This essay arises out of utter bafflement.
It’s a feeling I’ve lived with since March 2020. At first it barely surfaced as I lay, stunned, on my bedroom floor, trying to process the fact that in my native Britain I was prohibited from leaving the house except for certain activities prescribed by the state. Then it was shared, in low voices and half-remarks, with local acquaintance and fellow lockdown volunteers. When I woke in the mornings it was accompanied by a sense of incredulity; later in the day it was blanketed by a sense of detachment.
When it could speak, this was its voice:
This is not the world I know. How did it change so quickly?
As the months wore on, my bafflement grew. From a former career in public policy journalism, I was familiar with the wealth of institutions and well-meaning organisations that made up the fabric of my society, the research bodies, the think-tanks, the charities concerned with the challenges and injustices facing the young, the old, the disadvantaged and, in various ways and for a multitude of reasons, everyone in between. Well-resourced and staffed by eloquent, media-savvy folk, these organisations gathered and communicated our growing understanding about what we needed in order to flourish as modern human beings: community and company, movement and stimulation, contact with the natural world. Yet these organisations, almost without exception, were silent when it came to the implications of the Covid measures for their causes and constituencies. (1)
Nor did the BBC and The Guardian, my go-to media sources for my entire adult life, ask the obvious questions, call for evidence, present counter-arguments, or cover the stories I expected. It seemed that in the rush to adopt a new approach to infectious disease, whole bodies of knowledge and established ways of thinking had been abandoned.
As the year drew to a close, it was clear that Britain’s intense focus on Covid was sweeping almost every other consideration out of its path. I was baffled by the lack of discussion in the public sphere: the health crisis could no longer be considered a surprise, but Parliament seemed in no hurry to return to the business of scrutinising policy, its 650 MPs content to leave decisions of huge consequence to be made by a few ministers behind closed doors. My leftist tribe, far from questioning authority or pointing out the effects of policies on the social fabric or the vulnerable, were calling for more restrictions. Even more bizarrely, the evidence that the projections which justified the restrictions were wrong made no difference. The fact that England had embarked on a second lockdown on false data was widely known; it made no difference. A third lockdown followed. Nothing made any sense.
By now, I knew that my bafflement was widely shared. ‘The world’s gone mad!’ said a neighbour cheerfully. But most of my fellow-baffled were depressed by the new attitudes of those around them, changes they described idiomatically as ‘having lost it’ or becoming ‘brainwashed’. They reported fallings-out with family and friends, marriages dividing along Covid lines. Some talked of ‘giving up’. I fled to Portugal, still baffled by the fact I was leaving a country that had banned two attempts to earn a living and made it illegal for me to see another human being. Living communally in a calmer and more liberal Lisbon, I met people from all over the world, many also fleeing countries they felt had gone mad and might make them mad too. The baffled me was now a We.
Meanwhile in America, many had also been living in a world-turned-upside-down. ‘Nothing makes much sense any more,’ C J Hopkins tells Charles Eisenstein in this podcast, describing how his liberal-leftist tribe now seemed to be aligned with the establishment it had formerly questioned. The playwright had been keeping a low literary profile until the essay he wrote about a world-gone-mad went viral. ‘You could present facts to people … and their reaction would be not to argue against the facts, facts from their own narrative, their own data, and their brains would short-circuit and they would start shouting: “Well, I know someone who died! Why don’t you go to an ICU and look at someone who’s suffocating to death?” It was this incredibly irrational cult-like response to any attempt to have a dialogue or to challenge anything. And I think a lot of people were experiencing that in their daily lives, with friendships, colleagues and families. They read the cult piece and said, “yeah, that’s what this feels like”.’
As we approach the end of 2021, my hope – the balm to my bafflement – that the more extreme restrictions would turn out to be widely acknowledged as an over-reaction – has receded. A new reason for bafflement has emerged with the arrival of the vaccines: Lithuania, Italy and France are among the countries that have become ‘papers please’ societies, their populations segregated on health grounds. In north America and elsewhere, health and care workers are being sacked, while Canada is banning the unvaccinated from leaving the country. It seems that the liberal democracies of the West are ditching the principles of bodily autonomy and informed consent without so much as a public debate. Austria has initiated the world’s first lockdown-for-the-unvaccinated, with other countries following fast. Meanwhile, the EU stays silent. O Europe, where are your values?
More than ever, I’m impelled to ask: what is going on?
Conspiracy theorists, seeking to make sense of this strange new world, have explanations aplenty. But what if the answer – or at least a good part of it – lies closer to home, in our own psyches?
Mattias Desmet is a professor of psychology at Ghent University in Belgium. He also has a master’s degree in statistics. In the spring of 2020, he started scrutinising the data about Covid and found the measures being introduced by governments to be hugely disproportionate to the threat posed by the new disease. Nor did evidence that they were based on flawed data and false assumptions seem to change anything. Puzzled, he returned to his main academic discipline and examined the situation from a psychological perspective. And then something he knew very well from his research came into view: what was driving the response to Covid was ‘a large-scale phenomenon of mass formation’. Despite the fact that he had recently been working on the subject , it had taken him several months to make the connection – an indication that even he, with his expertise in social psychology, was susceptible to manipulation.
Mass formation, Desmet explains in this conversation with Aubrey Marcus, emerges in a society when four conditions are met. Firstly, there is widespread social isolation, with the population lacking in social bonds. Secondly, life is characterised by a pervasive sense of meaninglessness. Thirdly, free-floating anxiety – a sense of general unease unrelated to worry about particular things – is widespread, and fourthly, there is widespread frustration and aggression, also without a specific focus. ‘If, under these conditions, a narrative is distributed through the mass media indicating an object of anxiety and at the same time providing a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety, then the free-floating anxiety attaches to the object of anxiety indicated in the narrative and there is a huge willingness to participate in the strategy to deal with this object of anxiety.’
These kinds of conditions, Desmet argues, are exactly what prevail in many western countries, with people working long hours in jobs they consider meaningless, living in isolated modern housing in suburbs lacking in communal life. The high levels of loneliness in the West are well documented: see here for research indicating that over sixty per cent of Americans are lonely and here for a piece suggesting that around forty per cent of employees find their jobs to be ‘bullshit’.
In such a context, the crisis posed by the emergence of a new infectious disease, accompanied by the idea that it can be controlled or eradicated, gives people a new, common sense of purpose. There is an enemy to defeat, a new goal to aim for, and a new set of practices to perform. ‘People suddenly feel connected again in a heroic struggle with the object of anxiety,’ says Desmet. ‘So a new kind of solidarity, a new kind of social bond and a new kind of meaning-making emerges.’ As time goes on, even if the practices fail to make sense and the enemy remains defeated, people remain committed to the cause. ‘And that’s the reason why people are willing to participate in a strategy even if it is utterly absurd. The reason they buy into the narrative has nothing to do with the fact it is accurate or scientific but because it leads to this new social bond.’
Following early thinking about crowd psychology, Desmet considers ‘mass formation’ to be a kind of group hypnosis. It doesn’t affect everyone equally: studies of past examples suggest that in the initial stage, only around thirty per cent of the population actively commits to the new cause. A further thirty per cent are sceptical and feel the need to question or protest. In the middle sit the rest, those who aren’t completely convinced by the official narrative but who go along with it for the sake of a quiet life.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the medic and polymath Gustave Le Bon predicted that western society was about to enter an age of populism. In previous times, a country’s politics depended largely on the personality and alliances of its ruler. But, he argued, as governments began to listen to the people, ‘the voice of the masses’ would become the predominant force.
Big societal changes, Le Bon argued, would be driven by the collective mind, a psycho-social phenomenon arising out of largely unconscious forces. When operating powerfully, this collective force causes the group to share the same feelings and ideas which override the differences and nuances that its members might express on their own. ‘Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.’
Ideas spread quickly through the crowd, linked by association – emotional connections – rather than by reasoning. Convictions are firmly held, resulting in dictatorialness and intolerance to those who do not share them, but they can also change quickly. The emotional, mercurial aspect of the crowd’s psychology, Le Bon realised, made populations open to manipulation by those in positions of influence: ‘Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries.’
Subjected to such propaganda over time, an individual can enter a state of mind similar to that of a subject under hypnosis: ‘An individual may be brought into such a condition that, having entirely lost his conscious personality, he obeys all the suggestions of the operator who has deprived him of it, and commits acts in utter contradiction with his character and habits … An individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd in action soon finds himself in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotised individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotiser.’
Like other nineteenth century thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Le Bon was concerned about the potential for a new kind of tyranny to emerge out of the democratic age. And it didn’t take long for the psycho-social dynamics he identified to take new, concrete forms.
Half a century later, Hannah Arendt identified the features of a new, modern form of tyranny made possible by the kind of collective forces described by Le Bon. Published in 1950 nearly a decade after Arendt fled from Nazi Germany and while the final years of Stalinism were playing out, The Origins of Totalitarianism was an ambitious sense-making project which dissected the processes at work in these two movements.
Arendt was gifted, but it was perhaps her perspective as a German Jew that gave her the will to see what so many intelligent people around her failed to see. ‘Unlike many of her friends and acquaintances during these years, Arendt was attuned to the dire political situation developing around her,’ says her biographer Samantha Hill. ‘When she saw the burning of the Reichstag on 27 February 1933, she knew she had to act. Many years later she said: “From that moment on I felt responsible. That is, I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”’ One day, looking through library newspapers to chart the rising cases of anti-semitism, she was reported by the librarian for suspicious reading and arrested by the Gestapo.
Arendt’s six hundred-page work drew on her background in philosophy, historical records and first-hand accounts of those who had suffered under the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. She also read documents in which the movements’ leaders openly revealed their thinking. Out of that research came her central thesis about this new form of political domination: ‘Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,’ she wrote. ‘What prepares men for totalitarian domination ... is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century.’
Arendt’s analysis situated the rise of totalitarianism in the conditions of life created by modernity. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the classes and structures which had provided society with a unifying element had broken down, leaving many feeling ‘uprooted and superfluous’. The way was open for a power-hungry elite offering a sense of belonging and identity. A high level of education provided no protection against being drawn into a new ideology: ‘It soon became apparent that highly cultured people were particularly attracted to mass movements and that, generally, highly differentiated individualism and sophistication did not prevent, indeed sometimes encouraged, the self-abandonment into the mass.’
Much of the movement’s appeal lay in the vision it offered of an alternative reality, a society and a future free of the uncertainty that characterised life in a deracinated world. ‘The masses are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects,’ wrote Arendt. ‘Totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself … through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.’
Despite their ideological differences, Nazism and Stalinism shared the same broad approach to winning over the masses. They inculcated their vision of the perfect society through ‘pressure and infinite repetition’, using propaganda combining claims about purity and goodness with ‘scientific’ assertions. Central to its success was the blurring of ‘the difference between truth and falsehood’; there must be no reference point outside the official account of reality where the mind could repair. In this respect, the totalitarian project went ‘against the reality of experience’, requiring its subjects to disregard the evidence of their own senses and take on a version of reality that went against common sense. Whatever it said was true was true.
Once established, a totalitarian regime demands absolute loyalty from the isolated individual, Arendt noted. There can be no other authority that competes with its legitimacy or offers an alternative picture of reality – not that of God, Nature or Justice. Accordingly, as such regimes grow in power, they destroy what remains of ‘non-totalitarian reality’: the institutions and groups that make up the public realm. When new social groups emerge out of the structures of the regime (inevitable: humans form bonds), they too must be removed. The later purges of the Stalin regime focused on Party members, including the police officers who had conducted previous purges. Power is maintained through constant change and instability: there is no centre against which an opposition can form and the relentless seeking out of new objects of terror is a reminder that anyone and everyone can become a victim.
The fact that totalitarian movements seem to have their own momentum, proceeding as if propelled by their own internal force in a never-end search for new objects and measures of control, is puzzling at first sight. Perhaps one of Arendt’s most useful insights concerns their rootedness in a kind of abstract thinking, what she calls ‘the curious logicality of all isms’. The main idea at the heart of a totalitarian movement, she explains, follows a kind of ‘logic’ which, allied to the drive for total control, lays the ground for the series of steps that must be taken. If you accept the premise – of, for example, the superiority of the German race or the necessity of the classless society – then certain things necessarily follow.
‘The preparation of victims and executioners which totalitarianism requires … is ... its inherent logicality,’ writes Arendt. She describes a form of reasoning characteristic of both Hitler and Stalin: ‘a logicality with a ‘coercive force’ which made victims of the Bolshevik purges confess to crimes they never committed: “If you don’t confess, you cease to help History through the Party, and have become a real enemy. The coercive force of the argument is: if you refuse, you contradict yourself and, through this contradiction, render your whole life meaningless; the A which you said dominates your whole life through the consequences of B and C which it logically engenders.’
Arendt’s forensic focus on the dynamics of the two regimes debunks many of the commonplace assumptions about totalitarian movements. They do not involve particular sets of beliefs; these vary depending on the regime and can change even within a particular regime. They don’t have for an aim the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual (the classic tyrant); their leaders are dispensable and can change. Nor are they satisfied with the creation of a state bureaucracy: the locus of power and rules shift constantly. And whereas in dictatorships people obey (or appear to obey) because they must; under totalitarian regimes a person surrenders his inner freedom and imposes a kind of inner coercion on herself. Totalitarianism is psychological as well as political: it works through the mind.
What is it about the human psyche that makes this possible?
‘To understand the dynamics of the social process we must understand the dynamics of the psychological processes operating within the individual,’ wrote Erich Fromm.
Even more than Arendt, Fromm was a man writing in a hurry. The Fear of Freedom, published in 1941, was an attempt to understand what it was about the modern psyche that enabled Nazism to come into being. Fromm, a Jewish psychoanalyst who fled Germany in the 1930s, was working as a psychology professor in America. He had been working on an in-depth piece of social psychology when he decided the need for a book examining the conditions for authoritarianism was more urgent. ‘Present political developments and the dangers which they imply for the greatest achievements of modern culture – individuality and uniqueness of modern culture – made me decide to interrupt the work on the larger study and concentrate on one aspect which is crucial for the social and cultural crisis of our day: the meaning of freedom for modern man.’
To be human, Fromm writes, is to be defined by ‘the need to be related to the world outside oneself, the need to avoid aloneness. To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.’ Loneliness involves more than just a sense of human kinship; in a description that echoes the lack of meaninglessness that can lead to mass formation, Fromm identifies a ‘lack of relatedness to values, symbols and patterns [which] we may call moral aloneness [and] is as intolerable as the physical aloneness ...’ The resulting isolation is unbearable, rendering its sufferer ‘anxious and powerless’, vulnerable to what he called ‘the totalitarian flight from freedom’.
Authoritarian rule provides a form of escape from this uncomfortable psychological state. It offers the isolated, anxious individual the chance to give up the burden of his ‘own individual self and fuse with somebody or something outside in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking’. Some people are particularly susceptible to this kind of manipulation, those whose whole life ‘is in a subtle way related to some power outside themselves’, whether a parent, a spouse or a God. A psyche ‘rooted in a basic feeling of powerlessness’ and lacking the ‘offensive potency’ to defend itself when confronted by another, stronger power forms the basis for the ‘authoritarian character’.
Some groups, Fromm noted, had been firmly opposed to Nazism in its early years but gave up all resistance once the regime was firmly in power, enacting a kind of psychic collapse in the face of authority. ‘Psychologically, this readiness to submit to the Nazi regime seems to be mainly due to a state of inner tiredness and resignation which … is characteristic of the individual in the present era even in democratic countries.’
It’s important to understand that Fromm’s analysis of the psychic conditions that gave rise to Nazism are rooted in ordinary human behaviour. A more moderate form of the process that takes place under hypnosis – the planting of thoughts in someone else’s mind so that their actions can be directed externally – are frequently found in everyday life: although feeling low, we put on a cheerful face at a party; as a child we tell the adult what they want to hear; we hear a view on the radio and repeat it as if it comes from our own experience or knowledge. These examples of what Fromm calls ‘pseudo-think’ are an inevitable part of living among others; the problem comes when they become so habitual that the individual loses the ability to generate her own responses to experience and lives as a ‘pseudo-self’. When this becomes widespread in a society, you have the psychological conditions for authoritarianism.
Writing when the Nazi regime was at the peak of its success, Fromm could not know the end of the story. Doesn’t Nazism, in meeting the emotional needs of the population so well, ensure its own stability, he wonders? Answering his own question, he concludes that ultimately such a regime is not sustainable because it ‘leaves unchanged the conditions that necessitate the neurotic solution’ - in other words, mid-twentieth century western humanity was still fundamentally lonely.
Examining the present crisis, Desmet makes the same prediction. ‘Mass formation will, after a while, make people feel even more socially isolated. That was exactly what happened in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union.’ In time, the collective mind will start to seek another solution and at that point the narrative’s power begins to fade.
I don’t know exactly what to call the social and political changes sweeping the western world in the name of Covid. In 2020, given the measures imposed by some governments, the term ‘authoritarian’ seemed appropriate. Now, in this second Year of Covid, many states in the western world are seeking to exert more and more control over the lives of their citizens. In 2021, governments’ focus has shifted from restricting human interaction – contact between bodies – to intervening in the body itself. Austria has announced compulsory vaccination for the whole population; other countries are considering following suit. And, as they have been in so many countries throughout this crisis, such new measures are announced suddenly, without the usual democratic processes or the time for open public debate.
The word ‘totalitarian’ may upset or annoy some. (2) But since early 2020 the behaviour of many western governments is consistent with the patterns identified by Desmet and Arendt. Instead of the time-limited measures to control Covid that were originally promised, measure has followed measure, vaccine passports have followed and now lockdowns are being added to vaccine passports. It is as if governments are propelled by a momentum that pushes them ever onwards in the drive for more and more control. Members of the public and expert onlookers have been increasingly pointing out the senselessness of the measures and the official justifications for them. It makes no difference.
For me, the work of the above thinkers is profoundly sense-making. Le Bon’s insights into crowd psychology shed light on some of the behaviours that have baffled me since the outset of the Covid crisis: the lack of tolerance for other points of view, the unwillingness to question, the new-found sense of entitlement to judge and instruct others. And I’ve seen the kind of psychic tiredness described by Fromm in the form of a deep unwillingness to consider the wider, further implications of the path western society is on.
But maybe too much time and energy is being spent on the allocating of names and labels: they are, after all, often only shorthand ways of identifying groups. What seems infinitely more important is to see the choices being made in a way that allows them to become clear and conscious. This involves keeping in mind the fundamental questions: what kind of society do we want? What do human beings need to flourish? Can we learn anything from the mistakes of the past? And – moving from the philosophical and historical to the psychological – what is it about our species that leads us to repeat the same patterns of conflict and oppression?
History never repeats itself. But when living in fear or caught up in power, people tend to do the same kind of thing, in different ways, time and time again. We isolate, scapegoat, segregate, create hierarchies, persecute minorities, enslave and imprison each other.
In this conversation between Desmet and Dan Astin-Gregory, you can hear the sense of urgency about the re-emergence of these behaviours, this time in the name of public health. It’s an urgency born of an awareness of the atrocities that have come from totalitarian movements of the past, of an understanding that the combination of a disconnection from reality and extensive state power can lead people to feel justified in transgressing all their former ethical limits.
‘What, in this kind of logic that now seizes society, would prevent you from building new concentration camps?’ asks Desmet. ‘If you feel it’s justified to isolate people in their houses, to force pregnant women to wear masks, make older people die alone, why would we not take the next step to building camps to isolate people who tested positive for coronavirus, and why would we not take the next steps? Hannah Arendt said: in totalitarianism the population is seized by a very simple and absurd logic that makes them transgress all ethical limits as if there is no other option - if A is true, then B, C, D, until the end of the deadly totalitarian alphabet.’
So what to do?
Desmet acknowledges the futility of pushing reason and evidence in the face of something working at the psychological level. And yet, he argues, it’s vital to continue to present an alternative point of view, to maintain the ‘non-totalitarian’ space: ‘In my opinion, the most important thing is to continue to speak out – just to say that you do not agree with the mainstream narrative. Mass formation is a kind of hypnosis and as such, it is a phenomenon that is provoked by the vibration of a voice. Totalitarian leaders know this very well – they start every new day with thirty minutes of propaganda in which the voice of the leader constantly penetrates the consciousness of the population. The opposite is also true. If other voices sound in the public space, the hypnosis will become less deep.’
Citing Arendt’s observation that totalitarian movements carry the seeds of their own demise, he finds hope in their intrinsically self-destructive nature. ‘Mass formation is always self-destructive, and once you realise that you just wait until the system destroys itself.’ The key shift, he adds, will come when the forty per cent who are keeping quiet start to join the thirty per cent who are speaking out. At that point, the collective delusion dissolves and society can be rebuilt ‘according to more human, more ethical principles.’
Re-developing those more human, more humane principles should, next time – the next-time-that-has-turned-into-this time – be rooted in better psychological self-understanding. The values of self-awareness and authenticity have become widely accepted on a personal level but, this time, they need to be understood as central to a good society. Such a shift would involve acknowledging that the modern western psyche has a dark side. And it would mean doing the psychological work of realising that, under certain conditions, large groups of people can regress into behaviours that we don’t (unless we are victims of abuse) tolerate in our personal lives.
It would also mean starting to re-understand the fact that human beings need the company of others and contact with nature, realising it at a psychological and a cultural level rather than just in bodies of abstract research. It would mean accepting that this holds true however clever and technocratic we modern humans have become, with the result that we put more of our resources into the service of re-rooting ourselves in relationship to the earth, other living beings and each other.
The prescient observers of our past can help here. Fromm’s diagnosis of the modern flight from freedom into authoritarianism concerns a negative form of freedom, the scary freedom that comes from disconnection. The remedy, he says, is to embrace a form of positive freedom based on ‘a spontaneous relationship to man and nature’ rooted in the ‘integration and strength of the total personality’. In this scenario, the prime relationship between the human psyche and the experience of being alive is so direct that it cannot be displaced by human, power-hungry substitutes.
Arendt puts the same thing differently when she talks of the creativity inherent in the human condition, how every human birth brings with it a new beginning, every end in history a fresh start. Human life is a manifestation of ‘the miracle of being’ which can never be fully, finally captured by forces of control. Freedom is essential because the human spontaneity that is part of the human condition cannot exist without it.
And the novelist Forster, writing at the dawn of the modern age, saw the life beyond the dangers ahead. ‘”Is this — tunnel, this poisoned darkness’ asks his (anti)heroine Vashti — really not the end?”’
Personally, while I wait for better times, I’m coming round to the view that in a world powered by too much certainty – certainty that harms, certainty that doesn’t make sense – bafflement can be a fine thing.
Sense-making contributions welcome in the comments below. This is the first in a series of essays in which, drawing on the wisdom of others, I try to make sense of the state we’re in. Another Bafflement Essay will be along soon.
(1) I am aware of one honourable exception. In the late spring of 2020, the small charity St John’s Campaign started speaking out about the cruel treatment of the elderly in British care homes, kept isolated by Covid regulations for very long periods. Although the government repeatedly promised to intervene, this enforced isolation is still happening to some degree. In August 2021 a relative wrote to me from a care home: ‘It is awful, and we are locked in’.
(2) Now even Oxford Professor of Evidence-based Medicine Carl Heneghan is using the ‘t’ word.