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Crowds and Power

A new way of looking at human history and psychology

By Elias Canetti
18-minute read
Audio available
Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti

Crowds and Power (1960) is a troubling, prophetic and erudite analysis of human groups and their interaction with power. Written by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, it asks why humans who prize individuality seek out membership in crowds and how rulers exploit that desire. This study is as wide-ranging in the sources it draws upon as it is thought-provoking in the conclusions it reaches.

  • Readers of classic books
  • Sociologists, historians and philosophers
  • Anyone with an interest in the dynamics of crowds and power

Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was a German-language novelist, sociologist, memoirist and playwright. Born in Bulgaria, Canetti moved to Austria with his family before fleeing Nazi persecution and settling in England. His best known works include the novels Auto-Da-Fè and The Human Province; his memoir, The Torch in My Ear; and his sociological study, Crowds and Power. Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 for his unique achievements as a writer.

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Crowds and Power

By Elias Canetti
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti
Synopsis

Crowds and Power (1960) is a troubling, prophetic and erudite analysis of human groups and their interaction with power. Written by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, it asks why humans who prize individuality seek out membership in crowds and how rulers exploit that desire. This study is as wide-ranging in the sources it draws upon as it is thought-provoking in the conclusions it reaches.

Key idea 1 of 11

There are five different types of crowd that can be distinguished by their emotional content.

If you’ve ever been running late for work on a crowded commuter train that suddenly grinds to a halt, you might have experienced something like this:

As the train stops, there’s a shift in people’s behavior. Just seconds ago, everyone was immersed in their own small world; now, as frustration mounts, there’s suddenly a sense of togetherness. Everyone’s anger is directed at the same target and everyone wants the same thing – to get the train running again.

That’s a great example of how a crowd forms.

A crowd isn’t just a large number of people – it’s a mass in which members identify with one another. When that happens, people enter into something that’s greater than the sum of their individual parts: a crowd. In that moment, there’s a sense of equality. Every member enjoys the same standing, regardless of previous differences.

Those are the general traits of all crowds, but there are also specific types of crowds. In fact, there are five different kinds of crowd according to their emotional content.

Let’s start with the baiting crowd. This crowd has a clear objective – to kill its chosen target. A classic example is the crowd that called for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Then there are flight crowds. These are formed when a group of people is faced with a common threat. Once the danger passes, however, the crowd dissolves.

Next are prohibition crowds. Their purpose is refusal – think of striking workers manning a picket line.

Reversal crowds are also rebellious, but their aim is to overturn existing power hierarchies. They form when slaves revolt against their masters or soldiers turn their weapons on their officers.  

Finally, there are feast crowds. Their purpose? Common and equal indulgence, typically in the form of lavish food-based festivals.

Let’s get back to what all these types of crowd have in common. There are four attributes that define all crowds.

The first is growth. Once a crowd exists, it tends to expand; it “wants” more people to join it.

Second is equality. As soon as a crowd has formed, all its members are equal.

Third, crowds are typically dense. Bodies are pressed up against each other, and nothing can stand in the way of this proximity or divide members from one another.

Finally, every crowd has a goal. Without a purpose, the crowd disperses and people become individuals concerned with their personal affairs once more. Once Jesus had been crucified, for example, the crowd that had been baying for his blood left the scene, and its members returned to their normal lives.

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