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The Age of Collective Delusion: How Destructive Fantasies Can Rip Societies Apart  

TRIBAL WARFARE EXAMINED-When I look around the world today-- and particularly, at English speaking societies-- entire nations seem to be having a kind of severe mental breakdown. America. Britain. Nation after nation is falling into the grip of a kind of mania, driven by strange, foolish, downright bizarre myths.

You can see evidence everywhere you look-- once you know what you’re looking for. Anti-vaxxers. Flat earthers. Extremists. Supremacists. Collective delusions, all. But I want to go deeper in this little essay and explore the collective delusion at the root of this age of collapse. 

The truth is that our societies are not ruled by reason, logic, and morality anymore-- they have been conquered by collective delusions -- something like mass fantasies, which please us, in a time when facing the truth, reading the headlines, becomes a little more difficult every day. When we say things like “the truth doesn’t matter anymore” or “our leaders are pathological liars” or “nobody can reason with those people,” we’re talking about collective delusions: a psychology which can’t distinguish what’s real from what’s imagined anymore. Doesn’t that line seem to have been crossed — that enough people can’t tell what’s real from what’s imagined — to plunge even rich, powerful societies like America and Britain into spectacular breakdowns, that the world’s jaws are dropped by…in just a few short years? That’s how powerful collective delusion are, my friends — and we ignore them, their growth and genesis, their existence and reality, at our peril. 

(Now, collective delusion doesn’t mean that every single person in a society believes in outlandish, bizarre things — you, gentle reader, probably don’t — but it does mean that enough of them do, and it can badly destabilize a society. How many are enough? The unfortunate truth, which we still haven’t quite grasped, is that it doesn’t take a majority to plunge a society in chaos — just a committed enough, collectively deluded minority, as in the cases of Brexit and the American collapse, neither of which are supported by majorities anymore, but it’s too late, really, to change the explosive nature of catastrophe.) 

There are three types of collective delusions which are ripping the world apart. Let me go through them one by one. 

The first are delusions of grandeur. What are “Make America Great Again!” or “Brexit means Brexit!” but delusions of grandeur, really? The technical definition is “a sense of over-inflated worth, power, or status” — or more accurately, the need for it. And that is exactly what we observe spreading around the globe — as the global economy stalls, societies are reverting to age old supremacies. Our tribe must be number one. Our nation is the best. Our destiny is not to be poor. We are the rulers of the world — everything belongs to us. This is the fundamental delusion behind the spreading wave of global neo-fascism — a return to the imperial politics of tribal warfare, the need to be superior to others, instead of coexisting as equals. 

Delusions of grandeur are afflicting the English-speaking world first and hardest because the English-speaking world has long had a fragile psychology of narcissism. Britain and then America built the world’s mightiest empires. They came to think the world revolved around them — and in a way, it did — but only by force, not through consent. Brexit and Trumpism are the shadows of these dead empires, the feelings of inadequacy and neglect that haven’t been “processed” yet, as an American psychologist might say. They are reflections of the need to be above, atop, beyond everyone else — and centered by them, too. But that world also requires a return to war, supremacy, hatred, and colonization — and that is why America and Britain are regressing now at lightspeed. 

Enough Americans and Brits genuinely believe they must be the most powerful and supreme people in the world to sacrifice their entire societies for that very cause — breaking up with neighbors, tearing up alliances, lashing out, putting kids in camps — which, of course, is a Pyrrhic victory for any modern society. 

The flipside of delusions of grandeur are persecution fantasies — and they often go hand in hand. If you are the best, the most superior, the most supreme — then why isn’t the world recognizing you? Because you are being persecuted by some malign, all-powerful monster. And if you could just get rid of them — why, then you would rise to attain your and rightful natural position of supremacy, emperor of the world? 

Again, because America and Britain have the fragile psychology of dying empires — an easily broken narcissism — they are prey to persecution fantasies, too. Who are the malign monsters keeping Britain from assuming its rightful position as ruler of the seas again? The EU — who is demonized and scapegoated for all Britain’s problems by Brexiters, from austerity to stagnation to a broken healthcare system. But none of these problems are the EU’s fault — they are Britain’s very own choices. 

Who are the malign monsters keeping America from “being great?” They are little immigrant and refugee children. Now, a little Salvadoran child cannot hurt a grown man — never mind, because they have supernatural powers to infect a whole society of the pure, with laziness, violence, and greed, they are to be put in camps, locked away, separated from their parents, put on show trial. 

Do you see the similarities here? You should. Both America and Britain have invented imaginary monsters to blame their problems on — and enough Americans and Brits believe that these monsters are persecuting them to destabilize their whole societies into teetering on the verge of the abyss. 

America is melting down into fascism — and British nationalism is about to blow up its economy like a suicide bomber. Both, though, are based on persecution fantasies, which are collective delusions.

Now, if you feel shortchanged, disappointed, frustrated, angry, disillusioned — as many Americans and Brits do, by their systems, institutions, and leaders — what are you likely to feel when a demagogue comes along and tells you something like this: you are rightfully one of the pure and true — the powerful and supreme — only you have been kept down by malign, mysterious monsters, who are persecuting you? You are likely to cheer and applaud, aren’t you? It’s not your fault you’ve voted for predators for years, an act which has only resulted in your own ruin. Not at all. It’s someone else’s fault. 

Now you don’t have to feel guilty, ashamed, stupid, foolish — bad. Instead, you have a target for that rage, that disappointment — you feel good, as that tension leaves you. But the price is that all those bad feelings are transformed into easy pleasures of hate. Whoosh! Instead of feeling bad at your own folly — you feel good, at demonizing and scapegoating and hunting and hating others (who have precisely nothing to do with the plight you’ve put yourself in). 

That brings me to my third kind of delusion. If you’re such a person — what do you feel for the demagogue who has taken your bad feelings, and turned them into good ones? Who has transformed the bitterness of your rage into the pleasure of hate? You feel a strong, almost unbreakable bond with such a person. They become your surrogate parent s— they have protected you from harm, in an unsafe, insecure world. They will always look out for you. (They won’t, objectively — this is just what you feel.) 

This delusion is called erotomania — it is the feeling that someone must really, really love you. Must genuinely care for you, must be thinking about you, put you first. When, in fact, such a person wants nothing to do with you — or worse, is only exploiting you for his or her own benefit. And yet this is precisely the bond we see between Trumpists and their surrogate daddy, or true believers in Brexit and the Brexiteers who are leading them off a cliff. Daddy loves me — mommy loves me — they’d never let me be hurt. They care about me more than I care about myself. 

How strong is that bond? Why do I call it a collective delusion? Remember the definition of a delusion — an inability to distinguish between reality and what’s imagined. Now consider this: Britain’s literally about to run out of food and medicine in a few weeks, not according to me,  but according to its entire food and pharma industries [[[   https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=brexit+shortages&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8 ]]]  — and Brexiteers simply don’t care. Nobody can convince them this will actually happen — when in fact, it’s beginning to happen as we speak, in plain sight for all to see. It’s pure, shattering, astonishing delusion. And beneath lies an erotomanic bond of broken-minded people with demagogues.

 

Have you ever wondered why you can’t “reason” with a Trumpist? Why a Brexiteer will simply just ignore reality? It’s because erotomania is occurring — what psychologists might call an “erotomanic transfer.” They have bonded so strongly to demagogues, they feel about them like they would about surrogate parents — Trumpists and Brexiteers believe, just like little children, that mommy and daddy will always look after them, even until the end of the world. There is nothing you can say to convince them otherwise because there is nothing that can be said at all to convince them otherwise. They are operating at a level below words, at a level of pure feeling. The pleasure of erotomania grips them in a kind of delusional mania — and you can see it on the rapturous, ecstatic faces at Trump or Brexit rallies: can you see the same note of fervent exhilaration that I do? It’s the look of infantile regression — when an adult has become an infant and feels perfectly cared by an ideal mommy and daddy again. 

This pattern of collective delusion — delusions of grandeur, which feed persecution fantasies, held in place by an unbreakable erotomanic bond with a demagogue, which operates far below the level of the adult mind — we’ve seen it before. It’s exactly what happened in 1930s Germany. It’s what happened in Iran, in Turkey, in Russia. It’s happened time and again in history. There is a nation in trouble — plunged into adversity by its own foolish choices. Along comes a demagogue, and blames its troubles on the vulnerable, the powerless, the other. The masses exult, in a kind of perpetual histrionic mania, screaming and shouting and cheering and smiling. 

This is the story of ruin, my friends. It is the story of fascism, of nationalism, of extremism. It is the general sociopsychological pattern of the implosion of nations — how a social mind descends into a state where it can no longer distinguish difficult reality from pleasing fantasy. 

That is where we are now. This is the age of collective delusion. The delusions that mark this age are spreading, thanks to cheap, ubiquitous technology, thanks to propaganda, thanks to dark wars of information, across the globe. America and Britain are societies which have fallen, in this new century, prey to collective delusions that have ripped them apart. Will they be the last — or are they just the first? 

The story doesn’t change. The delusions are always the same. It’s only the names of the peoples who succumb to them that does. In that sense, my friends, history never goes anywhere, but around the wheel of folly.

 

(Umair Haque posts at Medium.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.