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Crowds, Power and a Pandemic

Monday, 28 December 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Over 120 million people attended the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela in India last year – the largest gathering of people on earth.

Early next year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, about 1 million are still expected to attend the event. But for many people gathering at this annual pilgrimage, virus infections and even death itself is not necessarily a barrier. Even in non-pandemic times, it was expected that by attending such a large gathering of people, one simply might not come back. Some pilgrims even signed death certificates to ease the administrative hurdles for their families in case they don’t return.

When it comes to large crowds, there is something mythical about the question of life and death. Historian Oswald Spengler wrote that compared to people living in villages and smaller towns, the citizens of big cities often forget to fear death amid the hustle and bustle. In contrast to being alone, being part of a large crowd gives a strange sense of security, continuity and even power.

During the last pandemic of the early 20th century, many people flocked to churches to pray together. This time such gatherings were done online. During Covid-19, security was to be found in isolation. The price to pay for avoiding mortality biologically was to face it instead psychologically, away from the crowd.

Across the globe, crowds have been forbidden at a scale we have never seen before. They have always played a crucial role in historical events, and now that crowds are suddenly missing, we can have a clearer, isolated glance at them, as if from a distance.

In his work Crowds and Power, the Bulgarian-born Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti writes that it is our tribal instinct of survival of the species that brings any crowd the desire to always multiply itself. Somehow, the crowd always draws us into itself subconsciously.

In daily life, we are unlikely to join an empty bar or club, but rather try to get into an already over-crowded place instead. A coke enjoyed in a crowded café would cost twice as much as the same coke bought in a store for oneself. When watching a sitcom at home, we subconsciously join an imaginary crowd of people laughing in the background at every joke. It is also known that many people switch on the TV just to feel less lonely. Crowds can be formed even when people are not physically present at the same place.

Discharge

The key word Canetti uses when talking about crowds is discharge. Most of the daily pressures, fears and anxieties that we accumulate when isolated are discharged when we join a crowd. But in addition to the fear of mortality, the other important fear that is discharged when in a crowd is the fear of unknown touch. “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown,” Canetti begins. “Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.” From clothing to fences, to apartments and borders, we build walls around ourselves for isolation and privacy just to later take them down by joining a crowd. (The word apart-ment is particularly telling as it implies that people live ‘apart’ from each other).

According to Canetti, the crowd also discharges the daily pressures of hierarchy and the constant following of direct and indirect orders from others. On an average day, no matter how independent we are, we are obliged to follow orders in one way or another – either at work, in the family, or even the orders of public opinion if one holds a leadership position. Orders are inescapable says Canetti, as they are even older than language itself – a dog understands orders before it understands language.

“When one talks about “craving” for something new, not yet achieved, behind this lies nothing more than a desire to get rid of a once perceived order.” In the crowd all the chains of hierarchical orders are dropped, and everyone suddenly feels equal, discharged. At a music festival, even a Prime Minister can blend in with the crowd.

It therefore becomes evident that the more repressive and hierarchical a socio-political system – the bigger the risk for the rulers to see their citizens discharge into protest or revolutionary crowds. To avoid that, dictators, as a rule, take matters in their own hands and regularly summon crowds themselves in the form of military parades. The brunt of daily repression and hierarchies domestically is then discharged against some external enemy. At their core, a music festival in a democracy or a military parade in a dictatorship, both have a commonality: discharge.

Thus, any restrictions on the formation of crowds are traditionally met with resistance, as we now also see with the increase of anti-lockdown protests and the spread of conspiracy theories. A recent study on the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the US showed that the movement saw a significant spike in adherents during the first lockdown in March. No doubt, this was due to people being simply bored and confused, with more time to consume social media. But one cannot discredit the idea that the adherents of QAnon also wanted to join a crowd in a time of isolation. The slogan of the movement speaks for itself: “Where We Go One, We Go All (#WWG1WGA).” As of today, the movement has gained in such importance as to even sell books and goodies on Amazon, while at least 35 US congressional candidates have embraced it. As Canetti’s book title suggests, crowds are unavoidably related to power.

But the first attempt to study the psychology of crowds was made by the 19th Century French polymath Gustave Le Bon in his influential book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon gives a very critical assessment of the psychology of crowds, which he says, are simply not made for reasoning and are highly influenced by images and illusions. “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” Strikingly, in the particular case of QAnon the description fits almost literally. QAnon believe in a mysterious leader called “Q” who allegedly has a “Q clearance” in the US government and access to classified information which he regularly shares with the movement.

At all times, crowds believed that some mysterious minority is pulling the strings of all world events. From witchcraft in the Middle Ages to the deep state and the richest 1% today. The mystery-loving crowd needs a powerful leader to create and unravel these ‘mysteries’ on their behalf, writes Le bon. Hitler (who read Le Bon’s work) was such a leader. Enigmas created by leaders had always mystified their personas.

In fact, Le Bon adds that history remembers not real leaders, but their exaggerated and mystical perception by the popular mind: “their real lives [of great historical leaders] are of slight importance to us. Our interest is to know what our great men were as they are presented by popular legend. It is legendary heroes, and not for a moment real heroes, who have impressed the minds of crowds.”

Mysteries and secrets

When Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor reprimands Christ for coming back to earth after 15 centuries of absence, he tells him that what people need more than his actual presence, is his mystery. By showing up in real life, Christ simply didn’t understand that he will lose his influence if actually seen by the crowd. Faith in him will be preserved only if Christ remains a mystery.

Mysteries and secrets are powerful as long as they are kept that way. In fact, the secret in itself is more important than the object it conceals. For example, the main point of any detective novel or thriller is precisely the process of searching for the mysterious murderer, not the character himself. Once the murderer is revealed, the book is finished, and there is no more interest in continuing it.

What dictators are successful at doing is keeping the crowd interested and continuously thrilled. Long-serving dictators rarely appear in public, but just about enough to be occasionally reminded of themselves. One could argue that the ‘Trump fatigue’ was caused by him constantly being in the public scene. Yet, one of the democratic world’s most long-standing leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have succeeded in striking the right balance. Ms. Merkel doesn’t have a Twitter account and appears on TV only in exceptional circumstances.

When it comes to democracy, Canetti adds that transparency – which is its strongest side, is at the same time its weakest – the lack of secrecy. It is worth providing his quote in full:

“Respect for dictatorships is largely due to the fact that they are seen as being capable of keeping secrets, which in democracies are overly-shared and scattered around. One mockingly says that everything in them is blabbed about. Everyone jabbers, everyone interferes in everything, and as a result, nothing happens, because everyone knows everything in advance. One complains about the lack of political will, but in reality the disappointment is caused by the lack of secrecy.”

The paradox of democracies is that the more transparent they are, the more they face the risk of becoming uninteresting. The lacking interest is then conjured up with conspiracy theories which invent mysteries where there simply aren’t any. Oddly, the simpler and clearer the message from the government (such as: ‘stay at home – there is a pandemic out there’), the more complex and widespread the conspiracy theories. “Since man cannot live without miracles,” Dostoyevsky wrote, “he will even create them for himself.”

Especially in our digital times when everything is always in the public eye and more transparency is always demanded, democracies have a hard time to adjust. If they draw any lines, they will be accused of censorship. This is the dilemma the French government is currently facing with the controversial bill attempting to ban filming policemen in action.

In theory, democracies rely on the wisdom of the public, whereby the public is understood to be the sum total of each individual’s private points of view. This is why casting the ballot at elections is always done in privacy. But theory is not always backed by practice and sometimes the public wisdom is lost to the folly of crowds. “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will” Le Bon says.

But at the same time Le Bon doesn’t ask the crowds to be reasonable. It is not by reason that crowds have always moved the wheel of history: “had they, in certain cases, reasoned and consulted their immediate interests, it is possible that no civilisation would have grown up on our planet and humanity would have had no history.”

Whether we like them or not, crowds are the only forces that can make long-lasting change happen. A curious fact about the Covid-19 pandemic is that global isolation in fact also brought about global unity, and formed a single, global ‘stay at home crowd’. With today’s instant communication possibilities, never in history was the world simultaneously aware of a common threat facing humanity.

But now that vaccines are coming our way, we will hopefully be back soon to our own separate crowds. And hopefully this year of (dis)unity will remain in the global sub-conscious to be refocused towards a bigger threat facing all of us – climate change. Whether or not it will, only time will tell. But we will not know until we rejoin the crowds.