Crowds and Power

by Lorne Mitchell on 20/06/2014

The recent events in Iraq and the rise of ISIS as a regional power makes one wonder what all of the Western intervention in the region has achieved.  It reminded me of reading a book written back in the 1960s – Masse ind Macht (or Crowds and Power) by Elias Canetti.

Canetti was not an academic.  He was an intelligent observer.  I read the book after visiting Koln for a Beerfest.  It made me understand a lot more about why and, perhaps how, Hitler came to Power.  I’m not sure if it is a particularly German thing.  But if you get a load of folk from that part of the world, give them beer and get them roused by a speech from someone you can barely see the other end of the room who is booming on a loudspeaker, then the binding, tribal atmosphere becomes extraordinary.

The entry in Wikipedia about the book is short:

.

(The book) is notable for its unusual tone; although wide ranging in its erudition, it is not scholarly or academic in a conventional way.  Rather, it reads like a manual written by someone outside the human race explaining to another outsider in concise and highly metaphoric language how people form mobs and manipulate power.  Unlike most non-fiction writing, it is highly poetic and seething with anger.

On asking questions: “On the questioner the effect is a feeling of enhanced power. He enjoys this and consequentially asks more and more questions; every answer he receives is an act of submission. Personal freedom consists largely in having a defense against questions. The most blatant tyranny is the one which asks the most blatant questions.” 
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The thought I particularly like is the idea that, for every question asked, the questioner has an enhanced sense of power and those who give answers are each time submitting to those in power.  For me, this is a subtle definition of personal freedom.  We have choices to submit or not to submit.  To answer questions or to have a defense against those questions.

In the context of the current world order, then, who asks the questions of those who are bullys?  Perhaps that is another dimension to the problem.  But certainly, in the businesses that I work within, the person asking the difficult and cleverer questions is the person who sees him or herself in authority.

It was brilliantly articulated by a friend of mine this week who related the story of an ex-boss of his (now very senior in a UK PLC).

New Boss:
 
OK, please show me your plans.  How exactly are you are going to achieve your objectives by the end of this financial year?
 
Subordniate
 
Stutters, shows plan (covering up the areas that he does not want unpicked).  Relief at presenting plan.
 
New Boss:
 
OK.  thanks for that.  Now tell me what question I should have asked you that would have exposed the real weakness in your plan?
 
Questioners and Bullys.  The world is full of them each seeking their own power.  The question for the majority of us, surely, is how to expand the footprint of personal freedom whilst ensuring that the spirit drummed-up such as that described in Canetti’s Crowds and Power does not promote dictators, terrorism and crime.  The pictures in the video above have an uncanny resemblance to the atrocities that have been happening in Iraq in the past few weeks.  Yet the strategies and tactics to prevent such acts seem to have developed little in the past hundred years.  Time to think of a better way.

 

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