Mattias Desmet Takes on The Psychology of Totalitarianism
and tests his theory on how to heal global trauma in the real world
Professor and psychoanalyst Mattias Desmet is walking the walk. This week he flew across the world - from his home in Belgium to a small gathering in New York City - to model the healing that is required to break down what he calls The Psychology of Totalitarianism, which also happens to be the title of his book.
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Full disclosure, I have only just started the book, so I’ll share and excerpt from the GoodReads.com review…
In The Psychology of Totalitarianism, world-renowned Professor of Clinical Psychology Mattias Desmet deconstructs the societal conditions that allow this collective psychosis to take hold. By looking at our current situation and identifying the phenomenon of “mass formation”—a type of collective hypnosis—he clearly illustrates how close we are to surrendering to totalitarian regimes…
…In addition to clear psychological analysis—and building on Hannah Arendt’s essential work on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism—Desmet offers a sharp critique of the cultural “groupthink” that existed prior to the pandemic and advanced during the COVID crisis. He cautions against the dangers of our current societal landscape, media consumption, and reliance on manipulative technologies and then offers simple solutions—both individual and collective—to prevent the willing sacrifice of our freedoms.
“We can honor the right to freedom of expression and the right to self-determination without feeling threatened by each other,” Desmet writes. “But there is a point where we must stop losing ourselves in the crowd to experience meaning and connection. That is the point where the winter of totalitarianism gives way to a spring of life.”
Which brings us to a small living room in New York City with a handful of big and small voices in the fight for freedom and informed consent. Mattias showed up, in person, to spark the very connection that may give way to a “spring of life.”
Anyone walking in might have thought it was a monthly book club meeting or a church support group, but Mattias essentially led a conversation about how we might go about the global healing of a global trauma. For an evening, we became a strategizing team troubleshooting global suffering.
He spoke briefly, giving background on mass formation, and then read a passage from his book before asking others to weigh in. He spent the remaining hour mostly listening and addressing whatever questions came his way. It was a room full of engaged human beings.
From his initial explanation of mass formation:
If you wonder why mass formation became stronger and stronger throughout the last few hundreds of years then you inevitably end up with what I call the mechanist view of man in the world… which believes that the universe is a purely material phenomenon… a set of material particles that all interact with each other according to the laws of mechanics and can be perfectly described and predicted in a rational way and manipulated in a rational way. That’s the root cause of the problems we are dealing with now.
…As soon as people start to fall prey to the illusion that everything in the Universe is material in nature, that everything can be understood in a rational way, something very strange happens at the psychological level… This ideology, this view of man in the world, disconnects people from their natural and their social environment. And that’s what leads to this social atomization. People are atomized because of this view. They disconnect from their environment, their natural and social environment. It’s that disconnection, that profound sense of loneliness, that is the basis for mass formation… because as soon as you fall prey to the illusion that the world around you, your fellow human beings around you, that you can all reduce it to the categories of your own rational thinking.. as soon as you start to look at the world in this way, you start to disconnect from your environment. You destroy the mystery in everything around you. And you alienate yourself from the mystsery of life, and at the same time from the essense of life around you. And that’s how people become atomized subjects I think.
…This mechanist view of man in the world led to the industrialization of the world, to the excessive use of technology, and also that in its turn led to an isolation. We all believe that technology connects us to the world, and in a certain sense that’s true. It allows us to disseminate information, to exchange information with each other. But it also disconnects us from each other because…a digital conversation is something completely different than an in person conversation, than a real conversation with each other.
When people talk to each other in the real world, they constantly resonate with each other. Our bodies communicate with each other constantly. There is kind of a symbiosis, which has a very satisfying effect on us. Because as human beings, from the moment that we are born, we try to connect with the other. We try to resonate with the other. A child that is born immediately tries to imitate the face of it’s mother… You immediately can see that the same muscles that are active in the face of the mother will also be activated in the face of a child… that’s 5X faster than the reaction time in traffic, for instance. And that’s because our muscles and our neural system communicate in a very direct way. We constantly resonate together when we talk in the real world.
If you have a digital conversation that doesn’t happen… We can exchange information but our bodies will not resonate with each other. And that’s why our bodies feel so exhausted after, if we talk for like 6 or 7 hours a day through the internet with each other. Petriglieri said in a wonderful way on Twitter… What makes digital conversation so exhausting is that they put us constantly in the presence of the absence of the other. That our bodies try to connect and they constantly fail to connect. And they keep on trying to connect. And in that way we feel exhausted after a while.
So that’s one example that shows how technology, in a certain sense, disconnects us from our environment.
The evening was steeped in resonance and connection: the sharing of struggles and the pondering of ways to move forward. Our tiny community considered the pitfalls of groupthink that threaten all of us, as well as the tendency to get lost in fighting an enemy instead of restoring connections that start from within.
And he’s right about connection. I’ve watched dozens of videos of Mattias speaking on this topic. I find them all interesting and meaningful, but this was different. The connection matters. At one point he spoke about the the powerful strengthening effect of living your truth and rooting into your integrity (he said something much more profound, but I think that’s what he meant), and sitting to his left was Holocaust survivor and patient rights advocate, Vera Sharav, the living proof of his words.
The resonance he spoke of was deeply felt and, frankly, magical. Hearts and minds opened together in one room. The seeds of healing were planted. I’m sure of it.
Which brings me to the spark in my husband, Ross. Since he’s both a Daoist priest and a Chinese medicine practitioner, I knew that he was making his own connections as he listened to the discussion. I asked him to write down the thoughts that the evening inspired in him:
The overlaps between what Mattias was speaking on and Daoism are significant. Here are a few major items:
1.Humanity: The character in Chinese is 仁 (ren) and also means benevolence. It is a picture of a person standing upright and the number 2. The uprightness is significant as it signifies an authenticity to inherent principles/ethics and that is in contact with and in relation to another person (number 2). It also means that we do not exist alone, differentiated, but rather in relationship and to be humane and benevolent is to recognize this relationship as a unity in and of itself. Therefore, connection to others is part of what defines us in this post-heaven world we live in. It also points to what Mattias referenced as being in connection with others, rather than an ideology (more on this in a bit). To be humane and benevolent then is to treat others as ourselves. The character is also translated by one prominent person as ‘authority.’ Herein that means that one who is humane/benevolent also embodies an authority that is palpable, visible and felt by others. This authority is due to an alignment to proper principles, ones that initiate directly from the pre-heaven, but also manifest in the post-heaven. This authority also has the power to move others (number 2). As Mattias says, it is why it is so dangerous to the establishment.
2.Ethics/Morality: this is a main tenet in Daoism. As a priest, I have sworn to live by particular precepts. One of those is to not lie. Or how it is framed in the Chinese is to not think one thing and say something else. The import of this is that health (mental and physical) require that body/mind/speech be in alignment. To be out of line means that energy cannot properly circulate; it would create obstructions in the smooth flow. Hence, to think one thing, and do something else, and speak something else would intrinsically create imbalance and eventual disease process, and definitively delusion (the ultimate disease process). Delusion is only broken with the experience of non dual reality (more on this in a bit). Dostoevsky’s quote on lying: “A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal. And it all comes from lying - lying to others and to yourself.” Thus, the importance of speaking one’s truth and what that can create…..
3.Rational mind vs experiential non dual mind: The Daodejing is the most translated book in the world behind the Bible. Chapter 1 sets the entire premise which gets elucidated in the next 80 chapters. It states: “The Dao/way that can be named is not the Eternal Dao/way.” And later in same chapter it states: “Mysterious and again mysterious, the door to all subtleties.” We know also from this text that “The Dao creates the One, the One creates the Two, the Two creates the Three and the Three creates the myriad things.” Once we begin to label and name something, it automatically loses contact with its essence/truth/Dao and becomes a conceptual framework that tries to explain it. It cannot be explained as it is beyond language and must be experienced. It is why Love cannot be defined, etc. To understand reality requires a process of deconstruction of concepts; this is apophatic in nature, and can eventually yield a non dual realization. But a surrogate to this non dual realization can be experienced in myriad ways through spontaneous intrinsic responses. How in the talk last night there were references to an inability to identify characteristics of those who resisted mass formations, because of some internal spontaneous sense. Zhuangzi speaks of this all the time when he writes of “wuwei” (spontaneity, or an immediate response to something based on the vicissitudes of the circumstances surrounding it, but without rational thought or planning).
4.Zhuangzi and Liezi stories and parables about non-conformity…., about not being a cog in the bureaucratic government, etc. etc.
5.Neo-Confucianism: the idea of the 5 virtues of Confucianism and its use of Daoist metaphysics to understand that the 5 virtues are inherent; that people are inherently good… It is the turbidity of one’s qi and karma that allows for thoughts/speech/actions to be impure. Everyone contains these pure/good and impure/evil within. Thus the villainizing of others is not helpful. What is helpful, as Mattias spoke, is about identifying that which is creating delusion, eg the ideologies/conceptual frameworks (which are inherently empty: see below).
6.Buddhism: like number 3 above, in the 3rd cent. there was a movement in Buddhism led by Nagarjuna called Madhyamika. It relied on logic games to demonstrate the futility of the rational mind. It goes like this: All things are real; No thing is real; All things are both real and unreal; All things are neither real or unreal. It uses a tool of negation to demonstrate the ultimate empty reality of things. But because one can endlessly negate, it requires a ‘leap’ at some point to something beyond the rational to understand the logic game. This is the non dual experience referred to above.
Mass formation: I can’t help but make the close analogy of the mass formation to the formation of a mass (tumor). The tumor is only allowed to grow as we divert more and more resources and attention to it. The mass grows as a separate entity and construct from the original healthy body-mind and takes hold as the original body-mind (immune system, circulatory system, etc.) weakens and loses its control. Asserting one self, reestablishing corrections, speaking one’s truth, not aligning with something that does not fit within one’s ideology is the only way to reestablish correction. In treating such masses, we use multiple approaches in Chinese medicine. We strengthen the immune system, we promote circulation (move blood to unblock stagnation), we starve the tumor (anti-angiogenesis), we remove toxins, etc. etc. This is no different than with mass formation. We strengthen ourselves and our resolve, we speak and act in accord with our humanity, we resist energies that are toxic to our well-being, etc. It also goes back to the character for benevolence/humanity above. The uprightness. We remain upright, but not allowing deviant energies from corrupting our physiology/psychology. This also harkens back to precepts, ethics, etc. If we do not do this, the tumor takes hold, it grows and eventually takes over. And of course, like Mattias said, these phenomena always self-destruct, and in the physical tumor case, we die…. This can be prevented…
These are just the musings of one person. I was also inspired by the engagement of others in the room, several who I met for the first time that night. Imagine all the ideas and potential solutions that can be sparked in a single conversation.
The gift of connection, it ripples.
Thank you, Mattias Desmet, for showing up. Thank you, Susan Sweetin, for making it happen in the extraordinary way that you do.
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