The fragile crowd 

There’s an interesting section in Žižek’s Like a Thief in Broad Daylight reflecting on the politics of crowds. Making a similar argument to the recent book by Will Davies, he argues that political crowds involve a rejection of representation. He argues on pg 71 that the presence of crowds seeking political change is literally a rejection of representation, orientared towards representatives:

Popular presence is precisely what the term says –presence as opposed to representation, pressure directed at representative organs of power; it is what defines populism in all its guises, and (as a rule, although not always) it has to rely on a charismatic leader. Examples abound: the crowd outside the Louisiana congress that supported the populist governor Huey Long and assured his victory in a key vote in 1932, crowds exerting pressure on behalf of Milošević in Serbia, crowds persisting for days in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring demanding the overthrow of Mubarak, crowds in Istanbul during protests against Erdoğan, and so on. In a popular presence, ‘people themselves’ make palpable their force directly and beyond representation, but at the same time they become another mode of being.

As well as often relying on a charismatic leaders, crowds also depend on an organisational apparatus to facilitate and support their gathering, even in the case of apparently spontaneous uprisings. The experience of the crowd can lead this dependence to be disowned, as well as the element of representation involved in any crowd making popular demands. From pg 71-72:

One should never forget that the agent of popular pressure is always a minority –the number of active participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 against global economic equality was much closer to 1 per cent than to the 99 per cent of its slogan.

Reflecting on Trotsky’s observation that people “cannot live for years in an uninterrupted state of high tension and intense activity”, Žižek suggests that there are inherent limits to the political presence of crowds and a need to plan for when life returns to normal. I take his point to be that crowds contain their own negation, representing even as they reject representation and creating the conditions for future representation through their own inherent limits. He frames this provocatively in terms of the necessarily alienating character of political life: a denial that the pure presence of the crowd can ever be sustained.

4 responses to “The fragile crowd ”

  1. I’ve often thought about this in relation to the failures of social movements that I’ve been involved in: what is supposed to happen after the demonstration? I think it’s very common for social movements not to have a strategy for influencing elections. The London protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is an example: two million demonstrators, said at the time to be the largest protest in British history, and the government simply ignored it. Having charismatic leaders, and people who know how to organise a mass demonstration, isn’t enough to get a different sort of government elected, or even to persuade sitting MPs to vote in a particular way. So what are the strategies that actually work?

  2. Completely agree but there’s a positive counterpoint to this – how are those individuals changed by participation and how do these changes help seed figure movements?

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