The mental life of crowds
by Chetan Parikh
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In a classic, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on the mental life of crowds.


“CROWDS COULD BE SEEN as comparable to hypnosis, that strange drug which arouses in all of us the obscure need to be at one with everything, releases the individual from his solitude and carries him off to a world of collective intoxication and triumphant instincts in which he is euphorically aware of his own omnipotence. Baudelaire called this immersion in the crowd ‘an ineffable orgy, a holy prostitution’.


What happens when someone suppresses his individuality and exalts the collective part of his nature to its highest point? In order to explain that, we need to know how crowd psychology sees the psychic system as working. The latter consists of two parts, one conscious and the other unconscious. The conscious part is proper to each individual, acquired over a lifetime and diverse, hence unequally present in society. The conscious life of some people is richer than that of others. The unconscious part, on the other hand, is inherited, common to all and present to the same extent throughout society. Conscious life is tenuous and perishable, a mere fraction of unconscious life, which is massive and permanent. Unconscious life influences us greatly and dominates us without our knowing it, because it comes to us from our ancestors with an inherited accretion of instincts, desires and beliefs.


Let us now look at what happens in a group when each individual is in a state of mutual suggestibility. The universal tendency is to stress those things that bring them together, namely all that they had in common before coming together as a group. These elements minimise personal differences which might lead to mutual antagonism and, over a whole process of contacts and exchanges, increasingly suppress and eradicate the individual consciousness that separates individuals and makes them dissimilar. The part of themselves which brings them together becomes stronger, as it is common to all of them. Similarly, people who live together for a long time stress those things that unite them and eliminate those that separate them.


The mental unity of crowds resulting from this process is no more and has no other intellectual and emotional content than the unconscious itself, which is engraved on the mind and body of each individual: beliefs, inherited traditions, shared desires, the 'tribal words' beloved of Mallarme, and so on. But it would perhaps be better to let Le Bon himself tell us what happens when consciousness and personality dissolve:


We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency immediately to transform the suggested ideas into acts; these we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.


(Le Bon, 1952: 32)


Thus there is only one way out of individuality, and that is through the unconscious. The mass draws us as the magnet polarises iron filings and holds us by its affective and irrational energy. This also includes rational forces, which it mixes according to the situation. The successful dissolving of the individual into the mass, however, presupposes that everything is ready for the irrational tendencies to be liberated. This idea caused an immediate stir and imposed on a whole generation a new way of mobilising and governing human beings. Scientifically speaking, however, it took the form of the postulate that everything collective is unconscious and everything unconscious is collective. As we have just seen, the first half of the statement is the result of Le Bon's work, and from it he drew out all its consequences in practice. The second comes from Freud, who formulated it as a -self-evident truth: ‘The content of the unconscious, indeed, is in any case a collective, universal property of mankind’ (Freud: XXIII, 132).


We must keep the postulate in mind and let it fertilise our thinking, for it is the key to the mental life of crowds in the same way that that of the conservation of energy is the key to nature. Every fact of that life is of course of interest, but knowing how crowds and mass-man think is particularly fascinating. If we are to be able to describe these processes, we must once again assume, that crowds and single individuals think differently, just as the hypnotised subject and the conscious person do. We have all come across that difference so often that there is no need to insist on it.”