Canetti believes that without precise knowledge of crowds and packs, no social event can be understood. Thus, he felt compelled to produce a relentlessly descriptive book whose multitude of historical and anthropological illustrations demonstrate that for humans to survive they must never trust rulers and crowds. They must disobey all commands, since “the oldest command—and it is far older than man— is a death sentence.” Crowds and Power is, properly understood, a summons to rebellion, but it is miles away from the polemical and propagandistic and thus makes its political points by implication. It is a patient, impersonal elaboration on the taxonomy of power, descriptive rather than normative, stylistically straightforward and dispassionate though of magisterial force.
It takes as its point of departure mankind’s primal fear, the fear of being touched, which is the title of the opening section. We want to see what reaches toward us, Canetti claims, and to recognize and classify it: Clothes, houses, all the distances we create between ourselves and others testify to this fear. Yet we can never be fully free of it except in a crowd. Then “fear changes into its opposite.” In crowds, people are no longer adversaries of one another, each protecting the space he draws around himself, but allies whose emotions are now directed toward and discharged upon a common threat.
Canetti sometimes sounds as if he thought he could take...
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