The Psychology of Totalitarianism

From our rationalist view on man and the world to mass-formation

At the end of February 2020, the global village began to shake on its foundations. The world was presented with a foreboding crisis, the consequences of which were incalculable. In a matter of weeks, everyone was gripped by the story of a virus—a story that was undoubtedly based on facts. But on which ones? We caught a first glimpse of “the facts” via footage from China. A virus forced the Chinese government to take the most draconian measures. Entire cities were quarantined, new hospitals were built hastily, and individuals in white suits disinfected public spaces. Here and there, rumors emerged that the totalitarian Chinese government was overreacting and that the new virus was no worse than the flu. Opposite opinions were also floating around: that it must be much worse than it looked, because otherwise no government would take such radical measures. At that point, everything still felt far removed from our shores and we assumed that the story did not allow us to gauge the full extent of the facts.

Until the moment that the virus arrived in Europe. We then began recording infections and deaths for ourselves. We saw images of overcrowded emergency rooms in Italy, convoys of army vehicles transporting corpses, morgues full of coffins. The renowned scientists at Imperial College confidently predicted that without the most drastic measures, the virus would claim tens of millions of lives. In Bergamo, sirens blared day and night, silencing any voice in a public space that dared to doubt the emerging narrative. From then on, story and facts seemed to merge and uncertainty gave way to certainty.

The unimaginable became reality: we witnessed the abrupt pivot of nearly every country on earth to follow China’s example and place huge populations of people under de facto house arrest, a situation for which the term “lockdown” was coined. An eerie silence descended—ominous and liberating at the same time. The sky without airplanes, traffic arteries without vehicles; dust settling on the standstill of billions of people’s individual pursuits and desires. In India, the air became so pure that, for the first time in thirty years, in some places the Himalayas became once more visible against the horizon. 2

It didn’t stop there. We also saw a remarkable transfer of power. Expert virologists were called upon as Orwell’s pigs—the smartest animals on the farm—to replace the unreliable politicians. They would run the animal farm with accurate (“scientific”) information. But these experts soon turned out to have quite a few common, human flaws. In their statistics and graphs they made mistakes that even “ordinary” people would not easily make. It went so far that, at one point, they counted all deaths as corona deaths, including people who had died of, say, heart attacks.

Nor did they live up to their promises. These experts pledged that the Gates to Freedom would re-open after two doses of the vaccine, but then they contrived the need for a third.  Like Orwell’s pigs, they changed the rules overnight. First, the animals had to comply with the measures because the number of sick people could not exceed the capacity of the health care system (flatten the curve). But one day, everyone woke up to discover writing on the walls stating that the measures were being extended because the virus had to be eradicated (crush the curve). Eventually, the rules changed so often that only the pigs seemed to know them. And even the pigs weren’t so sure.

Some people began to nurture suspicions. How is it possible that these experts make mistakes that even laymen wouldn’t make? Aren’t they scientists, the kind of people who took us to the moon and gave us the internet? They can’t be that stupid, can they? What is their endgame? Their recommendations take us further down the road in the same direction: with each new step, we lose more of our freedoms, until we reach a final destination where human beings are reduced to QR codes in a large technocratic medical experiment.

That’s how most people eventually became certain. Very certain. But of diametrically opposed viewpoints. Some people became certain that we were dealing with a killer virus, that would kill millions. Others became certain that it was nothing more than the seasonal flu. Still others became certain that the virus did not even exist and that we were dealing with a worldwide conspiracy. And there were also a few who continued to tolerate uncertainty and kept asking themselves: how can we adequately understand what is going on?


In the beginning of the coronavirus crisis I found myself making a choice—I would speak out. Before the crisis, I frequently lectured at University and I presented on academic conferences worldwide. When the crisis started, I intuitively decided that I would speak out in public space, this time not addressing the academic world, but society in general. I would speak out and try to bring to peoples’ attention that there was something dangerous out there, not “the virus” itself so much as the fear and technocratic–totalitarian social dynamics it was stirring up.

I was in a good position to warn for the psychological risks of the corona narrative. I could draw on my knowledge of individual psychological processes (I am a lecturing professor at Ghent University, Belgium); my PhD on the dramatically poor quality of academic research which taught me that we can never take “science” for granted; my master degree in statistics which allowed me to see through statistical deception and illusions; my knowledge of mass psychology; my philosophical explorations of the limits and destructive psychological effects of the mechanist-rationalist view on man and the world; and last but not least, my investigations into the effects of speech on the human being and the quintessential importance of “Truth Speech” in particular.

In the first week of the crisis, March 2020, I published an opinion paper titled “The Fear of the Virus Is More Dangerous Than the Virus Itself.” I had analyzed the statistics and mathematical models on which the coronavirus narrative was based and immediately saw that they all dramatically overrated the dangerousness of the virus. A few months later, by the end of May 2020, this impression had been confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt. There were no countries, including those that didn’t go into lockdown, in which the virus claimed the enormous number of casualties the models predicted it would. Sweden was perhaps the best example. According to the models, at least 60,000 people would die if the country didn’t go into lockdown. It didn’t, and only 6,000 people died.

As much as I (and others) tried to bring this to the attention of society, it didn’t have much effect. People continued to go along with the narrative. That was the moment when I decided to focus on something else, namely on the psychological processes that were at work in society and that could explain how people can become so radically blind and continued to buy into a narrative so utterly absurd. It took me a few months to realize that what was going on in society was a worldwide process of mass formation.

In the summer of 2020, I wrote an opinion paper about this phenomenon which soon became well known in Holland and Belgium. About one year later (summer 2021) Reiner Fuellmich invited me onto Corona Ausschuss, a weekly live-stream discussion between lawyers and both experts and witnesses about the coronavirus crisis, to explain about mass formation. From there, my theory spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, where it was picked up by such people as Dr. Robert Malone, Dr. Peter McCullough, Michael Yeadon, Eric Clapton, and Robert Kennedy. After Robert Malone talked about mass formation on the Joe Rogan Experience, the term became a buzz word and for a few days was the most searched for term on Twitter. Since then, my theory has met with enthusiasm but also with harsh criticism. On this Substack, I will continue to explore the concept of mass formation, apply it to contemporary phenomena, respond to criticism, and relate it to all kinds of other psychological phenomena.

What is mass formation actually? It’s a specific kind of group formation that makes people radically blind to everything that goes against what the group believes in. In this way, they take the most absurd beliefs for granted. To give one example, during the Iran revolution in 1979, a mass formation emerged and people started to believe that the portrait of their leader—Ayatollah Khomeini—was visible on the surface of the moon. Each time there was a full moon in the sky, people in the street would point at it, showing each other where exactly Khomeini’s face could be seen.

A second characteristic of an individual in the grip of mass formation is that they become willing to radically sacrifice individual interest for the sake of the collective. The communist leaders who were sentenced to death by Stalin—usually innocent of the charges against them—accepted their sentences, sometimes with statements such as, “If that is what I can do for the communist party, I will do it with pleasure.”

Thirdly, individuals in mass formation become radically intolerant for dissonant voices. In the ultimate stage of the mass formation, they will typically commit atrocities toward those who do not go along with the masses. And even more characteristic: they will do so as if it is their ethical duty. To refer to the revolution in Iran again: I’ve spoken with an Iranian woman who had seen with her own eyes how a mother reported her son to the state and hung the noose with her own hands around his neck when he was on the scaffold. And after he was killed, she claimed to be a heroine for doing what she did.

Those are the effects of mass formation. Such processes can emerge in different ways. It can emerge spontaneously (as happened in Nazi Germany), or it can be intentionally provoked through indoctrination and propaganda (as happened in the Soviet Union). But if it is not constantly supported by indoctrination and propaganda disseminated through mass media, it will usually be short-lived and will not develop into a full-fledged totalitarian state. Whether it initially emerged spontaneously or was provoked intentionally from the beginning, no mass formation, however, can continue to exist for any length of time unless it is constantly fed by indoctrination and propaganda disseminated through mass media. If this happens, mass formation becomes the basis of an entirely new kind of state that emerged for the first time in the beginning of the twentieth century: the totalitarian state. This kind of state has an extremely destructive impact on the population because it doesn’t only control public and political space—as classical dictatorships do—but also private space. It can do the latter because it has a huge secret police at its disposal: this part of the population that is in the grip of the mass formation and that fanatically believes in the narratives distributed by the elite through mass media. In this way, totalitarianism is always based on “a diabolic pact between the masses and the elite” (see Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism).

I second an intuition articulated by Hannah Arendt in 1951: a new totalitarianism is emerging in our society. Not a communist or fascist totalitarianism but a technocratic totalitarianism. A kind of totalitarianism that is not led by “a gang leader” such as Stalin or Hitler but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats. As always, a certain part of the population will resist and won’t fall prey to the mass formation. If this part of the population makes the right choices, it will ultimately be victorious. If it makes the wrong choices, it will perish. To see what the right choices are, we have to start from a profound and accurate analysis of the nature of the phenomenon of mass formation. If we do so, we will clearly see what the right choices are, both at strategic and at the ethical levels. That’s what my book The Psychology of Totalitarianism presents: a historical–psychological analysis of the rise of the masses throughout the last few hundreds of years as it led to the emergence of totalitarianism.

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The Psychology of Totalitarianism

The Psychology of Totalitarianism is a book written by professor of psychology from Ghent University in Belgium, Dr. Mattias Desmet. In his book he illustrates his concepts of mass formation psychosis that has led to the irrational behavior of the masses in response to Covid over the past two and a half years. Wearing masks, lockdowns, coerced vaccination, denying healthcare to the unvaccinated, wearing masks in your car, continuing to get boosters when both safety and efficacy are in question, and so on.

One refreshing aspect of the book is that it undermines scientific authority which paradoxically enhances science. Specifically, he cites the work of legendary researcher Dr. John Ioannidis, epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Stanford University, and his research affirming that most medical research is not able to be replicated. Either through researcher bias or outright fraud, most published research, is simply, not valid.

I say this enhances science when Desmet points this out because it undermines the assumption of scientific authority. Science is supposed to be an open ended search for the truth that is inherently self corrective. Once science claims the role of authority and seeks to limit discussion it is no longer science. Censorship and science can’t coexist. In fact, using ‘authority’ to aid an argument is one of the four basic logical fallacies taught in basic scientific research classes. The others are attacking the messenger, i.e., the argument is flawed because the messenger is flawed, the false dichotomy, and assuming a temporal relationship automatically means causality.

Essentially, the isolation of people, or as Desmet calls it, the atomizing of people, the cutting off of general societal bonds mostly due to technology, leads to a free floating anxiety and frustration with no tangible cause. The introduction of a perceived threat, especially the ‘invisible enemy’ of the virus, galvanizes people into a new group to fight this common enemy. Thus, mass formation into a group identity. The introduction of ritualized behaviors such as masks, walking six feet apart, following lines in stores, all reinforce the new cultlike group identity. This disintegrates all critical thinking and blind obedience ensues. In essence we are left with a kind of group hypnosis.

As a psychotherapist that specializes in clinical hypnosis, I’d like to offer a few insights. First, of course, and Desmet points this out, this type of blind obedience does not occur in clinical hypnosis because the subject knows they are being hypnotized and knows why. Actually, group brainwashing may be a better word for what is occurring, but that may come off as harsh. The ritualized behaviors mentioned above, such as mask wearing, these, as he mentions, are designed to reinforce group blind allegiance and acceptance into the new group. They are also both convincers and trance deepening techniques.

There are a few social psychology studies that truly apply to the current situation in America and the world at large. Desmet mentions Asch’s studies on conformity. In these studies, there was a line on the board and three other separate lines and the subject was supposed to state which one matched the original line in length. The matching lien was obvious. The catch was that there were 12 confederates in the study that all stated the same wrong line. The participant stated the incorrect line as a result third of the time and attributed this afterword to social pressure and for some participants they even began to doubt their own cognitions. Interestingly, in this study, when there was another confederate that stated the correct line, the participant also stated the correct line 95% of the time.

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