Amy Willows has studied psychology and psychotherapy and is also an original thinker. She challenges the now firmly entrenched notion that a state of hypnosis is central to the explanation of mass formation. This two-part essay is a collaboration between Amy and Rusere Shoniwa to articulate her theory to a wider audience. Part I drew on Amy’s practical and theoretical knowledge of hypnosis to understand how true hypnosis differs from the behaviour exhibited by the mass during the excesses of the response to covid. In part II, an alternative psychological theory is offered as a possible contributory factor in the mass formations of the early 21st century.
It is uncontroversial to acknowledge that addiction in one form or another is a defining feature of societies in developed countries. At its core, addiction is the compulsive seeking out of a substance or behaviour despite its adverse consequences to mental and physical well-being. Whether the addiction is to a substance (physical) or a behaviour (e.g., social media), modern capitalist societies seem structurally designed to produce addiction owing to the alienating effect of meaningless jobs and the myriad stressors that modern life places on relationships. Consumerism, a foundational feature of the economic system under which virtually all of humanity is socialised, is predicated on creating needs where none exist.
In this essay we will explore the possibility that an addictive society has played a significant role in contributing to the mass formation that was a signature characteristic of the totalitarian conditions heralded by the global covid response.
In examining the contribution of addiction to the totalitarian state of mind, we will restrict our discussion to the effect of addiction on the psyche (the psychology of behavioural addiction) and not the physical brain. For that reason, we will not explore substance addiction in the interests of avoiding the complication of its impact on chemical substrates in the brain.
Some additional caveats. We must take care not to confuse an obsessive-compulsive state of mind with an addicted state. Although they look similar, there is a slightly superstitious ritual element to obsession, which has its own logic, as well as an exaggerated sense of responsibility and atonement. This contrasts with an addicted state, in which the subject acts more directly, ignores logic, and feels no responsibility.
We should also be wary of applying addiction to each and every so-called ‘unhealthy’ relationship. While it is possible to spend too much time attached to our mobile phones, we can still have other fulfilling relationships and experiences during which we forget about the phone. We are not all addicted to our phones, although the quality of our lives might improve greatly if we spent less time on them.
Standing on Mattias Desmet’s shoulders but looking in a different direction.
In part I of this essay, we posited reasons for being doubtful that a hypnotic state is at the root of this iteration of mass formation; it’s worth summarising here our main points of agreement and disagreement with Mattias Desmet’s theory of mass formation.
While largely in agreement with the societal preconditions for mass formation laid out by Desmet, we posit that they yield a mental state closer to addiction than hypnosis. Why does it matter? Because correct diagnosis is the basis for an effective cure, acknowledging, of course, that we would never be so arrogant as to suggest we have hit upon the ‘cure’ for what really is the most lethal and complex psychological predicament to have confronted humanity in modern times – mass formation. Carl Jung summed up the relative lethality of viruses compared to the menticide of totalitarianism when he wrote:
“Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.” – Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life
The social preconditions for an addictive society
To begin with, we present what is in many respects a shrink-wrapped version of Desmet’s social preconditions for mass formation — our key point of departure is that we see these conditions driving an addictive state as opposed to a hypnotic one.
As Desmet rightly points out, an industrialised and mechanised world has alienated the human mind not only from natural cyclical processes and nature itself but from the organic nature of human relationships, which have “lost their diversity and originality”[i]. The productive waking hours in the pre-industrialised era were consumed by tasks that had a tangible link to the individual’s survival. Although in today’s world, we may well understand that we cannot survive without a job, the job itself (in most cases) offers no tangible link between its outputs and our physical wellbeing — or, for that matter, the wellbeing of others. Even in a job related to producing something tangible, the degree of mechanisation and the distance it creates between the performance of a task and the end output imbues the experience with a soul-destroying monotony that stifles creativity and severs the connection between effort and output.
As for the bureaucracy that characterises the ‘service industry’ of most Western economies, the meaninglessness is near total in its absence of productivity, creativity, and tangible benefits to both the performer and the receiver of the alleged ‘service’. In many, if not most cases, we are aware that we are not adding value but creating barriers to fulfilment, all in the name of ‘managing risks’ which grow exponentially or ‘augmenting data’ which only increases in volume and complexity, requiring ever more complex analysis. The sole aim of bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself in order to justify the existence of those who derive salaries from it. Inevitably, all needless tasks overseen by bureaucracies must increase, and regulatory rules proliferate in response to the proliferation of risks and complex data.
The result is that most of us are not serving ourselves or others. On the contrary, creativity and meaning are stifled and even penalised. The working day offers little to no prospect of feeling alive and human, and so humans now find themselves in what Desmet describes as “a state of solitude, cut off from nature, and existing apart from social structures and connections” [ii]. We have arrived at the “atomised subject…the elementary component of the totalitarian state”.
What is the psychological impact of this atomisation on the individual? In answering this question, we will begin to diverge from Desmet’s hypothesis of free-floating anxiety seeking an object on which to ruthlessly fixate and, instead, explore the possibility of the totalitarian mind as an addicted one.
Addiction – filling the void
The consequence of the atomised individual is the fracturing of relationships within society and between individuals. Relationships provide the connections through which we make meaning, and therefore come to know ourselves. Without them, we cannot make sense of who we are. We become a void, bereft of meaningful existence. This lonely state of mind creates a sense of deprivation, which is an important aspect of addiction. Addiction in one sense is the mind’s attempt to fill a void. Here, we need to discuss the concept of separation in relationships.
Separation is the knowledge that we are not everything and that we do not control everything. However, separation is not disconnection. Having a connection to other people, nature and the things around us, is a relationship between ourselves and other separate entities. Being inter-dependent, as all humans are, is almost paradoxically an acknowledgement of our separateness – that we are boundaried but need others to survive. Separation is a precondition for the experience of true enjoyment and meaning. The creation of relationships with a world outside ourselves is how we feel alive and make meaning.
Separation and quality relationships are very much intertwined. In the formative years, separation is enhanced and achieved by nurturing and boundaried relationships. The unavailability or degradation of relationships also has a degrading effect on separation. If the quality of relationships has been degraded, or was poor from the start, separation in the atomised individual – and thus their capacity to engage with different viewpoints – is also degraded, or had not been substantially developed to begin with. This degradation in separation brings about its corollary – everything outside the self must be either avoided, or controlled and subsumed, as opposed to engaged with respectfully as a separate entity.
So, the absence or partial absence of separation leaves in the unbounded mind a void, which it attempts to fill with a substitute activity. Rather than seek meaning in the external world with other bounded / separate entities, the mind turns to secondary activities that can be controlled and used as substitutes for meaning-making. Because the unconscious purpose of this activity is to fill a void; it is absent of the meaning provided by real human relationships. At first sight, there may appear to be many varied relationships, but if we scratch the surface, we find that they provide insufficient depth for the individual to develop themselves and others.
The creation of a ‘crisis’ provides the unbounded mind with opportunities to engage in abstract concepts of ‘helping’ or ‘rescuing’ – activities that are intensely exciting and are therefore expedient for the purpose of relationship substitution. They also provide an added cheap thrill of danger avoidance – ‘cheap’ in the sense that it’s like watching a good horror movie: your nerves will get slightly frayed, but you know you aren’t actually in real physical danger. This is the addiction to an excited state of mind, which appropriates any crisis or drama that contains all the trappings of an intensely sensational experience without the calm adult component that cultivates intimacy and development.
Any intensity of sensation accompanying addictive activity does not imbue it with meaning. The excitement is in fact a product of the inability to derive real meaning from an activity which is a poor substitute for respectful human relationships. In addition, the experience is felt without making any link between the activity and the rest of life and the world. The rest of life – everything on the periphery of the immediate activity – is wiped out, and the addict becomes completely fixated on one disconnected phenomenon. The addict is totally consumed by it and totally consumes it because the purpose is not to enjoy it but to obliterate awareness of the void.
We will focus more on crisis as the addictive object or activity because of its obvious relationship to covid theatre, but the inherent meaninglessness of the activity or object of addiction renders the choice of object insignificant. The disconnected individual does not become addicted to the object or behaviour per se, be it gambling, pornography, shopping or crises. The specific objects and behaviours are irrelevant and can change when something more expedient comes along – think ‘the current thing’: terrorism, covid, Putin/Russia, climate catastrophe. What matters – what they are addicted to – is the inner experience.
Moreover, as we know not just from covid theatre but from all the ‘current things’ being fanatically embraced, there is no sound or rational basis for engaging with the activity or crisis. In other words, the pretext for engaging with the crisis may be harm prevention, but to a rational observer, every facet of the ‘harm prevention’ activity on closer inspection turns out to be patently destructive. Rationality is in fact a threat to the performance of the activity since a truly rational assessment of the crisis or activity would lead to conclusions that would call for its cessation. Destruction is in fact axiomatic to addictive behaviour precisely because it is grounded in a reaction to deprivation and not based on a rational and lively engagement with the world.
This is also why we question the role of hypnosis in mass formation. The addict busies the mind with a sensory overload and then seeks to control events and activities. This busy and controlling stupor is quite different from hypnosis, which is a relaxed state involving trust, primarily in the hypnotist but also in the process itself, and a lack of inhibition, both of which feel comforting. The addicted mind, on the other hand, bombards itself and the world around it in a masochistic and destructive way. There is no meaningful trust. Only the devouring of useless and simplistic information about rules and efforts to forcefully control others.
Crisis-addicted minds are incapable of viewing human relationships as an adequate source of support. The addicted mind already lacked meaningful relationships before 2020, and so could easily sacrifice what little it had without sacrificing much at all. Lockdowns provided people with an excuse to physically rid themselves of complicated human relationships, and to attempt to control interactions by adherence to strict rules, or to distance themselves using digital technology such as Zoom, all under the guise of helping, rescuing, and avoiding danger.
Phases of addiction – emptiness and seeking the fix
When thinking about addiction, it’s tempting to focus exclusively on the ‘fix’ – the period of intense immersion in the object or activity of addiction. It’s probably more important to understand the in-between phase in which the addicted mind endures oppressive emptiness. An experience is only addictive because of this starved or deprived state of mind, which we will call the ‘empty’ phase. Without these sensations between fixes, there would be no compulsion to repeat the experience of a fix. The ‘empty’ phase is a period of helplessness during which the addict feels as though they are watching an ongoing disaster, unable to do anything about it, and unable to make contact with people who can understand. With addiction, the helpless, lonely, disconnected and empty state of mind is an internal catastrophe.
In this agitated and yet empty state of mind between fixes, the addict will latch onto an activity or object – a fix – to obtain relief by way of distracting the mind. A healthier response to this deprivation would be to build trusting relationships with others, but this takes time, and the need to expunge the deprivation always feels urgent. Once stumbled upon, a fix is assumed to be the only way to escape from the deprivation of emptiness. During the empty phase in between fixes, the inner experience of the fix – the distraction and busy stupor of, say, endless gambling – is relived in the imagination, but the frustration of not being able to implement it becomes fierce, and so the cycle repeats.
Fixes provide relief to the addict because they are packed with sensory stimuli. Social media addicts might engage in behaviours to accumulate ‘likes’, ‘friends’, ‘followers’, and this involves immersion in meaningless pseudo-data, and being subject to watching provocative ups and downs, as well as a constantly changing visual environment with moving images, symbols and new information demanding attention. In the covid crisis, we witnessed the irrational and ever-changing rules and regulations; the thrill of ‘locking down’ to flatten an imaginary curve on a graph; obeying unscientific soundbites like ‘hands, face, space’ to ‘save lives’; the signage and symbolism of the associated physical paraphernalia; maintaining physical distance in one situation but not another; wearing a mask when walking to the restaurant toilet but not when seated at the table; repeated testing, and so on. Our senses and minds were bombarded by nonsense.
Worst of all, it was easy to find enemies by invoking an earlier call to arms from the War on Terror: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us!”. Whereas the addict was previously adrift emotionally, the fix also presents an opportunity to experience the illusion of gaining control over their life by controlling those around them who don’t adhere to the rules of the new ‘game’. The inherent absurdity of the rules is of no consequence to the addict. All that matters is maintaining the distraction achieved by busying the mind and controlling themselves and others. The fix is thus characterised by a sensory overload accompanied by vigorous attempts to exert control.
The feeling of focusing intensely on one thing at the expense of everything else, and feverishly trying to take control of everything around us, is common enough for us all to imagine. We temporarily drift in and out of mental states like this in our everyday lives. However, when the fix becomes a permanent need, the capacity of the mind and the capacity for meaningful relationships outside the addiction becomes ever more limited.
The satisfaction derived from this intense new experience is the nearest the addict can experience to love. The diligent performance of these actions is rewarding in its own right. If external acknowledgement is received, there is an additional emotional reward that may replicate experiences of childhood interactions with adults – the addict has not only filled the void, but they have been ‘good’ in the process. Covid theatre amplified this false love with the flood of media messaging reinforcing the moral rectitude of compliance and vilifying non-compliance. There was and is, however, nothing inherently developmental or nourishing in obtaining this fix. It is, above all else, a desperate reprieve from the void.
A brief word on ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ during the busy activity of achieving a fix. Getting on top of the situation, whatever it may be, is to a large extent irrelevant. What matters is that the activity itself is satisfyingly absorbing and thus fills the void. Gamblers don’t stop gambling when they have lost all their money: they steal or borrow and bet the house. The Covidians never stopped to question the efficacy, let alone the destructiveness, of all the countermeasures even as spurious death counts and cases rose regardless of the measures employed. All evidence of the futility of the rules and measures was rationalised away in a desperate attempt to ensure that the activity itself was kept sacred.
In one sense, the addicted mind is seeking greater control through immersion in meaningless activity, but it is not control in the rational sense of achieving a point of stasis in which a ‘victory’ is achieved. If such a victory and stasis were achieved, the mind would be faced again with emptiness and meaninglessness. As with the addicted gambler, the crisis addict needs a forever-experience. He is not really playing to ‘win’, which is why rationality does not play a part.
Since the end of restrictions in February 2022, society has largely returned (on the surface at least) to how it was prior to March 2020. Despite this, there is still a hard core of addicts calling for the reinstatement of restrictions nine months after the resumption of normal life, under the well-worn pretext of saving the NHS, which has in fact been crushed by the backlog caused by the restrictions. There is no logic to the addicts’ calls for more of a fix other than the satisfaction that comes from the frenetic busying and controlling activity of the fix itself. The fact that for a very long time, nothing the government did produced a ‘victory’ against the virus worked in favour of the continual cycle of pointless activity and rules. The true Covidian feels cheated by the government’s abrupt end to restrictions in February, but winter has brought with it the hope of a return to activity to fill the void of meaninglessness.
Sensory bombardment and controlling through monitoring
Being bombarded with incoherent narratives and information was normal pre-covid, especially via the news, but in 2020 the intrusiveness, intensity, urgency and emotionality of messaging from a variety of sources went stratospheric. Messages were everywhere: on the streets, in parks, at work, in announcements on public transport, in letters and text messages, and, of course, across everyone’s masked faces. This situation offered immense relief for the crisis addict because the mind was never left exposed to a static state in which the discomfort of emptiness would take hold.
Once immersed in the sensory bombardment of the activity, the addict develops a heightened awareness of the threat of being abandoned by the ‘game’. Hyper-vigilant monitoring provides feedback that the addict is subsumed by the system and receiving its full attention. There is a mutual dependency in which the addict gives all their attention to the activity and expects reciprocation. Surveillance by the system is therefore welcome since it confirms that the addict is ‘needed’ in this substitute relationship.
Knowing that they are being watched helps the covid crisis addict to watch themselves. This self-policing is a renunciation of the unconscious mind. The unconscious is, by definition, private even from ourselves, and therefore uncontrollable. But if something is conscious, it is felt to be available for control and manipulation. In the addicted state, the individual feels righteous when the CCTV is recording them simply because monitoring everything is ‘good’, and helps to keep the activity itself in consciousness.
Thus, while monitoring other people is an important aspect of the controlling dimension of the fix, self-monitoring is equally, if not more, appealing. The covid faithful were known to express disappointment that their covid quarantine had been pointless because the police failed to check up on them. They felt let down by the police. Even before the hyper-intrusiveness of covid surveillance, self-monitoring was common. The embrace of safetyism and other forms of stifling bureaucracy are really a means of self-policing under the pretext of combatting exaggerated threats. Here we see the elements of crisis addiction present: a frenzy of futile activity as a reaction to exaggerated threats constructed to fill the void of a meaningless social environment.
Addicted members of the mass – crisis addiction
During mass formation, there exists a minority of people who are more hysterical than others. Many in this minority may have spent their lives attempting to control themselves and the world. Perhaps they were ‘rescuers’ drawn to victims and tried to intervene under the pretext of altruistic motives. If they were in fact crisis addicts, the choice they made was to busy themselves with managing the problems of other people rather than confront their own problem of isolation and deprivation.
If this seems cynical, reflect on the absurdity of living in a society in which the majority of citizens generally have nothing to say about their government’s involvement in stoking wars and conflict overseas. Yet, in the case of the Ukraine conflict, most citizens actively supported the war rather than insisting on negotiations to avoid or terminate the conflict. Having supported the war, they immediately and, it has to be said, perversely followed this up with campaigns to help the victims of the very same war that could have been averted if pressure had been brought to bear on a negotiated solution. Here we must confront the possibility that the need for crisis as a fix outweighs any compassion for the victims of that crisis.
Many in society now appear to be addicted to crisis as a vehicle to purge their own crisis of internal helplessness and meaninglessness. The individual in crisis may in some way be a microcosm of growing societal trends – the desire to get everything under human control, to abolish all and any suffering, regardless of root cause, regardless of the detrimental downstream effects of the righteous action, regardless of any breach the action may have on fundamental natural laws or of suffering caused to others not in the immediate and narrow focus of the cared-for target. How else are we to explain a Labour Party faithful (or Democratic Party in the US) that purports to represent the downtrodden yet gives its full-throated support to wars and virus mitigation with total disregard for the ensuing collateral damage?
How pervasive crisis addiction turned into global totalitarianism
Prior to the covid response, this experience of trying to control other people, and the continual sensory blast from the news of disasters in which people were suffering, provided some relief for the hard-core crisis addicts seeking to fill the gaping hole caused by meaningless relationships and jobs. And then covid came along, providing the mother of all crisis fixes that enjoined them to seek control over others, on a global scale and for an indefinite period, against a backdrop of relentless nonsensical and sensational messaging.
By 2020, many in society, including those in authority, lacked a boundaried identity. There were simply not enough people in key positions capable of maintaining a strong sense of self and ability to think independently and rationally. Once a mass of people formed around the same fix, the likelihood of mass hysteria was high because too many people became enablers. The addicts, a relatively small but noisy proportion of the population, seized a unique opportunity for a crisis fix by generating and enforcing a ludicrous set of rules in a game of World Of Warcraft against the virus. They were immediately joined by a cult following of unthinking and frightened conformists.
At the level of the individual, an addiction involving a peculiar physical behaviour might be easy enough to spot. But when the noisiest members of the professional managerial class become addicted all at once to the same experience, it is camouflaged – ‘normal’ and supported by systems of enforcement.
The reason we don’t all join these attempts to control is that some of us intuitively understand that this is not an enjoyable, lively state of mind. Those most hysterical about violations of restrictions were attempting to rid themselves of their frustration by imposing order on the world, regardless of the destructiveness of the ‘order’ they sought to impose. But this did not result in a happy ‘high’ – the superficial excitement masks the deadliness caused by the void of nurturing relationships which still haunts them.
We argue that, among a relatively narrow but highly influential and vocal group, the object of addiction was not a fear of the coronavirus. As with other addictions, the external object of addiction is the pretext for a certain inner experience. There was in fact very little genuine fear of the virus, which is why the sensible data analysis was ignored. Common sense was suppressed and hysteria promoted in order to provide the crisis fix, with all its sensory overload and pretence of organizing. Having found a vehicle for an intense substitute relationship, the addicts’ biggest concern was being abandoned by the new game and being denied their fix.
The real fear and dread were felt by those of us who knew that this hysterical clamour for monstrous levels of societal control was a precursor to totalitarianism. It goes without saying that the crisis addicts doing the controlling cannot see this wider danger in the same way that a heroin addict in the middle of a fix cannot see that they are slowly killing themselves.
Both addiction and totalitarianism cause chaos in all aspects of life. The preoccupation with a single inner experience to the exclusion of everything else eventually creates a situation totally opposite to the apparent aim of control – chaos and a life out of control. The utter neglect of the self and mind is why totalitarianism is destructive and is usually accompanied by increased disease, starvation, disruption of services, corruption, violence, and chaos.
The irrational self-neglect at the individual level was dramatically illustrated by pedestrians at the height of virus hysteria stepping out into the road without checking for oncoming vehicles, in order to avoid sharing the pavement with potential virus-contaminated humans coming in the opposite direction. They were so engrossed in obeying the rules of a ‘game’ in which fellow human beings had to be regarded as existential threats that their ludicrous behaviour was a manoeuvre permitted by the rules of the game. The destructive countermeasures peaked with the delirious embrace of a novel injection hastily developed in a matter of a few months by an industry which had already acquired a reputation for operating as a global crime syndicate.
At the societal level, crisis as an excuse for a fix seems to have firmly taken root in the wake of the covid response. Despite the proven venality of the political class in rabidly promoting needless conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, to name a few of the 21st century examples of unscrupulous Western foreign intervention, a significant hard core of crisis-addicts in the West went all-in on the escalation of a conflict in Ukraine with a nuclear-armed superpower, apparently oblivious to the real motivations and consequences of the war.
The embrace of ‘climate catastrophe’ crisis is another example. The Government is committed to banning all new petrol and diesel cars from sale in 2030, paving the way for pure electric cars only. Manufacturing a single electric car battery requires the digging up of 225 tonnes of the Earth’s crust to harvest the requisite amounts of lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper for that battery. Based on this statistic, it strikes us that if you are making or buying an electric car, far from helping to save the planet, you are probably helping to destroy it.
Summing up and the importance of a psychological understanding of political events
Just as any grand political theory is incomplete without a psychological dimension, so no grand psychological theory is complete without a political dimension. We do not believe that the sole cause of global totalitarianism is the crisis-addicted state of a hard-core group within the professional managerial class in the West. The Road to Fascism is more complex than that — we choose these italicised words in reference to the title of Simon Elmer’s book, which explains the overarching political economy that overshadows the new totalitarianism gripping the world. We are attempting here to examine the mental state of a group of people who are contributing to it.
Given the prevalence of meaninglessness and addicted states of mind in today’s developed economies, and the accelerated promotion of crises and states of emergency at every opportunity, it might be more realistic to view the psychology of mass formations of the 21st century through the lens of addiction rather than mass hypnosis. A common thread running through nearly all the 21st century crises – the War on Terror, the war on virus, the war in Ukraine, the war on CO2 – is the unscrupulous packaging and marketing of grossly exaggerated threats by a nexus of governments, powerful corporate interests and monopolies, the media, intelligence agencies and unaccountable supranational organisations captured by the global corporate oligarchy. These threats or crises meet the demands of the hysterical and crisis-addicted section of our society by providing far more exaggerated fixes than they could hope to find if left to their own devices. Without an understanding of the scale of the destruction they collude with, or indeed that it is destructive at all, crisis-addicted people have obliterated their own minds, denied their responsibility, and supported atrocities.
Acknowledging this is not an attempt to lay the blame for totalitarianism squarely at the feet of the citizenry. It is an attempt to explain perhaps one factor among many others in the enthusiastic cooperation controlling elites receive from a significant and supposedly highly educated section of the populace. While most of us do not have access to the powerful elites who construct large-scale threats and crises, we must respond to the addicted states of mind and officious behaviours of those around us, who individually constitute totalitarianism in miniature, and collectively form a dangerous mass.
Collectively, we seem to have lost the most powerful word available for resisting tyranny. That word is ‘No’. Those of us who understand the danger we face must keep repeating it with dignity and strength to the crisis addicts to help them remember it and to make them understand that their world provides the boundaries they need, and which must be respected.
[i] Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022, Ch 2, Pg 26.
[ii] Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022, Ch 2, Pg 35.