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Welcome to “The Matrix” of Totalitarianism


Where human thinking and human habits are in the process of being remolded, they are under the influence of tremendous political upheaval. In one country, this may happen overnight, in others more slowly. The psychologists’ task is to observe and describe the impact of these processes on the human mind.

When once a nation is under the yoke of totalitarianism, when once its people have succumbed to the oversimplifications and blandishments of the would-be dictator, how does the leader maintain his power? What techniques does he use to make his countrymen docile followers of his bloody regime?

Because man’s mature self resists totalitarianism, the dictator must work and scheme constantly to keep his subjects in line and to immobilize their need for individual development, rebellion, and healthy growth. As we examine his techniques, we will come to a better understanding of totalitarianism and of the interaction between the dictator’s methods and the personalities of his subjects. We need this understanding desperately, for we have to recognize that the forces in Totalitaria that make humorless droids out of living men can also develop, albeit unwittingly, in the so-called free, democratic societies.

[Recall, the totalitarian process can best understood by examining a mythical country, which, for the sake of convenience, is called Totalitaria.]

The Strategy of Terror

The weapon of terror has been used by tyrants from time immemorial to make a meek instrument of man. In Totalitaria, the use of this weapon is refined to a science, which can wipe out all opposition and dissent. The leaders of Totalitaria rule by intimidation; they prefer loyalty through fear to loyalty through faith. Fear and terror freeze the mind and will; they may create a general psychic paralysis. In the panic caused by totalitarian terror, men feel separated from one another, as by an impassable vacuum, and each man becomes a lonely, frightened soul. Even panicky hovering together could be suspected of being conspiracy against the state. Separated from any real emotional contact with his fellow men by his own inner isolation, the citizen of Totalitaria becomes increasingly unable to fight against its dehumanizing influences.

Totalitaria is constantly on the alert for social sinners, the critics of the system, and accusation of dissent is equivalent to conviction in the public eye. Insinuation, calumny, and denunciation are staples of the totalitarian strategy. The entire nation is dedicated to the proposition that every man is a potential enemy of the regime. No one is excluded from the terror. Any man may be subjected to it no matter how high his rank.

The secret police create awe and panic inside the country, while the army serves to create awe and panic outside. Just the thought of an outbreak of terror – of even a possible future terror – makes men unwilling to express their opinions and expose themselves. Both the citizens of Totalitaria and those of her neighbors are affected by this general fear. A clear example of how this fear paralysis operates in reality may be seen in the fact that as far back as 1948 western Europeans, who felt the shadow of anticipated totalitarian occupation, thought it safer to criticize and attack their American friends than to find fault with a totalitarian enemy who might sweep in suddenly and without warning.

In Totalitaria, jails and concentration camps by the score are built in order to provoke fear and awe among the population. They may be called “punishment” or “correction” camps, but this is only a cheap justification for the truth. In these centers of fear, nobody is really corrected; he is, as it were, expelled from humanity, wasted, killed – but not too quickly, lest the terrorizing influence be diminished.

The truth of the matter is that these jails are built not for real criminals, but rather for their terrorizing effect on the bystanders, the citizens of Totalitaria. Jails represent a permanent menace, a continual threat. They may put an almost insupportable strain on the empathy and imagination of those citizens who are, temporarily at least, on the outside of the barbed wire. In addition to the fear of undergoing the same cruel treatment, the fear of abasement, humiliation, and death, the very concept of the concentration camp rouses every man’s deep-seated fear of being himself expelled from the community, of being alone, a wanderer in the desert, unloved and unwanted.

There exist several milder forms of mass terror, for instance, The Strategy of No Political Rest. In Totalitaria man is always caught by some form of official planning. He is always conscious of control and surveillance, of spying, leering powers lying in wait to chase him and to punish him. Even leisure time and holidays are occupied by some official program, some facts to be learned, some political meeting, and some parade. Quiet and solitude no longer exist. There is no time for meditation, for pondering, for reminiscing. The mind is caught in a web of official thinking and planning. Even the delights of self-chosen silence are forbidden. Every citizen of Totalitaria must join in the singing and the slogan shouting. Moreover, they become so caught in the constant activity that they lose the capacity to realize what is happening to them.

The emphasis on more production by individuals, factories, and agricultural enterprises also can become a weapon of increased control and terror. The Stakhanovite movement in Russia, urging a constant increase in production norms, became a threat for many. The workers had to increase the pace of their labor and production, or they would be severely punished. The emphasis on pace and speed makes humans increasingly soulless cogs in the totalitarian wheel.

Terror can almost never stop itself; it thrives on compliance and grows in a vacuum. Terror as a tool means a gradual transfer into terror as a goal – but terror is actually a self-defeating strategy. Man will ultimately revolt even under an absolute dictatorship. When men have been reduced to puppet-hood by Totalitaria, they will finally have become immune to all threats. The magic spell of terror will finally lose its force. First the citizens of Totalitaria will become dulled to the terror and will no longer consider even death a danger. Then a few will initiate a final revolt, for Totalitaria’s government by fear and terror fosters internal rebellion, in the few who cannot be broken down. Even in “gleichgeschaltet” Nazi Germany, a resistance movement was active.

The Purging Rituals

Cleaning out the higher echelons of government is an old historic habit. The struggle between fathers and sons, between the older and the younger generation, became ritualized far back in prehistoric times. Frazer’s classic, “The Golden Bough,” has told us a great deal about this. The ancient priest of the heathens acquired his high post by killing his predecessor. Later in history, the newly proclaimed king offered criminals instead as sacrifices to the gods on the day of his anointment.

In Totalitaria, the killing, and purging ritual is part of the mechanism of government, and it serves not only a symbolic but also a very real function for the dictator. He must eliminate all those he has bypassed and double-crossed in his ruthless climb to power, lest their resentments and frustrated rage break out, endangering his position or even his life.

The purge reflects another characteristic of life in Totalitaria. It dramatizes the fiction that the party is always on the alert to keep itself pure and clean. Psychiatry has demonstrated that the cleanliness compulsion in neurotic individuals is actually a displaced defense against their own inner rage and hostility. It plays the same sort of role in communities, and when it is elevated to the level of an officially sanctioned ritual, it reduces the citizenry to infancy. It makes the inhabitants of Totalitaria feel like babies — still struggling to learn their first cleanliness habits, still listening to their parent’s reiterated commands to be clean, be clean, be clean, be good, be good, be good, be loyal, be loyal, be loyal. The constant repetition of these commands reinforces each citizen’s sense of guilt, of childishness, and of shame.

The totalitarian purge is always accompanied by an elaborate confession ceremonial, in which the accused publicly repents his sins, much as did the witches of the Middle Ages. This is the general formula: “I confess my doubts. Thanks to the criticism of the comrades, I have been able to purify my thinking. I bow in humility to the opinion of my comrades and the Party and am thankful for the opportunity to correct my errors. You enabled me to repudiate my deviational questions. I acknowledge my debt to the selfless leader and the government of the people.”

The strategy of public expression of shame has two effects: it serves, like the purging rituals themselves, to provoke feelings of childish submissiveness among the people, and, at the same time, it offers each citizen a defense against their own deep-seated psychological problems and feelings of guilt and unworthiness. Somewhere deep inside them, the citizen of Totalitaria knows that they have abdicated their maturity and responsibility; public purging relieves their sense of shame. “It is the others who are guilty and dirty, not I,” they think. “It is others who are constantly plotting and conniving.” However, the very things of which they suspect of others are also true of themselves. They are afraid others will betray them because they cannot be sure in their own mind that they will not betray them. Thus, inner tensions increase, and the purge provides a periodic blood offering to their own fear and to the god of threat.

The very fact that this ritual of coercive confession and purge must be repeated again and again indicates that man develops an inner mental defense against it and that the more it is used, the less effective it becomes as a means of arousing guilt and terror. Just as the citizen of Totalitaria becomes hardened or dulled to the terror of constant official intrusion into their private life, so they become almost immune to the cries of treason and sabotage.

In the same way, as the purge becomes less effective as a taming tool, the tyrant uses it more frequently to soothe his own fears. History provides us with many examples of revolutions, which eventually drowned in a bloody reign of terror and purge. Some of the most devoted heroes and leaders of the French Revolution met their death on the guillotine of the republic they helped to create.

Wild Accusation and Black Magic

Wild accusation and black magic, like all the other taming tools of Totalitaria, are nothing new, but in primitive civilizations and in prehistoric times, the craft of black magic was rather simple. The shaman had merely to destroy or mutilate a small statuette of the accused criminal, to point or thrust a special stick at the man himself, or to curse and berate him with furious words and gestures in order to bring his victim to collapse and death. In his blind acceptance of the magic ritual, the victim was possessed by fear, and often he gave himself up to the spell and just died (Malinowski).

This magic slaying of the foe has plural psychological implications. The victim of the magic spell was often looked upon as the representative of the tribal god, the internalized authority, and father. He must be killed because his very existence aroused guilt and remorse among his people. His death may silence the inner voices in every man, which warn against impending downfall. Sometimes the victim comes from a different tribe than that of his accusers. In this situation, the stranger is an easier scapegoat, and punishing him serves to still the clash of ambivalent feelings in the members of the killing tribe. Hate for an outsider checks and deflects the hate and aggression each man feels toward his own group and toward him. The more fear there is in a society, the more guilt each individual member of the society feels, the more need there is for internal scapegoats and external enemies. Internal Confusion Looks for Discharge in Outside Wars.

In Totalitaria, the air is full of gossip, calumny, and rumor. Any accusation, even if it is false, has a greater influence on the citizenry than subsequent vindication. Bills of particulars, made out of whole cloth are manufactured against innocents, especially against former leaders, who have been able to develop some personal esteem and loyalty among their friends and followers. Trumped-up charges made against us always revive unconscious feelings of guilt and induce us to tremble.

In our analysis (thus far) of the psychological forces that lead prisoners of war and other political victims to confession and betrayal, we saw how strongly the sense of hidden guilt and doubt in each person impels them under strain to surrender to the demands and ideologies of the enemy. This same mechanism is at work constantly among the citizens of Totalitaria. Accusations against others remind them of their own inner rebellions and hostilities, which they do not dare, bring out into the open, and so the accused, even when they are innocent, becomes the scapegoat for their private sense of guilt. Cowardice makes the other citizens of our mythical country turn away from the victim lest they be accused themselves.

The very fact that character assassination is possible reveals the frailty and sensitivity of human sympathy and empathy. Even in free, democratic societies, political campaigns are often conducted in an atmosphere of extravagant accusation and even wilder counter accusation. The moment the strategy of wild accusation, with all its disagreeable noises of vituperation and calumny, begins, we forget the strategic intention behind the words and find ourselves influenced by the shouting and name calling. “Maybe,” we say to ourselves, “there is something in this story.”

This, of course, is just what the slanderer wants. In the minds of the politicians, the illusion persists that the end justifies the means. Nevertheless, campaigns of slander produce paradoxical results because the very fact that an unfounded accusation has been made weakens the moral sense of both listener and accuser.

From “The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing” (1956).  Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D. (pp. 91-97)


Note: By reading this book, one may gain many useful insights into Barack Hussein Obama, his administration and his counterpart’s tactics and strategies.


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