CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 8b. Interlude (Summary for Parts 1-8, the Book So Far)

16 July 2013


If those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, then those who know history are bound to repeat it.

The inadequacy of this statement points to the need for better specification. However, insofar as Machiavelli’s Prince (and books like it) operate from a willfully limited view of the notion of the practice of power (as it played out in history), then anyone properly knowledgeable about such history (the practice of power) must be bound to repeat history, as Machiavelli makes clear, or else they will fail in the political arena.

Such a willfully limited view of the notion of the practice of power, then, amounts to the lie that (attempts to) justify oppression.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-ninth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s [1] Crowds and Power and the summary for Parts 1–8 (the whole of the book so far) overall.[2]

Canetti so far has divided his text in eight parts: the Crowd, the Pack, the Pack and Religion, the Crowd in History, the Entrails of Power, the Survivor, Elements of Power, and the Command. Whatever part Canetti imagined that the sections “The Pack and Religion,” “The Crowd in History,” “The Entrails of Power,” and “Elements of Power” should play in his exposition overall, they function primarily as asides at best. Moreover, despite the length of attention paid to the Crowd itself (in section 1), the scattered fragments of exposition don’t add up too much when Canetti finally returns to the theme in section 8 (the Command); ditto for whatever one might adduce about the Pack.[3]

In effect, this constructs a primary superhighway or path though the book from “The Crowd” to “The Survivor” and “The Command,” which Canetti closes by writing:

From whatever aspect we consider the command, we can now see that, as we know it today, in the compact and perfected form it has acquired in the course of its long history, it is the most dangerous single element in the social life of mankind. We must have the courage to stand against it and break its tyranny. The full weight of its pressure must be removed; it must not be allowed to go more than skin-deep. The stings that man suffers must become burrs which can be removed with a touch (333).

So, one can hardly miss Canetti’s desired emphasis here. Such commands issue from various sources, of course, and Canetti sporadically characterizes them in his usual incoherent fashion, but a very significant issuer of commands consists of the survivor. From Canetti’s description, I have referred to such a survivor in Canetti’s sense as a (malignant) narcissist.[4] To call someone a survivor, in Canetti’s sense, makes for fighting words; and Canetti essentially defames all people in power as more or less openly or semi-domesticated malignant narcissists (survivors).

In this respect, we should not forget that the most basic “survivor” in Canetti’s exposition appears in the person of the parent, perhaps even more specifically the mother. The mother, as the original issuer of commands, loads up her children with countless “stings” that, if not evaded, will manifest automatically and unconsciously in later life, when the one previously stung then “returns the favor” on the next generation of children—or, more simply, anyone weaker upon whom one may expend a sting with impunity.

So, Canetti yokes together a dubious (and naïve) theory of childhood trauma to justify the future behavior of eventual commanders. Just as the (bogus) social contract of childhood says that you must suffer today at the hands of your parents but may make your own decisions in the future when you have your own children, the analogical point that emerges runs: if you find yourself (historically) victimized today, become a victimizer.

To the extent that this appears to offer a grim diagnosis, Canetti offers two palliatives: (1) the crowd—as a place where commands don’t leave stings an where the unbearable conditions of individuality get (at least temporarily) alleviated—and (2) art (specifically Stendhal’s fiction). Thus, the bogus analogy between whatever model of abuse of power we might read out of the parent-child dichotomy that misleadingly characterizes the etiology of abuse of power in the social domain similarly generates a false solution to the problem: the alleviation of individual suffering we may find in the (collective, non-individuality) of the (social) crowd.

Canetti admits that his method—borrowed from Stendhal, who wrote fiction let us remember—for composing this supposedly non-fiction book Crowds and Power involves presenting his subjective reactions to both events themselves and representations of events (in texts, myths, published fiction, &c). And these subjective reactions doubtless will resonate with those who have similar subjective reactions to similar events.

In that declaration I like to often cite from Suttner (2005): I use the word intellectual to refer to those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (130).[5] Canetti’s work clearly provides this sort of intellectual function. So we raiontally may expect his framing (coherent or not) to give sense to people how have had particular (unhappy or self-pitying) experiences.

Being well-informed on any topic about which one might provide this sort of attempted coherent account of the world stands as a desirable prerequisite and criteria for anyone attempting such account, but this kind of informedness only improves the coherence of the account. In other words, absence of such desirable informedness doesn’t necessarily stop anyone from writing, does not inhibit generation of the account itself. From the standpoint of another, more relatively well-informed account, this makes such uninformed attempts appear incoherent—and indeed, Canetti’s book offers large quantities of incoherence. But, again, this doesn’t mean the incoherent account “dies” in the social realm.

Clearly, we need to add more criteria to Suttner’s (2005) declaration of the function of the intellectual. But what I want most of all to emphasize: whatever coherence Canetti’s intellectual object offers, its greatest defect arises in thinking it offers the only possible object. We all, in our own incoherent subjective responses to events (and representations of events in the world, in myth, in fiction, in narratives), may attempt our own or rely upon another’s intellectual work to provide a coherent account. In this respect, everyone stands to some degree as an intellectual within her or his own life. But the intellectual in Suttner’s sense speaks in the public domain, as Canetti does here, as I do now. In that social address, the acknowledgment of others cannot disappear, cannot get erased. In other words, the substitution of a subjectivity in the place of all subjectivities not only should not happen but in fact represents a most fundamental annihilation of human dignity and identity in the first place. Intolerant monotheism (in all three of its main forms as the Judaisms, Christianities, and Islams) with its substitution of a god for the god makes a fine case for just how far-ranging and destructive this gesture can get.

This all takes on an especially worrisome aspect in Canetti’s work, because his subjective reactions stem from (real or perceived) trauma. Thus, just as Freud got justly criticized for deriving all of the human psyche from neurotic examples, Canetti reprises this error, imagining the tyrannized child as eventually the tyrannizing survivor (in the political realm).  The main objection to this rather sickeningly bourgeois template—as also against Freud—involves the manifold historical examples of spoiled children who merely went on still acting spoiled once they got the reins of power, but also the example of Gautama, an apparently privileged (spoiled) child who renounced the abuse of power that historical circumstances would otherwise have permitted him—as privilege does.

So, if Canetti’s subjective reaction to humiliation (at the psychologically familial and socially historical levels) means transforming from victim to victimizer, let that resonate with other (narcissistic) personalities but certainly as a matter of social policy and myth we should feel under no obligation to accept that as universal, or even the majority opinion.

The point I cannot miss: Canetti elaborates this form of (subjective) response to (personal and/or historical) humiliation as a justification for oppressing others. He hunts through the anthropological record, looking for examples to support his contention that we should hold this state of affairs as “natural”[6] —and much of my response in this series has devoted itself to exposing how he misreads, misquotes, bowdlerizes, or misinterprets those examples (whether deliberately or not) to fit his preconceived conclusion. He at least pays lip service to, and perhaps  even wants to provide, an alternative to this hopeless cycle of victimization followed by the victimization of others, but only a sucker (i.e., someone not a survivor) would read that out of this text. If Canetti stands innocent of malice aforethought, then his garish ignorance all the more makes this “coherent account” of exceptionally limited social use.

So, I disagree strenuously that the command poses the most dangerous single element in the social life of mankind. At one level, the most dangerous single element appears as the victimized victimizer, the socialized malignant narcissist who gets ahold of the reins of power (at whatever scale: national, state, city, family). But this problem stands only more like a rabid dog in our midst;[7] at least once we recognize the problem, we have ways to deal with it. The greater danger, then, occurs when rabid dogs tell us we should follow their example.

The victimized victimizer—whether a malignant narcissist or not—lives within a closed loop, where he or she must proactively and preemptively destroy others on the anxiety (if not sometimes the legitimate fear) that those others intend destruction themselves. This has the convenient resort of never finding out whether a suspicion proved true or not; one may read in the titles of chapters to come in Canetti’s book that paranoiac rulers enter the ambit of his consideration.[8] So the victimized victimizer, as the wounding wounder, presents a particularly problematic social case, because he (or she) treats any approaching other through the (paranoid) lens, “You too come to wound me.” Our own sympathy for wounded people may similarly make us sensitive to bringing about a too-direct confrontation, and so it seems important to remember that—by Canetti’s own exposition—behind all of this lies childhood trauma, and how does one deal with childhood trauma, whether in a child or an adult? We may act gently, circumspectly–yes, of course–but as adults we do not determine public policy (at the level of family, city, state, or nation) on the basis of that childishness. A child may be terrified that getting his hair cut will hurt, but no parents I have ever known did not cut their child’s hair for that reason; the traumatized dog may want to bite everyone who comes into the house, but the responsible dog owner (of that dog) does not let the dog indulge that whim.

At a less non-social level of analysis, most assuredly States (or, more properly, factions of power within States) do exploit victims to victimize others, as the parade of Sandyhook parents for the sake of another attempted assault gun ban in the United States shows,[9] or as the exploitation of 9/11 for historic reversals of civil liberties demonstrates. By “a less non-social level of analysis,” I mean to get away from Canetti’s dubious reductive equation of self and society, the individual domain and the public domain. Just as it seems largely a piece of Romantic nonsense on Canetti’s part to fantasize all commands (from a mother) as reflecting hostile intent—the desire to impose a death sentence even—it becomes similarly silly to project that into the political arena, where as one veteran British politician assured everyone that “cock-up, not conspiracy” makes more of a norm than conspiracy theorists would want to acknowledge.

What this “personalization” of things accomplishes, then, hides the structural element of power in the first place. In the facile dichotomy between “terrible mother” and “saintly mother,” we miss that the dichotomy itself gets set up by the social conditions that comprise families in the first place. In other words, whether Mom acts wonderfully or horribly, the context of such acting already rests on a structural parent-child distinction where might actually locate the “real” problem. So to generalize family conditions to government merely transposes this error to the public domain, so that whether government operates in a “good” or “bad” way hides the structure of governance that illegitimately makes the State the only holder of social power—so that it take 33 million people in a country to offset that governmental conceit.

It remains positively feudal to think about the government in such personal terms, an crucially obscures the difference that results when the victimized victimizer in the personal domain enters into the public domain (especially in politics). Again, within politics—and within the factions of governance that stand in play—the paranoid or victimized victimizers have their domains: national security being the most obvious example.

In daily life, when enough stands seriously enough at stake—when a threat to one’s continued existential being comes into play—preemptive paranoia starts to have a strong rhetorical appeal. At such times, too much seems at stake not to decisively act. However, this human anxiety takes on a distinctly different cast when embodied in non-human (institutional) form, and not simply in the sense that the “life” of the institution itself may come to feel threatened in a similar way.[10] Whatever I do, admirable or not, to keep my existential world together in what I perceive as a crisis at least generates some sympathy to the extent that the crisis gets recognized by others. At the institutional level, one may exploit a crisis to achieve some kind of end—as when the deliberate and willful act of financial terrorism in 2008 “forced” bush Jr. to sponsor a bail-out he didn’t like or when 9/11 permitted him to suspend habeas corpus. The sense of “necessity” in such acts does not resemble even the sort of necessity George Zimmerman claims to have responded to when murdering Trayvon Martin.

Generalizing from psychology to politics thus offers a significantly misleading misprision, but all the more so when the hermetically sealed world of the victimized victimizer gets equated as the adequate (much less the necessary) image of the leader. And in all of this, one sees the irrelevance of the crowd—t least when Canetti construes it as the place where the stings of the command might find succor. An individual might find relief in such a place, but what does that have to do with the practice of power?

The two short answers: crowds become resources one may exploit, and (more problematically), the victimizing crowd becomes the image of the practice of power. Canetti has followed the previous aspect more, tot eh extent that the attempts to construct something like an authoritarian personality, using the soldier as an exemplar. He has, from the beginning, sloppily an indiscriminately used crowd to refer to all groups of people, including the “closed” crowd of an institution. However, the various muddles rising out of Canetti’s exposition go beyond the scope of a summary; I’ve addressed them in previous posts anyway. For now, just as I reject any argument of necessity in “if you’ve been victimized, become a victimizer’ that applies on the plural scale as well “if you’re in a historically victimized group, then become one of history’s victimizing groups”.

I say this partly because the second half of either assertion (i.e., “become a victimizer” or “become one of history’s victimizing groups”) doesn’t require the first half: the appeal doesn’t require you stand as a victim (historically or personally) or not. I’ll just victimize you and claim after the fact I suffered abuse as a child or at the hands of history or whatnot. In point of fact, evidence from psychology falls against those who claim that childhood sufferers of sexual abuse go on to become perpetrators themselves; the opposite tends to occur. But we don’t need studies to state the obvious: we’ve all suffered in some way or another; most of us did not go on to become perpetrators.  To explain the etiology of perpetration requires more than the experience of getting perpetrated upon.

So “suffering” as an excuse for the infliction of suffering on others shows itself a hollow resort; we might do better to consider that people inflict suffering on others because they want to, even when those wants seem conflicted in the here and now in whatever way. In any case, that a child molester did suffer childhood sexual abuse doesn’t rationalize or justify his or her acts, however compulsive, so even those who did suffer still have no argumentative  leg to stand upon. Whatever palliative Canetti intends the crowd to provide individuals, his implication that gangs of terrorists—as victimizing groups—similarly fails to provide a rationale or justification for inflicting suffering on other (historical) groups of people.[11]

I suspect this point comprises the rhetorical/emotional “high point” for Canetti’s book.


[1] All quotations are from Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback).

[2] The ongoing attempt of this heap is to get something out of Canetti’s book, and that of necessity means resorting to the classic sense of the essay, as an exploration, using Canetti’s book as a starting point. I can imagine that the essayistic aspect of this project can be demanding—of patience, time, &c. The point of showing an essay, entertainment value (if any) aside, is first and foremost not to be shy about showing the intellectual scaffolding of one’s exposition as much as possible. This showing, however cantankerous the exposition, affords the non-vanity of allowing others to witness all of the missteps, mistakes, false starts, and the like—not in the interest of merely providing a full record (though some essayists may do so out of vanity or mere thoroughness, scholarly drudgery, or self-involvement) but most so that readers may be exasperated enough by the essayist’s stupidities to correct his or her errors and thus contribute to our collective better human understanding of ourselves.

[3] Which, as far as this series goes, turned out as one of the more fruitful jumping-off points.

[4] I put the word malignant in parentheses for two reasons. Strictly speaking, one may take malignant narcissi and psychopath as exact synonyms, and I wish to avoid pretending that all narcissists constitute malignant ones. But I also do not wish to elide entirely, especially in light of Canetti’s description of them, that some do warrant a designation as a malignant narcissist. However, I also use the word not in a strictly psychologically diagnostic sense; the phrase ultimately points in a rhetorical way to a quality of behavior by survivor’s in Canetti’s sense—a desire Canetti similarly seems to evince as well.

[5] One should not neglect the particular political emphasis Suttner underlines here. But also, he does not mean to understand “intellectual” and “educated” as identical. An education may help to provide the sort of vantage point one needs to perform the task of the intellectual as Suttner describes it, but education might just as easily inhibit or demotivate accomplishing such  tsk. The Hierophant, like the shaman, in its specifically religious form might as much liberate people as set the permanent trap that gives them no escape.

[6] Had I taken notes while reading Oyama’s (2000) Ontogeny of Information (see one of my replies here), I might have at hand some of the devastatingly apt quotations she provides for the sorts of accidental or intentional motivations one fins in those who want to reduce the human to the “natural”—whether understood in biological, evolutionary, or “primitive” anthropological terms. I may find some of the passages and provide them here; or meanwhile, you might simply read her book.

[7] The superficial charm of the malignant narcissist makes the analogy of rabid dog tenuous. We easily recognize a rabid dog; the malignant narcissist remains harder to spot.

[8] Though, in fact, his text has already dwelt some on this.

[9] I mention this because of its recentness, not because I think such political machination in the effort to ban assault weapons smacks of the grotesque.

[10] The institution, of course, does not have any feelings whatsoever, but the collected, not collective, interest of the people who inhabit the institution indirectly depend on the continued existence of the institution. This indirection makes for the major distinction with human-dependence at the personal level or in the personal domain.

[11]One may connect the notions of the “closed crowd” (as at least something like an “institution”) and Canetti’s primary emphasis on the “hunting pack” (as the most elemental kind of pack) into something of an image of victimizing institutional power. As someone who practices silence as a deliberate evasion, we might actually read the silences of Canetti’s text, but to do so opens up the paranoiac’s can(etti) of worms. More to the point, such silence merely guarantees plausible deniability for Canetti or his adherents, if craved. In any case, no such silence or non-silence by Canetti protects his work against barbaric misuse. His deafening silence on the Holocaust obviously allows the “message” of “if you’ve been historically victimized, become one of history’s victimizers” adoption by any Zionist terrorists. Similarly, the terrorists of Lehi illustrate a case of that most fundamental form, the hunting pack, which in 1980 the government of Israel created a service ribbon for. While the closed crowd of institutionalized Zionism, with all of the problems of who gets allowed in or not into an institution, reads out in the treatment of non-Ashkenazi people of Jewish descent in Israel, where people of Armenian and Sephardic Jewish descent, &c, got tapped and socially encasted (i.e., placed into a socially immobile caste) to work as a labor buffer against local Arab populations. This—in the era of the ad Hitlerum—simply provides the readiest example to hand; the origins of the United States have much the same elements, if not identical (we insist on not calling Washington’s guerrilla tactics “terrorism” of course). Importantly, the original settlers (the puritans) similarly felt persecuted for religious grounds—I say this to make the parallels that much less ambiguous. The closerness historically of Jewish atrocities in the Mideast may make them seem different in kind, rather than just degree, from the historical Anglo atrocities in the “New World”. The parallels with the Spanish, &c, invasion of the “New World” in the sixteenth century do not lend themselves to such exact parallels, but we might recall that Todorov (1984)* declared that the most extensive and worst holocaust in western history.

* Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press


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