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Taming of the crowd

The American radical tradition

A nostalgic view of the crowd in US politics stops short of the present and lacks revolutionary perspective, says Phil Sharpe, in his review of the American radical tradition

Al Sandine sets out to write an ambitious history of the role of the crowd in American history, showing how it is integral to the process of collective action and the possibility for progressive change. He highlights the role of the crowd in the American Revolution of the 18th Century, but also concludes that in more recent times it has been a passive consumer.

The crowd may be a terrible lynch mob, but it can also represent ideals that are necessary for resistance to the domination of a ruling class: “The range of possibilities for collective action include some that are clearly abhorrent,” he writes. “Yet without the self-directed crowd, we cannot respond to what may be a pressing need for collective action. We may also lose the experience of collective euphoria. Here in America something old as the city in human history is on the verge of  becoming extinct.”

Sandine describes how, in the American Revolution, the crowd would put pressure on the local state, defying the English colonial rulers with riots and radical demonstrations.

This radical tradition was refined and modernised by the collective struggles of workers to improve their conditions. For example, the struggles of textile and auto workers in the 1930’s led to the development of mass pickets, and impressive demonstrations of both employed workers and the jobless. The result was that the employers could not use scab labour effectively in order to break these disputes.

He also argues that ghetto riots and civil rights actions represented a new type of collective protest that forced the introduction of legislation to improve the situation of black people.

All this represents the progressive character of the crowd, but is a crowd essentially irrational and likely to commit horrific actions? Sandine discusses the development of what he calls ‘killer crowds’, such as lynch mobs. He argues that these are generally an expression of a repressive, often racist, social environment and are influenced by organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan. These types of crowds are not characteristic or typical, and Sandine argues they do not contradict the overall potential for the crowd to act in a democratic manner that facilitates the cause of radicalism and emancipation.

Sandine speaks about crowds made to conform with the norms and views of the ruling class, as with the development of holiday parades and carnivals. But he also notes that the people have often established their own alternative parades. Today parades are consumer spectacles, and only a few – like the gay and lesbian parade in San Francisco – have retained an authentic and democratic sensibility.

Furthermore, people in the consumer society seem to be alienated from any remaining form of political demonstration, Sandine claims: “Insofar as they experience crowds only as consumers and patrons of the spectacle, Americans are unlikely to consider collective action of the kind that takes place in the streets. The consumer society makes crowds – most crowds anyway – its own. For individual consumers, massed others become obstacles, or at best, fellow fans.”

The tendency in the late 20th century is for the crowd to be oriented to the requirements of consumption, and to be regulated by an external force of the police or private security, rather than self-regulating. It has been pacified by the advent of the mass spectacle sporting event, transformed into an audience that lacks spontaneity and follows instructions conveyed on an electronic screen to make the appropriate noise.

Sandine’s analysis suggests that the mass political demonstration has become antiquated. He focuses on the idea that the tendency is towards the formation of the passive crowd of the shopping mall, with only one function – to consume and purchase. The importance of the democratic and militant crowd seems to be at an end: “Americans rarely come together  on the basis of a shared determination to act as one, any more than we participate in massive celebrations, except under the dampening influence of official oversight. Our crowds have become no more than the social condition under which certain types of individual consumption occur.”

Sandine argues that the very absence of the democratic crowd allows inequality to thrive, and is responsible for the lack of public pressure that allows big capital to justify its domination: “But in the absence of dramatic, public, and persistent use of our numbers, plutocracy is sure to grow and to do so at our expense and that of future generations. Then, at some point not of our choosing, we may find that we are members of a crowd that can only wait for help in order to survive.”

Sandine only briefly mentions the important demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003, and effectively dismisses the use of internet technology in order to promote new forms of protest. He describes in detail the 1999 Seattle demonstration against the World Trade Organisation but seems to suggest that this cannot be repeated, and was not the expression of a new beginning for radical protest. He seems to view it as an aberration against the general trend.

The emphasis of his standpoint is basically nostalgic, a lament for an age that has gone. Consequently, he cannot envisage the real possibility for the revival of democratic protest in the present period of recession and growing poverty, and he cannot outline a programme that would promote the potential for the transformation of American society.

In any case, the reality of the American Revolution was that bringing about real change required going beyond the mass demonstration and acquiring a leadership with a perspective of revolutionary change. If struggle remains at the level of a crowd, however democratic and spontaneous, it will lack important additional political attributes that can enable it to consciously shape protest into a struggle for power. The crowd can represent the elemental aspiration for change, but it has to go beyond a crowd if this aspiration is to be realised.

Instead of entering this type of strategic discussion, Sandine mourns the demise of the democratic crowd and its replacement by the consumer crowd, which essentially represents the negation of all possibility of change. The result is that he can only protest against consumer capitalism and is unable to outline any prospects of why this period may be replaced by a new era in the American radical tradition.

If he could locate the role of the crowd more flexibly some of the deficiencies of his standpoint might be overcome. But whilst his work is ambitious and imaginative, its final result is a kind of historical pessimism.

1 February 2010

Al Sandine, The Taming of the American Crowd: Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, Monthly Review Press, £12.71

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