Totalitarianism: What is it? Part 1/2
An interview with Ariane Biheran, PhD in clinical psychology & psychopathology
The first part of our interview discusses totalitarianism and the psychological mechanisms it relies upon. The second part delves further and looks at the Mathias Desmet / Peter Breggin controversy.
To understand the concept of totalitarianism, which is increasingly being discussed following the COVID-19 crisis and the various coercive measures that have been put in place, the logical step is to call on a real expert in the field.
It is therefore quite naturally that we asked Ariane Biheran, who is a doctor in clinical psychology and psychopathology, a graduate in moral & political philosophy as well as in classical litterature, a former university lecturer and the author of some 30 books and dozens of articles, to answer our questions.
The interview, which was conducted in French, and in writing, is in two parts. The first part focuses on the very concept of totalitarianism. What exactly is it about? What are the bases of this concept? Who are the main authors? What are the psychological and other mechanisms that it relies upon?
In the second part, to be published soon, we look at a controversy that has recently emerged with the rise of Belgian psychologist Mathias Desmet and his theory of "mass formation.” This theory is much criticized by the American psychiatrist Peter Breggin, who rather sees us as the "prey” of excessively influential individuals who aim at controlling the future of the world.
In this interview, Ariane Biheran helps us to see more clearly in this controversy between Mathias Desmet and Peter Breggin. She also tells us about "delusional contagion,” sectarian methods, the roles of harassment, guilt and fear, this to help us understand the mechanisms at stake for the manipulation of the masses that we are subject to.
Finally, she comments on our "human nature”: Have we really changed over the centuries from the point of view of human psychology?
How did you become interested in totalitarianism in your career?
Having lived, as a child, in a context of social exclusion, in a disadvantaged Parisian suburb — what was called a "red suburb" —, I very early asked myself questions about the marginalization of citizens, seen as undesirable in the eyes of society. These were the ostracized from everyday’s life, especially with regard to immigrants. I also had personal questions about abuse of power, related to suffering and family dysfunctions.
Having found a form of early escape in books, I also discovered political philosophy quite young, and I was reading Hannah Arendt at 16, then I quickly became acquainted with the analyses of Hegel and Kant, before discovering Husserl. I was immersed in political philosophy before becoming interested in psychology. I needed to get real world experience to see what we are talking about when we talk about insanity, in particular. I then spent several years studying within hospital psychiatric wards. Afterwards, I worked in the corporate world, where I also, to my surprise, discovered that group pathologies were not uncommon.
In terms of the study of totalitarianism, who are the main authors, the main schools of thought, in your opinion, to help the uninitiated to understand what it is about?
Totalitarianism is a notion of political philosophy, born in the twentieth century, essentially with the works of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. The latter, from her analysis of the Stalinist and Nazi regimes, considered that the totalitarian system differs from the classical authoritarian regime, in that it seeks "total domination" over the existence of individuals. Hannah Arendt has been criticized a lot. For my part, I consider her to be a major reference and I share her analysis of the totalitarian system as a structure, which can change scenery in appearance, but retains similar processes.
My original contribution to the study of the totalitarian phenomenon is from the point of view of psychology and psychopathology, that is to say the study of individual and collective psychic processes. This is a question that I have always asked myself and that I have tried to solve in my own way, starting from the observation of “totalitarian islands” in corporations: how do people who are "good in all respects" come to commit the worst ignominies? How do perverse processes get wrapped up in a group, an institution or a state, to bring out a collective delirium and lead the whole to self-destruction?
For those interested, I offer monthly online workshops (in French) about the totalitarian phenomenon, where I explain the concepts, my own understanding resulting from 25 years of analysis, and present classic authors such as Arendt and Solzhenitsyn.
You have analyzed totalitarian trends during this COVID-19 crisis. Can you summarize the mechanisms that are at play?
The processes are very complex, and it is a challenge, as I am working on it, to try to popularize them in an educational way. The methods are sectarian methods of harassment, consisting of repeated moral pressures over time to lead individuals to self-destruction.
Among these pressures, we find abuses of power to the point of terror, with attacks on our inalienable fundamental rights such as the right to work, the right to equal treatment before the Law, freedom of expression, etc.
Other mechanisms are the guilt of individuals, propaganda, blackmail, intimidation, threat, censorship, and finally, these notorious traumatic shocks, reiterated again and again, with eventual acting out (“passage à l’acte”) by those in a position of power.
There is also mistreatment towards the population, for example, the refusal of medical care towards unvaccinated citizens, which is a form of dehumanization that the media have tried to legitimize within the population.
During the crisis, the authorities became arbitrary, unpredictable, and exempted themselves from the Law in the name of necessity.
Two philosophical questions then arise :
1 - Does the invocation of the necessity (of the state of emergency) justify a transgression of the legal order and the Law in general?
2 - Was the necessity invoked in the COVID crisis really a necessity, or just another of those supposed necessities claimed by contemporary states to suppress our rights?
When we enter into this totalitarian logic, what happens to the Law? Is the Rule of Law in danger in Western countries?
Political philosophy reflects on the conditions for the exercise of power and law. Ordinarily, the Law has a symbolic function, through the Penal Code, which consists in laying the foundations of civilization, as a protection of the integrity of individuals. The fraud here was to authorize the suspension of the legal order, to replace it with another one, that is subject to urgency, to necessity, to the State of exception.
The Law was broken to violate the rights of individuals, this in the name of the Law. This is the trick of totalitarian systems, which consists in transgressing the Law, to make it an instrument of persecution of individuals, of stigmatization, of intimidation.
The necessity of the "danger to health" justified the transgression of our rights. Soon, it may be the need to "save the planet" or even the war, which may be just around the corner.
The power can be creative in the reasons invoked to confiscate our rights which are inalienable because linked to our human condition.
There seems to be a manipulation of the masses during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet few people realize this. How do you explain it?
The proper of successful manipulation is to be invisible. It works on emotions. For example, many people did abide to government policy out of a sense of guilt: if they did not comply with the instructions, they were guilty of transmitting a disease, of not protecting the health of others.
Another emotion that is solicited in manipulation techniques is fear. Fear paralyzes thinking and leads to automatic behaviours that individuals would not have had if they had not been afraid.
In addition, manipulation uses paradoxical messages that astound thinking, and therefore prevent any critical reasoning if we do not perceive the paradoxical mechanism which consists of saying everything and its opposite, or even, to say something and do the opposite. Absurd political speeches are part of the manipulations.
The harassment established by the totalitarian dynamic creates traumatic shocks, that is to say fractures and dissociations at the level of the psyche of individuals who, to protect themselves from the violence they suffer, erect kinds of bandages, which are called in psychology "defence mechanisms.”
Denial, to be defined as the impossibility of imagining a situation as unbearable as it is, is one of these best known defence mechanisms.
Deep divisions in society have been developed by the authorities, with the help of the media: We now have the "anti-vaxxs," the “conspiracy theorists," etc. Can you explain the mechanisms at play?
"Divide to rule" says the adage. This is exactly what we witnessed. It is a question of designating a part of the population as a scapegoat, so that the rest of the group evacuates its anxiety on it, an anxiety moreover cleverly created and amplified by propaganda. Thus, the origin of the anxiety is designated: they are the "troublemakers", and they must be eliminated, symbolically or physically.
Political speeches have blown up the civilizational prohibition of murder: it has become authorized to refuse medical care to citizens, so clearly, to leave them sick or to have them die, which is, you will agree, a curious conception of the “health” that the authorities are in theory in charge of providing us.
For example, it has become permissible to leave citizens who do not comply with government measures on vaccination without any means of livelihood. This amounts to leaving them and the children in their care in a precarious and very vulnerable situation.
It has become permissible to exclude, to slander