On this May Day I want to link you to a book (online) that I’m putting out there as a symbol of Library Juice’s opposition within librarianship and the blogosphere: Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. This book, originally published in 1896, was an important early work in social psychology, and established in a fairly scientific way that people become irrational in a crowd.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed (and other important journalistic books and essays about how workers get the shaft in American society), came out with a book last year about crowds, about her love of crowds as a site of joy and protest: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. I have to admit to feeling a bit chilled when I read about it, and a bit alienated from certain Left traditions of public protest (I prefer the traditions of literature, voting, protest songs, and organized, nonviolent civil disobedience). To me, the word “crowd” brings to mind an angry mob in front of the house of the lone liberal in the village, with torches, ready to kill him because they don’t understand him. (He could be a liberal, a Jew, an unbeliever, a scientist, or left-handed.) And to me, the psychology of crowds is what has led to history’s unspeakable genocides (including the present one). And let’s not forget lynchings. I do not trust crowds.

I don’t trust crowds, because I think crowd psychology leads to irrationality and violence, and turns otherwise suppressed fears and superstitions into mass action. I think that in order to protect society from the madness of crowds (the phrase is part of the title of another early book on mass psychology: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay) we need to cultivate and encourage individual critical thought and the development of the individual mind, and as a part of that, to encourage opposition. So, based on that foundation I am suspicious and wary of certain popular trends: cooperative user-generated content or the collaborative side of Web 2.0, and the emphasis on group work in higher education, both of which (in my view) de-emphasize and undervalue critical individual thought. It is the same reason that I think the transition from print culture to television culture, as described by Marshall McLuhan, has a lot about it that should make us all worried.

That’s my very contrary May Day declaration, which I offer to clarify a bit about where I am coming from.

I’d like to tag Kathleen de la Peña McCook for comments…

13 comments on “Crowds

  1. While I agree that individual thought it paramount, I’m sold on the relevancy aspect of user generated content.

    Take Social Bookmarking, for example: if two people bookmark an article or post it may not seem valuable. But if 200 people bookmark that same page it becomes more weighted. Personally, I’ll give more credibility to the article that’s bookmarked heavily to one the same subject that’s not.

  2. Take a look at the online books I’ve taking the occasion to link to. What they say is exactly why I disagree with you. When 200 people agree about something it’s often wrong; it’s often simply the conformist force of agreement that makes them agree. I tend to disregard the popularity of a thing where I’m psychologically on top of the effect. It might bring something to my attention, but I try not to let it affect my judgment, precisely because I don’t want to be affected by the “crowd mind.”

  3. Rory, Can critical individual thought highlight a member of the crowd? I’ll definitely take a look at those titles, thanks for expanding my thinking on this.

  4. I would suggest E. P. Thompson’s
    “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”
    Past and Present, No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136

  5. Thanks, Jonathan

    If your point is that sometimes a riot can have good reasons behind it and lead to good outcomes, I’m afraid I’m not very reassured.

  6. I own but have not yet read…

    The Revolt of the Masses (Paperback)
    by Jose Ortega y Gasset (Author)
    # Paperback: 192 pages
    # Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 1994)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN-10: 0393310957
    # ISBN-13: 978-0393310955

    …A problematic book, but the customer reviews on Amazon right now make for a fascinating read in and of themselves, too.

    It’s a complex topic, especially for those of us on the Left, worthy of a full lengthy essay rather than a brief blog comment…the Right has a much simpler task in this kind of analysis and critique.

    Lastly, for Friday, a little “high weirdness” on the topic of “The Madness of Crowds”:

  7. If they find it simpler to deal with this on the Right it’s only because they’re not honest about what’s going on. They may be more comfortable talking about crowds in this way but they certainly make use of them, and I don’t think there could be any reactionary movements without reactionary crowds.

  8. I think that Thompson’s point was that a “crowd” cannot be understood outside of its own particular social, political and economic contexts. What may at first seem like an irrational mob may in fact be motivated by specific, rational goals. It is not really question of “good” or “bad” outcomes or motivations.

    As noted earlier, a through discussion of crowds would necessitate a more than a short blog comment.

    A few thoughts:

    – To some degree, all collective forms have crowd like elements. To me it seems to be a question of participatory democratic structure. In my opinion, crowds at their best can embody a participatory public sphere. They can be a space where all those who are so inclined may debate and share their perspectives. Elite democratic theorists (such as Walter Lippmann) see the public as an irrational herd (or crowd) that needs be manipulated in order to guarantee the smooth operation of democratic societies. What you seem to have in mind is an unthinking mob without a self-critical, participatory character.

    – It seems to me that you are invoking a classical liberal understanding of freedom. This emphasizes “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to.” The cultivation of the individual mind is important, but it is impossible for ideas to develop into social knowledge without public participation. The enraged mob attacks the scientist when scientific knowledge claims are generated in a social vacuum and are not seen as being beneficial to most members of that society.

  9. Hi, Jonathan.

    I think my response might be predictable. Kathleen McCook had a similar response to yours on her own blog, so this can serve as a response to her, too.

    I don’t think public participation is the same as group-think, and doesn’t automatically create the irrationality of a crowd. And I don’t think independent thought implies thinking in a vacuum and not being engaged or participating. Ideally, people should participate democratically, and debate, but should guard against well known and well understood psychological pressures that come from being a part of a group, especially a physical group in an emotional setting.

    Let me give you the example that is actually preoccupying me at the moment: European anti-semitism and the European holocaust. German society, in my view, could have and should have avoided the crowd mentality that led from anti-semitic thoughts to genocide. To avoid it would have required more people democratically participating by speaking out as individuals, by putting themselves at variance from the crowd with some degree of risk. There were people who did that, but too few. They were certainly participating publicly, and they were certainly speaking up as independently thinking individuals. The crowd mentality that one out was not an example of democracy. In this instance, at least, democracy would have required more independent voices, more people who were willing to risk being alone in some situations.

    I can admit that I have some sympathy for Lippmann, but what I am saying is not what he said. I don’t want anyone to take me as rejecting democracy or rejecting the working class. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m only trying to talk about certain dynamics, dynamics which in the end run counter to democracy, even though these dynamics manifest in “the voice of the people” (necessarily in quotes for me, because we are talking about a process involving psychological manipulation).

  10. But there are just as many examples of crowds that make a difference…the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention and the marches against the war on Vietnam.
    Once we demonstrated (in Madison,Wisconsin) against a judge who insisted a 14 year old was raped because she was dressed too provocatively–he was recalled.
    Public action combined with thoughtful polemic is necessary when those in charge go wrong.
    Do you get paid sick days?
    Thank the union.Thank the people who walked picket so this became the norm.

  11. I thank the union but I like to think they did what they did because they thought about it carefully, not because they were led to it like sheep, with mass psychology. I like to think the same thing about Vietnam protesters, that they did what they did because they thought about it carefully, not because they were conformists (though undoubtedly some of them were).

    How exactly were the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention an example of a crowd producing positive change, anyway? I think it’s more of an example of what I’m saying. The people there had ideas that would have been put to better use in other ways. The result was violence accomplishing… what?

    But to reiterate, for Jonathan and especially Kathleen, when I talk about crowds I am not talking about The People, as you seem to think I am. I am talking about something that can happen among people, whatever their class. For my own part, if you’re taking me as an elitist in standing apart from the crowd, think of me as a Jew instead. In terms of my own history to the extent that it gives me my perspective, that is where I’m coming from.

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