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”: