In his book The Politics of Crowds, Christian Borch notes that even though “crowds and masses… seem to sustain themselves in the margins of contemporary sociological thinking…  the mass media recurrently reports on new mass events, explicitly labeled thus, typically in the form of mass protests, mass disasters such as panic at a large festival, pilgrims who are trampled down, traders who are captured by crowd moods.”[1] Anger, panic, exultation: the various affects spreading through the crowds have reactivated what Sigmund Freud called the “uneasiness in civilization” (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur). It is no wonder that crowds and masses unsettle sociologists and political theorists, considering how difficult it is to define a crowd. A crowd is a significant though indeterminate amount of people — and this indeterminacy is, paradoxically, what defines it. While political concepts denoting groups such as class possess a relatively clear outline, the notion of the crowd does not. As soon as a distinct common feature among its members is found, the crowd becomes something else: a protest march, a group of striking workers, a clan, a group of worshippers, an army. If, in contrast, the crowd members do not share specific goals or values at the outset or if they do not refer to a common identity, what brings them together, and, more importantly, what binds them? When and how does a series of individuals present in the same space begin to form a crowd?

These questions are one of the major problems political theorists had to deal with after the French Revolution, the event that inaugurated, according to Gustave Le Bon, the “era of crowds.” In his influential monograph The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind, Le Bon highlights the role played by emotional contagion in the emergence of crowds. The theory of emotional contagion relayed by Le Bon is not as unequivocal as it seems: it has birthed two different interpretations of power dynamics in crowds. Le Bon’s study focuses on the figure of the “leader,” whose charisma supposedly initiates the process of mental and emotional “contagion,” thus giving birth to the crowd. Three decades later, facing the persistent popularity of Le Bon’s thesis, Walter Benjamin proposed an analysis which focuses on the spontaneous forming of the crowd rather than on its shaping by the “leader.” The comparison between these two approaches — the first (Le Bon) insisting on the vertical relationship between the leader and the crowd, the second (Benjamin) focusing on the horizontal bond between members of the crowd — sheds light on the persisting tension between verticality and horizontality in contemporary political theory.

1. The crowd and its leader: Verticality

Understanding the genesis of the crowd has been a key concern of European political theory since the 19th century. In 1789, crowds challenged the “Leviathan,” the absolute power embodied by the sovereign, and successfully defeated it. In the 19th century, a series of uprisings and revolutions shook European monarchies, sometimes toppling them. French scholars — historians, philosophers, psychologists — began looking into the specific problems of crowds in order to better control them. More precisely, they elaborated on commonly-held assumptions about crowds, specifically that crowds were irrational and easily manipulated. Social psychologists, notably, tried to give scientific accounts of the supposed unpredictability of crowds. At the heart of these studies lies a theory of emotional contagion, which challenged the model of the rational, autonomous individual prevalent since the Enlightenment. Gustave Le Bon’s famous study Psychologie des foules, first published in 1895 and translated into English as The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind one year later, popularized these accounts of crowd behaviors: his book, which had the aura of a scientific study but was largely accessible, shaped a vision of crowds that remained influential throughout the 20th century. He argued that, in a crowd, the individual cognitive faculties were replaced by shared emotions. Human beings were not “rational animals” anymore, but were transformed into animals that loved or hated together. How did this sudden change happen? Le Bon’s political anthropology is grounded in what he calls a theory of “suggestibility.” According to this theory, members of a crowd do not act in their best interests; they act as if they are hypnotized, unable to resist the emotional and mental atmosphere of the crowd. Without a leader who radiates a spontaneous authority, Le Bon argued, the crowd would be no more than a random aggregate of individuals. Only the leader can create and effectively embody the “mental unity” of the collective body he or she leads, and thus organize the crowd into a cohesive and goal-focused totality.

[The leader’s] will is the nucleus around which the opinions of the crowd are grouped and attain to identity. He constitutes the first element towards the organization of heterogeneous crowds, and paves the way for their organization in sects; in the meantime he directs them. A crowd is a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.[2]

The popularity of Le Bon’s model could be attributed to its compatibility with traditional power structures: the crowd is a body that needs a soul — the leader — in order to function. Without the “mental unity” provided by the leader, he claimed, the political body would quickly disintegrate. Responding to the collapse of monarchy, Le Bon devised a new theory of centralized sovereignty that sought to reconcile the power of the people with the authoritarian idea of leadership reminiscent of monarchy: in the “era of crowds,” the God-given right of the ruler had to be replaced by the prestige of the leader.

2. Empowering the crowd: Horizontality

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Walter Benjamin developed a deeply original theory of crowds that challenged Le Bon’s conservative account of collective agency. At a time when large-scale social movements were understood mainly in terms of class-membership — from a Marxist perspective — or in terms of nation —  and race-membership — from a fascist perspective — Benjamin took up Le Bon’s notion of “contagion” in order to explain the forming of crowds. Yet, according to Benjamin, the contagion which builds the crowd is not a contagion of ideas and feelings, but primarily a contagion of movements and energy concentrated in a shared space. Like Le Bon’s theory, Benjamin’s reflections on crowds rely on anthropological considerations. Yet, unlike Le Bon, he did not stress the human being’s tendency to submit to charismatic authority. He instead highlighted the human being’s impulse to imitate people in close proximity. The crowd, he postulated, doesn’t need the guidance of a leader: most crowds are generated by a reciprocal contagion of motions. According to Benjamin, a crowd emerges as soon as people sharing the same space are able to fluidly coordinate their movements. Benjamin focused on the phenomenon of collective laughter: laughter is not a feeling, it is a bodily reaction and, as such, it is highly infectious. Anonymous people laughing together are already bonding on a primary level, because they sense the presence of others and react accordingly. In this sense, emotional contagion is first and foremost a contagion of motions. There is no need for a charismatic leader hypnotizing the crowd: bodies interact with one another in a non-verbal manner. One motion stimulates another motion and suddenly the crowd appears — the crowd, that is: an unstable entity, loaded with energy, whose growth or disintegration is unpredictable.

In a description of the celebration of the 14th of July in Paris, Benjamin portrayed the seemingly passive crowd of onlookers as a dormant monster: the crowd is eagerly awaiting “a conflagration or the end of the world, something that would turn the soft whisperings into a single cry… For the deepest, unconscious existence of the masses, celebrations and conflagrations are a game in which they prepare for the moment of their emancipation, when panic and party are reunited in the revolutionary uprising.”[3] In order to counter the fascist method of subduing the masses, Benjamin looked for ways to strengthen our spontaneous ability to connect with one another. He hoped that the elusive, anonymous power arising in unorganized crowds could resist the appeals of fascist leaders. In his eyes, horizontal (e)motional contagion was the key to the liberation of the crowds, i.e., the emancipation from their so-called “leaders.”

3. Antonio Negri / Frédéric Lordon: The possibility of horizontality

The triumph of fascism in Europe in the 1930s seemed to prove Benjamin wrong and Le Bon right: Italian, Spanish and German crowds created new Leviathans they glorified and feared. However, in the second half of the 20th century, belief in the horizontal, de-hierarchized formation of crowds was reactivated by the rediscovery of Spinoza’s political theory. In France, the events of May 1968 paved the way for new appraisals of collective agency based on Spinoza’s theory of affective contagion.[4] The “multitude,” a key concept in Spinoza’s work, replaced the problematic notion of “crowd.” Yet even this common reference did not solve the tension between horizontality and verticality inherent in the theory of crowds, as shown by two recent theories which, though both inspired by Spinoza, give diverging accounts of the power dynamics taking place inside the “multitude.” The first theory is promoted by the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and centers on the ideal of horizontality. The second was developed by French philosopher and economist Frédéric Lordon and stresses the necessity of verticality.

Why go back to the concept of “multitude” today? The “multitude,” Negri writes, is “the name of a multitude of bodies.” It must be distinguished from the concept of the “people,” on the one hand, and that of the “mass,” on the other, because “unlike the people, the multitude is not a unity, but as opposed to the masses and the plebs, we can see it as something organized. In fact, it is an active agent of self-organization.”[5] According to Hardt and Negri, this “agent of self-organization” is produced by the process of globalization: on the one hand, globalization generates a “network of hierarchies and divisions,”[6] a global structure of power called the “Empire”; on the other hand, it creates “new circuits of cooperation and collaboration that stretch across nations and continents and allow an unlimited number of encounters,”[7] thus giving birth to the “multitude.” The “multitude,” which is depicted as heterogeneous and cohesive, is the new embodiment of the utopian “crowd” sketched by Benjamin. It generates an elusive, subversive form of power that Negri, referring to Spinoza, calls potentia, as opposed to potestas, which denotes structures of domination. Potestas, he argues, is nothing more than the monopolizing of the potentia of the “multitude,” the seizure of the power generated by the “multitude of bodies” living together.

Frédéric Lordon, who was a prominent figure of the movement “Nuit debout,” protesting against the reform of labor law in France, criticizes Negri’s concept of “multitude.” In his book Imperium. Structures and affects of political bodies,[8] he asks: “Multitude? What multitude?” The “multitude,” he claims, is not a counter-power, it is the potentia that produces the imperium (i.e., the power embodied by political leaders, institutions, and finally by the State.) In order to last, the power of the “multitude” has to create institutions and rules that will be constantly challenged by the contradictory affects animating the crowds. Lordon considers the idea of a disseminated yet harmonious “multitude” to be unrealistic. The solidarity between the bodies building the “multitude” is the product of a certain state of affective cohesion that can only last if it generates an enduring structure in the political field. Horizontality, he concludes, is like the horizon: an unreachable destination, an unachievable goal.

From the 19th century until today, from Gustave Le Bon to Frédéric Lordon, crowds have prompted political theorists to question the viability of a collective body formed by the ephemeral process of emotional contagion. Can collective agency originate from something other than shared ideals and goals? Is it possible for crowds to stay crowds — a “multitude of bodies” loosely connected with one another — or do they have to become something else — a self-aware group, like a people, a class, an army, a lobby, or a party — in order to gain political agency? In other words: Can power circulate, like energy, anonymously from one body to the other, or does it have to give birth to new hierarchies in order to establish an efficient counter-power? Only a phenomenology of power drawing from lived experiences may be able to shed light on the duplicitous nature of power. On the one hand, power as potestas (domination) is something that declines when we share it: we feel more powerful when we dominate others. On the other hand, power as potentia (ability) is something that increases when we share it: we feel more powerful together.


[1]    Borch, Christian. The Politics of Crowds. An Alternative History of Sociology. Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 2.

[2]    Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind. 1895.

[3]    Benjamin, Walter. “Schönes Entsetzen,” in Gesammelte Schriften VI. Suhrkamp, 1991. p. 434-435.

[4]    See for instance the studies on Spinoza written by Alexandre Matheron, Pierre Macherey, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Etienne Balibar.

[5]    Negri, Antonio. “Approximations: Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude,” translated by Arianna Bove.

[6]    Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. Penguin Press, 2014, p. XIII.

[7]    Ibid.

[8]    Lordon, Frédéric. Imperium. Structures et affects des corps politiques. La Fabrique, 2015.