The Crowd

May 20th, 2006 Comments Off

I discovered a gem tonight in Gustave Le Bon’s classic 1895 study of crowds, La Psychologie des foules. “Civilisations as yet,” Le Bon writes, “have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

I like the tone of this. All fire and brimstone and presciently tapped into the mob psychology of the Facists. Such a welcome counterpoint to the current oh-the-masses-are-so-wise thinking that dominates the networked era.

Le Bon goes on, in his quaint 19th century French manner, to discuss Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and how Napoleon, though he possessed a “marvellous insight into the psychology of the masses of the country over which he reigned,” had somehow “completely misunderstood the psychology of crowds belonging to other races” (i.e. the Spanish). And then, in a witty footnote that would be comical were it not for its uncanny resonance with the present, Le Bon comments that Napoleon’s

most subtle advisers, moreover, did not understand this psychology any better. Talleyrand wrote him that “Spain would receive his soldiers as liberators.” It received them as beasts of prey.

Now, where I have heard that before? Soldiers greeted as liberators? Sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. And the second part, about being received as “beasts of prey”? Again, that vaguely seems hazily to be something foggily that is very nearly barely on the tip of my tongue. But I rack my brains and I can’t come up with it.

Le Bon continues in his footnote, “A psychologist acquainted with the hereditory insticts of the Spanish race would have easily foreseen this reception.” Le Bon frames in terms of instinct and race what is better understand in terms of culture and context: invaders are not liberators, occupiers are not liberators, and, when strategic natural resources are involved–whether it’s control of Atlantic shipping in the early 19th century or Mideast oil in the early 21st–the soldiers are indeed seen by the aggrieved crowds as beasts of prey.

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