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Crowds and Power: Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti on the Four Attributes of Crowds and the Paradox of Why We Join Them

“Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd… A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.”

“The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd,” Kierkegaard wrote in his diary in 1847. And yet our world is largely an ecosystem of crowds — nations, faiths, political ideologies, art movements, fan bases. But Kierkegaard wasn’t necessarily wrong — if anything, he intuited (as he frequently did) one of the great inner conflicts of the human experience: We worship individuality and long for freedom, but we are invariably drawn to crowds, which leaves us with a resentful ambivalence toward ourselves and others. E.B. White knew this too when he wrote in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York that the city “has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense” and yet it is “cheerful and filthy and crowded.”

But no one has captured the paradoxical psychology of crowds more elegantly and dimensionally than Elias Canetti (July 25, 1905–August 14, 1994). Born in Bulgaria (like myself), Canetti emigrated with his family at the age of six, living in various places across Western Europe before settling in Vienna at the age of nineteen, where he immersed himself in the literary world and began writing in German. In 1981, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” Among his most influential and enduring ideas, and a cornerstone of the prize, was his 1960 treatise Crowds and Power (public library) — a fiercely insightful inquiry into what defines crowds, why we join them, and how they shape the meaning of power.

Canetti begins by considering the deepest psychological driver beneath our conflicted attitude toward crowds — the common root of our aversion and our attraction to them:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange… All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.

Half a century before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of the “step-and-slide” — the pedestrian jig of avoiding contact and collision in crowded cities — Canetti captures the dynamics driving it:

The repugnance of being touched remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can. If we don’t avoid it, it is because we feel attracted to someone; and then it is we who make the approach.

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is — the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch — proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality.

Illustration from Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

But the great paradox of this deep-seated aversion is that our fear of touch is best assuaged by immersion in a crowd — another facet of the greater paradox proving, over and over, that the anguish of control is best alleviated by surrender. Canetti writes:

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.

More than an antidote to our fear and isolation, a crowd is also a powerful equalizing force. Interjecting a remark that instantly reminds us what a profound source of otherness gender was before Betty Friedan gave shape to the problem, Canetti writes:

Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is the greatest.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist, 1968

Canetti calls the core driver of this unification discharge and explains:

The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.

These differences, he argues, are externally defined — hierarchies of status and material possession — and yet they invariably shape our interior lives and self-definition. In being unshakably conscious of them, we use them to differentiate ourselves and thus to distance ourselves from others. Canetti captures this with piercing poeticism:

A man stands by himself on a secure and well defined spot, his every gesture asserting his right to keep others at a distance. He stands there like a windmill on an enormous plain, moving expressively; and there is nothing between him and the next mill. All life, so far as he knows it, is laid out in distances — the house in which he shuts himself and his property, the positions he holds, the rank he desires — all these serve to create distances, to confirm and extend them. Any free or large gesture of approach towards another human being is inhibited. Impulse and counter impulse ooze away as in a desert. No man can get near another, nor reach his height. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent him touching anyone more exalted than himself, or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower.

But as much as these rankings of status anchor us and help us orient ourselves amid the chaos of the world, in anchoring us they also immobilize us. The crowd reconciles these conflicting needs:

These hierarchies … exist everywhere and everywhere gain a decisive hold on men’s minds and determine their behavior to each other. But the satisfaction of being higher in rank than others does not compensate for the loss of freedom of movement. Man petrifies and darkens in the distances he has created. He drags at the burden of them, but cannot move. He forgets that it is self-inflicted, and longs for liberation. But how, alone, can he free himself?


Only together can men free themselves from their burdens of distance; and this, precisely, is what happens in a crowd… Each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no-one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from The Nutcracker

Canetti outlines the four key defining attributes found in varying degrees in any crowd:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created — e.g. in all institutions which are used for the preservation of closed crowds — an eruption of the crowd is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time. There are no institutions which can be absolutely relied on to prevent the growth of the crowd once and for all.
  2. Within the crowd there is equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they need to overlook anything which might detract from it. All demands for justice and all theories of equality ultimately derive their energy from the actual experience of equality familiar to anyone who has been part of a crowd.
  3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself. The feeling of density is strongest in the moment of discharge. One day it may be possible to determine this density more accurately and even to measure it.
  4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.

In the remainder of Crowds and Power, which is immensely insightful in its entirety, Canetti goes on to classify crowds according to their five prevailing emotions, exploring how these dynamics shape everything from political movements to religion to music concerts and how they shed light on the complexities and true meaning of power. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, then revisit Tove Jansson’s vintage philosophical cartoons on why we join groups.

Published March 6, 2015




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