A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Delight to Be a Victim

heroic failure

Fintan o’Toole: Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain. ISBN 978-1789540987⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Now that Theresa May has failed to secure a majority for Brexit plan A, it begins to show that neither the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn nor May herself have a plan B. Actually, there shouldn’t even have been a plan A. The initiators of the 2016 referendum never meant it to succeed. They wanted to shake up the political establishment, but not to ruin their country by pushing it out of the European Union. Fintan o’Toole, an Irish historian, literature critic and columnist, has written a well-researched, well-articulated analysis of the British, or rather the English, psyche that led to the disgraceful spectacle we have observed over the past two years.

As my desperation has been nurtured over the past two years by the many lies told by Brexiteers to their unsuspecting victims, the British voters, I take the unusual step of wrapping a review of this interesting and irritating book in two distinct personal letters. My frustration has to be vented, and this is the place to do it!

Dear Brexiteers,

I know you are busy toppling your government and polarizing your country even further, so I will be brief and not detract your attention from serving your country. About Brexit – I wish you to leave the EU as fast as you can. Preferably without a deal. Because I want you to fall flat on your face. I want you to feel the heat of competition under WTO rules, the burden of bankruptcy of your inefficient economy, the dead weight of a dysfunctional public administration and the shame triggered by derelict infrastructure no longer funded by Brussels. I WANT YOU TO FEEL PAIN! ENORMOUS, UNBEARABLE PAIN.

Fintan o’Toole’s book pushed my anger at British politics at a new level. The book’s general idea is easy to understand. Emotionally, the UK has not overcome the fact that victory in World War II did not lead to prosperity and international prestige, but translated into economic hardship, the dissolution of the empire and a relative decline in global importance. I perfectly understand that this amounted to a huge disappointment. However the psychological trick that UK politicians used to deny this fact and to compensate this feeling of loss is appalling: self-pity.

The UK apparently feels best when it’s beleaguered, but once the enemy is vanquished, heroism has lost its purpose. O’Toole shows that politicians looked for a new villain that a) could be used as a scapegoat for all that went wrong (Thatcherism, the Falkland War etc.) and b) that could make Britons rally around the Union Jack. The EU was perfectly suited for both. Self-pity went viral through the endless repetition of “It’s all Brussels fault” and “Germany still is the enemy, only now it sails under the European flag.” If you marry self-pity with auto-suggestion, you end up with Brexit, hard or soft, depending on the size of your ego.

Why did all this work? O’Toole speaks of a perfect cycle of self-pity and self-love. “We deserve to be loved, but we are hated because we are so wonderful”, he says. British logic? British humour? The lack of recognition has over decades been sublimed and transformed into political masochism. “The political erotics of imaginary domination [by the EU] and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit drama”, o’Toole writes. The pleasure to be a victim, the delightful feeling to be exempted from any responsibility, has become the goal of British politics. The EU’s function is “to be a more insidious form of Nazism”. O’Toole presents a horrifying analysis here, but I suspect it comes very close to the truth. You relish pain? You’ll get pain. Plenty of it.

Dear Remainers,

I wish you a lot of courage. The less enlightened part of your journalists and politicians has condemned you to spend blood, sweat and tears, and is far from certain that your coming sacrifices will ever be rewarded. These people have left the path of rationalism long ago, they discard the empirically verified for day-dreams and wishful-thinking as Fintan o’Toole shows with many examples at hand. Since those politicians have been democratically elected, there’s little to be done about that, as long as a majority of British voters prefer lies to truth. We, the European people, will offer you exile anytime, but unfortunately the United Kingdom can only be saved by its own people. That’s you.

O’Toole puts forward an interesting fact that should be considered by all Remainers. He reflects the improbable alliance between two social classes, far apart one from each other, that support Brexit: parts of the working class and parts of the upper class. As a binding agent he sees “the sheer joy of being able to fuck everything up.” It’s stupid to break stuff, but let’s do it anyway, just for fun. And never mind the consequences, says the political punk Boris Johnson. A little bit of “Dunkirk Spirit” and British improvisation will do miracles.

If this is the spirit of the Brexiteers, Remainers must acknowledge that the next generation will have to pay for the fun that old, bored, rich, white men like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have right now. This a point women are sensible to. They don’t want the future of their children being gambled away for the thrill of a former stock broker like Farage. Brexit is about emotions, o’Toole says. On both sides. Right. So let’s use emotions like the Brexiteers do. There are only 32 million men compared to 33 million women in the UK. That gives women a real majority. Use it! It may be too late to stop Brexit, but it’s not too late to shape a post-Brexit future limiting the damage Brexit will do.

Unless a miracle happens between today and March 23, the UK will hit a wall at full speed abd finally wake up and acknowledge the realities of the 21st century. Economically, it is of marginal importance, compared to heavy-weights like the China, India, the US and the European Union. As for its political and military potency, let’s not talk about it. The EU Council fares better without constant British interfering, and the UK’s nuclear weapons are just as obsolete as the British pound. Past sacrifices on Europe’s battlefields will not be forgotten, but the United Kingdom itself has made them irrelevant by not embedding them in a narrative of a sustainable European peace and prosperity after the war. Britons fought for Europe from 1940 to 1945, yet they fought against Europe almost since the German capitulation.

And before you get me wrong: The EU botched up a lot of things, as o’Toole underlines. But Brexit is going to make the situation worse, especially for the UK. Many on this side of the Channel are sick of trying to convince Britons that, on the long run, cooperation is better than confrontation for both sides. Dear friends, for you will remain friends, you can fight now with Russia, China and President Trump on your own. Soon, you will be alone. Good luck and good-bye.

Am I angry? You bet. What about music? I’ll settle for something violent and cruel tonight: Aribert Reimann’s opera “Lear”:

Lear – You are men of stone

Living in an uncertain world


Zygmunt Baumann: Liquid Times. Living in an Age of Uncertainty.
ISBN: 978-0-745-63987-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A modern day prophet explains why we feel uneasy in a globalized world, how we became disconnected from our neighbours and what shapes our existential fears. A thoughtful book, very appropriate in a time marked by “alternate facts”, delusional politicians, racism and simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Laure Mandeville: Qui est vraiment Donald Trump? ISBN 978-2-84990-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Short and to the point. A portray of the 45th US president and the Unites States at a historical landmark.

Arlie R. Hochschild: Strangers in their own land. ISBN 978-1-62097-225-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Climbing the empathy wall to see how people in the red states of the US feel about past, present, future and why Trump’s message appeals to them – a fascinating, frightening journey.

The ascendance of a populist like Donald Trump, the United Kingdom set to leave the EU, Turkey betraying its modern history – western societies face widespread discontent with the current state of political affairs. The contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian has written an interesting piece that came to my mind while I contemplated a world that seems to fall apart:

Before and after#Brexit