Tabletmag.com – In his recent book, Mattias Desmet takes on a new totalitarianism not enforced by jackbooted thugs, but dull bureaucrats imposing consensus.
It might have been expected that the first scholarly study of what has happened in our society over the past few years should hail from abroad, where nonwoke discourse remains far freer. Mattias Desmet has said that his 2022 book The Psychology of Totalitarianism was received with some caution in his home country of Belgium, but he has yet to suffer any consequences in his career as an academic clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist. Tellingly, his book’s English translation was not picked up by any notable American or British publisher, virtually all of which are reliably woke, but by rural Vermont’s Chelsea Green Publishing, a small employee-owned and self-distributing house whose books are mainly about sustainable craft farming. From this humble entry into the marketplace of ideas, Desmet has won right-wing celebrity and attracted attention from such prominent media personalities as Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan. His book has topped Amazon’s bestseller lists in relevant political science categories, consistently exceeding sales of similar recent books by Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, Rod Dreher, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and even the perennially popular classics by Friedrich Hayek, Robert Paxton, and Hannah Arendt, whose Totalitarianism (1951) is the jumping-off point for Desmet’s analysis.
Desmet seeks to improve upon Arendt’s thesis with the argument that the “soft” totalitarianism she predicted would evolve after the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism is now a nightmare come true. Our current tyranny is not the menacing dictatorships of old, which were built on fear and operated by compliant functionaries practicing banalized evil, but by a subtler regime enforced by “dull bureaucrats and technocrats” convinced that they are advancing a greater good for humanity. The new agents of persecution are not jackbooted secret police thugs instilling fear, but almond milk latte-swigging university officials imposing unpleasant consensus. George Orwell’s vicious O’Brien has yielded to Ken Kesey’s passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched.
Much of the book dwells on how we got here. Desmet traces the evolution of human societies from the scientific revolution, when free inquiry battled with religious dogma to understand the natural world per se. Confirmed by the Enlightenment’s triumphant claims to have found the correct path forward, not merely for science but for society, we entered a modern era defined by what he calls a “mechanistic ideology” that held out “the utopian vision of an artificial paradise” as a perfect, and inevitable, future. The universe and everything in it, to the purely scientific mind, thus follows impersonal patterns and motions that science alone can reveal. Potentially, this offered humans immense power and insight, but it also reduced them to existence without meaning or purpose. As a result, industrial economies instrumentalized people, separating them from community, traditions, imagination, nature, emotions, the fruits of their labor, and other factors that had once made life worth living. As a result, atomized individuals developed a generalized and unmoored anxiety that could be resolved when focused on an object or scapegoat that was assigned responsibility for their plight. Collectively blaming a common object of loathing primed these populations for rule by “masters,” leaders who played to their atavism to build a new society united by little more than submission to their generalized authority.
This process of “mass formation” allowed early totalitarians to appeal to science or, more likely pseudoscience, to justify the new status quo and carry out outrages and absurdities. Those regimes, however, were isolated, short-lived, and prone to internal collapse. The new totalitarianism of which Desmet warns is far more pervasive. As science and technology exploded in recent decades, popular faith in them “tipped from open-mindedness to belief.” The values of free inquiry and spirited debate, of regarding hypotheses merely as assertions that had yet to be disproved, were overwhelmed by a new dogma determined not by priests, but by practitioners. For those who followed, “science became ideology.”
Desmet’s notion that mass formation, and consequently totalitarianism, “are in fact symptoms of the mechanistic ideology” struck him strongly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Globalized information technology not only helped spread the virus, but also united the world in what he calls a “Great Leap Forward” toward “totalitarian technocracy.” Confined to near house arrest, with strict limitation on mobility and human contact, a new and purer form of atomization seized the minds of anxious publics looking for enemies to blame and dissenters to punish. “Never before were the societal conditions so prone to totalitarianism,” Desmet argues, as they have been in the last few years. To add empirical insult to psychological injury, many establishment precepts initially advanced as irrefutably sound turned out to be exaggerated, contingent, harmful, and, in some cases, simply wrong, with little or no accountability for individuals and institutions that had erred but still clung to authority.
Despite these deficiencies, a confused and traumatized bulk of society still indulged in “a kind of intoxication” in their new sense of belonging. As we saw all too often in our own country, those who shamed the unmasked or unvaxed, who snitched on their neighbors for noncompliance, who kept schools and places of worship closed, were formed into a new mass “convinced of their superior ethical and moral intentions and of the reprehensibility of everything and everyone who resists them.”
One might quibble with Desmet’s arguments about the extent to which “the Science™” got things wrong, or riposte that the unknown severity of the virus excused overreach, but it is difficult to argue that the pandemic fundamentally accelerated extant trends in how our society is monitored, who has overweening authority over it, and what the consequences of noncompliance can be. The book might have enjoyed even greater success if Desmet had considered the complementary woke phenomena ushered in by the #MeToo movement, critical race theory, radical gender ideology, and their consequences for free speech and behavior. Like COVID and its performative safetyism, all of those orthodoxies advanced broad social controls based on emotion, anxiety, and shaky data, much of which have also been exposed as exaggerated or fraudulent. Strikingly, they emerged in the Anglosphere at times that overlapped with the pandemic. The technocratic authorities who enforced them were similarly bland, bureaucratized, and in most cases protected from any significant liability. We might forgive Desmet for leaving them out, however, for the collective hysteria around race, gender, and sex did not travel well outside of the English-speaking world.
The question we should all be rushing to answer, of course, is how to fight back. Desmet parrots the standard middle-class professional’s argument that dissidents should speak out, but only in polite, sincere ways that avoid antagonizing the dominant ideology. His hope is that this will penetrate the mass formation sufficiently to expose its dynamics to broad majorities who go along with it without necessarily believing in it. He would know better if that could work in Belgium, but Americans have already amassed decades of evidence showing that this spells failure, if not disaster. However strongly worded their letters may have been, polite dissenters have proved remarkably easy to ignore for at least the last 50 years. Meanwhile, increasingly powerful woke mandarins have implemented their agenda of social control, long secure in the knowledge that their opponents were little more than gracious losers. Like him or not, it took the abrasive Donald Trump and his army of “deplorables” to challenge this dismal outcome with considerable success, through aggressive media activism, the majesty of the law, and perhaps most significantly, ridicule that no tyranny can withstand.
That phenomenon might merit study if Desmet wishes to examine the question of what should come next, but he favors a far more idealistic solution. Perhaps predictably, he places a great deal of faith in his own academic discipline, advocating for a more psychological than physical or biological approach to the human condition. “The real task facing us,” he writes, “is to construct a new view of man and the world, to found a new foundation for our identity, to formulate new principles for living together with others, and to reappraise a timely human capacity—speaking the truth.” He may be comforted to know that more and more people across the Atlantic are now doing precisely that, over the furious opposition of our would-be totalitarian rulers, who believe truth is a monopoly that belongs to them.