Regular imitation
by Chetan Parikh
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In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.


“Once it included and distinguished between the two kinds of crowd, the field of mass psychology widened considerably. Along with street phenomena, the passing eruptions of the ‘populace’, it now included all those varied and at first sight dissimilar institutions which include the Church, the army, political parties and the apparatus of the state, and which had hitherto not been part of it. They had seemed so distinctive in nature that no-one would have been bold enough to claim that all these laboriously constructed social edifices and all these regular and properly instituted social, national and economic bodies were indeed crowds, or that they were fuelled in the same way as those unconscious conglomerations of unaware and emotional people. All that it could mean was that beneath these organised and seemingly normal, unemotional and virile social bodies there lurked an emotional, mad (and, to boot, female) mass that surfaces as soon as it is given the chance, and that ‘spends its historical existence oscillating between one type and the other, sometimes creating the idea of a large crowd, like the barbarian states, and at others that of a large corporation, like France at the time of St Louis’ (Tarde, 1910: 168). Most psychologists, and, as we shall see later, Freud in particular, followed Tarde on this point.


But taking articial crowds into consideration had consequences, and perhaps even causes, of a political nature. On this point there is a contrast between Tarde and Le Bon, and I shall need to say something about it to illustrate these causes. Basically, Tarde said to Le Bon, we are in agreement. The masses and revolution are a danger that democracy in France cannot face up to. But I begin to dissociate myself from you when you claim that the greatest threat comes from what they do as unruly proletarian crowds. In my view, such phenomena are frightening rather than evil. Such crowds are transitory and ephemeral and come and go and rise and fall like dough. In the last analysis, they have no power. They are spontaneous associations of individuals, subject to random events in the physical milieu and tossed by fits of fury and enthusiasm. No doubt they are impressive. But however striking they may be at times of fusion and collective excitement, they are correspondingly wretched at times of dislocation and depression, when there is no stable structure to receive what is left of them, to preserve their experience or to ensure their continuity. This can be seen immediately after violent or heroic riots, when all their individual members go home, as sad and alone as on the morning after a major celebration.


Crowds begin to get really dangerous when they reproduce themselves at increasingly regular intervals and change into artificial crowds, sects or political parties. Previous trends are reversed. Sects or parties are the seeds of a crowd that they lead and inspire to intelligent action:


When a body of strikers concentrate on doing exactly what needs doing and destroying exactly what needs destroying (such as the tools of workmen who are not on strike) as a means to their ends, then there is a union, a combination or some kind of organisation behind them. Demonstrating crowds, processions, funerals that have the air of a triumph, are all the product of fraternal or political bodies. The Crusades, those enormous warrior-crowds, sprang from the monastic orders at the call of a Peter the Hermit or a St Bernard. The mass levies of 1796 grew out of clubs and were officered and disciplined by the remains of the old military corps. (Tarde, 1910: 197)


This is because sects or parties are organised and disciplined and gather men of varying talents and courage to the same idea. In such bodies a dominant will can establish itself much more successfully and very easily spread through shorter and more certain channels to the furthest recesses of society. Movements and orders orginating at the centre are carried out in a much more uniform way when organisation is more rational and the mimetic process more guaranteed.


Therein lies the danger of sects. Left to their own devices, crowds would never be very harmful, but a sprinkling of mischievous yeast is enough to make a large amount of stupid dough rise. It is often the case that if a crowd and a sect are kept separate neither can engage in criminal activities, but when they come together the combination can easily become criminal. (Tarde, 1910: 198)


Substitute ‘revolutionary’ for ‘criminal’ and you will see at once what Tarde meant. Up to a certain point, a determined minority and a turbulent majority (the Socialist Party and the working-class masses, for example) are both unable to endanger the existing social order. Once they are united, however, they have a serious chance of doing so. To take things a step further, if things happen thus, then the leader, however great his charisma, however great the hope put in him, cannot avoid the threat alone. It is not enough for him to fascinate a natural, sporadic crowd. Once it has been assembled, he still has to organise it and change it at least partly into an artificial one, into a corporation - party, army or church - of disciples who will imitate and follow him. When those conditions are met, a social order can be defended or overthrown.


The major organisational role in such a situation is also obvious. The leaders’ room for action must be increased by spreading their ideas and instructions in a more disciplined way and long-distance suggestion facilitated. It is generally wrong to maintain that this leads to a better distribution amongst individuals, that it is necessary for their co-operation or indeed that it avoids disorders or corrects collective errors. These things follow, but remain of secondary importance. Superiority of organisation comes essentially and mainly from a smoothly-functioning machinery of imitation of superiors by inferiors, of a faithful downwards reproduction of inventions and of universal conformity to one model. As Tarde said:


It is especially in fostering the spread of example that a social hierarchy is useful; an aristocracy is a fountain reservoir necessary for the fall of imitation in successive cascades, successively enlarged. (Tarde, 1968: 330)


When we say that an organisation is more efficient because it ensures better co-ordination between individuals or avoids mistakes while action is in progress or work taking place, we are not really telling the truth. As Tarde says, it is more efficient when it ensures regular imitation and makes it easier for the leader to create the mass in his own image, and ultimately it is as good as its leader.


That observation is of capital importance.”