(1895) Gustave Le Bon and Mob Psychology

  • opinion

While discussing cooperation with Marco Velicogna on what the law means in our COVID-pandemic times for political stability in jurisdictions he mentioned work by Gustave Le Bon on crowd psychology as worthwhile. As this was news to me I began some form of acquaintance by finding his book (1895) on crowds at Gutenberg. I further found a book (1975) by Robert A. Nye on Le Bon and the crisis of mass democracy in the third Republic and an article called Donald Trump and the Myth of Mobocracy that Robert Zaretsky wrote on Gustave Le Bon in The Atlantic, in July 2016, on the occasion of the Republican convention,

Work by Le Bon evokes mixed feelings. According to Wikipedia The Crowd has been read by and has influenced not only Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, yet also Freud, Park and Bernays. I give a citation from the Zaretsky article to illustrate the reason for the mixed feelings. Later I will argue (citing Le Bon himself) why I accept Marco’s suggestion to use LeBon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind as a key publication for our project. First Zaretsky:

[…] These ideas, he drily observed, circulate inside crowds just as microbes do inside a human body, infecting all within their reach. Against this new strain of microbes, the tools of reason and analysis offer only the flimsiest of defenses, Le Bon wrote. […] The consequences of this contagion, as Le Bon described it, are catastrophic—something like a French remake of Max Brooks’s World War Z. If not quite the walking dead, the infected individuals in Le Bon’s schema are reduced to beasts. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd,” Le Bon warned, “a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct.” […]

[…] Time and again, a strong leader who praises acts of violence and scorns the rule of law has galvanized the crowds. “I am your voice,” Trump announced in Cleveland—a voice, it seems, that can meld the many into one, and people into a mob.These same trends, however, also lead back to late 19th-century France. In fact, the “crowd”—the concept, more so than the reality—was born in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fittingly, 2016 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Gustave Le Bon, the French polymath who popularized this durable and dire idea. A prolific author, Le Bon is now known for authoring The Psychology of Crowds, a best-selling book whose quiet influence stretches to the present day. It is a work that, partly because it got so much wrong about the nature of crowds, reveals much about the age of Le Donald, no less than the age of Le Bon. In both cases, it appears, the fascination and fear of crowds obscures their reality and reach […] Despite the correctives offered by social scientists, however, Le Bon’s vision remains very powerful. In part, this is because at times it does reveal telling traits to both crowds and those who seek to lead them. Yet, Le Bon’s vision also persists because it reveals truths about our own fears and resistances.

Those of us who identify with America’s humane and liberal traditions are rightly horrified by Trump’s racist, violent worldview. But, ironically, Democrats risk committing the very same error that Trump has made his stock in trade: seeing his supporters in terms of abstractions, not particulars; groups, not individuals […]

Today, in 2021, on the 25th of February I have the privilege of hindsight where Trump’s (first?) presidential term is concerned, including the way it ended in a crowd besieging and taking the US Capitol and an unsuccessful impeachment trial by the combined houses of representatives and senators congregating in partisan crowd behaviors. Considering these events I am of the opinion that a significant part of conceptualizations by Le Bon is uncannily well suited to describe and help at least partially understand the machinery and the forces that work in and on crowds, also in and on political crowds and thus – I hope – also in and on political crowds forming around collective COVID-pandemic behavioral options.

Nevertheless, Zaretsky’s argument must be taken seriously. After all some truly dangerous and successful populist politicians have adopted the imagery proposed by Le Bon. And, what Zaretsky puts forward makes sense: since the assumption of gross stupidity and cruelty of crowds could displace the intelligence and autonomous responsibilities of the individuals who make them up, that assumption can be seen as an abstraction that can not only be used to describe and analyze but also ignite social divides. My problem with Zaretsky’s argument is that viewing crowds as agents (which is what Le Bon does and what Zaretsky considers an error) invites the vocabulary that can help analyze mob behavior better than denying its existence. That vocabulary is suspect because it has been misused in some malicious social evolution theories. It is time, I think, to investigate whether and how it could be better used to simulate group behavior in toy jurisdictions under COVID-19 pressure.

Below I copy the introduction by Le Bon to his book on crowds. I may use parts of it later because it pre-senses Santa Fe-like complexity theories in several places.

The following work is devoted to an account of the characteristics of crowds.

The whole of the common characteristics with which heredity endows the individuals of a race constitute the genius of the race. When, however, a certain number of these individuals are gathered together in a crowd for purposes of action, observation proves that, from the mere fact of their being assembled, there result certain new psychological characteristics, which are added to the racial characteristics and differ from them at times to a very considerable degree.

Organised crowds have always played an important part in the life of peoples, but this part has never been of such moment as at present. The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.

I have endeavoured to examine the difficult problem presented by crowds in a purely scientific manner–that is, by making an effort to proceed with method, and without being influenced by opinions, theories, and doctrines. This, I believe, is the only mode of arriving at the discovery of some few particles of truth, especially when dealing, as is the case here, with a question that is the subject of impassioned controversy. A man of science bent on verifying a phenomenon is not called upon to concern himself with the interests his verifications may hurt. In a recent publication an eminent thinker, M. Goblet d’Alviela, made the remark that, belonging to none of the contemporary schools, I am occasionally found in opposition of sundry of the conclusions of all of them. I hope this new work will merit a similar observation. To belong to a school is necessarily to espouse its prejudices and preconceived opinions.

Still I should explain to the reader why he will find me draw conclusions from my investigations which it might be thought at first sight they do not bear; why, for instance, after noting the extreme mental inferiority of crowds, picked assemblies included, I yet affirm it would be dangerous to meddle with their organisation, notwithstanding this inferiority.

The reason is, that the most attentive observation of the facts of history has invariably demonstrated to me that social organisms being every whit as complicated as those of all beings, it is in no wise in our power to force them to undergo on a sudden far-reaching transformations. Nature has recourse at times to radical measures, but never after our fashion, which explains how it is that nothing is more fatal to a people than the mania for great reforms, however excellent these reforms may appear theoretically. They would only be useful were it possible to change instantaneously the genius of nations. This power, however, is only possessed by time. Men are ruled by ideas, sentiments, and customs–matters which are of the essence of ourselves. Institutions and laws are the outward manifestation of our character, the expression of its needs. Being its outcome, institutions and laws cannot change this character.

The study of social phenomena cannot be separated from that of the peoples among whom they have come into existence. From the philosophic point of view these phenomena may have an absolute value; in practice they have only a relative value.

It is necessary, in consequence, when studying a social phenomenon, to consider it successively under two very different aspects. It will then be seen that the teachings of pure reason are very often contrary to those of practical reason. There are scarcely any data, even physical, to which this distinction is not applicable. From the point of view of absolute truth a cube or a circle are invariable geometrical figures, rigorously defined by certain formulas. From the point of view of the impression they make on our eye these geometrical figures may assume very varied shapes. By perspective the cube may be transformed into a pyramid or a square, the circle into an ellipse or a straight line. Moreover, the consideration of these fictitious shapes is far more important than that of the real shapes, for it is they and they alone that we see and that can be reproduced by photography or in pictures. In certain cases there is more truth in the unreal than in the real. To present objects with their exact geometrical forms would be to distort nature and render it unrecognisable. If we imagine a world whose inhabitants could only copy or photograph objects, but were unable to touch them, it would be very difficult for such persons to attain to an exact idea of their form. Moreover, the knowledge of this form, accessible only to a small number of learned men, would present but a very minor interest.

The philosopher who studies social phenomena should bear in mind that side by side with their theoretical value they possess a practical value, and that this latter, so far as the evolution of civilisation is concerned, is alone of importance. The recognition of this fact should render him very circumspect with regard to the conclusions that logic would seem at first to enforce upon him.

There are other motives that dictate to him a like reserve. The complexity of social facts is such, that it is impossible to grasp them as a whole and to foresee the effects of their reciprocal influence. It seems, too, that behind the visible facts are hidden at times thousands of invisible causes. Visible social phenomena appear to be the result of an immense, unconscious working, that as a rule is beyond the reach of our analysis. Perceptible phenomena may be compared to the waves, which are the expression on the surface of the ocean of deep-lying disturbances of which we know nothing. So far as the majority of their acts are considered, crowds display a singularly inferior mentality; yet there are other acts in which they appear to be guided by those mysterious forces which the ancients denominated destiny, nature, or providence, which we call the voices of the dead, and whose power it is impossible to overlook, although we ignore their essence. It would seem, at times, as if there were latent forces in the inner being of nations which serve to guide them. What, for instance, can be more complicated, more logical, more marvellous than a language? Yet whence can this admirably organised production have arisen, except it be the outcome of the unconscious genius of crowds? The most learned academics, the most esteemed grammarians can do no more than note down the laws that govern languages; they would be utterly incapable of creating them. Even with respect to the ideas of great men are we certain that they are exclusively the offspring of their brains? No doubt such ideas are always created by solitary minds, but is it not the genius of crowds that has furnished the thousands of grains of dust forming the soil in which they have sprung up?

Crowds, doubtless, are always unconscious, but this very unconsciousness is perhaps one of the secrets of their strength. In the natural world beings exclusively governed by instinct accomplish acts whose marvellous complexity astounds us. Reason is an attribute of humanity of too recent date and still too imperfect to reveal to us the laws of the unconscious, and still more to take its place. The part played by the unconscious in all our acts is immense, and that played by reason very small. The unconscious acts like a force still unknown.

If we wish, then, to remain within the narrow but safe limits within which science can attain to knowledge, and not to wander in the domain of vague conjecture and vain hypothesis, all we must do is simply to take note of such phenomena as are accessible to us, and confine ourselves to their consideration. Every conclusion drawn from our observation is, as a rule, premature, for behind the phenomena which we see clearly are other phenomena that we see indistinctly, and perhaps behind these latter, yet others which we do not see at all.