Mattias Desmet: ‘Mass Formation’ Hypnosis and the Rise of Technocratic Totalitarianism
Why did large swaths of society suddenly buy into masking toddlers or restricting people from visiting their loved ones, even as they lay on their deathbeds?
I sit down with Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” Desmet is one of the world’s leading experts on the phenomenon known as “mass formation,” which can occur when people are isolated from one another and free-floating anxiety is prevalent.
“The real reason why they buy into the narrative is always because it leads to this new social bond, because it frees them from their anxiety, because it enables them to direct their frustration and aggression at something,” Desmet says.
Below is a rush transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from Jun 16, 2022. This transcript may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Jan Jekielek: Professor Mattias Desmet, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Prof. Mattias Desmet: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, quite a number of people have actually been talking to me about your work. And when I learned that you were writing a book,” The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” I was, frankly, very excited to read it. You’re writing about it in a context of what’s happening around coronavirus policy or coronavirus mania, almost, as you describe it in some ways, but you were actually thinking about these sorts of things well before COVID was around.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, that’s right. Yes, I started to think about it in 2017 actually, and maybe even before that. But in 2017, I started to take notes to gather all kinds of ideas and thoughts about totalitarianism, just because I noticed in 2017, that a new kind of totalitarianism was slowly emerging in our society. Not a fascist or a communist totalitarianism, but what we might call a technocratic totalitarianism. Meaning that, you are heading for a society which relied more and more on technological control to tackle the emerging objects of anxiety in our society, meaning, there’s such things as terrorism, climate change and so on. It seems that a major part of the population and a major part of the leaders of society were inclined to accept that only technological control, which also controlled private space and private life, would be sufficient to, or would be necessary to deal with all the emerging problems in our society, real or imagined problems.
Mr. Jekielek: So, that’s fascinating. And why don’t we actually start here? Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your field of study and how you come to be thinking casually about such things?
Prof. Desmet: Yes. Well, I’m a clinical psychologist. I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. And later on in my career, I also got a master’s in statistics just because I became interested in the problems with academic research in general. In 2005, it became clear that most academic research is flawed. For instance, John Ioannidis, professor of medical statistics at Stanford, wrote this wonderful paper somewhere back in 2007, which was titled, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
And I was immediately fascinated by the problem of flawed research, started to study it. I tried to explain to people what problems were at the level of research that it usually leads to the wrong conclusions. And from there on, I also started to become interested in all kinds of flawed information that circulates in society, which contains intentional or unintentional, all kinds of misleading information, which nevertheless has a huge grip on society and has a huge impact on society.
Together with that, I was also fascinated by the fact that most people, in a very strange way, most people actually continue to believe in narratives and in information that is utterly absurd in many respects. And in a strange way, most people or many people are radically incapable of taking a critical distance of what society believes in and see that this narratives or disinformation they believe in fail to see that it cannot be true.
And that stimulated my interest in a phenomenon of mass formation, the phenomenon that I’m studying now for about 10 years, and which is, I think, the only explanation why people can continue to believe in narratives that are often blatantly wrong, that always are highly damaging before their individual interests, which often leads them to believe so fanatically in a narrative, that they become radically intolerant for dissonant voices, and that in the end, they also stigmatize and ultimately try to destroy the people who do not go along with their narrative.
And they typically do so as if it is their ethical duty to do so. That’s the phenomenon of mass formation. Mass formation is a specific kind of group formation, which has a very specific impact at the level of individual psychological functioning, which makes the individuals that are in the grip of it radically blind for the absurd characteristics of what the group believe in, which makes them willing to sacrifice everything that used to be important for them, and which also makes them radically intolerant for all dissonant voices and makes them stigmatize, eventually commit cruelties towards the people that do not buy into the narrative.
So, throughout my career, I became more fascinated with this phenomenon, because I noticed on the one hand how absurd narratives were circulating in society, had a huge impact on society, and because I noticed that many people, in a strange way, were incapable of noticing that something absurd was going on.
And I started to think of that much earlier. And I also was aware of the fact that it is exactly this kind of mass formation that leads to the emergence of totalitarian states. And when the corona crisis started, I just knew that exactly this was going on in our society. I observed how absurd statistics were circulating in public space. I saw how everybody seems to be in the grip of a kind of statistical information that was, according to me, radically wrong.
And I noticed how, again, society seemed to be completely blind for all counter arguments and for all the observations that could have made clear that the narrative they believed in was wrong. And I noticed also, how indeed a major part of the population tended to stigmatize everyone who didn’t buy into the narrative and seemed to be willing to exclude a large part of the population from public space if they were not willing to conform to the dominant ideology.
So, in a strange way, I noticed that everything that I had been studying in the last years seemed to be happening now in public space. And I decided to start to speak out, to publish some opinion papers about this, and eventually, to write my book, “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” which tries to explain how this phenomenon of mass formation works, why it becomes stronger and stronger throughout the last few hundred years, and then in specific, what we can do about it to make sure that it doesn’t lead to the destruction of a major part of the population, and eventually, not only to the destruction of the people who do not go along with the masses, but also to the destruction of the masses itself. Because that is so typical of mass formation, in the end, it is radically self-destructive.
Mr. Jekielek: What I found really fascinating is you talk about how it’s actually very difficult to measure things. But that’s not what we’re taught, actually, in school and even in university. I was studying evolutionary biology. We’re not taught this kind of stuff. But we’re taught that measurement is very, very definitive in a way and that’s what we’ve come to expect. Now, something I remember when I was studying and I was doing experimental design, I was actually stunned by the idea, and this deeply disturbed me, that if I adjust certain parameters of an experiment, I can almost get the result I want. And of course, this could be very convenient if you’re looking for grants in certain areas and so forth, but I found this profoundly disturbing. But explain this to me, because this is not obvious to most of us at all.
Prof. Desmet: Yes. Of course, measurements and quantifications are objective in a limited to measure, to quantify, a limited set of objects. Only characteristics that are strictly unidimensional can be measured adequately. In measuring an object, we actually always compare it to the unidimensional scale of the real numbers multiplied by a measurement unit. So, meaning that, only strictly unidimensional characteristics of phenomena can be adequately measured. And most things in nature and in life are not strictly unidimensional.
One of the best examples is, if you want to count or measure the number of people who are dying from COVID, then you are dealing with a multidimensional phenomenon. Someone never dies for one reason. There are always a combination of factors that play a role when someone dies, his immune system, a virus, all kinds of other medical conditions he might have, or have not, and so on.
So, deciding whether or not we will count someone as a corona victim is, in the end, more a philosophical question. We have to deliberate about, “Yeah. Okay, what was the condition of this person?” Does it make sense to consider him as someone who died from the virus, or rather, as someone who died from old age or from a certain comorbidity, another medical condition, and so on. So, almost all variables in the corona crisis were multidimensional in nature.
And that explains, of course, why all the figures and numbers were so subjective. It became clear, for instance, that over 90% of the people who were considered a corona victim, in the end, had three or more other medical conditions. And the same was true for the number of contaminations, the number of hospitalizations. And so, while all these figures were highly subjective, in one way or another, the dominant mainstream narrative always choose for the most dramatic and most enthusiastic way of counting the number of contaminations, hospitalizations, and the number of victims claimed by the virus.
In my book, I write about that. The entire chapter four is devoted to the problems at the level of measurement and the methodological problems in scientific research. For instance, in the medical sciences, over 85% of all publications are radically flawed and cannot be reproduced, which means that they are actually not objective. That shows the extent of the problems at the level of academic research in our society, which is, of course, highly troublesome because our society considers academic research and science to be the most important guiding principle to organize society and to organize our human life.
And that’s, I believe, one of the major problems of our Western and culture of the tradition of enlightenment. We will have to look for other principles to organize a society. If we don’t, we will end up in an extremely destructive chaos, which will lead, in the end, to the destruction of humanity.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, absolutely. You talk about how this mechanistic view of the world leads down the path to totalitarianism. Actually, this is the case that you make, it ends up there almost inevitably. Let’s discuss very briefly, because this is another thing that’s not very obvious, probably, to many of us. Because we know there’s been dictatorships in society since time immemorial. But totalitarianism is a very specific kind of dictatorship or a very specific type of government, if you will. And you actually take time, I think based on Hannah Arendt’s work, to actually explain what that means. I wonder if you could reprise that.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, yes, yes, yes. People often mix up a totalitarian state for a classical dictatorship while it is something completely different. A classical dictatorship is based on a very primitive and simple psychological mechanism, it’s just a population that is scared of the aggressive potentials of a small group, the so-called dictatorial regime. People are scared of them and they just accept that this dictatorial regime imposes its social contract in a one-sided way, unilaterally.
But in a totalitarian state, we are dealing with something completely different. And a totalitarian state is always based on the so-called phenomenon of mass formation, which means that in a totalitarian state, their first is this segment of the population, usually 20, 25, 30% of the population, which becomes fanatically convinced of a certain narrative and of a certain ideology, for instance, racist ideology, new dominant racist ideology of Nazi Germany, or the historical materialist ideology of Marx in a Soviet Union.
And in the end, it is this part of the population which is fanatically convinced of a certain ideology or of a certain narrative, that together, with a few leaders, succeeds in taking control over the state and which leads to the emergence of an entirely, a very specific kind of state system, which has a huge impact on private life as well. In a classical dictatorship, the point of gravity of the system is in the dictatorial regime.
And if you succeed in eliminating a part of the regime, you will see that usually, the dictatorial system will collapse. In a totalitarian system, the point of gravity is not so much in the elite. It’s situated in the masses themselves, which makes that, if a part of the totalitarian elite is destroyed, the system just continues as if nothing happened. And that’s why Stalin, for instance, realized that he could perfectly eliminate 60% of his own communist party, that his system would not collapse. The people who were eliminated were just replaced and the system continued as if nothing happened.
So, we see this strange difference between classical dictatorship and a totalitarian system. A totalitarian system is actually quite new. It emerged for the first time in the 20th century. Before that, there were classical dictatorships, tyrannies, and so on, but there were no totalitarian regimes. And that’s one of the questions that I start from in my book, like, “Why did the totalitarian state emerge for the first time in the 20th century?”
And then there’s only one answer to that question, it’s because the phenomenon of mass formation, which indeed exists for times immemorial, or as long as mankind exists, but which became increasingly strong and which lasted longer and longer throughout the last three centuries. It’s because the mass formation became so strong in the beginning of the 20th century that the masses could seize control in society, helped by their leaders.
And that led to this new state system, which not only controls public space and the political space, as a classical dictatorships does, but which also controls the private space, which a classical dictatorship usually cannot control. A totalitarian system can control private life because it has a huge secret police, as Hannah Arendt said, namely, this part of the population that so fanatically believes in this narrative that led to the mass formation that it is willing to report everyone, even their closest family members, to the state. This is exactly what happens every time a large scale mass formation emerges.
A woman of Iran, Shorif Ishtari, told me two months ago, that conversation is available on the internet, how she lived in Iran during the revolution in 1979, if I’m not mistaken. The revolution, which actually was a large scale phenomenon of mass formation, and how she witnessed with her own eyes, that a mother reported her son to the government and how she hung the rope, with her own hands, around his neck, just before he was hung, and how she claimed to be a heroine for doing so. That seems absurd, and it is absurd, of course. But once you really understand the mechanism of mass formation, you also understand why it leads to this kind of cruel behavior.
Mr. Jekielek: This point, I want to talk about two things, and you can tell me which way you want to go, because they’re connected. The first one is, there’s these five really critical elements, and I want you to reprise them here, how mass formation is achieved. And especially this element, the atomization of the individual, the individual being pulled out of being a normal part of society or then the traditional part of society. So, that’s one piece. The second piece, and this is also very important, is the, I guess, critical importance of Hannah Arendt’s work, which I think is very underappreciated today, especially around totalitarianism and the whole concept of the banality of evil, and so forth, which of course you mention as well. So, I’ll let you go here.
Prof. Desmet: Mass formation emerges when very specific conditions are met in a society. And the most crucial condition, the root cause I think of mass formation, is that many people in society have to feel disconnected from their natural and social environment. It’s the most crucial precondition. For mass formation to emerge, is a large segment of the population that feels lonely, disconnected from its natural and social environment.
And the number of people who felt disconnected was huge. It has never been as high as just before a corona crisis throughout history. So, worldwide, 30% of the population claimed to have no meaningful relationships at all, and to only connect to other people through the internet. And the number of lonely people increased throughout the last two or 300 centuries as a consequence of the rise of the mechanistic human in the world, and the industrialization of the world and the use of technology.
All these factors are related to each other, of course. But I give many examples in my book showing how mechanist rationalist thinking, in itself, let’s do a certain isolation of people from their environment, and also how the industrialization of the world, the mechanization of the world, and the use of technology also, typically, leads to this disconnection between human being and its environment.
And once people are in this disconnected state, they will typically start to experience purposelessness or lack of meaning-making in life. That was also very clear, just before a corona crisis, for instance, over 60% of the people worldwide reported to consider their job a so-called bullshit job. They thought that their jobs didn’t have any meaning at all. And only 15% reported that they considered their job to be meaningful. And so, that’s the second step. First, you have this disconnection, this loneliness, then you have experiences of lack of meaning-making.
And then in a third step, which is very important, people typically develop so-called free-floating anxiety, frustration, and aggression. Meaning that, people start to be confronted with the kind of anxiety, frustration, and aggression that is not connected to a mental representation, or in other words, people feel anxious, frustrated, or aggressive without knowing what they feel anxious, frustrated, and aggressive for.
And this is a highly aversive mental state because it makes people feel as if they are out of control. If you are anxious, but you don’t know what you’re anxious for, you typically cannot control your anxiety, you don’t know what you should protect yourself from. And in this mental state, something very typical might happen. Under these conditions, a narrative is distributed through the mass media, indicating an object of anxiety, and at the same time, providing a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety.
There might be a huge willingness to participate in this strategy to deal with the object of anxiety. That’s the first step of every major kind of mass formation, whether we are talking about The Crusades, or the Witch Hunts, or the French Revolution, or communism of Soviet union, or the rise of Nazism in Nazi Germany. We always see the same. First, someone formulates this narrative indicating an object of anxiety.
It can be the Jews, the witches, the Muslims, the aristocracy, doesn’t matter. First, someone indicates an object of anxiety, provides a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety, and then you see this radical willingness in the population to participate in a strategy to deal with the object of anxiety. The advantage, of course, is that from then on, people have a sense of control. They have the feeling that through the strategy, they can control their anxiety, and at the same time, they also have an object which they can direct their aggression and frustration on.
And in a second step, something even more important happens, the most important thing, because many people participate in the strategy to deal with the object of anxiety, at the same time, people start to feel connected again. They start to feel connected again. A new kind of social bond emerges.
But, and this crucial, this new social bond, this new group that emerges, is not formed because individuals connect to other individuals, this new group is formed because individuals separately connect to the collective. Meaning that, this typical solidarity that exists in a mass or in a crowd is not a solidarity between individuals, it’s a solidarity of every individual separately to the collective. Even more, the longer the mass formation exists, the more all the energy is sucked away from the bonds between individuals and is invested, infused, in the bond between the individual and the collective.
And that explains, of course, why during the corona crisis, people were all full of solidarity, and at the same time, they accepted that if their neighbor got an accident on the street, they were no longer allowed to help him unless they had surgical gloves or a surgical mask at their disposal, and that if their parents were dying, that they were not allowed to visit them. And all that in the name of solidarity but the elderly.
So, that’s also why in a totalitarian state, the population typically ends up in a radically paranoid atmosphere in which the bonds between individuals are so weak, and the bond with the collective is so strong that everybody is willing to report each other if they think that someone else is not loyal enough to the collective. That’s also about explains, of course, why in the end, mothers report their sons to the state if they think their sons are not loyal enough to the state. That’s the strange, baffling, mind-boggling mechanism of mass formation, which is extremely strong, which is identical to hypnosis.
It’s hypnosis. It’s exactly the same as hypnosis. Exactly. And which also explains why people continue to buy into the narrative, even if it becomes radically absurd. People don’t buy into the narrative because they think it’s accurate or because they think it’s scientific or something. No. Unconsciously, the real reason why they buy into the narrative is always because it leads to this new social bond, because it frees them from their anxiety, because it enables them to direct their frustration and aggression at something. That are the real reasons of the mass formation.
And no matter how absurd the narrative becomes, people will continue to buy into it, at least the 20 or 30% of the population, that is really in the grip and that is really hypnotized. Because that’s what it truly is. It’s a process of hypnosis for certain people. Hypnosis is something very simple, actually. It’s just someone who can withdraw the attention, can take the attention away from reality or from the environment and focus all the attention and all the psychological energy on one small aspect of reality, and consequently, something very strange happens, it is as if the rest of reality doesn’t exist anymore.
And this mechanism is so strong that even strong physical pain is not felt anymore on the hypnosis. As appears time and time again, every time hypnosis is used as a way to make someone insensitive to pain, to sedate someone, during a surgical operation. I’ve seen it happening. A simple hypnotic procedure is sufficient to make someone so insensitive to pain that the surgeon can cut through the skin, through the flesh, even straight through the breast bone, to perform an open heart operation without the patient noticing it. That explains how strong this mechanism of the focusing of attention is as it exists in hypnosis, also in illusionism, and also in mass formation.
Mr. Jekielek: Mattias, at this point, I think it would be best if you could lay out, and you started talking about this as well, how you see these five elements or stages manifesting with coronavirus. Because, again, I think many people watching might see elements of this, but if you could lay it out.
Prof. Desmet: Well, yes. Well, in the beginning of the crisis… You know, I will start a little bit earlier. Two or three months before the corona crisis started, in December 2019, I really had this intuition that something dramatic or that something fundamental would happen in society. I noticed how all negative psychological parameters, such as the stress and depressions, anxiety, burnouts, and so on, how they all started to rise, to increase, exponentially. And in December 2019, during a holiday, I told my friends, “You will see, one of these days, we will wake up in a different society.” This intuition was so concrete in me that I decided to go to the bank to finish my mortgage, to pay back my mortgage. And the bank director was asking me time and time again, “But how can you so sure that something will happen, that you decide to pay back your mortgage?” And so on.
And he talked for one and a half hour. And of course, I couldn’t explain perfectly why I had this intuition, but I had this intuition. And then two months later, the corona crisis started. And I was really having the feeling that, “Okay, yes, that was what I had been expecting,” something like that. But what I noticed just before the corona crisis, that all this social disconnectedness, this social isolation, all this psychological problems, all these feelings of lack of meaning-making, how they were constantly increasing, exponentially increasing. And I had a feeling already that society was ready for a large scale mass formation. And then I saw how the statistics started to circulate in public, in the mainstream media. I noticed almost immediately that it was highly probable, that the statistics were dramatically overrating the dangers of the virus.
And at the same time, underestimating the dangerousness of the measures that were taken. In a strange way, I noticed that… Actually, nowhere in the mainstream media a simple elementary cost-benefit analysis was made. Because that’s the first thing you would do in such a situation, in which you consider to use drastic, dramatic measures to counter a virus, you would expect that the first thing you would do is make a proper cost-benefit analysis.
You would just think about, “Okay, how many victims can the virus claim and how many victims can the measures claim, the corona measures, and the lockdowns and stuff?” And many scientists and academics actually warn society. Also, some institutions warn society that it was highly probable that the corona measures would claim much more victims than the coronavirus could claim, even if no measures were taken at all.
And in a strange way, this didn’t happen. Nobody seemed to be interested in this cost-benefit analysis. For me, that was a typical example of how the attention of an entire population was focused so much on one small aspect of reality, namely, the coronavirus and the corona measures, that it seemed incapable to take into account other aspects of reality, such as all the children that would starve in the developing countries as a consequence of the deregulation of the economy because of the lockdowns. I tried several times to show people, like, “Look, we have this coronavirus, the victims claimed by the virus, but we have these other victims. Do you see these other victims as well?” And in a strange way, nobody, all these counter arguments didn’t have an impact anymore on the mental functioning and on the decision making.
And that is a clear cut sign, I think one of the clearest signs, that a large scale mass formation is happening. Suddenly, in society, there seemed to be two camps, two groups, the one group who went along, who bought into the mainstream narrative, and then the other group, who felt that the mainstream narrative was absurd. And these two groups, the dividing line between these two groups, run straight through all previously existing group formations, it was as if society was completely reorganized into two entirely new camps. And that’s typically what happens during a mass formation, I think.
And from then on, once I realized that, I decided to stop to try to convince time and time the other people, trying to show them how absurd statistics were. I did from time to time and I think we have to continue to do so. But I rather focused, from then on, on trying to tell people what psychological mechanisms were going on in society and what they could lead to, namely, to the emergence of a new kind of totalitarianism, which is a technocratic totalitarianism, which is both, in a strange way, demanded by a certain part of the population, and of course, a part of the leaders who, already for several decades, and maybe even for longer, believe that democracy should be replaced by technocracy, that society should be led by technical experts rather than by democratically elected politicians.
Mr. Jekielek: The thing that I found incredible at the beginning of your book was your discussion around how measurement is so imprecise, and actually, in a lot of ways, so subjective, and in a lot of ways, erroneous. Because one of the things that has come out, I think, as outcome of watching the COVID response manifest and the use of various technocratic means and so forth, is inadvertently, most of the decision making, or a ton of the decision making has just been very, very, very flawed. And the people that are pushing these decisions out and imposing them on populations just keep doubling down, irrespective of evidence, which is provided. To me, it’s almost like, if you ever thought that technocracy would be a good idea, now we have a case study to demonstrate why it should never happen.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, yes, definitely. That’s the problem, of course. Rationality is always blind. If we believe we are rational, we usually become blind for all the subjective factors that play a role when we think rationally. And that’s the reason also why I believe that rationality or rational understanding can never be the basis of human living together. The only thing that can really organize society and human living together in a fruitful way and in a humane way is ethical principles. It’s our ethical principles. The eternal principles of humanity. That should be the basis of human living together. We can be rational. We have to think rational, of course. But we should understand that rationality, in itself, can never grasp the essence of our human existence and can never grasp the essence of everything around us.
That is exactly what science showed this so clearly. We often think that there’s a mechanist, materialist, rationalist view of human in the world, which believes that the universe, that the entire universe, is a material system of molecules and atoms which interact with each other according to the laws of mechanics, which can be completely understood in a rational way.
We often believe that this rationalist human in the world is equals the scientific human in the world. But that’s actually not true. That’s exactly what all major scientists showed us, namely, that in the end, the essence of life and the essence of nature around us, the essence of the world, is irrational. That’s something that was, for instance, proven by complex dynamical systems theory, which showed paradoxically in a strictly rational way, that the essence of all complex dynamical systems, which is most part of nature, is strictly irrational.
And that they show that complex systems behave in the same way as irrational numbers in a non-periodic way. And that’s where you can start to understand why Niels Bohr, the famous physicist who won the Nobel Prize, said, “When it comes to elementary particles, to atoms, language can only be used as poetry.”
He meant that behavior of elementary particles is fundamentally irrational, and the only kind of language that can capture something of the essence of their behavior is not a logical language, it is a poetic, symbolic, mystical language. And in the same vein, in the same vein, someone like René Thom, one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century said that, I quote him, “This part of reality that can be understood in a rational way is very limited, and the rest of reality, we can only know by empathically resonating with it.” So, and that’s something that I experienced in my own life very well until I was 35 years old. I really believed that everything around me, and nature, could be understood in the rational way. I couldn’t see how the facts, everything around us could behave irrationally.
The facts are logical. That’s something that, for me, could not be doubted. And when I was about 35 years old, I started to understand that it was not true. I started to understand because of systems theory, that the things around me and nature are intrinsically irrational, and that we can never know them. We can never reduce the things around us, the plants, the trees, the human beings around us, the animals, all nature around us. We can never reduce it to the categories of our own logical understanding. And I think that, that for me was also the moment at which I really started to succeed in opening up real and almost literally.
When you think logically, you connect to one logical idea to the other. And this forms like a closed system. And when you can accept and become aware that there is a limit to your rational understanding, that you will never be able to reduce the things around you to the categories of your own rational thinking. At that moment, almost literally, it is as if all these ideas that were connected to each other start to open up a little bit.
And it is as if the vibration, the eternal music of the things around you, can enter your being and can touch the strings of your being. In my book, I literally compare the human being to a string instrument. And I think that’s true. And if we hide behind a close system of logical ideas, we stop resonating with the mystery of the things around us, with the eternal music of life. And it is at that moment when we can open up and we can start resonating that we can really get in touch with something eternal around us. And it is at that moment that we can start to feel these principles, the eternal principles of life and of humanity, which tremble in everything around us. And I think these principles, which we can never articulate in a definitive way. We have always renewed our awareness of these principles.
We have to reinvent them time and time again. But I think that only these principles that can allow us to organize human living together in a truly human and humane way. And well, these principles, yes, as I said, they are extremely important. This resonating knowledge, which leads to the awareness of principles of humanity, is extremely important. We can expect everything of that, I think.
I could refer for instance, as I do in the last chapter of my book, to the book of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the guy who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the concentration camps of Stalin in the Gulags, in which he stayed for about 15 years, if I’m not mistaken. And he describes how, in the concentration camps, most prisoners started to behave in a radically beast-like manner. They lost all ethical awareness. They crushed each other’s skulls during the night. They became even more terrible for each other than the guards were already for them.
And Solzhenitsyn describes how in this pool of darkness, a small part of the prisoners went in exactly the opposite direction. The more inhumane the world around them became, the more they became determined to stick to ethical principles themselves. And Solzhenitsyn describes something wonderful. He describes in particular, in one of his fellow prisoners Ivanovic Gregoriv, how he entered the Gulags being a little bit sick, suffering from several medical conditions. But how he refused time and time again, to do something that was not in harmony with his ethical principles, if someone stole his food or his clothes, he just went out without having eaten, worked in temperatures of -40, -50° Celsius, clothed in only a cotton sack or something with four holes in it.
And when the guards commanded him to do something that he considered unethical, he refused to do so even no matter what the punishment was. And Solzhenitsyn describes how this guy became stronger and stronger, also physically, and how, finally, he survived the Gulags for 15 years. And Solzhenitsyn says that if you start from a materialist mechanic, rationalist human in the world, you can never understand something like that.
But if you were in the Gulags, and if you have experienced yourself what the impact of sticking to ethical principles is under the most difficult conditions, then you can start to understand what the fundamental value and importance is of principles for the human being, both physically and emotionally, psychologically, and also for society and for human living together. So, I think that in my opinion, we are on the verge of discovering that this ideal of the tradition of enlightenment, the ideology of reason, is highly limited.
That the rational understanding is extremely limited, can never be the basis of society. Throughout the last centuries, we have been thinking that rational understanding is crucial and is the basis of human living together. The entire tradition of enlightenment actually believed that a society should be organized according to rational knowledge and rational understanding, that we should try to manipulate the world around as also a rational way, in such a way that it becomes more friendly to the human being.
But we should do our utmost best to open up, to become aware of the limitations of logical and rational understanding, and to develop a different connection with our environment, a different way of knowing the things around us, which is much more based on resonance and on empathic resonance with the things around us, in such a way that we discover these eternal principles of humanity, and that we can use them, or that we can base human living together on these ethical principles, rather than on a kind of rational analysis, which is always, in the end, based on factors that are radically irrational.
That’s the point. If we think that the rational understanding is the basis of everything, in the end, we arrive in a completely irrational society. That’s what I think the corona crisis shows us now. People think that they behave rationally, but upon closer consideration, it is clear, I think, that their behavior at most respects is radically irrational and self-destructive.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an incredibly optimistic and humane vision of the world. And I’m very, very happy to hear you so passionate about it. That is one of the things that gave me a lot to think about in reading your book. One of the things that struck me is that, you said that this phenomenon of mass formation basically become a much larger and larger phenomenon recently. What strikes me is that none of what you described around corona could have happened without the strong participation of legacy, or corporate, or establishment media, and also social media, basically pushing this kind of messaging out.
And of course, we know, for example, in Nazi Germany, they were experts at this kind of propaganda, the will to power the film, the imagery, and so forth. So, I wanted you to comment on this a little bit. It seems like the technology is actually an important element here.
Prof. Desmet: Technology is an important element, of course. Mass formation can emerge without technology or without mass media, but it’ll never last very long. It typically ceases to exist after a certain while. It’s only when the same narrative is repeated time and time again through mass media, is recirculated time and time again through mass media, that the mass formation can last so long that it is capable of seizing, of taking control over society.
So, that it’s very well known, has been described from the 19th century onwards, and many people are aware of the fact that through the mass media and through technological machinery and devices, they have the capacity and to [inaudible 00:48:30]. Someone like Edward Bernays, I don’t know if you know him, the guy who was considered to be the father of public relations, of the nephew of a Sigmund Freud, but of a completely different nature, I think.
Sigmund Freud was someone with a strong, ethical awareness. And Bernays, tried to have an ethical awareness, but I don’t think he succeeded very well in doing so, in being very ethical. But someone like Bernays describes already that the masses are extremely dangerous, that they are irrational and self-destructive. Okay. That’s right, I think. But then he decides that, or he concludes that, that’s exactly why we should develop all kinds of strategies to control them and to manipulate them.
And he also refers to the fact that exactly the technological developments allow us to do so. And his entire public relations discourse is actually a demonstration or description of all the techniques and strategies you can use to manipulate and control the masses. And that’s the problem, of course. And initially, I think that propaganda and public relations and all kinds of media started from the idea that they had to control the masses just to make sure that society doesn’t fall prey to a destructiveness of the masses. But in the end, they use the destructiveness of the masses to seize control over the state system and they became mass destructors as the masses themselves.
So, that’s what Hannah Arendt calls, in the end, there was like a diabolic pact between the masses and the elite, which led to the emergence of the totalitarian state machinery. So, there are other ways to make sure that a society doesn’t fall prey to the aggression and the irrationality and the destructiveness of the masses. And it is exactly the opposite of what propaganda is and misinformation and manipulation is.
It is just, we have to re-appreciate the value of what the ancient Greeks, the ancient Jews, the ancient Japanese culture called truth speech. If you want to avoid that masses emerge and that the masses become highly destructive and irrational and so on, then the first thing you have to make sure of is that people reconnect with their environment. And that means we have to move on to a society with much more local production of all kinds of the things we need to survive.
That’s one thing. We have to cultivate and to promote the truthful speech in society. We have to make sure that these conditions of social isolation, lack of meaning-making, free-floating anxiety, frustration, aggression, or avoidance, that other things we can do to truly solve the problem of mass formation, much more than believing that the solution would be that the minor elite would control and manipulate the masses in an efficient way, because as minor elite is in the grip of mass hypnosis itself and it’ll become exactly as self-destructive and as irrational as the masses tend to become. So, that’s the big problem, of course.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and that’s something actually very interesting that you say in the book. Because of course, for this, I think you said 10 to 30%, that absolutely doesn’t accept the dominant narrative, for example, around corona or whatever. Many people I’ve heard imagine that there is some grand conspiracy basically to control the world, or there’s different variations of this, right? And of course, and indeed, there are all sorts of people that are looking to take advantage of the situations, and groups, and the large multinational corporations, and possibly large think tanks. Anyhow, something that you say struck me really, really strongly. You said, “The ultimate master is the ideology, not the elites.” And you were just talking about this earlier. That’s fascinating.
Prof. Desmet: One of the problems with an extreme conspiracy thinking is that it seems to believe that if you would destroy the elite, the evil elite, then the problem would be solved. That would definitely not be the case. First and for all, I doubt whether the elite is much more evil than the population. I think the population always also… Solzhenitsyn also said that, he said, “The dividing line between good and evil runs through every heart,” he said.
It doesn’t run between people, the one group being evil and the other group being good. No, not at all. Everybody knows there is evil and good in everyone’s heart. And that’s a first problem. It’s with this extreme conspiracy thinking that it situated all the evil, it localizes all the evil in one small group, believing that, suggesting that the destruction of this group would be sufficient to solve the problem.
That’s not true at all. As long as the society is in the grip of this mechanistic, rationalistic thinking, it will recreate the same elite time and time again. The only profound solution to the problem is that there is a sufficient number of people who becomes aware of the relativity of mechanistic, rationalist thinking and who moves on to a different way of knowing the world. As I just explained, that’s the only true solution.
And in that case, if we can start to think in a different way, we will see that a new elite is formed and that the elite that exists now will cease to exist in a spontaneous way. And that’s the true solution to the things. And the only thing we have to do I think, to do so, is just in the years to come, which might be very difficult years for everyone, for the people who do not go along with the mainstream and also for the people who do go along with the mainstream narrative, it might become difficult for everyone.
And we will never be able to predict what exactly might happen in the years to come. Never. Because it’s just not ours to predict such things. Society is a complex dynamical system. And the characteristic of such systems is just that even if you have the mathematical formula in your hand, that describes the behavior, you can never, never predict their behavior. That’s one of the characteristics.
So, we should not lose too much energy, I think, in trying to predict what will happen, what exactly will happen. What we should do instead, I think, we should focus, we should invest our energy just in trying to live up, as I said before, to the principles of humanity, trying to rediscover them, trying to speak out. Because I think the first and most important principle of a human being is that they should try to articulate the words that seem sincere to it.
We should invest all our energy, and the only thing that we can be sure of in this that we ourselves can remain human, live up to it to human principles in a world that is increasingly becoming inhumane. If we do that, all the rest will happen automatically, I think. All the rest will be done for us. We don’t have to do much more than that, which will be extremely difficult. I’m aware of that. It’s not because it’s simple that it cannot be highly difficult to do it. I’m aware of that.
Mr. Jekielek: No, absolutely. So far, we’ve talked about two groups in society. But as you describe it in your book, there’s actually three groups. One group is the group that is in the grips of the mass formation. Another group is that’s opposed to that vision of the world. And the third group is the one that’s just going along with things. So, that group, it strikes me as the one that’s more susceptible to being, I guess, influenced or encouraged, can change their thinking more easily.
The second piece that I’m thinking of right now is that, Hannah Arendt, because we keep talking about her, of course. And I was going to just get you to briefly say why she’s so important to your thinking. But she also does talk about her belief that it’s the non-violent resistance… Or her observation is that the nonviolent resistance is the thing that has the greatest impact, it seems, on shifting the mass, so to speak.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, yes. Non-violent resistance is crucial. Resistance from within a totalitarian system can only be successful if it sticks to the principles of non-violent resistance. External enemies of a totalitarian system, of course, can destroy a totalitarian system. That’s what happened to Nazi Germany for instance. But internal enemies, internal resistance, should always stick to the principles of non-violent resistance simply because every use of violence will have the effect on the masses, that it is justified, even necessary, to destroy the people who do go against them.
So, it’s very clear, Hannah Arendt has been describing that indeed, how non-violent resistance is the only thing that can be successful. Non-violent resistance can happen in many ways. I think it is a good time now to start to study the way in which people such as Gandhi proceeded it in India. But in any case, non-violent resistance is what we should try to realize, definitely. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned this approach of truth speaking as the way to behave in the future, the necessary way to act in the future paradigm that you envision. And so, that actually is something a little deeper than might be entirely obvious. And of course it has to do with speaking honestly, and speaking truthfully, but it’s something deeper than that. And as we finished, I was hoping you could actually just speak to that.
Prof. Desmet: Yes, yes. What truth is, it’s very hard to define. And that’s logical because you can never say the ultimate truth about the truth. You always lack words to define what truth is. But indeed, I’m writing a new book now and it’s all about the art of speech and the difference between rhetorics, propaganda, and so on, on the one hand, and truth speech, on the other hand. The ancient Greeks distinguished between four kinds of truth speaking, which were prophecy, wisdom, then something they called technique, which is like a kind of technically correct knowledge, and then something that they called parrhesia.
Parrhesia, which is a kind of bold and courageous speech of an individual which defies the group. And the ancient Greeks distinguish between these four types of truth speaking. And in particular, the latter one, this courageous speech of individuals, even if they put themselves at risk because they go against the current or they swim against tide, go against the group, in particular, this kind of truth speaking, they considered crucial for a society.
Well, it’s quite hard to define these four types of truth speaking in a concise way, but in any case, I think what is important for now is that we reappreciate the value of human speech and particularly the value of truth speaking in every respect. It’s not only important for society to prevent society to become utterly destructive and self-destructive, but also for our own existence as a human being, it’s crucial, it’s speaking, and truth speaking is the most important way, I believe, if we want to evolve as a human being, if we want to become stronger and pure as a human being.
It is sufficient, in times such as the
ones we are living in now, to try to continue to speak out in a quiet, sincere, and honest way to automatically go through a process of evolution as a human being, I think. If we continue to do that, we will do the most important thing that we can do in these times. We might be able to prevent that all the humanity radically ceases to exist because of the emerging totalitarianism.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Mattias Desmet, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Prof. Desmet: Thank you. Thank you. It was great talking to you and thank you for inviting me.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining professor Mattias Desmet and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. His book again is “The Psychology Of Totalitarianism.” I’m your host Jan Jekielek.