What does ‘the crowd’ Want? Populism and the Origin of Democracy

by | 21 Jul 2017

The liberal critique of the recent rise of populism reveals an uneasiness toward ‘unruly’ emotional crowds and their leaders’ anti-democratic postures – albeit these figures have captured political power through democratic means.[i] Trump, Le Pen, Modi, and Erdogan have indeed stirred nationalist emotions and collective energies in explosive directions. Erdogan’s purge of the Turkish state is just one of the recent examples of the potential of bloody nationalist effervescence, while Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has rendered a new life to violent Hindu nationalism in India.[ii]

Crowds were objects of scientific fascination and civic concern for the bourgeoisie in nineteenth century Europe, and researchers, like Gustave Le Bon, and later Sigmund Freud, closely studied them. Le Bon postulated that crowd possessed a collective mind; was composed of the unruly elements of a society; and was prone to irrational outbursts (1896).[iii] Early twentieth century rise of fascist regimes rendered scientific investigation of crowds further urgency. Scholars of the Frankfurt School turned their attention to this phenomenon as well. Even though he was skeptical of Freudian explanation of crowds’ behavior, Adorno attempted to understand how leaders instigated the “psychology of the masses” (1982, 119).[iv] Freud had added to Le Bon’s argument – that, in a group, the individual is able to set himself free of repressive instinct – and suggested that it were in fact “id energies which throw off the pressure of the existing social order” (1982, 123). Adorno instead argued that there must be other “psychological agencies which are pressed into the service of the unconscious” (ibid). For example, demagogues’ oral prowess does its magic, he suggested, and incite those “archaic regressions which reduce individuals to members of a crowd” (1982, 133). Adorno thought that it was impossible for “Fascism to win the masses through rational arguments” and therefore, such ideologies must mobilize “irrational, unconscious, regressive unconscious processes” to make their appeal successful (1982, 134). “Suggestion” of the leader awakened a primordial “archaic inheritance” – lying deep inside of us all (1982, 123).

Crowds tell us something troubling about ourselves and our political subjectivities. They disturb liberal critics because they challenge the composition of the liberal subject – as a political being who possesses reason, intent and individuality. Recall violent protests against the publication of ‘Danish Cartoons’ and then the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ affair. Western political leaders and cultural critics ferociously responded to what they saw as a threat to and swiftly rallied to rescue their citizens fundamental human freedoms. More to the point, the violent protests were claimed to be instigated by Muslim demagogues as if their protest over blasphemy had aroused an irrational attachment to an icon; the passions attached to Him and the pain expressed were incomprehensible to the secular West. A New York Times editorial from February 2006 reacted to the protests in Muslim countries: “With every new riot over the Danish cartoons, it becomes clearer that the protests are no longer about the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but about the demagoguery of Islamic extremists” (The New York Times 2006).[v] Not only these commentators refused to acknowledge Muslim pain as an expression of a deeply personal and individual injury, the passionate protests and the attachment to a supposedly archaic icon were considered summoning primordial attachments and emotions aroused by an innocuous insult.

To modern, Western ears, Muslim demagoguery is a rather convincing argument, because they are used to regularly learning what the ‘Muslim World’ or the ‘Arab Street’ thinks – an epithetic representation of the opinions of millions living in that part of the world. Post 9/11, these representations gained new life as Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded in the name of democracy, human rights and development and to fight ‘terrorism’ and ‘authoritarianism’. Democracy and liberal democratic values and ideals became humanitarian necessity in the theatre of war. Civilizational discourse gave place to humanitarianism, empathy and development.

Crowds are the reflection of the Other both within us as well as outside as a residue of a collective origin and a past, which disturbs as well as assures us of our humanity and civility.

Michael Taussig famously argued of the historical encounter between colonists, rubber entrepreneurs, and Putumayo natives in Colombia that what stood out of that accident was the mimesis between the “savagery attributed to the Indians by the colonists and the savagery perpetrated by the colonists in the name of … civilization” (1991, 134).[vi] “In the colonial mode of representation”, he further argued, “such mimesis occurs by a colonial mirroring of otherness that reflects back onto the colonists the barbarity of their own social relations, but as imputed to the savagery they yearn to colonize” (ibid.). Crowds remind us of ourselves as agents of those instincts and urges, which we had restrained long ago but which still need to disciplined in others.

The Other, his political demands and emotions, are not to be taken seriously. But is rather to be educated, and if needed, disciplined. As Adorno argued, crowd carries no “sensible political aim”; on the spectrum of political teleology, those who form these crowds appear irrational and child-like, begging direction and discipline (1982, 119). Crowd’s passion is in fact dangerous as it summons primordial attachments and archaic instincts. Violence to curb these passions is thus justified and legitimate.

The rise of nationalist democratic-authoritarianism within the West re-poses a conundrum to liberal critics and thinkers, enticing them to raise apocalyptic alarms. Achille Mbembe laments that “the age of humanism might be ending”, while Pankaj Mishra welcomes us to “the age of anger”.[vii] Others have claimed that it’s democracy which itself might be under threat in this surge of democratic populism.[viii] But what kind of democracy and which form of humanism is under threat? Liberal democracy, in its colonial guise was always suspicious of the others and never hesitated to discipline them in the name of the rule of law (Hussain 2003).[ix] At home, racial segregation was juridically justified and legally legitimized. In its political form, democracy always placed millions outside and still does. However, I think, if this surge of populism has given life to a new set of fears and uncertainty, it has also imparted a sense of empowerment to many who had increasingly been feeling marginalized. This, I suggest, is democracy’s revenge.

Crowds and democracy have an uneasy shared genealogy. William Mazarella has recently reminded us of their relationship: “From a liberal standpoint, the crowd, in all its face-to-face potentiality, constitutes at once the origin and the nemesis of democracy, though never its permanently indispensable lifeblood. In the imagined biography of the liberal subject … the crowd represents a childish moment of savage indistinction: corporeal, affective, and irrational” (2015, 5-6).[x] Crowds uncomfortably blur the line between us and the Other, reason and passion, and, most troubling for the liberals, democracy and authoritarianism. They are the mirror, in which we face ourselves and our fears.

Salman Hussain is a PhD Candidate at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a Writing Fellow at the Law and Anthropology, Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology. His research focuses on political and social movements in Pakistan and the mobilization of urban middle-classes along regional, religious and class lines. Specifically, he is currently analyzing Lawyers’ Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and Judiciary (2007-09), based on fieldwork from 2014-2017 in Pakistan. He has also written on the political economy of war and armed conflicts in Pakistan-Afghanistan.

[i] I am aware of the use of ‘liberalism’ as a strawman in academia. I approach liberalism in this paper in its twofold meanings: a democratic political system, based on the principles of the electoral parliamentary politics, the rule of law and constitutionalism and secondly, as a cultural self-identification, based on human rights, law and a belief in the universalism of these political and social ideals.
[ii] Liberal suspicion of crowds is not limited to ‘rightist’ ones only. Fear of uncertain politics of the uprisings mixed with anxiety of crowds even in the much celebrated ‘Arab Spring’ too. See Talal Asad’s “Fear and the Ruptured State: Reflections on Egypt after Mubarak”. Social Research. 79(2): 271-98.
[iii] Le Bon, Gustave. 1896 [2001]. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Kitchener: Batoche Books.
[iv] Adorno, Theodor. 1982 [1952] “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum.
[v] The New York Times. Editorial. Silenced by Islamist Rage
[vi] Taussig, Michael. 1991. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago.  
[vii] Mbembe, Achille. 2016. ​“The Age of Humanism is Ending”. December 22. https://mg.co.za/article/2016-12-22-00-the-age-of-humanism-is-ending/Mishra, Pankaj. 2016. “Welcome to the Age of Anger”. December 8. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/dec/08/welcome-age-anger-brexit-trump
[viii] Curtis, Jennifer. 2017. “Disappearing Democracies”. May 3rdhttps://politicalandlegalanthro.org/2017/05/03/disappearing-democracies/
[ix] Hussain, Nasser. 2003. The Jurisprudence of Democracy. Ann Arbor: Michigan University.
[x] Mazarella, William. 2015. “TOTALITARIAN TEARS: Does the Crowd Really Mean It?”. Cultural Anthropology. 30(1): 91-112.


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