Crowds and equality
by Chetan Parikh
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

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


“In crowds, there is a strong pressure towards equality, which is one of their universally recognised characteristics. Why is this? In social and family life, there are many people with whom we would like to have an exclusive relationship - a woman, for example, or our father or a famous artist. It only needs a friend, brother or neighbour to have such a relationship for us to be filled with envy. Throughout our lives we are tortured by the question of why it should be them and not us. We are a prey to uncertainty from our earliest childhood, continually wondering whether our parents and infant school teachers love us as much as our brothers and sisters or the other children in the class. But at the same time we want to be the only ones to be loved. When someone says that he likes Johnny or that Johnny is intelligent, we feel a pang of jealousy, as if he had said that he likes Johnny better than us or that Johnny is cleverer than we are, even if no comparison was intended. The tension between a desire for a unique and exclusive relationship and one based on identification and similarity never slackens. We would like to be different from everyone else, but at the same time no-one should be different from us or better than us.


Let us move on from these general statements and consider a more concrete situation. Imagine the reactions of the firstborn when a second child arrives. He will spontaneously feel jealousy and hostility towards the new arrival, who disturbs his exclusive relationship with his parents. He is no longer the sole focus of their attention and is obliged to share the love that was previously his alone, and all this in addition to the quasi-sexual envy he feels when his mother breast-feeds the baby. Think too of the earliest fans of a star who becomes increasingly popular. They too will feel only jealousy towards newer ones who steal their idol's affection. In both situations, the firstborn or the fans would like to get rid of the intruders, the spoil-sports, and keep the exclusive affective relationship with the loved one. What do they do? Throw the baby in the dustbin? Machine-gun the other fans? They cannot, for that would mean going against the parents’ desire to have more than one child or the star's wish to have a host of admirers. Whatever their personal preferences might be, parents have obligations to all their children and stars to all their fans, and neither can single out one for special favours.


So, since they cannot get rid of bothersome rivals and remain in sole possession of their beloved or give free rein to their jealousy and hostility without endangering their own relationships with those they love (who could not tolerate such things), both children and fans are obliged to modify their position. We see a decline in mutual hostility and attachment to former rivals becoming dominant. Conflict becomes coalition. Some give up the idea of privilege and a past exclusivity, others the idea of achieving such things in the future. As a result, the distance created by distrust and hate is reduced and there is universal mutual identification, imitation and repetition, with everyone immersing himself in the same activities and receiving some degree of consolation from the pleasure of these mimetic exercises. As Canetti writes:


Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd. During the discharge distinctions are thrown off and all feel equal . . . and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd. (Canetti, 1973: 19)


They nevertheless continue to keep a close watch on each other to make sure that no-one gets more or special favours.


This discharge is a sign that the amorous attraction has been replaced by mutual identification, which is the best means of cementing relationships within a crowd. This is indicated by the birth of the feeling of a common destiny and a community spirit whose first demand is for justice, for equal treatment for all. We all know how loudly and implacably this claim is put forward at school. If one cannot be the favourite oneself, at all events nobody else shall be the favourite.  (Freud: XVIII, 120)


It also becomes apparent in the admirers of idols of the theatre or popular singers.


Originally rivals, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object. (Freud: XVIII, 120)


Crowds would thus seem to obey a principle of negative democracy or levelling down. If someone else looks as if he may be lucky or may benefit from something, their reaction is ‘Why him? Why them? Why not me?’ There are always grounds for envy. No-one ever gets everything or exactly what he wants, and so the universal reaction to other people’s desires is always the same. Envy produces rivalry, and equality offers a way out of it, even if it means universal renunciation and general deprivation.


Public-spiritedness and esprit de corps are based on reversals of this kind. We give up hoping for the things we want and abandon our most cherished ambitions in order to oblige everyone to make the same sacrifice. This is often reflected in hypocrisy and fools' bargains. Whether we are happy or unhappy, the main thing is to be together, with no-one's fate being different from that of his fellow-citizens, neighbours or friends. In Freud's words:


This demand for equality is the root of social conscience and the sense of duty. It reveals itself unexpectedly in the syphilitic's dread of infecting other people, which psycho-analysis has taught us to understand. The dread exhibited by these poor wretches corresponds to their violent struggles against the unconscious wish to spread their infection on to other people; for why should they alone be infected and cut off from so much? why not other people as well? (Freud: XVIII, 121)


The pressure to conform becomes so strong and concentrated that the slightest divergence becomes a threat against the group, which sees it as a breach of the unspoken agreement its members have entered into, the spark that could cause a sudden outburst of long-contained hostility. We should remember that constraint is at work. We have surrendered our individuality for the sake of being like our rivals. The rewards for that difficult task of limiting ourselves are justice and equality. And transgression is a challenge that calls its utility into question. That is why they do us some degree of violence, and democracy presupposes a strict inner discipline, for everyone has an ambivalent attitude towards it and is ready to question it. There are still some who, in Orwell's phrase, would like to be more equal than others.


Seen from another angle, the equality operating within the crowd makes it a kind of haven of peace, a place of refuge where people feel that they are among their own kind. Individuals feel a sense of release, as if they had laid aside the burden of social and psychological barriers and discovered that men are equal. Being with other people is like being with oneself. Hence a certain lack of order. The crowd is filled with hundreds of incessant movements like those of particles suspended in a liquid and is perpetually milling and agitated.


In that sense, we can describe masses as libertarian, for their equality encourages anarchy. This positive democracy is powerfully attractive. It is given a new lease of life by every revolution and in every community, and each of them promises its earthly kingdom. What is the psychological driving force behind it? It would see it as lying in the pleasure derived from the mimetic desire to be like one's fellows, one's parents or one's children and the imagined lack of any difference. Usually this desire is not imposed without a struggle. It means that we have to make sacrifices and it causes discord. At this stage, however, we imagine that we can enjoy it without hindrance.


What we are dealing with is an imitative enjoyment rather like sexual pleasure. But there is a difference, for the former means that individuals are almost submerged by the crowd, whereas the latter produces isolated couples. Freud describes this phenomenon thus:


Two people coming together for the purpose of sexual satisfaction, in so far as they seek for solitude, are making a demonstration against the herd instinct, the group feeling. The more they are in love, the more completely they suffice for each other. (Freud: XVIII, 140)


When these two versions of equality are superimposed, the crowd is both a form of extreme constraint upon the human person and an unlimited field of freedom and individualism. Some people withdraw and resist it, keeping themselves aloof. Others, however, throw themselves into it and lead the life they have dreamed of. We are eternally at cross purposes here. There are those who urge a return to the old village community life. But the people in those very same villages are leaving them for the shelter of mass urban anonymity, to get away from the watching eyes of family and neighbours and the jealous tyranny of all those people who wish them well and do them harm.


There is one exception to these two versions: the leader. To put it differently, every group demands that its members should be identical and have the same lifestyle and future. Only one person is excepted. In Freud's words:


Do not let us forget, however, that the demand for equality in a group applies only to its members and not to the leader. All the members must be equal to one another, but they all want to be ruled by one person. Many equals, who can identify themselves with one another, and a single person superior to them all-that is the situation that we find realized in groups which are capable of subsisting. (Freud: XVIII, 121)


Crowds are therefore like solar systems with many planets revolving round a sun, their central point. If we are to describe their movements, however, we need to work out the relationship between love and identification in the same way as we work out that between attraction and repulsion in astronomy.”