The planetary age of the crowd
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.

 

“PSYCHOLOGY discovered the energy in crowds at the time when physics was discovering the energy in atoms. Their influence on historical events has been of a similar order of magnitude. I could go on giving an account of hypotheses that are of just as great an interest to the scientist as to the man of action, but it would be better to stop at this point for several reasons.

 

The first is that to follow the deductions of this discipline one has to stray much too far from the normal road science takes. Your immediate response to this statement will no doubt be a critical one. If there is such a gap between mass psychology and science, why bother to compose a system out of this hotch-potch of images, notions and speculation? I accept your criticism, for it is undeniably justified. The answer I will give you may seem simple, but I think it is the only valid one. The problems that the discipline has brought to light again are major and practical ones. By comparison, a number of those in which the human sciences abound are abstract and secondary. The very variety of causes that brought mass psychology into being invites us to reflect on the hypotheses it proposes, once they have been reformulated in a coherent and general way. This I have tried to do, as I am sure that they are just as important for us now as they were in the past.

 

But that is not all. From time to time there creeps into these extravagant hypotheses a truth that is so intolerable and unverifiable by any other scientific method that it would, I know, be almost madness for any scientist to defend it and to dare to suggest it. That cannot be helped. They are the truths that show us that it is possible to think rationally about mass phenomena and to have an idea of a meaningful system of causes, even if this were to take us into the labyrinthine byways of ideas that border on myths. That fact in itself is a major trump card for crowd psychology. We should not let ourselves be over-impressed by the popular and official images of science (which are often the same, in fact). Cosmological and biological myths, for example, have been and still are, if we are to believe certain scientists, a pre-condition for formulating theories about the universe or the origin of life. Psychological myths, to the extent that it is not only a question of myths, can produce theories about the universe of the masses.

 

There is also the reason that the hypotheses put forward have limits. I am well aware of these: they are obvious. I have not tried to hide the fact that crowd psychology pays too little attention to economic and social factors. It even goes to some trouble to prove that the class and culture of those making up the mass are of no consequence in an explanation of collective movements. That is something which runs counter to our whole view of society, especially as in practice there is no justification for ignoring these factors. If we are to advance our analysis of such movements, they have to be taken into account. A knowledge of social and economic circumstances is no less essential for the scientist than for the men of action. At the same time, and for similar reasons, mass psychology has tended to play down the intellectual and human value of the groups it studies. Neither truth nor necessity compels us to adopt that attitude. Such judgements add nothing to our knowledge of the masses, and since they are pointless and even harmful, I have taken no account of them.

 

The last reason is that crowd psychology does not see history in the same way as the other sciences. In its view, the despotic leaders and urban masses of ancient Rome, the princes of the Church and the peasant masses of the Middle Ages and even the urban masses of our own age are more or less identical. They belong to the same series of phenomena and are the effects of the same causes. That is a seriously wrong view, of course, but it is easy to correct it, and that is what certain historians engaged in studying them are doing. That does not mean that crowd psychology is not interested in history (and history is certainly very concerned with it). The opposite is the case. It sees it as an important factor in what crowds think and do, even if in its own way. Most theories in the field look towards the future and see the growth of human groups as the solution to the difficulties we all encounter in life. The past is an obstacle to overcome, an abyss to be avoided, the thing one turns away from. Crowd psychology, however, stresses the past and the recurrence of the solutions men have invented for their problems throughout history. It is a means of action and a living memory without which nothing is possible. It bases a practical rule on that principle, which is that whatever happens in the present, one must look just as much, if not more, to the resurgent past as to the inchoate future that is taking shape. These are some of its limitations, but they should not be used as an excuse for rejecting it. We can more profitably see them as the stones we can use to rebuild it in a different way.

 

Crowd psychology is misunderstood. Nothing shows this more clearly than the conclusions that have been drawn from its hypotheses now and in the past. It is seen as being opposed to democracy and favouring individual authority over the majority. We have seen unbridled power at work, with men becoming passive brutes, killing because they were ordered to, because they were afraid, or because they were loyal, and all this while a people sank into silence, the law was perverted and all rights to truth were abolished. The innocent have been found guilty, and free men have been imprisoned because of their religion, race or class. Countless millions have been sacrificed. For all these reasons, we are bound to reject such an intolerable abuse with every ounce of our strength.

 

It is true that crowd psychology asks one question that most other sciences never raise. Why do we find the power of leaders over us so profoundly unattractive? In normal conditions, can we not simply see it as one of the many painful necessities that life inflicts on us? It seems to be something habitual in the political field, to have a certain social justification and often to be unavoidable. When we ask that question, we are coming up against the reality of power in a very precise, concrete and specific form. When we talk of power (parties or organisations) we are necessarily talking about leaders, and when we are talking about leaders we are talking about power. Everything else is clever talk and juggling with ideas.

 

It is no less true that crowd psychology foresaw the rise of increasingly powerful leaders when we were all busy ruling out the possibility. But to see it as responsible for that rise would be to shrug off our own responsibility and that of civilisation and to criticise it for having announced a truth instead of stifling it. Such criticism is all the more unjustified since crowd psychology saw the danger to democracy and tried to prevent its collapse.

 

The way it set about showing the danger was a very uncomfortable one. Our confidence in mass law and our hope for a future we would all control was sapped. This was because everything we saw as steps towards progress and democracy - the growth of an urban population, of the media and of production - involves in its eyes a renewal of authority and its concentration in the hands of a single individual. Crowd psychology tells us that we cannot save our threatened freedom by continually repeating outworn formulas when we are faced with a changing reality, or by stimulating the same old emotions in hearts that have been anaesthetised by mass anonymity. We have to listen to what it has to say, for events have proved it right in even its most doubtful predictions.

 

What it has to say does not have to be new to be true. The lesson it teaches us is a simple one. What transforms power radically in the age of the crowd? Totally unexpectedly, leaders appear as a remedy for the psychic misery of the masses. Any attempt to hide the importance of this is to refuse to face up to the most overwhelming fact of society, to change it into a non-fact and to retreat into fantasy again. So the alternatives are clear: either the first response emerges triumphant, or there is another, that of democracy pure and simple. But we cannot go backwards through history to recapture it in its liberal form. There has to be another one that takes the leader into account and finds a remedy for the syndrome, one that must be able to reconstitute, using different means, the psychic equivalents of relationships, values and institutions, of, in short, collective life, which the masses have lost but which is still hauntingly present in their memory. Only this kind of equivalent will make it possible to mobilise them in order to act and govern. The ingredients of such a form of democracy are to some extent already known. They would include making the powers of the state subject to those of elected representatives, restoring the autonomy of individuals (and of minorities in general) separating private and public life and restricting the power of the media in order to make better use of the general area of dialogue and public conversation. All this, of course, without neglecting social justice in the true sense of the term. Education would be based on democratic traditions, which it would revitalise with the spontaneity of irresistible feelings and memories. Those various elements all tend to exclude any magical or idolatrous exercise of power of the kind that could make it seem omniscient and omnipotent to the masses. Never before has there been so much 'magical' sovereignty, never has it had such a range of techniques at its disposal, and it is for those reasons that choosing it or rejecting it is now as serious as choosing or rejecting-atomic weapons.

 

The scientific nature of crowd psychology is of a very provisional kind, but its contemporary relevance is of prime importance. On a continent-wide scale throughout the world, mass phenomena are becoming increasingly apparent. There seems to be some tendency towards stability in Europe, but in Latin America, Africa and Asia, they are becoming much more marked. In those parts of the world, we are witnessing in the late twentieth century a repetition, with some variations, of what happened in Europe at the end of the nineteenth. There has been an explosion of urban populations, and four hundred million men, women and children eke out a precarious existence vegetating in makeshift homes around the cities. They have been driven from the countryside by poverty, hunger and war and have huddled together in hastily-thrown up slums or shanty-towns. The illusion of peace and well-being provided by the town has been a magnet to them, keeping them in places where no-one would have dreamed of living. Every year, there is at least a ten per cent increase in the size of these human galaxies. They have lost their traditional links, and those caught up in them no longer have any contact with their natural traditions or ties with the communities they came from. They have been cut off from the organic life of society and drawn into an orbit of casual and occasional work and the cycle of the mass media and communications according to what we might call the American model, which is foreign to them.

 

We know why these migrations take place, but the consequences of them are still not properly understood. The individuals involved, who have been uprooted from their-own surroundings and thrown haphazardly into ghettoes on the edges of large towns, are the forerunners of new masses. New leaders will sprout upon this fertile compost and are indeed already beginning to appear. In short, such phenomena are the very first signs of a future world-wide age of the crowd. Since similar causes produce similar effects, there is every reason to believe that it will be based on the sort of principles we have already seen. It will make use of means of suggestion already tried out in Europe, but adapted to fit the huge scale involved. It will be a severe test of the explanations offered by crowd psychology and the ways it has been put into practice in other regions.

 

Like a cock crowing while it is still dark, science heralds the dawn and is of its time because it is a step ahead of it. That is why it is so valuable, both for the man of action who can steal a march on those of his rivals who are more ignorant or more respectful of tradition, and for the man of science looking for a new field to exercise his talents and his curiosity in.”