368 Today’s Totalitarians

         During the past century dystopian novels have highlighted fears regarding the personal and societal impact of what Jacques Ellul termed “the technological society.”  Running from Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World through C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, these fictions force us to face the unintended consequences of mechanistic thinking that makes machines which may ultimately destroy us.  What would be most harmful, these writers suggest, is the development of a technological totalitarianism that reduces human beings to cogs in an impersonal social machine, making a man little more than what Walker Percy called a “poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.”  These thinkers discerned “the hard pull of the technological revolution moving us along at lightning speed toward a digital slavery,” echoing the thought of Emile Durkheim, who thought the industrial revolution was upending society  and burdening it with anomie—the debilitating feeling of aloneness even while surrounded by masses of people.  Aware of their power over lonely people, totalitarians forever try to abolish those “little platoons” Edmund Burke celebrated—the families and churches and local organizations that most easily resist tyranny.  

     No scholar invested more attention to this threat than Hannah Arendt, who wrote a two volume treatise—The Origins of Totalitarianism and Imperialism: Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism.  Soon after WWII ended she declared:  “We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared.  Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena—homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” When men are “isolated against each other” they easily fall prey to tyrannical governments.  Still more:  “It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize the masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.”  Thus the subjects for totalitarianism are homeless, rootless people split between folks who aspire to omnipotence manipulating those who crave subservience. 

       Some 70 years later, younger writers have sought to update and make current Arendt’s analysis.  Probing the implications of today’s homeless, rootless masses, Stella Morabito (a former CIA analyst and current Federalist contributor) has written The Weaponization of Loneliness:  How Tyrants Stoke Our Fear of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer (New York:  Bombardier Books, c. 2022; Kindle Edition).   As a young scholar she studied the history of the Soviet Union and detected “patterns of weaponized isolation” that enabled “totalitarian forces” to destroy private life and set up a surveillance state” that makes everyone dependent upon the state (p. 10).  Leaving the academic world in to rear her children, she sensed similar developments in America, evident in the wide-spread support for abortion, euthanasia, “political correctness, identity politics, family breakdown, K–12 reforms, radical environmentalism, campus speech codes, and woke-creep in religious institutions, in the military, and in corporate America.  I watched the growth of gender ideology, including nascent propaganda on ‘transgender kids,’ which I detected in my local public library in the mid-1990s.”  Orchestrating these developments, the media began censoring dissidents, reviling anyone disagreeing with the dominant message, labeling dissenters “bigots.”  As she read and thought about such things, she “finally concluded that there is a machinery at work—a machinery of loneliness.  Tyrants operate that machinery—wittingly or not—in order to disarm those they wish to control” (p. 11).  In response, she urges us to “aggressively defend the private sphere of life because that is the only safe haven for developing the power of human connection.  Only then can we start defending ourselves against attempts to isolate us, especially from those we love and those who love us” (p. 12).

       Symptoms of a creeping authoritarianism have been evident worldwide since the 1968 upheavals.  Had we rightly understood the outcries over racism and sexism, had we subsequently known the implications of multiculturalism and identity politics, had we detected the growing hostility to free speech and religion, we’d not be surprised by the current situation.  We should have seen how government-decreed lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus fully revealed totalitarian impulses gaining traction around the globe.  Incessant propaganda, mainly promulgated through TV and social media, “stoked fear of random death from the virus,” and polarizations followed.  “After elites in government, media, and Big Tech demonized anyone not in line with the mandates, many people responded by disowning friends and family members who weren’t with the program.  In fact, the COVID-19 mandates blatantly enforced our isolation from one another, often in the most intimate and brutal ways.”  Social distancing, masks, lockdowns, vaccine mandates, “censorship of several reputable medical experts who offered different opinions on treatment—a cascade of decrees thoroughly altered our customary behaviors.  These social controls not only meant people could no longer attend church but “patients in hospitals were not allowed any visitors at all.  Brutally separated from loved ones, many were left to die alone” (p. 18).  

       These dicta (always veiled in mantras of “public health”) remind us of C.S. Lewis’s judgment:  “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”  Morabito devotes considerable attention to failed utopian endeavors, including Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth with its “godly citizens,” Robespierre’s “republic of virtue,” Stalin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Hitler’s “Third Reich,” and Mao’s “cultural revolution.”  All were celebrated as wonderful ideals!  But they quickly ushered in reigns of terror.  So too legions of busybodies recently had a field day issuing warnings and orders designed to corral COVID-19.  Following the well-weathered authoritarian script they aimed “to remold human beings into purely collectivist creatures that serve the utopian model” (p. 36).   Atomized folks easily fall prey to utopian fantasies when they “feel alienated and yearn for a perfect society of peace and justice, particularly during times of economic and social upheaval” (p. 27).   Utopians envision a perfect community wherein our fondest desires are satisfied and our loneliness dissipates as we’re absorbed into a community.  Rejecting reality, utopians choose to live in an imaginary world (free from poverty, disease, sin, etc.) that simply cannot be.  To do so a small corps of revolutionary elites (be they fascists or communists) mobilize mobs and violently impose their agenda. 

       All these utopian movements cultivated a religious fervor shrouded with appeals to “sciences” such as eugenics or historical materialism.  “Fake science,” says Morabito, “is always the result of nonstop propaganda coupled with censorship of alternative views” and was fully on “constant display” during the COVID-19 panic.  A powerful coalition of Big Media and Big Tech “easily de-platformed any physician who had a different opinion about COVID-19 treatments or the origins of the virus.”  Under the banner of “science says” we were told to repudiate any “views that didn’t align with narratives on other topics such as global warming, abortion, or gender dysphoria in children.  The push to enforce critical race theory got the same treatment of heavy propaganda and censorship” (p. 63).  As always the ruling elites “seek to invade and destroy the private sphere of life.  All weaponize the human fear of ostracism—and our hardwired need for connection with others—to coerce conformity and compliance” (p. 72).

      One effective way to coerce conformity is to mobilize mobs.  Rudderless civilizations lend themselves to takeovers by the masses, and manipulating them “in order to seize power is integral to all totalitarian schemes” (p. 98).  Morabito lists six factors fueling mobs:  a “malady,” e.g. systemic racism; a “cure,” e.g. joining a group championing equity; an “enemy,” e.g. white racists; an “ideology,” e.g. social justice;  a “sense of urgency,” e.g. the catastrophic culmination of global warming; and a “monopoly on narrative,” e.g. silencing dissident speakers on university campuses (p.112).  A decade ago few of us imagined one’s sex could be anything other than what was “assigned at birth.”  Amazingly, “practically overnight,” we were told to support the notion that a man could simply “identify” as a woman and are treated thusly—an “idea was institutionalized into a mob mindset via media control by those pushing the agenda” (p. 121).

       In a series of enlightening chapters Morabito examines the re-segregation of blacks under the guise of “identity politics,” the “estrangement of women” under the banner of  “political correctness,” the radicalization of youngsters leading to mob behavior, and the resulting dehumanization of whites in America.  Breaking people into ever-smaller groups—highly evident in “intersectionality” rhetoric—illustrates the truth of Carl Jung’s comment:  “The mass state has no intention of promoting mutual understanding and the relationship of man to man; it strives, rather for atomization, for the psychic isolation of the individual.”  In a chapter titled “Cloning Lonely Puppets: The Subversion of Education” (a piece every parent should read) the author shows how the schools have contributed to our current malaise.  In 1901 an influential progressive sociologist, Edward A. Ross, wrote Social Control urging Americans “‘to replace community, family and church with propaganda, education, and mass media . . . the State shakes loose from the Church, reaches out to School. . . .  People are only little plastic lumps of human dough’” (p. 205).  Such views were soon embraced by John Dewey, who believed schools should train citizens for a socialistic society.  Subsequent educators would promote social engineering through government schools which were, in the wake of the ‘60s revolutions, infiltrated by the likes of Bill Ayers—the former Weatherman, friend of Barack Obama, and current professor of education—seeking to substitute identity politics and political correctness for  classical, content-based subjects. 

       What’s true for the schools is equally true for government, the military, medical and legal organizations, the judiciary, the media, et al.  Utopian revolutionaries forever try to isolate the individual and break up subsidiary institutions such as the family and church.  Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, urged the abolition of the family and burial of religion.  “As Robert Nisbet noted, ‘The State becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotions’” (p. 234). 

       So what’s to be done?  Morabito says we must begin in a very small but utterly momentous manner:  daring to speak freely.  Decades ago Jacques Ellul, in his masterful work Propaganda, said:  “Propaganda ends where simple dialogue begins.”  People of faith must “live out” their faith and endure possible ridicule.  “Strong communities of faith have a bigger impact than most realize.  If you’re part of one, invest in it and guard it vigilantly” (p. 261).  Forge strong families and make good friends.  “It’s up to us to shed as much light as possible on the methods of the madness in the machinery of loneliness.  We can save ourselves in the process, making the world a more civil and less lonely place” (p. 267). 

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       In The Psychology of Totalitarianism (White River Junction, VT:  Chelsea Green Publishing, c. 2022; Kindle Edition), Mattias Desmet, a young Belgian psychologist,  draws on insights from Hannah Arendt to analyze “the emergence of a new totalitarianism, no longer led by flamboyant ‘mob leaders’ such as Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats” (p. 9).  Under certain conditions, masses of people behave as if hypnotized, losing both rationality and ethical surety.   We’re immersed in the current “Grand Narrative of Western Civilization” that reduces reality to material entities and processes.  In his doctoral dissertation Desmet had examined flaws in scientific publications.  “Sloppiness, errors, biased conclusions, and even outright fraud had become so prevalent in scientific research that a staggeringly high percentage of research papers [including medical resarch]—up to 85 percent in some fields—reached radically wrong conclusions.”  No less than 85 percent of medical studies come to questionable conclusions due to errors, sloppiness, and fraud.  Scientific papers were written by scholars who actually thought they were doing first-rate research without understanding how their work “was not bringing them closer to the facts but instead was creating a fictitious new reality.”  Much the same may be said about legions of scientists’ response to the coronavirus crisis:  “a maze of errors, sloppiness, and forced conclusions, in which researchers unconsciously confirm their ideological principles” (p. 163).   It all fit Arendt’s diagnosis:  “The undercurrent of totalitarianism consists of blind belief in a kind of statistical-numerical ‘scientific fiction’ that shows ‘radical contempt for facts.’”  (pp. 10-11).  Folks no longer able to recognize the difference between true and false, right and wrong, easily become totalitarian. 

      This became all to real amidst the COVID-19 panic.  Almost overnight nearly every country followed China’s response and placed “huge populations of people under de facto house arrest, a situation for which the term ‘lockdown’ was devised.”  Elected leaders stepped aside and granted bureaucratic “experts” the power to dictate what we could or could not do.  “Expert virologists were called upon as George Orwell’s pigs—the smartest animals on the farm—to replace the unreliable politicians.”  Such experts, however, soon proved anything but infallible.  “In their statistics and graphs, they made mistakes that even ‘ordinary’ people would not easily make.”  They arrogantly promised they could control the virus but failed.  Masks, social distancing, hand washing, shutting down churches while opening up marijuana dispensaries—all irrational, failing endeavors!   “And just like Orwell’s pigs, they sometimes changed the rules overnight, inconspicuously.”  They were going to “flatten the curve,” then “crush” it (pp. 12-13), and finally failed to admit their many abject failures..  

       Their experts’ failures should not have surprised us, however, says Desmet.  A bit of historical study reveals:  “The coronavirus crisis did not come out of the blue.  It fits into a series of increasingly desperate and self-destructive societal responses to objects of fear:  terrorists, global warming, coronavirus.  Whenever a new object of fear arises in society, there is only one response and one defense in our current way of thinking:  increased control” (p. 15).  With increased control comes a creeping totalitarianism which  “is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.  As such, totalitarianism is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition” (p. 15).  And this is the central thesis of the book.  We cannot escape totalitarianism without discarding the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment that reigns in virtually every aspect of the modern world.  We don’t need better technologies.  We need a better philosophy, “a new view of man and the world, to find 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” (p. 17).

       In the wake of great scientific work in the 17th century, a growing corps of true believers reduced “science” to a mechanistic ideology rather than a humble search for truth.  This world has neither meaning nor purpose and disdains all religious perspectives.  All out hopes reside in a humanistic paradise.  As Arendt said:  “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”  To  Desmet:  “With the coronavirus crisis, this utopian goal seemed very close at hand.  For this reason, the coronavirus crisis is a case study par excellence in subjecting the trust in measurements and numbers to critical analysis” (p. 63).  This mechanistic ideology has been tried and manifestly failed.  Relying solely on experts and their numbers proved deadly.  During the coronavirus panic we were inundated by graphs and tables, numbers of cases and deaths.  The endless repetition of these data prompted us to accept extraordinary restrictions.  Dissenters were “stigmatized by a veritable Ministry of Truth, crowded with ‘fact-checkers’; freedom of speech is curtailed by censorship and self-censorship; people’s right to self- determination is infringed upon by imposed vaccination, which imposes almost unthinkable social exclusion and segregation upon society” (p. 82).  But these allegedly objective data varied significantly in different hands!  Yet the “dominant ideology,” working through a compliant media, crafted a “fictitious reality” fully accepted by the masses.  “Whether it concerns the origin of the virus (bat or laboratory), the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, the (side) effects of vaccines, the usefulness of face masks, the validity of the PCR test, transmissability among schoolchildren, or the effectiveness of the Swedish approach, scientific studies lead to the most conflicting conclusions” (p. 78).  

       Moving toward his conclusion, Desmet says we now see that:  “The mechanistic ideology has put more and more individuals into a state of social isolation, unsettled by a lack of meaning, free-floating anxiety and uneasiness, as well as latent frustration and aggression. These conditions led to large-scale and long-lasting mass formation, and this mass formation in turn led to the emergence of totalitarian state systems. Therefore, mass formation and totalitarianism are in fact symptoms of the mechanistic ideology.” (p. 179).    To escape its tentacles we must recover a more ancient understanding of Reality, acknowledging there is much in the universe that we can never understand scientifically.  There is, of course, the material world empirical scientists endlessly examine.  But as Heisenberg and other 20th century physicists discovered, “matter” cannot be understood as hard little bits of stuff randomly streaming about.  While we study and manipulate it we cannot fully understand what it actually is! 

       Yet there is also an immaterial reality, deeper than matter, what Desmet routinely calls the “Other.”  He twice cites the great physicist Max Planck’s statement:  “‘As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clearheaded science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about the atoms this much:  There is no matter as such!  All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together.…  We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind.  This Mind is the matrix of all matter.  Both religion and science require a belief in God.  For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations.  To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.  That God existed before there were human beings on Earth, that He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity, and that He will remain enthroned on a level inaccessible to human comprehension long after the Earth and everything that is on it has gone to ruins; those who profess this faith and who, inspired by it, in veneration and complete confidence, feel secure from the dangers of life under protection of the Almighty, only those may number themselves among the truly religious’” (pp. 217-218).

       Though Desmet, like Planck, is anything but an orthodox Christian, he realizes we need much more than the aging, inadequate Enlightenment-style commitment to rationalism.  The multiple problems we face cannot be solved by better machines, faster computers, or better bureaucrats.  “The real task facing us as individuals and as a society is to construct a new view of man and the world, to find 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” (p. 17).  Reiner Fuellmich, a German attorney who help found Berlin’s Corona Investigative Committee, says:  “Mattias Desmet is the world’s expert on the phenomenon of mass formation . . . . If you want to understand why and how the coronavirus pandemic response unfolded the way it did at a societal level and—even more importantly—how to prevent such a travesty from happening again, The Psychology of Totalitarianism is essential reading. Desmet shows us how to reclaim our humanity in an increasingly dehumanized and mechanized world.”  Reclaiming our humanity, however, will require more than the psychological insights of Mattias Desmet!  Only when his “Other” is beheld as the “Holy One” will we truly do so.