The Weirdness of the Crowd

A read-ahead summarizing texts we’ll cover Tues

I. Defining the basics:

  1. Mass movements: we’ll go over the academic definition to kick off the presentation, but thought it’d be more interesting to have you all think about what makes a mass movement, or examples of mass movements, before we chat - so, no spoilers from us here. 😃  

II. Summarizing the texts:

  1. Crowds and Power
  1. Historical context: 
  1. Written in 1960, translated to English from German in 1962.
  1. Author, Elias Canetti, grew up between two world wars and was forced to flee Vienna when the Nazis arrived in 1938. “There is no other hope for the survival of mankind than knowing enough about the people it is made up of.”
  1. In 1981, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the work.
  1. Central themes (see below)
  1. Examples (see below)
  1. The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ [Megan? If not, I will allude to it but not Cliffs Notes it…]
  1. The True Believer [Megan]

III. Discussion: questions to think about in advance that we’ll be discussing, to relate the material to the present:

  1. What is “the crowd” today? Where is it? Online, offline examples. 
  1. What is a “true believer” in today’s terms? What motivates people to form crowds today?
  1. Forces shaping crowds/true believers
  1. Technology - social platforms as The Great Enabler, eliminating the need for physical proximity. Recommendation engines disrupting the market for cult leaders as people self-select into ad hoc groups around particular issues, regardless of facts/mainstream norms. 
  1. Political structures - the resurgence of populism, the rise of Trump
  1. Axes upon which people align - religious vs secular, local vs global, protectionist impulses

Crowds and Power: central themes

On Crowds:

  • There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.” Canetti means this literally as well as figuratively - think of the way we move on public transit, the way we lock our doors even when the likelihood of someone entering is remote. 
  • The counterintuitive is that we no longer fear being touched when we’re in a crowd. We feel safe as part of the masses, provided the mass is dense enough.  
  • Canetti differentiates between open and closed crowds. Open crowds, which he considers “true” crowds, are marked by their spontaneity: they grow, they naturally attract everyone who observes them, drawing them in with a gravitational force, and they are destructive (in a physical sense). And then, they dissipate.  Closed crowds are marked by permanence, boundaries, and in-group/out-group dynamics. Their size is often deliberately limited in some way; Canetti uses the analogy of a vessel filling with liquid. What closed crowds sacrifice in growth they gain in staying power; they often turn into institutions. Closed crowds can transform into open crowds by means of an eruption. 
  • Canetti uses the term the discharge” to describe the moment that creates the crowd. In the discharge, all men suddenly feel themselves to be equal. This is the generation of camaraderie, which may be fleeting in an open crowd, but is nonetheless powerful. All men are the same in the crowd; the distance between haves and have-nots is temporarily eliminated. But when the crowd dissipates, that distance returns. This leads to a fundamental underlying tension - the crowd must keep momentum to stave off that return. (Note: the truly converted may not return to pre- or non-crowd behavior. Potential tie-in to True Believers here, or to an overarching theme: what is the relationship or ratio between true-believers and hangers-on in crowds? What leads some to take that next leap?)
  • Crowd destructiveness happens in large part because of the discharge; barriers and limitations between the self and others must be destroyed, particularly physical things like buildings and fences. Fire is a remarkably effective means of doing this, because it can be seen from a distance and attracts others, so it serves the dual purpose of growing the crowd as well. 
  • Regardless of the type of crowd, there needs to be direction, a common goal - and the fear of the crowd dispersing is enough to make it prone to accept any goal.
  • A sense of persecution unites the crowd, as it believes itself to be under constant attack from without and within. If the attack is from outside, it strengthens the crowd as it unites against the “other”. If the attack is from within, however, it’s dangerous; this is where we see the notion of “false flag” conspiracy theories, accusations that members are spies, and checks of doctrinal soundness coming into play. 
  • Some crowds come together around “crowd crystals” - distinct small groups of people who precipitate crowds.

Brief summary of the behavior of crowds (directly quoted from text): 
  1. The crowd always wants to grow
  1. Within the crowd there is equality
  1. The crowd loves density
  1. The crowd needs a direction

The five main types of crowds:
  1. Baiting crowds - “found among animals as well as amongst men”, this crowd forms with an eye on a quickly achievable goal. Canetti describes this as a group of hunters after a kill, with everyone who participates personally determined to strike a blow. This crowd forms quickly because there is safety in numbers; they can satiate bloodlust with little to no personal risk. 
  1. Flight crowds - created by a common danger that the members must flee; members are unified because the danger is distributed and therefore most will survive. When members do fall, it increases the resolve of the others, spurs them to continue the flight. (Canetti felt this one personally; his example was the movement of the Germans into cities leading up to World War II)
  1. Prohibition crowds - marked by a group refusing to do something they had previously always done; a labor strike is an obvious example.
  1. Reversal crowds - the crowd of revolutions and revolts, in which “the sheep eat the wolves” for a change. The precondition is strata: societal layers, perceived affronts such as being subject to commands.
  1. Feast crowds - unified in celebration.

Crowds in the present:
  • World religions - stagnant, closed crowds