The Wisdom of Crowds

Stefan Jonsson reminds us that without the uprising of the "swinish multitude", there would be no such thing as democracy

Text by Stefan Jonsson

Illustrations by Olivia Meier

At the peak of Clinton-era prosperity and enthusiastic globalisation theory, Manuel Castells published a gloomy three-volume work, The Information Age, in which he summed up the world situation on the eve of the new millennium. Describing how peoples and regions were being “switched off” from the grid of power and wealth, he stacked up empirical evidence of the “systematic relationship between the dynamics of the network society… and social exclusion”. Castells concluded that the “network society” was being perforated by “black holes” into which large parts of the world’s population were disappearing without trace. Did Castells, the sociologist, notice that he had become a poet? A network dotted with black holes – the image may have rung true. But what did it mean? Was this social science or science fiction?

Influential thinkers have always known that some of their efforts must go into finding the right metaphors. What would Marx’s Capital be without its lyrical passages, its colourful vivisection of 19th-century capitalist society? Castells is no exception. If today we are convinced that we live in a “network society”, it is partly because of him (although, admittedly, greater credit is due to the inventors of the internet). As for the “black holes”, however, it is unlikely the term will last. Metaphors coined to describe the underclasses rarely do: swinish multitudes, faceless masses, suffering poor, misérables, common herds and many similar phrases have come and gone.

As so often in the history of Western thought, Castells’ main example of a “black hole” was none other than Africa itself – more precisely the Congo, an extreme and exemplary case. But the Congos of the world are not so much holes as essential parts of the network: the exploitation of their resources and populations is simply a necessary precondition for amassing wealth in other places. The economist Joseph Stiglitz went a step further in Globalisation and Its Discontents (2003),explaining the network’s causal logic. He pointed the finger at the neoliberal paradigm that since the 1980s had animated the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, with their supporting band of state banks and stock markets. The “governance” of these organisations, Stiglitz said, had “the feel of a colonial ruler”. He described a system predicated on social exclusion, in which investment capital moves from one country to the next in pursuit of cheaper labour and bigger profit margins, abandoning entire regions and populations to a brute struggle for survival. Accumulation of wealth and power at one end of the system relies on pauperisation and death at the other end, so that large parts of the world, written off as bad investments, “fall away”, left in camps, ghettos and decaying cities.

In this sense, the contemporary world is suspended between “the network”, a kind of global “inside” accommodating everyone with access to employment and communications, and “the subaltern”, who may be encountered everywhere, “although they belong nowhere”, as the critic Siegfried Kracauer once said of the masses in Weimar Germany. In the definition of Gayatri Spivak, the main theorist of the phenomenon, “subaltern means being removed from all lines of social mobility”. Writers such as Castells, Kracauer and Spivak have often argued, though, that these “black holes” are not just sites of elimination. They are also spaces of emergence, areas where you might discover the new. As Castells wrote, the “downward spiral of poverty, then dereliction, finally irrelevance, operates until or unless a countervailing force, including people’s revolt against their condition, reverses the trend”.

Where might such a countervailing force come from? The most captivating books in political and social theory of the last decade, as well as some of the most interesting films and art works, have sought to name and put a face on this elusive “subject of history”. Two years after the third of Castells’ massive books, the US artist, photographer and theorist Allan Sekula showed Waiting for Tear Gas (2000), a photographic journal of the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in November/December 1999. Here was a preview of the “countervailing force”. One photograph shows a young woman with orange hair, sunglasses, a black top and a silver nose-ring, waiting for the demonstration to start moving downtown. In another, a middle-aged woman, visibly distressed, gazes straight into the camera; behind her, a police officer in anti-riot gear clenches his baton. In a third, a young man in combat trousers dries the blood from the face of a young woman kneeling in the street, crying and clasping her hands as if in prayer. Another photograph shows a woman in black, hair caught by the wind, marching forward and holding up a large mirror that reflects the line-up of policemen with tear gas grenades and rifles 10 metres in front of her.

Was this a portrait gallery of anarchism? Of democracy? For four days, Sekula walked around in the calm and turmoil of Seattle’s streets, creating one of the most remarkable documents of a protesting collective ever made. He shows the usual tribe of criminals, deluded anti-capitalist youth, fanatical enemies of free trade and globalisation, violent direct actionists and foolish tree-huggers. Or rather, he displays the politically engaged citizens usually hidden behind those labels. Sekula’s camera circled the action and was often drawn into the boring hours of waiting that make up the greater part of a protest march. The result was anti-journalistic: pictures shot without flash, auto-focus or telephoto lens, by a photographer without a press card and without the news photographer’s pressure to hunt down the one scene – the clash, the striking baton – that epitomises the drama. The images are of people, some in funny costumes or naked but for body paint, exchanging glances, talking, helping rinse out one another’s eyes, huddling at the feet of uniformed riot cops.

Sekula documented the collective before tear gas, rubber bullets and sound grenades dispersed it. The event itself is absent because it is impossible to frame – how do you photograph a crowd or a demonstration without resorting to cliché? Sekula’s images overflow with individuals, each of whom has made the decision to go out and shut down the WTO summit, in the conviction that many others will have made the same decision and that their number will prevail. The series could just as well have been called Waiting for Democracy.

If Sekula offered a first visual documentation of the 21st-century crowd, its first theoretical description came from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Readers of Empire (2000) knew who it was that Sekula had portrayed and who acted in subsequent demonstrations in Genoa, Gothenburg, Prague and elsewhere. It was “the multitude”. A term picked up from the pre-democratic 17th century thus came to frame debate on democratic reform and revolution at the dawn of the 21st. It was not a bad choice. Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish-Dutch philosopher from whom Hardt and Negri derived their concept, defined the multitude as the basic component of society – a community held together by its passions and needs. From it, Spinoza postulated an idea of absolute democracy: the governance of all by all, a society in which politics is simply the process of living together.

In choosing “the multitude”, Hardt and Negri discarded the notion of “the people”. As soon as there is a people, they argued, there is also a leader, dictating the common law and drawing the boundary to shut out those who do not belong. The multitude, by contrast, is boundless, open, a swarm, a network. In short, it is the motley essence of humanity, a multitudinous subject that produces what Hardt and Negri call “the common” – language, genes, images, feelings and all the other ingredients that make a society. As Hardt and Negri emphasised, however, what used to be taken for granted as common goods – communication, experiences, imagination, relationships, care, clean water, pure air – are now being privatised, patented and commodified. These public goods are the foundation of social life: without free access to them, people stop cooperating.

The two political theorists thus made common cause with activists and writers such as Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein, who all identified the remains of the common as the decisive issue of our time. The social transformation carried out by the 21st-century multitude, they predicted, would be different from political crises of the past. No class or party would step up to assume power. Instead, a myriad of groupings would withdraw from power, causing the whole imperial network of states, companies, armies and institutions to collapse like an empty shell and rot away. Was this the huge rebellion of the future – billions deserting the system, starting to reconstruct the common among themselves?

A decade or more has passed since these ideas came out. Meanwhile, uprisings and riots have multiplied, and even after the explosions of 2011 – the Arab Spring, the indignados, Occupy – they continue to do so. Writers have tried to keep in step with it all. After the work of Castells, Sekula, Hardt and Negri, but also Etienne Balibar, Klein and millions of anonymous activists, writings on crowds, masses and multitudes have proliferated, as have experiments in the visual arts and elsewhere that examine the many-headed hydra of unrest, or seek to imagine a new space for it.

World-system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein predicted in the 1990s that the first decades of the new millennium would see the fall of the “crazy fantasies” of neoliberal capitalism and the coming of a “dangerous, chaotic and unpleasant time”. This period would be marked by a struggle between crowds seeking to democratise the economy from below, on the one hand, and fascist counter-reactions, on the other. In Wallerstein’s scheme, if Seattle was the first shudder of worldwide rebellion, the war on terror launched after 9/11 would be a first indication of general totalitarianism, complete with global firepower and infinite surveillance capacities.

Alain Bertho, a French anthropologist, apparently had a similar inkling. Sensing that the 1990s entailed the start of a new political cycle characterised by social unrest, he began “collecting” uprisings and rebellions, not just in the west but in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, China, Guadeloupe, Algeria and, indeed, everywhere else. The result was published in The Age of Riots (2009). Like earlier crowd theorists, Bertho argues that uprisings follow patterns. They are often ignited by the violent death of a young man at the hands of law enforcement. Or they start out as peaceful protests, which turn violent because of police intervention. Most often, however, riots are sparked when life becomes too expensive. Today, as in Victor Hugo’s Paris, price hikes on basic public services are the main cause of revolt.

So what do the riots signify? Forget the media coverage: Bertho suggests that the only way to get to know a rebellion is to disappear into the crowd. What you will notice then is how an uprising oscillates between silence and deafening noise. That is how people speak when they are excluded: Bertho traces a geography of anger that testifies to the bankruptcy of our political institutions. Riots, no matter whether they happen in formal democracies or in dictatorships, indicate a monumental loss of legitimacy. The riot is an act of disloyalty to authorities that have long been disloyal to their citizens.

That we live in an age of riots, then, would suggest that we no longer – or still do not – live in an age of democracy. Therefore it would make sense, rather than trying to crush rebellions, to make space for them in politics, so the silence and the noise can be translated into words. Until this happens, theorists and politicians will struggle over the right way to interpret and represent these movements. All of them will fail, just as their predecessors failed to adequately represent the passions erupting from below in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1886, 1905, and just as crowd theorists and politicians failed to understand the radical movements of interwar Europe. In times like these, praxis is one step ahead of theory.

Strikingly, too, political scientists and commentators who see western-style democracy as a model for all societies are proven wrong by these events. Liberal parliamentary democracy works only if socio-economic conditions are stable and the distribution of wealth reasonably equal, which is no longer the case, even in Europe. Failing that, democracy ceases to develop through orderly institutional channels – it takes shape instead through dynamic social movements. Democracy is still a work in progress. As the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon puts it: “Democracy has no history, democracy is history itself.”

In modern political thought, this has been a controversial idea: that individuals can under certain circumstances come together and merge into a unified political subject, the multitude; that this subject embodies a political principle, democracy; and that this democracy finds expression in defined historical events called revolutions. Conservative thinkers have generally rejected the notion. They see political crowds as an embodiment of people’s short-term interests and instincts, or perhaps of what Edmund Burke called the “swinish multitude”. In traditional liberalism, too, many have shunned the idea, this time on the grounds that democracy is, in essence, the ability of individuals to align their own interests in a social contract. Insofar as liberals concede that there is a people, a demos, a popular will, they would never recognise it out there on the streets and squares; they would see it only as the sum of the will of individuals – the average, as calculated by opinion pollsters.

They forget that their own liberal-democratic tradition would never have arisen if people had not acted as they did during the journées glorieuses of past revolutions: outside the Bastille, in Tiananmen Square, at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche, on the streets of Seattle, in Tahrir Square. No opinion poll, however detailed, can explain why ordinary people sometimes come out onto the streets in their thousands to make their demand: bring us the head of the ruler!

True, in a few cases, citizenship and political rights have been attained in a calm and civilised manner. But for the bourgeoisie themselves it required civil war and bloody revolution. And the process was no more peaceful when the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the third-world liberation movements won their political rights. They were forced to break the law. They were called fanatics, terrorists, agitators, witches, peasants and barbarians. They were suppressed. But they came back, and not until much later did it become clear what they had brought with them – they had brought democracy. §

Stefan Jonsson’s latest book, Crowds and Democracy: The Idea and Image of the Masses from Revolution to Fascism, is out now from Columbia University Press.

  • The Wisdom of Crowds
  • The Wisdom of Crowds