The Infecting Process of Mass Formation Psychosis - Ch. 6 of "The Psychology of Totalitarianism" by Mattias Desmet
The Rise of the Masses
I am in the process of doing a close review of this book. I took a look at Part I (chs. 1-5) altogether here. Part II I am taking chapter by chapter as this is where it seems the meat of the argument exists. Enjoy.
Introducing "Mass Formation Psychosis"
How did science turn into an ideology, departing from its Enlightenment roots? How did Nazi Germany use Science in their systematic process of genocide? 1 Russia did the same in their historical certainty of the necessity to exterminate certain classes. "This also required a fair bit of extermination. At first, this took place according at a certain 'logic'; at a later stage, everybody randomly fell prey to it. Tens of millions of people were deported to the gulags, where the majority of people perished. Half of the members of the communist party were also eventually liquidated, usually without the slightest hint of sedition or treason. And the most astonishing thing of all was that most victims made no effort whatsoever to refute the mostly unfounded allegations. They even made unequivocal admissions of guilt and willingly went to the gallows." How did these atrocities happen? Desmet refers to Hannah Arendt in search for an explanation. In Arendt's analysis it wasn't solely because a dictator imposed his will by force and physical threat, but rather a type of ideological control which took over the minds of the population, giving them reasons to comply. Desmet applies a novel term for this, "... the social-psychological process of mass-formation."
Here's Desmet's definition of "mass formation psychosis": "... the willingness of the individuals to blindly sacrifice their personal interests in favor of the collective, radical intolerance of dissident voices, a paranoid informant mentality that allows government to penetrate the very heart of private life, the curious susceptibility to absurd pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda, the bling following of a narrow logic that transcends all ethical boundaries (making totalitarianism incompatible with religion), the loss of all diversity and creativity (making totalitarianism the enemy of art and culture), and intrinsic self-destructiveness (which ensures that totalitarian systems invariably annihilate themselves in the end)." 2 How does this connect to today? Desmet gives many examples of a type of slow growing technological totalitarianism wherein "dull bureaucrats and technocrats" slowly gain control over our lives through the manipulation through information, personal and social. 3
Being Subsumed into the "Group Soul"
Here Desmet turns back to Le Bon and his work on crowd mentality. There is a unique psychological process which happens when an individual person enters into the social and physical space of a "crowd" or "mob." When this happens, the unique, rational thinking, person can loose their individual identity and take on the mentality of the desires of the group, whatever those are. These group impulses can cause someone to act in a way which they would not normally act outside of that context. "... the 'individual soul' in the masses is completely taken over by the 'group soul.'" 4 Now what happens when the groups of individuals that are capable of being formed are enabled to grow larger and larger. This is exactly what technology does, it allows for mass communication, and therefore the creation of a group which can encompass a whole nation, or even a whole world. Thus, the "group soul" mentality or crowd mentality can now be present over huge swaths of people which were previously impossible. Mass formation psychosis can now become a form of government in which all the individuals of a state are subsumed into a group mentality. Desmet then makes the point that COVID-19 was the first time in history when the mass formation psychosis took hold over the entire world. 5
Factors that Lead to Mass Formation Psychosis
Desmet then covers a list of factors from the Mechanistic worldview which lead to the inability of people to resist the mass subsumption into the group soul, some of which are a recap from Part I of the book. The first mentioned is that of isolation. When people are estranged from their intimate social connections, such as friends and family, they are more susceptible to their ideas being influenced by those from without. Without roots in an identity, it become easier to influence their mind. "About 30 percent of people living in these countries [industrialized countries] report chronic experiences of loneliness and isolation, and this percentage is increasing every year." Secondly, given a lack of meaningful relationship with others, a certain nihilism or purposelessness will set in. Life becomes pointless. "Remove the bond with the Other and he will experience his life as meaningless ..." 6
Third is a "free-floating anxiety." If people are riled up by something which causes fear and turns their body towards a panic or fight/flight state, they are of course going to be seeking some type of concrete answer to get them out of this state. "Such anxiety is mentally difficult to manage and presents the constant risk of turning into panic, which is perhaps the most aversive psychological state for human beings. For that reason, a person in that state seeks to link their anxiety to an object." 7 Four, these taxing psychological states have been shown to create a type of unexpressed or pent up anger and aggression. It's not pleasant to remain in these previous states, and so there is a type of anger in response.
This leads to a type of scape-goating. When someone comes into this situation and provides a story which explains all of these factors, why people are feelings this way, who is to blame, and how to release their frustration and return back to their old lives, the entire group who is a part of this situation then is united in their new mission against this enemy. This will be manifested at the problem and anyone who refuses to go along with the new narrative provided. "... in this fight all latent brewing frustration and aggression is taken out, especially on the group that refuses to go along with the story and the mass formation. This brings enormous release and satisfaction to the masses, which they will not let go of easily." 8
Such "unity" of those who have been in these states is enough to comfort them so much that they are willing to comply with actions in line with the new narrative ... often to horrible consequences and tragedies. "In this way, the masses come to accept even the most absurd ideas as true, or at least to act as if they were true." This unity is the "group-soul." The individual is lost in the meaning provided for them in being part of the collective. Rational thinking is replaced by the urges of the mob. It is then rituals which keep the individual as a part of the collective. It is a constant reminder and symbol of the new narrative that they have been taken up into. The more absurd, the more proof that one is a good person being a part of the collective mass. 9
Entering the Grip of Mass Formation
Desmet references an experiment done after WWII by a man named Solomon Asch. In the experiment there were four lines presented on paper and only two of the lines were the same length. Of the eight people in the experiment, seven of them were plants and instructed to say that two of the lines were the same length when it was clearly not the right selection. The eighth participant, 75% of the time, agreed with the group even though they knew it was clearly and obviously wrong. "After the experiment, some test subjects said that they did know the correct answer but did not dare go against the group. Even more interestingly, others admitted that they had started to doubt their own judgment under group pressure and eventually accepted the absurd group judgment as true." This brings a point to the forefront, amidst the pressure to believe a narrative about something, there are three fundamental groups that emerge. There are the true-believers, those skeptical but afraid to say anything, and those willing to criticize. The majority, though, are going to be part of the first two groups. 10
Fear of the group turning on the person drives them to comply. This is all the more true when the mass is represented by a sole voice, when all others voices have been silenced. It is the voice of this leader which represents the group, and in a way, claims to be the group. And so when all other voices are silent, and there is only one voice to represent the correct opinion, people begin to censor themselves in their private lives because of the fear of being turned in by others, what Desmet labels "paranoid informant mentality." 11 This reaches down into even the most intimate of relations of family and friends by keep people isolated from one another, unallowed to meet and spend time together in any meaningful way. The only appropriate relationship in these totalitarian narratives is between the individual and the collective whole represented in the official narrative.
For the masses enraptured in the grip of mass formation psychosis, what is to be done about dissident voices who contradict the official narrative? Those who do not go along bring anxiety in the those who have fully bought in, a resentment, and dare others to question themselves. The narrative was supposed to save them, and so those who contradict must be bad people. "To the masses, dissident voices appear 1) antisocial and devoid of solidarity, because they refuse to participate in the solidarity that the mass formation creates; 2) completely unfounded, as critical arguments are not assigned any cognitive or emotional weight within the narrow circle of attention of the masses; 3) extremely aversive because they threaten to break the intoxication, and in this way confront the masses again with the negative situation that preceded the mass formation (lack of social bond and meaning, indefinable fear and unease); 4) extremely frustrating because they threaten to remove the venting of latent aggression."14 And, likewise, there must be a moral duty to silence these outliers. It also provides an outlet for the masses to vent their pent up anger and confusion. "The masses are inclined to commit atrocities against those who resist them and typically execute them as if it were an ethical, sacred duty." 15
1 - Desmet, Mattias. The Psychology of Totalitarianism. (Vermont. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022). Pg. 89
2 - 90
3 - 91
4 - 92
5 - 93
6 - 94
7 - 95
8 - 96
9 - 97
10 - 99
11 - 100
12 - 101
13 - 102
14 - 103
15 - 104