Perpetuating the Necessary Object of Fear and Anxiety for Control - Ch. 7 "The Leaders of the Masses" by Mattias Desmet
The Leaders of the Masses
This post deals with chapter seven in Desmet's book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism. This is really the heart of the book and there's a lot of great concepts take from Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, but given light here in relation to COVID-19. If you're interested in the previous chapters of the work, see here for chapter 1-5 and here for chapter 6.
Let's jump into this.
The Leaders and the Masses are in the Grip of the Story
Desmet begins with two key points about those who lead the ideological masses. First, while in regular hypnosis, the one doing the hypnotizing is awake from the manipulation. In totalitarian states, the leader is too, himself, entranced in the ideological narrative which he implements. Secondly, those who follow, and also those who object to their control, often make the mistake of attributing too much power to the individual who leads the masses. 1 They are not necessarily criminal masterminds, nor are those who follow them. (I disagree with Desmet here that Hitler, as I believe that Hitler did exhibit many psychopathic and perverted tendencies). Rather, totalitarianism is a type of radical control exhibited over the mind such that those involved will do anything to follow its rules.
"Hence Hannah Arendt's famous expression that totalitarianism was a true demonstration of the banality of evil: Totalitarianism is not about monstrous people - it is about normal people who stick to a morbid, dehumanizing way of thinking of 'logic.'" How did they come into the grip of these ideologies? This happens when a false story is told over and over, justified by "facts," and backed by pseudo science. In the context of Nazi Germany, there was a widespread "pan-German" movement which swept Europe in the late 19th and into the 20th centuries. (They resurrected their old Norse-pagan beliefs, combined with Darwinian science, and a cultural Anti-Semitism.) Once the population becomes convinced enough of the story, and a leader illumines the way for the public, then the story has begun to fully take hold.
Desmet relates this to COVID: "We see something similar happening during the coronavirus crisis, where a certain segment of the population is becoming convinced that the facts justify social discrimination of people who refuse to be vaccinated. The numbers show that they are spreading the virus, don't they?" 2
Mutual Reinforcement and the Noble Lie
And so, the leaders of these movements find their power in complete and total adherence to the ideology, even being willing to reorder human existence down to its deepest foundations if that is necessary. "Reality must and will be adjusted to the ideological fiction." Desmet gives the example of Adolf Eichmann and how at his trial in the 1960's he insisted that he planning of the "final solution" was in everyone's best interest, including the Jews. He actually formed many Jewish leaders into groups which served as aides in helping to gain compliance with the Jewish community. 3 Desmet offers the idea that it is the mob nature of these movements which allows individuals to show their true ethical colors, and to enact their deepest desires, which in other circumstances would have been suppressed due to the previous moral disapproval by the population. (Here, I must pause and offer a thought on this. I'm not fully sure that Desmet is correct here. He is taking this to show that people have no real ethical foundation outside of the group, but I think there's a deeper explanation. People's ethical compass is actually calibrated by the ideological story in which they exist. If you change that story, you change their compass. And so, for those who were true believers, it may be that they thought it was justified. Now I still believe that there is a natural law in man's heart which can break through every ideology, but it certainly becomes difficult when they have been assumed into the mass formation.)
"Even at the Nuremburg Trials, the Nazi leaders continued to speak matter-of-factly of such death as a 'medical act,' a precision therapeutic intervention to render society 'healthy.'" (Within Nazi ideology they saw the survival of fittest as the ultimate law of nature which rendered the master race, and so they saw themselves doing good in aiding the process.) 4 And so these unbreakable laws did not care about individuals, or their circumstances. Desmet mentions a large group of Dutch Jews who aided the Nazis in their work, only to be sent away themselves once the work was finished. 5
Here Desmet introduces one of the most interesting parts of the chapter, an idea of mutual reinforcement. He mentions how certain Nazi leaders who were stationed in countries which were not a compliant to Hitler, and how being exposed to a population who was not totally obedient led them to begin to wake up from their ideological slumber. And so, if the leaders bring about the mass formation of the population, the population in continuing to live the mass formation also reinforces the truth of it for the leaders. "The leader himself is entranced by the effects he produces in the crowd. Between the psychological condition of the masses and their leaders, there is a kind of circular causality: They hypnotize one another."
Likewise, like Plato's "noble lie," the leader feels justified in saying anything in the particular to get across the point of which is have completely surety in the abstract. "He believes so fanatically in his ideology that he considers it justified to limitlessly manipulate, lie, and deceive in order to realize that ideology. Mankind (or part thereof) is on its way to the best of all worlds and therefore everything is permissible." And like Desmet presented in Part I of the book, the scientists of these totalitarian countries too manipulated scientific "data" and numbers to prove their foregone conclusions. "In the Soviet Union, it was not uncommon to randomly pick 'traitors' off the streets at the end of the week if a predetermined quota had not het been reached." 6
The Collective Over the Individual
These totalitarian ideologies are collectivist in nature, meaning that the ideology being worked out in the whole of humanity is what is important, not any individual person in the system. And therefore even true believers and party members could attack their own selves if they were convinced it was for the good of the whole. "They often diligently adduced evidence to prove their own guilt and cooperated in their own conviction, if only to ensure that their status as a party member would be preserved. They perpetuated the hypnosis to the point of death. Waking up just before such a terminal moment would be very painful indeed." This is, in so many words, the destruction of the self for the collective. To take things even farther, apparently it was not just the destruction of the self for the ideology, but those in mass formation would give up their closest friends and family as well. 7
Again, it's all about the story that is being told. Leaders will sacrifice their economies, state institutions, laws, or whatever else is needed to incarnate the story. Why? Because these are all surface manifestations and don't necessarily matter. It is the deep ideological foundations that matter. And so a leader may look as though they are changing their minds or the laws every other day. But maybe that is exactly what is needed to keep the population in check and on track to usher in the "utopia." 8 But aren't some of these actions ridiculous because you'd be hurting your own population? This is the unfailing totalitarian logic. As long as the future collective is served in some way, the present individuals and situations do not matter.
Totalitarian Ritual and Sacrament
In its effort to conform reality to itself, totalitarian systems often take hold of the meaning of words, stripping them of their traditional meanings, and rebranding them with meaning connected with the ideology. Likewise, they often use types of symbolic branding to make clear which side of the story you are on, whether that be the saviors or the villains. "The frenetic urge of totalitarianism to impose a basic logic on society also manifests itself in the obsession with signs, sometimes used as a distinguishing feature for the elite (uniforms, medals, badges, etc), sometimes as a stigma for the 'objectified enemies' of the regime, which is burned into the flesh, if deemed necessary ... With its sign system, totalitarianism tries to imprint its logic on reality, to permanently link it to the real world. Importantly, the assignment of signs and stigmas is usually the first step in the process of destruction." 9
And Endless Search for a Villain
Mass formation psychosis keeps its sway over people, in many ways, because of fear. There must be an object of anxiety or threat in society which can be labeled as the problem which has to be rectified in the ideological story. But what happens when the society actually does destroy their, so called, enemy? What then? Does peace return? No. These governments depend on a continual cycle of purification in order to keep them alive, and to keep its populace under its control. And so if one problem is solved, another must be found ... someone new must play the villain, whether they are really guilty of anything or not. 10 Desmet has a long section on how this can be applied to the COVID-19 response. We have a threat, so we propose strict measures. These strict measures end up creating more problems in the populace and more fear. All the more reason to propose even stricter measures, and so on and so forth. "The lack of critical reflection, the irrational allocation of empath, and the willingness among part of the population to accept great personal loss are an extremely dangerous cocktail. The way in which unvaccinated people are denied access to parts of public spaces, which now even engenders support within the population for denying them access to grocery stores and hospitals, evokes the most unpleasant reminiscences and may indeed become the first step of an infernal cycle of dehumanization." He says much more on this, so please see these pages for more. [Also, it seems as though climate crisis hysteria is going to generate the very same type of reasoning in the near future ... get ready.] 11
Now because totalitarianism must continually perpetuate new threats or run out of steam, those in charge must keep finding new issues to cause fear. Desmet describes it perfectly, here; "Mass formation feeds on anxiety and aggression; without the fear and the prospect of venting this aggression, the mass dynamics grind to a halt. The leaders realize that, if this happens, the masses will wake up and become aware of the damage they have suffered, whereupon they will turn against the leaders in a lethal fashion. Consequently, the leaders have no choice but to keep identifying new objects of anxiety and introducing new measures to destroy such objects. And the totalitarized part of the population follows them willingly ... In this way their anxiety remains linked to an object, they are able to vent their frustration and destructiveness, and realize time and again a new social connection via new rituals of death." Desmet makes an astute observation here, that this process takes full control just when they have eliminated all other voices from contradictory speech. 12
[And yet, at the very time it takes full power by silencing opposing voices, is the very time that the leaders need to identify a new villain. Logically, what should they do? How about create fake groups of dissenting voices which they can then target, but which are really their own creation. Create groups which put forward wild conspiracy theories so that they can point to them and convince the population how insane these groups are. Yet, they secretly have created them ... and need them.]
"Anyone who wants to understand how unpredictable and absurd such destructiveness can become can read Solzhenitsyn's account of the various waves of persecution and genocide under Stalin. During this period, the regime constantly targeted new groups of the population, to be identified as "objective enemies". People who had not committed any hostile act but were deemed capable of doing so by virtue of the group to which they belonged. Time and again, these new enemies were isolated and eliminated.36 At first, it was possible to discern some logic in the great purges: They started by deporting the bourgeoisie, then the army officers who returned from abroad (they were too indoctrinated by capitalist logic), then anyone who had anything to do with religion (they were not convertible to communism), then all the people who might own gold (dentists, watchmakers, jewelers), then the peasants who were just a bit better off than other peasants, and at a later stage all peasants, tout court. These were all people who were too "petty-bourgeois" or possibly too affected by contact with capitalists. However, a little later- -after all those groups had been deported or exterminated--the system still had to discharge its destructive instinct, and random "criminal" population groups became the object of destruction." 13
Crowds are Good for Destruction
The "utopia" that these totalitarian systems promise never turns out to be that way. Rather, in their own self-destructiveness effort to find new villains, it is a living Hell that is created. [In my opinion, it doesn't seem possible to have a utopia on earth. We will always destroy it.] Desmet gives several interesting examples from Soviet Russia. The Bolschizks, for example, protested that under the monarch 17 people were put to death in one year. They wanted to do away with the death penalty. And yet when it was their turn to rule, at their height, they were executing 600,000 people a year. They often resorted to picking random people in the population, dubbing them "traitors," and executing them in order to meet their quotas of purification. 14
They too screamed about "slavery" during the monarchy. And yet, when they came into power they increased the peasants working day but huge amounts. Previously one would only have to mine about 100 lbs of ore in a day, but later under the communists this rose to about 28,000lbs of ore a day. Not only that, but the peasants who did slightly better than the rest (like in Ukraine) were deemed to be too much like the Bourgeoise, and therefore stripped from their land and put into camps where most of them died. "Devoted to solidarity, they aim for the greater good in the belief that it will lead to an ideological paradise. The outcome, however, is invariably the same: an infernal abyss." 15
1 - Desmet, Mattias. The Psychology of Totalitarianism. (Vermont. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022). Pg. 105
2 - 106
3 - 107
4 - 108
5 - 109
6 - 110
7 - 111
8 - 112
9 - 113
10 - 114
11 - 115
12 - 116
13 - 117
14 - 118
15 - 119