It Takes a Crowd

Ukraine and Syria represent just two more struggles between fragmenting peoples.

The Associated Press

The underlying reasons for violence in Ukraine and Syria arise from humans' need to "belong."

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"Man Pointing" by Alberto Giacometti
"Man Pointing" by Alberto Giacometti

Sometimes, art may illuminate international politics. For instance, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's iconic sculpture, Man Pointing (right), appears to indict a whole world. Skeletal and, by inference, tormented, it seemingly casts a prophetic “last judgment" upon an entire species. This determinedly doomed species, of course, remains willfully self-destructive, always prepared to further scandalize its own creation.

For millennia, the lead engine of such human destructiveness has been war. Reciprocally, war itself has remained a collective spasm of individual human needs and desires. While generally inconspicuous, the personal and the political have become closely interwoven and inter-penetrating.

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Current events now unfolding in Ukraine and Syria are merely a microcosm. Here, as always, fundamental human needs represent the driving force of world politics. More than anything else, sometimes even more than the generally overriding drive to avoid personal death, human beings need to belong. This insistent need can be manifested quite routinely and harmlessly, as at any large sporting event or rock concert, or far more perniciously, as in violent secession, war and terrorism. The critically underlying dynamic of desperation to belong never really varies.

Giacometti's Man Pointing may also represent a compelling expression of human isolation, or "aloneness." Already recounted for us long ago by Homer and Aristotle, each individual person "normally" feels empty and insignificant apart from any recognizable membership in the crowd. Sometimes, that sustaining crowd is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes it is the faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). Sometimes, it is the separatist or liberation movement .

Whatever the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that threatens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility. The lethal result, as we have witnessed from time immemorial, is often a convulsive and predictably irreversible triumph of collective will. The most obvious modern case of what can ultimately transpire with any such triumph is Nazi Germany. Accordingly, Hitler's own personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, named her classic work about the 1934 Nuremberg party congress, "The Triumph of the Will."

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Examining Giacometti's emaciated figure, a practical conclusion presents itself: Unless we humans can finally learn how to temper our overwhelming desire to belong, all currently prevailing military and political schemes to deal with violent secession, war and terrorism will fail. Without far more basic human transformations, these schemes for national security, collective security (United Nations) or collective defense (alliances) will remain conspicuously beside the point.

To succeed in its essential planetary search for peace, humankind would benefit from a genuine reading of Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Hesse, Emerson and Dostoyevsky. There, for certain, one could learn how to frame promising new strategies for defying the crowd. To survive and to prosper, as Freud had frequently noted, every civilization will need to unite each single human life with all others. Otherwise, he understood, in the name of some sort or other of crowd loyalty, desperate individuals will continue to flee their own inwardness. Such desperate flight would be undertaken in the hallowed resonance of violent secession, war, or terror.

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Nietzsche had expressly longed for a world "beyond Good and Evil." Freud, who preferred the term "primal horde" to Nietzsche's "herd," and to Kierkegaard's "crowd," sought to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might already have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned out to be our very own extant world, one wherein Eros is still unable to play its indispensable world-unifying role, and, instead, reinforces baneful (narcissistic) identifications with each one's own personally selected crowd.

The evening news about world politics in Ukraine or Syria is always about disease manifestations, never about authentically underlying pathologies. Our most pressing dangers of violent secession, war and terrorism continue to stem from the combining of more-or-less susceptible individuals into various crowd-centered herds. Not every herd is destructive, of course, but violent secession, war and terrorism can never take place in the absence of crowds.

Whenever individuals fuse together and form a herd, the latently destructive dynamics of the mob may be released. This lowers each person's moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become keenly acceptable. Genocide, it follows, must join violent secession, war, and terrorism as a potential consequence of these assorted collective identifications.

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This brings us back to current events, to symptoms. At its core, the ongoing unrest in Ukraine and Syria represents just one more fragmenting struggle between warring herds.

In the end, current events in these places and in so many elsewheres will remain symptoms. Still, Giacometti's Man Pointing should be taken as an imaginative signpost of what is most always deeply determinative in spawning war and shaping peace. Inevitably, this remediating action is a consciously far-reaching detachment of individual human meanings from an all-consuming membership in crowds.