Psychopathology of totalitarianism 3/3

Dernière mise à jour : 8 juil. 2021

Series in 3 episodes, published by L’Antipresse, n°286, 287 & 288 23 & 30 May 2021, 05 June 2021 - and translated by

Ariane Bilheran, normalienne (Ecole Normale Supérieure), philosopher, clinical psychologist, doctor in psychopathology, specialized in the study of manipulation, paranoia, perversion, harassment, and totalitarianism.

Episode 3.

Delusional contagion and psychic alliances, leaving the delusion.

“Freedom is the most intimate thing, and it is from it that the whole edifice of the world of the Spirit rises.”

Hegel, Principles of the philosophy of the right,

“Course on philosophy of the rights of 1831”.

To see a way out of totalitarianism, we need to understand how minds have been imprisoned in paranoiac madness.

This implies making the phenomenon of delusional contagion[1] intelligible, and to bring to light the unconscious psychic interactions that combine to promote ideology.

The paranoia is a contagious pathology, which erodes the traditional bonds to submit the psyches to new bonds, those of the ideology[2].

It is first necessary to understand (and I will not be able to go into the details of an overly complex psychological process here) that the psyche tends to defend itself against the violence of harassment, media propaganda and terror.

For that, it builds ramparts which enable it to tolerate an unbearable reality, among which: denial, repression, banalization, idealization, cleavage, projection, radicalization, interpretation, isolation, discharge in the passage to the act, automation of the facts and the gestures, the emotional anesthesia, the disinvestment…[3]

These “defense mechanisms” erode the individual’s lucidity.

In particular, denial is an absolute impossibility of representing the violence of what is happening, to the point of making any argumentation or evidence of the facts impenetrable.

I specify that this psychic process has nothing to do with intelligence, but concerns the psychologically “most fragile”, i.e., those who do not have sufficient internal resources to resist such an interpretative distortion of the world: the majority of human beings.

For it takes extraordinary psychic strength to maintain healthy reasoning in a world that is going mad, where reference points are inverted, the truth is disguised as a lie, and the innocent people are designated as guilty, while the guilty people exercise indecent terror, in the name of the good of the people, and beautiful ideals such as “health for all” or “the protection of our elders”. The delusional contagion operates from these ramparts, making the individual permeable to the ideology, and henceforth an unconditional follower of the totalitarian cult.

There is a hierarchy of psychic profiles in the access to the structuring functions of civilization that are symbolization and sublimation[4]. We can already distinguish those who have structurally integrated the fundamental taboos of the prohibition of murder and incest (and their derivatives: slander, envy, sexual transgressions etc.), and the others.

The latter, who are no longer bound by an external structure, are then “activated” by the paranoiac delusion, which henceforth authorizes them to act, without any legal repression, as long as the mortifying and transgressive action is in line with the dogmatic ideology.

Thus, under propaganda, individuals with pervert profiles can torture with impunity (cf. Klaus Barbie), individuals with paranoiac profile can spread terror[5], and psychopaths can be used as mercenaries of the regime.

Ordinary neurosis[6]are weakened, that is to say that in “normal” times, people who behave in a way that respects the fundamental prohibitions, can, thanks to a totalitarian ideology, regress, and in particular in a perverse way.

Clearly, the totalitarian system, by its massive delusional dimension, makes perverts decompensate[7] into paranoia, and neurotic profiles regress into perversion, perversion being a kind of ultimate psychic barrier to avoid sinking into delusion (cf. Racamier).

The deployment of the totalitarian system thus leads to the occurrence of numerous abuses of power and sadistic acts, committed by leaders who reveal themselves. And one wonders how this good family man, usually so pleasant, and known for so long, became capable of so many atrocities…

I remind you that the perversion[8] is the conscientious and skillful executor of the paranoiac madness.

The paranoiac defines the strategy, while the perverse deploys the tactics.

The other neurotic profiles, rarer, are all the same weakened, up to nourishing depressions and suicidal ideas, or to convert their anguish into serious obsessive neurosis: the individual functions on an automated mode, by ritualized attitudes, which prevent him/her from thinking about his/her function in the whole system, like Eichmann in the Holocaust, who only made sure that the trains arrived on time.

The individual prefers in fact to be dragged into the collective psychic regression, rather than to face the experience of solitude, loss, and separation (experience to which the traditional philosopher is generally seasoned). Thus, in inciting situations, out of norms, the authors of barbaric acts are also “honest people”, with obedient profiles.

Only three types of profiles resist the totalitarian surge:

Some “Anti-socials”, already accustomed to not submitting to the rules of the world that they always question with great vitality,

- Some people anchored on the ground with a good down to earth sense which vaccinates them against any ideology out of ground,

- Some intellectuals and artists. All who have an inner emotional depth, an internal autonomy, and moral references to the transcendent authority, sufficient to anchor the affirmation of themselves in a vertical temporal filiation (old masters, genealogy, ancestors…), which frees them from the horizontal adhesion to the group and from the bonding to the ideology.

Among these profiles, we can find (but not necessarily), people with high moral values, of great integrity, and others (or the same), with a strong sensitivity to liberticidal processes.’

The few who have understood from the first warning signals, and do not need the experience of desolation to measure the danger of the delusional mental construction, embody the narrow path of truth and the resistors of the first hour.

They call for disobedience in the face of the abuse of power, and invoke a human ideal of freedom, against the absolute reign of constraint.

It will be necessary nevertheless to wait for the awakening of the masses, so that totalitarianism collapses, these masses which react favorably to the hypnotic suggestion, and let themselves be easily seduced, by the poisoned gift of the ideology and its apparent coherence: the escape from a reality experienced as unpleasant.

Totalitarian propaganda works because it promises to radically transform a world that the masses no longer want, because they no longer find their place in it.

Of course, this feeling of being lost, without roots, totalitarianism could itself be at the origin of it, before taking advantage of it.

The globalization offered by totalitarian ideology is reassuring; it gives the illusion of total control, no matter if this control is the result of an omnipotent mother who can change her mood at any moment, even to the point of killing her offspring if it suits her.

The masses must stop collaborating, and therefore stop believing. And it is unavoidable: the experience of totalitarian reality will itself be the cause of disillusionment.

The masses, experiencing the totalitarian fact in their flesh, in their families, in their individualities, confronted with the deadly action of the sect, will eventually open their eyes.

It is therefore essential that this temporary alliance between the political propagators of the ideology (political and economic decision-makers/propagandists and intellectuals collaborating with the ideology) and a large part of the people cease.

The dissemination of information, as well as word-of-mouth from those who testify to those who relay them, is also an essential factor in the disillusionment of the masses.

To disobey is vital. To be part of the heretics in the literal sense, of those who choose not to bend to the religious belief of the totalitarian ideology.

There are as many disobediences as there are individual spontaneities. The artist who does not follow the totalitarian art disobeys and makes freedom his faith.

"Intellectual, spiritual and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the criminal initiative of the populace, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition.

The systematic persecution of all higher forms of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders has deeper reasons than their natural resentment of anything they cannot understand.

Total domination does not tolerate free initiative in any area of existence; it does not tolerate any activity that is not entirely predictable.

Totalitarianism, once in power, invariably replaces all the real talents, whatever their sympathies, with those enlightened and foolish people whose lack of intelligence and creativity remains the best guarantee of their loyalty”[9].

Do not submit to the dogma, question it, and keep one's critical mind, create outside of what is allowed, take the side paths, but also archive, preserve the old that the totalitarian power wants to destroy, inform, all this is part of the resistance.

Totalitarianism fears the primacy of subjectivity, the unique texture of the witness who transcribes his emotions, his sensitivity, his psychological life and his humanity; it fears this freedom of the spirit against the rigor of the letter, the irony or “the witticism”, the contagious laughter which dethrones it of its omnipotence.

Thinking is dangerous, but “not thinking is even more dangerous”[10]. 34"

What is left when all is lost? To become, to use the title of Imre Kertész’s book, a “being without destiny”.

This author, deported to Auschwitz at the age of 15 and liberated from the Buchenwald camp in 1945, asks the question of what happens when a man is deprived of all destinies:

“If there is a destiny, freedom is not possible; [...] if there is freedom, then there is no destiny [...], that is to say, we ourselves are destiny”. Perhaps we should simply accept that we are not in control of events, and take up the motto of the Abbey of Thelema in reverse:

“Do what you must”. Accomplish our human duty, to the end of what we have control over, and beyond that, embrace the throes of our human experience.

The balloon of collective paranoiac delusion deflates when the corrupted language of ideology loses its captivating charm.

This is why our freedom is conquered in the Word, which names human experience with accuracy, and this has always been the role of the Humanities. The “philosopher-doctor”[11]must diagnose, name the delusion, and characterize it.


Disrespectful of the laws of life, which are immutable, and destructive of the transcendent laws governing the human condition, the totalitarian system is by essence doomed to collapse[12]..

It is fattened and survives by the collaboration of many individuals, the corruption of minds and language, a renunciation of the truth, and therefore of justice, the primacy of fear, and therefore of hate.

I will close these three episodes with Kertész: “[...] I don't think I'm deluding myself by saying this, I have tried to carry out the existential work, the task imposed on me by having survived Auschwitz.

I know very well how privileged I was: I saw the true face of this monstrous century; I looked the Gorgon in the eye, and I survived.

But I knew from then on that I would never free myself from this spectacle, I knew that this face would keep me eternally in its grip. [...]

And, if you ask me now, what keeps me alive on this earth, I will answer without hesitation: love[13].”

------------------- Notes [1] Bilheran, A. 2019. « Contagion délirante et mélancolie dans la paranoïa », Revue Santé Mentale. [2] It should be emphasized that everything that contributes to breaking the ties to ideology will contribute to weakening totalitarianism; in this sense, traditional corruption in the sense of small arrangements between officials and the population, for example, will be a thorn in the ambition of total domination of the totalitarian system. [3] Bilheran, A. 2017. Harcèlement. Psychologie et psychopathologie, Amazon. [4] Bilheran, A. 2020. Psychopathologie de l’autorité, Paris, Dunod. [5] Bilheran, A. 2017. « Terrorisme, jeunesse, idéaux et paranoïa », Paris, Revue Soins, Elsevier. [6] I remind you that we are all at least neurotic to a minimun extent, because we have all had to repress our primary aggressive urges, which is rather a good thing to be able to live together. [7] Decompensation” is a term used by mental health professionals to refer to episodes during which a person's existing mental-health or psychiatric disorder deteriorates, for a time, to include symptoms that are unusually severe [8] Perversion is a pathology of narcissism, which instrumentalizes for its own interest. The pleasure obtained is neither shared nor creative for everyone: it is sadistic and destructive. The pervert takes everything and does not share. He captures what is healthy and constructive, in order to divert it, deviate it, dirty it and destroy it. Cf. Bilheran, A. 2019. Psychopathology of paranoia, Paris. [9] Totalitarianism chapter XI. [10] H. Arendt, entretien du 06 juillet 1974. [11] Term taken from Nietzsche. [12] This does not predict its duration, nor the extent of the destruction [13] Kertész, I. 2000. "Speech at the Renaissance Theater in Berlin, in Holocaust as Culture, Paris, Actes Sud, 2009.


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