Modern civilization and its institutions have been built in stark discursive opposition to ‘barbarism’ and mob-like behaviour. The whole idea of western enlightenment, based on the rebirth of the classical values from ancient Greece and Rome, was erected under the premise of individual rights and a libertarian rule of law that later gave birth to development-fostering technocracies. The Aristotelian classification of governments contrasted the thoughtful democratic rule by virtuous citizens to its direct perversion: demagoguery. A sort of disdain for loud-mouthed populism has been running (discursively) through the veins of western statehood since its very germination and from its ancient roots, but this long process of state (and nation) making has always coexisted with strong currents of authoritarian and personalistic rule; did we ever got the feeling that being in the twenty-first century would immunize societies against that? The age of information and the globalization of markets and communications, along with an apparently solid structure of democratic institutions throughout the industrialized north nourished that impression; more than that, literacy levels higher than ever before and the technological ability of fact checking at the fingertips strengthen the notion that a sober democratic culture would have institutions’ back no matter what.
Did history (and for that matter, very recent history) prove that notion wrong? Depends of how we were looking at it in the first place. The political theorist Ernesto Laclau, a strong representative of the Essex school of discourse analysis, would argue in his work ‘On populist reason’ that the oversimplification of issues and the creation of simple binary oppositions to explain problems and formulate solutions were not only characteristics of foolish masses manipulated by treacherous leaders, but that those mechanisms were actually present in the very fabric of any political formation. The praised individual would always take part in a simplistic ‘us vs them’ logic and would follow group behaviour if the circumstance would require him/her to do so. After reading Laclau’s work, we may basically end up asking ourselves: so why is populism that bad after all? Maybe that disdain for some of the majority’s choices actually show how elitist we tend to be sometimes…
When the collective does begin and the individual ends? What is the process through which a mere crowd turns into a respectable ‘public’? Such were the questions that mass psychologists from the nineteen century were worried about, most importantly, about the nature of the leadership and the social formations deriving from these processes they were trying to describe. To this, they answered with rigid typologies to explain in a sort of hierarchical order which were the stages of development that groups experienced and their relationships to the roles played by individuals and leaders within them. Now, honestly, most of their theories can feel like unnecessary complications to go through for the reader, and rightfully so I would suggest. That is of course, until Freud came with his. In a very lucid (and inevitably amusing) explanation of these matters, the Austrian father of the discipline of psychoanalysis pointed out to sex (who would have thought he would?!) as the main field to analyse the phenomena described above. He came up with some very insightful terms to explain these processes with which individual psychology melts into ‘the crowd’ such as: the libidinal bond (social tie), narcissistic drives (self-love and sexual drives) and so on. Long story short, his central response to the issue gravitates around the idea of the suspension of self-love (narcissistic drive of individual psychology) in the case of group formation; this limitation of the individual’s core can only occur because he/she is experiencing a libidinal tie with the group that happens through a pattern that Freud conceptualizes as a process of identification.
Freud’s theory states very clearly that this process of identification is an extrapolation of our ego into other individuals and that the libidinal drive of all individuals runs through the whole process of group formation in a love/affection duality by which feelings of connection take the place of actual sensual connection in a process of objectification: yes, individuals turn their narcissistic libido on to the object of their ‘love’, in this case, the collective. The last stage of this whole process is the idealization of the object, by which the object (of love) substitutes the individual’s ego in a utopic reflection of oneself: ‘the object has been put in the place of the ego’; does that ring any bells? The leaders, the populist leaders embody the intimate desires of crowds that have idealized them and merge their personal ego with the crowd they have so ‘sensually’ attracted. Individuals give up their individuality to an idealized collective ego incarnated in one single leader that monopolizes the whole of the narcissistic drives.
These terms could prove very comical in a colloquial talk and yet they provide some strangely interesting angle to the behaviour of societies these days: what kind of leaders are attracting the public at the moment? Or is it fair to say crowds? Where will this mad love take us all?