Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Movements, Crowds, and Obama

Everywhere we look we see movements, writes sociologist Peter Berger.  But what is a movement?  It is a crowd, but a special type of crowd, for "A movement is the preservation of a crowd experience over time."

But what is a crowd?  Quoting Gustave LeBon, Berger defines a crowd as a collective event, and
a crowd creates a sort of collective mind, which is impulsive, impervious to reason and potentially murderous. Put in different terms: The crowd is inherently de-individuating, dismantling the moral restraints of civilization and reverting to a primitive state of unquestioned solidarity. There is a lethal progression from crowd to mob to lynch mob.
 We can see the proto-crowd in the great apes and early humans.
Chimpanzees, our closest anthropoid relatives, engage in group dancing if faced with danger. So do tribal warriors as they go into battle... The individual surrenders his separateness to the sacred unity of the group, an experience often including possession by a divine being.
So it is with modern crowds and movements.  Berger isn't too pleased with this, and he doesn't like the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, preferring the "vital center, spread across the two major political parties, thus marginalizing the extremes to their right and left."  No doubt, and in this vital center, of course, the intellectual elite gets to call the shots.

But the point to get from this is that when any social animals experience themselves in danger they form into crowds, for in dangerous times you need to surrender some or all of your individuality for the benefit of the whole.  That is what happens in armies, and any fighting unit. The individual must be persuaded to accept his own death or injury in the process of fighting for victory, for if every individual thought only of his own safety, an army would dissolve when the first shot is fired.

The Tea Party spontaneously formed as conservative Americans sensed danger immediately upon the election of Barack Obama.  They came together in crowds, and formed a movement to "preserve that crowd experience over time."  That movement helped cause the big 63 seat change in the US House of Representatives in 2010.

The Occupy movement is a similar movement on the left.  Its members feel danger in the threat of budget cuts, so they are crowding together to find the collective courage to oppose them.  They have chosen Wall Street as the symbol of their fear.  Walter Russell Mead writes that it is curious that the Occupy folk see Wall Street as the enemy, since Wall Street is as vital an element in the blue Democratic coalition as the goo-goo upper middle class, the public sector union employees and the welfare beneficiaries.

The trick, of course, is for your movement to be effective.  If it progresses immediately into a lynch mob then it may provoke opposition from another movement.  If it is too individualistic it may not accumulate the collective power to make changes.

The reason that the United States is dividing into two opposing movements is instructive.  It is because the current ruling class, the "vital center," has failed to govern well.  It has failed to moderate the demands of conflicting movements and interests to a level that can be comfortably afforded by the overall society.  Thus the United States is dividing into two extremes that feel profoundly threatened by the other.

President Obama seems to be doing his darnedest to accelerate the process.

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