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Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence. In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.
Desmet, Mattias. The Psychology of Totalitarianism (p. 15). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
In Everyone Becomes Almost Equally Stupid, Part 1, I set the table for my continuing reading and summary of The Psychology of Totalitarianism. The ensuing commentary thereon by the Ricochetti was excellent and I hope the follow on posts will continue that discussion.
As outlined in the Introduction, the book is composed of three sections: Chapters 1-5, the foundation for mass formation and totalitarianism; Chapters 6-8, the mechanics of mass formation leading to totalitarianism; and a concluding chapter on how to combat the forces promoting mass formation.
(Based on the comments to my Part 1 post, I am adopting the convention that we are talking about mass formation and its consequences without considering how to best label the resulting psychological condition.)
Chapter 1 – Science and Ideology – covers how science blossomed in the age of enlightenment and individual inquiry replaced “received knowledge.”
Religious discourse had turned man’s gaze inward for thousands of years, revolving around the conception of man as a sinner, who lies and deceives and loses himself in worldly temptations, who must ready himself for death because it will catch up with him eventually. If man suffered in this world, the creation of God, it was because he failed to measure up as a moral and ethical being, because he was living in sin. It was not the world that had to be questioned but man himself. That all changed with the emergence of science: Man believed that, with the power of reason, he could adjust the world, while he himself could remain unchanged. He gathered his courage and took charge of his destiny: He would use his own intellectual power to understand the world and to shape a new, rational society. For too long, he had been forced to remain silent in the name of a God no one had ever seen; for too long, society had been burdened by dogmas that lacked any rational foundation. The time had come to dispel the darkness with the light of reason. “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another … ‘Dare to think! Have the courage to use your own reason!’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment,” as stated in 1784 by the great German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.1
But science thereafter became the core of secular societies that simply replaced “received knowledge” from G-d to “received knowledge” from scientists.
[T]he tree of science also sprouted a branch in another direction—the exact opposite direction of that original scientific practice. Based on the great achievements of science, some people tipped from open-mindedness to belief; for them, science became ideology. It was mainly the mechanistic-materialistic branch, the so-called hard sciences, that most enraptured us. Simple in its principles (the laws of mechanics), specific in its object (the tangible, visible world), and awe-inspiring in its practical applicability (from the steam engine to television and the atomic bomb to the Internet), this science has everything to seduce human beings. With this branch of science, man conquers space; it enables us to see and hear what is happening on the other side of the planet and visualize brain activity; it gives us the ability to move faster than sound and to perform microsurgical procedures. In the past, people waited in vain for God to perform miracles, but this science made them actually happen. Man had left the stage of believing and could now rely successfully on what he knew. At least, so he believed.
CHAPTER 2 — Science and Its Practical Applications — surveys how having used the scientific method to transform everyday life, it also created a new social and cultural structure that made individuals, although physically more comfortable, more psychologically fragile.
While mechanistic science sought to make the human condition more comfortable, in many respects it also made it more dangerous. Man could not help but feel threatened by the powers he himself unleashed from nature. And, for the most part, those powers ended up in the hands of a few. Due to the industrialization, mechanization, and technologization of the world, production capacities, economic power (via a self-centralizing banking system), and psychological power (via mass media) fell into the hands of an ever-decreasing number of people. The Enlightenment tradition had promised people autonomy and freedom, but, in a way, it brought people greater (feelings of) dependence and powerlessness than ever before. This powerlessness caused people to increasingly mistrust those in power. Throughout the nineteenth century, fewer and fewer people felt that political leaders really represented their voice in public space or defended their interests. As a result, man also became disassociated from the social classes that were represented by the politicians and was left uprooted, no longer connected to the whole of society, no longer belonging to a meaningful social group.
Although the Enlightenment tradition arose from man’s optimistic and energetic aspiration to understand and control the world, it has led to the opposite in several respects: namely, the experience of loss of control. Humans have found themselves in a state of solitude, cut off from nature, and existing apart from social structures and connections, feeling powerless due to a deep sense of meaninglessness, living under clouds that are pregnant with an inconceivable, destructive potential, all while psychologically and materially depending on the happy few, whom he does not trust and with whom he cannot identify. It is this individual that Hannah Arendt named the atomized subject. It is this atomized subject in which we recognize the elementary component of the totalitarian state.
CHAPTER 3 — The Artificial Society — begins a deep dive into psychology. In reading this chapter, I had to ask whether I recognized myself as a person described.
The human body is, in the most literal sense, a stringed instrument. The muscles that span the skeleton, and the body’s other fibers, are put on a certain tension in early childhood through imitative language exchanges. This tension determines with which (social) phenomena one will resonate; it determines the frequencies to which one will be sensitive in later life. That’s why certain people and certain events can literally strike a chord; they touch the body and, as such, touch the soul. It is for this reason that the voice can make the body ill. Or, conversely, heal it.
This seemed a bit of a reach to me. The chapter was deep into psychotherapy which is not one of my areas of interest. So the question is, how integral and essential are the views in this chapter to Desmet’s broader thesis? I will have to circle back to this question once I have completed reading the entire work.
CHAPTER 4 — The (Im)measurable Universe — used the Covid pandemic as an illustration for how “science” (mis)informed policymakers and is never a reliable recipe for societal action. The explanation for why science cannot deliver what utopians promise is embedded in science itself. The further we drill into the infinitesimal the more unattainable the endpoint remains. It is like the word problem: If you are three feet away from the wall and you take a step halfway to the wall every five seconds, how long will it take you to reach the wall? The precise finding of science is, to the best we can determine based on five centuries of enlightenment, is that we cannot completely measure anything. At best we can reduce uncertainty, but the remaining uncertainty in critical ways has the potential to defeat the strategies that even good science suggests. And a lot of “science” being performed is not good science. To set this up, let me include some quotes from Chapter 1:
To the extent that the scientific discourse became an ideology, it lost its virtue of truth-telling. Nothing illustrates this better than the so-called replication crisis that erupted in academia in 2005. This crisis emerged when a number of serious cases of scientific fraud came to light….
[But fraud was] not actually the biggest problem. The biggest problem was with less dramatic instances of questionable research practices, which were reaching epidemic proportions. Daniele Fanelli conducted a systematic survey in 2009 and found that at least 72 percent of researchers were willing to somehow distort their research results.12 On top of that, research was also replete with unintentional calculation mistakes and other errors. An article in Nature rightly called it “a tragedy of errors.”13
All of this translated into a problem of replicability of scientific findings. To put it simply, this means that the results of scientific experiments were not stable. When several researchers performed the same experiment, they came to different findings. For example, in economics research, replication failed about 50 percent of the time,14 in cancer research about 60 percent of the time,15 and in biomedical research no less than 85 percent of the time.16 The quality of research was so atrocious that the world-renowned statistician John Ioannidis published an article bluntly entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”17 Ironically, the studies that assessed the quality of research also came to diverging conclusions. This is perhaps the best evidence of how fundamental the problem is.
The replication crisis does not simply indicate a lack of seriousness and scrupulousness in research. It first and foremost points to a fundamental epistemological crisis—a crisis of the way in which science is conducted. Our interpretation of objectivity is wrong, excessively based on the idea that numbers are the preferred approach to facts. If we look at the scientific fields with the worst replicability outcomes, it becomes clear that the measurability of phenomena plays a significant role. In chemistry and physics, for example, it wasn’t that bad. However, in psychology and medicine, the situation is wretched.
In other words, “scientism” generates its own blindness. Converting observed phenomena that are not in themselves numerate and assigning values to them based on subjective criteria masks the foundational subjectivity once the mathematical outputs are produced. Even assuming that you are dealing with inherently numerate phenomena, there is a measurement challenge. Desmet illustrates this in two different cases.
Imagine you are building a house and a carpenter comes to take measurements for eight windows. He uses three different tools on each window: a folding rule, a tape measure, and a laser measure. If the carpenter’s measurements are as inadequate as a psychologist’s, he would report the following results … With the folding rule, the carpenter concludes that window 1 is 180 cm wide; with the tape measure, the same window is 130 cm wide; and with the laser measure, it is 60 cm wide. It is the same scenario with the second window: The folding rule shows that window 2 is 100 cm wide, the tape measure shows that it is 200 cm wide, and the laser measure shows that it is 150 cm wide.
If you measure the length of the coastline of Great Britain based on a unit of measurement of 200 kilometers, it is 2,400 kilometers long. If you measure it with a unit of 50 kilometers, it is 3,400 kilometers long. As you decrease the unit of measurement, the length of the coastline of Great Britain increases to infinity. The reason is simple: As the measurement unit becomes smaller, it more closely follows the irregular coastline and the border becomes longer. This is how the brilliant Polish-Jewish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot showed that measurements are always relative, depending on a series of subjective choices, such as the unit of measurement.
Now let’s return to Desmet’s focus on the pandemic to expose how tragic societies’ reliance on “science” can be —
Until this recent crisis, societies were not primarily governed on the basis of numerical data. They were guided by stories, first by mythical and religious stories and later by political stories. The mechanistic ideology cannot accept this trust in stories because they are essentially irrational and subjective in nature; they say more about the author of the story than about any so-called objective reality it represents. Stories consist of words, words that can mean anything; they have no solid, rational relationship to facts. And without a rational basis, man drifts astray—or so mechanistic ideology believes.
The coronavirus crisis offered an unexpected window of opportunity for the mechanistic ideology: The uncertainty and fear of the virus provided a basis for the formation and development of a society in which decisions are based on numbers rather than stories. Today, we are talking about relatively “simple” numbers on infections, hospitalizations, and deaths; in the future, we might be talking about high-tech, biometric data that precisely map every aspect of physical function.
[But the] numbers of the dominant coronavirus narrative tend to highly overestimate the danger of the virus. And this tendency is also reflected in the epidemiological models on which the dominant narrative is based. The choice for the lockdown strategy was mainly based on the models developed at Imperial College London. Those models predicted 40 million deaths worldwide by the end of May 2020 if far-reaching measures were not taken to contain the pandemic. Several renowned researchers—for example, Michael Levitt, Nobel laureate in Chemistry; and John Ioannidis, a legend in medical statistics—protested vehemently. They pointed out that the models of the Imperial College were based on wrong assumptions and greatly overestimated the danger of the virus.
Just like that we’ve arrived at another flaw in the numerical approach to the coronavirus crisis: It largely ignored the collateral damage of the measures, despite them being a crucial factor. There have been hardly any publicly available data and statistics on the number of victims of delayed treatment, suicide, vaccination, food insecurity, and economic disruption.
The same remarkable disregard could be observed around the mathematical models built to map the course of the crisis. A mathematical model that, apart from the possible victims of the virus, would also represent the possible victims of the coronavirus measures had never been built.
This not only shows the limits of the expert and specialist model, in it we can also ascertain a remarkable psychological blindness. And so we see that an entire society can completely ignore what is undoubtedly the most basic question in medicine: Are we sure that the cure is not worse than the disease?
In other words, we ignore what we don’t know, we convert what we think to numbers in order to give it a patina of objectivity, we do calculations with these numbers that derive results that we may not even understand, and we set rules for people … because “science.” And when it becomes obvious to everyone that things have stopped to make sense, the powers that be gaslight us:
The discourse surrounding the coronavirus crisis shows characteristics that are typical of the type of discourse that led to the emergence of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century: the excessive use of numbers and statistics that show a “radical contempt for the facts,”21 the blurring of the line between fact and fiction,22 and a fanatical ideological belief that justifies deception and manipulation and ultimately transgresses all ethical boundaries.23
CHAPTER 5 — The Desire for a Master — discusses “the fate of another great ambition of science: to liberate man from his anxiety and insecurity and his moral commandments and prohibitions.” The punch line is that man is more anxious and more insecure because he is more regulated with less understanding of the rules that obtain in modern life. Desmet works his way through to this conclusion with a return to some psychology that I cannot critique. But his observations about how each of us relate to the various administrative states that have arisen in Western societies rings true. To engage with modern technology we give up privacy and autonomy; there are actors that we never see who can use our information to affect our lives in negative ways that can clearly override the benefits achieved through that loss of privacy and autonomy. Although I suspect this is skipping ahead, as long as we are “blue-pilled” our anxiety is manageable; for those taking the “red-pill” the anxiety is overwhelming. Desmet would say that modernity’s insistence on the omnipotence of human rationality, neither a feature of real science nor an achievable goal, generates a baseline anxiety that humans seek to alleviate. We can either cope with the anxiety as our forebears did with un-negotiable fate, or we can join the mass formation to delude ourselves that all risks can be overcome so long as the naysayers are driven out or destroyed.
More to come.Published in