the pinnacle of human society in that it was the discovery of "science," in the sense of being open to the experience of the world with fresh eyes and one's senses. It was a time of experience, testing, verification, a time of breaking old dogmas that were unquestionable, of being able to question anything and give evidence for what to believe. 1 "Man believed that, with the power of reason, he could adjust the world, while he himself could remain unchanged. He gathered his courage and took charge of his destiny: He would use his own intellectual power to understand the world and to shape a new, rational society." 2

Indeterminacy Hints at Metaphysics

Following this, Desmet points out that an unpredicted turn happened in the history of science. He hints that this openness of science led man in the 20th century to began to discover hints of the metaphysical. In other words, the universe has a mystery to it that exceeds man's ability to quantify and categorize it in a perfectly mechanistic type of way. "The great minds who followed reason and facts most rigorously came to the conclusion that, ultimately, the essence of things is beyond logic and cannot be grasped. Niels Bohr concluded that only poetry can describe the absurd behavior of elementary particles: 'When it comes to atoms, language can only be used as poetry.'" How unexpected is it that even with the power of Modern science, the universe still holds to it mysteries that seem to more affected by conscious perception and religious experience, than by any physical or mechanistic means? 

"Chaos theory showed in a truly revolutionary way that matter is constantly organizing itself in ways that cannot possibly be explained in mechanistic terms. The universe is endowed with direction and volition. ... science is, in fact, characterized by empathy, a resonant affinity between the observer and the phenomenon under investigation. ... Science eventually arrives where religion once started, in a personal contact with the Un-nameable." 3 In a very honest admission, Desmet comes to the conclusion that science cannot be the ultimate guide for man when the universe seems, itself, to transcend the realm of science. Unfortunately in the 20th century this was not the universal view. Desmet also identifies a concurrent worldview which seemed to usurp the authentic discoveries in the name of science. 

Science as Materialist Ideology

This is what he calls "Science" with a capital S. It is science in the form of Materialist ideology. It is also referred to as Methodological Naturalism. The idea is that all that exists is the physical mechanistic universe, something closed to anything beyond it, or any explanation outside of itself. Big "S" Science, he claims, contradicted the original scientific spirit of the Enlightenment in that it was no longer open to truth, new explanations, new evidence, but sought to shut down all other claims except those that fit within its own Materialist framework. "In this way, the scientific discourse spun its own creation myth. ... 'Man may not realize it, but his humanity does not really matter, it is nothing essential. His whole existence, his longing and his lust, his romantic lamentations and his most superficial needs, his joy and his sorrow, his doubt and his choices, his anger and unreasonableness, his pleasure and his suffering, his deepest aversion and his most lofty aesthetic appreciations, in short, the entire drama of his existence, can ultimately be reduced to elementary particles that interact according to the laws of mechanics.'" 

Desmet laments this turn of science toward ideology. What once was about openness has become a closed and insular manipulative force. "In short, the scientific discourse, like any dominant discourse, has become the privileged instrument of opportunism, lies, deception, manipulation, and power." 4 In practical terms, what does this mean for the modern society living under Scientific ideology? It means that "data," numbers and statistics are often presented as fact, when in reality there is an embarrassing amount of interpretation, confusion, and contradicting opinions around any given set of "data." 

The Inability to Determine Truth from Statistics

He then gives some of the shortcomings of such a view of science, namely the problem with interpreting experimental data within such a framework. "To the extent that the scientific discourse became an ideology, it lost its virtue of truth-telling. Nothing illustrates this better than the so-called replication crisis that erupted in academia in 2015. This crisis emerged when a number of serious cases of scientific fraud came to light. Scientific scans and other imaging were proven to have been manipulated, archaeological artefacts were found to be counterfeit, embryo clones had been forged; some researchers claimed to have successfully transplanted skin from mice, whilst they had simply dyed the skin of the test animals without performing any surgical procedure. Other researchers had manufactured missing links from pieces of skulls of humans and monkeys; and yes, it appeared that some even completely made up their research. ... Daniele Franelli conducted a systematic survey in 2009 and found that at least 72 percent of researchers were willing to somehow distort their research results." 

Trying to interpret the world solely from a data or mathematical driven perspective is incredibly unsuccessful. He backs this up by pointing to the failure of a large number of scientific studies to produce reproducible results, or results that make sense at all. "In 2021, 50 percent of surveyed academics anonymously admitted that they sometimes presented their findings in a biased way." This is especially the case when it comes to the human realm, being able to pull meaningful conclusions using mathematical algorithms in regards to medicine and psychology Desmet describes as "wretched." In an ideology in which all that exists are raw matter/energy and numbers, there is a fundamental piece missing from an interpretation of the world that seeks accuracy ... and what's missing is its actual identity! What is this thing? [For example, looking at the Rosetta stone in terms of its geological make-up and mathematical dimensions of its scratches completely missing the point that it is a translation stone!]. "Metrical data might seem like a more sophisticated and objective way of describing the research object, but it often conveys less than a skillful description by means of words. ... Anyone who tries to squeeze the unmeasurable into numbers will sense that his research has little real value and will be less motivated and lack a sense of duty to deliver accurate work."  

To fail to consider the nature of things, especially from the perspective of the human realm, is to miss the mark as to what things actually are and what they actually mean. [Think now how understanding what a virus is and understanding how society should react are fundamentally separate things.] "It increasingly ignored the register of subjective experience, eventually considering it to be a kind of insignificant, quasi-unreal by-product of material, biochemical processes in the brain, for example." 5

Global Mechanization and Mass Culture

Given this ideologically driven science which has risen to the forefront, he then turns to the ways in which modern technology has reshaped the form of Western society, inducing what he calls a "mass" culture. Here another revolution has taken place. The influence of machines has transformed the completion of human tasks. "Each added convenience came at a price, including a weakened connection to the natural and social environment. Artificial light broke the rhythm that the sun and moon had hitherto imposed on daily activities; the clock separated the human mind from cyclical natural processes ... industrial labor drew him away from the fields and the woods. ... Prior to mechanization, man's world of experience constantly resonated with nature's ever-varying language of forms; after mechanization, he was mainly absorbed by a monotonous, mechanical rhythm." 

In so many words, while technology has improved man's bodily state in the world, the mass production of material goods, and the ability to communicate through technology, has also brought about a uniformity in the human experience of culture. He gives many examples of the "globalization" of human society such that the unique local experiences that people had of living have been transformed into common, shared, universal experiences which no longer reflect the good aspects that only local communities can provide, such as the interactions and communities that were necessary to provide goods. "Social connections were also transformed beyond recognition. The invention of radio and television led to the rise of mass media and a corresponding decline in direct human interactions with a merely social function. Evening meetings between neighbors, pub gatherings, harvest festivals, rituals, and celebrations - they were progressively replaced by consumption of what the media presented. ... Public space, including the political sphere, was increasingly dominated by a shrinking number of voices that conquered the living room via the mass media." 6 Desmet also talks about the creation of "meaningless" work, work that is repetitive and anonymous. One doesn't know the person for whom they are working, nor necessarily produce a whole product. 

Immanent Nihilism

Mass globalized culture and meaningless work, Desmet claims, are the ingredients for an inevitable nihilism. "Humans have found themselves in a state of solitude, cut off from nature, and existing apart from social structures and connections, feeling powerless due to a deep sense of meaninglessness, living under clouds that are pregnant with an inconceivable, destructive potential, all while psychologically and materially depending on the happy few, whom he does not trust and with whom he cannot identify." Man must more than a cog in the globalized production machine of material goods and mass media. 7

Experience Exceeds Mechanism 

Now fast-forward to the last few years in which culture has been transformed once again by the digital world and its entrance into human society. The local human experience is changed again when people begin to interact through the medium of modern communication technology. Desmet holds fast to the idea, and I think it's something that's hard to dispute these days, that communication through digital means is not equal to human to human communication. "With the coronavirus crisis, the trend toward a digital society made a big leap forward. Teleworking became the norm, student life took place online, aperitif and coffee were consumed in front of a television or computer screen, even sex was mediated through technological machinery and the death penalty was carried out from a safe digital distance."

Those that believe it does are again the reflection of the mechanistic worldview that he has talked about. This is because real, human experience goes beyond the mechanistic into the quasi-metaphysical, something that cannot be fully replicated digitally. This, too, is leading to the breakdown of human relations. We all think that we are connected when in reality we have, in seriously important ways, never been further apart. As a means to show that human interaction exceeds the digital, he uses the example of the connection between a mother and child. This example was quite intriguing as he claimed that there is a resonance between the mother and child's body that communicates to one another on a subconscious level. Just being in each other's presence conveyed important information that cannot be replicated any other way. 

It is the deep, imperceptible connection that happens when two people interact in person that we are missing today. "The child achieves a kind of symbiosis with the mother through its creative imitations of her sounds and facial expressions; in this way, it will feel what she feels. As it takes on its mother's happy expression, it also feels her joy; if it takes on her sad expression, it shares in her unhappiness. Something similar applies to the exchange of sounds: In the clinking and clanging of the mother's language trembles the well and woe of her being, and the child who imitates that language resonates with it on the same psychological wavelength. ... The young child's body gets "loaded" with a series of vibrations and tensions that become embedded in the deepest and finest fibers of its body." 8

COVID Interpretation Problem, How Do We Deal with Incomplete Information?

Here Desmet begins to connect the COVID pandemic into the situation he has been laying out. There is an inherent problem with dealing as a society with something like COVID because we have forgotten the underlying principles of philosophy/policy/faith that nest and guide the mechanistic world. Without them, the mechanistic suffers from the problem of interpretation. There are too many ways to interpret any set of given data, and so it constantly leaves us with the problem of which interpretation is the right one. Which should we favor as most important? Everything has ripple effects and consequences, so how to do we choose which are worth suffering, and which are not? Are scientists equipped to do this? No. Such questions enter into the philosophical realm. 

This is the problem with COVID, there were no guiding principles by which to handle it, and so it turns to chaos, arbitrariness, flip-flopping, fear, and compulsion. "Numbers have a unique psychological effect. They create an almost irresistible illusion of objectivity, which is further enhanced when numbers are presented visually in charts or graphs. When people see numbers, they believe them to be objects or facts. This illusion blinds people to the nonetheless obvious truth that numbers are always relative and ambiguous, that they are constructed and produced from an ideologically - and subjectively - shaded story. At first glance, the numbers seem only true to the facts, yet on closer inspection, it becomes clear that they slavishly serve every story." 

Another very succinct way that Desmet puts it is that, "Stories make the numbers, rather than the other way around." And so the debate should have been around the story in which to interpret the numbers. Rather, the narrative was chosen by the politicians, who through the help of the tech overlords, were able to implement with massive control their view of the situation. "The dominant ideology repeatedly presents numbers in the mass media that confirm its own narrative, resulting in a largely fictitious reality in which a large part of the population firmly believes. The perception of reality is determined time and again by numbers that, a few months later, turn out to be very relative, sometimes plainly wrong, or even deceptive. But in the meantime, these numbers are used over and over to impose the most far-reaching measures and to set aside all basic tenets of humanity: Alternative voices are stigmatized by a veritable Ministry of Truth, crowded with 'fact-checkers'; freedom of speech is curtailed by censorship and self-censorship; people's right to self-determination is infringed upon by imposed vaccination, which imposes almost unthinkable social exclusion and segregation upon society." 9

Mischaracterization of Christianity

Chapter five begins with what I would argue is a mischaracterization of Christianity. He is trying to make a point that Western society has come full circle in his eyes. From the dogmatism which was a nonage on society in Medieval Christianity, to the openness of Enlightenment science, to the ideological censorship of Materialist science which has made us dependent again. The problem, though, is that his account of Medieval Christianity and the Renaissance is like something pulled from a book by Richard Dawkins. Tellingly, there are no relevant references listed for this section in chapter five. 

"Religious discourse for centuries darkened the human soul with irrational fear of hell and damnation. Suffering and disease were God's punishment, aging and infirmity were something to be accepted, carnal pleasures were tarnished with the stigma of sin, society was suffocated with sullen commandments and prohibitions. Sometime during the seventeenth century, the star of human intellect appeared in the sky. Man started to look outward; neither God nor devil appeared before his rational eye. The fear instilled by the religious discourse was declared unfounded; there was no longer any reason to accept the social contract imposed on society by the clergy. Man started to explore the world that surrounded him, studied the human body and the causes of disease and suffering. The human condition was not to be accepted - it had to be improved. For three centuries, an energetic optimism prevailed. The human condition could be made enjoyable. Disease and suffering would be cured by the power of the human intellect"

This idea that Catholicism was like a cage in which man was trapped, before he was finally set free by the "martyrs of science" to explore the world is totally asinine. It was the Catholic Church that took care of humanity by creating the first hospitals, orphanages, Cathedral schools, universities for further education. It was the monasteries of the Church that preserved the works of Western civilization from destruction. It was the deep Christian faith that the first Modern scientists used as guidance in their endeavor. Why would one explore a universe which had no intelligence behind it, or which was not intelligible to the human mind? Rather, Bacon, Boyle, Newton, Mendel, Lemaitre and many others engaged in science because it was an uncovering of the mind and design of God. If you notice, Western science did not crop up in any other part of the world but the Christian part. Another great example would be St. Albert the Great, the mentor of St. Thomas Aquinas. Albert was a scientist in every sense of the word. 

Consider this description, "Albert was assiduous in cultivating the natural sciences; he was an authority on physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry (alchimia), zoölogy, physiology, and even phrenology. On all these subjects his erudition was vast, and many of his observations are of permanent value. Humboldt pays a high tribute to his knowledge of physical geography (Cosmos, II, vi). Meyer* writes (Gesch. der Botanik): "No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared with him, unless it be Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted; and after him none has painted nature in such living colours, or studied it so profoundly, until the time of Conrad, Gesner, and Cesalpini. All honour, then, to the man who made such astonishing progress in the science of nature as to find no one, I will not say to surpass, but even to equal him for the space of three centuries." 10

To continue from Desmet, "The commandments and prohibitions of the past were declared superfluous, unnecessary to steer society in the right direction. An increasingly loose morality would eventually reconcile man with carnal desires, formerly perceived as threatening. The crippling censorship of anything contrary to the religious discourse disappeared. Freedom of speech became a basic right, education became universally available, legal assistance became a right for all, love was stripped of its duty to marry and have children, sexuality was restored and its coupling with sin and corruption was undone." 

The hilarious part is that Desmet actually recognizes that with Christianity, there is moral and philosophical chaos. He even says so in the following paragraph, but he doesn't draw the conclusion that maybe it was Christianity the whole time that produced what was good about Western culture. "Somehow, however, this process turned in the opposite direction. The idealization of the human intellect eventually led to an intensification of fear of disease and suffering, while interhuman relationships were marked by uncertainty and confusion. The old commandments and prohibitions were eventually replaced by a jungle of rules and regulations and a new, hyper-strict morality." 11

Psychology of Child and Mother

Anyway, in the absence of such rules, how is one to act? Here Desmet introduces the psychological concepts of narcissism and parent-child relations. In the absence of meaningful philosophical principles or religion, Desmet seems to suggest that society turns back towards fundamental psychological relations, such as the mother-child relation in infancy. To do this he references how a child does not know its own boarders at the beginning of infancy. Rather, it sees the world and its mother and itself as one type of thing. It seeks to soothe itself and meet it needs in such an environment according to its instincts which it naturally follows. As it gets older and sees itself in the mirror it begins to realize that it is a separate entity from its mother, and that it is the source of joy and happiness for the mother, who gives it that soothing feeling. It wants to be pleasing to its mother so it can continue to receive that affirmation. He claims that animals keep this interact quite simple in conveying needs and the fulfillments of those needs, but humans have language and begin to grow up, things get more complicated. Language creates an unending web of meanings which may make it impossible to fulfill this primal need. 

"Simply put, it wants to know the rules it must follow in order to be loved. ... In this stage, the child sees the parent as an omniscient master, and despite the fact that he sometimes resists submission with extreme stubbornness, he also demands that the parent takes that position. He has to know everything. If the parent cannot determine what she wants, the child doesn't know how to comply with her desire. That's the point at which the child is confronted with the human primal insecurity and is overtaken by the primal fear: being left behind by the Other (primarily by the mother) because it is unloved." 12

Post-Modern language theory and Foucault

As a side note, what I find interesting here is Desmet's usage of Post-Modern thinker Michel Foucault's language theory. In chapter one he introduces Foucault's notion of "truth-telling." The fundamental idea of this is that we can use words to undermine and destroy the structures of the past that continue in society today. It's a philosophy of the destructive, literally trying to deconstruct the ideas and work that went into building society. Likewise, in chapter five he returns to another aspect of Foucault's notion of "truth." As a philosophy of the destructive it doesn't really have a positive philosophy of truth, rather truth is simply the will of the powerful. And so Desmet introduces the idea of language as a relative web or connected meanings which have no objective meaning other than how they are used for the powerful' s purposes. And given this view of language and truth, he then says that there is never a way to fully understand what those in power are even conveying. There is not one perfect way to make mother happy. 

"Simply put, it wants to know the rules it must follow in order to be loved. At certain moments, this takes the form of a demand for rules; no matter how well a rule is defined, it is still too unclear and requires additional definition. And since the words in which the rules are formulated acquire meaning only by means of other words, the child starts to wonder about the meaning of every possible word. ... The child's attempts to make the rules unambiguous and conclusive are doomed to failure because, again, human language can never acquire definitive meaning." 

The problem with this is that earlier in Part I he criticizes the endless web of meaningless scientific data, and the difficulty of drawing a meaningful interpretation. Yet here he then claims the same difficulty when it comes to language. If language is also ultimately meaningless and uninterpretable in any final sense, then what is there to know at all? He was hinting at the necessity of the metaphysical earlier in the book, but here he seems to deny the possibility. Does he believe in the metaphysical or not? 13

Psychologilization of COVID as Dependence on Mother

Returning back to the main point of this chapter, Desmet then extrapolates these examples of the atomized society that he has been setting up and the government in the situation of COVID to the mother-child psychology. We want to be affirmed by our "parent," and so we seek to do and follow what we think they will make them happy. The problem is that the government doesn't know what is right, either, because of the Scientific Materialist ideology which has infected our culture. Therefore, the government becomes something of a monstrous mother, demanding loyalty through all her arbitrary ups and downs, instead of encouraging the child to figure it out for itself. 

And so we end up in a world of rules, rules, rules ... all of which have no interior logic because there is no interior logic. It is only the expression of the confused whims of the government, and an enumeration of rules in order to accomplish it. Very specific situations must be guided by numerous rules because there's no guiding principle underlying it all. "During the coronavirus crisis, this phenomenon reached its temporary peak with an endless number of arrows indicated on floors and stairs, showing where to walk and in which direction, signs reminding you that you are required to wear a face mask, confined spaces demarcated by crash barriers preventing one bubble from coming into contact with another one at festivals and cultural events, red and green dots on chairs indicating where you are and are not allowed to take a seat in the theatre." 14
1 - Desmet, Mattias. The Psychology of Totalitarianism. (Vermont. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022). Pg. 11-13.
2 - 12
3 - 14, 15
4 - 16 - 18
5 - 18 - 24
6 - 25 - 27
7 - 27 - 35
8 - 38 - 43
9 - 49 -64
10 -
11 - 65 - 67
12 - 68 - 74
13 - 65 - 74
14 - 75, 76