Mass formation psychosis vs archetypal possession

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.

11 thoughts on “Mass formation psychosis vs archetypal possession”

  1. I think it is important to distinguish between Mass Formation Psychosis in response to a real emergency vs an imaginary emergency.

    I do not understand how the breaking of social bonds is a factor in Robert Malone theory.
    To me, Mass Formation Psychosis seems more to be expected in a cohesive society.
    If so, your model fits better, since The Devouring Mother can be effect only when the bond with her son exists. Otherwise she has no influence on him.

    Interestingly, REAL epidemics through history , usually caused instability in societies, breaking bonds, rules of behavior and normality, each individual caring only for himself and the hell with his neighbor. In this way epidemics absolutely destructed communities and societies (in addition of the lost of population by dead).
    Also, rulers where disgraced and lost power.
    Funny how an IMAGINARY epidemic is supposed to unite the population, heal society broken bonds, and also strength the power that be. We’ll see.

  2. Nati – I think the idea is that people who are alienated and lonely will crave social connection and therefore more easily get sucked into a mass formation. You make a good point, though. For all its problems, our society is cohesive in the sense that things still more or less work and there is a baseline of social trust. You also make a good point about the idea of a pandemic that brings people together. That’s yet another inversion and is, in my opinion, evidence of something archetypal going on. Another inversion we’ve seen in the “pandemic” is the idea that the young should sacrifice for the elderly.

  3. Simon
    That is easy to study. Take a significant number of the general population, collect information regarding their Mass Formation Psychosis condition (using questions like “how scare were you of covid?”, “how active were you imposing/opposing covid regulations?” etc’) and their loneliness (using questions like “how many friends you have?”, “how many social activities you have in X time?” etc’), and see if there is any correlation.
    Robert Malone is a professor. He have the means to do studies.
    I bet the results will show the opposite of what he claim.

  4. Hi Simon,

    “in order to further their own will to power.” A very insightful observation, and it fits the circumstances.

    And I also tend to agree that the malaise is of a spiritual nature. There is a school of thought which suggests that science, consumerism and social progress fill the spiritual need gap for many people – even if they have access to nature. And right now I believe that those are all in the early stages of failure. Thus the distress and also the learned helplessness expressed in the Orphan and it’s awful, awfulness: The Devouring Mother.

    I tell you, it’s really strange to discover that following on from the recent federal election results that my concerns about freedom from intrusive behaviour was not something that appears to have bothered many other people. That sure was a weird insight to come to grips with. However, the results give me a touch of hope that The Devouring Mother archetype is losing its grip. After all, I believe the greens and teal success can be interpreted as the bargaining phase of the grief process. I shudder to think how people will react when they learn that larger issues such as energy and resources, are issues that cannot be bargained around. But I might be surprised, I really don’t know. Are you giving any thought to the future direction this will all take? Mind you, I would not have predicted the sheer craziness of the past two and a bit years so I have no credibility with such crystal ball gazing, but I was wondering if Jung wrote about what happens next?

    Cheers

    Chris

  5. Nati – I agree. And that’s another reason I think the Jungian explanation works better. The alienation, loneliness and meaninglessness are psychological/spiritual in nature. They only relate to the social sphere in that society no longer initiates/individuates its citizens. Why doesn’t it do that? The Devouring Mother in the archetypal sense but there is also something higher which is the life cycle of the culture (Spengler) and the spiritual (we no longer have anything to initiate people into).

    Chris – yes, spot on. We are right now dealing with the problem, aren’t we? A gas shortage in one of the world’s biggest gas exporting countries? People are gonna start asking questions about some of the dodgy deals that have been done that are no longer in the national interest (if they ever were). More broadly, I think people are going to realise the solutions that have been offered have costs they are not willing to pay, as you’ve pointed out many a time with the solar setup on your farm. I still think Spengler was right that we will see Caesarism. I mean, we’ve already seen it in Australia in the last two years with the worshipping of State Premiers. The Caesarism will have to come with pharmaceutical grade denial, dissociation and obliviousness.

  6. “pharmaceutical grade denial, dissociation and obliviousness”.
    In other words: Australia at the time of writing.
    Caesarism is good to go then. I wonder if it will be federal or if the country will fall apart.
    Or maybe we will just sign up with a foreign caesar? Australia has never been anything but a colony.

  7. Roland – interesting idea. I don’t know who the foreign Caesar could be. Bearing in mind that the Caesar, whether local or foreign, must uphold some value higher than capitalism and money, what country in the world could do that? Certainly not China. There is another option which is that if Australia gets lucky and plays it the right way, we can continue to trade with China, India and the Eurasian bloc and keep the whole thing going for a lot longer than other countries. That could delay the reckoning for some decades.

  8. Regarding mass formation vs archetype. It us a big world. I think there is room for both. After all they are just models.

    About Caesarism. Interesting question what the higher value could be. Maybe safetyism? Any caesar from anywhere can beat that drum and it resonates with aussies like nothing else. With the possible exception of increasing property prices.

  9. Roland – safetyism might work. Although, it’s basically what we already have in this country. I associate it more with bureaucrats and career politicians than a Caesar. But, in the absence of nationalism and war, what else could a Caesar use to inspire?

  10. Just a few notes regarding how Spengler saw Caesarism.

    The examples he gave from Classical and Chinese culture were/are always at the end of the ‘Contending states’ period, basically long centuries of extremely large scale and viscous war between different states within the civilisation, that then devolves away from states into wars between personal powers. For the Classical civilisation it started at Ipsus between the Diadochi, and obviously ended with Augustus (around 300 years). The Chinese period lasted roughly 260 years between 481 BC and 221 BC. For Faustian Civilisation, this started with the Napoleonic wars, built to unsustainable tension in the 19th century which was then discharged in the incredibly bloody first half of the 20th century.

    But this is probably won’t be the final discharge. Spengler expected an almighty amount of blood to be shed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, with the Caesar’s emerging at the end, as military commanders, ‘soldier-emperors’. So we may be going the early crow here thinking Caesarism is close, as a massive new war in the next 20 years when viewed historically will be wrapped up within the entire ‘contending states’ period, and because we are in the lull we can’t see it. The Faustian pattern seems to be more of a long build up followed by explosive eruption rather than 300 years of constant war.

    It’s worth noting that Russia sees the current NATO hostility as a continuation of the conflict of the 20th century, and perhaps it has never stopped. Speaking of Russia, perhaps Putin is the clearest example of what a potential Caesar looks like, appealing to old values and ensuring military strength?

    So as to what will drive the Caesarism, I would say it will be plain old war again. Watch for the drums to beat louder and louder. Faustian civilisation has the added fun of vastly sped up resource depletion (on a global scale) compared to other civilisations so who knows what the end looks like. Perhaps things will fall apart so quickly that all the potential conflict localises, and we get a literal period of ‘Contending States’ between the Australian states!

  11. Skip – thanks for that. Funnily enough, the thought of internal conflict in Australia had crossed my mind. If the US also devolves into internal conflict and can’t project power anymore, Australia will be without a “boss” for the first time ever. Meanwhile, it should be a trivial matter for China to divide us. Western Australia is the obvious place to start. Throw some coin that way and buy off New Zealand and a few other South Pacific countries and let the internal division begin.

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