Posts Tagged ‘Group mind’

John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

November 8, 2017

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.


The most frightening book I ever read

August 10, 2010

The most frightening book I ever read was Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford.

Buford was an American living in England in the 1980s.  He became fascinated by British football hooligans, and how, by assembling suddenly in large numbers, they were able to overwhelm the forces of law and order, and engage in unconstrained property destruction and violence.  He hung out with the hooligans long enough to be accepted, and began to identify with them.

The frightening thing about the book is that Buford showed there is such a thing as a crowd mind.  He found that members of a mob can cease to be individuals, only units of a mob mind.  He experienced this himself, and found it to be extremely pleasurable.  He enjoyed the feeling of having his ego dissolve in the mass, of being free from the constraints of civilization, of individual responsibility, of giving himself up to adrenaline and the thrill of the moment.  His ego dissolved into a larger consciousness. It was a kind of evil mysticism.

Buford was not the kind of person you would think of as a thug.  He was the editor of Granta, a respected British literary magazine. He was, on the evidence of this book, a fine writer, with good self-insight and honesty.  If someone like him could get caught up in mob violence, even temporarily, then nobody is immune.

His book was mostly reporting and not theorizing, but he had some suggested thoughts.  One was the high unemployment in Britain at the time. Men whose identity was based on being “working-class” were without actual work.  Another was nostalgia for World War Two.  Buford at times thought that the hooligans found mob violence, particularly when directed against foreigners at World Cup tournaments, as a substitute and next best thing to an actual war.

The way football spectators were treated may have been a factor.  You had to pay a premium for a seat on the grandstands.  The holders of the cheapest tickets were herded into pens in front of the stands. They were like livestock pens.  Spectators were so crowded together it was literally possible to be trampled to death.

So there was a crowd of men, pressed close together (and the British, like us Americans, are a touch-me-not culture), sharing the same enthusiasm and resentment, hearing the same shouts and reduced to the same body language and no doubt (I would add) influenced by the same pheronomes, the chemicals that influence emotions through subliminal smells.

But there is nothing in Buford’s book to suggest these men were slaves of circumstance.  They cultivated violent feelings and engaged in violent behavior because it was fun.

The nightmare of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism was the possibility that the state, by means of brainwashing, terror and propaganda, could force human beings to surrender their free will.  What Buford’s book suggests is that, under certain circumstances, people might surrender without being forced.