The power of crowds
The long read: Even before the pandemic, mass gatherings were under threat from draconian laws and corporate seizure of public space. Yet history shows that the crowd always finds a way to return
”, they were drawing on exactly the ideas that Le Bon sketched out in the 19th century.In recent decades, detailed analytical research has produced ever-more sophisticated insights into crowd behaviour, many of which disprove these long-standing assumptions. “Crowds have an amazing ability to police themselves, self-regulate, and actually display a lot of pro-social behaviour, supporting others in their group,” says Anne Templeton, an academic at Edinburgh University who studies crowd psychology. She points to the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack, in which CCTV footage showed members of the public performing first aid on the wounded before emergency services arrived, and Mancunians rushed to provide food, shelter, transport and emotional support for the victims. “People provide an amazing amount of help in emergencies to people they don’t know, especially when they’re part of an in-group.”
Strange things happen to our brains when we’re in a crowd we’ve chosen to be part of, says Templeton. We don’t just feel happier and more confident, we also have a lower threshold of disgust. This is why festivalgoers will happily share drinks (and by dint of their proximity, sweat) with strangers, or Hajj pilgrims will share the sometimes bloody razors used to shave their heads. In a crowd, we feel safer from harm.
If we now have a better grasp of the complexity of crowd dynamics, the core truth about them is relatively simple: they have the potential to magnify both the good and bad in us. The loss of self in a crowd can lead to unthinkable violence, just as it can ecstatic transcendence. What is striking is that, in recent decades, the latter has troubled the British establishment every bit as much as the former.
‘The open crowd is the true crowd,” wrote Elias Canetti in his 1960 book Crowds and Power – “the crowd abandoning itself freely to its natural urge for growth”, rather than those hemmed in by authorities, limited in shape and size. The Sermon on the Mount, he writes, was delivered to an open crowd. The obsequious flock, the brainwashed cult, the army marching in lock-step, is a world away from a fluid, democratic, sometimes anarchic congregation of the people. These open crowds have become harder to find, and harder to keep open.
Contemporary Britain’s idea of the crowd was formed by two explosions in unruly mass culture at the end of the last century. First, by 70s and 80s football fandom and its manifold sins, and the avoidable tragedy of Hillsborough – a tragedy created by the authorities’ views of the crowd as animalistic thugs, a fear and loathing that permeated the media, police, political class and football authorities. And second, by the acid house explosion and rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s, a subcultural surge of illegal or at least illicit “free parties” in fields and warehouses across the country. Both cultures flourished in spite of widespread media demonisation, both fought the law – and in both cases, the law won. Things have never been the same since for people who wish to assemble on their own terms.
The policing, containment and enclosure of “free” raves is particularly instructive, suggesting that the authorities fear a happy crowd as much as a pitchfork-carrying one. For the novelist Hari Kunzru,reflecting onhis 90s youth a few years ago, approaching the site of a rave, feeling “the bass pulsing up ahead, the excitement was almost unbearable. A mass of dancers lifting up like a single body … [an] ecstatic fantasy of community, a zone where we were networked with each other, rather than with the office switchboard.”
An acid house party in Berkshire in 1989.Photograph: Rex/ShutterstockThe culmination of the rave era, and the beginning of its end, was the epochal 1992 Castlemorton Common festival, a week-long, outdoor free party in Worcestershire, with numbers in excess of 20,000. Writing about it in the Evening Standard, Anthony Burgess summed up the establishment mood, railing against “the megacrowd, reducing the individual intelligence to that of an amoeba”. One man’s escapist fantasy of community is another’s vision of civilisational collapse, and the Thatcher-into-Major-era junta of the tabloid press, police, landowners and the Conservative party made it their business to disperse rave’s congregation of squatters, dropouts, drug-takers, hippies, hunt saboteurs, anti-road protesters and travellers.
In 1994, parliament passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, whichoutlawedany open air, night-time public congregation around amplified music. “For this purpose,” the act specified, “‘music’ includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Any ambiguity about the target of the legislation was wiped away during the House of Lords debate on the bill. The Conservative deputy leader of the House, the hereditary peer Earl Ferrers,
suggestedan amendment “which would catch a rave party but would not also catch a Pavarotti concert, a barbecue or people having a dance in the early hours of the evening”. I do hope, replied another, that they would not risk jailing Pavarotti under the new legislation.Read more: The Guardian »
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