The Madness of Crowds

Raphael detail from ‘Adoration of the Golden Calf’ (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Many people will be familiar with Douglas Murray’s book ‘The Madness of Crowds’. He looks at the current preoccupations with gender, race and identity. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read.

But, he was not the first.

A Scottish journalist, Charles Mackay, published a book in 1841 entitled  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It became quite a sensation.

The first part involves a discussion of three economic bubbles or financial manias: the South Sea Company bubble of 1711–1720, the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719–1720, and the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century. By way of example, the Mississippi Company was a corporation holding a business monopoly in French colonies in North America and the West Indies. When land development and speculation in the region became frenzied and detached from economic reality, the bubble burst. Mackay’s accounts are enlivened by colourful, comedic anecdotes, such as the Parisian hunchback who supposedly profited by renting out his hump as a writing desk during the height of the mania.

As to the third, according to Mackay, during this bubble, speculators from all walks of life bought and sold tulip bulbs and even futures contracts on them. Allegedly, during 1637, some tulip bulb varieties briefly became the most expensive objects in the world. He goes on to write – rather wittily, almost sensationally – about duels, alchemy, the Crusades, the influence of politics and religion on the shapes of beards, magnetisers (influence of the imagination in curing disease), murder, prophecies, and popular follies of great cities.

All this to demonstrate one overarching truth. There is nothing new under the sun. As well as the highest forms of altruism and self-sacrifice, mankind en masse is capable of monumental ignorance, wilful self-interest and completely unforeseen delusional behaviour. The behaviour of a rabble is often completely unpredictable and Carl Jung’s description of a crowd is quite prescient: “The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology.” Crowds lack the inhibitions and restraints that define our inner controls as individuals. 

If a crowd has a leader, the crowd tends to cease its irrational behaviour and begins to behave like a community.  In the Old Testament, Moses sought to overcome the débacle of the construction of a golden calf and control the madness of crowds by getting the people to make personal and sometimes sacrificial contributions to a collective project, the building of the Sanctuary. He created a community out of an undisciplined rabble. In a community, individuals remain individuals because their participation is voluntary: “Let everyone whose heart moves them bring an offering.” Their differences are valued because they mean that each has something distinctive to contribute. Some gave gold, other silver, others bronze. Some brought wool or animal skins. Others gave precious stones. Yet others gave their labour and skills to bring an important project into being. 

Lest this sound strange and pious, the story is told of a small community in Scotland. 

Melanie Reid is a journalist who writes a regular column for The (London) Times. A quadriplegic with a wry lack of self-pity, she calls her weekly essay Spinal Column. On 4 January 2020, she told the story of how she, her husband, and others in their Scottish village bought an ancient inn to convert it into a pub and community centre, a shared asset for the neighbourhood. 

Something extraordinary then happened. A large number of locals volunteered their services to help open and run it. “We’ve got well-known classical musicians cleaning the toilets and sanding down tables. Behind the bar there are sculptors, building workers, humanist ministers, Merchant Navy officers, grandmothers, HR executives and estate agents… Retired CEOs chop wood for the fires; septuagenarians … wait at tables; surveyors eye up internal walls to be knocked down and can-doers fix blocked gutters.” 

It has not only become a community centre; it has dramatically energised the locality. People of all ages come there to play games, drink, eat, and attend special events. A rich variety of communal facilities and activities have grown up around it. She speaks of “the alchemy of what can be achieved in a village when everyone comes together for a common aim.” 

The avalanche of the Corona virus has caused everyone to step back and think. Ironically, in our separation, we look to each other. On the one hand, there is the individual motivation to stay well and avoid contagion; on the other a sense of community well-being is poking its head out as we have been enjoined to look after and protect the vulnerable and weak. Health workers, front line troops against the pandemic, are working to exhaustion. And yet, Bulgarians gather on their balconies to applaud the medical staff as they go into the hospitals to work. Italians are singing on theirs. We have all become, in an important sense, our brother’s keeper. When all this is over, it is a lesson we must not forget.

With thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

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