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COVID-19 and the Psychology of Totalitarianism

The transition from democracy to totalitarian technocracy is not an elite conspiracy, but the process of a whole society succumbing to a new dominant ideology

Mattias Desmet
October 26, 2022
Original image: Shutterstock
Original image: Shutterstock

It is clear to most rational observers that COVID-19 had a totalizing effect on society and its institutions. The long-term mass formation that existed during the coronacrisis could not have been maintained without all kinds of steering and intentional manipulation. With the means available to today’s media, the possibilities are simply phenomenal. 

Such steering, however, is rarely done by individual persons; the most fundamental steering is impersonal in nature. The steering is first and foremost driven by an ideology—a way of thinking. Ideologies organize and structure society progressively and organically. As we have described in detail in the previous chapters, the dominant ideology is mechanistic in nature. This ideology derives its appeal from the utopian vision of an artificial paradise. The world and mankind are a machine and they can be comprehended and manipulated as such. The hitches in the machine that cause suffering can be “repaired.” In the long run, it will even be possible to eliminate death. Moreover, all this can be done without man having to reflect on his role in his own misfortune, without questioning himself as a moral and ethical being. This ideology makes life easy in the short term. The price for convenience will be paid in arrears.

It is at this fundamental level that we have to situate the “secret” forces that direct individuals in the same direction and ultimately organize society as a whole. Remember drawing the Sierpinski triangle; if everyone follows the same rules, strictly regular patterns emerge. Like iron filings scattered in the force field of a magnet, individuals arrange themselves in a perfect pattern under the influence of these forces. Man has always fallen prey to “temptations”—the illusion of rational understanding and control, the resistance to question oneself critically as a human, the pursuit of short-term convenience. Within the religious discourse, these temptations were considered dangerous, but that changed with the rise of mechanistic thinking. From then on, they became anchored in the dominant narrative, which also became justification for such temptations. Leaders and followers were captivated by the limitless possibilities the human mind seemed to offer. The evolution toward a hypercontrolled technological society—the surveillance society—is unavoidable as long as the human mind remains trapped in that logic and is (to a large extent unconsciously) controlled by those attractors. It is this ideology that redesigned society, created new institutions, and selected new authority figures. The transition from a democracy to a totalitarian technocracy, in which the coronacrisis was a great leap forward, formed part of the logic of the mechanistic ideology from the very beginning. In a mechanistic universe, it is inevitably the technical expert who has the last word, based on his superior mechanistic knowledge.

Based on this ideology, institutions were created that make plans about what future society should look like and how the ideal future society should respond to crisis situations. The Lockstep scenario of the Rockefeller Foundation, Event 201 of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (in collaboration with Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation), and The Great Reset by Klaus Schwab are examples of such endeavors. For many people, these events and publications are the ultimate proof that the social developments we’re experiencing are planned and the product of a conspiracy, since long before the outbreak these “plans” described how society would go into lockdown as the result of a pandemic, that a biopassport would be introduced, and that people would be tracked and traced with subcutaneous sensors.

If we keep in mind the definition of a conspiracy—a secret, planned, intentional and malicious scheme—we immediately notice two things: It’s not much of a secret since all the aforementioned “plans” are available on the internet. And whether those plans guide the discourse and action of experts through targeted instructions is, at least, questionable. The experts’ communication is full of contradictions and inconsistencies, retractions and corrections, clumsy wording and transparent errors. This is nothing like a streamlined execution of a pre-established plan. If these are conspiracy theorists, they are the lousiest ones ever. Obviously, psychological warfare may also make use of confusion and confusing messages, but that does not explain experts trying to correct their mistakes of the day before, or of feeling visibly uneasy and uncomfortable.

The only consistency within the experts’ discourse is that the decisions always move toward a more technologically and biomedically controlled society, in other words toward the realization of the mechanistic ideology. For this reason, we see exactly the same problems in the coronacrisis as those revealed by the replication crisis in academic research: a maze of errors, sloppiness, and forced conclusions, in which researchers unconsciously confirm their ideological principles (the so-called allegiance effect).

In the process of exercising power—i.e., shaping the world to ideological beliefs—there usually is no need to make secret plans and agreements. As Noam Chomsky put it, if you have to tell someone what to do, you’ve chosen the wrong person. In other words: The dominant ideology selects who ends up in key positions. Someone who does not share the ideology is usually less successful in society, apart from a few exceptions. Consequently, all people in positions of power automatically follow the same rules in their thinking and in their behavior and are under the influence of the same “attractors” (to use a term from complex dynamical systems theory). Furthermore, they all succumb to the same logical fallacies and the same absurd behavior, independently of each other, or at least without having to gather in secret meetings. Compare it to computers running on the same, wrong software: Their “behavior” and their “thinking” will all deviate in the same direction, without “communicating” with one another. This is what the Sierpinski triangle shows us: Mind-blowingly precise and regular patterns can arise because individuals independently follow the same simple rules of behavior and are attracted to the same set of attractors. The puppet master is the ideology, not the elite.

Plans and visions for the future are not so much “forced” on the population. In many ways, the leaders of the masses—the so-called elite—give the people what they want. When fearful, the population wants a more controlled society. For many people, the lockdowns were a liberation from the unbearable and meaningless routine of working life, the fragmented society was in need of a common enemy, and so on. The “plans” do not precede the developments, as a conspiracy logic suggest. They follow them. Those who guide the masses are not real “leaders” in the sense that they do not have the capability to determine where the masses will go. Instead, they sense what people crave and they adjust their plans in that direction. They may relish pretending to have control and direct the chain of events, but they are more like a child sitting on the bow of a ship and turning a toy steering wheel every time the tanker changes direction. Or we can think of King Cnut, who stood before the sea at low tide, ordered the waves to retreat, and narcissistically beamed with pride because it happened. Some of those institutions have even adapted previously released films, suggesting that they could predict the future (for example, the Digikosmos film was adapted in such a way that it seemed to predict the course of the coronacrisis exactly as it happened). Ironically, conspiracy thinking confirms the leaders’ narcissism by taking them seriously, acting as if they are steering the ship, or causing the waves to recede.

There are countless other examples that seem to point in the direction of a plan being implemented, such as: the fact that the definition of “pandemic” was changed shortly before the coronacrisis; the definition of “herd immunity” to imply that only vaccines can achieve it; the counting method for corona deaths was adjusted by the WHO so it was higher than the number of flu deaths; that the registration methodology of vaccine side effects led to serious underestimation (by, for example, labeling those that become apparent during the first fortnight after vaccination as not vaccine-related); that all key political positions when the crisis started were held by politicians who were pro-technocracy (all people referred to as the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders).

These are examples of how an ideology gets a grip on society, not evidence of the execution of a conspiracy. For instance: similar things happen during almost all major reorganizations in large companies and government institutions. Indeed, anyone who would like to reorganize a company or institution and holds the right position(s) will try to adjust the rules, in ways that are conducive to their goals. And they will do their best to install the right people in the right positions beforehand and will try to mold their minds for the reorganization and restructuring through all kinds of formal and informal influence. Anyone who experiences this up close at a company or institution will probably not experience this as a conspiracy. We could even say that every biological organism does the same: It tries to adjust its environment in the desired direction.

At certain points, however, the aforementioned practices may turn into something that does have the structure of a conspiracy. Large institutions use all kinds of questionable strategies to impose their ideals on society, and the means to do so have increased spectacularly in recent centuries. The whole mechanization, industrialization, “technologization” and “mediatization” of the world has indeed led to the centralization of power, and no sane person can deny that this power is being exercised without scrupulous attention to ethics and morality. It is well documented: Whether in governments, the tobacco industry, or the pharmaceutical lobby, there is bribery, manipulation, and fraud. If you don’t partake in these practices, it’s hard to remain at the top.

In their endeavors to impose their ideals on society, institutions and people do indeed cross ethical boundaries, and when things get out of hand, their strategies may indeed devolve into a conspiracy: a secret, intentional, planned, and malicious project. It is also well known that, as the process of totalitarianization continues, the totalitarian regime is increasingly organized as a fully fledged “secret society.” We have seen that the Holocaust came about through a mind-boggling process of mass formation that blinded both the perpetrators and the victims and drew them into an infernal dynamic. However, there was also an intentional plan, which had as its purpose to systematically optimize racial purity through sterilization and elimination of all impure elements. There were approximately five people who patiently and systematically prepared the entire Holocaust destruction apparatus, and they managed to make all the rest of the system cooperate with it in total blindness for a long time. Those who did see what was going on—namely, that the concentration camps were in fact extermination camps—were accused of being ... conspiracy theorists.

The preparation and implementation of such plans are by no means the exclusive privilege of totalitarian regimes. Throughout the 20th century, large numbers of men and women whose genetic material was considered “inferior,” have been sterilized under the doctrine of eugenics. By 1972, the term eugenics had taken too negative of a connotation and was replaced by “social biology,” but the practice remained the same and continued into the 21st century (for example, the sterilization of California inmates without informed consent). Do we have good reason to believe that, in recent years, such practices have ceased?

This article is adapted from the author’s book “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022).

Mattias Desmet is professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University (Belgium) and a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist.