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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALITARIANISM*

Why is mankind so hopelessly seduced by the mechanistic ideology?

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By Mattias Desmet

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The Montréal Review, July 2023

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Why is mankind so hopelessly seduced by the mechanistic ideology? Partly because it’s under the influence of the following illusion: that one is able to remove the discomforts of existence without having to question oneself at all. This is best illustrated by modern medicine. The cause of suffering is typically traced to a mechanical “defect” in the body or to an external entity, such as a pathogenic bacterium or virus. Its cause is localized and can (in principle) be controlled, managed, and manipulated without the patient having to wrestle with any psychological, ethical, or moral complexity. “A pill helps you to get rid of your problems,” “Plastic surgery frees you from your complexes without having to question the origin of your shame and embarrassment.” While the practical applications of mechanistic science make life easier, in a sense, the essence of life eludes us ever more. Much of that process takes place below conscious awareness, but the sharp increase in acute mental suffering is an unmistakable sign that is discernible at society’s surface.

The Enlightenment man could hardly help but cling to utopian optimism. In the nineteenth century, industrialization heralded the disappearance of the aristocratic and class society, and associated local social structures. Man tumbled out of his social and natural context, and as he fell, meaning dropped away too. In this “disenchanted” mechanistic world (Max Weber), life became meaningless and a- teleological (the machinery of the universe runs without meaning or purpose), and religious frames of reference also lost coherence. Anxiety and unease, once tied to the oppression and abuse of the aristocracy and clergy, began to drift ineffably around in the human soul. Frustration and aggression, once held in check by fear of hell and the last judgment, proved increasingly easy to mobilize. The prospect of an afterlife dwindled and was readily replaced by belief in an artificially created, mechanistic- scientific paradise.

It is here that we, together with Hannah Arendt, situate the undercurrent of totalitarianism: a naive belief that a flawless, humanoid being and a utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge. The Nazi idea of creating a purebred superman based on eugenics and social Darwinism, and the Stalinist ideal of a proletarian society based on historical-materialism are prototypical examples, as is the current rise of transhumanism. When we hear about such ideologies, we like to believe that they are the products of deranged minds. This is a misconception. Plato, for example, found eugenics a commendable practice that had a place in his ideal state. And the twentieth century taught us that this practice does indeed lead to certain “successes.” The systematic abortion of fetuses with genetic predispositions to thalassemia in Cyprus resulted in this hereditary blood disease almost completely disappearing from the island.

We have to seriously ask ourselves the following question: Why not follow the principles of eugenics? As a social strategy, it can be rejected on purely ethical grounds, but it is crucial that we also be capable of rejecting it on rational grounds. The essence on rational grounds might be this: Eugenics may sometimes lead “locally” to desired results, insofar as it concerns “combating” “undesirable” characteristics; from an overall point of view, however, it has more disadvantages than advantages. Government regulation of the intimate sphere leads to psychological despair and, ultimately, to a decline in physical health. Even within the context of an ideology that would make physical health its ultimate goal, eugenics is a questionable strategy that ignores the complexity and subtlety of the human being.

As Hannah Arendt states, totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science, the belief in an artificially created paradise: “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”
 
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Totalitarianism is the belief that human intellect can be the guiding principle in life and society. It aims to create a utopian, artificial society led by technocrats or experts who, based on their technical knowledge, will ensure that the machine of society runs flawlessly. In this view, the individual is completely subordinated to the collective, reduced to being a cog in the machine of society (see, for example, Bertrand Russell in The Impact of Science on Society).

The ideal of a technocratic society was inherent to the Enlightenment tradition, especially in its positivist branch. Positivist thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte expressed their fanatical belief in a humanistic-technocratic society in which scientists and technocrats would take the place of popes and priests. Not God, but human Reason should be glorified. This is the way to a utopian society without war or conflict, a Realm of Freedom.

Nazism, and even more so Stalinism, are the most ambitious historical attempts to put totalitarian ideology into practice. They would realize paradise, and to this end, everything was considered justified: exclusion, stigmatization, and ultimately industrial extermination of every population group that did not fit within the ideal image. In both historical examples, the new utopian society had to be created through the ruthless application of a rock-solid logic.

However, it would be a capital mistake to identify the phenomenon of totalitarianism only in totalitarian regimes. There is an ever-present, totalitarian undercurrent that consists of a fanatical attempt to steer and control life in far-reaching ways on the basis of technical, scientific knowledge. Technocratic thinking always walks on two legs. On the one hand, it appeals to people by intimating a positive image of an artificial paradise with which it claims we can be delivered from all adversity and suffering. On the other hand, it imposes itself based on anxiety, as a necessity to solve problems. With every “object of anxiety” that has emerged in our society in recent decades—terrorism, the climate problem, the coronavirus—this process has leapt forward. The threat of terrorism induces the necessity of a surveillance apparatus, and our privacy is now seen as an irresponsible luxury; to control climate problems, we need to move to lab-printed meat, electric cars, and an online society; to protect ourselves against COVID-19, we have to replace our natural immunity with mRNA vaccine-induced artificial immunity.

The fourth industrial revolution, in which man is expected to physically merge with technology—the transhumanist ideal—is increasingly seen as an unavoidable necessity. The entire society has to change into an internet of bodies, in which the human body is digitally monitored, tracked, and traced by a technocratic government. This is the only way we will be able to master the problems of the future. There is no alternative. Anyone who refuses to go along with the technological solution is naive and “unscientific.”

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Totalitarianism and technocracy like to present themselves as the pinnacle of rationality and science. The technocratic paradise will make the population happy and healthy; or at least offer the greatest chance of achieving this. With subcutaneous sensors, every biochemical change can be registered and reported. Anyone showing signs of illness can be immediately examined and receive adequate treatment. In order to achieve this in an efficient way, everything has to be permanently and monotonously exposed to the artificial light of monitoring and government control. The fact that the human being is like a flower that only blooms when it can enjoy the shade of privacy once in a while is of minor importance in a technocratic worldview. Anyone who refuses to go along with the system lacks civic sense, considers oneself more important than the collective. Your health is no longer your personal business, because some diseases are contagious. However, even within an objectifying biological-reductionist perspective, it has been clear for decades that too much (government) control is harmful to health in itself. To use the example of a viral infection: Control leads to stress and stress in its turn leads to a greatly reduced physical resistance in viral infections, for example, up to 80 percent more mortality. Acting on the basis of a biological-reductionist analysis is effectively a recipe for failure, even on a purely physical level. One cannot understand the course of a viral infection on the basis of the mechanistic processes seen through the small ring light of a microscope—the whole psychological, sociological, and economic context plays an essential role. Hegel already knew that “Das Wahre ist das Ganze” [The truth is the whole].

This is exactly what twentieth-century science has primarily shown us in an astonishing way: All things small and all things large are connected, everything is part of an overarching, complex, and dynamic system.

In order to understand the course of a viral disease—and more broadly, health and happiness—we have to contemplate man and society and observe the principles of nature. This way, the great questions of life, which were relegated to the second plane by mechanistic ideology, are brought to the fore again: Who are we as desiring beings? How do we relate to other people, to our bodies, to pleasure, to nature, to death? What is our place in nature? There will never be a definitive answer to these questions. The end point of science is not reached with a perfectly rational understanding and control of reality; instead, it lies in the final acceptance that there are limits to human rationality, that knowledge does not belong to man, but has to be situated in the wider system of which man forms a part.

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At the heart of things, there is something that never can be definitively captured in the categories of logic and, therefore, has to be reworded time and again. Each attempt to put it into words can be only ephemeral; each new encounter brings forth new words, words directly born from contact with the object. “Le vrai est toujours neuf” [The truth is always new], said Max Jacob. The encounter with the object produces truth, an ever- renewing way of speaking, the core characteristic of which is not so much that it is logically correct but that it resonates freshly and sincerely with what it is about. Poetry, sometimes nonsensical from a logical point of view, can carry a lot more truth than a discourse built up strictly from syllogisms.

Truth has become an anachronistic concept—it sounds old- fashioned. In The Courage of Truth, the French philosopher Michel Foucault makes an interesting distinction between rhetoric and truth. A person who uses rhetoric tries to arouse in another ideas and beliefs that he does not share himself. For someone who adheres to speaking the truth, the reverse is true. He sincerely tries to convey an idea or experience that lives within himself to the Other through his speaking; he tries to make something he feels in himself resonate in an Other.

In recent centuries, and especially in recent decades, the public sphere has been increasingly filled with rhetoric. We were already used to such rhetoric from politicians. No one expected them to even try to fulfill their election promises during their term of office. In the long run, the population simply accepted it: A politician’s election discourse only serves to convince. […]

Each of the four has to do with the ability to resonate with an object and to make that resonance resound in sincere speaking and to transfer it to others. Prophecy is a predictive power that does not come from logical understanding, but—as the great French mathematician and philosopher of science Henri Poincare suggested— from the ability to sense the story that grips reality. Wisdom is the ability to keep silent and allow the Other to hear his own words. The techne is the ability to speak technically correctly, to produce a logical-factual discourse that adequately reflects the structure of the object to which it refers. And finally, the parrhesia refers to the courage to publicly express words that break through the fallacious discourse of society. The reappraisal of the phenomenon of truth-telling will be the indicator par excellence of the progress of the revolution, which is necessary to overcome the tendency toward totalitarianism inherent in the Enlightenment tradition.

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Finally, we can ask ourselves: Isn’t it dangerous to give up rationality as an ideal? This question prompts me to a small reflection, which only due to the seriousness of its subject is not banal. Thirty-five thousand children die of hunger every day. Why doesn’t this upset the masses, while a virus does? In our rational view of humanity, why don’t we save these young, hungering lives at a much lower cost than those threatened by the coronavirus, without the risk of losing civil liberties, and without the dangers associated with experimental medical interventions? No one panics for a child that is dying on the other side of the world. This is the inconvenient truth. The rationality and humanism of the Enlightenment are in many ways a masquerade and a fig leaf. Strip man of this masquerade and you look into the eyes of irrationality; look behind the fig leaf of rationality and you will find the ancient human vices.

A rational worldview does not prevent us from giving free rein to irrational thinking. On the contrary, it prevents us from recognizing irrationality. And as such, irrationality takes on grotesque proportions. On the other hand, one who knows the limits of his intellect usually becomes less arrogant and more humane, more capable of allowing the other to be different. When his intellect stops shouting, he is able to hear the things of life murmur their own story. He realizes that he is also entitled to his own story. The awareness that no logic is absolute is the prerequisite for mental freedom. The gap in the logic literally opens up a space for our own style and for the desire to create. “I became healthy while creating”—this is how Goethe described his medicine against the ailment that is life. Perhaps, it might also work against viruses?

In any case, this remedy ensures that we can honor the right to free speech and the right to self-determination without feeling threatened by one another. It encompasses the potential to mitigate anxiety, discomfort, frustration, and aggression, without the need for an enemy. This is the point at which we no longer need to lose ourselves in the crowd to experience meaning and connectedness, this is the point where the winter of totalitarianism gives way to a new spring of life.

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Mattias Desmet is Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Department of Psychology and Education at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. His other books include The Pursuit of Objectivity in Psychology and Lacan's Logic of Subjectivity: A Walk on the Graph of Desire. He is the recipient of the Evidence-Based Psychoanalytic Case Study Prize of the Association for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and the Wim Trijsburg Prize of the Dutch Association of Psychotherapy.

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* An adapted excerpt from The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Reprinted by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing © 2022. All rights reserved.

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