The following is an excerpt from the author’s new book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Terror of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer.” (Bombardier Books, Post Hill Press.)
Revolutionary elites who push utopias are always a small minority. In order to get all of society on board, they must enlist mobs to promote the illusion of compliance with their visions. Mobs enforce the narrative, often through violence. They help censor any competing views through intimidation and various forms of book burning.
We ought to study how radical utopian revolutions got a foothold in the past in order to better understand the 21st-century incarnation. Mob action was a major catalyst for the French Revolution, accelerating Maximilien Robespierre’s brutal dechristianization campaign and Jacobin revisions of history. Private life came under direct attack after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Those attacks reached terrifying new heights during Stalin’s Reign of Terror.
Identity politics and pseudoscience played out to a gruesome degree during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, causing intense hostilities in the society. And American immigrants from communist China can recall the cruel legacy of mob-led struggle sessions during Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Some have publicly expressed alarm at seeing similar dynamics develop in their adopted homeland.
But many who sense the brewing of a totalitarian revolution in the 21st century are puzzled because it doesn’t appear to have a central operator. Yes, there remain many dictators on the world stage, as always. But there is no single figure like Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Robespierre, or even Oliver Cromwell, who has been at the center driving all the changes. There has been no single nation-state leading the charge. No specific revolutionary party. No one corporation giving directives to all.
Rather, it all seems more hydra-headed, coming from all directions and from many different sources with seemingly different interests. Indeed, Big Tech selectively bans political speech on social media platforms like Facebook. Twitter even suspended the account of a sitting U.S. president. Big Media is a mammoth propaganda operation with little actual news reported. Financial institutions became more apt to regulate the donations of their customers, some eager to freeze bank accounts of citizens they deem politically incorrect.
Then there’s the World Economic Forum, whose founder Klaus Schwab has incessantly spoken and written about a “Great Reset,” which would lead to a more centrally controlled social order of the entire world. Over the years Schwab groomed a coterie of young leaders, including Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and Prime Minister of France Emanuel Macron, who cooperate to establish such an order.
The 2020s also opened with more federal judges blatantly legislating from the bench, more military officers requiring recruits to be indoctrinated in woke ideologies, medical organizations promoting vaccine mandates, and more pediatricians endorsing hormone regimens and genital surgeries on children without parental consent. Meanwhile, academia continued its war on freedom of expression, and K–12 educrats grew increasingly hostile to the parents of the children they supposedly teach.
People felt gut-punched by so many unexpected invasions of privacy and attacks against free speech in a nation trusted to protect it. How did so much sudden disregard for due process arise, so little regard for reason and reality? And from so many different places?
It’s All Tied Together by the Machinery of Loneliness
Although all these developments have come at us from different directions, they have a machinery in common. The common denominator of such revolutions past, present, and future is the weaponization of loneliness. All its features pit people against one another. All were at work in various ways in past revolutions of modern history. And all result in our further atomization, our further separation from one another.
The most critical features are the forces of identity politics, political correctness, and mobs. Identity politics is clearly meant to divide us into hostile groups, such as oppressor and victim, based on race or sex or any other demographic grouping. Political correctness induces us to self-censor, which means we drive ourselves into further isolation by limiting our exchanges with others to avoid the risk of social rejection. Mobs then serve as agitation forces that push propaganda into action. They intimidate others into silence and compliance and finally can cause any agenda—no matter how fringy—to become policy.
Another way to think about the machinery is as a combustion engine that can’t operate without ignited fuel. The fuel is our conformity impulse, and the spark is our fear. Without them, the machinery of loneliness simply can’t operate. So if we cannot shake off our conformity impulse and fear of isolation, we will remain self-silenced, isolated, and obedient to the mob. We will end up lonelier, more exhausted, and conditioned to repeat the cycle.
There Is Hope
The good news is that there is a wealth of neglected research on these matters of social psychology. We need to make that research common knowledge by discussing it often. In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments on the conformity impulse. Later, Asch’s student Stanley Milgram studied the pattern of obedience to malevolent authorities.
In 1960, acclaimed Nobel laureate Elias Canetti produced his classic study on the behavior of mobs, “Crowds and Power.” In 1957, Vance Packard published his explosive bestseller “The Hidden Persuaders,” which explored the uses of depth psychology by advertisers to manipulate people’s desires and fears.
Eminent psychiatrists like Margaret Thaler Singer and Robert Jay Lifton investigated the practice of coercive thought reform. Singer analyzed cult dynamics that led nearly a thousand people in Jonestown, Guyana, to commit “revolutionary suicide” at the order of Jim Jones in 1978. The term “Stockholm syndrome” had already come into circulation to describe the phenomenon of captives bonding with their captors.
Even earlier, however, scholars were reflecting on the dynamics of mobs, including Gustave LeBon, who in 1895 published “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.” And early in the 20th century, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci theorized that the power of culture, especially as expressed through modern communications, shaped social attitudes far more effectively than any appeal to economic interests.
In the 1930s, the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School accepted and applied Gramsci’s theory. We can see it in today’s aggressive media campaigns, the shift to “social justice” action in academia, and Big Tech’s censorship of dissenting views.
The key ingredient of groupthink has always been the fear of social isolation, which leads us to be swept up by propaganda. It’s a fear so pervasive that—like fish in water—we are rarely aware of the effect it has on us.
We can see how this phenomenon worked in totalitarian societies like Stalin’s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, where people betrayed neighbors and even family members to avoid becoming “nonpersons” in society. The great irony here is that by breaking bonds of family and friendship, people only dig themselves in deeper. They cement their dependency on the state while also helping the state destroy the private sphere of life, which is their only path to escape and resistance.
Hence, totalitarians have always targeted the private sphere of life for destruction. The rallying cry “Abolish the family!” comes straight from “The Communist Manifesto.” Nothing could be more alienating to a human being than to be deprived of healthy familial bonds. The ramifications are vast because strong communities depend upon strong families.
Tyrannical systems also seek to abolish traditional religions and the fellowship of the faithful. Opportunities for such societal breakdown today have accelerated as never before. In the extremist reaction against the Dobbs decision, we saw how state and corporate actors supported by media propaganda can promote an antifamily ethos that produces atomization.
How Tech Tears Us Apart
The machinery of loneliness is running in high gear due to the revolution in communications technologies. This revolution handed us each a “device” that draws us into the web of the internet, often in literally hypnotic fashion. The seduction is so powerful that one can reasonably ask if the endgame is a vast hive mind.
The technological media constantly distract us, prod us, probe us, and flood us with suggestions. We each end up knowing a whole lot less about a whole lot more. At the same time, we become increasingly disconnected from real life among our flesh-and-blood brethren.
Communications professor Marshall McLuhan famously warned in 1964 that electronic media acts within each of us as an extension of our central nervous system. We may think we are gleaning the medium for content, but any content is incidental to the real message. The real message, he insisted, is in the medium itself, which rewires us neurologically. As we allow our devices to pull us into the cyberworld, we become isolated by detaching ourselves from the real world.
When we delve into the internet or connect to our devices, we are not consumers. Rather, we are products—raw material for advertisers— as we let the whole world know what we like and what we don’t like, who we know, where we are located, our habits, our dreams, our desires.
We may offer such data in a quest to be connected with others. But we don’t realize how that information is also pure gold for developers of artificial intelligence who can use it to develop algorithms that predict and modify our behaviors, and even program behaviors into us that actually isolate us further. No medieval wizard or alchemist could have imagined such a boon for his designs or such an infrastructure to empower him.
People are now more easily separated through social pressures that involve shunning and vilification, often magnified through propaganda that is exponentially amplified through Big Tech and Big Media. In the meantime, all these drivers of social decay result in institutional decay, which further contributes to a dangerous state of atomization. The subversion of education is key because education is upstream from all the other institutions, including our legislatures, courts, media, the arts, the corporate world, finance, medicine, and even the military.
Once that “march through the institutions” is complete, then the primordial institutions that shelter our private lives—family, faith, and community—are set to come under direct attack. So if our isolation continues unchecked, it easily becomes a tool to dismantle freedom, no matter the intentions of those who act to dismantle it. Nothing is left but the vast mass state directing the lives of individuals, all virtually separated from one another.
Victory in the war against tyranny depends more than anything else on understanding how imposed loneliness works on our psyches and how it is an indispensable tool of totalitarianism. Once comprehended, we can begin to neutralize its effects and defend ourselves against its inherent machinery.