Crowds and Lack of Power
i. Enjoying the Crowd
“Not everyone has the gift of taking a plunge into the multitude: there is an art to enjoying the crowd ...” (Charles Baudelaire, “The Crowds”, 1861)
Charles Baudelaire was the original dandy. He loved loitering in the alleys and boulevards of gay Paree in an opium swoon, perving at crowds from a safe distance. Baudelaire loved feeling separate from – and superior to – the great unwashed, as they scurried back and forth on their menial errands. The debauched poet spent many an afternoon imagining these folks' inner lives for them, indulging in “a taste for disguise and masks, a hatred of home life, and a passion for travel”, and was “proud that I have lived and suffered in characters other than my own”.
Now, a big part of Baudelaire's detached flaneurial joy came from the experience of being an observer, who was not observed himself. If Chas had staggered out of an arcade or brothel onto the streets, only to find himself scrutinised by dozens of other laudanum-breathed poseurs all feverishly imagining where that stain on his velvet trousers came from, he would have shrieked in horror and hot-footed it back to his stinking flat, wringing his hands and muttering, “O, it is a great pleasure to stare into the crowd – as long as it doesn't stare back into you!”
ii. The Problem of Crowds
“As a practical problem, the habit of crowd-making is daily becoming a more serious menace to civilisation.” (Everett Dean Martin, The Behaviour of Crowds, 1919)
Mr Martin published his big book on crowds just after World War One, and like a lot of people at that time, he was probably suffering from shell-shock. Martin was scared of something he called the “crowd-mind”, which threatened to reduce society to “a veritable babel of gibbering crowds”. Everett reckoned that “every crowd is, psychologically considered, a soviet”, and since society was increasingly made up of lots of (gibbering) crowds, this meant that “the modern world is already spiritually sovietized”. Soviet once meant group, not commie, but it was never a value-neutral word, especially in the mouth of an American. To his credit, Everett Dean was trying to scare people off a more general tendency, which George Orwell later dubbed “groupthink”.
Ninety-one years on, most of Martin's predictions have turned out to be wrong, but he was right about the “serious menace to civilisation” thing. In the 1920s, Mussolini had a lot of dangerous fun with the Italian “crowd-mind”. This in turn inspired Hitler, who perfected his own art of enjoying crowds, though it wasn't what Baudelaire had in mind. Hitler (mis)treated German crowds as if they were “feminine” – suggestible, hysterical, in need of domination. He eroticised the relationship between masses and “master”, creating a psychotic buzz the world would not see the likes of again until John, Paul, George and Ringo asked if they could hold your hand. “I told you all this soviet crowd-making would end badly,” maybe Martin said. “If only there were more unambitious men, free spirits who could remain deaf to crowd propaganda, laudanum-breathed men who could smile in the face in the mob,” he gibbered, “pee-stained men who would rather write poetry than smash windows and annex Austria ... Charles! Where are you when we need you?!”
“... Dead,” croaked Baudelaire.
iii. The Power of Crowds
“As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.” (Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960)
Elias Canetti left Vienna in 1938, just as Hitler's gibbering crowds were reaching their peak. Having narrowly avoided the worst excesses of National Socialism, Canetti – a Bulgarian Jew – spent the next two decades of his life writing Crowds and Power, amonumental opus which would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize for literature. This book has become the first, middle and last word on crowds. Canetti tells us that:
- The crowd always wants to grow
- Within the crowd there is equality
- The crowd loves density
- The crowd needs a direction
To properly fit this description, a crowd needs something to focus on; and it is precisely this focus, this shared direction, that transforms a collection of random individuals into a unified crowd. As long as it focuses people, the “direction” can be almost anything: Hitler's moustache; Ringo's fringe; a choreographed dance routine; a murder.
On the other hand, every large group of people doesn't qualify as a crowd for Canetti. For example, although it is definitely crowded, a traffic jam isn't much of a crowd. There is the shared direction of the road, and the (unwanted) equality of immobility – but no one wants the jam to grow, and no one loves its density. If we still want to call it a crowd, we would have to ask Elias if we could call it an unwitting crowd, or a reluctant crowd.
iv. The Reluctant Crowd
“Man, look at all those fucken tourists ...” (Tom Doig, 2006)
By far the most uncomfortable, ungrateful, unwanted crowd I have ever been part of was in Vietnam – in Halong Bay. Most of you will have been to Halong Bay, or heard about it from your backpacking friends. The actual bay is mind-blowing, its thousands of vertiginous phallic islands fully deserving of that Unesco World Heritage site listing. But back on land, it's a different story. You: a dashing Western backpacker fresh out of Hanoi, champing at the bit to roam far from the madding crowd and have an authentic exotic Oriental outdoor experience. But: instead you find yourself confronted by a vast carpark clogged with oversized tour buses, minivans, endless vehicles receding into the grey choking kerosene fumes of the tour boats. So: you wait excruciating minutes, hours, glaring at hundreds, thousands of dashing Western backpackers, all visibly dismayed at the massive crowds spoiling their Asian nature moment, glaring at you and your lame mates and your ironic T-shirts. You don't interact with the tourists, and the tourists don't interact with you, or each other. Everyone concentrates on ignoring their neighbours, trying to wish them away. No one wants this crowd to be here, and no one wants the crowd to look like a thousand ugly photocopies of their own ironic Soviet T-shirts and pee-stained velvet trousers. This is a crowd that mocks your uniqueness, dissolves your individuality in an awful equality, throws our White Middle Class Tourist-ness back in our faces. It is a reluctant crowd, and we hate everything about it.
v. Crowds and Lack of Power
“The spectacle ... is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)
Canetti was writing before Beatlemania, before the Vietnam War protests, and before the ascendance of TV. A few busy years later, an agitated French fellow named Guy Debord argued that under consumer capitalism, the whole of modern life “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”. And before you say “Avatar 3D – Cool!” too loudly, take heed: Debord wasn't happy about this fact. In fact, he was so unhappy that he wrote a whole book calling for the overthrow of western civilisation. Luckily for Everett Dean Martin, however, this revolutionary book is such an impenetrable labyrinth of Neo-Marxist jargon that no one can understand it. Debord says crazy things like: “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”. In plain english, this means: in a media-saturated society, crowds are turned into images of crowd-ness; crowds become spectacles for spectators to watch (or ignore), rather than Canetti's pulsing, living organism, something irresistible to join. As a spectator, then, being in a crowd is not something you do, but something that happens to you.
The largest mass gathering in Melbourne, ever, occurred in February 2003, just before the US Army invaded Iraq. It was a massive turnout – between 150,000 and 250,000 people – that shut down Swanston Street, Flinders Street, the whole CBD. It was electric. It was thrilling. It was democracy in action. People cheered and screamed and hoisted each other up onto public monuments and waved for the videocameras. Everyone was there – the socialists, the trade unionists, Mothers Against War, Cyclists Against War – it was a veritable Babel of gibbering crowds, fun to watch, and even more fun to join. This Voltron-esque über-crowd sent a strong message to the government of the time, who took that strong message under consideration ... by ignoring it. The US Army went ahead with its tactical surgical strikes, and the Australian army sent in its support troops. Seven years later Iraq is still on the operating table, bleeding quietly, although it rarely makes the headlines.
Perhaps someone should channel Elias and write a sequel to Crowds and Power, called Crowds and Lack of Power.