The ‘Psycho-State’ is Coming

War on the Mind in the West

28th January 2021
M.L.R. Smith & Niall McCrae


M.L.R. Smith and Niall McCrae argue that the growing prohibition on criticising the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic reveals a state as intent on controlling our minds as our bodies.


Mind-body dualism, as illuminated five hundred years ago by René Descartes, is returning to the fore of philosophical, political and societal discourse. The internal and intangible mind is a private space, free from the legal and social controls imposed on behaviour, which is a function of the body (whether the arm that throws a stone, or the mouth that utters an insult). However, there are signs that the mind may not be immune for much longer, as the surveillance state becomes a technological omnipresence.  

In sixteenth-century England, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy (1558) and the Act of Uniformity (1559). The laws were the cornerstone of the Elizabethan religious settlement, intended to stabilise the country after the turbulence of King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and Queen Mary’s bloody attempt to restore Catholicism. These statutes established the authority of the Church of England and required all those in public and church office to swear an oath of allegiance recognising the sovereign as head of the Church. Anyone refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy could be charged with treason.

By contemporary liberal standards this settlement was harsh and vindictive. It aimed to suppress the practice of Catholicism and violated the conscience of those of who adhered to its teachings. Undoubtedly it caused many to act contrary to their principles. Nevertheless, in a circuitous manner, it enabled a more liberal polity to evolve because such laws demanded outward conformity, not inner conviction. So long as one acknowledged monarchical authority over the Church, the state would not seek control over your interior world. In private you could think what you wanted. You could believe in Catholicism. So long as you did not observe Catholicism in public you were broadly speaking left alone.

Dissent has, of course, always been anathema to those of an authoritarian disposition.

Over time, the quid pro quo of outward conformity in return for the state’s indifference to the private thoughts of its subjects enabled a logic and grammar of self-disclosure, self-enactment and individual autonomy to emerge in Western society. So long as you obeyed the law of the land, you were entitled to think for yourself and to speak your mind. Variations of this compact were developed in the form of secularised republics following the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Inexorably, the idea of the liberal democratic order as a container of individual rights, including the right to dissent – that is, to uphold a position of non-agreement – was slowly established. 

Dissent has, of course, always been anathema to those of an authoritarian disposition. Independence of thought and the right to challenge those in power inevitably chafes with those who regard themselves as guardians of truth and morality. In an encyclical letter in 1854, amid popular unrest in Europe, Pope Pius IX denounced free thinkers: ‘the absurd and erroneous doctrines or ravings in defence of liberty of conscience are a most pestilential error – a pest, most of all others, to be dreaded in a state’. Pius could not stop the tide of reform, with the rise of scientific discovery, humanist doubt and emancipatory politics, but his diatribe illustrates that dogma has always been more about control of the mind than it has been about actions and ideas.

The spirit of Pope Pius is, however, never far below the surface of politics, even in its contemporary democratic manifestations. The desire to discipline the interior world of the individual is alive and well. It rises to the surface, as this analysis will endeavour to show, particularly in times of societal stress as demonstrated in the current conditions of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The argument advanced here is that conditions of crisis merely amplify pre-existing impulses to control the mind. All rationalistic approaches to rule tend to exhibit this predilection in some form. 

The desire to discipline the interior world of the individual is alive and well.

The Czech dissident playwright, Václav Havel, who dissected communist rule behind the Iron Curtain, described a system that entangled the citizen within a web of lies and mind manipulations that he termed post-totalitarianism. In the Soviet Union this form of governance ultimately expressed itself in the abuse of psychiatry to repress those who sought to question the perfect ideological system. The discussion here reveals trends in liberal democratic societies, which reactions to the Covid crisis exemplify, that indicate disturbing advances towards post-totalitarianism. These trends, we contend, suggest the movement of Western polities towards what we call a ‘psycho-state’, connoting a condition where the ruling technocratic order, and its appendages in the media, exhibit an unhealthy obsession with pathologising dissenting viewpoints, and controlling the interior life of the individual.

The totalitarian assault on the interior realm

The emergence of the modern democratic state, as we expounded in the introduction, was premised on the evolution of the idea of the ‘discovered self’: a freethinking citizen endowed with the vote and a right to political participation. This conception of the political realm and the rights of the individual within it began to change with the growth of the administrative state in the course of the First World War and the rise of communism and fascism as totalising ideologies in the interwar years. Further, with the heyday of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, the state began to take a proprietary interest in the interior world of the citizen. The publication of General Erich Ludendorff’s Der Total Krieg (Total War) in 1936, for example, asserted the need to psychologically prepare the German people, through ceaseless propaganda, to withstand the rigours of the next, inevitable, global war: a state practice already well underway in Soviet Russia.

In Western literature it was George Orwell who visualised the definitive end of the totalitarian assault on the interior realm. In 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith outwardly conforms. He fulfils his role in the system. He works. He goes to Party meetings. He participates in the two minutes of hate. He does so, though, as a doubting citizen who secretly hates the Party. Yet, it is his thoughts rather than his actions that the Party ultimately wishes to control. The mental torture at the hands of O’Brien, the state interrogator, finally induces him to change his perception, and to admit that he ‘loves Big Brother’. 

When outward conformity is not enough

Orwell’s spectres of ‘thoughtcrime’, ‘Newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’ entered the political lexicon as forewarnings. And it does not take too much imagination to detect parallels in the present that make the dystopian possibilities envisaged in 1984 seem less than a distant hypothetical proposition, and perhaps more a manual for exerting state control. Consider the position of those in society who are cast as sceptics towards the authorities’ response to the Covid-19 crisis. According to Brendan O’Neill, writing in Spiked (19 January 2021):

It is hard to think of any other political constituency in recent times who have been as thoroughly demonised as lockdown sceptics. Climate-change sceptics are up there, of course. Deniers of the cult of genderfluidity have had a severe hammering, too. But that all pales, if not into insignificance then at least into the background, in comparison with the war of barbs and defamation against anyone who questions whether lockdown is the right response to Covid-19.

Despite their denunciation in the media, so-called lockdown sceptics appear to obey the stipulations laid down in emergency legislation such as the Coronavirus Act (2020) in the UK. They have little choice. Exemptions apply to mandatory mask wearing, but many sceptical citizens prefer to comply rather than be challenged by supermarket staff or other shoppers. Critical thinkers may find the rules ridiculous, or at least disproportionate to the actual lethality of the virus, but they will outwardly conform. It is irrelevant whether you believe in a climate emergency, transgenderism or vaccine passports (nonsensically touted as ‘freedom passes’) – you must comply with the taxes, laws on hate crime and (potentially) ‘no jab, no job’. 

Yet, for some in the mainstream media and the political class, outward conformity is not enough. The kind of language that holds that sceptics are ‘covidiots’ who reject scientific expertise, who are ‘deniers’ for repudiating the reality of the pandemic, or who have ‘blood on their hands’ for their supposedly reckless rhetoric, intimates that it is the very thoughts of those who are sceptical that are threatening. 

For some in the mainstream media and the political class, outward conformity is not enough.

Words, somehow, speak louder than actions for they denote the presence of a dissenting mind that exists in ‘pestilential error’, and thus in need of eradication. The British communications regulator Ofcom, for instance, requires ‘broadcasters to be alert to the potential for significant harm to audiences related to the coronavirus’. This arm of the state has the power to remove any material deemed inaccurate or misleading. Likewise, governments are collaborating with Big Tech, whose social media platforms enforce the official narrative by limiting, or eliminating, dissenting viewpoints.

Post-totalitarian thought control

In his sublime analysis of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Václav Havel unmasked the techniques of what he termed the ‘post-totalitarian’ state. His contention was that the development of later Cold War authoritarianism, as it evolved in Czechoslovakia, did not require resort to Stalinist gulags and firing squads. Instead, the state constructed a social order where people were compelled to ‘live within the lie’; failure to keep up the appearance risked material disadvantage: a summer holiday in Bulgaria cancelled, demotion at work or children barred from attending university. Above all, it risked being made an outcast, shunned by friends and colleagues who would fear guilt by association.

The post-totalitarian state, in Havel’s view, exercised power through a particular form of thought control. The interior realm of the individual was assaulted and coerced via a process that internalised the fear of sanctioning and social exclusion. As Havel remarked in his 1978 essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, an offender against state orthodoxy could be reduced to the unofficial status of a ‘sub-citizen’ who could still say anything ‘but who could never, as a matter of principle, expect to be heard’.

War on the mind in the West

In recent years we have witnessed the rise of ‘cancel culture’, whereby certain attitudes, particularly of a conservative disposition, are stereotyped as hateful or even criminalised. When comedians and commentators disappear down the ‘memory hole’ in consequence of ‘wrongthink’, it is timely to ask how far down the road of the post-totalitarian society we have travelled? How far are legal codes and officially endorsed social expectations intended to intrude into the private realm and to manoeuvre individuals into thought conformity? 

To what extent, moreover, might this presage an all-out war on the mind through assailing the very ideas of intellectual autonomy and the discovered self? The slippery slope towards the ‘psycho-state’ may be observed in the reinterpretation of critical thought as signs of delusional disorder. This process begins with delegitimising labels (‘covid-deniers’, ‘covidiots’, ‘anti-vaxxers’, ‘conspiracy theorists’) and expands into the gradual pathologising of disagreement. 

At first, the dehumanising process may seem innocuous. In an article ‘Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks’ for Quillette (16 January 2021), Christopher Snowdon berated lockdown sceptics for not always being entirely accurate in their prognostications about the course of the pandemic. The term ‘crank’, derives from the German ‘krank’ meaning to suffer or be ill (Krankenhaus being the German word for hospital). Such terms suggest that the dissident is mad rather than bad, but as in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this is no sanctuary.

Towards a psychiatric condition of ‘wrongness’

Implying that sceptics – some of whom have proper scientific credentials – are mentally enfeebled takes a highly complex debate concerning the policy response towards the coronavirus crisis in disturbing directions. Guardian columnist Owen Jones, hardly an expert in epidemiology, argued that oncologist Professor Karol Sikora, was guilty of ‘giving people false hope about the pandemic’. ‘Producers and editors who provide Sikora with a platform’, Jones declared, ‘should pause to reflect on the consequences of their decisions’. The accusation of thought crime was clearly latent in Jones’s belief that: ‘they are responsible for helping to spread disinformation and discrediting the legitimate voices of scientists, doctors, nurses and paramedics who have understood the scale of the crisis’.  

Debate on government policy and the interpretation of evidence is thus reduced to accusations of irresponsible thinking and ‘disinformation’. Jones never apologises for his own errors, having persistently argued that by delaying initial lockdown by a week the government caused tens of thousands of deaths (empirical evidence shows that lockdown does not save lives). An increasingly shrill campaign has begun against sceptical voices in the mainstream media. Toby Young, founder of the Lockdown Sceptics website was accused of having a ‘hell of a lot to answer for’ by one Conservative MP with the perhaps not insignificant surname of O’Brien. Shades of Orwell were further evident in journalist Paul Mason’s claim in the New Statesman (6 January 2021) that sceptics were fundamentally dangerous. 

With its concept of false consciousness, Marxist ideology has always regarded opposing views as mentally and morally suspect. Moreover, with the rise of psychoanalytical approaches in academia, leftist philosophers such as Jacques Lacan, who discovered in the unconscious mind a swamp to be drained of latent sexism, racism and other projections of the evil self, distorted Freudian theory. In Mason’s dubious understanding, for example, ‘wrongness’ exists as an objective psychiatric condition. Diagnosis, however, is not by clinician but by Twitter, a forum on which lockdown enthusiast MPs such as Neil O’Brien and Simon Hoare seem to spend much of their time.  

One might argue that commentators don’t really mean that their opponents are mentally unstable, and that this is mere banter. However, in an atmosphere in which people who say the wrong thing can be expelled from the public square for spreading ‘disinformation’, and contrary opinion is labelled as psychotic disorder, our hitherto liberal society is steadily progressing towards state encroachment onto the interior realm. Misdeeds may be prosecuted as crime, but ‘wrongthink’ is regarded as a worse threat to public order. In such a context psychiatry, as an arm of the state, is therefore likely to be used and abused for the control and disciplining of the interior world of the individual. 

Treating dangerous minds

‘What if a Pill can Change your Politics or Religious Beliefs’ was the title of a report by Eddie Jacobs of Oxford University in Scientific American (11 October 2020). Jacobs considered the potential use of psilocybin (the psychedelic substance in ‘magic mushrooms’) in changing problematic (i.e. right-wing) political attitudes. Known to induce mystical experiences, psilocybin use also correlates with liberal values. This was assumed to be because people with conservative attitudes disapprove of illicit drugs, but the causation could be reversed, with some evidence that psilocybin decreases authoritarian traits. One may wonder at the irony of using psychiatric treatment to make a person more liberal and open.

As Jacob’s paper illustrates well, psychiatry is a culture-bound discipline, heavily infused with contemporary morality, or more accurately, elite-driven fashionable orthodoxy. In maintaining order in the classroom, to cite a further example, teachers are trained to find fault with bad behaviour rather than the pupil, for whom there should be unconditional positive regard. But in an increasingly censorial society, where people can in the UK receive police warnings to ‘check their thinking’ and be listed on state records as having caused a ‘non-crime hate incident’, any utterance of contrary opinion might be considered not only as a minor aberration but as evidence of a serious character flaw.   

Psychiatry is a culture-bound discipline, heavily infused with contemporary morality, or more accurately, elite-driven fashionable orthodoxy.

We do, in fact, have evidence of where this kind of understanding ultimately leads. In the 1960s and 1970s Soviet Union dissenting viewpoints were regarded as symptomatic of psychiatric disorder. If a system of living is perfect (whether in principle or practice), how could a sane person reject it? This, bluntly, was the ideological stance of the psychiatric system in the USSR, as it developed under the sclerotic leadership of Leonid Brezhnev. For much of the Cold War Soviet political psychiatry was centred at the Serbsky Institute in Moscow. The Institute was under the direction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (with close ties to the KGB secret police) rather than the Ministry of Health.  

In 1970, Zhores Medvedev, a prominent scientist at the medical radiobiology institute in Obninsk, was one of the first prominent dissidents to be caught in the psychiatric web. After demanding more access to Western academic journals, he was accused of mixing science with politics. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and committed to the Kaluga Mental Hospital, but released a few days later following a worldwide outcry by scientists. 

Another publicised case was that of Pyotr Grigorenko. As a general in the Red Army Grigorenko was awarded the Order of Lenin (the highest honour in the USSR), but in the 1960s he spoke out on human rights abuses, particularly the continuing suppression of the exiled Crimean Tatars. In 1969 the KGB in Tashkent arrested him, and instead of a charge of anti-Soviet activities he was examined at the Serbsky Institute and certified insane. Concerns were raised in the world-leading American Journal of Psychiatry, but to no effect. Grigorenko spent four years at Chernyakhovsk Special Hospital, and he was exiled to the USA in 1976. Hundreds of others were incarcerated without publicity to protect them.

To justify psychiatric treatment, A.Z. Snezhnevsky, who dominated Soviet psychiatry in the Brezhnev period, devised a condition of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’, a key symptom of which was ‘reformist delusions’. As David Cohen in Soviet Psychiatry (1989) noted somewhat acerbically, these ‘symptoms were subtle and could only be detected by an equally subtle psychiatrist’. Some dissidents were treated with massive doses of tranquillisers, causing severe and lasting side effects. On discharge they were placed on the special register, which included any psychiatric patients posing a risk to society. According to Cohen, 5.5 million persons were registered in 1987. Such patients could be summoned to a mental hospital at any time, as often occurred before any major public event. They suffered from discrimination in all walks of life, and lost the – admittedly not particularly significant – right to vote. 

Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway also highlighted the systematic abuse of this branch of medicine in their 1977 book Russia’s Political Hospitals. Later in that year, the USSR was threatened with expulsion from the World Psychiatric Association at the annual conference in Honolulu. The motion was not carried, but at the Vienna conference in 1983 the Soviet Association of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists decided to leave before they were pushed. 

Under the glasnost (openness) policy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian psychiatry sought rehabilitation. Medvedev’s Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990, although he remained in his new home in Britain. Grigorenko was officially declared sane in 1991, four years after his death. Yet human beings have a tendency to forget history, and to repeat its mistakes. 

How long, it might be asked, before the current mobbing of lockdown sceptics in the media leads to a psychiatric label to justify involuntary treatment? ‘Covidiots’ is a harmless, tabloid-style jibe, but some pro-lockdown commentary has already shown a willingness to attribute psychiatric terminology: those who refuse to wear a mask or obey social distancing rules are more likely, according to a Daily Mail report (23 July 2020), to exhibit ‘psychopathic or narcissistic traits’. 

Enemies of the people and the new secular faith

Replacing the time-honoured notions of the divine, of God and nature, with a new political religious creed consisting of an incoherent mishmash of grievance-based social justice activism and a conceptualisation of ‘the science’ (which is really a pseudoscientific moral episteme), risks rehabilitating, in modern form, the world views of Pope Pius against the ‘defence of the liberty of conscience’ as merely the ‘absurd’ and ‘erroneous’ ravings of ‘pests’. Anyone who doubts climate change alarm, the validity of lockdowns or gender fluidity is not only perceived as mistaken but as deeply immoral. They will be banished from the Internet and thus cast adrift from society, like the last bibliophiles in the woods at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  

The danger inherent in the evolution of the new secular faith is that it dispenses even with classically rooted religious arguments of morality altogether, and instead, ascribes various states of mental illness to disagreement. Already, as we have discussed, dissent from fashionable orthodoxy is liable even now to be diagnosed as a psychiatric malady of ‘wrongness’. The recent spate, and virulence, of media attacks on lockdown sceptics suggest that they are, much as in dissenting circles in communist Eastern Europe, rapidly acquiring the quasi-official status of ‘enemies of the people’. Just as no politicians, media reports or commentators complained of brutal arrests of peaceful protestors at anti-lockdown/pro-freedom rallies, it is worryingly possible that a lynch-mob mentality will culminate in not just violence (either to be ignored by the media or presented as just deserts) but form a prelude to the creation of formal categories of thought crime. 

It is to be hoped that Western societies are far from going down the route of the abuse of psychiatry but the creeping distortions of language to denote ‘thought crimes’ are sufficient to warrant concern that they are slipping towards a psycho-state. For an illustration we need look no further, particularly in the context of the debate on the Covid crisis, than the increasing use of the term ‘disinformation’ in political discourse to describe viewpoints that simply express a difference of opinion. The term itself is not value neutral, deriving as it does from the Russian ‘dezinformatsiya’, which described a tool of KGB black propaganda during the Cold War: the point being that what constitutes truthful and untruthful information can be a matter of interpretation. In which case, who has the right to accuse others of spreading ‘disinformation’?

It is not, however, the condition of Covid that is the problem but what some of the disturbing responses to the pandemic reveal about pre-existing attitudes towards political dissent and disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies.

The psycho-state is enabled by an emerging technocracy. Following in the footsteps of the Chinese Communist Party, Western governments are seemingly in the process of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to create an authoritarian surveillance system that deprives people of privacy and their rights to freedom of expression and protest. When vaccines are effectively mandatory, either through ‘freedom passports’ or restricted job opportunities, then your body belongs not to you but the state. Citizens (if the term still applies) must accept whatever limited gruel they are given, while the elite continue to enjoy international travel and banquets bought by digital currency bonuses. And you must muzzle yourself, metaphorically and literally, or the men in white coats will be at your door.   

Conclusion: the psycho-state über Alles

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) Steven Pinker presented an optimistic view of the future, arguing that as the human race becomes ever more enlightened it becomes more humane. But is this overly optimistic? How long before puritanical censorship becomes a Maoist ‘Year Zero’? Perhaps ‘normal’ politics will be resumed after the Covid crisis has passed. It is not, however, the condition of Covid that is the problem but what some of the disturbing responses to the pandemic reveal about pre-existing attitudes towards political dissent and disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies. For these reasons it is right to warn that the straws in the wind indicate that a war on the mind is coming. 

The pre-crisis slippery slope towards the psycho-state has been marked by the evolution towards ‘cancel culture’ and the idea that words construed as ‘hateful’ constitute actual harm and violence, which is itself a form of psychologising routine political debate.  The need for vigilance is accentuated when we consider that certain political ideologies, notably on the left, have historically exhibited an interest in controlling the interior realm, as evidenced by phenomena such as ‘re-education’, ‘de-programming’ and ‘political correctness’, or categorising forms of political opinion as ‘phobias’ (rather than different points of view), or the cleansing of ‘unconscious biases’. As we have described, the disturbing end-point of such a process is the misuse of psychiatry to treat those deemed to be suffering from ‘sluggish schizophrenia’. 

More likely, the development of the psycho-state in the West and the coming assault on the interior realm to eliminate incorrect thoughts will not necessarily result in prison camps or the creation of asylums for the politically insane. To reiterate Havel’s warning, a post-totalitarian system does not have to resort to such measures. It merely has to ensnare people in a network of mind-manipulation where they are forced to live within a world of falsehoods. ‘Individuals need not believe all these mystifications’, but Havel observed, ‘they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them’. ‘For this reason’, he continued, ‘they must live within the lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system’.


M.L.R. Smith  is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. He is co-author of Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (London: Macmillan, 2014). His most recent essays for Cieo are University of Fear; The West’s Maoist Moment (with David Martin Jones); and (with David Betz) Empires of ‘Progress’?.


Dr Niall McCrae is a senior lecturer in mental health with a special interest in the history of psychiatry and mental hospitals. He has written five books, most recently Moralitis: A Cultural Virus (with Robert Oulds) (London: Bruges Group, 2020) and Year of the Bat: Britain, China and the Coronavirus (with M.L.R. Smith) (London: Civitas, 2020). Niall is also a regular writer for Salisbury Review and The Light newspaper.


Photo by Getúlio Moraes on Unsplash