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Why the time was ripe for an authoritarian takeover

WHILE the global pandemic and the climate crisis provide the overarching justifications for an elite-led global economic reset, it is clear that the make-up and constitution of society was itself ‘advantageous’ for such a transformation to be pursued. Mattias Desmet’s ideas on ‘mass formation psychosis’ quickly became the go-to theory in 2020 to explain the rapid shifts in societal norms, values and behaviours that followed from the events of March 2020.  

Of particular interest to Desmet was how easy it seemed to be for governments to convince the majority of people to believe in the rhetoric and go along with the measures that were implemented. As he pointed out: ‘This new form of government emerged from within the population itself.’

Mass formation theory broke with much of the contemporary sociological and psychological literature on ‘how and why people behave the way they do’, instead revisiting 1950s/early 1960s social psychology.  These studies were themselves largely a response to the rise of Nazism in Europe in the 1930s and questions of how it was able to get such a grip on the German population. The central ideas in these studies argued that conformity is central to both activating and consolidating social norms in society. We want to be liked, we want to be accepted, so many readily acquiesce their sovereignty to the group. Soloman Asch’s study, for example, discovered that individuals would inexplicably give a wrong answer in his famous ‘lines experiment’ if the majority agreed on a different outcome, as Harry Hopkins wrote in TCW here. He discovered that individuals might do this even if they suspected that their answer was wrong.  Coining the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, Asch concluded that, when faced with the dilemma of holding two simultaneous beliefs, resolution would involve an appraisal of peer pressure and the reward of remaining part of the ‘in group’. 

The exploitation of cognitive dissonance in manipulating behaviour was clearly understood by the people behind the Covid-19 rollout.  The effective use of this under the guise of a public health issue was used both to propagate and manipulate a range of emotions in people which would bypass critical thinking faculties and appeal directly to base emotions, which are well documented as being more amenable to control and manipulation. In triggering reactions such as guilt, shame and anger, the agenda-setters were able to obfuscate any holes in the master narrative and persuade people to keep believing in the story. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt and ‘the way in which the effective authoritarian state is always grounded in psychology’, Desmet argues that there are four conditions which much be present for mass formation psychosis to assume cultural dominance. These are:

·       A condition of generalised loneliness, social isolation, and lack of social bonds between people;

·       The second condition arises out of the first and is described by Desmet as a diminished lack of meaning or purpose in the lives of many;

·       As a consequence of the above, the third condition identified by Desmet is an emerging widespread anxiety and a sense of malaise; 

·       Desmet describes the last condition both the repression of and the ‘acting out’ in response to the first three conditions. For example, there may be higher levels of aggression, frustration and depression, linked to intrinsic feelings of anxiety, disillusion or and not being in control of their surroundings. 

Desmet’s ideas provide unique insights into the psychological interface between the power of political ideology and influence on existing societal norms. But were the perpetrators of this agenda aware of the scenario that played out or did they just get lucky with their timings? After all, if more people had been awake to the scale of propaganda, lies and deceit which has since become clear, the chief architects of the great reset would potentially have required a different approach, perhaps more direct means such as physical force. As it was, there was very little resistance to the ‘velvet revolution’. 

Orwell and Huxley warned us long ago that society was always a couple of steps away from the clutches of more nefarious politics.  While the level and scale of compliance in March 2020 came as a shock to those who were able to see through the charade, it was the absence of even a modicum critical thinking that was puzzling. Many seemed unwilling to even take the first step in questioning what was going on, let alone engaging with what was clearly a significant change in the politics that was being rolled out. In Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American Community, Robert Putnam outlined a long-term decrease in civic engagement in the US, and Western society in general, over the last 40 years. Putnam argued that a society characterised by growing ‘individualisation’ resulted in increased disconnection from friends, family, friends, neighbours and, perhaps most significantly, from democratic structures and institutions and ‘political agency’. Putnam argued that this erosion of civil society, characterised by the rolling back of institutions, traditions and values which had served to promote healthy levels of social capital, civic association, and a measure of collective solidarity, had all but disappeared under conditions of economic, political, and cultural globalisation. He concluded therefore that people are now far less engaged politically: they are voting less, are less likely to be affiliated politically, and are now less likely to have any critical engagement with the political realms, much less an understanding of the ways that politics impacts on their world. 

Far from being a ‘random event’, there is a good argument to suggest that decision-makers were well aware of their timing and that they introduced policies which were simply extensions of a long-term process of cultural and social engineering that have been guided by governments until they reach ‘the perfect storm’. Many of the trends identified by Putnam including changes in work, changes in family structures, the role of television, the influence of IT, mobile phones, and computing, and changing gender roles, would have been clearly understood by the people overseeing society’s great reset. The explicit incorporation of behavioural science into government policies over the last few decades suggests that this might well be the case.  

What we have seen over the last four years has been designed to align with existing psychological processes. This has been particularly evident in the use of lockdowns, social distancing and self-isolation to restrict social ties and to keep society fragmented. Relentless propaganda and censorship have been used to do the same on social media, and forthcoming policies such as the Criminal Justice Bill will lay the foundations for the legal outlawing of protests, communal gatherings, online dissent, and any other areas where organic dissent might take root.

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