Recently, a psychology professor called Mattias Desmet has been explaining the concept of Mass Formation. There is certainly some value in the thesis he’s describing.
Let’s try and put it in a Christian framework.
It consists of the following conditions:
Loneliness and lack of connections
Lack of meaning (for example lack of jobs)
Free-floating anxiety. The people who experience this free-floating anxiety cannot point at the origin of it.
And finally, a consistent narrative showing a way out of this free-floating anxiety, often at the cost of some part of the society
Then a mass can form. He then gives examples of the movements occurring since last year, but also patterns such as the French Revolution or weird Protestant uprisings in the 16th/17th century.
Breakdown of hierarchy
Since the advent of modern technology (such as amplifiers and mass media), it has been possible for demagogues to reach thousands, if not millions of people. This allowed mass movements such as nazism and communism to develop. All of a sudden, a speaker had immediate access, without some filter, to people. In Roman times, this was simply not possible. Someone had to attract your attention, and information was often filtered. One has to imagine a triangle, where information slowly flows downstream from the top.
Information, in this way, can travel very quickly, without people even knowing it is correct. Of course, this is not a perfect way, but there is some wisdom in passing information along to some people. The quickness of this information is only increasing, with social media.
When people are alone, there is no way to verify whether the information received is true. This is exactly the problem of the modern world, where information input becomes increasingly one-dimensional, often involving you and some media consumption device. Especially in the last few years, this was a problem.
So loneliness feeds mass consumption and mass consumption feeds incorrectness of information.
He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. (Matthew 12:30)
One of the most interesting points Mr. Desmet makes is the fact that our modern society is increasingly suffering from free-floating anxiety. The easiest way to characterise this, is as anxiety which we don’t know the origin of.
A big theme in traditional Christianity is the concept of discernment of spirits. In St Aquinas and all of the Church fathers, the spirits have subtle bodies. They interact with us, mostly through our minds. That does not mean they cannot take form in a body, but access to the mind is primary for them.
Christian life consists mostly in the practice of discernment of spirits. That is, recognising the good and bad in life, which are spirits (demons or angels) acting on us. If some force is pulling you towards something, you should know when to or not to act upon it. To be blunt, most of us are blind to this, but we can learn to practice it through asceticism. God is guiding you through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is life and brings us closer to God. As also our guardian angel does. On the other hand, the devil uses clever tricks to fool you and bring you down to hell.
But the primary focus of the Christian life is not to look for good feelings. Good feelings can often fool you and become addictions. We are called to participate in the Kingdom of God, to the higher life.
The greatest trick our modern philosophies have done, is to convince us that our problems all stem from our mind, and as such, it is an illusion (a weird contradiction, because our mind is indeed part of reality). If we suppress them, then they will go away (by performing hedonistic acts). The Christian life, on the other hand, tells us to accept these sufferings as gifts from God. Take up thy cross (Matthew 16:24). All suffering is offered up to God as a gift. All evil can be turned into good, we do not live in a dualistic world, where Good and Evil are equal. Even the crucifixion of an innocent lamb was turned into the Resurrection and ultimately the Ascension to the right hand of the father, as we say in the Creed.
To return to the point of free-floating anxiety. In older days, we could first recognise the origin of free-floating anxiety, as it is sin. When sin entered the world, we were separated from God. We were not as we were in the garden of Paradise. Through repentance, we can again come closer to God, but only through the gift of his Grace. Only through practice, do we come to discern, which is the practice for the life to come.
According to the theories of Rene Girard, the greatness of the Christian life consists of self-sacrifice. Whereas the pagan societies relied on the sacrifice of the other (through offerings of the animals, or of blaming the others, they could hold together), we can now, through the crucifixion and resurrection and the Holy Mass use the Lord as an example to sacrifice ourselves. But this self-sacrificial act needs to be voluntary. Christianity is sustained through self-sacrifice, firstly of the faithful, but also of a whole part of society (monks and nuns) who voluntarily devote themselves to Holy Piety, vowing to remain celibate and sacrifice themselves for the society. The monk serves as an example of the Christian life for the whole society, obtaining the grace of God. The decline of this speaks volumes.
Now, this modern narrative is a scapegoat mechanism. By removing a certain part of the population, society then comes together. On a smaller scale, for example, gossip works as the same thing. You degrade a person (sacrifice him) to cohere in a group. Now, the turn to these old mechanisms to hold a society together means that individually, most people are not fulfilling their part.
It should be the lower nature of oneself that should be suppressed, not the “lower nature” of a society. The scapegoat mechanism will make a society cohere, but ultimately it is based on a lie. And all lies eventually will eventually appear and be discovered for what they truly are. (For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be made known and brought to light. - Luke 8:17)
The narrative created tells us that we will cohere, but is this truth? What is true unity?
As explained in a previous essay true unity is where the parts can be themselves, without becoming a copy of that oneness. Their identity is not sucked up into the same boringness. A cult is a typical example where true individuality needs to be suppressed. This is the difficulty. We desire to be ourselves, yet still cohere in a group. To be part of a group, it is still necessary to give up a part of yourselves. But when is it too much?
Similarly, the modern concept of NPC (we all know the meme), is someone who does not have a true individuality. This is the slow move in the modern world. If our higher faculties, our religious sense to recognise God in all things, is removed, then we become robots sucked up by the machine.
But despair not, the solution, the balance of oneness and multiplicity is found in it.
Lack of meaning
One of the parts of spirituality is the goal to see God in all things. This is what St Paul tells us
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
He exhorts us to always pray, as this is the connection to God. To connect with God is to realize he is the origin of all. There is nothing that does not exist without his will. This is ultimate Truth, as to see all things connected to the true source, seeing the reason of them, is to worship Him.
While the story of Mass formation can be depressing, as there seems no immediate solution, I hope to have given part of a solution already embedded deep within the fabric of our culture. We still live on the prayers of our forefathers and of the good Holy People still praying for us right now. Truth is found in the Holy Mass, and in taking part of Mass formation.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
Hidden anxiety is sin.
We try to mask and make it go away through hedonism, but the path is the exact opposite.