The Return of Crowds and Power

Elias-canetti I've noticed that in response to all the uprisings in the Arab world analysts, pundits and writers reaching for their copies of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Here's Will Self in The New Statesman:

It's been a fantastic three months for those of us gripped by the dynamics of crowds. First, we had student demonstrations here in Britain spiralling out of control; then, we saw Tunisians link arms to push out their corrupt regime; finally, millions took to the streets of Egyptian cities, pitting their sheer weight of numbers against the sclerotic – but still vicious – government of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps the most celebrated analyst of the crowd was the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, whose 1960 magnum opus, Crowds and Power, aimed to do for modern mass movements what Frazer's Golden Bough did for “primitive” ritual. To Canetti, both socialism and capitalism were political systems defined by “the modern frenzy of increase”, in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

This sense of industrialised society as a crowd, at root, directs Canetti to his definition of power as the coincidence of the desires of the ruler(s) and the ruled.

By this view, it's easy to understand the presence of crowds of people on the streets as symptomatic of a disjunction between the two: only when the crowd has been reabsorbed into the social fabric has synchronous equilibrium been achieved. In Canetti's jargon, the crowd in Tahrir Square was “stagnating”, whereas the crowds of the quiescent Cairene unemployed before the revolt could be characterised as “rhythmic”.

Dubstep revolutions

Canetti showed a nice understanding of how masses of people make their own political weather when he caustically observed that “fire unites a theatre more than a play can” – but his vision was underscored by the apocalyptic mood music of mutually assured destruction. “Rulers tremble today,” he wrote, not “because they are rulers but as the equals of everyone else . . . Either everyone will survive or no one.”