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Political Editors / October 12, 2021

In Brief: The Tyranny of the 21st-Century Crowd

Mobs that form from the bottom up may prove even harder to defeat than totalitarian regimes.

Communism and Nazism aren’t exactly known for embracing freedom of thought. While modern leftism is in many ways different from its two socialist cousins, there are numerous similarities, which author Robert Kaplan outlines.

“Nazism and communism had multiple origins,” Kaplan says. He recounts some of that history, including the 20th century technology that made ideological spread easier. “Propaganda, after all, has a distinct 20th-century resonance, integral to communications technology.”

Technology has kept evolving, so that the roots of our present crisis lie in what went wrong in the 20th century. Nazism and communism shared two decisive elements: the safety of the crowd and the yearning for purity. In “Crowds and Power,” first published in German in 1960, Elias Canetti may have written the most intuitive book about the crisis of the West over the past 100 years.

Kaplan explains further:

The crowd, Canetti says, emerges from the need of the lonely individual to conform with others. Because he can’t exert dominance on his own, he exerts it through a crowd that speaks with one voice. The crowd’s urge is always to grow, consuming all hierarchies, even as it feels persecuted and demands retribution. The crowd sees itself as entirely pure, having attained the highest virtue.

Thus, one aim of the crowd is to hunt down the insufficiently virtuous. The tyranny of the crowd has many aspects, but Canetti says its most blatant form is that of the “questioner,” and the accuser. “When used as an intrusion of power,” the accusing crowd “is like a knife cutting into the flesh of the victim. The questioner knows what there is to find, but he wants actually to touch it and bring it to light.”

But there’s a difference between our century and the previous one:

The 20th century was an age of mass communications often controlled by big governments, so that ideology and its attendant intimidation was delivered from the top down. The 21st century has produced an inversion, whereby individuals work through digital networks to gather together from the bottom up.

But while the tyranny produced has a different style, it has a similar result: the intimidation of dissent through a professed monopoly on virtue. If you don’t agree with us, you are not only wrong but morally wanting, and as such should be not only denounced but destroyed. Remember, both Nazism and communism were utopian ideologies. In the minds of their believers they were systems of virtue, and precisely because of that they opened up new vistas for tyranny.

It’s remarkable how many similarities there really are. But, Kaplan says, “Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were defeated by U.S. military and industrial power.” On the other hand, “Media is now becoming immersed in the crowd, where it demands virtue in its purest ideological form.”

He concludes:

The lust for purity combined with the tyranny of social-media technology in the hands of the young — who have little sense of the past and of tradition — threatens to create an era of the most fearsome mobs in history. The upshot of such crowd coercion is widespread self-censorship: the cornerstone of all forms of totalitarianism.

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