If you’ve grown bored of the typical poolside trash novel and crave more substantial and relevant summertime reading, try this: Mattias Desmet’s Psychology of Totalitarianism (Chelsea Greene Publishing, 2022). Yes, I refer to the now (in)famous exposition of “mass formation” which you probably should not mention at a polite cocktail party. Building on the philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Desmet’s own extensive experience as a practicing psychologist, this controversial book offers a readable and insightful account of the contemporary tendency toward hysterical groupthink. Starting with the deranging effects of the post-Enlightenment mechanistic worldview, Desmet neatly analyzes how free-floating human anxiety spontaneously aligns itself into a hive mind under the hypnotic spell of whatever voice offers it a concrete object to “blame” and a simple “fix” to solve all problems. He also chillingly explains why this mob mentality is obsessively narrow in its outlook, incapable of shifting perspective in response to evidence or rational argument, and why it always tends to violently cancel or eliminate dissident voices. Most striking from a Christian perspective is Desmet’s truly charitable view of the apparent leaders of the mob; he asserts that they are just as enslaved to the dominant ideology as those they oppress through their draconian policies.
This irenic and humane view echoes the much earlier musings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose “theory of stupidity” (from After Ten Years) offers a meditation on how his beloved fellow Germans – and Christians- could fall under the seductive spell of the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer spoke from a pastor’s rather than a psychologist’s viewpoint; he felt there was a fatal weakness in human nature that causes the majority of men, when faced with overwhelming risk or difficulty, to surrender the sovereignty of their mind and will to a dominant voice that promised them salvation from the problems at hand. The resulting mindless conformity to accepted narratives and action-plans is a disease of the soul which can hold whole populations in its grip and always devolves into violence against those who do not conform. Bonhoeffer did not see the victims of mass delusion as “the bad guys” – rather they were victims who must be released from bondage. He cautions against reasoning with such individuals; the external source of their mental and spiritual enslavement must be removed before they can be healed, he argues in several poignant passages. Reflecting on his insights, one can begin to see how a faithful preacher of the Gospel might find himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Both accounts of widespread “groupthink” are compelling, coming as they do from two men who chronologically bracket the insanity of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The commonalities between Nazi Germany and the recent global lockdowns are not apparent to everyone, but the common theme of both these thinkers should be clear: ideology is capable of taking hold of humans en masse, in such a way that their minds and wills are held captive to its dictates, and ultimately turn toward a hateful purge of all who stand opposed. The multitude of “true believers” is in fact a collective victim of this ideological master, not the source of evil itself. Now, we are quite accustomed to thinking of ideas (and therefore ideologies) as inert abstractions; but there was a time when people remembered that ideas – and therefore ideologies- only exist in intellects.
And here is where I propose go off-script (though I daresay Bonhoeffer would have been more comfortable than Desmet would be with the following proposal). Let’s get medieval for a moment. Suppose mass formation is not some weird side-effect of human brain structure, or evolution, or a quirk of economic forces. Suppose the ideology that dominates, invades, and commands the mentality of a victim population is literally the proper effect of an intellect. But not a human intellect. Yeah, I’m going there. What if we had the guts to call the hysterical mob-think we have witnessed in past years exactly what it is: demonic possession?
Whoa, whoa, whoa – I know. We aren’t allowed in our hyper-sophisticated modern milieu to even mention things like demons. One doesn’t want to evoke the witch-burning fanatics in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, after all. But the Father of Lies is just that: a spiritual being of pure intellect and will who perverted his own nature by rebelling against God and is literally Hell-bent on deceiving mankind with tremendous and fascinating lies that lead to total destruction. You propose a more concise definition of modern mass ideologies and I’m all ears. In the meantime, ask yourself this: if a Legion of demons can possess a single man, (Mark 5-1-15), why is it not possible for a demonic intellect to possess a Legion of men? I don’t mean in the Hollywood body-snatcher modality, either – I mean in the real sense that a higher-order intellect could enthrall and entrance lower-order created minds, rendering them into a kind of slavish parody of true communion. Like the Borg. Or a Stalinist parade. Or that pandemic lockdown video “We’re All in This Together.”
Enraged? Disturbed? Thinking of going back to that garbage poolside novel? My apologies for the social impropriety of allowing outdated theological categories to bleed into modern current events. I’ll end by reverting to the more lucid and balanced outlook of the two thinkers cited above. Both Desmet and Bonhoeffer passionately advocate for truthful, bold speech that aims to lovingly free one’s neighbor from the bondage of the mob mentality. There is no place for “demonizing” the men and women who fall prey to a dominant ideology, on either account: these are victims in need of rescue, not enemies of humanity. Compassion for the deceived is a non-negotiable foundation, perhaps the only stable ground on which to base any effective response. If indeed there are demons to be battled, they are not to be identified with individual other men; rather they are the common foe of mankind, the ones about which the Lord said, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” ( Mark 9:29)