The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet

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In The Psychology of Totalitarianism Mattias Desmet relates the story of Grigory Ivanovich Grigoryev as told by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Grigory spent time in the Nazi concentration camps and then he ended up in the gulag. How depressing would that be? Nonetheless, he was a man who held to his moral principles no matter the cost. If he was asked to do something that he believed was wrong he would not do it even though he was punished for refusing. A common practice in the gulags was to steal food whenever possible, but Grigory never participated in this. Solzhenitsyn wrote that he “grew stronger in camp” and that he, a man in his 50s, “became particularly healthy after typhus from which he recovered…” Desmet calls this “the influence of his spiritual purity on his body.”

Keep Quiet and Do What You Are Told (Willingly)

One of the characteristics of totalitarianism, that Desmet points out, is the lack of spirituality. The overriding principle of totalitarianism is the mechanistic philosophy and “the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.” Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, Anthony Fauci and too many others to name exhibit this with their arrogant solutions to climate change, viruses, populations, economics and, at this point, anything else they can get their hands on. They truly believe they have the best answers and that we should obediently fall in line and follow these fearless, brilliant and ultimately compassionate leaders.

Many, many people, and in our current situation this is worldwide, appear to be quite happy to do what they are told. They do it in lockstep with everyone else, following protocols that are often wrong, different from a month ago, nonsensical and detrimental not only to society as a whole but to the individuals themselves. Why are so many so willing to do what they are told? Why do they defend vehemently these policies that change rapidly and consistently? Why are they willing to ostracize friends and family who refuse to do the same?

Consider the vaccines. First, we were told that getting the vaccine would keep us from getting COVID, that it would save us from death. Social media was rampant with vaccinated individuals declaring their newly vaccinated status. When people who were vaccinated started getting COVID, we were told that it would not be as serious with the vaccine as it would be without it. Right on cue these same social media virtue signalers declared they had gotten COVID, were thankful they were vaccinated and encouraged others to do the same. Our “leaders” and celebrities were often part of this group. What was and is even more disturbing are the people who suffered adverse events from the vaccine (“I’ve suffered a rare side effect.”), but still encouraged everyone else to get it. They appear to do all this without questioning what they were told in the very beginning: if you get vaccinated, you will not get COVID.

Why Do People Believe the Propaganda?

Why are people so susceptible to totalitarianism? Desmet goes through this in depth but here are the main points, a progression that he chronicles with historical examples:

  1. The first condition is generalized loneliness, social isolation, and lack of social bonds among the population….
  2. This deterioration of social connectedness leads to the second condition: lack of meaning in life….
  3. The third condition is the widespread presence of free-floating anxiety and psychological unease within a population….
  4. The fourth condition, in turn, also follows from the first three: a lot of free-floating anxiety and aggression….People perturbed by loneliness, lack of meaning, and indefinable anxiety and unease generally feel increasingly irritable, frustrated, and/or aggressive and look for objects to take those feelings out on.[emphasis mine]

These are the conditions that lead to Mass Formation, that psychological state that is fertile ground for totalitarianism.

Only a thorough analysis of this process enables us to understand the shocking behaviors of a “totalitarized” population, including an exaggerated willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own personal interest out of solidarity with the collective (i.e., the masses), a profound intolerance of dissident voices, and pronounced susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda.

While reading this compelling book I often found myself thinking about our current situation and Desmet often refers to what has transpired the last two years (The book was published in November of 2021).

  • Our governments worked hard to isolate us. Many people lost their jobs or if they didn’t lose their jobs they had to work at home. Students of all levels left their campuses. Churches were closed. We were told not to have parties, not to get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas all under the guise of protecting others.
  • Our governments also worked very hard to frighten us. I remember very early seeing videos from China that alarmed me. Were they real? At the time I didn’t know. Then the vaccination campaign began. I’ve never seen anything like that in my lifetime (I’m 64). It was so over the top that is was one of my first clues that something was not right.
  • Wear a mask, stand six feet apart, wash your hands, get vaccinated and do what you are told. Signs popped up on entrances to almost any business, in stores floor decals showed us where we should stand in line and almost everyone was wearing masks.
  • The other thing I began to notice were the attacks on the unvaccinated. The most egregious, because of his position, came from our illegitimate president:

    We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us. So please do the right thing.

    Later he said this:

    We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated — for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.

    Very inspiring indeed! But, as we’ve seen, the opposite is happening and those who have accepted the lies are almost incapable of seeing anything else.

  • And then the mandates for a significant percentage of our population. Coercion and bribery were used without a second thought in a country that just a few years ago would have considered these things as far-fetched as aliens landing in D.C. asking to see our leaders.

Two other things in this book struck me. Desmet spends some time talking about “The Leaders of Masses” in chapter 7. First, both those who follow the leaders blindly and those who distrust them completely often make the same mistake:

They fallaciously endow the leaders with a virtually absolute knowledge (and power)…

Secondly, Desmet points out that leaders are just as often in the grip of the propaganda, in the “story” prevailing in the mass formation as those they are leading, but their vision can be far more narrow than that of the masses:

The leader usually fanatically believes in the ideological basis of the narrative (not in the narrative itself) that controls the masses.

Leaders often know they are lying, know they are spreading propaganda, but in their minds the ideology they hold is so pure and true that anything to implement it into society is acceptable. Collateral damage is a necessary feature, not a bug. The masses are always promised a bright and enlightened future that never materializes. Desmet writes:

Totalitarianism is not about monstrous people–it is about normal people who stick to a morbid, dehumanizing way of thinking or “logic.”

This is what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil.

There is much more in this book that could be addressed, but one of the main things I look for when reading a book like this are solutions. Okay, there’s the problem. We understand it more clearly now. But what do we do? How can we stop this? That’s the important thing, that’s what is driving many of us who up until these last few years were apolitical. Everyday we see totalitarianism rising in this once free country and we want to help. It’s the sole reason I started this website, The Asylum.

Keep Speaking Out

In a country where mass formation has taken place Desmet says there are three groups that form:

  • Those who are true believers in the propaganda or the “story”
  • Those who do not believe, but still comply
  • Those who do not believe and “actively resist the masses”

Here are the principles that Desmet lays out to combat mass formation and totalitarianism:

  • Getting rid of the leaders by violent means will not solve the problem.
    Desmet says when the crowd, the masses, see violence used against their side, they see it as justification to do the same.
  • Assert your own voice. Speak up.
    Desmet writes, “Asserting one’s voice should typically be done in the calmest and most respectful way possible, never in an intrusive way and always with sensitivity to the irritation and anger it may generate but with determination and persistence.” We MUST NOT remain silent. If we do “the system becomes a monster that eats its own children.”
  • “Dissident speech” should be authentic and honest.
    Even if the speech has no effect on others, the act of speaking out, offering an “opposing voice”, elevates the speaker.
  • “The first and foremost task is to keep speaking out. Everything stands or falls with the act of speaking out.”
    Speaking out means many different things: the speaker might write books or articles, give interviews, talk in shops, grocery stores or at family gatherings. You may not even need to speak as you refuse to comply with measures that infringe upon our freedoms: vax & mask mandates. Desmet writes, “everyone who, in his own way, speaks out about the truth, contributes to the cure of the ailment that is totalitarianism.”

No Regrets

There is a proverb from the Bible that I often think about:

The first to plead his case seems just,
Until another comes and examines him.

– Proverbs 18:17

All of us together cannot and must not let the current regimes plead their cases without opposition. It is up to all of us to present our side of the story in conversations, books, emails, movies, art, texts, social media, poetry and gatherings. We need to speak out wherever and whenever we get the chance. Neither should we comply with any mandates. Make it difficult for people trying to enforce the rules. Be nice, but firm and resolute.

These seemingly insignificant acts, when engaged in by millions and millions of us, can and will amount to something great. The weight and burden of winning our freedoms back is upon all of us.

Feel the weight. Embrace the burden. Do not back down.

Now is the time to secure a future without regrets.

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