Review- Le Bon, “The Crowd”

Gustave Le Bon, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (1895) (translated from the French by unknown) – Crowds act differently from individuals… is this a controversial statement? I’d be willing to entertain a challenge to the premise but from where I sit currently it seems pretty indisputable that something or other happens to people when they get in a united group. I’ve experienced it myself; though I don’t think my crowd-self and my alone-self are all that different, I do feel differently in a crowd than when I am alone.

In the midst of the great global freakout about the lower orders of society that arose in the late nineteenth century, French psychologist Gustave Le Bon decided to figure out what made crowds distinctive. Le Bon was a conservative social critic along with being a doctor and psychologist, and this is more of a work of social criticism (though “scientifically” based, in its own terms) rather than a work of science. Le Bon conducted no study of anything other than his own observations of crowds in Paris (including during the Commune) and reading about them in history. This isn’t all that different from a lot of social science at the time.

Like many figures of the big reactionary freakout of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Le Bon was fixated on concepts of degeneration. In his view, the crowd is a degenerate, a throwback to “primitive” man (or contemporary woman- women being less advanced than men in his hierarchy). It is less intelligent, less capable of using reason, more emotional, more volatile. Le Bon stresses this can sometimes be used for good — that a crowd is braver than an individual, like “primitives” supposedly were braver than “civilized” men — but in general, crowds were inimical to civilizing influences. He claimed it took decades for ideas to seep into the head of the crowd, which I guess is one way of explaining how the French crowds of the revolutionary period got quite excited about elaborate Enlightenment theory, the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect a “primitive” body to get.

Le Bon claims various things, like the race of a crowd (Latins being more hot-blooded than Anglos and other stereotypes) or what it was assembled for, can influence how a crowd behaves. Leaders can influence crowds, at least temporarily, through the right kind of words and symbols (simple, repetitive ones). But by and large, crowds and their traits are a constant throughout history, in Le Bon’s telling, only now we can’t control them, due to democracy, and things look due to get worse, due to socialism. One of his more interesting claims is that if democracy had existed before the industrial revolution, the latter would never have gotten off the ground- crowd democracy wouldn’t allow it.

Le Bon didn’t really offer any ways out. Various of his readers, which definitely included the fascists and might have included Lenin (I’ve seen the latter claimed but never verified), could argue they were regenerating civilization by creating and embodying ideals that could channel people to more constructive ends. Liberal and conservative critics took Le Bon and his ideas seriously in the early twentieth century, and arguably won out in the battle over “the crowd” by a strategy of neutralization. From the noble goals of education reformers (Le Bon pooh-poohed education as an influence, a major oversight on his part) to the grubbier ends of marketers, a lot of public discourse in the liberal democracies over the last century has been about individuating subjects, preventing them from becoming the sort of crowd Le Bon and his readers envisioned. Sometimes, this backfires- see any Black Friday. But by and large, capitalism has succeeded in short-circuiting the crowd by appealing to the individual, though it had to survive two world wars motivated by crowd psychology (if you buy that kind of thing) to do it. Civilization saved, I guess? That’s certainly what a Walter Lippmann (who I will be reading in this space) would say. I’m less sure. I think we might need our ability to crowd up back… and we might just be getting it. Time will tell. **

Review- Le Bon, “The Crowd”

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