Civilisation & the Savage Crowd

Our series on crowds continues, in connection with the Crowded Sovereignty Project, with a reflection on Le Bon's racialisation of the crowd.

spiteriAny­one famil­iar with ‘crowd the­ory’ will have been told repeat­edly that Gus­tave Le Bon is an ori­gin. This asser­tion is quickly masked by obfus­ca­tion. He is not a first, of course, pre­ceded by the his­to­rian Taine and the early crim­i­nol­o­gists Lom­broso and Sighele. But Le Bon is the one who draws these dis­persed though influ­en­tial works together into a tra­di­tion or a the­ory. He con­sti­tutes an iden­tity of crowd psy­chol­ogy, crowd the­ory or even social psy­chol­ogy. Le Bon was a pop­u­lar­izer and a syn­the­sizer, rejected by the aca­d­e­mic and sci­en­tific estab­lish­ment, he writes for pop­u­lar audi­ences. And with The Crowd he cer­tainly finds one. In a sense, Le Bon per­fectly instan­ti­ates the para­dox of ori­gins. They do not begin any­thing but are still the begin­ning. Le Bon is not the start of think­ing about crowds. But he con­sti­tutes a dis­course, or bet­ter, we ret­ro­spec­tively con­sti­tute the dis­course of crowd the­ory by ascrib­ing Le Bon the orig­i­nat­ing sta­tus. To put it in the most banal and obvi­ous of ways: when we start talk­ing about crowds with Le Bon, we make him the start. This ori­gin then echoes through the oeu­vre, requir­ing that each per­son who takes up the the­o­ri­sa­tion must work hard to try to over­come the ori­gin that we our­selves perpetuate.

Le Bon’s crowd is a sav­age thing. But sav­agery does not sim­ply equate to con­dem­na­tion – although that comes as well. To begin, the crowd is not an aggre­ga­tion of indi­vid­u­als. It is not made up of a col­lec­tion of sin­gle enti­ties, but rather in this gath­er­ing a new sub­ject it born. The crowd is a col­lec­tive uncon­scious­ness. When men enter the heav­ing mass of the crowd they descend the lev­els of civil­i­sa­tion, los­ing their indi­vid­u­al­ity and regress­ing to their com­mon uncon­scious nature.1 In this sense, Man’s most base instincts are released.

A crowd is not merely impul­sive and mobile [in its sen­ti­ments]. Like a sav­age, it is not pre­pared to admit any­thing can come between its desire and the real­i­sa­tion of its desire. It is the less capa­ble of under­stand­ing such inter­ven­tions, in con­se­quence of the feel­ing of irrestible power given it by its numer­i­cal strenght. The notion of impos­si­bil­ity dis­ap­pears for the indi­vid­ual in a crowd. An indi­vid­ual knows well enough that alone he can­not set fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do so, he will eas­ily resist the temp­ta­tion. Mak­ing part of a crowd, he is con­scious of the power given to him by num­ber, and it is suf­fi­cient to sug­gest to him the ideas of mur­der and pil­lage for him to yield imme­di­ately to temp­ta­tion.2

The crowd, ‘like a sav­age’ will not allow any inter­rup­tion between that which it desires and the real­i­sa­tion of this desire. Theindi­vid­ual can quickly repress any desire he might have had to over­throw, loot or pil­lage. His civil­i­sa­tion depends pre­cisely upon his abil­ity to sus­pend the real­i­sa­tion of his desire. In fact, the extent to which he is civilised is deter­mined by the extent to which this thought even enters his head. Some­one who has to con­sciously repress the urge to trans­gress has not suf­fi­ciently inte­ri­orised this civilisation.

The sus­pen­sion of indi­vid­u­al­ity in the crowd is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the sus­pen­sion of civil­i­sa­tion. Man is ‘torn between the pri­mal ele­ments of sen­ti­ment and rea­son, the lat­ter hav­ing emerged only recently in human evo­lu­tion and sel­dom exer­cis­ing real influ­ence on human affairs.… All emo­tions, fear, hate and sex­ual pas­sions, were sur­vivals of sav­agery, and, accord­ing to Le Bon, espe­cially dom­i­nant in those who lacked the oppo­site prin­ci­ple, rea­son.’3 The crowd is sav­age, unrea­soned. With the sus­pen­sion of indi­vid­u­al­ity, comes sug­gestibil­ity. The crowd is a col­lec­tive sub­ject capa­ble of being infi­nitely directed from above. This sounds like the crowd is being framed as a pure instru­ment, but the leader’s own psy­chol­ogy is not the ratio­nal Machi­avel­lian idea that we might expect. Leaders:

are espe­cially recruited from the ranks of those mor­bidly ner­vous, excitable, half-deranged per­sons who are bor­der­ing on mad­ness…. They sac­ri­fice their per­sonal inter­est, their fam­ily – every­thing. The very instinct for self-preservation is entirely oblit­er­ated in them, and so much so that often the only rec­om­pense they solicit is that of mar­tyr­dom….. The mul­ti­tude is always ready to lis­ten to the strong-willed man, who knows how to impose him­self upon it. Men gath­ered in a crowd lose all force of will and turn instinc­tively to the per­son who pos­sesses the qual­ity they lack.4

These lead­ers start from the mass, but break away by their fix­a­tion upon an idea. The are pos­sessed by the idea. ‘It has taken poses­sion of him to such a degree that every­thing out­side it van­ishes, and that every con­trary opin­ion appears to him an error or a super­sti­tion.’5 The leader uses the crowd instru­men­tally, cer­tainly, but they are not in con­trol of their use, their desires. Instead it is the idea which pos­sesses them that has become sov­er­eign. Their maddness, their pos­ses­sion by the idea, gen­er­ates a crowd that is rabid.

Cru­cially then, the crowd become an expres­sion of the lead­ers uncon­scious­ness. 6 This uncon­scious­ness how­ever, is not a mys­ti­cal thing, but rather it stems from the shared hered­i­tary (racial) nature of the crowd. And this is what so often goes unsaid in the var­i­ous accounts of Le Bon, par­tic­u­larly in the post-Freudian read­ings. In their regres­sion down the line of civil­i­sa­tion, the crowd return to their ‘com­mon origns’. Pre­vi­ously in The Psy­chol­ogy of Peo­ples, Le Bon wrote:

This iden­tity of the men­tal con­sti­tu­tion of the major­ity of the indi­vid­u­als of a race is due to very sim­ple phys­i­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. Each indi­vid­ual is the prod­uct not merely of his imme­di­ate pre­ci­dents but also of his race, that is of the entire series of his ascen­dents. A learned econ­o­mist M. Cheysson has cal­cu­lated that in France, sup­pos­ingth­ere to be three gen­er­a­tions in a cen­tury, each of us would have in his veins the blood of twenty mil­lion of the peo­ple liv­ing in the year 1000. ‘In con­se­quence all inhab­i­tants of a given local­ity, of a given dis­trict, nec­es­sar­ily pos­sess com­mon ances­tors, are moulded of the same clay, bear the same impress, and they are all brought back unceas­ingly to the aver­age type by this long and heavy chain, of which they are merely the last links. We are the chil­dren at once of our par­ents and our race. Our coun­try is our sec­ond mother for phys­i­o­log­i­cal and hered­i­tary as well as sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons.’’7

As he repeats, through­out his odi­ous oeu­vre, the crowd is an expres­sion of the psy­chol­ogy of quasi-national races.8 Thus he can say that crowds ‘are every­where dis­tin­guished by fem­i­nine char­ac­ter­is­tics, but Latin crowds are the most fem­i­nine of all.’9 He con­trasts the ‘latin crowd’ with the ‘anglo-saxon crowd’, which is more sta­ble and less likely to spring into being at the slight­est national insult.10

Race is the cru­cial deter­min­ing fea­ture of Le Bon’s work. In Ori­en­tal­ism, Said was cor­rect to say that Les Lois Psy­chologiques de L’Evolution des Peu­ples (1894) is the par­a­digm of a type of ori­en­tal­ism that:

was linked… to ele­ments in West­ern soci­ety (delin­quents, the insane, women, the poor) hav­ing in com­mon an iden­tity best described as lam­en­ta­bly alien. Ori­en­tals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analysed not as cit­i­zens, or even peo­ple, but as prob­lems to be solved or con­fined or – as the colo­nial pow­ers openly cov­eted their ter­ri­tory – taken over. The point is that the very des­ig­na­tion of some­thing as Ori­en­tal involved an already pro­nounced evau­la­tive judg­ment, and in the case of the peo­ples inhab­it­ing the decayed Ottoman Empire, an implicit pro­gram of action. Since the Ori­en­tal was a mem­ber of a sub­ject race, he had to be sub­jected: it was that sim­ple.11

But unlike the rest of his work where the sav­age oth­ers are analysed through the degen­er­ates of France, The Crowd uses the ori­en­tal to under­stand ‘west­ern civil­i­sa­tion’. The sav­age other is there within ‘west­ern civil­i­sa­tion’, as Said notes.

In The Crowd, it is not sim­ply a mat­ter of den­i­grat­ing the crowds as ori­en­tal, but mak­ing them ‘the objects of a new tech­nol­ogy of power.’12 The crowds’ for­ma­tion and ten­den­cies are shaped by the shared herdi­tary uncon­scious­ness of the par­tic­i­pants.13 The crowd was the sav­age within society/the indi­vid­ual, capa­ble of ter­ri­ble acts of degri­da­tion. How­ever, Le Bon also notes that the crowd, the sav­age beast, is also capa­ble of acts of fero­cious hero­ism. In fact, he insists that were it not for the crowd, ‘civil­i­sa­tion would not have grown up on our planet, and human­ity would have had no his­tory.’14 The crowd is the motor of his­tory, bru­tally dri­ving mankind for­ward. Thus, we dis­cover a strange moment in Le Bon’s analy­sis of crowds. The crowd is an echo of an old form of mankind (sen­ti­ment), super­sceded in West­ern soci­ety by the higher level of con­scious­ness (rea­son). But yet the motor of this progress, this evo­lu­tion of Man, is pre­cisely the crowd. To have his­tory which leads to higher con­scious­ness, Man must first regress to the unthink­ing, uncon­scious Man. Irra­tional­ity is the motor of rea­son. Le Bon sees a meta­phys­i­cal dichotomy between ‘sen­ti­ment’ and ‘rea­son’; between pas­sion, affect and sav­agery on one side; with civil­i­sa­tion, rea­son and indi­vid­u­al­ity on the other. Because he sees rea­son as a recent addi­tion in the long chain of the his­tory of man’s evo­lu­tion, it has not been ‘bed­ded in’. Civil­i­sa­tion still lies on the sur­face. To ‘bed it in’ fur­ther, Man must live through rea­son for gen­er­a­tions. The progress of civil­i­sa­tion does not march inex­orably, how­ever, because the crowd (of sen­ti­ment and sav­agery) threat­ens its course. And yet this threat also presents the process whereby rea­son progresses.

Le Bon draws our atten­tion15 to the con­ti­nu­ity between west­ern civil­i­sa­tion and sav­age colo­nial­ism. Iden­ti­fy­ing that beas­t­ial acts are per­formed in the name of rea­son, but this beas­t­ial­ity is not exter­nal to rea­son, it is its dark side. In other words, The Crowd intu­its that beas­t­ial­ity is actu­ally a fun­da­men­tal part of civil­i­sa­tion. If Man is beas­t­ial to ensure civil­i­sa­tion, if civil­i­sa­tion is civilised because of beas­t­ial­ity, then the two form a con­ti­nu­ity not a break: Civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism are on a moe­bus strip, front turns into back and then front again with­out inter­rup­tion. Civil­i­sa­tion is/becomes bar­barism, and bar­barism is/becomes civil­i­sa­tion. Le Bon, how­ever, does not see this as a cri­tique. Per­haps Le Bon did not even quite realise the con­tours of the idea that he was propos­ing. But this con­ti­nu­ity between civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism, would later become cru­cial to the rad­i­cal responses to Euro­pean ‘enlight­en­ment’ and colo­nial­ism. The Sur­re­al­ists,16 for instance, in 1932 penned theMur­der­ous Human­i­tar­i­an­ism pam­phlet: ‘The colo­nial machin­ery that extracts the last penny from nat­ural advan­tages ham­mers away with the joy­ful reg­u­lar­ity of a pole ax. The white man preaches, doses, vac­ci­nates, assas­si­nates and (from him­self) receives abso­lu­tion. With his psalms, his speeches, his guar­an­tees of lib­erty, equal­ity and fra­ter­nity, he seeks to drown the noise of his machine guns.’ Or again, dif­fer­ently in 1950 Aimé Césaire would write in Dis­course on Colo­nial­ism:

First we must study how col­o­niza­tion works to deciv­i­lize the col­o­nizer, to bru­tal­ize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to cov­etous­ness, vio­lence, race hatred, and moral rel­a­tivism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off in Viet­nam and in France they accept the fact, each time a lit­tle girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Mada­gas­can is tor­tured and in France they accept the fact, civil­i­sa­tion acquires another dead weight, a uni­ver­sal regres­sion takes place, a gan­grene sets in, a cen­tre of infec­tion begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been vio­lated, all these lies that have been prop­a­gated…, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encour­aged, all the boast­ful­ness that has been dis­played, a poi­son has been dis­tilled into the veins of Europe and slowly but surely, he con­ti­nent pro­ceeds toward sav­agery.17

He notes that Fas­cism was the result of a ‘boomerang effect’: ‘before they were its vic­tims, they were its accom­plices; that they tol­er­ated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legit­imized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peo­ples.’18

As Laclau notes, The Crowd stands at a cross­roads, between the nine­teenth cen­tury ways of think­ing about crowds as an abber­a­tion and the mod­ern real­ity wherein they were des­tined to stay. In this, ‘they can­not be dis­missed and sum­mar­ily con­demned, but have to become the objects of a new tech­nol­ogy of power.’19 The life of the crowd must become the new polit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a more per­fect instan­ti­a­tion of biopol­i­tics. In fact the entire edi­fice of Le Bon’s thought is like a micro­cosm of an intense biopol­i­tics: The com­mon hered­ity (the bio­log­i­cal life and lin­eage) of a race deter­mines the uncon­scious of a par­tic­u­lar national group­ing. The racial hered­ity is fed back to the same group­ing as a process of val­oris­ing its power to over­come its den­i­gra­tion. This uncon­scious emerges in crowds which are, to be turned to the task of renew­ing west­ern civil­i­sa­tion. The sav­age crowd must be dis­ci­plined, but also it must be brought to bear on the declin­ing civil­i­sa­tion to drive its evo­lu­tion onwards. It is dis­ci­plined by the right sort of leaders.

With Le Bon, as I began, we have reached an ori­gin. The ori­gin of a think­ing of crowds, whose line runs from the colo­nial through to fas­cism and into cer­tain (para­mil­i­tary) police log­ics. It is not the den­i­gra­tion of the crowd that is the prob­lem. It is not his pol­i­tics, as many the­o­rists sug­gest. Rather it is his very ontol­ogy that is at stake. As we have seen from the var­i­ous recu­per­a­tions of Schmitt, one’s pol­i­tics can be under­mined if there is the germ of util­ity in your ontol­ogy. How­ever, Le Bon’s ontol­ogy is poi­son. When placed upon the racial reg­is­ter it becomes pre­cisely the stuff of fascism.

Details of the Crowded Sovereignty Project can be found here, along with all previous posts.

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