«Is the ‘mass’ a potential ‘mob rule’? Several new books attempt to delve deeper into what the ignorant, primitive, or enraged mass can signify, as suggested by titles such as The Madness of Crowds and others. Is there more to learn psychologically about the people, the majority, or the herd?
Eirik Høyer Leivestad’s new book Fear and Disgust in Democracy (Vagant) spans centuries as he traces the intellectual history of the masses. Plato concluded with horror that the majority was too susceptible to the seduction of demagogues. Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned in 1835 a ‘distorted thirst for equality […] which makes people prefer equality in slavery over inequality in freedom.’ Karl Marx referred to the intelligence of the masses manifested in revolutionary struggle, but according to Leivestad, also ‘the stupidity of the masses manifested in conservative reflexes.’
Baruch Spinoza wondered about ‘what could lead the masses to embrace undisguised tyrannies,’ a point that Leivestad repeatedly emphasises in the book. In 1670, Spinoza referred to the ‘passive affects’ of the masses, such as fear, hatred, anxiety, and vindictiveness. And in 1835, Stendhal wrote, ‘I cannot stand the mob, but under the name of the people, I am passionately engaged in the fight for their happiness.’
Today, it is probably more common to use the term ‘the people’ in the media rather than ‘the masses.’ But as Leivestad points out, ‘In reality, there is no such thing as the people; there are only ways of invoking the people.’ Or as Raymond Williams wrote, ‘In reality, there are no masses; there are only ways of regarding people as masses.’
Søren Kierkegaard referred to the so-called Almeen-Aanden as the mass, the anonymous ‘everyone and no one.’ Similarly, as represented by the newspaper Klassekampen, today’s left-wing claims to be the defenders of ‘the people.’ Kierkegaard called for the contradiction in the ‘individual,’ the individual who can preserve their subjective freedom despite a flattening public sphere and popular conformity pressures.
The Psychology of the Masses
One of the lectures I attended as a philosophy student in New York City was led by a lawyer, where ‘civilization’ was put on trial and challenged by Nietzsche and Freud – revolution or reform. Nietzsche argued for a revaluation of all values, God was dead, and humans were left to themselves without metaphysical grand narratives. Freud argued that Eros is a force that leads to community, but at the same time, drives and life forces were ‘civilized’ – resulting in suppressed aggression and increasing guilt. The smouldering discomfort in culture was a pressure cooker. As a judge, ask yourself if you can judge in such a trial – democratic reforms for the entire population through psychoanalysis or unleash the ‘revolutionary’ minority of the talented in a «Nietzschean meritocracy?
Leivestad’s ‘Fear and Disgust’ refers to Sigmund Freud 22 times, including his Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (1921) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Let me supplement this with the recently published social theory of Freud by Atle Møen (Spartacus Forlag). He writes that Freud was inspired «to understand the formation of the ‘mass’ as a form of narcissistic identification.» One willingly replaces their ego or subject with an idealisation, an emotional bond to a charismatic leader or guide. I think of Nazi Germany’s initially civilised people when Møen states, «in the mass, people can become barbarians driven by the primitive instincts in the unconscious.» He mentions with Freud: «The mass needs illusions rather than truth, and just like in children, neurotics, and primitive people, the psychic realities are far more important than the actual realities.»
Freud’s Oedipal theory of killing one’s father to gain a mother’s love also applies to society. In Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1912), the prohibition is ritually broken, where the totem represents the father figure in a metaphorical sense – the symbolic order. But when the enraged mass, people, or crowd joyfully tear down the established order in a manic uprising, often follows something sorrowful and melancholic as the stability dissolves.
Møen also draws on French thinkers like Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari (Anti-Oedipus, 1980). Psychologically interesting is how peaceful order is achieved within a nation by creating external enemies to direct the dissatisfaction and hatred of the masses. As Freud wrote in 1915 in Instincts and Their Vicissitudes, the First World War was «also a demonstration that love for one’s own compatriots was strengthened by a tremendous hatred for people from other nations.» Muslims or Russia? And isn’t anger and fear towards the «refugee wave» also fueled by such questionable psychology?
The discomfort in culture is rather that democracy does not truly function.
The majority of psychologically impoverished individuals thus overlook their own psychological deficiencies and find objects or individuals of hatred that divert their own powerlessness and inadequacy. Møen adds that «the desymbolisation of the subject, this creation of a flat and empty subject, can be studied from various angles. For example, the narrative construction of the subject is replaced by intense visual images in TV and the entertainment industry.»
Does the majority allow themselves to be deceived? With Leivestad’s citation of Jean Baudrillard, it is rather a hypocritical hypothesis that the masses are «deceived» – since most people do not «spontaneously yearn for the natural enlightenment of reason.» Both the elite and the masses engage in manipulation – the power and tyranny of the majority can be intoxicating, as demonstrated by Trump and the mass of 70 million people. Hannah Arendt, long ago, pointed out such traits in her studies of totalitarianism.
What about populism as a successor to the masses? The Norwegian philosophical journal Agora published two enormous issues last autumn, each over 600 pages long, on populism and neoliberalism (featuring Michel Foucault). In the essay Whatever It Takes. Climate Populism and Democracy at the End of the World by Andreas H. Hvidsten, three populist characteristics of climate activism are pointed out: «It is critical of the elite, it speaks on behalf of the ‘people,’ and it has little patience for ordinary party politics.» Climate populism faces an «ideological choice between reform and revolution.»
Hvidsten also points out that in the 2017 parliamentary election, only a minority of voters considered the environment the most important issue – 20 percent. Even though green technologies such as solar energy can meet the planet’s energy needs, the majority of democracy’s citizens often do not act in accordance with what the minority (environmentally conscious) deems reasonable. Instead, the majority emotionally vote for their privileges, consumption, and job security.
And here lies the point of this editorial. The discomfort in culture is rather that democracy does not truly function. What about the minority of ecologically and psychologically conscious individuals, the minority of rational, talented, experienced, or creative individuals? Nietzsche’s unpopular concept of the «overman» is more akin to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’ philosophy of «the Other» – a person who extends themselves beyond their immediate self in a solidarity that is autonomously rational in a Kantian or Freudian sense. They give more than they take. The moneyed elite and the masses act in the opposite manner – they both require a leader and an ethnic myth about themselves as the «people.»
Instead of an intoxicating «grand us», some of us prefer «the small us.»