Anna Aizman

Crowd Theory


Introduction to Crowd Theory

Theories of the modern crowd were born in the minds of people like Gustave Le Bon, 19th century sociologists who were interested primarily in methods to sap, seize, or otherwise manipulate its insurrectionary potential. The crowd undergoes three phases in Le Bon’s theory—“submergence,” “contagion,” and “suggestion”—during which individual members lose their humanity and become subject to hypnosis. For this reason, Italian criminologist Scipio Sighele favored mass punishment for public disorder. And although the French criminal psychologist Gabriel Tarde debated with Sighele about the possibility of mass guilt, he agreed fundamentally that individual thinking degrades within a crowd. Tarde described a “group mind” that invades the thoughts of individuals within a crowd; and Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, declared “the mass as such is undifferentiated” (Frisby 2002). And finally, Edward Ross, a eugenicist and one of the most influential American sociologists of the Progressive Era, declared that “city-bred populations are liable to be hysterical, and to be hysterical is to be suggestible” (1908). In a word, modernist crowd theory agreed that crowds are fundamentally irrational. Crowd theory is now relegated to the margins of sociology, psychology, criminology—in fact, some scholars claim that we have moved beyond the era of crowds. However crowd theory has proven to be a highly useful tool for contemporary Western governments that share its basic assumptions: the crowd requires control because it threatens the individual (Broch 2013). Le Bon’s remark that “by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization” (Le Bon 1896) may be shared today in less flowery terms by a street cop. Throughout the Occupy protests, the Boston Police Union’s newsletter featured a running commentary on the activists of Dewey Square: “They see a free meal and a dumb-liberal sucker offering something-for-nothing, and they’re going to take full advantage, just like a seagull or a pigeon.”

How, according to Le Bon and the cop, does the crowd’s irrationality threaten the individual? By threatening the boundaries that make individuation possible, including personal space and property and self-determination.

Enter Canetti

Many radical thinkers have proposed challenges to these ideas, but none as strange and innovative as those of Elias Canetti in his 1960 opus, Crowds and Power.

First, according to Canetti, human beings want a respite from individuation. Second, a crowd achieves its apex when it releases (“discharges”) people from the structures that regulate and individuate them. Third, because crowds constantly shift character, they enable transformations in the people who take part in them. Crowds, then, threaten power because they protect the individual from what Canetti has called the “stings” of authority’s command.

If you find yourself longing for collective liberation from the wounds of a hierarchical social order, perhaps you are an anarchist. Canetti, at least, might have been. His fundamental argument here echoes Bakunin: “The individual, his freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not vice versa: society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the higher, the more fully the individual is developed, the greater his freedom—and the more he is the product of society, the more does he receive from society and the greater his debt to it.” In other words, the crowd produces the individual.

It takes Canetti two decades to write Crowds and Power. He catalogues dozens of different types of crowds, and also the world history of crowds, and also the mechanics of crowd formations. It is not exactly a scholarly work; Crowds and Power reads like the ramblings of an intellectual who has been institutionalized. I should mention that Canetti wins the Nobel Prize “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power,” but that broad outlook is misinterpreted even by the presenter of the Nobel Prize, who thinks that Canetti’s main contribution is his “attack on the sick tendencies of our age.”1

The Sick Tendencies of Our Age

Although Canetti is fascinated with ethnographical crowd horrors, for him the “sick tendencies of our age” do not lie in crowd-being. This is a common misinterpretation of Canetti’s work, whose readers must see it through the lens of the irrational crowd.

For Canetti, crowds are the social formation that heals us. Crowds liberate us from the fear of being touched. They also remove commands. We are wounded into obedience by the stings we receive as individuals from the various social hierarchies in which we are entangled. But when we are disorganized, when we are a crowd, our stings dissolve and we attain the potential of transforming into a “reversal crowd” that can defeat its oppressors.

However, this little ray of light is practically buried in Canetti’s encyclopedia of crowd horrors. The social formation capable of bringing about a regime change is deeply frightening and morbidly fascinating in Crowds and Power.

Crowd Movement and Action

For Canetti, crowds are not who they are but what they do—not identities but actions. A crowd that exits the theater is a separate species from the crowd that sits in the theater. The former is an open crowd, with the potential to transform in size depending on its actions; the latter is a closed crowd, whose hunger for participants cannot be satiated. But regardless of its actions “the crowd never feels saturated. It remains hungry as long as there is one human being it has not reached” (Canetti 1984). Crowd actions, then, are motivated by a fundamentally insatiable hunger – an ambivalent, troubling notion.

Crowds are conditional and unstable, but they all have four main attributes by which we can judge their species: a desire for growth (which exists even in crowds that cannot grow, such as packs), the equality of every participant, the affinity for density, and the goal/direction. Furthermore, there are several crowd processes: the sudden eruption of activity, the emotional discharge that levels hierarchies, the crowd’s destructiveness, and pursuit or persecution of victims. According to Canetti, these processes also produce events in the course of human history. Thus the “modern crowd” is not a historical anomaly but an evolved organism.

History as Crowd Psychology

Human crowds originate in packs. Packs, too, exist in several kinds, but they have been surpassed in modern society by population growth. We sometimes long for pack life, says Canetti. Isolated in packs, we would abide by our own “lynch law”—a network of horizontal stings by which we would govern ourselves. Canetti notes that the “crowd crystal,” which is an irreducible unit of people that embodies the spirit of the crowd and may incite or direct it, has preserved some of the qualities of the primitive pack, particularly its hermeticism—and its cruelty.

Leadership in Canetti is a matter of cruelty. Canetti rejects the hypothesis that a (fascist) leader “directs” the crowd—the leader himself emerges from the crowd, and is driven by the spirit of crowd-destructiveness. The Survivor, Canetti’s leader, is a ruthless idolater of death, “mankind’s worst evil, its curse and perhaps its doom” (468). In his passion for survival he wages death all around him. Thus in a swift gesture Canetti re-writes the meaning of history’s great men: what distinguishes them from the paranoiac is only the power to exterminate their nightmares.

Leadership Is Ingestion

Historically, the leader of a crowd is the one capable of defying death. Hunger does not vanquish him; he survives by eating the most—by eating his own people, as well. If the people are the leader’s body, it is because they have been ingested by power: Much has been made of Canetti’s Survivor, and yet the “sick tendency of our age” to produce totalitarian dictators is nowhere matched by the spectacle of identification between the leader, the society, and the human body:

The smoothness of teeth has conquered the world; the walls of cells are all smooth and even the window opening is small. For the prisoner, freedom is the space beyond the clenched teeth, and these are now represented by the bare walls of his cell (209).

Contemporary society has succeeded in sublimating cannibalism, in living the fate coded in the body. It is our anatomy which taught us to be killers the hand’s fine skill, the orifice of the mouth, the teeth… Individually, however, we evade our body’s destiny. Our cannibalism has been diverted through institutions like motherhood—by which one individual in the family becomes “edible.” These institutions protect us from widespread anthropophagy. But the ingestion of the enemy remains the most powerful victory, and the victory coveted by the Survivor.

Food and Hunger—the Spirit of History

By eating, both the Survivor and the crowd reenact increase. Numerousness is identified with longevity through the universal converter of food. And the crowd modulates its feeling and function—transitioning, for instance, from a hunt to a lament—through communal feast.

The most famous of Canetti’s ethnographic examples of feasts is a vignette called “Self-Destruction of the Xosas.” The Xosas are told by the spirits of their ancestors to prepare for the day of victory over the colonizers, a day on which everyone will become equal, by celebrating a feast that expends their entire food supply. The Xosas feast lavishly and wastefully, destroying all their sources of nourishment. They wait for the dawn. When nothing happens, they realize that they have committed mass suicide. The historical desire for increase was co-opted by the dead, by the leaders of the dead, and the crowd of dead wins so many Xosas to their side. Indeed, competitions in astronomical increase drive social upheavals, scaling crowd hunger to the magnitude of a historical force. Writing in 1960, Canetti observed the fundamental similarity between the capitalist worship of production and its socialist valorization:

…however they are divided about the way in which goods are distributed in the modern world, the adversaries and the partisans of socialism are at one over the precondition of this problem. This is production. Both sides in the ideological conflict which has split the earth into two almost equal halves instigate and further production in every possible way. Whether goods are produced to be sold or to be shared, the actual process of production is not only not questioned by either side, but is venerated… the hubris of production goes back to the increase pack (191).

Crowd psychology materializes in monstrous growth. Canetti offers no concrete alternatives to the frenzy of production, perhaps because he sees it as a potentially liberating process. Production threatens the Survivor’s system of destroying his own people since this wastefulness cannot serve interests of production. Whether Canetti believes that the destruction of the Survivor is the transcendent purpose of production, we may not know.

A Different Sort of Survivor

In Canetti’s book the individual survives only in “Immortality,” a section on the writer Stendhal. Stendhal,

who took nothing for granted, who wanted to discover everything for himself; who, as far as life is feeling and spirit, was life itself.... This rare and truly free man had, none the less, one article of faith (277).

In short, he believed in his own literary immortality, an ideal that demands no victims. Stendhal, writes Canetti, is true nourishment:

Thus the dead offer themselves as food to the living; their immortality profits them. It is a reversal of sacrifice to the dead, which profits both dead and living. There is no more rancor between them and the sting has been taken from survival (278).

Literature offers the individual a healing nourishment, a form of survival that is not predatory, a reversal that is not violent. But individual liberation can only be achieved through literary immortality—after death, that undeniable individuation.

One must wonder whether Canetti ridicules when he sends us to our deaths in search of redemption.


In order to be achieved in this life, freedom must be a collective enterprise. The reversal crowd is a mastery of the threat of death. Reversal eliminates the source of the Survivor’s power. Canetti’s final line is a rallying cry: “If we would master power we must face command openly and boldly, and search for means to deprive it of its sting” (470).

This collective vision of liberation affirms the potential of crowds—and it affirms their militancy. In its obedience to hunger, the crowd lapses into unimaginable acts of violence. But what Canetti’s exhaustive taxonomy of crowds also reveals is their range, flexibility, and spontaneity—all easily mistaken for irrationality by the reactionary crowd theorists of Le Bon’s ilk.


Theater makers have long been interested in rousing the crowd of spectators to the task of collective liberation through transformations of every kind. Transformation, after all, is the domain of the theater; it is what makes the crowd inherently spontaneous and, at any moment, predisposed to action. Canetti’s remarkable ethnographic evidence—neglected by the present essay, to the great consternation of its author—stems in fact from a fascination with crowd performance.

Ultimately, productions of theater are not compelled to share in the frenzy of socialist and capitalist production—though they are certainly perverted to do that, more often than not. But production in the theater has a different function: it is not oriented towards crowding the world with more stuff. Whereas industrial socialism and capitalism, per Canetti’s definition, are building their armies, the theater is building events, and then striking them.

In Crowds and Power only the section on Stendhal hints at Canetti’s faith for the arts. He should have turned to theater.


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