Mood swings and crowds
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.


“Crowds are like women, it was said, and both were lumped together and accused of being fickle and capricious in their moods and of swinging from one extreme to another. In fact, they obey a cyclical rhythm, experiencing alternating joy and sadness. Their moods change as suddenly as an individual’s. Lenin, for example, was very sensitive to the ebb and flow of the moods of a crowd and often spoke of this (Porchnev, 1970: 27ft). In what follows, we shall abandon the doubtful analogy with female whims and use the more exact one with melancholia and mania.


Right at the start there is, of course, the division between the ego and the super-ego. The latter normally watches, admonishes and imposes its discipline, preventing any escapades and restricting the instinctual pleasures of the ego. Conformity, predictability and the pressure to identify procure certain satisfactions, but no-one can permanently put up with so many sacrifices or the separation of the ego and super-ego and the constant pressure of the latter on the former. In other words, the constant suppression of erotic tendencies by mimetic desires and the necessity to want what others want clearly result in a wearing tedium that can become depression.


When saturation point is reached, there is an attempt to escape, to change the situation. The ego, anxious for unity, attempts to effect a reconciliation with the super-ego. If they come together again, like a child once more joining his parents after a long separation, there is a honeymoon period of rejoicing for the psyche. The super-ego no longer harasses the ego and allows it both to love itself, identify directly with all the other egos in the crowd and become one with them. Things could not be better. The freedom goes to their heads, and they reach a point where all prohibitions are violated, all taboos are broken, and they become as feverishly excited as someone in a manic state. Carnivals and sometimes political or sports meetings are the occasions for such outbursts. Almost every barrier between individuals, classes and sexes is broken down, and promiscuity is tolerated and perhaps even required. The world is a violently-coloured place and the various channels for aggression and love are open to all. Societies which can look ahead and are concerned for the well-being of their members set aside certain times of the year - the Roman Saturnalia, for example - for this purpose and provide appropriate places for them. Disorder and protest beyond all measure and the waste of patiently-amassed wealth are the price paid for the peace of mind of everyone and a means of increasing subsequent toleration of routine and boredom.


But there may be other unforeseen manifestations, experienced in much the same way. In rebellions, riots and pillaging, festive and aggressive elements combine to form an explosive mixture that can sweep away constraints and smash existing laws. It has often been pointed out that the events of May 1968 saw a similar kind of mass exaltation, with everyone being free to talk when, where and as he liked. The various social categories, who usually ignored each other, came together and acknowledged each other with a profound sense of having become a community again. The slogans of the time – ‘nothing is forbidden’ and ‘prohibiting prohibited’, for example - became the very words of life.


For a month, ordinary society practically disappeared. Another society, and an extraordinary one, ruled in its place. Everything seemed unreasonable, but not inexplicable. Freud writes: But the ego ideal comprises the sum of all the limitations in which the ego has to acquiesce, and for that reason the abrogation of the ideal would necessarily be a magnificent festival for the ego, which might then once again feel satisfied with itself. (Freud: XVIII, 131)


But, as popular wisdom has it, all good things must come to an end. Passion spends itself, disenchantment sets in and the music stops. The world gets back to its repetitive and routine-bound rut. Identification with a social category, a job, family and class becomes the norm again. The super-ego dissociates itself from the ego once more and sets up a proper distance and an opposition. Once again, it begins its mole-like work of undermining pleasure. Depressive gloom spreads like an epidemic. The crowd is riddled with its virus, dislocated and dispersed:


Exaltation is swiftly followed by depression, which is that much deeper the more violent the collective fever has been, and which leads inexorably to the arousal of individual instincts of defence and self-preservation. (De Felice, 1947: 14)


All these so-called instincts rear up and force the individual back into the boredom of everyday routine.


We could see this as a way of explaining the cycle that natural crowds are subject to. They move from a Dionysian exaltation to an Apollonian calm. The cycle is repeated with all the regularity of the ebb and flow of the tides. Days of brilliant sunshine and dull, drizzly days alternate with each other as the moods of the crowd shift and change. It would be a grave omission on our part if we were so carried away by Freud's powerful analogy with melancholia and mania that we forgot one basic fact. This is that at times when rules are suspended or reversed for some festivity, when children no longer obey their parents or servants their masters, there is an order behind the disorder, and it follows prescribed rules and well-established custom. The process is repeated at set intervals, thus meeting the demands of the super-ego. No-one imagines that he can avoid it and escape serious consequences. Like Sunday rest, festivities are compulsory.”