What is power? Why is power something some people strive for and what is its relation to our fundamental nature? Nobel Prize winning author Elias Canetti, also known for his impressive novel Auto Da Fe, tackles these and other basic questions in his groundbreaking sociological exploration Crowds and Power. In this somewhat unassuming book, Canetti mines the very depth of power in all its forms and guises, attempting to both define and structure this abstract concept. For anyone interested in human relations and the inevitable power dynamics that accompany them, Crowds and Power is a must read tour de force.
Whether one’s interest lies in history or contemporary politics, Canetti’s thorough examination of people, command, and obeisance and especially the connection between them offers a blueprint for the otherwise insidious and many-faced entity known as power. Canetti draws from mythology, history, tribal legend, and other obscure and fundamental sources to show that regardless of its cultural or temporal setting, all power behaves in the same way because it is an evolved trait of the human animal related to hunting and eating. Some of Canetti’s discussions, for instance the discussion of human teeth as the source of order and control, are shocking yet make a great deal of sense. For Canetti, power as we know it today, is an evolved form of the most basic precepts of survival and in fact it is survival, i.e. the outliving of others, that forms the core of power and its intent.
Canetti specifies between force and power, utilizing an analogy of a cat playing with a mouse. When the cat is actually physically attacking the mouse, he is using force. While he lets the mouse run free, still well within his domain, the cat exerts power over the mouse because he can employ his force at any time and take the mouse’s life. For Canetti, this threat of death is at the heart of command. The first command is the command to flee, given by the predator to its prey when it announces its intent to feed. This underlying threat of death is behind every command, every order given even in our modern society. Canetti sees command operating on an unspoken, yet well-known logical chain that employs the ultimate threat of death to assure its efficacy.
He uses examples from Rome, Persia, Africa, Australia, and Europe to illustrate his point. Rulers are the ultimate survivors. They gain their power and their will to indestructibility from the constant outliving of their contemporaries. This is true of both enemies and allies. Canetti says “No one can really know what Napoleon was thinking on the ride back from Moscow.” What he implies here is that Napoleon, like all leaders, felt a great satisfaction at being alive with so many of his troops having fallen. Witnessing death on a massive scale and standing alive amid a pile of corpses is the dream of the survivor, which, followed to its logical conclusion, leads to an apocalyptic fantasy of being the last man left on earth.
Power is enacted and supported by the command. Canetti explores the command, what it is, and more importantly, what it does to those who receive it. When one receives a command, no matter what it is, and one executes that command, one develops what Canetti calls a “sting.” This sting or scar is the residue left over in the human psyche from submission to an external power. The only remedy for the stings that accumulate inside of us is to pass them on to others in the form of commands. In this concise formula, Canetti lays out the cyclical nature of power as well as the disastrous consequences of subordination. One may think of this in terms of abuse, the ultimate form of total power over another person, and the well-defined and documented cyclical nature of abused people transforming into abusers.
The “crowds” section opens Canetti’s book and he draws an interesting link between power and the crowds over which it presides. Humans, like animals, have an inborn desire or instinct to behave a certain way when collected en masse. Canetti skillfully shows through example how power manipulates these crowd behaviors to subject large numbers of people. Our “fight or flight” responses, our desire for “oneness,” our fear of the unknown, of being touched: all these things are used against us, knowingly, by those who would seek to control people. He begins his investigation with the most primitive of crowds, packs, such as the hunting pack, or the war pack. He delves deeper into tribal totems, lamenting packs, religions, and ultimately what he calls “increase packs,” whose sole purpose is to multiply itself and its necessary resources. One need look no further than our own present day society to see the total dominance of the increase pack.
But crowds and power aren’t the only fundamental concepts Canetti calls into question. Such things as masks, transformation, posture, questions and answers, and paranoia are also carefully examined. Canetti’s distinction between masks, something that produces the fear of unmasking, and transformation, an internal change of consciousness, online the fundamental difference between those who wish to dissimulate and those who wish to evolve. He explains how basic posture and its relation to other postures speaks a nonverbal language of power. When one man sits and many other stand, we are forced to interpret that as a hierarchical code, instantly known to our instinctual core. Those who ask questions have power; those who are forced to answer have none. A questioner may attack from any angle, with no fixed position of his or her own. Whereas the person being questioned is locked into a series of positions, each of which they must defend to avoid contradiction.
Finally, in the last section of the book, Canetti deals with rulers and paranoiacs. Using for his examples an African king and the famous case of Daniel Paul Schreber, Canetti explains how rulers and paranoiacs are one and the same, operating from the same basic assumptions, with the same basic goals, for the purposes of filling an infinite hollow in the self. Since September 11th, 2001, it has become increasingly easy to witness the paranoiac turn of power. Our society has become a society of fear, willfully surrendering our inherent liberties for the calm assurance of power that our invisible enemies will not be able to touch us. One need not look far to see how the United States’ policies, foreign and domestic, follow paranoid logic and totalitarian response.
Canetti’s book should be mandatory reading material for all people, from all cultures. Crowds and Power in its totality offers a striking and much needed message: we must be skeptical of power, we must not submit blindly to authority, no matter what it is, we must resist the temptation to surrender our autonomy to those who hold over us the threat of force, because power, in its very basic nature, is paranoid and corrupt. The more conscious we are of the methods and language of power, the better chance we have to resist it. The more aware we are of the masks of power, the better equipped we are to perform the unmasking and to reveal the furtive, paranoid glances that dwell behind them.
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