Natural and artificial crowds
by Chetan Parikh
  
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In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on the natural and artificial crowds.

 

“If Freud criticised Le Bon’s concept, it was thus to a specific end, a clear definition of the framework of his own study. It would therefore be pedantic to look at his objections in detail. Except one, which will enable us to see what that framework was. Like others before him, he was determined to find out whether crowds were as much inferior in intelligence to the individual and as sterile as Le Bon claimed. Perhaps it was the case as far as great intellectual creations and the inventions of art and science were concerned. In such cases, Freud thought, the major advances had only been made by solitary individuals. But that did not also mean that crowds had not played a creative role, as indicated by our language, our arts, or folklore and the like. It was also quite clear that in the past collective works had come before individual ones. Popular oral poetry had been the forerunner of cultivated poetry and the model for it. Popular religions also came before those spread by an inspired man such as Christ, Mahomet, Moses or Buddha. Between Le Bon's assertions and what is seen in reality there was a glaring contradiction. How could this be resolved? Were crowds sterile, or were they creative?

 

To solve the problem, we need only see that Le Bon's affirmations applied merely to certain crowds. There were others with obvious intellectual capacity which were creative and had a different mentality. This meant that Freud could take over the distinction (that we are already aware of) between natural and artificial crowds. This is what he himself says:

 

A number of very different structures have probably been merged under the term ‘group’ and may require to be distinguished. The assertions of Sighele, Le Bon and the rest relate to groups of a short-lived character, which some passing interest has hastily agglomerated out of various sorts of individuals. The characteristics of revolutionary groups, and especially those of the great French Revolution, have unmistakably influenced their descriptions. The opposite opinions owe their origin to the consideration of those stable groups or associations in which mankind pass their lives, and which are embodied in the institutions of society. Groups of the first kind stand in the same sort of relation to those of the second as a high but choppy sea to a ground swell.          (Freud: XVIII, 83)

 

After adopting Le Bon's description of masses, Freud now took up Tarde's classification of them. Like the latter, he reached the conclusion that it was necessary to distinguish between organised masses on the one hand and non-organised ones on the other. The study of the former would be of the greater interest. By a series of independent intellectual processes, he reached the position that Tarde had adopted with regard to the function of hierarchy, tradition and discipline. In short, with regard to the function of organisation,

 

The problem consists in how to procure for the group precisely those features which were characteristic of the individual and which are extinguished in him by the formation of the group.      (Freud: XVIII, 104)

 

He was, of course, talking about intelligence.

 

The difficulty was therefore resolved. One could say that spontaneous and natural crowds must always be sterile, whereas artificial and disciplined ones, such as a village community or a political party, were fertile and culturally productive. Where the former regressed, the latter progressed. Freud set himself the task of studying, as a priority, the psychology of artificial crowds. They were stable and durable and usually directed by a leader. The features they had in common with the family meant that an analogy between psychoanalysis and crowd psychology could be established, permitting movement from one to the other. That was the real reason for Freud's choice, which had nothing to do with what have been seen as gaps in Le Bon's works.

 

Amongst artificial crowds, those most like the family are the Church and the army, and both are closely modelled on it. They are like it even in its tiniest psychological detail and claim to do on a large scale what the family does on a small one, namely to be the protected world of father and son. Like the family, the other two institutions submit their members to external constraints. Membership is compulsory, whether desired or not:

 

As a rule a person is not consulted, or is given no choice, as to whether he wants to enter such a group; any attempt at leaving it is usually met with persecution or with severe punishment, or has quite definite conditions attached to it. It is quite outside our present interest to enquire why these associations need such special safeguards. We are only attracted by one circumstance, namely that certain facts, which are far more concealed in other cases, can be observed very clearly in those highly organized groups which are protected from dissolution in the manner that has been mentioned. (Freud: XVIII, 93)

 

By virtue of his choice, Freud definitively made the field of crowd psychology co-extensive with that of society and culture. But we are not over-surprised at this. The opposite would have been a great deal more astonishing. Of the real world as seen by Freud, one could say what Borges said of the imaginary one of Tlon.

 

It is no exaggeration to state that in the classical culture of Tlon, there is only one discipline, that of psychology. All others are subordinated to it. I have remarked that the men of that planet conceive of the universe as a series of mental processes, whose unfolding is to be understood only as a time sequence.

 

          (Borges, 1962:24)

 

The reference to Freud is transparently obvious. And even if there is no reference, the description is still exact and truthful. We shall shortly see what he bore courageously.”