Crowd Dynamics and the Mass Psychology of Possibility

"It was not a column but a mob, an awful river that filled the street – the people of the abyss, mad with drink and wrongs, up at last and roaring for the blood of their masters. I had seen the people of the abyss before, gone through their ghettos, and thought I knew them; but I found that I was now looking at them for the first time.

“This fascinating spectacle of dread surged past my vision in concrete waves of wrath, snarling and growling, carnivorous, drunk with whisky from pillaged warehouses, drunk with hatred, drunk with lust for blood – men, women and children in rags and tatters, dim ferocious intelligences with all the godlike blotted from their features and the fiendlike stamped in, apes and tigers, anemic consumptives and great hairy beasts of burden, wan faces from which vampire society had sucked the juice of life, bloated forms swollen with physical grossness and corruption, withered hags and death's-heads bearded like patriarchs, festering youth and festering age, crooked, twisted, misshapen monsters blasted with the ravages of disease and all the horrors chronic malnutrition – the refuse and the scum of life, a raging, screaming, screeching demoniacal horde."

-- Jack London [socialist, reformist, etc., etc.,], The Iron Heel

Crowd Dynamics and the Mass Psychology of Possibility

An account of spatial movement, an allegory of social movement.

A sociologist is an authority on crows like a policeman is an authority on people. - Bill Buford, Among the Thugs

If you go to experts to learn about crowds, you will read they are mindless monsters: people gone mad or returned to their primitive state, animals out of control, flocks of sheep that must be properly dominated lest they become packs of wolves. The rabble long to be roused, to be hypnotized by their own brute force, and that is all there is to it. Such crowd theory gives the impression that the theorists are simply apologists for their patrons' crowd control; the analysis is so one dimensional, the tone so superior, that you'd think the closest they ever came to the subject was in peering down from the high, narrow windows of their ivory towers.

And you'd almost be right. But in fact, they too are submerged in a crow: it is simply a bigger one, so much bigger that it is unrecognizable as one so long as the observer remains within it. The crowds they purport to explain are dissident microcosms of the same form; these can be identified as crowds only because they are distinct in some way from the colossal crowd that is the theorists' society. Inevitably, these smaller masses look crazed and irrational to the specialists of the status quo, because – for however brief a time – they are acting according to a dissenting sense of reality and value. So there are always at least two crowds in any equation: in the case of the mob that riots and loots a shopping district, for example, the other crowd is the one that built the shopping district, that owns the shops and organizes advertising campaigns to promote their wares, that takes it for granted that that space is best utilized for buying and selling. The fact that this dominant crowd is also a mob, only a more entrenched and institutionalized one, may only be apparent from outside it – for instance, from the perspective of one of the looters.

Reality itself is determined by consensus -- that is to say, by the crowds. What is possible, what is impossible: these are decided collectively, according to what people believe to be so. The world we inhabit is not made up merely of physical or sensory facts; these raw materials gain meaning as signs, tools, customs, and so on from their social context, and the resulting forest of signs is the greater part of what we mean when we say reality. It is these social conditions that create individuals, including the values that influence their choices; but, as these conditions are themselves the result of individual decisions, they only persist because people choose to reproduce them.

Why does this happen, then, in the case of notoriously unpopular social conditions such as war, pollution, and miserable employment? Generally, people make choices based on what they consider to be “realistic” rather than on what they desire, and what they consider realistic depends on what they believe others consider realistic – this is how the stock market works, for example. Thus, any given social order rests on a kind of mob mentality, a collective psychosis – and is by no means guaranteed to be in the best interests of those who comprise it.

When people do not recognize themselves as art of a crowd, but think of themselves only as sovereign individuals who just happen to speak, vote, shop, think and feel the same way thousands or millions of others do, they tend to see reality as fixed and undisputable. This is the first kind of crowd, the most primitive kind – a crowd that lacks awareness of its own existence. This sort of crowd is no less powerful than other kinds, but the power it has rarely does anyone any good, as it is never wielded consciously. Crowds of this type are characterized by an inability to question their own assumptions and a total denial of responsibility for their own actions; when eighty million television sets go on in unison at the end of the workday, that's an example of such a crowd in action.

The second kind of crowd is a crowd that is aware of its existence, but not its power. A good example of this is the mass of fans at a sports or entertainment event. People will go to great lengths to come together in such settings, to feel the excitement in the air when a great number share a common space and focus.* Let's not be coy about this: there is something thrilling about being part of a crowd, something fundamentally pleasurable about feeling your experiences and reactions mirrored in the ones around you. The disappointment many voice at low-turnout events indicates a common awareness that is the atmosphere generated by the mass, not the supposed main attraction, that makes such affairs interesting. Yet the members of such crowds do not think of themselves as the authors of the situation they create. It is their money, their attendance, their interest along that make these possible, but they attribute this power to others outside themselves – the organizers, the promoters, the Rolling Stones or Atlanta Braves.

But sports fans don't always limit themselves to buying tickets, shouting chants, and filing in and out of stadiums. Sometimes they get carried away. Every promoter who brings together a great crowd in order to sell them back their own togetherness runs the risk that some of his customers will take things too far and engage in some street sports of their own – football hooliganism, for example. The usual pundits decry this as barbaric, uncivilized behavior, but it is actually more cultured, more civilized, than mere spectatorship: these are people initiating their own activities, not just following instructions like automatons. Joining in large-scale street fights, provoking riots, and confrontations with police – these otherwise senseless activities give the participants the opportunity to form the third kind of crowd: the crowd that is aware of its own power to determine reality. This is the crowd as protagonist, as subject rather than object; the fact that people willingly join such violent, unpleasant activities is not just evidence of how screwed up they are, but also of how desperate they are to experience themselves other than passive vessels of commerce. Small wonder such misbehavior is contagious; once a crowd gains a sense of its ability to reinvent situations, peanuts and popcorn – even front row seats to somebody else's game – lose their luster. This is not to say that every renegade crowd is a good crowd – lynch mobs, are, after all, mobs – but only to point out how, in a society based on segregation and passivity, and self-generated, self-determined group activity is seductively subversive.

All the same, a crowd that has a sense of its own power is not necessarily liberating for those who form it. As a crowd, they made be free from the domination of other crowds, but this is no guarantee that any of them are free within the crowd. Individuals who know they are powerful together aren't always aware of the part each plays in creating that power, nor do the necessarily know how to join in deciding how it is applied.

Crowds are vulnerable to authority, to being controlled by minorities or outsiders, to the extent that each participant is unaware of how to employ his agency in the group. Conversely, a crowd is capable, flexible, and likely to act in the best interests of all its members to the exact degree that all within it are conscious of their own power and familiar with applying it.** The fourth kind of crowd, then, is the crowd made up of individuals who recognize that the crowd is nothing more than the sum of their individual choices, and make those choices accordingly For such a group, mass activity is a chance to share selfhood with others, for people to multiply themselves by one another – not a cover under which to abdicate responsibility.

The affinity group of political activists, in which decisions are made by consensus among a group of friends who not only have developed their conception of what is meaningful together but also are in the habit of acting on it decisively, is a microcosm of such a crowd. The do-it-yourself music counterculture, in which pleasure itself is refined and redefined through collaborative experiments in aesthetics that influence and inform one another, is a somewhat larger-scale version of the same thing. In such contexts, where reality is determined consciously and collectively, one's freedom is the sum of all others' freedom, not the narrow space left over in the margins.

Those who desire this freedom face the challenge of transforming crowd dynamics. Actual throngs are excellent laboratories for studying ways to do this. In close proximity, the processes by which people read and respond to one another speed up; thanks to this feedback loop, new realities can quickly be generated in the collective psyche. This is why guardians of the status quo always malign the mob:*** small, tight-knit crowds can be pressure cookers of social transformation. In our society, every effort is made to prevent people from coming together in masses, to prevent masses who have come together from recognizing themselves as masses, to prevent masses that recognize themselves as such from gaining a sense of power, and to prevent those who participate in masses that have a sense of power from recognizing their own individual part in this power. But all it takes to unleash the crowd is to name it for what it is and engage with it; we are, after all, living in the most crowded era in history.

A small group that behaves confidently as if they are living in a different world can call into question things everyone else takes for granted; if they take their departure far enough at the right time, they can render the impossible possible, by persuading others that it is so on the strength of their own conviction. This can be done without coercion or instruction: one need only demonstrate options with one's behavior that were invisible before, and others will join in if what they see is attractive to them. Thus the yearning of a very few can be taken up by a mass and become a self-fulfilling prophecy; all it takes is for a few dreamers to practice believing and desiring outside the lines while resisting the quarantine and pigeonholing, then publicly demonstrate those dreams and their faith in them.

* People in crowds types two and up tend to lose their borders – think of the audience packed tight at a concert. By contrast, people in type one crowds, who don't acknowledge that they form a crowd at all, tend to emphasize and reinforce the borders that separate them: imagine the same people packed tight on a city bus the following morning.

** This stands in stark contrast to the military model of group participation, in which each individual is systematically broken of his autonomy and independence so he can function more efficiently in a strict chain of command. The implication is that it is conformist, hierarchical unity that gives power to a group – but could it be that one of the primary purposes of armies is to strip power from their members, to create defenseless crowds under the pretense of defending them?

*** Just as they frame “minority groups” ''as groups'' in a way that downplays the agency of individuals that comprise them, authorities usually describe type four crowds as crowds (or cult groups, extremist sects, etc.) in order to obscure the enhanced liberties they can offer participants.

Text taken from Expect Resistance: A Field Manual, pubished by CrimethInc.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet