The public and the crowd

John Paul II in Poland: Warsaw 1979

Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been widely hailed as the triumph of the public over authoritarian regimes.  Someone with a literal cast of mind, however, might arrive at a different interpretation.  Such a person would note that it was the crowds which brought down the Ben Ali and Mubarak governments – crowds never more than a small fraction of the population of the two countries.  Since, beyond the question of numbers, the public is not identical to the crowd, our literal thinker could reasonably wonder why the former has been given so much credit for what the latter achieved.

The relationship between the public and the crowd is by no means transparent.  The public, in essence, is a community of interest, private persons welded together by a shared point of reference – a love of computer games, say, or a political disposition.  Members of the public are thus usually dispersed, and can influence events from a distance only, by means of “soft” persuasion:  by voicing and communicating an opinion.

A crowd, on the contrary, is always manifest and capable of great physical destructiveness and ferocity.  It is a form of action which submerges the desires of many individuals under a single rough-hewn will.  In direct democracies like ancient Athens, it could be said to represent the sovereign citizenry.  Everywhere else, the crowd can represent nothing but itself, yet political crowds typically claim to be putting in play the public’s agenda, and assume high-sounding terms to define their identity:  “the people,” “the proletariat,” etc.  On occasion – think Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but also the civil rights march on Washington and the storming of the Bastille – the crowd attains powerful symbolic importance, with an influence far beyond its numbers or even its moment in history.  It then becomes a form of communication.

The public mediates the transformation of the crowd into a symbolic force.  The public deals in opinion, after all.  It can seize on an event like the demonstrations in Cairo then mobilize its organs of opinion on behalf of the demonstrators, in the process adding sentiment and meaning which may or may not have been present at the actual event.  Used in this manner, the crowd becomes a means to communicate public opinion.  But it can also crystallize into a new point of reference, toward which the public turns in ever larger numbers – that is in fact what transpired in Egypt.  If the public can be said to re-create the crowd into a form of communication, it is equally true that such a crowd, once convincingly expressed, creates its own public.

A fateful example of this kind of two-way influence took place in June 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited communist Poland, his native land.  At every step of the pope’s nine-day journey immense crowds gathered – and the crowd by its sheer size communicated a transcendent truth to the scattered members of the anti-communist opposition.

I was there, along with friends from the resistance, at the Tenth Anniversary Stadium. We, and a million others. For the first time, I saw a sea of people, with my own eyes. We understood then, we and our kind—the “outcasts” and “instigators” of the nation—that we were not alone, that we had a purpose, that it was not over, and that no one had broken us, the Polish people, down.

Individuals may have joined the crowd attending John Paul II in Poland as an act of political defiance, or from simple religious feeling, or to see a famous native son, or for many other private motives.  It didn’t matter.  To the opposition the crowd was literally a revelation – a flash of self-awareness which merged the identity of a small community of interest into a far larger public than it had imagined possible.  With perfect sincerity, a handful of dissidents assumed the mantle of “us, the Polish people.”  Without a trace of cynicism, they turned the pope’s crowd into a persuasive argument against the communist regime.  Many, inside Poland and out, accepted this interpretation.  After 30 years, the communist grip on East Europe looked surprisingly precarious.  Ten summers after the pope’s visit, it would be lost.

The relationship between the public and the crowd is never stable, and has evolved in time.  In the twentieth century, the crowd was typically affiliated to hierarchical organizations:  political parties, labor unions, ideology-driven movements.  The organization scripted the crowd with care, both literally, by providing it with slogans, placards, and so forth, and symbolically, by proclaiming an event’s meaning before its occurrence.  Such events became mere tests of strength for the organizations involved, with the unaffiliated public squeezed out.  American thinkers of the time speculated that social and economic changes had buried the public alive.  Walter Lippmann looked in vain for a “phantom public,” while John Dewey wrote of a public “that cannot find itself.

The marginalization of the public crested with the “mass movements” forged by fascist and Marxist-Leninist parties in Europe and by imitators elsewhere.  The whole point of a mass movement is the ability to put a well-disciplined crowd on the street, often to violent ends.  In Weimar Germany, for example, the police force of the democratically-elected government stood by helplessly while communist and Nazi “masses” murdered one another in street battles.  On conquering power, these groups deployed the masses in splendid rituals to communicate their superiority over rival doctrines.  Thus Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg and Stalin’s May Day parades.  Tattered remnants of this system endure:  Cuba’s Castro regime on festive occasions still herds the masses to bask in their approval, and organizes “rejectionist” crowds to harass the opposition.

The masses reject a dissident: Havana 2009

Under the weight of the mass movement, the public truly disappeared from sight, and the crowd lacked all spontaneous life or independence of purpose.  Everything was scripted, and the scripts appeared insincere almost by design – a tendency that attained a pathological intensity in North Korea, where the masses were made to perform acrobatic tricks usually reserved for the circus.  The shock caused by the joyous papal crowds owed much to the contrast with the official ones.

In the twenty-first century, the public has returned with a vengeance.  The reasons will be familiar to readers of this blog.  They include changes in the socioeconomic conditions which worried Lippmann and Dewey, but also a dramatic shift, favoring private persons, in access to the means of communication.  The resurgent public greatly expanded the communicative potential, and thus the ambiguity, of the crowd.  To march one step with a mass movement had implied adherence to a whole ideological program.  To march with the demonstrators in Cairo, however, meant opposition to the Mubarak regime, but said very little about the future of Egypt.

To authoritarian rulers like Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar Assad, the twenty-first century crowd represents a dangerous new thing under the sun.  Repression in the past aimed to cripple rival mass movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria.  If it succeeded in this task, the regime owned the street.  Today, the crowd is the creature of a largely unstructured public able to assemble and conduct its planning online.  Such intimacy with the public has allowed the crowd to escape predictable scripts and communicate itself directly to the world by posting cellphone video on the web, endowing the contagion of revolt with the speed of light.  This in turn has transformed the street into a domain of political uncertainty frightening to authoritarians.  Not surprisingly, their first instinct has been to turn back the clock to simpler times – shutting down the web in Egypt, switching off the electric power grid in the Syrian city of Daraa.

The unpredictability of the crowd is a factor of a vastly larger and more complex public.  In Syria, for example, the demonstrators and the Assad regime must appeal, simultaneously, to a domestic public, a regional Arabic-speaking public, and a global and largely English-speaking public.  Each will have relative influence over the political outcome – but the values are unknown.  The flow of information and influence appears far from linear:  persuasive images from the street travel freely from one public to another, mediated by diaspora figures like Ammar Abdulhammid and social media “connectors” like Andy Carvin.  In this confusing landscape, the only sure thing is transparency.  The day of the discreet massacre is over.  The regime can opt for old-fashioned violent repression – clearly it has done so in Syria – but at the price of becoming a global villain.  What this price will entail in terms of raw political power remains to be seen.

Today’s crowd has broken free of the mass movement, and surprised regimes which understand politics only in that context.  But it is not wholly unique or unprecedented in history.  In George Rude’s characterization of the “pre-industrial crowd,” we find traits familiar to observers of the serial uprisings in the Middle East:  lack of structured organization and overall leadership, for example, and a curious disinterest in programmatic demands.

The similarities are tantalizing enough to warrant a bit of speculation.  Let’s grant that mastery of communications technology has trumped the need for top-down discipline and ideological rigor.  In important ways, the resultant spontaneity of action may resemble an eighteenth-century food riot more than the twentieth’s choreographed mobilization of the masses.  Should this be the case, the wild card for anyone who can give an order to shoot to kill will be the strength and influence of a quicksilver pre-industrial crowd communicated by a digital age public.

The crowd communicates itself: Syria 2011

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