Notable during the pandemic was the reluctance to view events from a psychological perspective, particularly that of collective psychology. One of the very few who did so was a professor in Belgium named Mattias Desmet. A professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Ghent University, as well as a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Desmet has written over 100 peer-reviewed publications with over 1,000 citations to his credit. He also holds a master’s degree in statistics, has authored two books, and is the recipient of awards from the Association for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and, in 2019, the Dutch Association of Psychotherapy.
Desmet described the pandemic with a form of collective psychology he called Mass Formation. Desmet identified four major elements creating the conditions of Mass Formation: 1) lack of social bonds or decoupling of societal connections, 2) lack of sense-making, 3) free-floating anxiety, and 4) free-floating psychological discontent. The first two conditions gave rise to the free-floating anxiety that Desmet observed in 2020. The American Psychological Association defines free-floating anxiety as “a diffuse, chronic sense of uneasiness and apprehension not directed toward any specific situation or object.” It causes one to feel worried, nervous, and fearful for no clear reason. It is a generalized anxiety disorder not directed toward any situation or object.
The theory he propounded about the pandemic was one that avoided pointing fingers and playing the blame game. Rather, his Mass Formation theory was a product of the underlying psychological conditions of modern man, conditions that affect everyone. The theory brought collective psychology and totalitarianism into the forefront as an explanation of the strange actions pursued during the pandemic.
In June, Desmet’s book titled The Psychology of Totalitarianism was published by Vermont’s Chelsea Green, one of the nation’s leading independent publishers. It expands on his Mass Formation theory and places these ideas in historical context. Desmet argues that much of the nation was under a form of hypnosis. He cites past thinkers on totalitarianism like Hannah Arendt and Gustave Le Bon to suggest that the pandemic response resembles the beginnings of totalitarianism.
Even now, almost two and a half years since the beginning of the pandemic, few mention the word “totalitarianism” when discussing it. As it was during the pandemic, the word “totalitarian” still seems to be taboo. Whether this will change remains to be seen, but hopefully Desmet’s excellent book will help foster a new dialogue about totalitarianism in the modern world. It seems to be an obvious “elephant in the room” for many today.
While The Psychology of Totalitarianism focuses on the pandemic, for Desmet, factors causing Mass Formation were at work as early as 2005, relating to a crisis that erupted in the sciences. It was a crisis he explored in his doctoral dissertation, in which “sloppiness, errors, biased conclusions, and even outright fraud” had become prevalent in scientific research. The result was that a staggeringly high percentage of research papers reached wrong conclusions. The most fascinating thing of all to him was that most researchers were utterly convinced they were conducting research correctly. Somehow, they failed to realize that their research “was not bringing them closer to the facts but instead was creating a fictitious new reality.”
“Science and its Psychological Effects” is the subject of Part I of The Psychology of Totalitarianism. More than anything else, it is science and its psychological effects that have created the first two prerequisites of Mass Formation: lack of social bonds or decoupling of societal connections and lack of sense-making. For Desmet, this scientific crisis presented a serious problem for contemporary societies that place their faith in science as the most reliable way of understanding the world. This problem was directly related to totalitarianism.
Desmet observes that this was precisely what Hannah Arendt believed. In effect, the undercurrent of totalitarianism consists of blind belief in a kind of statistical-numerical “scientific fiction” that shows “radical contempt for facts.” In all of this, the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.
But the consequences of scientific failures extend far into other areas of academia and academic research. To Desmet, these failures were the origin of a profound collective unease, which, in recent decades, has become increasingly palpable in our society. As he observes:
People’s view of the future is now tainted with pessimism and lack of perspective, more so every day. Should civilization not be washed away by rising sea levels, then it certainly will be swept away by refugees … Much of the population is trapped in almost complete social isolation; we see a remarkable increase in absenteeism due to mental suffering; an unprecedented proliferation in the use of psychotropic drugs; a burnout epidemic that paralyzes entire companies and government institutions.
In 2019, this predicament was clearly perceptible in Desmet’s own academic environment. He saw many colleagues drop out from work due to psychological problems, hindering the capacity to perform even basic day-to-day work. As Desmet writes, “During that period, all social stress indicators rose exponentially. Anyone familiar with systems theory knows what this means: The system is heading for a tipping point. It is on the verge of reorganizing itself and seeking a new equilibrium.”
It’s revealing that Desmet spends the first third of his book discussing “science and its psychological effects.” In many ways, his observations point to academia as the incubator for Mass Formation and totalitarianism.
The distinction between truth and falsehood is increasingly blurred in all areas of society. But perhaps it is most blurred in our academic institutions. Totalitarianism might slowly be infiltrating other aspects of society, but it has already overtaken academics and science. In this sense, wokeness is just another word for totalitarianism. Desmet saw this in 2005, and it has only secured its control since then.
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