The psychology of crowd dynamics
Le Bon’s book on the crowd was first published in 1895. Moscovici (1981) has argued that it has not simply served as an explanation of crowd phenomena but has served to create the mass politics of the twentieth century. Certainly, Le Bon influenced a plethora of dictators and demagogues, most notoriously, Goebbels, Hitler and Mussolini. This influence was not in spite of but rather an expression of Le Bon’s intentions. He repeatedly urged contemporary establishment figures to employ his principles in order to use the power of crowd for, rather than against, the state. His perspective matched the concerns of the age in their entirety: fear and fascination in equal measure; denigration of the collective intellect, harnessing of collective energy. Both are equally represented in the core concept of submergence which, for Le Bon, marked the transition from individual psychology to crowd psychology. Simply by being part of the crowd,
individuals lose all sense of self and all sense of responsibility. Yet, at the same time, they gain a sentiment of invincible power due to their numbers.
Once individual identity, and the capability to control behaviour disappears, crowd members become subject to contagion. That is, they are unable to resist any passing idea or, more particularly and because the intellect is all but obliterated, any passing emotion. This may even lead crowd members to sacrifice their personal interests – a further sign of irrationality. Contagion, however, is but an effect of suggestibility. That is, the ideas and emotions which sweep unhindered through the crowd derive primarily from the ‘racial unconscious’ – an atavistic substrate which underlies our conscious personality and which is revealed when the conscious personality is swept way. Hence the primitivism of that unconscious is reflected in the character of crowd behaviour. Crowd members, Le Bon asserts, have descended several rungs on the ladder of civilization. They are barbarians. But even here, where he seems at his most negative, the two-sidedness of Le Bon’s perspective still comes through. For, as he then clarifies, this barbarian: “possesses the spontaneity, the violence the ferocity and also the enthusiasm of primitive beings” (p. 32). The majority of his crowd text is, in fact, essentially a primer on how to take advantage of the crowd mentality, how to manipulate crowds and how to recruit their enthusiasms to ones own ends. In brief, Le Bon exhorts the would be demagogue to direct the primitive mass by simplifying ideas, substituting affirmation and exaggeration for proof, and by repeating points over and again. It is important to acknowledge this stress on the power and the potential of crowds as a strength in Le Bon’s work which has often been overlooked – and this is an issue that will recur several times in this chapter. Nonetheless there are fundamental criticisms that can be made of his ideas on three different levels.
On a descriptive level, Le Bon’s work is thoroughly decontextualised. The crowd is lifted both from the distal and the proximal settings in which it arises and acts. If Le Bon’s concern was with the working class crowds of late nineteenth century France, no sense is given of the grievances and social conflicts which led angry demonstrators to assemble. Perhaps more strikingly still, Le Bon writes of crowd events as if crowds were acting in isolation, as if the police or army or company guards who they confronted were absent, and as if the violent actions directed from one party to another were the random gyrations of the crowd alone. Such decontextualisation leads to reification, to generalisation and to pathologisation. Behaviours that relate to context are seen as inherent attributes of the crowd, they are therefore assumed to arise everywhere irrespective of setting and, by obscuring the social bases of behaviour, crowd action is rendered mindless and meaningless.
On a theoretical level, this divorce between crowds and social context is mirrored and underpinned by a desocialised conception of identity. That is, the self is conceptualised as a unique and sovereign construct which is the sole basis of controlled and rational action. Social context plays no part in determining the content of identity but merely serves to moderate its operation. Specifically, crowd contexts serve as the ‘off switch’ for identity. Thus Le Bon’s crowd psychology breaks the link both between society and the self and also between the self and behaviour. The former rupture means that no action, including crowd action, can either shape or be shaped by society. The latter rupture means that crowd action can have no shape at all, either social or otherwise. If the self is sole basis of control, then loss of self in the crowd means loss of control and emergent psychopathology.