The Psychology of Totalitarianism.

In the summer and fall of 2021, Prof. Mattias Desmet appeared widely on the internet and in print as he discussed his theory of “mass formation,” or “mass formation psychosis” as it is sometimes called, especially in regard to the government reaction (and overreaction) to the Covid pandemic. Most interesting to Desmet was how many government officials, bureaucrats, and much of the public got swept up in an authoritative narrative (very consciously by some, unconsciously by others), and the psychological juggernaut gathered its own momentum as it steamrolled over the world (and especially developed countries), regardless of what reasonably sound scientific data seemed to be revealing through the noise.

In various podcasts, interviews, and in his forthcoming book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Prof. Desmet outlines the four preconditions that must be in place before a totalitarian leader or message can captivate and mesmerize the masses: (1) a lack of social bonds; (2) a lack of meaning in life; (3) free-floating anxiety; and (4) free-floating aggression. Atomized into alienated, lonely, and frustrated individuals, the masses are then ready to hear the unifying message of an ascendant totalitarian, who is practically summoned into existence by the miserable masses. The leader, through a voice amplified by mass media, transmits to the crowd the galvanizing message that they had been yearning to hear: (a) an identification of the source of their discontent (i.e., the enemy, or scapegoat); and (b) a strategy for dealing with that enemy or problem.

At that point, when the roiling masses snap into some sort of coherent whole, “mass formation” occurs, and in its more extreme expressions, it can become “mass formation psychosis.” Up to a third of the population might be hypnotized and unreachable by any logic or argument, another third spans the middle watching and waiting, and a final third is awake; some portion of this last group speaks up and continues to speak up, and this vocal fraction is the only hope for a society to not destroy itself in the atrocities that invariably accompany totalitarian madness when it seizes a society completely. The voices of dissidents break the hypnotic spell and make possible a return to consciousness and sanity.

Historically, such mind-capture is typical of societies as they are alienated from themselves and at the cusp of totalitarian despotism, but unlike the worlds of Hitler and Stalin of the 1930s and 40s, or of Mao in the 1950s and 60s, there is no charismatic single leader at the head of the present authoritarian regimes; rather there is an alliance of elites, bureaucrats, scientists, and media in the employ of government, universities, and big business, including large pharmaceutical companies—all insisting upon the same unprecedented coercive strategies.

As Desmet has done in his research, Truman Verdun also draws upon authors including Gustav le Bon, George Orwell, Joost Meerloo, Jacques Ellul, and Hannah Arendt to help frame Desmet’s message as it has appeared in broadcast media. Verdun presents Desmet’s theory with care and respect, while also creatively expanding the discussion in various places. A reader seeking a thoroughgoing introduction of the English-language materials while awaiting the translations–and afterwards– would do well with this accessible and very affordable treatment.

4th ed. includes 3 new chapters (since 1st ed.); additional links and images.

Occam’s Razor Publishing, 2022.
26,000 words; 144 pages (4th ed., v7)
Incl. notes, resources, bibliography, images

— At Amazon and Audible


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