The Mob and the Mass
On differences between collectives forming to destroy "givens" and collectives forming because of "givens."
Perhaps all collectives end similar in consequence, but they are not identical in origin. The French Revolution and Nazism both entailed groups and crowds, but while the French Revolution deconstructed societal norms, Nazism became a societal norm and was incubated by norms. Classically, there have been efforts to associate Western Liberalism with Stalin and Conservatism with Hitler, but I cannot say I find this distinction helpful: for me, it is much more productive to consider the difference between the Mob which destroys “givens,” and the Mass which results because of “givens” — this far better captures “the tragedy of us.”
Now, we could argue that Nazism started as a Mob and become a Mass, so I don’t mean to say the categories are rigid and cannot overlap, but at the same time I think it is very important to recognize that we cannot escape “collectivist dangers” by either becoming entirely Liberal or entirely Conservative, as we cannot liberate individuals from “collective dangers” through “deconstructing givens” or “maintaining givens.” We are always at risk. “No exit.”
Considering Nietzsche, we could associate Dionysus with “The Mob” (“The French Revolution”), while Apollo gives us “The Mass” (“Nazi Germany”). The Mob is when we rebel against the “oppressive” social order for the sake of individual authenticity, desire, morality, etc., while the Mass is created when we follow the social order “thoughtlessly” (which is “the banality of evil”), easily against those very “rebels” supposedly defending individual authenticity, desire, morality, etc. (when really we “know” the “rebels” are destroying these values). The Mass and the Mob are opposites in a way, and yet they are also identical in being collectives and possibly totalitarian.
It is impossible for me to imagine Nietzsche’s philosophy generating “the banality of evil,” and so it is impossible for me to imagine Nietzsche supporting Nazi Germany, even if Nietzsche might ironically motivate a “French Revolution” which brought about a Nazi Germany to stabilize. This brings to mind The Iconoclast by Samuel Barnes, and we could associate “The Iconoclast” with the one who brings about the Mob, while “The Dogmatist” brings about the Mass. Which is more dangerous? Mobs and Masses have killed millions and made millions miserable. We must avoid both, but how might we accomplish this goal? Indeed, that is the question.
“How Freud Unites Inception, Hannah Arendt, and QAnon” by O.G. Rose explored how the feeling of “being in a movie” and “being in a dream” overlap when we are in a group, a psychological experience that’s potential is found in everyone (it is part of our very “Real” or Pathos now, to allude to Lacan, versus something “emergent” which isn’t in us at all times). This makes us innately primed to join a Mob if we are not careful, but it is also the case that the natural desire of our brains to save energy primes us to engage in the “thoughtlessness” that makes us part of a Mass. Between Mass and Mob, we must tread, and the slim rod on which we balance is made of glass — basically invisible.
Edmund Burke in mind, we could say that the Mob is a sublime release, a manifestation of “the pleasure principle” unrestrained by “the reality principle,” while the Mass is a moralization of “beauty,” symmetry, and harmony at the expense of people. The Mob is goodness without beauty, while the Mass is beauty without goodness. Both create their own truth, but lacking “the three infinities” all at once, neither ends up with any truth that’s greater than notion. Worse yet, both end up in terror.
Though the experiment has been criticized recently, it is still interesting to see “The Standard Prison Experiment” as something that resembles a movie and dream (which creates a feeling of distance from reality, which facilitates bad behavior). The guards had roles, like actors, and “the group of the guards” was poised against “the group of the prisoners” (suggesting a possible mixture of “group psychology” with “scapegoating”). To those in the experiment, it easily felt like a dream or something people “could get lost in,” and certainly everyone found themselves “acting a role” which they ceased being able to dissociate themselves with (as in dreams we find ourselves “in roles” we can’t imagine we’re “not actually”). The feeling of “being in a dream/movie” seems to define a feeling of the Mob, but aren’t the guards in the experiment more so “thoughtless?” Doesn’t that define a Mass? Indeed, the overlap is real, and when we live according to “givens” we take on roles and “parts” which support the nation and our community (for good and for bad). But it is precisely this overlap that suggests why neither Mass nor Mob is the answer to our social troubles, even if at times one of them seems like it will be: ultimately, Mobs becomes Masses, and Masses are “thoughtless.” And yet there are times when we need to deconstruct “givens,” risking the Mob, as there are times when we need “givens,” risking the Mass. What must we do?
As further evidence that Mobs and Masses can bleed into one another ultimately, “What Does Strauss Have to Do With Arendt?” by O.G. Rose attempted to argue that we can understand what Strauss describes not as opposite to Arendt, but as a desire to return to the very “givens” which cause “the banality of evil.” German Nihilism leads to Arendt, we could say, and in this we can see how a Mob can lead to a Mass, in the same way that a Mob like what arose in the French Resolution occurred precisely to stop the corruptions and oppressions of the Mass. The Mob and the Mass are always entangled and fighting, like two coiled vipers. G.K. Chesterton’s quote comes to mind — ‘[m]arriage is a duel to the death, which no man of honor should decline’ — seeing as society is a relationship.
The Mass results “from oppressive norms/sanity,” while the Mob results “from opposing sanity/norms”; the Mass is what Foucault and Arendt warned about, while the Mob is what Burke and Tocqueville lamented (though both can lead into the other). Alright, but if Mobs and Masses can converge, why do we need the distinction? Because the starting conditions are different, and if we are not aware of this we might think we are avoiding the outcomes of the Mass by starting with the conditions which arise to the Mob, as we might think we are avoiding the outcomes of the Mob by starting with the conditions which arise to the Mass. We might think we’re safe when danger lurks large.
We need both Strauss and Arendt to understand the paradox of our human condition and how we are all prone to incredibly consequential irony: our efforts to stop the Mob with the Mass can be precisely what causes a Mob in response, as our efforts to oppose the Mass with the Mob can precisely be what brings about a new Mass (that is easily worse than what came before). We cannot save ourselves through the Mob or the Mass, but why exactly — and the implications of this impossibility — are what “Belonging Again” will explore.
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