Introduction: The Era of Crowds
In the realm of politics, the consideration of the power of crowds is a relatively recent trend. In truth, the people of a nation have always had greater power than those who presumed to lead them, as leaders can only make suggestions of how they wish their people to behave and it is in the power of the people to decide to comply.
While crowds are generally recognized for their destructive capabilities, they are still crowds even when they are not choosing to be destructive, and in many instances their preference is to be neutral or even constructive. As such, it is necessary to consider their behavior at all times, not just when they are being unruly, as disorder is actually unusual behavior that is outside of the norm for crowds.
The normal behavior of a crowd is, in fact, stability. They become unruly only when their leadership, or a group of fellow citizens, is attempting to interfere with the status quo. Or in times of revolution, they become unruly because others do not accept the fact that the status quo has already changed.
Le Bon suggests that the time in which he wrote this book (1896) represented a "critical moment" in which culture was undergoing a transformation, based on two factors:
- The destruction of religious, political, and social beliefs that are foundational to European civilization
- The change in the conditions of existence due to scientific and industrial progress
Such a period is dramatic because it represents a transition, in which the ideas of the past are in conflict with the progress and evolution of society, against which there is considerable resistance. It is, in effect, an era of revolution in which the old ways that have perpetuated for centuries are crumbling, and the new ways are not yet sufficiently developed to replace them. Change is inevitable, but it is not yet clear what the future state will be, a situation that causes no small amount of panic.
Scarcely a century before, the principal factor that shaped events were conflicts among sovereign rulers. The people, such as they were, were merely pawns in the game. But as monarchy has fallen and republics arise, the people are taking a hand, albeit indirectly, in the shaping of their own nation - and they are not quite sure of what they are doing with their newfound power.
In essence, the era of kings has ended, and the era of crowds has commenced. The common people are not directed by their leaders, but are choosing an directing their leaders. It's conceded that this is not new, and there was a time before kings and emperors when men defined and followed their own interests - but this was "before the dawn of civilization" when people were not so numerous as they are today, and could do as they pleased without interfering with one another.
The density of population in cities and nations mean that men must consider the impact of their behavior on others, and are acutely aware of the impact that others' behavior has upon them. We exist as individuals in the context of a society and must negotiate the welfare of one against the other.
A crowd is not as consistent or as thoughtful as any of the individuals it comprises. Crowds are quick to act on superficial reasoning, so much so that it is commonly doubted that members of a crowd had the ability to apply reason, but merely react as a herd of animals driven by instinct and imitation.
Once cannot say that the present age reflects a bankruptcy of science or of religion, as neither of them worked to establish the present intellectual anarchy in any systemic fashion. Science has blossomed, and religion has fractured, such that men within a society are given many options in which to believe - and if man feels abandoned, it is only for the reason that he finds himself unable to define his own beliefs by choosing among the multitude of options he is now provided.
Crowds are only capable of destruction if they are not directed. History has shown that when the foundation of a society fails, unconscious and brutal crowds dispose of its remains. These crowds, justly called "barbarians," have no guiding vision and their sole purpose is pillage and immediate gratification. The civilization is thus destroyed, but the people remain, and eventually the period of chaos comes to an end an a new civilization is formed.
There can be some argument that this is the fate of the present age: periods of chaos are notoriously short-lived and it is only a matter of time before a tyrant arises, who imposes himself by force upon a society and gives it direction. Brutal though they may be, their reign gives a purpose and shape to a society, and brings about a long period of stability for the masses, while there often remains a conflict among a smaller number to gain control.
But there is also arising the notion of "virtuous and heroic crowds" that can sustain themselves - that can refrain from destruction and instead work to collaborate. The notion of a republic is one of a controlled crowd, or a self-controlling one, which selects from its own ranks representatives to negotiate and enforce the common interests. In such a situation, statesmen have limited power and are beholden to those who have elected them.
If such a state of affairs is to be maintained, it is necessary to understand the psychology of crowds - their inclinations and the way they may be governed, particularly by a government that must influence them but has no effective means of control. Take the example of taxation: an elected leader cannot tax the people at his own discretion, but must formulate a system of taxation to which the citizens will be amenable and then convince the people to willingly accept it.
The problem is that there is no guidance for doing so. The literature of leadership is based on a long history in which a ruler exercised power, by force, to impose his will upon the people. While an emperor or a king could be deposed, it required significantly more effort than removing an elected official. And as such, history provides tutelage in the practice of domination, and little in the way of persuasion.
To persuade a man, you must know his character: to know what he is inclined to do, and what he may be persuaded to do based on how the outcome will serve his personal interests. The same is necessary to persuade a crowd: you must know its character and how to appeal to its interests. But little is presently known about the psychology of crowds.
And this is the point of the present book: the psychology of crowds is more than an intellectual curiosity, but has a great deal to do with the manner in which civilization will be governed - which is, in effect, to do with the survival of civilization in its present state. Should we come to understand the psychology of crowds, liberty itself can be preserved; should we fail, than the present age will be recorded in history as one of those brief periods in which chaos existed in between the rule of tyrants.