The Populist Crowd and the Age of the Internet

Elias Canetti’s concept of the ‘crowd’ can help the Left understand online populism, argues Hirbohd Hedayat.

Although the continued ascendancy of populists both in Italy and elsewhere is well documented, the need to consider such politics in relation to the internet is often left aside.  Though the rise of social media as a political instigator is a fairly recent phenomenon, it is worth considering the mass psychology and existential appeal of populist parties to varying populations, the individuals that comprise these populations, and in turn, what these developments signal about democratic politics.  A case is made here that Elias Canetti’s concept of the crowd is especially useful in understanding the current wave of political movements: Canetti’s crowd provides an explanation of how individual differences are dissolved and translated into political potential which fits the movements we are witnessing at present.

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London’s own populism – photograph by David B Young and licensed under the Creative Commons

This approach is prompted by an ever-present and ever-pressing gap: in seeking to rationalize and understand the rise of populist political movements, commentators and intellectuals have neglected to understand the dynamics of the populace itself.  In Crowds and Power[1], Canetti provides a term, the crowd, through which analysis can move away from formal principles that seek to rationalize or materialize the movement of populations and their economic motivations towards an analysis that focuses on the content of movements and their appeal to individuals.  These dynamics are especially important when considering the role the internet plays in forming crowds. If a populist movement is rooted in the notion of a populace, the task is to understand said populace and the existential needs fulfilled by populist politics.

Canetti’s analytical method makes room for the passions that drive the daily life of humans— and considers the concatenations of daily movements that ultimately turn into mass political movements.  Political movements take on the veneer of ideology in response to contemporaneous events, their underlying motivations are rooted in emotionalities that can always be politically cogent, because ideology also works by activating these very same emotionalities.  In this case, the mass psychology of the crowd serves as a tool for understanding the basic function of human societies and mass groupings.  By focusing not on the production of subjectivities and the ways in which social pressures generate biopolitical politics (as Foucaultians are wont to do), but instead focusing on the series of dynamics that constitute the public sphere, Canetti gives an alternative analysis that is rooted in the ability of the mass movement or basic gathering of humans to serve a fundamental role that moves beyond the individual as subject.

The analytic presented by Canetti could be described in general terms as “bottom up”, but it provides a valuable tool for understanding movements of human activity that begin as smaller fringe movements but can become intensified, almost spontaneously – a movement which seems particularly vital in today’s political moment. The crowd serves a fundamental social purpose and it is related to the looming psychic presence of death and the fear and anxiety that is generated by this presence.  Political action and the mass political movement of the crowd makes it possible for the individual to move beyond their own sense of self and in doing so give their respective lives meaning and move away from any potential existential conundrum by identifying with their respective grouping. This dynamic at first seems like an overly- simple explanation for a phenomenon like nationalism that can also explain the overall appeal of politics (as Hannah Arendt notes in The Human Condition), but in this case, the most simple explanation is the most powerful.  Overall, Canetti’s work provides a sorely neglected meditation on the social function of crowds.

John Judis has recently argued that populism is a political logic that seeks to establish an antagonistic relationship between “the people” and a notion of the elite, such as the proverbial “technocrats in Brussels.”[2]  The political logic of populism is quite powerful as an oppositional force to a government in power, especially in the face of economic and political crises; and it speaks to a potentially larger conflict in political thought: the notion of the demos and what it means to have democratic politics.

In naming “the people,” populism puts a particular understanding of the demos into play.  The manner in which a notion of “the people” is understood in every context can provide the means for an inclusionary or exclusionary politics that seeks a restructuring of political practice in the name of combating an elite.  However, if the definition of what constitutes the demos is always under question, to what extent does political practice actually depend on the demos for its function?  This raises a broader Agamben-esque question on the role of “bare life” in the functioning of modern democracy, especially when understanding the degree to which the rise of populism is tied to the ability of a perceived political apparatus to provide for a notion of happiness and freedom couched in the economic language of “opportunity” for lifeAgamben’s notion of the democratic aporia—the fundamental contradiction that marks modern democracy— is rooted in democracy’s inability to save zoe[3] from ruin, especially in the face of economic decline.  Populist movements indicate the response to—and ultimately the presence of— the democratic aporia: modern democracies are incapable of saving zoe from economic ruin, although they promise to do so.

The internet has re-shaped the ways crowds form, and in turn, the possibilities of political action and the formations of political movements.  In the contemporary age, political life and the prospect of mass political action seems to have been relegated to the cybersphere: where action in the physical world is first deemed possible via cyber-organization.  Rallies in support or protest are first organized and sanctioned by online activity and only then can it be put into physiical practice. It seems to be the case that in place of spontaneous action, political action is turning into playacting and increasingly following directions found online, whether on social media or the website of a political group.  Marches and protests are being organized months ahead of time and almost seem to lose their connection to events that first prompted reaction—not to mention the degree to which location, direction, and duration of these events are determined prior to any physical gathering.

The crowd in its spontaneous form—an almost instant reaction to an event— is  moving away from the realm of the political and is becoming best manifest in the moments after sports teams win championships and their supporters break out into celebration (and eventually a celebratory mass) on the pitch or in the streets, but it is still possible for the spontaneous crowd to first form online and eventually actualize in the physical world (think, for instance, of the role of organization through social media in quickly influencing mass movements around the so-called Arab Spring or some of the more recent marches in the United States). Contemporary political thought has focused heavily on the production of political subjects and the relationship of the individual to the social, but in doing so it might have lost sight of the phenomenon that precisely grants political movements and mass movements their greatest function: the dissolution of the individual, the breaking away of classist distinctions, and the equality of all within and before the growing mass, the crowd.

Populist movements provide the most powerful link between the individual and the crowd/mass and grow greater with time as the economic basis of societies face prolonged stagnation or tempered growth combined with a lingering sense of doom.  Analyses based on a notion of homo oeconomicus are failing precisely because the order on which homo oeconomicus was formed is facing a crisis.  To recognize this problem is one matter, to act on it is another.  The fundamental emphasis on the political power and potential of the mass has not disappeared, if anything, the political potential of the crowd has grown.

[1] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1960).

[2] John B.   Judis, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016), 13-14.

[3] The ancient Greeks distinguished between two terms that are both translated into English as “life.” Zoe can most simply be understood as organic living, while bios is a mode of life (such as a life dedicated to politics) that is only possible if simple life is secured.


Hirbohd Hedayat is a master’s student in philosophy at University College London.

Everyday Analysis is a politico-theoretical collective which has been operating internationally since 2012. The driving concept behind EDA is to unite specific theoretical or philosophical concepts with political and cultural analysis. Interested contributors – who can be anonymous or named – can find details here.

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