From a Murmur to a Drone

Not so long ago a video of a flock of starlings swooping and swirling as one body in the sky went viral. Only two minutes long, the video shows thousands of birds over the River Shannon in Ireland, pouring themselves across the clouds, each bird following the one next to it. The birds flew not so much in formation as they flew in the biological equivalent of phase transition. This phenomenon of synchronized bird flight is called a murmuration. What makes the murmuration hypnotic is the starlings’ seemingly uncoordinated coordination, a thousand birds in flight, like fluid flowing across the skies. But there’s something else as well. Something else about the murmuration that appeals to us at this particular moment, that helps to explain this video’s virality.

The murmuration defies our modern understanding of crowds. Whether the crazed seagulls of Hitchcock’s The Birds, the shambling hordes of zombies that seem to have infected every strain of popular culture, or the thousands upon thousands of protestors of the Arab Spring, we are used to chaotic, disorganized crowds, what Elias Canetti calls the “open” crowd (Canetti 1984). Open crowds are dense and bound to grow denser, a crowd that itself attracts more crowds. Open crowds cannot be contained. They erupt. Continue reading “From a Murmur to a Drone”

The Origins of Totalitarianism

The same thought trajectory that brought me to Le Bon’s work on crowds has led me to something I should’ve read a long time ago: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is Arendt’s thoughtful and relentlessly critical dissection of totalitarian movements and nations. In a later chapter called “Totalitarianism in Power,” Arendt argues that the ultimate goal of totalitarian governments is “to conquer the globe and bring all countries on earth under their domination.”

As a result, Arendt argues, a totalitarian government rules as if it were only a matter of time until the world is in fact under its control. Totalitarian regimes, Arendt writes,

conduct their foreign policy on the consistent assumption that they will eventually achieve this ultimate goal, and never lose sight of it no matter how distant it may appear or how seriously its “ideal” demands may conflict with the necessity of the moment. They therefore consider no country as permanently foreign, but, on the contrary, every country as their potential territory. (p. 415)

Let me be clear here: Arendt is specifically talking about Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She’s not talking about any other nation. And I don’t mean to imply–as one might infer from my politics–that Arendt’s argument can be applied to today’s powerful nations.

The United States is not Nazi Germany. Bush is not Hitler.

Yet Arendt’s remark is nonetheless highly illuminating for the present situation, if only because it underscores how power now operates in the world.

For all the bombs’ bursting red glare and all the talk of bunker busters, the new regimes operate in a fundamentally non-dominational spirit. Or at least (in most cases) the domination assumes a form more alluring than the military occupation that Arendt wrote about. The most striking difference between a totalitarian government like the Nazis and imperial powers today is that the new Empire does not seek to conquer the globe by force, but rather, by a hegemonic false sense of consensus.

In the end, it’s much easier to convince people they want to do something (through powerful media strategies, educational policies, religious orthodoxy) than to hold a gun to their head and force them to do it. That is, essentially, the definition of hegemony.

And the hegemony that has been most wildly successful, the hegemony that is the cockroach of all ideologies, the hegemony that not only convinces people they want to do something, but more importantly convinces them they want to buy something, is global capitalism.

Globalization is the new totalitarianism.

The Crowd

I discovered a gem tonight in Gustave Le Bon’s classic 1895 study of crowds, La Psychologie des foules. “Civilisations as yet,” Le Bon writes, “have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

I like the tone of this. All fire and brimstone and presciently tapped into the mob psychology of the Facists. Such a welcome counterpoint to the current oh-the-masses-are-so-wise thinking that dominates the networked era.

Le Bon goes on, in his quaint 19th century French manner, to discuss Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and how Napoleon, though he possessed a “marvellous insight into the psychology of the masses of the country over which he reigned,” had somehow “completely misunderstood the psychology of crowds belonging to other races” (i.e. the Spanish). And then, in a witty footnote that would be comical were it not for its uncanny resonance with the present, Le Bon comments that Napoleon’s

most subtle advisers, moreover, did not understand this psychology any better. Talleyrand wrote him that “Spain would receive his soldiers as liberators.” It received them as beasts of prey.

Now, where I have heard that before? Soldiers greeted as liberators? Sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. And the second part, about being received as “beasts of prey”? Again, that vaguely seems hazily to be something foggily that is very nearly barely on the tip of my tongue. But I rack my brains and I can’t come up with it.

Le Bon continues in his footnote, “A psychologist acquainted with the hereditory insticts of the Spanish race would have easily foreseen this reception.” Le Bon frames in terms of instinct and race what is better understand in terms of culture and context: invaders are not liberators, occupiers are not liberators, and, when strategic natural resources are involved–whether it’s control of Atlantic shipping in the early 19th century or Mideast oil in the early 21st–the soldiers are indeed seen by the aggrieved crowds as beasts of prey.

Christmastime Crowds in Madrid

The holiday season in Madrid is still full swing and doesn’t wind down until after Kings’ Day, January 6th. Spanish streets are always teeming with people, and even more so in Christmastime. And I don’t mean simply crowded. I mean crowded in the fullest sense of the word: packed with crowds. From Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Mayor, a distance of a quarter mile (with my apartment exactly in the middle), the streets are essentially one surging mass of people.

So I’ve been thinking about crowds lately.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire meditated upon crowds, and the German critic Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire’s reflections to highlight the difference between the manic man of the crowd and the leisurely flâneur, who idles down the sidewalk. In a witty aside in his essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin remarks that Parisian flâneurs often walked through the arcades with a turtle on a leash, nonchalantly allowing the turtle to set the pace.

A turtle on a leash is precisely what walking through the crowded streets of Madrid during Christmastime is like when an eighteen-month-old boy is holding your hand and leading the way.

Our pace was ours alone.

Every interesting piece of rubbish on the sidewalk, we stopped. Every store window with either a soccer ball or Nativity scene, we stopped. Every scooter or motercycle parked, we stopped. Every street performer, mime, or busker, we stopped.

It’s a new way to see the city. A revelation.

Pictured here (Larger Image) is one street performer on Calle de Preciados that particularly drew my son’s attention: a man who, despite the windblown action pose, is standing completely stationary until someone drops a few coins at his feet. Then he moves mechanically like a Disney Hall of Presidents animatronic, only to “shut down” again in a few moments.

It’s the Man of the Crowd as a living statue.