Totalitarianism, dictatorships, and countries from far away.

Mattias Desmet is a Belgian academic I discovered during the beginning of the pandemic, he's one of the scientists I've been following closely ever since. His explanation about the process of mass formation matches, frightening accurately, what I've observed around me for the last 2+ years. This week, I started reading his book titled: “The psychology of totalitarianism”.

In the introductory chapter, he draws a line between classical dictatorships and totalitarian regimes:

Dictatorships are based on a primitive psychological mechanism, namely on the creation of a climate of fear amongst the population, based on the brutal potential of the dictatorial regime. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, has its roots in the insidious psychological process of mass formation. Only a thorough analysis of this process enables us to understand the schocking behaviours of a “totalitarized” population, including an exaggerated willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own personal interests out of solidarity with the collective (i.e. the masses), a profound intolerance of dissident voices, and pronounced susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda.

Although it is important to understand the differences between dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, in reality, all the regimes fall somewhere in between. Even the cruelest dictatorship needs the military to believe the narrative supporting such a regime; no matter how powerful, a dictator cannot, single-handedly, oppress the whole population. The military in dictatorships should be under a sort of magic spell to perpetrate the atrocities they are ordered to do. Similarly, totalitarian regimes have to show the muscle from time to time, usually to discipline the dissident voices threatening to break the masses free from hypnosis.

Mass formation is, in essence, a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals' ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically. This process is insidious in nature; populations fall prey to it unsuspectingly. To put it in words of Yuval Noah Harari: Most people wouldn't even notice the shift toward a totalitarian regime. We associate totalitarianism mainly with labor, concentration, and extermination camps, but those are merely the final, bewildering stage of a long process.

In the part of the world where I grew up, I heard many times Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea are dictatorships. Also, I was also told I should feel really grateful I was born in a democratic country.

The case of North Korea always caused me more curiosity. From these three countries, is the farthest away, both in physical distance and culturally. I know quite a bit about the history of Venezuela and Cuba, but North Korea is a complete mystery.

Supposedly, most North Koreans see their leaders as a semi-god of sorts. When people mention this issue, they do it in a way that suggests, subtly, that the citizens of that country are somehow dumb by believing this. I can't disagree more. Human intelligence is equally distributed in this world (although opportunities aren't). So, I became interested in understanding what psychological conditions led them to believe such a story. An oppressive government and the leader's charisma cannot explain this phenomenon completely, there should be certain societal conditions that allow the propaganda to be effective. Mattia's book will certainly shed some light on it.

Harari's observation is key: “most people wouldn't even notice the shift toward a totalitarian regime”. Drop by drop, one small change at the time, and when you realize it, the society you live in has completely changed. In the meantime, you're feed with stories about dictatorial regimes from far away and be reminded that you should be grateful for having been born in a free country. Totalitarianism cannot flourish in these lands, dictators will never reach power in this side of the world.

#Society #Propaganda #Totalitarism