The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups by William J. Bernstein. Grove Atlantic, 461 pages (February 2021)
In the very late 19th and very early 20th century, the chattering classes started intoning on the subject of “the masses.” Depending on one’s cultural sensibilities, “the masses” were either a righteous historical force or an uncontrollable, anxiety-producing threat to stability and order. A certain subset of the era’s scribes began to wax poetic about “the crowd”—the most visible and volatile manifestation of “the masses” and the means by which assemblages of peasants of yore had righted wrongs either customarily or through force.
I became aware of this former cottage industry of crowd whisperers while reading Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (1991). Buford’s book is a fantastic work of reportage on English football hooligans that makes reference to this existing literature. An American journalist then living in the UK, Buford spent years marauding across Europe with Manchester United supporters, raising hell at every turn. The author found that the rioting regularly incited by the football casuals with whom he embedded had little to do with working class social frustrations, as some cultural commentators tended to insist. Nor was the violence merely a safety valve for downtrodden people. Buford argued that group violence simply gave its members an “antisocial kick”—it was just exhilarating to smash up other people and other places.
Reading Buford led me to the more scholarly accounts of crowd behavior. I tried my hand at Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé’s Captain Swing (1969), a Marxist examination of the agricultural uprisings of the 1830s in rural England. The authors claimed that a new class consciousness, rooted in the tradition of “mobbing,” emerged among farm workers in response to the capitalist transformation of the economy. Then, not long after I finished Captain Swing, I happened to catch a rerun of VH1’s Behind the Music about The Doors, and discovered that Jim Morrison spent a significant amount of time in college reading about crowd behavior. Apparently, his on-stage persona was heavily influenced by the theories of French dramatist Antonin Artaud and psychologist Gustave LeBon. They were fresh out of Antonin Artaud at my local library, but I managed to pick up a copy of Gustave LeBon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind instead.
Like Buford nearly a century later, LeBon attributed sinister qualities to the crowd. He argued that in crowds, otherwise decent people become barbarous. Buford presented his thugs as willful agents of mayhem who take advantage of chaotic situations to do dreadful things. LeBon, on the other hand, described men hypnotized by the crowd, and powerless among the throngs to be anything better than the lowest common denominator. In LeBon’s mind, the crowd could be nothing kinder than a marauding horde. LeBon’s book, I soon learned, was itself a latter day rendering of Charles Mackay, a Scottish writer who had written a classic history of mass hysteria a half-century earlier.
Published in 1841, Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is as amusing a survey of human folly as has ever been written. Mackay took “crowd” to mean something closer to “public opinion” or “mass hysteria” than he did an actual specific gathering of people. When I teach World History, I make use of several of the tales of mankind’s misadventures that Mackay recounts in the book. I assign my students Mackay’s chapter on the Dutch “tulip mania” of the 1630s, when the astonishing popularity of the plant led to a speculation bubble which turned a basket of bulbs, ever so briefly, into a commodity more valuable than bars of gold. Mackay makes the case, often in gory detail, that episodes of collective mania seem to be an inevitable consequence of human nature. Humans in every time and place have cast aside their better judgment and allowed themselves to be caught up in all manner of irrational hoopla.
The insights Mackay made nearly two centuries ago provide the starting point for William J. Bernstein’s analysis in The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups. Bernstein, a neurologist who has previously written about finance and economics, pays explicit homage to Mackay in both the title and content of this book. He, too, seems more interested in popular crazes than in specific gatherings of people. He works through the features of several different economic bubbles, demonstrating how the crowd got sucked into a number of different explosions in speculation. He revisits the South Sea Company and Mississippi Company episodes of the early 1700s already pilloried by Mackay. He treads on home turf in a thoroughgoing takedown of the dot-com hucksters of the late 1990s, showing how any naysayer to the prevailing market optimism was heaped with scorn by those who apparently knew better. His unflattering portraits of CNBC’s downmarket (think Jim Cramer) and upmarket (think Larry Kudlow) Wall Street cheerleaders during that decade is particularly droll. But these chapters seem more like due diligence than the book’s casus belli.
Bernstein seems to be far more preoccupied with the dangers presented by the other target of Mackay’s ire—religious fanatics. Mackay told many stories about medieval hunts for relics and trials by ordeal as well as more recent dragnets for actual witches. Bernstein follows suit and pillories religious zealotry past and present, tracing a line of lunacy from the likes of the militant Anabaptists to ISIS. But he also makes a point of training his fire on more mainline religious traditions. Any stripe of Christianity with a tinge of evangelicalism or the least bit of interest in eschatology gets lumped in with death cults both old and new.
Brandishing his credentials as a neurologist, Bernstein lends the luster of science to garden variety critiques of religiosity. Evolutionary biology has made us imitators, he reminds us, particularly when people form crowds. Social science tells us that humans prefer a good story to hard data, and decades of peer-reviewed research tells us that humans tend to opt for self-deception to critical thinking. In the end, this demi-Vulcan cant reveals as much about the author’s contempt for evangelical Protestantism as anything else, as he casually dissolves useful distinctions between a broad range of theological viewpoints. Pro-Israel dispensationalist evangelicals, for instance, are grouped with ISIS and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. In Bernstein’s mind, these rather disparate perspectives form a continuum of end-times narratives, and he even trots out the shopworn cliché that a cult is a delusion shared by hundreds and a religion is a delusion shared by millions.
Despite this unedifying hostility, Bernstein is an excellent writer, and like Mackay before him, he tells the story of human manias with great skill. His chapters on the Swabian Peasants’ War and Anabaptist uprisings are terrifying depictions of the end-times frenzy that wreaked havoc on northern Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The distance between these events in the German-speaking world and, say, the Reign of Terror in France or the Chinese Cultural Revolution is not that great. And the speed with which apparently reasonable people moved from the embrace of a new theological idea to a willingness to torture those whose own theological ideas diverged even slightly is startling.
Nevertheless, Bernstein’s explanation for such phenomena is somewhat trite. In essence, he attributes the rapid growth of eschatological thinking among the German peasantry to their desire for an escape from the drudgery of their daily lives (neglecting to mention that most people who had ever lived led lives of similar toil). He presents the rise of end-times thinking in northern Europe as a predictable psychological response to a story well told and a desire to be a part of something—collectively, people took up with a compelling narrative and turned away from reason. But anyone who has ever held a religious or political idea with fervency could tell you that there’s more to it than that. Believing in something and trying to remake your world or your soul for the better provides a feeling of supreme human agency. As Vivian Gornick put it in her 1978 book The Romance of American Communism, “for better or worse, radical politics—full of sorrow and glory—embodies the stirring spectacle of humans engaged, alive to the beauty and rawness of self-creation.”
The more recent events covered by Bernstein are among the least compelling sections of his book. He spends several of the later chapters sparring with contemporary movements in the Abrahamic religions. “The human hunger for compelling narratives, of which the end-times is the most seductive, almost invariably exacerbates another unfortunate human tendency, our proclivity to in-group/out-group behavior,” he writes with an imperiousness that might make even Neil deGrasse Tyson wince. He finds this kind of thinking not only in “the inferno of the Islamic State” but also in “prosperous societies.” To Bernstein, Jerry Falwell and ISIS are selling the same bill of goods. But this kind of equivalence is self-evidently absurd. The outfits in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria that attempted to commit genocide against the Yazidis, sold thousands of captives into slavery, made a spectacle of summary beheadings of their prisoners, and deprived women of even the most basic personal freedoms. For all of Falwell’s charlatanry, the differences between the Moral Majority and the Middle East’s most fanatical groups are more conspicuous than their similarities. Bernstein’s failure to acknowledge this frequently makes him sound like a college sophomore going through his “who’s to say” phase in class discussion.
There is plenty to recommend about The Delusions of Crowds. It is laden with great anecdotes and the writing is always engaging. One comes away with the sense that civilization operates on narrow margins and is always on the verge of collapsing into irrationality. Certainly, the recent months of American street violence between extremist factions on the political Left and Right lend credence to the concerns articulated in Bernstein’s book. It would have been nice, though, if he had subjected the disciples of Stalin and Mao to the same withering scrutiny he brings to bear on pilgrimages by American Christians to the Holy Land.
Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in US History from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @ClaytonTrutor.
Photo by Harrison Kugler on Unsplash