The Hypnotized Masses
Two book reviews
The Psychology of Totalitarianism, by Mattias Desmet, Chelsea Green, 2022
The Coronation, by Charles Eisenstein, forthcoming from Chelsea Green July 28 (earlier draft essays available online)
In medicine, there is the pathogen and the terrain. Do we get sick when we are exposed to an aggressive microbe or when our immune systems have been weakened systemically?
And in global politics there are the same two perspectives: The West is free-falling into totalitarianism. Is it because we have been bamboozled by wealthy and powerful con artists who control our governments and our media? Or is it because we are lonely and rootless, with empty souls, vulnerable to any demagogue who offers us a mirage of community and meaningful social participation?
We are slowly emerging from a derangement of our institutions and our economies associated with the COVID pandemic. Responses to the pandemic in most countries were channeled toward measures that were tragically inefficient from the standpoint of managing a virus, but could be understood as means to consolidate power in central authorities, while transferring wealth from the middle class to the plutocrats.
How are we to understand what has happened? Our instinct may be to blame the plutocrats and their henchmen within the government. If you are inclined in this direction, you have found plenty of evidence to support the position. There has been chicanery, pre-planning, and orchestrated deception. This evidence is perhaps best articulated in Robert Kennedy’s book, The Real Anthony Fauci, with worthy additional contributions from Doctors P and G Breggin, Dr Mercola, and Naomi Wolf.
There is another way of looking at what has happened. How is it that so many intelligent and good-hearted people have been taken in by a constantly shifting story that other intelligent and good-hearted people regard as risible? In addition to narrative control at a global scale, eager compliance with questionable government strictures has depended on the psychology of crowd behavior. There are historic precedents that help us understand the pandemic from this perspective.
“There is a certain conspiracy dimension in most social upheavals — those in power may have little choice but to contrive things behind closed doors — but it is easily overestimated. If anything rules from behind the scenes, it’s not so much secret societies as ideologies.” — Desmet
“Events are indeed orchestrated in the direction of more and more control, only the orchestrating power is itself a zeitgeist, an ideology.” — Eisenstein
Mattias Desmet has just released (in English) a book that is about much more than the mass formation narrative that has brought him fame over the last six months. It is a work of philosophy and sociology and politics, addressing the human condition as affected by the Enlightenment. His message is that the disorientation brought on by the “death of God” as Nietzsche wrote in the 19th century led to the condition that Sartre called “Nausea” and made humanity sitting ducks for a new kind of totalitarian government that arose in the 20th Century and has reappeared in various guises with alarming frequency.
In case you haven’t followed Desmet’s public appearances, I’ll summarize his thesis as it relates to collective hypnotism, the madness of the crowd which Desmet names mass formation. There are four conditions that make a population vulnerable to mass formation. (1) Widespread loneliness and isolation. (2) Lives ungrounded in a religion, philosophy, or any other perspective that gives a feeling of purpose. (3) Anxiety and untethered fears. (4) Frustration; free-floating anger, with no obvious target. Desmet has been telling us that when these four conditions prevail, people are desperate for a story that will give them purpose and a way to contribute to a communal good. They are sitting ducks for any tinpot dictator who offers them a false sense of community, tells them how they can be good citizens, and offers them targets for their fear and their hate, along with an illusion of safety.
The Psychology of Totalitarianism
During these several months, I have thought that Desmet’s thesis was a little too pat, as if he had concocted it for 2020. But his book has roots that precede the pandemic, and his thinking is grounded in a coherent philosophy that addresses history as well as mob psychology.
He traces the roots of totalitarianism to the de-enchantment of the world, the discrediting of vitalism. (These are my words, interpreting but not quoting Desmet.) To the ancients, the world was alive with spirits and imbued with mystery. The ideas of the enlightenment brought control and mastery of some aspects of the physical world. But in the 19th Century, science made a bold land grab, claiming to be the one true and universal way of understanding absolutely everything. The past generated the future mechanically, with no room for free will, let alone interventions by a divine omniscience. With Darwin, chance replaced destiny as a way to make sense of the world.
From one stage of our being to the next
We pass unconscious o’er a slender bridge
The momentary work of unseen hands
Which crumbles down behind us; looking back,
We see the other shore, the gulf between,
And marveling how we won to where we stand
Content ourselves to call the builder “chance”.
— James Russell Lowell
God is dead, proclaimed Nietzsche. Toilets became art, if signed by Duchamp. Schoenberg excised the tonal center from music. Freud told us that we are ruled by unseen demons inside our own skulls, and Sartre gave us to believe that freedom is a life sentence.
We have purchased rationality, but at what price? We have paid with our souls.
What a devastating loss of meaning and structure we have endured! Our ancient traditions and mythologies may have been irrational or superstitious or even silly, but they gave meaning to our individual lives and coherence to our culture. To trade them for the sterility of a scientific world-view was a loss from which mankind has yet to recover. It is this loss of meaning that is at the root of our discontent, our aimlessness, our vulnerability to addiction and suicide and war on a scale never imagined before the 20th Century.
And it is our emptiness and isolation that have tossed us in their turbulent waves and washed us up on the shores of despotism, eager to embrace the most defamatory and transparently false ideology if only it offers the mirage of connection and an uplifting cause to which we can devote our lives.
Desmet is critical of “science”, not just on spiritual grounds, but on scientific grounds as well. If you don’t know of the most widely-cited research paper in the field of epidemiology, I refer you to John Ioannidis, who demonstrated to us with rigorous methodology that
“It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false”
The field of medical research is where we see this most blatantly, but it is a problem that, to a lesser extent, haunts the biological and even the physical sciences. Desmet explains the problem in terms of human frailty and methodological biases, but in the case of medical research in particular, I think it obvious that the elephant in the room is pharmaceutical $$$. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Civilization and its Discontents
In previous chapters we discuss how science tipped from open-mindedness to dogma and blind conviction, how its practical applications isolate people from one another and from nature, how its utopian pursuit of an artificial and rationally controllable universe equates to the destruction of the essence of life, and how its belief in objectivity and measurability of the world leads to absurd arbitrariness and subjectivity. In this chapter, we will discuss the fate of another great ambition of science: to liberate man from his anxiety and insecurity, as well as traditional moral commandments and prohibitions.
Desmet cites examples of the way in which modern governments have sought to control all aspects of human interaction with an absurd proliferation of rules. The US tax code alone contains more words than the King James Bible. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
But from the perspective of the totalitarian regime, all the absurdity and the confusion created by a maze of contradictory directions only adds to their advantage. The more confused people are, the more likely they are to seek refuge in a simplistic demagoguery.
Desmet draws on the work of two past visionaries who experienced mass psychoses of the Twentieth Century and lived to share their insights with us. Hannah Arendt dissected the Nazi aberrations and Alexander Solzhenitsyn fictionalized Soviet Stalinism. Arendt, indeed, foreshadows most of the theory in Desmet’s book. She understood that Nazi rule was not accomplished through brute force or terror, but predominantly by enlisting ordinary citizens to do unspeakable things. She understood both the population-level preconditions and the communications technologies that enabled mass hypnosis for despotic ends. Solzhenitsyn emphasized the power of a compelling ideology to make people override their instincts of decency and compassion when convinced that their heinous acts served a higher, long-term purpose. “The majority of those in power, up to the very moment of their own judgment, were pitiless in arresting others, obediently destroyed their peers in accordance with those same instructions and handed over to retribution any friend or comrade in arms of yesterday.” [The Gulag Archipelago]
The totalitarian regime inevitably becomes “a monster that devours its own children.” [Arendt]
Eisenstein tells this story on an even grander scale. Reaching back further into our history and our mythology, he speaks of separation as the primary dynamic, beginning with the agricultural age. From Eisenstein, we can appreciate the truly epochal nature of the current crisis. We are asked to choose between the logical endpoint of mechanization, predictability, control and separation, and an alternative that is yet only an indistinct vision: commitment to freedom and life and trust, an adventure with unlimited potential but no assurances.
Eisenstein’s style is not for everyone, but I find him completely disarming. He allows us inside his mind, narrates his internal process as he tells his story, regurgitates his inner doubts, trying to locate his authentic voice from a cacophony of assimilated other.
Desmet writes in an academic style, so I feel no compunction about summarizing or paraphrasing; Eisenstein chooses his words with an artistry that I won’t presume to supplant, so I quote a few of his most memorable passages. Here, still early in the pandemic, he spoke directly to the notion that COVID 19 was a staged event, a bioweapon that was loosed on the world to concentrate wealth and consolidate power.
What is a conspiracy theory anyway? Sometimes the term is deployed against anyone who questions authority, dissents from dominant paradigms, or thinks that hidden interests influence our leading institutions. As such, it is a way to quash dissent and bully those trying to stand up to abuses of power. One needn’t abandon critical thinking to believe that powerful institutions sometimes collude, conspire, cover up, and are corrupt. If that is what is meant by a conspiracy theory, obviously some of those theories are true. Does anyone remember Enron? Iran-Contra? COINTELPRO? Vioxx? Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?
What is true about the conspiracy myth? Underneath its literalism, it conveys important information that we ignore at great peril. First, it demonstrates the shocking extent of public alienation from institutions of authority. For all the political battles of the post-WWII era, there was at least a broad consensus on basic facts and on where facts could be found. The key institutions of knowledge production — science and journalism — enjoyed broad public trust. If the New York Times and CBS Evening News said that North Vietnam attacked the United States in the Gulf of Tonkin, most people believed it. If science said nuclear power and DDT were safe, most people believed that too. To some extent, that trust was well earned. Journalists sometimes defied the interests of the powerful, as with Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre, or Woodward & Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate. Science, in the vanguard of civilization’s onward march, had a reputation for the objective pursuit of knowledge in defiance of traditional religious authorities, as well as a reputation for lofty disdain for political and financial motives.
Today, the broad consensus trust in science and journalism is in tatters…Their loss of trust is a clear symptom of a loss of trustworthiness. Our institutions of knowledge production have betrayed public trust repeatedly, as have our political institutions.
In long lists of scandals past, duly referenced, Eisenstein demonstrates solidarity with the rebels (your present writer among them) who are calling out the intrusive and ineffective measures imposed on a compliant populace by a ruling elite (which seems frequently to disregard its own safety rules). But to expose the liars and petty demagogues and string them up in the public square would be, he tells us, a shallow and ineffective response. We must look within ourselves to the culture and the technologies and the lifestyles we have embraced without attention to the consequences, the sources of goods we consume and the broader implications of the way we live. He identifies the pandemic as a logical extension of choices we have made over hundreds of years. If it points us to a regimented dystopia, well, we have been headed toward that dystopia for at least 200 years.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
— Wordsworth, 1802
The task before us is to rise above the mindset in which every problem is caused by an enemy with whom we can go to war. Our discontents are endemic. If COVID offers us the glimpse of a dreadful future, then it has served a valuable purpose. We find ourselves at the nexus of diverging paths.
Of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful than we ever dared believe to be possible.
I write these words with the aim of standing here with you – bewildered, scared maybe, yet also with a sense of new possibility – at this point of diverging paths. Let us gaze down some of them and see where they lead.
Who could disagree? But the catch-22 is that we are not choosing together. Perhaps we are not choosing at all, but enduring choices that have been imposed upon us.
Eisenstein challenges us by listing chronic ills in our world that are objectively more serious than COVID. Worldwide, five million children starve to death each year (2013; twice this number at present, according to Desmet). If we can pull together our efforts to stop the spread of COVID, then it must be possible that we can support a much smaller, cheaper, easier, and less inconvenient campaign to end world hunger.
But who is the “we” to whom he is speaking? We shut down businesses, wore masks, and stayed at home in response to government edicts supported by saturation bombing by the mainstream media. The corporations that own our governments and supply revenue to the mass media profited handsomely. It is the concentration of wealth and power in these corporations that made possible the measures, and it is the pecuniary interests of these corporations that engendered this worldwide “cooperation”. I conclude that “we” will end world hunger only when it is in the financial interest of the world’s largest corporations to do so.
Unless the power structures of our world can be democratized. Exactly how this might occur is difficult to imagine, but I personally am hopeful, and Eisenstein more so. He acknowledges that defanging the world’s military and opposing the wealthiest entrenched powers seems plausible only with a form of magical thinking. It will require a miracle. But
What is a miracle? It is not the intercession of a supernatural being into material affairs, not an event that violates the laws of the universe. A miracle is something that is impossible from one’s current understanding of reality and truth, but that becomes possible from a new understanding. — from a 2009 essay
Eisenstein does not address the democracy that we have lost, and does not tell us — once we have chosen one from the garden of forking paths — how it is that we will be able to secure the freedom to realize it. Perhaps miracles (like God) are ineffable, and “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” [Wittgenstein]
The insights of Desmet and Eisenstein (rooted in Arendt) are important for strategies moving forward. We will need to awaken large numbers of hypnotized people in order to reverse the global slide into centralized control.
But let’s not abandon the other perspective, based on evil conspiracies rather than emergent crowd psychology. The books cited above do not address the secret acts of destruction or the people behind these acts. At the same time we are being assaulted with bioweapons,
Agriculture has been under attack
Supply chains have been under attack
Weather has been weaponized to create droughts. floods, and heat waves
Children are being trafficked to assure that many of our public officials are vulnerable to blackmail
Any of these crimes would enrage even a hypnotized populace, were they widely publicized. So, while we work to awaken our friends and neighbors from the Sleeping Beauty spell, let’s also continue with the vital work of the alternative media reporting these atrocities, and also embarrass the mainstream media for not reporting them.
For those of us who are skeptical of the mainstream narrative, Desmet assures us that speaking our truth is far from useless; it is only when the un-hypnotized minority stops speaking out that the despotism enters its terminal, violent and destructive phase. Our voices are most effective when they are calm, logical, respectful, timed and titrated to the receptivity of the interlocutor (or audience). At some level, everyone realizes the weak internal logic of the story they have been told, and the truth will resonate, even (especially) if the initial response is angry rejection. It is rarely productive to argue on the same emotional, dismissive level at which we are sometimes received. An individual’s adherence to a deeply felt truth is not only a powerful social corrective, but also a powerful therapy in hard times, like a backbone providing internal support. This was the experience to which Solzhenitzyn so eloquently attested.
Both Desmet and Eisenstein offer us a hopeful overview. For two years, we have been privileged to experience Marley’s Ghost, with a vision of the dystopia for which we are surely headed if we don’t change course. Whether we need to storm the Bastille and guillotine Tony Fauci, Bill Gates, and Klaus Schwab is subject to question; but there is no doubt that we need to examine ourselves and our communities, consciously to choose a more intimate connection to our own hearts, to our families and communities, to nature. Gandhi did not say “be the change you want to see in the world,” but he did say
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.
To counter the dominance of the British textile industry in India, Gandhi took up his spinning wheel. We can plant community gardens; we can share with neighbors things we don’t often use; we can gracefully receive what we have been given and give forward where we see an opportunity; we can speak our satyagraha to those who are open to hearing it; we can stretch to overcome our fears and trust this abundant world to offer us the support and the safety that we need; we can listen to the people in our lives who want listening and care for the people who need our care.
In these ways, and in other ways to which your heart will guide you, we can begin to build the connected and integrated and loving world that will remain after the world of greed and violence self-destructs.
Beauty will save the world.