Individual vs community (1): the mob

Back in the dark ages before I understood that anarchism was a type of socialism (I’m not sure how I missed that for so long, given that I read Kropotkin and similar in my teens; maybe I’d been brainwashed by the media, or maybe I’m just slow), I used to wrestle with the contradiction of being an introverted individualist concerned with social justice and community building. I still wrestle with this contradiction, but it’s less lonely now that I know others have wrestled with it before me. In fact it’s one of, if not the, great problem of anarchism, and different schools of anarchist thought can be distinguished by the extent to which they privilege the individual or the collective. As I asked in my last post, “Is the fullest development of the individual inherently at odds with that of the community?”

When we speak idealistically of self-organization instead of governance imposed from without, we are liable to forget the ugliest possibility of human self-organization: the Mob. I don’t mean the mafia; I mean, simply, the Mob, wherever it arises. The Mob bullies middle schoolers to the point of suicide, hunts witches, cheers public executions, lynches blacks. The Mob is the total submersion and loss of the individual in the collective; the abdication of individual freedom and, thus, of individual responsibility. And since no one is responsible, one may do anything. Auden, in his poem Horae Canonicae, calls it “the crowd”:

The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,

a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)

who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive


Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.

The parentheses express the individual’s experience and response to events as opposed to the crowd’s, highlighting the stark difference between who each person is as an individual and as a member of the crowd. They are the same person, of course, and yet they are not, because they neither believe the same things nor behave in the same way. In Auden’s poem, it is the crowd that crucifies Jesus, that stands triumphant on the hill at noon to watch him die. A few hours later – at the next canonical hour for prayer – none of those “faceless many who always/Collect when any world is to be wrecked” can remember what their shouting was about.

All if challenged would reply
– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I.’

The strengthening of the individual, unique and free and responsible for her actions, is the safeguard against this one-eyed monster. One of the dangers of state communism – aside from its willingness to place government in the hands of a small group – is the submersion of the individual in the commune. In Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, Daniel Guerin writes:

As [Max] Stirner saw it, in a communist system the worker remains subject to the rule of a society of workers. His work is imposed on him by society, and remains for him a task. Did not the communist Weitling write: “Faculties can only be developed in so far as they do not disrupt the harmony of society”? To which Stirner replied: “Whether I were to be ‘loyal’ to a tyrant or to Weitling’s ‘society’ I would suffer the same absence of rights.”

According to Stirner, the communist does not think of the man behind the worker. He overlooks the most important issue: to give man the opportunity to enjoy himself as an individual after he has fulfilled his task as a producer.

The quote from Weitling is particularly terrifying and a perfect example of how social harmony itself can be totalitarian.

But capitalism also nourishes Mob tendencies. Is a system that treats the vast majority of people as replaceable cogs in a machine, to be swapped out as soon as a cheaper cog becomes available (here or in China or anywhere else), really a bastion of individuality? At best, capitalism celebrates the individuality of a few privileged persons. It suppresses and destroys the individuality of those it designates “the masses.”

I guess I’ll break off here and let this be Part One of this post, since it’s already getting long and I’ve barely started. I’ll pick up with Ursula Le Guin in Part Two.


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