The concept of Mass Formation Psychosis has become well known in the last year or so as an explanation for the corona event, particularly after Robert Malone and other dissenting voices began talking about it. I thought it might be worthwhile to sketch out the differences between that explanation and the Jungian archetypal explanation I have outlined in previous posts.
The mass formation psychosis explanation applies a systems theory understanding to society and makes use in particular of the concept of emergence. Emergence is when a “high level” phenomena occurs which is unexpected or novel in relation to our understanding of the “low level” laws or facts which ground it. The Jungian paradigm is amenable to this way of thinking and in this post we’ll sketch out how it can (in my humble opinion) enhance the mass formation explanation.
For our purposes here, we’ll use the following schematic to describe the levels or elements of the system we are calling society:
Starting at the top, we have the idea of a conspiracy which is really nothing more than a deliberate plan of action to achieve a political outcome. The word conspiracy comes from the Latin ‘con’ meaning “with”, and ‘spirare’ meaning “breathe”. The latter is related to “spirit”, which is translated better into modern English as “soul”. Conspirators breathe together or, more metaphorically, share a soul. In simple terms, they form a group and the group has an explicit shared purpose. In the modern meaning, conspiracy contains the negative connotation that the group acts against the public interest, usually by hiding their intentions. But this distinction can get muddy. The American Declaration of Independence and related political and military actions, for example, were a conspiracy against the British government of the time. The British weren’t happy about it but modern Americans are okay with the idea (well, some of them).
In contrast to conspiracy, day-to-day politics runs on narratives. There is no explicit agreement to follow a narrative, it happens automatically that members of a party or organisation will follow the “party line”. If they don’t, they’ll be removed in short order. Political groups coalesce around a narrative provided by the leaders of the group. My favourite recent example of this, which I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, is the Victorian government in 2020 running a narrative whereby nobody made the decision which led to Melbourne’s months-long lockdown. There would have been no explicit agreement to follow this narrative. Rather, the leader of the party spread it and everybody else fell into line. Members of the press or the public were free to believe it or not.
Both the small group of conspirators and the larger groups of party politics are members of the even larger group called society and societies have culture. Culture mostly runs on narratives too. The Plague Story is one such narrative and the specific form of that narrative in modern western culture came to guide the unfolding of the corona event in the early days. The narratives of culture are far less available to consciousness than the narratives of politics. They sit in the background and form the boundaries within which political discourse takes place.
With the move to culture, we are moving further away from the conscious mind and into the subconscious. The next level down is the subconscious itself. Here we find disciplines such as linguistics, cognitive science and psychology which examine more schematic patterns that structure language and psychic phenomena. The assumption of both modern linguistics and (Jungian) psychology is that these are universals and therefore transcend all cultural groupings. Therefore, they apply to humanity in general. The emotional and other psychic states are also universals but it’s worth differentiating these into a different level as this will be important in explaining the difference between mass formation psychosis and archetypal analysis.
With these preliminaries in mind, let me briefly summarise my understanding of the mass formation psychosis as explicated by Matthias Desmet.
We are studying society as a system and, as per systems theory, the ideal scenario is to have a “closed system” where we control all variables and states of the system. Even for very simple systems, it’s arguable that there is no such thing as a closed system but we can usually get close enough to get stable results and these form the backbone of our scientific understanding of the world. For something like society, we are much further from a closed system and we need to accept that and understand the limitations on the analysis. One of the main limitations is how we can know whether we are missing a vital law or fact which is crucial to a true understanding. For example, in our schematic, we have left out the physical and biological worlds. One could argue that the loneliness, anomie and angst felt by so many people in modern society is caused by a lack of connection with nature (the biological world). If so, this diagram is leaving out an important element. Unfortunately, with systems analysis, there are no easy and conclusive ways to prove one way or another whether a variable is important. We just always have to keep in mind that we may be missing something.
The mass formation psychosis is what’s known in systems theory as an emergent phenomenon. This is an occurrence which is novel, random or unexpected given what we know of the underlying elements of the system (if these criteria sound highly subjective, that’s because they are). The phenomenon known as mass formation involves the spontaneous creation of a group of people within a society who are singularly focused on a specific issue. Thus, during corona there were people for whom the virus was the only thing that mattered and every other consideration was irrelevant. Desmet claims that the main drivers of this phenomenon are the emotional states of the citizens of society. Specifically, due to the breaking of social bonds, many people are stuck in the chronic emotional states of free floating anxiety, loneliness, anomie and anger. When the elements of the system (i.e. the citizens) are in such a state, the conditions are ripe for a trigger event which leads to the mass formation. The “followers” will then coalesce around a leader who is running the narrative and providing the focal point for the mass formation in the same way a hypnotist does for his or her subjects.
We can map this explanation onto our schematic diagram as follows:-
I have drawn the line from underlying emotional states to the border between explicit political conspiracy and explicit narrative agreement as either of these could, theoretically, be relevant. That is, a cunning leader could create a narrative with the express intention to create a mass formation. Modern party politics is arguably a form of group behaviour that is only different in degree from a true mass formation psychosis (the behaviour of the “true believers” in party politics lends much evidence to this claim). However, it’s also true that the narrative driving a mass formation can arise by “accident”. We will discuss this issue shortly.
To reiterate, we are studying the system known as society and trying to account for the emergent phenomenon that is the corona hysteria by looking at the underlying elements and dynamics of the lower levels of the system. I haven’t had time to read up on Desmet so I don’t know if this is 100% true of his position, but the version of mass formation psychosis that has become popular only invokes the emotional states of citizens as explanatory variables. This has the benefit of being sufficiently abstract to account for a wide variety of mass formation phenomena. Thus, the mass formation explanation could also account for cults or other groups of people pursuing a narrative with singular, hypnotic focus as well as formations restricted to a specific time and place such as a stampede.
Perhaps this account is good enough. But it seems lacking in specificity. If the emotional states were the only thing involved, wouldn’t we expect to see mass formations over anything at all? Wouldn’t we expect to see a group devoted to worshipping the giant cosmic mushrooms that run the universe. Wouldn’t that group be opposed to another group who say it’s the pixies who tend the mushrooms who must be worshipped? Does free floating anxiety attach itself to any group at all as long as the group provides the necessary social connection that the individual desires?
At this point we can introduce culture into our system analysis because it is culture that delimits the scope of mass formations by setting the parameters of available narratives and behaviours. This is exactly what I was aiming at with my analysis of The Plague Story. The trigger event for the mass psychosis was not an arbitrary thing but a pre-existing story in the culture. If we plug that in to the diagram, we get the following:-
The cultural narrative is the modern plague story. The political dimensions are derived directly from that story. It is because we tell ourselves the story that there can be a deadly pandemic at any time that we fund the WHO. The WHO duly hires “experts” and gives them the job to look for a deadly new pandemic. Meanwhile, the public health bureaucracies in each country create jobs for mandarins to interface with the WHO. It is these people who will (inadvertently) become the “leaders” of the mass formation. They are not doing it on purpose. If you give somebody a job to raise the alarm about possible pandemics, that is what that person will do. If you then have a hyper-networked society where information about a pandemic alarm can circle the globe in seconds, you have created a trigger for a mass formation psychosis.
When we include culture in the variables of our system analysis, we see that mass formation psychoses often involve pre-existing cultural narratives. Thus, war is also often correlated with mass formations and WW1 and 2 were arguably the two most recent examples of mass formation psychoses on a global scale prior to corona.
So, I think the mass formation explanation works better when we include culture in our system variables. But, as I have already foreshadowed in the schematic diagram, I think we also need to add the collective subconscious into the mix. The anxiety, alienation and anomie felt by people as dominant emotional states are not there by accident. We can place the cause in “random” societal changes such as industrialisation, late capitalism and the information revolution and that may be true to some extent. But even if that is true, it doesn’t negate the fact that there is an archetypal element at play and it won’t surprise anybody if I claim that this is The Devouring Mother and The Orphan.
It is because we live in a society where The Orphan is present that we have so much anomie and alienation. It is because our society is dominated by The Devouring Mother that the alienation is allowed to continue. In fact, it is encouraged by the powers that be in order to further their own will to power. A society where the majority of people had gone through a proper initiation/individuation/coming of age process would be one where there was very little anomie and alienation. Therefore, we would not see the expression of those emotional states and the mass formation could not occur.
Note that this explanation makes very different claims to Desmet about how to “fix” the problems we are in. Part of Desmet’s suggested way forward was that we need to come up with a “better new normal” than the one being talked about by the corona cultists. His reason? Because the people who feel alienated cannot accept the return to the old normal and we must provide a new focus for their emotional states or else we will simply see a new mass formation psychosis break out. This seems to me to be treating the symptoms and not the underlying problem. The Jungian perspective would be at least to treat the psychic elements with psychotherapy, although, as Jung was well aware, we may have to look beyond psychic states and see that this is really a “spiritual” problem. One of the elements missing from our schematic is the “supra-human” or spiritual. If that turns out to be the real problem then our systems analysis is missing its most crucial element.
That would seem to take us beyond science and beyond systems theory. And, yet, systems theory includes a concept that might be amenable to such an explanation. The analysis we have worked through here is an example of what is known in systems theory as “weak emergence”. It’s notable that Jung believed the archetypes to be acausal and his idea of archetypal takeover implied a “top down” relation whereby the archetype itself is responsible for (I don’t want to say “caused”) events. This idea corresponds fairly closely to what is called “strong emergence” in systems theory. In the next post, we’ll work through the distinction between weak and strong emergence in more detail and explore the metaphysical ramifications.