Descent Into Madness
Arguments no longer revolve around truth. You are either ‘with the narrative’ or ‘against it’, Alastair Crooke writes.
“Madness is the exception in individuals; but the rule within groups”
This is the third article in a series of three.
The first focussed on how today’s disorientation and sense of disappearing sanity owes to the psychic stress of embracing a contradiction incapable of purely rational synthesis: An ideology that purports to be exactly what it is not. Or, in other words, by our ostensibly proclaiming liberty and the individual – whilst concealing within its language an ideology that insists any rooted community cannot support a ‘redeemed society’ (because of ingrained racism, etc.) – it must therefore be cleansed from the top down. It must be redeemed of all such legacies. This represents the ‘Bolshevik’ seed that Rousseau sowed into the fertile soil of an extant Frankish European cultural disposition towards totalitarianism.
The second article pursued the theme of how, in the U.S., this ‘seed’ budded into ‘bobo groupthink’, insisting that human deficiencies demanded “solving once, and for all”. This ideal was, and is, to be manifest in an effort to bring about a revolutionary change within society, through challenging what are seen to be the structural injustices within the economic, political and social orders.
This has meant, in practical terms, rotating out of power those “who were so often white and male”, and rotating into power and money those who have been systematically victimised. To accelerate this process, a resort to moral panics (Covid and Climate) has been utilised to effect the slow motion desertion of our former principles of governance to ‘remake man’: A project of re-imagining ‘man’ that can only be done through the adoption of illiberal politics.
This third article attempts to briefly sketch how these stresses have led a faction of western élites into a psychic disorder (psychosis) through an understanding of Professor of Clinical Psychology, Mattias Desmet’s, premise that totalitarianism is no historical coincidence; that it does not form in a vacuum. It arises, throughout history, from a collective psychosis that has followed a predictable script.
This framework is important to understanding ‘where we are’, and to managing resistance to this repeat outbreak of totalitarianism – the latter being a process that gains strength and speed with each generation, from the Jacobins to the Nazis and Trotskyists, as technology advances.
Desmet carefully lays out the psychological steps which lead toward totalitarianism: Governments, mass media, and other mechanized forces use fear, loneliness, and isolation to demoralize populations and exert control, persuading large groups of people to act against their own interests – with destructive results.
If people want to understand why totalitarianism works, its seedlings are all around us. It hardly needs repeating. As the means of communication have become decentralized, digitized and algorithmic, state collusion with the tech platforms in controlling contemporary culture has forced individuals into herds, where reductive analysis, hearsay, and a toxic sneering at any contrariness, serves to fuel viewer MSM ‘clicks’ – even as it freezes cold both creative imagination and intellect.
There is no standing apart from this discourse; there is no thinking outside of the Twitter feed. The digital psyche, like Adam in Eden, however, gives names to things. You are not ‘you’: You are the label you are given; your work is the sum of what is said about it; your ideas are reducible to the web reaction to them. Groupthink thus refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency and moral judgment that results in the formation of a pseudo-reality, severed from the World, and generated for wider ideological ends.
Groupthink is not a segment of society thinking its own rationality. It is a loop-rationality that allows some self-imagined reality to detach; to drift further and further from any connection to reality, and then to transit into delusion – always drawing on like-minded peer cheerleaders for its validation and extended radicalisation.
The point here, as Dr Robert Malone has observed, is to move away from the focus on external actors and literal forces, and to consider the psychological processes fuelling the denialism – and the seeming hypnosis of colleagues, friends and family.
Dr Malone is understandably focussed on the “madness that has gripped the U.S.”, which has been directly responsible for “the amazingly unscientific and counterproductive decisions – bypassing normal bioethical, regulatory and clinical development norms – to expedite genetic vaccine products”. But Malone’s comments have a much broader import:
“Just as within groups of ordinary citizens, a dominant characteristic appears to be remaining loyal to the group by sticking with the decisions to which the group has committed itself – even when the policy is working badly and has unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of the members. In a sense, members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality. That loyalty requires each member to avoid raising controversial issues, questioning weak arguments, or calling a halt to wishful thinking”.
“Paradoxically, softheaded groups are likely to be extremely hard-hearted toward out-groups and enemies. In dealing with a rival nation, policymakers comprising an amiable group, find it relatively easy to authorize dehumanizing solutions such as large-scale bombings. An affable group of government officials is unlikely to pursue the difficult and controversial issues that arise when alternatives to a harsh military solution come up for discussion”.
“Nor are members inclined to raise ethical issues that imply that this “fine group of ours, with its humanitarianism and its high-minded principles, might be capable of adopting a course of action that is inhumane and immoral””.
Arguments no longer revolve around truth but are judged by their fidelity to the tenets of singular messaging. You are either ‘with the narrative’ or ‘against it’ – betweenness being the worst ‘sin’. Desmet effectively has updated Hannah Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian society as “one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under the control of that ideology”. This can be distinguished from authoritarianism, where a state aims to monopolise political control, but does not seek a more thoroughgoing and intrusive transformation in its citizens’ worldviews, behaviours and habits of mind.
During the early 1970s, as the VietNam War foreign policy fiasco was ending, an academic psychologist, similarly focused on group dynamics and decision making, was struck by parallels between his own research findings and the group behaviours involved in the Bay of Pigs foreign policy fiasco. Intrigued, he began to further investigate the decision-making involved in this case study, as well as the policy debacles of the Korean War, Pearl Harbour, and the escalation of the VietNam War. The result was Victims of Groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes by Irving Janis (1972).
Janis duly outlined three defining rules of Groupthink (as paraphrased by Christopher Booker):
First, a group of people come to share a common view, often proposed by a few individuals deemed to be credentialised. It is a view however, not based in reality. These adherents may be convinced intellectually that their view is right, but their belief cannot be tested in a way which could confirm it – beyond doubt. It is simply based on a picture of the world as they imagine it to be, or more to the point, would like it to be.
The second rule is that precisely because their shared view is essentially subjective and not provable, Groupthinkers go out of their way to insist that it is so self-evidently correct that a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded people must agree with it. Any contradictory evidence, and the views of anyone who does not agree with them, can be disregarded entirely.
Third, and highly significant, is the rule which states that in order to reinforce the conviction of the ‘in-group’ that their viewpoint is right, they need to treat the opinions of anyone who questions it as wholly unacceptable. These latter people are considered to be obtuse, and who should not be engaged with in any serious dialogue, but rather should be shut down. Those outside the bubble must be marginalised and if necessary, their views mercilessly caricatured to make them seem ridiculous.
If this is not enough, they must be attacked in the most violently contemptuous terms, usually with the aid of some scornfully dismissive label – such as ‘bigot’, ‘prude’, ‘xenophobe’ or ‘denier’. Dissent in any form cannot be tolerated. Some members of the group take it upon themselves to become ‘mind guards’ and correct dissenting beliefs.
This psychic process can cause a group to make risky or immoral decisions. Many of the greatest horrors of the history of humanity owe their occurrence solely to the establishment and social enforcement of a false reality – a perceived world as they imagine it to be; a pseudo-reality in the place of reality. The more thoroughly they take on this delusional position, the more functional psychopathy they necessarily exhibit; and thus, the less normal they become. In short, they descend into collective delusion.
However, to misperceive them as normal, when they are not, will lead others to misunderstand the motivation of ideological pseudo-realists – which is the universal installation of their own ideology – so that everyone lives passively by their totalitarianism, until it is far too late for them to change course.
Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness, and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself
The point here is that a rational geo-political analysis of Mass Formation Psychosis is pointless. Only a psychotherapist might have relevant observations to make. Nothing said about mass denialism makes sense, beyond recognising its malign existence.
It is what ‘it is’ and will require catharsis to clear it.
This raises the well-known Solzhenitsyn paradox: Why do dissenters and libertarians not resist more? The people who suffer cancel culture injustices tend not to come out fighting, screaming and scratching their way back to safety. They tend to submit to the madness which has washed over them, partly in the hope that they will someday claw their way back. It’s hard to grasp at the time – that ‘this is it’ – and that they need to fight for everything.
Does Janis’ analysis then help explain geo-political events such as Europe’s hyper-ideological response to the Ukraine crisis? It does seem to tick all the boxes of his dissection of earlier foreign-policy fiascos. Group-madness is most characteristic when we come up against people who hold an emphatic opinion on some subject, yet who turn out not really to have thought it through beforehand (i.e. the comprehensive sanctioning of Russia by the EU).
And, (such as) ‘Ukrainian victory is inevitable – it is just a matter of when’; “We are at war … The public must be willing to pay the price of supporting Ukraine and for preserving the unity of the EU” … “We are at war. These things are not free”.
They have not looked seriously at the facts or the evidence. But the very fact that their opinions are not based on any real understanding of why they believe what they do, only encourages them to insist even more vehemently and intolerantly that their views were always right, and to dismiss public opposition out of hand.
All fanaticism is repressed doubt
It is said that in its literal thinking, and insistence on distanced disengagement, liberalism has an ‘empty centre’, denuded of any substantive source of moral meaning. Yet political life abhors a vacuum, and the centre doesn’t remain empty. The ‘good’ that was latched onto – as a source of collective western meaning – is ‘the saving of the liberal order’, preserving its’ ideological project, versus the rising appeal of civilisational states.
In his essay Men without Chests, CS Lewis characterised athumia (a failure of thumos – an Ancient Greek concept inferring human empathy and connectedness) as a disheartened, melancholic state of being that results from an education that insists that all perception of moral worth is merely subjective.
The philosopher Talbot Brewer says we all have an “evaluative outlook” on the world. But, if there is nothing real out there to look upon, then our evaluative capacity can make no reference to anything located beyond the subjective self. In that case, it is hard to see how such Groupthink can make any distinction between evaluation and self-assertion. Groupthink has no resort, save to impose it’s ‘values’ on the world through ideology.
Thumos more broadly asserts the moral merit of things, creating the field for moral choice. If all goes well, it does this in dialectic with logos, the reasoning part of consciousness. Working together in a well-ordered human society, they don’t just assert, they are alert to the broader value derived from the shared pragmatic interests of those who inhabit a real world together. This was one of Kissinger’s points in a recent Wall Street Journal interview when he underlined the need for “equilibrium” in our world.
The idea that empathy and community between humans should have any positive epistemic role to play in grasping reality is now largely foreign to contemporary western political thought. Yet, when thumos dies, the symptoms of psychic disorder, of anxiety, loneliness and bitterness inevitably take us to madness – either individually or collectively.
“The gigantic catastrophes that threaten us today are not elemental happenings of a physical or biological order, but psychic events. To a quite terrifying degree we are threatened by wars and revolutions which are nothing other than psychic epidemics. At any moment several million human beings may be smitten with a new madness, and then we shall have another world war or devastating revolution. Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides, and inundations, modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche”.
(Carl Jung, 1932)