Tue. Aug 9th, 2022

Completing the reading of Prof Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism, left me with a profound sense of hope. At last. An academic writer who intelligently teases-out the complexities of the trauma we have experienced over the past two years. In the same way that Neil Oliver’s regular, brilliant monologues manage to draw parallels between long-ago important events that changed the pathway of humanity, and this current era, Desmet’s thorough and multi-disciplinary text provides some curious and insightful philosophical connections. Those of us who genuinely believed (until recently) in a society that upheld ambitions for social justice, have suffered a bereavement; the waves of trauma wash over us, relentlessly.  But Desmet offers us a glimmer of light at the end of this depressingly dark tunnel. Totalitarianism always self-destructs; humanity, through truth and creativity, always wins.

Tunnel at Waikawau: source, author.

The context of my reading of Desmet’s book is important to clarify: my own work in educational psychology has also been multidisciplinary, or as a colleague once defined her similar approach ‘undisciplined’. I like to mix-up creative writing with ‘academic’ styles, play around with methodologies and bring some humanness to educational research. Too often, especially in the UK sectors over recent decades, education has been reduced to tick-box exercises and managerialism. Capitalism and regulatory capture forced New Public Management attempts at measuring the unmeasurable, alongside demoralising, meaningless repeats of ‘continuous improvement’. The authenticity of lifelong learning was lost a long time ago between ‘feedback loops’ and KPIs.

A colleague highlighted how Desmet’s book had faced inevitable criticism. Of course. But one not-so predictable critique came from our allies – Solari.com, in an interview by Catherine Austin-Fitts (whom I know nothing about – other than her brilliant knowledge and analysis of the financial sector) with Dr Peter Breggin (who, although obviously he has some significant credentials in the psychological sector and has achieved some wonderful outcomes for patient’s rights, I also know nothing about).

For the record, my own background is as a late-comer to academia via a series of, as Graeber so eloquently puts it, Bullshit Jobs. With a grounding in English literature, sociology of health and educational psychology, I went on to research environmental law and investigate cultural competence, so I guess you could describe my perspective as very diverse.

Desmet’s multi-disciplinary approach is often rare in academia, especially in [NZ] schools of psychology in my experience, because, in some ways the discipline does not lend itself easily to the essential interconnectedness between the un/conscious. Plus we have that age-old problem of our innate tendency toward binary thinking. I write about this topic extensively in one of my books, based on my PhD research. Suffice to say, when I was researching tertiary teachers’ personal experiences and reflections of being observed/assessed in their teaching and learning, there were outcomes (explicit and implicit) that could not necessarily be easily explained in ‘standard’ educational theory. I needed help from other worldviews and the evolution of my ontological and epistemological frameworks ended up being a creative mixture of what I felt to be (at that time) ‘relevant’ knowledge. The findings, for example, were presented as a first-person creative non-fiction, in two narratives. I think that’s important to point out, because I was an ‘insider researcher’ – as a educationalist myself, with my own experiences and views of pedagogy, it was never going to be ‘objective’ in a ‘scientific’ sense (whatever that means). Hence the importance of authentic connection and dialogue for furthering knowledge in every element of writing and research.

maori and pakeha men greeting each other
Two men in a traditional greeting: mural in Northland, NZ.

In relation to the ‘insider research’ issue, it’s important to note that at one point during this interview, Breggin acknowledges that he is Jewish and ‘was told too much detail about the Nazi concentration camps’. (Too much?) Could it be that the mass formation that Desmet describes in his book (including the fact that many Jews willingly went along with the instructions of the Nazis, and even – bewilderingly tragic though this is – formed their own Nazi-propaganda-compliant Jewish ‘special forces’ to send their own people to their deaths) was too close to the bone for Breggin to come to terms with? Something worth reflecting on, perhaps.

Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim’s semi-biographical account of those camps in The Informed Heart goes into crucial detail about this element of the Holocaust – including how the Jews made their own uniforms to resemble the Nazi officers’ because they (Bettleheim writes) genuinely believed in Nazi superiority. This mass formation swings both ways – it can’t exist without (fearful) believers of the cult. Bettleheim’s book (1960) was motivated by the fact that hardly anything existed at that time, as an accurate account of the camps prior to liberation. Was that because much of it was incredibly shaming for those surviving inmates, who had made little, if any effort to resist the Nazi orders or escape the normalisation of their slavery and death?

What lessons from these experiences can be learned in today’s situation?

Just as I was an ‘insider researcher’ in my own fieldwork, Desmet is also ‘inside the machine’. As an academic he is writing coherently about what he has experienced happening around him, based on his own knowledge and interpretations of the historical studies of totalitarianism. Breggin’s comments to Austin-Fitts, as he is an outsider to academia, came across as patronising, in that he dismissed the whole theory of mass formation as nonsensical ‘psychobabble’ in some attempt at claiming it was a founded on the school of (out-dated) psychoanalysis. This does a discredit to the incredibly vast array of well-established and valuable literature (and practice of) psychoanalysis and is a total misinterpretation of Desmet’s argument, as clearly shown in the citations he lists. Rather strange, to be honest, that Breggin uses this criticism, when most of Desmet’s analysis is not psychoanalytical at all, but sociologically based, and firmly on Arndt’s analysis of Nazism and Stalinsim – nothing to do with Freud’s early psychodynamic concepts.  What’s also strange, is Breggin accepts, more than once, how an individual’s early childhood experiences are crucial in the development of skills as an adult in social communication and empathy. Isn’t that essentially what {broadly speaking} psychoanalysis is? Maybe Breggin would benefit from wider reading in some later developments/analysis of Freud’s work, to fully understand the complex theoretical concepts. Without these insights his critique seems too simplistic and reductionist.

Protestors in NZ
Healthcare workers protest the vaccine mandates in NZ. Source: Nurses for Freedom

I wouldn’t expect someone without any knowledge of sociological and psychoanalytical theory to be able to instantly understand Desmet’s book – it’s complex and widely philosophical in nature. Hence, I’m not surprised Austin-Fitts admitted she ‘struggled to understand it’. But just because someone doesn’t immediately understand a concept, doesn’t mean it can immediately be dismissed. Surely, that’s all the more reason to attempt to unravel some meanings within it? Curiosity and critical thinking skills are exactly the skills we need to encourage. Dismissing the concept without full investigation is unhelpful and immature. Indeed, this criticism is paradoxically what Desmet’s argument also pulls attention to; we all share the objective of increasing curiosity in life. And a criticism about Desmet being too ‘Euro-centric’ in his historical analysis, from a Jewish doctor in particular, is astonishing to listen to! But putting that aside, I think we can all agree that our Humanity is about discovering understandings of individual truth, subjective in nature and impossible to measure or capture. The creativity of an interpretation of a truth, portrayed through poetry, for example, can never be achieved by artificial intelligence or transhumanism. As I mentioned, this argument is closely connected to my own research – and I never imagined I would be revisiting this topic in such new and challenging times. But like our lives now, teaching and learning can never be objectively ‘measured’ by an Other and defined in a binary way as good/bad practice. And just because Desmet doesn’t explicitly connect the importance of that creativity of humanity, with seeking [legal] accountability of those individuals who actively destroy it, doesn’t necessarily mean he does not believe that accountability for the crimes against humanity is possible or necessary. As a practicing psychotherapist and academic, that is likely to be outside his remit. In fact, it’s likely that such a chapter (if Desmet was brave enough to write it) was edited-out of this book, in order to get the text into mainstream platforms without being censored. And personally, I applaud him for doing that.

Which brings me to the next point: Breggin remembers how, many years ago, his own clinical registration was threatened when he spoke truth to power, and mentioned the parallels with today’s struggle to retain the clinical registration for professional experts like Dr Peter McCullough. Does Breggin not realise that Desmet (much younger than Breggin, and with hopefully some career ambitions still to be realised) is also under the same enormous pressures? His book is published in an established publishing house, sold on Amazon and ‘out there’ for all his academic colleagues (and superiors) to see. He risks his career by speaking-out about the censorship, regulatory capture and political manipulation we witness. His book is explicitly about the Covid political narrative and treads a very fine line between symbolically ‘analysing’ it, whilst not being critical enough to be ‘cancelled’. Desmet and his publishers are clever and thoughtful in an approach that seeks to get just enough information for people to rediscover the power of that essential curiosity he writes about, in order to form an opinion. For instance, he mentions the WEF briefly, and individuals like Schwab only in passing.

Duck Tape over young person's mouth
Censored: Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

Censorship is unrelenting and ubiquitous. But we are only aware of censorship when we are victims of it. Breggin unfairly dismisses the concept of mass formation because he thinks that the crowd psychology it is partly based upon, doesn’t exist in the vacuum that existed during lockdown. But Breggin embarrassingly shows-up his age in this argument! The whole behavioural science of crowd psychology has moved on considerably since the evolution of social media and smart phones: Apps like Instagram and Facebook help control the [fake] view of the Ingroup towards the Outgroup(s), by censoring anything that does against the political narrative and promoting the propaganda. Behavioural science techniques, an unethical manipulation of our subconscious, have been used throughout this campaign (see this link for a UK Gov Report on this). If anything, the lack of physical interaction serves to exacerbate the artificial divide between the groups and promotes the fear and hatred of the Other. This point is fundamental to understanding Desmet’s thesis, as this lack of human connection is part of society’s free-floating anxiety.

On this point, it was disappointing that Breggin and Austin-Fitts failed to understand and didn’t even mention Desmet’s theory of the foundations of mass formation – the social isolation and fear/anxiety. These factors form the crucial elements of the crowd behaviour and attitudes (including the compliancy and apathy) that Austin-Fitts is so critical of. As she said herself – we can only address what we can define, and to define crowd behaviour, we must at least attempt to understand it (which is what Desmet’s book goes a good way towards doing).

Another misinterpretation by Breggin is that Desmet is critical of ‘conspiracy theorists’; a term which (like ‘vaccine’) has been altered in interpretation over time. Desmet’s understanding of conspiracy lies in the danger of seeing too many connections where there are none. And yes, we see that all the time in the paranoia that comes from being outside the mass formation: are chemtrials, clones of the royal family, 5G and snake-venom in water supplies all part of a ‘great plan’ against us? Desmet isn’t dictating that these things are definitely NOT connected, only that we need to be more critically aware of ambiguous patterns that have no basis in reality. That is a danger of the mass formation, to form new mass formations with others. Desmet reassures the reader: only authentic human connection can save us from mass formation, by alleviating fear of the unknown.

Finally, Breggin criticises Desmet for victim-blaming. But victim-blaming is a valid point – we are all guilty of becoming disconnected from one another – partly by complying with the lockdowns, but also before Covid. As Desmet points out in the analysis of our Bullshit Jobs, constant Zoom meetings and our addiction to ‘selfies’ and other fake images of ourselves, have led us to lose touch with our real Selves, our ethics and values and our genuine connections with others. The only way to reclaim our freedoms, is to reclaim our unique humanity. Only then can we start our journey towards the accountability for the damage that has been done to our health, communities and wider democracy. Contrary to Breggin’s comments, these practical and philosophical journeys are not mutually exclusive – they are one and the same, and an intrinsic part of who we are, and our shared future freedom together.

Freedom on a Sandy Beach in NZ: source, author.


By Academy World

Writer, researcher, teacher and learner. Proud to be a part of our global team of Freedom Fighters.

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