Content Crowds and Democratic Politics:
An Ethological Approach
crowds header hiram caton  

Hiram Caton

International Political Science Association World Congress

Berlin August 21-25, 1995

Let me begin by pointing out a few basic facts about crowd behavior that, as it seems to me, are essential to orientation.

Most crowds are orderly and civil; crowds have no inherent political directedness; most crowds are organized for a specific event and have no enduring social identity; spontaneous political crowds are rare; the action of crowds is controlled largely by routines and repertoires. Now to specifics.

1. Most crowds present no behavior not also presented in ordinary workplace routines or other institutional contexts. A public meeting called to rally local residents against a proposed expressway through their properties does not differ in any material way from a meeting to consider a work stoppage. Again, thousands gather for religious services, concerts, and the like without presenting any challenges to the understanding of human behavior. Most crowds are boring to observe. This fact is well understood by police. In his historical study of British policing, The Strong Arm of the Law, P. A. J. Waddington stated that ‘tedium is far more typical of public order policing than is the exhilaration of action . . . it is clear that most observers and critics are not concerned about the vast majority of public-order events which occasion no disorder.’ The sociology of collective behavior was an academic backwater until the events of the Sixties suddenly made it seem an important field. The focus on the less than one percent of crowds that are interesting introduced a number of distortions into the literature.

2. One distortion is the tendency to equate crowd action with violence and uncontrolled, irrational behavior. There are of course violent crowds and they can be fearsome, especially when television footage is edited to highlight aggression. However, cross national and longitudinal studies show that injuries and mortality from these events is on the order of 50-70 percent police inflicted. The most violent crowd is the police, whose job is to maintain public order. When violence from crowd actions is compared with violence from other causes, such as homicide, suicide, road accidents, police use of deadly force, and the like, it will be found that the contribution of crowds to a given jurisdiction’s violence is less than one ten thousandth of the total mortality. Thus Peter Marsh, in his study of the soccer tribe, styled the contrary impression ‘the illusion of violence.’ He does not deny that football hooligans intimidate citizens or damage property. They do. His point is that the nuisance is greatly exaggerated. Crowds are not unique as subjects of scare inflation. AIDS, though a minor health problem in terms of morbidity and mortality--less than injury and death by road accidents--has been inflated to a species threatening disease. The greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer, germs of many kinds, cholesterol, flouride, and many other supposed threats have been vehicles of public scares. The steady appetite for calamity tells us something about public taste, but not about crowd behavior.

3. There is a marked sex and age difference in crowd behavior. Such violence as occurs is overwhelmingly committed by young males, as I will discuss. Young males also man the agencies of social control, armies, militias, and police. Sociologists of collective behavior have not noticed this fact. They try to explain rioting through the structural properties of socio-economic status, or racism. It doesn’t work. Football hooligans do not differentiate from non-hooligan football fans by socio-economic status or employment status. They also do not differ from the police in this respect--most police are recruited from the working class. Similar observations hold for U.S. black urban rioting, where arrest records show that offenders are 80 percent young males. The variance is explained as an expression of masculinity. Machismo is found among the police, the military, among adolescent gangs, sport teams, and criminal organizations. It’s pancultural. It’s not crowd specific.

4. Most political crowd events are planned and those who participate are organized and conscious of a specific socio-political identity. These identities construct the basic rules for inclusion and exclusion from the group, and they provide the rationale for action. Frequently identity also prescribes an elaborate set of rules to discipline and govern action. In the last century and well into this, associations of working men were the chief organizers of protest crowds. But all manner of special interests, as well as governments, have also organized political crowd events.

5. Although the radical tradition in modern politics tends to equate crowd action with social protest, and protest in turn with the progressive movement of history, this ‘vox populi, vox dei’ formula expresses only a political faith in crowd action. There have been imperialist crowds, fascist crowds, racist crowds, and fundamentalist crowds. Kings, strong men, bishops, and democratic governments have enjoyed confirmation by crowds. During the past two decades, the Vatican has been a leading organizer of crowd events. Pope John Paul II probably contributed more to the dissolution of the Soviet system than any other individual; certainly more than western intelligence services. Yet to my knowledge there is not a single publication on the Pope’s crowds, not even by Polish sociologists.

6. Political crowds, whether government or opposition, usually derive their rationale, leadership, and morale from a leadership cohort that pursues a long-term strategy. Viewed from the leadership perspective, political crowds are just one among many tools of politics. Rallies enliven the faithful, recruit the inactive, and propagate the good news. This is not to suggest that leadership cohorts are always able to maintain control. Fragmentation and promiscuous, short-lived coalitions are well known among social movements. It is also true that there are grass roots crowds lacking any central direction. The hard hats who turned out for Fourth of July parades and voted Republican during the Seventies are an example. Vagabond youth who cluster around music cults are another. A hybrid of the controlled crowd and the grass roots crowd is the covertly controlled grass roots crowd. Such crowds have a long history. We learn of them from Roman historians. In former times Jesuits, Freemasons, and Communists were adept in the use of these crowds; today environmentalists excel.

7. The single most important crowd in modern history is one created by governments to control public order. I mean the police. This government agency, so taken for granted today, was created in western Europe between 1750 and 1850, not to investigate crime and apprehend criminals, but to watch over public order. They displaced the posse comitatus, the militia, and troops, who had previously carried out these functions. The police presence, and police control measures, created a street environment with which political crowds had to reckon. For this reason the behavior of modern political crowds is closely mingled with police behavior and tactics. They are made for one another. This is observationally obvious. It is also evident in pre-event planning. The event sponsor meets with police representatives to discuss details of the event. If the sponsoring group opts not to consult with police, police may know about it anyway from their intelligence sources. In any case, the no-consultation option impacts on police and crowd tactics. The inseparability of the behavior of the two crowds is also evident at the higher level of doctrine: police doctrine of crowd control, the strategic thinking of civil disobedience leaders, Leninist direct action practice as taught at the Lenin School in Moscow, the ‘theory’ of innumerable activist groups. This body of doctrine is in a constant state of flux. Old opportunities close off and new ones open up. Technologies change. Public opinion and government attitudes change. To illustrate, there has been a sea change in the control measures of sporting and entertainment events over the past two decades. Venues have been redesigned to remove safety hazards, to delete venue misdesigns that become stampede disasters, to provide on-going closed-circuit television surveillance of many thousands of patrons. Policing has been handed over to private security firms hired by the event sponsor. Security personnel are perceived by patrons to be ushers, not police. Thanks to closed-circuit television surveillance and communication, security personnel can arrive at the site of any disorder within a minute or two of notification. Arrests for disorderly behavior have accordingly diminished.

For these reasons it is difficult to extract general descriptions of police interactions with political crowds, let alone general rules for crowd control. However, let me make a few observations.

++Police presence is a reminder that not all people accept legal norms; and some who do accept them don’t norms always observe them. Social order is not based exclusively on consensus. Police are the visible arm of the government that obliges citizens to adhere to the social contract. We know from the experience of police strikes, disasters, and other interruptions of police service that looting and riot are sure consequences of the absence of policing. Of course, only a fraction of the affected population engages in these frolics, but if the disruption continues, many law-abiding citizens are drawn into conflict.

++The test of strength between the police and crowds for control of the streets is an accurate gauge of the legitimacy of a government, or of a particular government policy. All the might of the Shah’s government was unable to contain the millions who poured into the streets in defiance of martial law. The Polish government could not contain Solidarity’s mass industrial strike of 1980. A decade later, east block governments fell like ten pins to crowds that adhered strictly to civil behavior. In these cases, it was not that the government lacked the force to compel crowds to evacuate the streets. No crowd, however large or committed, can hold out against the counter-measures available today. This was proved in 1991 when the Chinese dispersed a million protesters from Tienamen Square in a matter of hours. East block governments abstained from such use of force because the legitimacy of those governments was so low that the use of force was not politically possible. Indeed, the crowds--or their leaders--were demanding Solidary-style changes of government.

++The irrational behavior for which crowds are notorious has long been a major preoccupation of collective behavior studies. The key attributes enumerated since Gustave LeBon’s The Psychology of Crowds are: disinhibition, deindividuation, suggestibility, mood contagion, and absorption in the group identity. Crowd psychologists since LeBon have nurtured the conception that crowds have the peculiar capacity to ‘strip away in an instant a thousand years of civilization.’ Usually the explanation turns on some depth-psychological probing or on exploring the mysteries of charisma, or both. While some insights are found in this extensive commentary, it does leave unmentioned the mood-altering effects of alcohol and drugs. Their banishment at sports and entertainment helps reduce disorderly conduct. As the police say: Five beers double a man’s height and make him bullet-proof. Alcohol is a prime mover of ghetto riots. The spark is often a half-intoxicated group of young males and the first order of business of a riot is to smash open the liquor stores. This is why ghetto riots so often take on the aspect of a festival or frolic. This feature of ghetto riots has been reported in the press but ignored by official commissions and sociologists. Football hooligans are rarely cold sober, but, in marked contrast to ghetto riots, this fact has registered strongly on commissions of inquiry into football violence. It is the reason why the sale of alcoholic beverages at sporting venues is banned or limited. Pillage and plunder from time immemorial have been in part alcohol-driven. Armies and pirates, Vikings and urban gangs, combine festive debauchery with rape and mayhem. This combination is also found in communal rioting in India and ethnic carnage in Africa.

++On New Year’s Day newspapers report the crazy things done by crowds the evening previous. In Brisbane in recent years this has included jumping from heights into the cheering crowd below; opening fire hydrants and overturning police cruisers; cheering couples copulating in the street; bashing homosexuals; bashing ethnics--all for fun. These activities are usually instigated by males in the 15-30 year age group. They seem to be a machismo ritual in which young men engage in competitive rough-and-tumble play. Ritual animal fights are a displacement of this activity that older men can also enjoy. Cock fighting in Asia is an example. Lynching in the American South is another. It’s all good sport. The marked sex difference comes sharply to the fore when from time to time females are made to participate. The Tailhook Incident, which shook the U.S. Navy, was no more than ordinary hazing that, in alcoholic forgetfulness, conscripted female officers into the game. Therein lay the mismatch. The women had not been trained to thrive on rough-and-tumble play, whereas men seem to take to it naturally as a display of psychological resilience and physical prowess. Those who hang back or try to evade the test are deemed to be deficient in manliness, that is, ‘gutless’. There is no more contemptible epithet in the machismo culture. But if in addition the gutless ones seek the protection of higher-ups, they make themselves permanently damned. The Navy will deny it, but the women of Tailhook will probably find their service lives bitter. The same effect is known in police service lore, although it too is denied by officials who do not wish to admit that police personnel do not always adhere strictly to the rules.

Ethological Contributions to the Interpretation of Crowd Behavior

Ethological studies that bear significantly on the interpretation of collective behavior were initially published by Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, Desmond Morris, and Iraenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, especially Eibl’s The Biology of War and Peace (1975), provides a model for integrating ultimate and proximate evolutionary causality with the particularity of custom. It shows that fighting behavior is controlled by rituals homologous to fighting routines in other species. Contrary to Lorenz, who in On Aggression said that the human male lacked an adaptation for modulating and shutting off aggression, Eibl showed that there is an extensive repertoire for restraint, negotiation, and reconciliation. He acknowledged that action-at-a-distance weapons, such as fire arms and artillery, circumvent inhibiting mechanisms that depend on face-to-face interaction.

The male hunting band is helpful more for understanding police behavior rather than the behavior of political crowds. They latter are mixed sex, mixed age groups, although they tend to be weighted toward youthfulness. The political crowd is a simulacrum of the original hunter-gatherer community. In modern political settings, political crowds are, as I mentioned, largely organized by social movements or are otherwise composed of persons who share a group identity. It is a strongly affiliative group. I should say exceptionally affiliative, since the crowd presence disinhibits barriers that normally separate daily interaction. Personal space dissolves. Anyone may touch any one else and affiliative touching occurs even between strangers. Similarly there is receptivity to eye contact with anyone in the group. Helping is frequent. The crowd differentiates itself from bystanders by signs, emblems, and costume. Mood and movement are synchronized by chants, song, dance, and other vehicles of rhythm. The mood state is festive and euphoric. The euphoric mood facilitates transition to the suggestibility and deindividuation that has so often noted. I call this ‘facultative eusociality’ of the mixed sex, mixed age crowd. It is characterized by a sense of unity and grandiosity or heroic emotion, and sharing. It is a festival celebrating the tribe’s grandeur. Heroism requires (or instigates) legends setting Good and Evil in titanic struggle; and struggle is real only when the tribe, through its heroes, suffers, dies, and is reborn. For this reason the iconography of festive and political crowds prominently displays emblems of death, suffering, and triumph. Also for this reason funerals for tribal heroes combine the gladness of feasting with the sorrow of bereavement. This combination is pretty well universal in cultures and religion. A recent example is the state ceremonies for the deceased Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. The ceremonies for Mao Zhe-Dong and the Ayatollah Khomeini exhibited the same traits. In Teheran, nine people were trampled to death and another 200 hundred were injured in the ecstasy unleashed by the soaring heroism of the mortal god’s demise.

Political and festive crowds compose their legends in a vocabulary of a few simple unit meanings, eg, abasement/triumph, purity/pollution, danger/safety, destruction/creation, death/rebirth, guilt/absolution, simplicity/corruption, oppression/freedom, need/satisfaction, aggression/peace. Legends depict a decline and fall from goodness, a phase of abasement and humiliation, struggle against the evil, concluding in a reversal of fortune, a cataclysmic redeeming event that restores innocence. The cataclysm is characterized by (a) totality--both world and self constitute a strongly bounded whole; (b) grandiosity of triumph; (c) irresistible power; (d) changed personal identity that unites individuals in the totality of the community.

The elucidation of legends is a task for the ethologist informed by psychobiology and the empirical evidence gathered by political scientists, social historians, anthropologists and others. This task is already well advanced. Joseph Campbell’s cross-cultural survey of the thousand masks of gods and heroes, and Balaji Mundkur’s The Cult of the Serpent are models. Campbell finds that mythology represents and celebrates the gravity of human experience which is perceived as revolving around suffering, deception, deliverance, rapture, and illumination. Its symbols are firmly anchored in body image, experience of the body, and sense experience, e.g., birth and death; sickness and vigor; light and darkness; day and night; dawn and dusk; the course of the sun, moon, and stars; fire and water; water and desert; storm, floods, torrent, hurricanes, vermin, serpents, carnivores, gentle ungulates and other totemic animals; depletion and surfeit; frenzy and sexual abandon; defecation, feces and filth; tearing, rending, and eating the body and spirit; kin relations and paternal roles; fear, terror, triumph, humiliation, and dominance. The dynamics of these experiences are to be specified in part by reference to the kinesis of sensory-motor experience. Fire, for example, as a point source of light, is a signifier to locomotion and vision. But it is also embedded in the sense of touch and cognitively it is perceived as a destructive and as a helpful agent. Hence the enormous polyvalence of fire symbolism. The dynamics of the experiences from which symbols are drawn refers also in part to the repertoire of social and manipulative behaviors. Thus eye gaze and teeth display strongly signify mood state and for this reason their display is ingredient to signaling appeasement, threat, or fear. Since these are natural signs, we do not endorse the usual definition of iconography as an interpretation of cultural-specific optical signs, but as a universal behavioral language inflected for a particular cultural area. The symbolism of political crowds is a dialect of a universal language.

I will confine my comments on this rich and intriguing field to a film that in the Soviet Union figured as the most successful artistic representation of revolution, Sergi Eisenstein’s October. It was released in 1928 without a sound track. It was reissued in 1967, with a musical sound track by Dimitri Shostakovich, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

The film opens with a tumultuous crowd scene. Men, women, and children are dashing about on sundry missions of uproarious assertion, including pulling down a large statute of Czar Alexander III. Close-ups show joyous faces. The camera then visits rural Russia, where peasants greet one another as ‘Citizen’ and ‘Brother.’ There is much embracing, food-sharing, and fraternisation between peasants and soldiers. Then the bourgeois revolution goes sour. The camera visits scenes of suffering, especially the hungry masses. Then we are shown throngs in festive mood at the Finland Station. The hero steps forward on an elevated position (high/low symbolism) to delirious hurrahs, banner-waving, and caps hurled into the air, while Shostakovich’s score supplies rousing, heroic music.

The crowd scenes in the film are all of this character. The crowd is of mixed sex, joyful, and unanimous in sentiment. Eisenstein’s revolutionary crowd always holds a spontaneous festival, and expresses its feelings through a remarkably limited repertoire of non-verbal signals and actions.

The people in Eisenstein’s film define their identity in contrast to an Other, which is the Czar and then the bourgeoisie. Without a single word--entirely by the use of pantomime or non-verbal communication--the bourgeoisie are stereotyped as arrogant and heedless of suffering, grasping, self-indulgent, deceitful, cowardly, and brutal. The one redeeming attribute left to them is physical beauty. This attribute was taken away by Bolshevik poster propaganda, which merges the facial features of capitalists with those of flesh-eating birds and animals. The Nazis did the same with Jews and American war propaganda did the same job on the Japanese. In all these cases, the Other is banished from the affiliative social group as a noxious species. The communal celebrations of solidarity are therefore simultaneously an ostracism ritual. I suggest that every ritual of group solidarity places some group beyond the pale of affiliative behavior and marks them implicitly for destruction. A test case for this hypothesis is those groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists and deep ecologists, who include all living things in the moral community. Who is left to be proscribed? For the Tibetans, it is a large class of demons that bear an uncanny resemblance to wrong-doers. For the deep ecologists, it is the despoilers of the earth and all those who consume animal flesh, carnivorous animals excepted. In other words, the wicked are about 99 percent of the human race.

Let me conclude with a few remarks on the power of crowds. Strongly aroused crowds, or even mildly aroused crowds, have an uncanny psychological effect on crowd participants, on by-standers, and on that other crowd, the police. To remain impassive in the presence of such a crowd is difficult. One is either recruited to the emotion, or intimidated and/or repulsed by it. Crowd participants, on the other hand, participate in the ecstasis. This potential for dual effort is the reason why one and the same crowd can and often has produced descriptions so opposed that one wonders whether the same event is being described. To illustrate, Edmund Burke’s diatribe on the barbarism of crowds in the French Revolution has been reproduced by many writers who knew nothing of his work. One could never imagine from his descriptions that these crowds experienced these events as an intoxicating moral regeneration. Ceremonial killings of the aristocratie were exercises in folk justice--retributions fully deserved and vindications of the revolution’s moral claims. That is why they were experienced as festive, gladsome events. (One might add that intoxicating beverages were very prominent in these events). This effect is, I suggest, universal. It is to be found in thousands of lynchings, in communal riots, and so on.

The exaggeration of crowd violence that Peter Marsh calls an illusion comes about because of the extraordinary communicative power of crowd events. A tiny bit of violence goes a long way. This holds on both sides of the equation. When Pariseans took the Bastille, and communists stormed the Winter Palace, they and the world were so overwhelmed by giddiness that they imaged that a whole nation had been reconstituted. Wrong in both cases. Civil war and the iron hand of military rule were needed to realize the dream.

The literature on collective behavior divides into two great classes, according as scholars tend to the Burke or Robespierre end of the scale in their responses to crowds. Ethological analysis, I believe, enables us to escape this dualism by grasping the data of crowds with a greater measure of objectivity.


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