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.

Share with your friends










Submit
More share buttons
Share on Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*